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UK faculty share summer reads to get lost in

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 12, 2023) — Are you looking to get lost in your next summer read but don’t know where to start?

We asked the University of Kentucky community to recommend books they feel would make good additions to anyone’s reading list.

In the descriptions below, faculty members across various colleges and disciplines share the novels they can’t put down. Pulling from the worlds of history and fiction — their picks explore timely themes while providing intriguing insights.


The recommendations below range from short stories to dystopian, historical and horror fiction.

“Demon Copperhead” by Barbara Kingsolver

Recommended by Diane Loeffler, senior lecturer in the College of Social Work

I’m an equal opportunity reader ­­­­— I’ll tuck a novel into my bag and take it with me wherever I go in the summer. Currently, I’m looking forward to reading on the beaches of Greece! What I liked most about this book was just how accurate Kingsolver was with her descriptions of Lee County, Virginia. Having lived in Lee County, it was obvious she’d spent countless hours observing the people and the places. I also really appreciate and respect the way Kingsolver tackles the complexity of addiction and how her portrayal of the characters who develop substance use disorders are compassionate. She deftly places blame at the feet of Big Pharma social institutions and creates characters that allow the reader to see beyond poverty and addiction. Her portrayal of one Appalachian county is without the sensationalism or romanticism of poverty and places with deep and persistent poverty.

“Our Missing Hearts” by Celeste Ng

Recommended by Shelby Clark, assistant professor in the College of Social Work

One of my favorite summer traditions is picking up a book from the library a day or so before leaving for a trip. When reading on vacation, I generally look for a novel that has depth — seems like it will stretch my mind and heart but isn’t so dense that I must use an inordinate amount of mental energy. My non-vacation summer reads are generally non-fiction and are often memoirs or contemplative reflections about life, theology or the inner-working of social phenomena. While reading “Our Missing Hearts,” I felt invested in the characters and found the commentary on American culture and systemic racism to be thought provoking.

"The Secret Lives of Church Ladies" by Deesha Philyaw

Recommended by Shemeka Thorpe, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Promotion in the College of Education

When choosing a summer read, I look for fiction books written by Black authors that are filled with drama, humor and descriptive imagery. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world — caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions. I enjoyed that each short story was vastly different. But the themes of religiosity, sin, sexuality and religious shame were woven across the multigenerational stories of Black women. 

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James

Recommended by Kip Guy, dean of the College of Pharmacy

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” is a complex and layered novel exploring the history of Jamaica during the 1970s to the 1990s and the country’s socio-political landscape. I like to pick books that are recognized as engaging and lyrical, written by people from cultures and places different from where I have lived, and about protagonists who are not like me. I use the extra thinking time I have over the summers to stretch my mind. I particularly enjoyed the character Nina Burgess, a Jamaican woman, who becomes swept up in the events surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Her character arc gives deep insight into the challenges, aspirations and cultural nuances of being a Jamaican woman living in a tumultuous period in the country's history.

“The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Recommended by Lauren Cagle, associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies and director of Environmental and Sustainability Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences

“The Water Knife” is set in a near-future Arizona — after environmental crises caused by climate change have led states to close their borders and horde their natural resources. I have really eclectic reading tastes, so my summer books range from cli-fi (“climate fiction”), like The Water Knife, to chewy thrillers like Lucy Foley’s The Paris Apartment to memoirs like Samantha Irby’s wow, no thank you. Lately, I’ve been gravitating towards environmentally focused science fiction, and during the summer I especially like books with deeply detailed environmental settings, since the outdoors is such a big part of the season for me. I’ve got a sunny little corner in my house that’s surrounded in the summer by leafy green trees right outside the windows.

“Ink and Bone” by Rachel Caine

Recommended by Ashley DeWitt, senior lecture in the College of Communication and Information

I tend to choose fiction series with some element of fantasy to read over the summer, so I can immerse myself in the world the author has created. I'm usually never satisfied after one book. I want more time to enjoy the characters, plot, and settings. Ink and Bone combines my love of science fiction, history and libraries into a captivating narrative that underscores the power of knowledge, for good or for ill, within individual lives and across society. If you're not sure what to read, go find a librarian! There are so many talented and friendly librarians here in Lexington and across the country. Let them help you find your next favorite book. 

“The Honeys” by Ryan La Sala

Recommended by Sarah Kercsmar, associate professor in the College of Health Sciences

Part sci fi, part summer camp story, part family mystery, this book was mentioned on an NPR “must-read this summer” episode. There’s never a bad place to read during the summer. I have a book with me most of the time. Coffee shops, the front porch or in the car waiting to pick up a kid — all are good times to read. I try to balance fun summer reading with books that will be helpful in classes. I’m also reading “Black Man in a White Coat” by Damon Tweedy, because I plan to use it in class this fall and it’s an insightful first-hand account of Tweedy’s experiences. I couldn’t figure out what was happening in “The Honeys” until the very end — I liked the suspense.

