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26 books you should read this summer

20 December 2021
University experts recommend their top books
What will you be reading this summer break? Our experts share their favourite reads from 2021. These are the books they couldn't put down, the unexpected comforts during the pandemic, the deep fascinating reads late at night and the much-loved books they reread.

1. The Great Fire

photo of book cover for The Great Fire, it's an illustration of London on fire

By Shirley Hazzard (2003) Recommended by Professor Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor and Principal 

I first read Shirley Hazzard as an undergraduate here at Sydney – but now, decades on – I am discovering her all over again – in part due to Michelle De Kretser’s wonderful “On Shirley Hazzard”. This year it was her final novel, The Great Fire. As always with Hazzard, every sentence is loaded for impact, the characters are compelling and fill your dreams and she allows a big story to take shape in front of you. (It also makes me think of those great artists and creative talents: Hazzard, Robert Hughes, Clive James and many others, who needed to escape the Australia of that time to create, but who seemed constantly shaped by their Australian upbringing and education.) 

2. Inferior

photo of a book cover with a woman wearing a white t-shirt

Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It by Angela Saini (2018) Recommended by Professor of Practice Anna Paradowska, engineer & scientist in the School of Civil Engineering 

This book was a great read and I think it will be of interest not only to scientists but to all who are interested in diversity and shattering gender stereotypes. Inferior challenges preconceptions about men and women, investigating the gender wars that burn in biology, psychology, anthropology and STEM. Angela Saini’s work is based on a mass of data that aims to acknowledge and correct deep-rooted bias to help rewrite the role of women in the story of human evolution. This is an important book, beautifully written, enlightening and empowering. It is a fresh view of science in which women are included, rather than excluded.   

3. His Best Stories

photo of a book cover with a brown Maori pattern

By Witi Ihimaera (2009) Recommended by Professor Jioji Ravulo, Chair of Social Work and Policy Studies

New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera is a trailblazer. In the early 1970s, he was the first Māori to formally publish a collection of short stories and then the first to publish a novel. He has written prolifically including novels, plays, short stories and an opera libretto, about the Māori experience and the impacts of colonisation. Famed for other great books, including The Whale Rider (1987) and Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1995), His Best Stories is a collection from over many decades in which he eloquently captures and conveys topics and themes that intersect amongst First Nations characters, alongside wider narratives that prod and provoke our views and values. I always come away learning something new about myself and my interactions with others as a result.  

4. Bleak House

photo of book cover with an illustration of a family in 19th century England looking sad

By Charles Dickens (1852) Recommended by Associate Professor Bruce Isaacs, film academic   

I adore the long 19th century English novels, but Charles Dickens has always been a personal favourite. Early in 2021, in a semi-malaise, I finally realised a life-long dream and read Bleak House. It’s about 1000 pages long. There are 50 locations and you’ll need a notepad to keep track of the hundreds of characters. But I can say that, by the end of this sprawling narrative, as with all Dickens but perhaps none more than this book – I felt as if I had made a very close friend over a long period of time. I hope you get the chance to lose yourself in Dickens’s best novel over Christmas, and that it ends up meaning as much for you as it has for me. 

5. Life is Simple

photo of black book cover with the words Life is Simple

Life is Simple: How Occam’s Razor Set Science Free and Shapes the Universe by Johnjoe McFadden (2021). Recommended by Professor Geraint Lewis, astrophysicist 

How do the musings of a medieval monk underpin all of modern science? This is the story of William of Occam, a fourteenth century Franciscan friar and philosopher who confronted prevailing theology by deducing that the simplest explanation is probably the best. We use this concept, now known as “Occam’s Razor”, to cut away poor scientific ideas, those that add complexity for no apparent benefit. The book interweaves the life of William, which was filled with excitement, conflict and flight from danger, with the development of science over the intervening centuries. A great mix of theology, philosophy, history and science. 

6. Boys Will Be Boys

photo of a bright green book cover with the words Boys Will Be Boys

By Clementine Ford (2018) Recommended by Associate Professor Ana Vila Concejo, coastal geomorphologist 

I am choosing this book because it is one from which I took photos of pages to send to my friends. Clementine Ford is so articulate explaining everyday sexism in a clever, witty and funny way. This book had me nodding, angry and laughing all at the same time. It is less innovative than Fight Like A Girl but as an academic in STEMM, her take on merit is hilarious and really resonated with me. “Why is that the best person for a job is often a white, cis-het, middle-class man? Surely, it has nothing to do with structural inequality and hierarchal privilege.” It is all about working hard… Because no one else works as hard, clearly .

