Skip to main content

Past Honors Book Labs

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Dr. Keri Holt and Dr. Steve Shively
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (2007), provides a realistic and humorous look at the troubled lives of reservation Indians while offering hope, at least for individuals. Alexie's work has transformed the way that people think of Native Americans and Native American writing. This novel challenges stereotypes and assumptions, encouraging readers to see Native American people and culture as not always so "different" as people may think. The narrator, a mildly fictionalized version of a teen-aged Alexie, pulls readers into the story of his fears, tragedies, and successes. The book explores such diverse topics as bullying, alcohol abuse, the inspiration of basketball, and the importance of education. Many USU students and faculty enjoyed Alexie's talk on campus in 2015. Among its many honors, this book won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature and was named to the Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults by YALSA. It is, nevertheless, often challenged in schools for its subject matter. The book appeals to young readers but also to anyone concerned about matters of diversity and growing up, including prospective teachers, sociologists, creative writers, literature enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys a good story.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Dr. Brian McCuskey
We will discuss the following important questions that every college student must answer: “What am I to do?” “How am I to get in?” “Which way ought I to go from here?” “What is the fun?” “What happens when you come to the beginning again?” “Who in the world am I?” “Who are you?” “What are you?” “What sort of people live about here?” “How can you learn lessons in here?” “Who is to give the prizes?” “And now which is which?” “Why not?” “How do you know I’m mad?” “How do you know that you’re mad?” “Thinking again?” “Do cats eat bats?” “Do bats eat cats?” “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Please note: this Book Lab will conclude with a field trip.

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, Adrienne Mayor
Dr. Frances Titchener
Ancient historians make use of all kinds of sources to construct a narrative of the past, and therefore, that narrative is full of legends about titans, giants, hybrid monsters and the like. Amazons were the subject of numerous vase paintings and featured prominently in ancient mythology. As female warriors, they were both fascinating and frightening. It is difficult to see them through the mist of time and this mirage of reputation. Multiple sources are in play: archaeological, literary, epigraphical.

“But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.” That’s what Princeton University Press has to say about the goal of the book, and those are the questions we’ll be focusing on as well. Chapter titles like “Breasts: one or two?” “Drugs, Dance, and Music”, and “Who Invented Trousers?” promise lots of material for lively discussion.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
Professor Rebecca Charlton
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver embarks on an epic journey to live an American idyllic life. She and her family vow to eat only locally grown foods and to produce most of their food on their own. Kingsolver tells of the clash between our modern/industrialized culture and the desire for simpler times and things. The book explores human themes as well as the many nutrition and sustainability questions raised by her family’s choices. The book can be used as a stepping stone to conversations about sustainability, GMO foods, myths about food and farming, and cultural expectations for food, flavor, taste, and convenience. These conversations can suggest challenges and solutions for such global issues as malnutrition, food insecurity, food as a tool of warfare, feasibility of environmental change, and the obesity epidemic. Although food is a relatively simple concept and seems ubiquitous in the industrialized world, the experience of this family highlights the real struggle faced once upon a time before food became big business. Kingsolver will delight students with her exquisite and lyrical style and encourage them to think about issues well beyond the local grocery store.

Beowulf, Translated by Seamus Heaney
Dr. Christine Cooper-Rompato
Beowulf is a fantastic epic poem originally composed in Old English somewhere between 800 and 1000 CE. It was the inspiration for much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and students may know the poem from a 2007 film starring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s (hideous? sexy?) mother. They will no doubt come to the poem with some expectations about its content and about the culture that created it, which will make for productive conversation. At a deeper level of reading, the poem offers a stern critique of Anglo-Scandinavian cultural practices. Moreover, it even depicts the Christian apocalyptic ending of the world. In my experience, students love parsing out the Christian allegorical aspects of the poem as well as thinking about the historical context that fostered its creation — a time with Viking descendants ruled eastern England.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Dr. Christy Glass
A powerful essay on the meaning of race, Between the World and Me is an intimate letter from a father to his adolescent son about the experience of being a black man in America today. The 2015 National Book Award winner, the book challenges taken-for-granted notions of “blackness” and “whiteness” and provides a rich and provocative alternative perspective on contemporary American society. Toni Morrison called the book “required reading,” and the New York Observer called Coates “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States.” For me, the book is a moving and intimate revelation of the human experience that challenged me to rethink some of my most basic assumptions about politics, the economy, and society.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina
Dr. Robert Schmidt
Why are humans different from other vertebrate animals? Is it because we possess emotions? Do we love our kids, and mourn the passing of our relatives, unlike all other animals? Is it because we have a sense of the past and the future? In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, ecologist Carl Safina challenges the reader to consider that other animals think and feel, and we should reevaluate our relationship with animals based on this understanding.