“The Seven Moons of Maali Almeid” by Shehan Karunatilaka’s

Recommended by Srimati Basu, professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Gender & Women’s Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences

You can’t read this book fast: It’s too funny, too horrifying, too nifty in its prose. You’ll be wanting to read each paragraph over again, savor it, go back a few chapters to check a joke or a death. And not too close to bedtime: there’s a lot of political murder, decapitation and forensics. You will float with the ghost over postcolonial Sri Lanka’s history and politics. In part, a version of Dante’s Purgatory/Inferno set in a waiting room of government certification of the afterlife, intermixed with echoes of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in its sardonic telling of history.

“How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives” by Siddharth Kara

Recommended by Kathleen Montgomery, interim director for the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce

Cobalt is an essential component in virtually everything we use with a lithium-ion rechargeable battery — computers, watches, phones, electric car batteries, etc. Kara provides a meticulously researched account of the devastating human costs of the ever-increasing demand for cobalt in some of the poorest regions of the DRC. In the Patterson School, our summer reading list reflects the most important new books in international affairs. We select books to spur discussion in our classes and to expand the reach of our curriculum.


The recommendations below range from biographies and memoirs to travel and historical non-fiction.

“Belonging: A Culture of Place” by Bell Hooks

Recommended by Bill Rayens, Dr. Bing Zhang Endowed Chair of the Department of Statistics in the College of Arts and Sciences

This was a recent gift from my oldest son. He has always been intrigued by the jarring difference between my academic life and the one I had growing up on an isolated knob farm in rural Kentucky. On more than one occasion, he and I have discussed the meaning of “place” — mostly in the context of writings by Wendell Berry. I’ve enjoyed reading “Belonging” at home in a quiet room with my cats, and I look forward to finishing and discussing this wonderful book.

“A Guide for Occupants” by Bill Bryson

Recommended by Kevin Schuer, associate professor in the College of Health Sciences

“A Guide for Occupants” is a fascinating and, oftentimes, funny head-to-toe tour of the marvel that is the human body. I enjoy how funny Bryson is with his writing, but also how he can be informative and sentimental at the same time. There’s nothing better than finding a quiet spot to read outdoors during the summer months.

“Choosing to Run: A Memoir” by Des Linden

Recommended by Isabel Escobar, Paul W. Chellgren Endowed Chair and professor of Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering

I usually go for horror (big Stephen King fan) and fantasy books, because those tend to be my genres. However, as a runner, I love the inspiration I get from memoirs written by other runners. I enjoyed the way Des Linden wrote the book. I could feel her emotions during the 2018 Boston Marathon. I felt I was there inside her mind and soul, and at times, I was almost in tears. I love to listen to the book as an audiobook during a long run, so I listen to a runner memoir while running myself. I just immerse my head in the book while my body is running — it often feels like both are getting their time to enjoy in peace.

“Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour” by Neal Gabler

Recommended by Jennifer Bird-Pollan, associate dean and professor in the Rosenberg College of Law

I never thought I’d find an 800-page biography of a Ted Kennedy so gripping. This was given to me by a friend, so I started reading it. And it is a real page turner! Ted Kennedy had a front row seat to recent American history and was hugely influential across a variety of legislative sectors. Reading about who he was as a person, and how his experiences impacted his legislative approach, is fascinating. I like biographies, in general, but I was definitely surprised by how interesting I found this one. The second volume of this biography just came out, and it’s even longer than the first. Maybe a project for winter break?

“What Things Cost: An Anthology for the People” by Rebecca Gayle Howell, Ashley M. Jones and Emily J. Jalloul

Recommended by Ellen Riggle, professor in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences

In the summer I like to catch-up on reading books written by my colleagues and friends, who are very prolific writers, so it keeps me busy. “What Things Cost” is a stunning collection — commenting on labor in the U.S., the experiences and the consequences of exploitation on our systems and environment, and most importantly our bodies and health. Howell and Jones have put together a range of writings to reflect these experiences and observations. It is, simply put, deeply profound, as well as eye-opening and affirming. I’m also reading some of the most banned books from the American Library Association list, the majority of which focus on LGBTQ* themes and are honest portrayals of the lives and experiences of LGBTQ* people.  

“Ego is the Enemy” by Ryan Holiday

Recommended by Krystle Kuhs, associate professor in the College of Public Health

This is the second book of a three-part series on modern stoicism. Don’t let the word “stoicism” scare you — it is a philosophy of identifying what you can control and letting go of the rest. This book focuses on the idea that we often suffer more in our imagination than we do in reality. I love books that make me see the world in a new way. “Ego is the Enemy” made me more aware of negative thought patterns I had developed and how to focus on what is most important. I enjoyed reading it on my back deck, while hanging out with the chickens.

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