7. Talking To My Daughter

photo of a white bok cover with a photo of a young girl

Talking To My Daughter: A Brief History of Capitalism by Yanis Vanoufakis (2019) Recommended by Professor Ian Hickie, co-director Brain and Mind Centre 

I’m focused on growing the mental wealth of our country – and we need to engage with both the benefits and downsides of our market-driven economies – and how we might do so much better in the post-COVID-19 era. 

8. So You Think You Know What's Good For You?

photo of a white book cover with a green apple on it

By Norman Swan (2021) Recommended by Professor Maree Teesson, director of The Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use

We all want to be healthier, but it is sometimes hard to know what is good for you. The holiday period is a great time to start to think about what is healthy for you. This book is a straightforward, honest and common-sense way to get great evidence-based information across a range of health-related issues. It is clear and scientifically backed and draws on the expertise of Australian health researchers.  If you are keen to change your relationship with alcohol or drugs then the chapter on this topic is a good place to start.  It may also arm you with the facts to win the occasional family Christmas argument. What could be better than that?

9. Year of Wonders

photo of a book cover with ripe fruit cut open

By Geraldine Brooks (2002) Recommended by Associate Professor Teresa Davis, marketing and consumer behaviour academic 

My repeat reading has been Year of Wonders. It's about the little Derbyshire village of Eyam during the 17th century held in the ravages of the Black Plague. It is amazingly timeless in its examination of human behaviour and response to catastrophic pandemic, yet buoyant in its description of the courageous act of the self-quarantining village and its consequences. The villagers find humanity beyond the ravages of the Black Death. It made me think of how little has changed in the four centuries of human response…the stigma, the extraordinary acts of courage and compassion described in the book - based loosely on real life events - echoed some of what we have seen in the past two years in COVID-19 times. It helped me think of the BC (Beyond Corona) and of the hope of redemption and of lives built from and out of the ashes of a pandemic. A tale of hope ultimately. 

10. How To Solve It

photo of a black book cover with the words How to Solve It

By George Pólya (1945) Recommended by Professor Geordie Williamson, director of Sydney Mathematical Research Institute 

I love this delightful little book about how to solve problems. Pólya was a master of problem-solving. One can even view him in action on YouTube, lecturing to students at Stanford University. I've had this book on my shelf for years and keep reading and rereading it. I sometimes forget it is there. I recently rediscovered it and reread it again. Suffice to say I'd forgotten almost all his wisdom! 

11. Vaxxers

photo of a brightly coloured book, yellow and orange, with the word Vaxxers

VAXXERS: The Inside Story of the AstraZeneca Vaccine and the Race Against the Virus by Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green (2021) Recommended by Professor Julie Leask, social scientist and vaccination specialist 

Bedtime reading about vaccination was not something I planned this year. Night-time was for mentally getting away from the topic that has been the focus of my research career. I mostly like reading biographies. Yet as NSW began to emerge from the long winter lockdown in October, I made a luxurious wander through Abbey’s Bookshop in Sydney and saw this intriguing title.

Vaxxers begins with Catherine Green on a camping trip. She is taking a short break from the most intense period of her professional life; with her team developing the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine against COVID-19. She finds herself chatting with a fellow camper and the conversation strays to the vaccines: the fellow camper’s worry about the “mercury and other toxic chemicals”, about her lack of trust, and her belief “they” don’t tell the truth. As Catherine observed, “but I am them” and standing by that pizza van on a field in north-western Wales, she decided to write this book. This book takes us into the lab and down the test tube. It shows the care, fastidiousness, and exacting nature of a highly regulated process that is designed to produce the safest and most effective vaccines possible.

12. The Address Book

photo of a book cover with the words The Address Book

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth and Power by Deirdre Mask (2020)  Recommended by Professor Bill Pritchard, geographer and Head of School, Geosciences 

Until reading this book, I never thought to ask the question why addresses exist. But in this book, Deirdre Mask tells the history of how street addresses came into being. Not to plot-spoil the saga too much, but it was part extension of the state (no taxation without a way of sending tax bills), part social climbing (a street address can bring cachet) and part navigation (that place where the bakers are we should call Baker Street). At different points in history, the imposition of street addresses was accompanied by riots, as citizens saw this as their freedoms trampled. But in the final chapters of this book, Mask arcs forward to the present, and asks what it’s like not to have an address. In the slums of Kolkata and the homeless kerbsides of New York, not having an address means not being able to access social services. And in the backwoods of West Virginia, not having an address was seen as a libertarian badge of honour until people found they couldn’t get Amazon deliveries. This is a great geographical journey through the most assumed of commonplace things. 

