What's on Your Nightstand, Joanna Hitchcock?

Joanna Hitchcock is director of the University of Texas Press. She is a former president of the Association of American University Presses and a founding member of the Texas Book Festival Advisory Committee.

UT Press publishes more than 100 books a year in a variety of fields for scholars and students throughout the world, as well as books on the history, arts and culture of Texas.

“Because I am involved professionally with the publication of scholarship, most of the books I am recommending here are intended for lighter reading, suitable for air travel or literally for the nightstand,” Hitchcock said.

“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood” by Alexandra Fuller (Random House, 2001)

I learned about Alexandra Fuller’s recollections of growing up in central Africa from the scintillating talk she gave at the Texas Book Festival. This sharp, gritty, funny memoir is suffused with the sights, sounds, and smells of the African bush, where the author and her sister, the only two survivors of five siblings, were raised by a tobacco-growing father and a hard-drinking mother, along with their pack of dogs, dairy cows, “expensive” bulls, and the snakes, leopards, apes and wild pigs that shared the land with them. “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring … hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling” (The New Yorker).

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (The Dial Press, 2008)

Without giving anything away—how the author came to visit a group of people in postwar Guernsey, who they were, how the Germans had treated them, how the literary society got its name, and how the plot develops through a series of letters—I can recommend this book for its poignancy, characterization and historical accuracy. It shows British wartime humo(u)r at its most whimsical. Reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road and even Jane Austen, it will appeal to book-lovers, letter-writers, World War II buffs and Anglophiles, as well as to the eavesdropper in us all. It is the perfect choice for your bookclub.

“Pariah” by Thomas Zigal (The Toby Press, 1999)

I came across this mystery novel after its author and I served as fellow judges of a literary competition–I wanted to see if his own fiction was as good as his criticism of others’ work. It is. Set in Aspen, this book grabs you immediately and keeps you twisting and turning through a series of fast-paced events as the hero-sheriff tries to discover how a sad but seductive heiress, accused of a murder 20 years earlier, meets her own death one evening minutes after he has left her mansion. The author uses words sparingly, but each character is fully rounded and sharpened, and the plot keeps the reader off balance. One keeps thinking one knows where the story is going, only to find one’s expectations foiled. But the unexpected ending is psychologically satisfying.

“Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin, 2006)

This book is an adventure story with a real-life hero. It had a personal resonance for me because one of my ancestors was a pioneer climber in the Himalayan range in which Greg Mortenson climbed and worked. On his descent from an almost successful attempt on K2, Mortenson came to a remote village where he saw children scratching sums in the cold soil. “Climbing K2 suddenly felt beside the point,” he writes—and he said to the headman, “I’m going to build you a school.” Despite enormous obstacles, he did—and then built 55 more. By providing children in Pakistan and Afghanistan with a balanced education rather than leaving them to be recruited by the madrassas, Mortenson demonstrates that education, not war, is the answer to 9/11.

“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

War and Peace is on many people’s life list, but short of retirement, a life of leisure, or a spell in jail, how can an ordinary person get through it? Taking advantage of the two-week holiday break, I plunged into “the most famous and …most daunting of Russian novels,” as one of the translators puts it in his introduction. Immersing oneself in nineteenth-century Russian society, following Tolstoy’s precise descriptions of elegant soirées and disorderly battles seen through the eyes of his immense cast of characters, induces a feeling of peace that transcends the gruesome material. I find that it is possible to read this book in the course of normal life, provided one savors it slowly over a period of time.