Shelf Life

January/February 2006

Reading time min

Shelf Life

Ordinary Heroes
Scott Turow, MA ’74
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Stewart Dubinsky, a crime reporter from Turow’s first bestselling novel, Presumed Innocent, discovers some love letters his “tirelessly proper” father, David, wrote during World War II—and the letters reveal that David was court-martialed in the matter of a rogue OSS officer active with the French Resistance. Vividly written scenes from the Battle of the Bulge and a portrait of the Balingen labor camp punctuate this examination of how war corrupts absolutely.


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Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution
Stephen Breyer, ’59
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005

The Framers “wrote a Constitution that begins with ‘We the People,’” Supreme Court Justice Breyer writes. “The words are not ‘we the people of 1787.’” Breyer calls attention to “active liberty”—how citizens share in a nation’s sovereign authority. Judges who make the rationale for their decisions transparent, he argues, best serve this democratic ideal. 

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Aiding Students, Buying Students: Financial Aid in America
Rupert Wilkinson, PhD ’71
Vanderbilt U. Press, 2005

Although more than half of undergraduates in America today receive some form of student aid, the tradition began in 1643 with a single (rather scandalous) scholarship at Harvard College. Wilkinson’s exploration of financial aid often emphasizes class inequities in higher education, touching on Stanford’s participation in the student “market”—from its once-free tuition to the University’s refusal to join the Ivies and MIT in conferring about aid offers in the 1980s. 

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Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934
Charles Reis Felix, ’50
U. of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2005

In a tiny Massachusetts mill town, French, Jewish, Canadian, Polish, Portuguese and “Yankee” hopefuls are running for mayor, and the novel’s 10-year-old narrator notices how the contest touches lives in each ethnic community. Felix, a retired schoolteacher, examines the contradictions Depression-era immigrants faced in becoming American. The title icons—Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and movie star Grant—symbolize the conflict between old and new worlds.

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Monkeyluv: and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals
Robert M. Sapolsky
Scribner, 2005

What big antlers signify. Why grieving humans want bodies reclaimed. Why dreams are dreamlike. Why paraplegics’ hearts don’t race when they’re frightened. Why you don’t listen to much new music. Such are the lively topics investigated in this collection by biological sciences professor Sapolsky.

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Out of Joint: A Private & Public Story of Arthritis
Mary Felstiner, PhD ’70
U. of Nebraska Press, 2005

Felstiner, a history professor at San Francisco State, recounts life with rheumatoid arthritis, which first wracked her joints at 28. A survivor of methotrexate and Celebrex, hot wax soaks and cold oatmeal baths, Felstiner no longer blanches at the memory of wearing rubber sandals at her daughter’s wedding. But reaching that height of acceptance took one tough climb. 

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A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War
Victor Davis Hanson, PhD ’80
Random House, 2005

Before America’s War Between the States, before the Troubles in Ireland and before “quagmire” was used to describe either Vietnam or Iraq, there was the great Greek civil war. Hanson, a Hoover Institution fellow, draws a comprehensive picture of a 27-year debacle whose plague, sieges, assassinations and terrorism echo to this day. 

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Troubled Fields: Men, Emotions, and the Crisis in American Farming

Eric Ramírez-Ferrero, MA ’89, PhD ’01
Columbia U. Press, 2005

In the mid-’80s, the leading cause of farm deaths in Oklahoma was not accidents, but suicides. An anthropologist assessing rural mental-health needs, the author found that the restructuring of agriculture altered the men’s identities as family providers and community stalwarts. 

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The Underdog: How I Survived the World’s Most Outlandish Competitions

Joshua Davis, ’96
Villard Books, 2005

The author’s wife (Tara Kini, ’97, MA ’98) desired home improvements—so Davis, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, vowed to supplement the family income by entering contests. He arm wrestles in Poland, fights bulls in Spain, runs backward in India, and sweats out a sauna contest in Finland. “I grew up believing that I could be the best at something,” he writes. “To be honest, I haven’t found it yet, but I’m not giving up.”

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