Stanford law opens its bookshelves to reveal faculty recommendations for Christmas

As the year comes to a close, Stanford Law faculty members reveal their favourite reads of the year that they recommend for holidays and general knowledge-uppence.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

by Matthew Desmond

About the book:  New York Times BestsellerFrom Harvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America  In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship. Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.


Notes:  I’d recommend Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s interesting, important, and a page-turner. - Jacob Goldin, Assistant Professor of Law

I am finally reading this after no fewer than five SLS colleagues recommended it. Indeed, this beautifully written ethnographic portrait of families struggling with housing in Milwaukee is provocative and heart-rending. I am struggling to understand the solutions, but this book has already succeeded in raising my consciousness. - Shirin Sinnar, Associate Professor of Law

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The Sellout
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The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

About the book:  Winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction Named one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant. Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral. Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.


Notes:  The Sellout won the 2016 Man Booker Prize for fiction - David Mills, Professor of the Practice of Law and Senior Lecturer in Law

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The Wright Brothers
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The Wright Brothers

by David McCullough

About the book:  On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot. Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did? David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, tells the surprising, profoundly human story of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, who encouraged their studying. As individuals they had differing skill sets and passions but as a team they excelled in any given task . That they had no more than a public high school education, little money and no patron to open doors to their desires, never stopped them in their goal to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed, or, at the very least, maimed. In this thrilling book, master historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers' story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.


Notes:  McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers. Really good reading. - Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

About the book:  Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love. From the Trade Paperback edition.


Notes:  For anyone who wishes to reconnect with an America of vibrant cultural diversity, I would highly recommend The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I did not get around to reading it when it came out in 2008, but reading it now strikes me as just right. - Michelle Wilde Anderson, Professor of Law

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The Silk Roads
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The Silk Roads

by Peter Frankopan

About the book:  A major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east - and a fascinating rediscovery of the seductive cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Isfahan and Constantinople.


Notes:  As I sit with helicopters flying overhead in Kabul, Afghanistan today, flanked by Iran on the western border, Pakistan on the eastern border, and the rest of the “stans” to the north, it is hard to fathom the conclusion of Peter Frankopan’s sometimes-brilliant book, Silk Roads: A New History of the World — that “new silk roads are rising again.” As with law exams, however, Frankopan’s conclusion is not where he scores his points. This ambitious book is an antidote to JM Roberts’ Euro-centric 1976 Penguin History of the World. Frankopan boldly shifts the vortex of world history to Iran, the “stans” of Central Asia, and Afghanistan. The book is well-written and well-researched. I learned a lot up to 1490 when the book shifts to Columbus and more Western colonial history. The Silk Road was never a single road, but a network of roads that stretched from China to the Mediterranean. Frankopan’s focus on trade along this network as a key to great civilizations, including the Persian Empire, is fascinating. Don’t let the inevitable weaknesses of a book of such scope discourage as you tour through fascinating chapters from The Road of Faiths to The Road of Gold to the Road to Hell. - Erik G. Jensen, Professor of the Practice of Law and Director of the Rule of Law Program

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When Breath Becomes Air
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When Breath Becomes Air

by Paul Kalanithi

About the book:  #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • For readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir. Paul Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book, yet his words live on as a guide and a gift to us all. “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed nothing and everything,” he wrote. “Seven words from Samuel Beckett began to repeat in my head: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’” When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable, life-affirming reflection on the challenge of facing death and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a brilliant writer who became both. Praise for When Breath Becomes Air “I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option. . . . Part of this book’s tremendous impact comes from the obvious fact that its author was such a brilliant polymath. And part comes from the way he conveys what happened to him—passionately working and striving, deferring gratification, waiting to live, learning to die—so well. None of it is maudlin. Nothing is exaggerated.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times “An emotional investment well worth making: a moving and thoughtful memoir of family, medicine and literature. It is, despite its grim undertone, accidentally inspiring.”—The Washington Post “Possesses the gravity and wisdom of an ancient Greek tragedy . . . [Kalanithi] delivers his chronicle in austere, beautiful prose. The book brims with insightful reflections on mortality that are especially poignant coming from a trained physician familiar with what lies ahead.”—The Boston Globe “Devastating and spectacular . . . [Kalanithi] is so likeable, so relatable, and so humble, that you become immersed in his world and forget where it’s all heading.”—USA Today “It’s [Kalanithi’s] unsentimental approach that makes When Breath Becomes Air so original—and so devastating. . . . Its only fault is that the book, like his life, ends much too early.”—Entertainment Weekly “Split my head open with its beauty.”—Cheryl Strayed


Notes:  When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. This memoir, by a young Stanford Medical School professor, writing about his life and the cancer that killed him, is beautifully written and hauntingly sad and hopeful at the same time. - Pamela S. Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law