13. Love Stories

photo of a red book cover with the words Love Stories

By Trent Dalton (2021) Recommended by Professor Kate Jolliffe, synthetic chemist  

  I loved reading this book because Trent Dalton can invoke such strong emotions through the written page. This collection of real-life love stories told through the voice of an expert storyteller really did make me cry and make me laugh – often within the same page. What better way to escape your own reality than to dive into someone else’s? I learnt that love is so many things to so many people; some of them thought provoking but all of them powerful in their own way (especially in a time of COVID-19). 

14. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

photo of an orange book cover

By Rebecca Skloot (2010) Recommended by Professor Liz New, chemical biologist 

This book tells the human story behind the HeLa cell line, an immortal line of cells taken without consent from the cancerous cervix of African-American mother Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) in 1951. This cell line has been instrumental in countless medical research studies, including work in my research group. I always recommend my research students read the book so that they can better understand the ethical issues of our work and I’ve given it to friends and relatives to help them learn something of the world of research. The book highlights the challenges that arise when there is poor communication between the scientific community and the public; something we have seen played out time and again during the pandemic. 

15. Calling Bullshit

photo of a white book cover with the words Calling Bullshit

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West (2021) Recommended by Professor Dieter Hochuli, urban ecologist 

I don’t think I’ve used the phrase “This is bullshit” more than in the past two years, so when I saw this book on the shelf it was irresistible. It’s a fascinating blend of science, scepticism and common sense, and spoke to my work and personal life. The book is a bit dense, but there’s also the website and scientific papers for those that want to hear its message in a different way. It’s a “must-read” for anyone a bit sick of having misleadingly presented data waved in front of them. One side effect has been that I now say “This is bullshit” a lot more than I should. But I’m saying it with greater appreciation now, so I guess it’s win/win. 

16. Teaching to Transgress

photo of a bright yellow cover with the words Teaching to Transgress

Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks (1994) Recommended by Dr Shawna Tang, Gender and Cultural Studies idealist.

I no longer send prayers to the deceased. As a post-Catholic, I’ve had to reinvent rituals of mourning. And one of these is to spend time reading the work of writers on the day of their passing. As the sad news of bell hooks’ death was received around the world, I re-read Teaching to Transgress. The book offers a vision of education as an act of freedom, outlining the political praxis in very doable terms. hooks says, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” As higher education is increasingly stifled by narrow ideologies, I turn to the book at the start of each semester for the invigorating gift of hooks’ wisdom. Vale, lodestar of our time.

17. The Code Breaker

photo of a book cover with a photo of scientist Jennifer Doudna

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson (2021) Recommended by Professor Kathy Belov, geneticist and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) 

The Code Breaker was one of those books I couldn’t put down once I started. Isaacson tells the story of Jennifer Doudna, the discoverer of a relatively new technology called CRISPR – kind of like genetic scissors that allow DNA to be edited. This technology has the potential to change our world. The book is a page turner. As a girl, after reading James Watson’s book The Double Helix, Doudna decides to become a scientist and we follow her journey to winning a Nobel Prize in 2020. We learn about the science, but also competition, ambition and feuds and the boys’ club that still prevails (sigh!). 

18. Bewilderment

photo of a book cover with a face in profile made up of plants and leaves

By Richard Powers (Booker Prize nominee 2021) Recommended by Paul Giles, Challis Professor of English 

I have long admired Richard Powers, an American novelist known for his capacity to integrate complex philosophical themes into an engaging and accessible narrative. Bewilderment is his latest example of this uncanny skill. Its plot involves a scientist searching for life on other planets and his relationship with his autistic nine-year-old son, while addressing the question of how conventional human society might relate to alien or alternative worlds. Global warming and interplanetary exploration are played off against more mundane affairs such as academic politics and child welfare, with Bewilderment adding up to an amusing as well as a thought-provoking read.

19. Heads You Win

photo of a book cover with the words Heads You Win

By Jeffrey Archer (2018) Recommended by Professor Anita Ho-Baillie, John Hooke Chair of Nanoscience and solar energy physicist 

Like all academics, I do a lot of reading and writing as part of my job. In summer, when I’m far away from journal articles and grant proposals I like a good fiction to help me switch off. I like any book by Jeffrey Archer since he’s such a good storyteller and there are always twists and turns in his books to captivate you. For this summer, you might want to give Heads You Win a try, the last Archer book I read. You’ll get your money’s worth: it took me a while to realise what Jeffrey was doing. I can’t say anymore without spoiling the story. Don’t read any synopsis, just dive straight in! 

FUN FACT: Jeffrey Archer’s wife Mary Archer is an accomplished solar energy scientist.

