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Summer Reading Lists

"Omnivore's Dilemma," "Henrietta Lacks" and Other Great Books


An increasing number of colleges have turned to summer reading assignments for incoming freshmen. They send out their summer reading list and expect new freshmen to have read the designated book by the time they arrive on campus in the fall. The book becomes an easy topic of discussion in dining halls and dorms, as well as core classes.

For parents, the summer reading list has other advantages too. Read the same book and you'll have something to talk about that doesn't involve dorm packing lists and last-minute anxieties. And some of these books make great gifts for teens and grown-ups too. Here's just a sampling.

1. Enrique's Journey

Enrique's Journey
Courtesy Random House
The Los Angeles Times won two Pulitzers for its coverage of this real-life story. Eleven years after his mother left Honduras to try to earn enough money in the United States to support her poverty-stricken family, young Enrique went in search of her. The teen's perilous journey - clinging to the tops and sides of freight train box cars chugging through Central America and Mexico, and frantically trying to avoid capture - is one repeated by thousands of children each year. This story, by Sonia Nazario, will stir your college kid's heart (and yours too), and the politics of it all will provoke spirited discussion. Ten universities, including UC Santa Barbara, include it on their summer reading list.
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2. The Soloist

The Soloist
Courtesy Putnam

This is the real life story of Nathaniel Ayers, a Juilliard-educated musician whose battles with schizophrenia had reduced him to life on the streets of Los Angeles. That's where Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez spotted him one day, playing incredibly beautiful music on a violin with two strings. Lopez and a team of doctors and musicians began working to return Ayers to the place he belonged, the concert stage ... on a path with numerous setbacks and self-doubts, on Lopez' part as well as Ayers. The movie, based on the book and starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr., came out in 2009. And the book is on eight college reading lists.

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3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Courtesy Broadway
This fascinating book is inspired by Henrietta Lacks, a poor, 30-year-old African-American tobacco farm worker and mother whose death from cancer in 1951 has resulted in countless medical science discoveries. Rebecca Skloot's book outlines how Lacks' tissue sample - taken without permission - became the "holy grail" of biology. For the first time, human cells grew in laboratories and it's because of those HeLa cells, that doctors discovered the cure for polio and advanced AIDS research. Yet, Lacks' family didn't even know - until now. The science is fascinating, the ethical questions even more so.
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4. Mountains Beyond Mountains

Mountains Beyond Mountains
Courtesy Random House
Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize-winning book follows Dr. Paul Farmer, an infectious diseases expert, MacArthur genius grant recipient and sometime-medical Robin Hood, who has spent the last 20 years bringing medical help to remote parts of the world. His work has included founding Zanmi Lasante hospital in Haiti and working on multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru and Siberia. Half a dozen universities include this book on their summer reading lists - and it's popular on the book club circuit too.
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5. Persepolis

Courtesy Pantheon
Prefer graphic novels? Marjane Satrapi's tales of growing up in Tehran during Iran's Islamic Revolution - and the sequel, which describes her adolescence as an expatriate in Vienna - offer a child's perspective on deposed royalty, public whippings, revolutions and turmoil. There's humor and politics in these stories by a young woman whose parents were Marxists and whose great-grandfather was an emperor. Talk about contradictions! The book is on several university reading lists, including Hanover and Wayne State.
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6. The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried
Courtesy Mariner Books
Tim O'Brien looks at the Vietnam War and its many, many perspectives through the contents of soldiers' backpacks - literally, "The Things They Carried" - in this book that's part short stories, part imagined memoir. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990, and it continues to pop up on college summer reading lists every year.
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7. The Omnivore's Dilemma

Courtesy Penguin

College summer readings lists boast a number of books by UC Berkeley's Michael Pollan, who has become one of the leaders of the sustainable food movement. But "The Omnivore's Dilemma" was the book that catapulted Pollan to fame and made even non-foodies aware of the troubling aspects of fast food and the giant agribusinesses that produce the nation's groceries. Here, Pollan shows us where our food really comes from and it's enough to turn most readers into organic food-loving locavores. It's fantastic conversation fodder, no matter how much you love those fast food fries. (Already got that one? Try "In Defense of Food" or "The Botany of Desire" instead.)

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8. The Last Lecture

Photo by Jackie Burrell
A generation ago, we gave new graduates books like "Jonathan Livingston Seagull." Then came Dr. Seuss' "Oh, the Places You'll Go." But when Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch delivered his "Last Lecture," its heartfelt wisdom won hearts everywhere. This was the real deal, life lessons delivered by a professor who had discovered he was dying of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a beloved wife, three young children and legions of adoring students. Millions downloaded the lecture on YouTube. Now half a dozen colleges' summer reading lists include this inspirational, beautiful book about childhood dreams and the importance of enabling the dreams of others. (And it makes a perfect graduation gift too.)
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