On the shelf
New reads from alumni and faculty
Better Luck Next Time
Family history was a spark for Better Luck Next Time, the latest novel by Julia Claiborne Johnson (Col ’81). Set in 1938 Reno, Nevada, then dubbed the world’s divorce capital, the action primarily takes place on the Flying Leap dude ranch, which provided a place for women to stay as they established state residency so they could get divorced. During the Depression, Johnson’s father worked as a cowboy at a Nevada divorce ranch. The similarities between the book and real life mostly end there, Johnson says, but the setting seemed like fertile territory to explore—a place where men were the eye candy and women had some control. “A flip of the usual situation,” says Johnson, whose first book, Be Frank With Me, was a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
The result is a fast-paced, can’t-put-down story that explores the paths of Ward, a one-time student at Yale University who works as a cowboy at the Flying Leap to make ends meet, and two of the wealthy women who stay there and form a bond. Together, they navigate issues of life, love, marriage and divorce.
Black Futures seeks to answer this question: “What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” And the book, which features a collection of essays, art, social media screenshots, recipes, memes and manifestos, demands active reading. Editors Jenna Wortham (Col ’04), a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and Kimberly Drew, a writer, curator and activist, encourage readers to start the book where they please, have a device nearby to seek out more information and take away lessons to implement in their daily lives.
In a kind of choose-your-own-adventure format, a color-coded system calls out pages with key wisdom or prophetic prose or incendiary works, Wortham says. The book is designed to feel like surfing online, she says, as if readers are switching between tabs depending on what grabs their attention—photos of Black women’s hair, a recipe for coconut sweetbread or an article about Black progressive political candidates.
“It’s meant to be an opening, a portal,” Wortham says. “We’re not really trying to tell you what it means to be Black and alive. Here’s a survey of some folks who are thinking about those questions, and you can ask them for yourself.”
Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate
Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, published by the University of Virginia Press, goes in circles, as the title suggests, and struggle is a theme. There’s the struggle of bestselling author Daniel Mendelsohn (Col ’82) to write two other books, a family story about the Holocaust and another about what happened when his father enrolled in the Odyssey seminar he teaches at Bard College. And there’s the struggle of three other authors—Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach, 17th century French archbishop François Fénelon and German novelist W.G. Sebald—as they grapple with questions of storytelling.
“It’s really the story about how writers think about problems of how to tell a story,” says Mendelsohn, whose critically acclaimed books usually intertwine personal narratives and literary analysis. The book is based, in part, on a series of lectures that Mendelsohn gave at UVA in 2019 about how the Odyssey influenced Auerbach, Fénelon and Sebald.“It’s a special book for me because it came out of a UVA experience,” Mendelsohn says. “I still go back to Charlottesville every year after 40 years. And a book about returns and rings and circling—it was especially meaningful for me to do the lectures and then work with UVA Press.”
Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces
Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces was originally conceived to help white parents raising Black or biracial children. But as the authors dove into the writing, it quickly became about more than that, says co-author Valerie I. Harrison (Col ’84). Harrison, who is Black, wrote the book with her longtime friend and colleague at Temple University, Kathryn Peach D’Angelo, who is the white adoptive mother of a biracial son. (Susan Jarvis Ragland (Col ’83), Harrison’s friend from UVA, created illustrations for the book.)
The book advises how all of us can help Black children in any family navigate white spaces, says Harrison, senior adviser for equity, diversity and inclusion to Temple’s president. Through research and compelling stories about D’Angelo’s and Harrison’s life experiences, the authors build the case for how critical it is for Black children to develop a racial identity, how racism impacts the lives of Black people today, and how to help Black children lead happy and healthy lives.
“It is helpful for anyone who wants to take that journey from moving to a general awareness that racism exists in America to understanding how it continues to operate in the lives of Black people and to doing something about it,” Harrison says.
The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint
With The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint, UVA art history professor Francesca Fiorani’s goal is to dispel the belief that Leonardo da Vinci was a dual genius—an artist, who produced the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and a scientist, who imagined the flying machine and other advancements. In reality, Fiorani’s research shows, he was a scientist all along, interested in the study of light, shadow and optics as he attempted to represent the human soul.
“His art, from the very beginning, from his early training in Florence in the workshop of a master, was imbued with deeply scientific ideas,” she says. Fiorani spent a decade researching and writing the book. And although she first planned to write an academic work, she shifted gears to produce something more accessible to the general public.
“It really gave me the opportunity to rethink what it means to do scholarship in the humanities today and how we should rethink the way we communicate our research beyond the small group of peers and scholars in our field,” she says. “I really hope art historians will enjoy it, but I hope there will be other people who would as well.”
A Question of Freedom: The Families who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War
Just as enslaved people used the secret Underground Railroad network to flee the South, they also went to the courts—filing hundreds of freedom suits—to escape the bondage of slavery.
In A Question of Freedom: The Families who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War, William G. Thomas III (Grad ’91, ’95) calls these freedom suits a “public counterpart” to the Underground Railroad. With deep research and revelations about surprising personal connections to the history, Thomas, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, covers the decades long efforts of generations of enslaved families in Maryland to gain freedom through the courts.
“In most U.S. history textbooks, there are only a handful of Black figures named in this period—Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass,” Thomas says. “Families are almost never mentioned by name. Black families who participated in the founding of the nation. And as I look at the freedom suits, that’s what I see. We need a new narrative. We have had separate spheres of historical understanding for so long that only by acknowledging the incompleteness of our national narrative can we move forward. And I think the way to do that is to tell new stories, tell stories that complete that history.”