20. Project Hail Mary

photo of a book cover with the words Project Hail Mary

By Andy Weir (2021) Recommended by Associate Professor Will Figueira, marine ecologist

 I have a weakness for epic sci-fi and am no stranger to sweeping multi-book series. But sometimes it’s nice to have a story that rapidly evolves, keeps you turning the pages and is wrapped up in a single book. That’s what I found in Andy Weir’s latest offering, Project Hail Mary. He’s leaned heavily on the formula that worked so well in The Martian: a likeable protagonist maintaining an unjustified level of optimism in the face of an impossibly dire situation. The story is peppered with just enough science to keep a grumpy sceptic happy and has a current of positivity throughout. Enjoy!

21. The Luminous Solution

photo of a book cover that is pale blue with a white cloud

The Luminous Solution: Creativity, Resilience and the Inner Life by Charlotte Wood (2021) Recommended by Professor Stephen Simpson, Academic Director, Charles Perkins Centre  

Charlotte Wood was our first recipient of the Judy Harris Writer in Residence Fellowship at the Charles Perkins Centre, and this series of reflections on creativity, inspiration, serendipity and more speaks deeply to the shared experience of academic researchers and creative writers. As Charlotte and we discovered during her time embedded at the Charles Perkins Centre when she was writing what became The Weekend (published 2019), we are not so different after all. 

22. Klara and the Sun

photo of a red book cover with the words Klara and the Sun on it

By Kazuo Ishiguro (2021) Recommended by Dr Olga Boichak, sociologist of digital media

This book asks profound questions about human relationships with intelligent machines. Set in a not-so-distant future and told by Klara – an Artificial Friend, it offers a glimpse into the everyday life of a society in which carbon and silicon beings negotiate their values, motivations, and oftentimes competing visions of the future. Essentially, it is a story of both humans and machines coming of age in a hyperconnected world, getting to know and care for each other while facing loneliness and obsolescence. As future visions and predictions shape the present regardless of whether they come true, whose visions will those be?

23. The Free World

photo of a book cover with a photo of the Statue of Liberty

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand (2021) Recommended by Professor Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science 

I am half-way through Louis Menand’s monumental (800 page) The Free World, which charts the course of literature, art, politics and the rest of intellectual culture in the decades after the end of World War II. The chapters about experimental music and popular music are especially good, and the section about publishing and the decline of censorship is unexpectedly riveting. I am in Paris right now, with the mid-century black intellectuals James Baldwin and Richard Wright. No one tells a story like Menand. Highly recommended.

24. When We Cease to Understand the World

photo of a book cover with an image of spindly tree trunks

By Benjamin Labatut (2021) Recommended by Professor Elaine Baker, UNESCO Chair of Marine Science 

I heard an interview with the author on The New York Times book review podcast and bought the digital version straight away. The book turned out to be as interesting as he sounded. It’s a mix of fact and fiction but reads like a true history of accidental and calculated scientific discoveries that changed the world, often not for the better. The short step from the beautiful Prussian blue to the terrifying Zyklon B poison gas, how the abstraction of maths can send you mad, the quantum uncertainty that Einstein found so soulless and more. You don’t need to be a scientist to enjoy the book because it’s really about people and our ability to not notice it’s all going to hell! But there is hope, or at least escape, in the natural world. Happy summer reading.

25. The Ministry for the Future

photo of a book jacket with a clock on it

Bby Kim Stanley Robinson (2021) Recommended by Associate Professor Kurt Iveson, human geographer

The emerging genre of climate fiction is full of dystopian projections of a climate-changed future. But Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future is a different kind of work. It imagines the creation of a UN Ministry established under the auspices of the Paris Agreement to advocate for the world’s future generations. As Robinson likes to say, the folks in the Ministry treat the climate crisis as an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ situation. We follow their various efforts to re-engineer the economy and the environment to prevent a climate collapse, in a book that eschews both romanticism and nihilism and certainly forced me to think differently about our present. You can listen to Robinson’s recent Wheelwright Lecture for the University of Sydney Department of Political Economy here.

26. Geisha of Gion

photo of a book cover with a Japanese geisha girl's face

Geisha of Gion: The True Story of Japan’s Foremost Geisha by Mineko Iwasaki (2002) Recommended by Professor Frans Verstraten, Head of School, Psychology 

Some say you need to have read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs Of A Geisha first, but I think this book can be read on its own. This non-fiction work gives you a look into a very interesting hidden culture that still exists (possibly) in Japan. Written by a top former geisha who got herself into trouble many times, as hidden cultures like to remain hidden! Iwasaki is also a forthright personality with a very strong mind. Prince Charles, when meeting her while visiting Japan, will never forget the embarrassment. Find out what happened! 

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