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The Girls
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The Girls

by Emma Cline

About the book:  NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An indelible portrait of girls, the women they become, and that moment in life when everything can go horribly wrong—this stunning first novel is perfect for readers of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence. Emma Cline’s remarkable debut novel is gorgeously written and spellbinding, with razor-sharp precision and startling psychological insight. The Girls is a brilliant work of fiction. Praise for The Girls “Spellbinding . . . A seductive and arresting coming-of-age story hinged on Charles Manson, told in sentences at times so finely wrought they could almost be worn as jewelry . . . [Emma] Cline gorgeously maps the topography of one loneliness-ravaged adolescent heart. She gives us the fictional truth of a girl chasing danger beyond her comprehension, in a Summer of Longing and Loss.”—The New York Times Book Review “[The Girls reimagines] the American novel . . . Like Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica or Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, The Girls captures a defining friendship in its full humanity with a touch of rock-memoir, tell-it-like-it-really-was attitude.”—Vogue “Debut novels like this are rare, indeed. . . . The most remarkable quality of this novel is Cline’s ability to articulate the anxieties of adolescence in language that’s gorgeously poetic without mangling the authenticity of a teenager’s consciousness. The adult’s melancholy reflection and the girl’s swelling impetuousness are flawlessly braided together. . . . For a story that traffics in the lurid notoriety of the Manson murders, The Girls is an extraordinary act of restraint. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Cline has written a wise novel that’s never showy: a quiet, seething confession of yearning and terror.”—The Washington Post “Emma Cline has an unparalleled eye for the intricacies of girlhood, turning the stuff of myth into something altogether more intimate. She reminds us that behind so many of our culture’s fables exists a girl: unseen, unheard, angry. This book will break your heart and blow your mind.”—Lena Dunham “Emma Cline’s first novel positively hums with fresh, startling, luminous prose. The Girls announces the arrival of a thrilling new voice in American fiction.”—Jennifer Egan “I don’t know which is more amazing, Emma Cline’s understanding of human beings or her mastery of language.”—Mark Haddon, New York Times bestselling author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time


Notes:  So I was pretty sure that I was going to find The Girls too formulaic, too much a product of a novelist with a target audience and a better sense of what’s stylish and marketable than a sense of integrity. But I actually adored it and think it would be a great quick vacation read. It struck me as chilling and insightful: about what draws people to cults, about adolescent yearning, about the profound differences between (at least young) men and women… - Mark Kelman, James C. Gaither Professor of Law and Vice Dean

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Carry Me Ohio
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Carry Me Ohio

by Matt Eich

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Smiley's People
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Smiley's People

by John le Carré

About the book:  The classic Cold War novel. Into a shadowy, violent and intricate world steeped in moral ambivalences steps George Smiley – tubby, perceptive and morally perplexed as ever – sometime acting Chief of the Circus, as the Secret Service is known. A Russian émigré woman is accosted in Paris in broad daylight by a Soviet intelligence officer. A scared Estonian boy plays courier in Hamburg. In London at the dead of night, George Smiley is summoned from his lonely bed by news of the murder of an ex-agent. His brief is to bury the crime, not solve it. His dilemma is the number of ghosts from the past who clamour to him from the shadows. Through scenes of mounting revelation, and a cast of superbly drawn characters, through Switzerland, Hamburg, Paris and the fens of Schleswig-Holstein, le Carré rallies us irresistibly to the chase, till we find ourselves at Smiley’s very side on the Berlin border, where Smiley’s people – the ‘no-men of no-man’s land’ – conduct their grimy commerce.


Notes:  John le Carré’s, Smiley’s People. Elegantly written and suspenseful if you like espionage fiction. I’ve just reread this old favorite and enjoyed it just as much as the first read many years ago. - Michael Asimow, Visiting Professor of Law

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The Collected Stories
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The Collected Stories

by Eudora Welty

About the book:  The Collected Stories - a stunning volume of William Trevor's unforgettable short stories William Trevor is one of the most renowned figures in contemporary literature, described as 'the greatest living writer of short stories in the English language' by the New Yorker and acclaimed for his haunting and profound insights into the human heart. Here is a collection of his short fiction, with dozens of tales spanning his career and ranging from the moving to the macabre, the humorous to the haunting. From the penetrating 'Memories of Youghal' to the bittersweet 'Bodily Secrets' and the elegiac 'Two More Gallants', here are masterpieces of insight, depth, drama and humanity, acutely rendered by a modern master. 'A textbook for anyone who ever wanted to write a story, and a treasure for anyone who loves to read them' Madison Smartt Bell 'Extraordinary... Mr. Trevor's sheer intensity of entry into the lives of his people...proceeds to uncover new layers of yearning and pain, new angles of vision and credible thought' The New York Times Book Review


Notes:  Readers of the late William Trevor divide between those who think he was one of the greatest short story writers ever and those who think he was simply one of the greatest contemporary writers in English. I’m now re-reading The Collected Stories, some set in Ireland, others in England, but all characterized by a precise, quiet, and even plain, prose style that instantly transports the reader to the stories’ intimately realized settings and personal relationships. There is a good deal of wit here, much of it bittersweet, and an abundance of humanity but, above all, storytelling that grips and doesn’t let go. And for those interested in such things, Trevor’s stories offer a master class in prose technique. - Paul Goldstein, Stella W. and Ira S. Lillick Professor of Law

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