“Weaving decades of observations of actual families of free-living creatures with new discoveries about brain functioning, Carl Safina’s narrative breaches many commonly held boundaries between humans and other animals. In Beyond Words, readers travel the wilds of Africa to visit some of the last great elephant gatherings, then follow wolves of Yellowstone National Park as they sort out the aftermath of their personal tragedy, then plunge into the astonishingly peaceful society of killer whales living in waters of the Pacific Northwest. We spend quality time, too, with dogs and falcons and ravens; and consider how the human mind originated.” [

Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, Aubrey Daniels
Dr. Tyra Sellers
Most of us, at some point in our lives, will be responsible for the teaching/training and supervision of others. However, most of us never receive good training on how to be a great supervisor. In fact, we often base our behavior on examples from ghosts of supervisors past, many of whom were likely to have been mediocre-to-poor models. In this book, Aubrey Daniels clearly describes the basics of human behavior and evidence-based strategies for motivating people to do their best. The information and practices described in this book are applicable not only to the supervisor-supervisee relationship, but also more generally to any human-human interaction in which you want to motivate others to do their best. This is really a guidebook on how to be an effective person in our complicated lives of endless human interactions. Discussions will center on ethics, obtaining a deeper understanding of the information presented, and how to apply the information to real-world situations. I only wish this book had been available when I was an undergraduate; then I would not have had to learn by making so many mistakes!

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, Pete Marra and Chris Santella
Dr. Kim Sullivan
Are you a cat owner, bird watcher or nature enthusiast? Do you see the domestic cat as a sweet, cuddly pet or an incredibly successful invasive killer? Are trap-neuter-release programs good for wildlife, cats, and human health? Free-ranging domestic cats kill as many as four billion birds in the United State each year and are a leading cause of rabies infections among humans. Pete Marra and Chris Santella address the complex global problem of free-ranging cats in Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer in a thoughtful and engaging manner. The authors trace the history of cat domestication and the role of cats in wildlife extinctions and disease transmission; they then propose solutions that address the needs of both wildlife and pet owners. I selected this book to engage students in thoughtful discussion of the controversial subject of free-ranging cats.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
, Steven Johnson
Dr. Jessica Habashi
A deadly disease brings devastation to a crowded, sprawling city. The cause is a mystery, and fear and superstition take hold of the city’s residents. A lone physician works to uncover the source of the illness and stop its spread, despite resistance from city and medical officials. It’s a story that could be set in any major city of the world in the present day; however, this the story of a cholera outbreak that swept through London in 1854, which was attributed to miasmas, or bad smells in the air. Author Steven Johnson chronicles the efforts of physician John Snow to convince public officials that contaminated water was the real source of the outbreak. The story, which reads in part like a social history and in part like a detective novel, is informative and easy to understand. It’s also sure to satisfy anyone interested in history or medicine. We will discuss the lack of understanding of infectious diseases at the time, and how John Snow’s work helped lay the foundation for modern population medicine — what we now call epidemiology.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal
Dr. Laura Gelfand
This beautifully written memoir and genealogical study of the author’s family centers on de Waal’s exploration of the provenance of a collection of netsuke (small, Japanese ivory carvings of animals and playful imagery) that he inherited. The author’s curiosity about these intimately scaled objects — and his ancestors who held them in their hands before passing them on to him — is the catalyst for his investigation. The book provides readers with an overview of twentieth-century European and Japanese history and reveals the richness of the information that such seemingly simple objects may provide about our world and our history. As de Waal traces these small sculptures from Paris to Vienna, through World War II, to their eventual return to his family and then to Japan, he vividly conveys the pleasure that results from primary research and the excitement that can be found in the process of discovery. While it will appeal to art historians for obvious reasons, it will also be of interest to students from a wide range of disciplines, including English and History.

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
Dr. Susan Cogan
A self-described nerdy bookish type while growing up, Sheryl Sandberg is now one of the top people at Facebook. Her book about women and leadership, Lean In, has attracted praise and criticism, sometimes even vigorous loathing. This Book Lab offers the opportunity to read and talk about Sandberg’s ideas about women and leadership — even women and power. What makes her ideas attractive to some people and the subject of scorn to others? What makes her ideas so controversial? Regardless of whether we like her or approve of her message, are there parts of her message that can be useful to apply in our own lives? This Lab will provide a safe space in which to explore these kinds of questions and to understand the complex issues related to women, gender, the workforce, and women’s roles in modern American society. This Book Lab is mentored by faculty members involved with establishing a Women’s Leadership Initiative at USU. We encourage involvement of women and men, whether you see yourself as a leader, want to know what leadership is, or just want to understand what “leaning in” means.

Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
Dr. David Brown
What is Math? Is it invented or discovered? Who cares? Who should care?

In 1931 Kurt Gödel proved a phenomenal result that, unfortunately, not many people (let alone mathematicians) know or care about, even if they are aware of it. The result, now known as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, arguably settled many questions philosophers were — and still are — puzzling over, including problems involving ethics. Some have argued that Gödel’s Theorem even settles questions as far-reaching as “Is artificial intelligence possible?” and “Do we have free will?

Logicomix is a graphic novel that takes the reader along the path to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. The path involves many luminary human beings, mostly mathematicians who are unfortunately not well-known and who struggled with the limits of what human beings can and cannot know. Logicomix reads quickly, but cuts deeply, and exposes the reader to secrets of Mathematics that never get discussed in Math classes, despite their obvious relevance to our lives. These secrets are arguably more relevant than the standard advertisements of Math’s utility for making better cell phones or aiming rockets.

The story of Logicomix will take us through a forest whose trees are the aforementioned luminary people, all of whom are among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the century 1900-2000.

Memory Theater, Simon Critchley
Dr. Charlie Huenemann
Simon Critchley is a philosopher who writes engaging books for popular audiences, often on deep issues like meaning and absurdity, but always with both humor and feeling. Memory Theater is a novel, but it’s also an autobiography and an exploration of some of the weird ways humans have looked at memory. As one reviewer writes, the book is “a strange, affecting and stimulating book that's both a philosophical history and a personal memoir. Sifting through the archives of a dead friend, Critchley takes a fascinating journey through the philosophy and history of memory, and the technologies of remembering dreamed up by thinkers since classical times.” I think students will enjoy the task of seeing lives (ours and Critchley’s) through these lenses.

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Charles Darwin
Dr. Nat Frazer
Whether you “believe” in evolution or not, it’s important to know exactly what it is that you do or don’t “believe.” Almost everyone has an opinion of Darwin’s Origin of Species, but very few of them (including biologists!) have ever read it to see what he had to say. People often say that undergraduates can’t read and understand Darwin because of his nineteenth-century writing style. However, I successfully read the book with groups of freshmen for eight years in Georgia. As one of the fundamental books of modern biology, ecology, evolution, and biodiversity, it contains some amazing ideas. I once read this book with a class of Ecology grad students, and every one of them was amazed that Darwin had anticipated their Ph.D. research over a hundred years before they had proposed their dissertation topics! In fact, he conducted experiments that had bearing on the very questions they planned to study. So if you want to know what it is that you do or don’t “believe” in, I invite you to visit the source with me.

Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Services in Social-Ecological Systems, Edited by Reinette Biggs, Maja Schlüter, and Michael L. Schoon
Dr. Jacopo Baggio
As both societies and the world in which we live face increasingly rapid changes, resilience has become a fundamental “attribute” of social-ecological systems. This book is based on contributions from leaders in the field, and each chapter dwells on the importance of specific “principles” that we need to take into account for building resilience such as: maintaining diversity and redundancy, managing connectivity, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance. The authors assess evidence for each principle, discuss their practical applications, and outline further research needs. The book is a great starting point to thinking in a systematic way about how to tackle problems relating to the broader field of sustainability science, environmental management, and governance.

The Tempest, William Shakespeare
Dr. Rob Behunin
Often called his tour de force, Shakespeare’s The Tempest has much to offer the modern reader in terms of insights into Renaissance nobility. Typically classified as one his late romances, the play exhibits elements of history, tragedy, and comedy. It is also laced with a variety of themes — revenge, redemption, reconciliation, manipulation — which Shakespeare casts in a context of wonder.

The discussion of The Tempest will focus on how the play, with all of its complexities, can be read as part of “courtesy book” tradition. We will explore how Shakespeare, via the character Prospero, attempts to instruct the nobility and prepare Ferdinand and Miranda to assume their roles as future regents. 

The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well Lived, Peter C. Whybrow
Dr. Peter McNamara
This book ranges across neuroscience, evolution, economics, psychology, public policy, and moral philosophy.  Whybrow argues that our brains have evolved for life in an earlier human epoch.  As a result, the habits we acquired over that long evolutionary process are unsuited to our own times.  The book proposes a new model for life that draws heavily on the moral philosophy of Adam Smith — the eighteenth-century Scottish pioneer in moral philosophy and economics — and contemporary neuroscience.  Really!  The author is director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.  The book should appeal to students interested in stepping outside conventional academic boundaries. 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed
Dr. Jennifer Sinor
In the spring of 2017, author Cheryl Strayed will be coming to campus. Students will have the opportunity to hear her talk about the importance of story in the world today. Strayed’s work, her memoir Wild in particular, demonstrates the power of narrative nonfiction to capture those moments in our lives when our humanity is most revealed. A story of healing, empowerment, and growth, Wild is one of those books that all students should read. It tells us how to live, how to write, how to choose wisely. Not always pretty, often harrowing, Wild challenges us to think beyond right and wrong, good and bad, empty and whole. I hope you will gather with me around such a gift.