College reading assignments include ‘The Kite Runner,’ ‘Home,’ ‘The Alchemy of Air’

pkelley@charlotteobserver.comJune 22, 2013 

It’s summer, and that means time for my annual non-beach reading roundup – a look at some of the books that Carolinas colleges have assigned incoming students to read over the summer.

These are not books to pick up when you want light and fluffy. But a book club could generate a whole year’s worth of rich discussions with this list. Several of these summer reads introduce students to distant cultures and countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya. And at Gardner-Webb University, students will focus on a culture that’s close to home but often hidden in plain sight – North Carolina’s Cherokees.

Several also explore complex societal issues. For instance, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” a favorite on campuses in recent years, raises questions about medical ethics.

Other picks, including “Wine to Water,” “It Happened on the Way to War” and “Beautiful Souls,” offer lessons about individuals finding ways to change the world for good.

Here’s the list:

Appalachian State: “American Dervish,” by Ayad Akhtar. Hayat Shah, a young Pakistani-American, wrestles with his religious identity and infatuation with his mother’s friend in this 2012 novel.

Davidson: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot. A true account of how the cells of a tobacco farmer, taken without her knowledge, became one of medicine’s most important tools.

Duke: “Let the Great World Spin,” by Colum McCann. McCann portrays New York in the 1970s, a time of transition and promise, in this National Book Award-winning novel.

East Carolina: “It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace,” by Charlotte’s Rye Barcott. As a UNC Chapel Hill student, Barcott spent a summer in Kibera, a mega-slum in Kenya, then created a nonprofit called Carolina for Kibera. In this memoir, he tells how he launched and led the organization while serving as a Marine.

Gardner-Webb: “Living Stories of the Cherokee,” collected and edited by Barbara Duncan. This 1998 collection presents 72 traditional and contemporary tales from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina.

N.C. Central: “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. This best-selling novel centers on an unlikely friendship between a wealthy Afghani boy and the son of his father’s servant.

N.C. State: “The Alchemy of Air,” by Thomas Hager. The true story of how two scientists discovered how to turn nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer. Their accomplishment helped feed millions, but it also fueled the weapons of both world wars.

Queens: “Beautiful Souls,” by Eyal Press. An examination of ordinary people who resisted the status quo, often risking their lives, to follow their convictions.

University of South Carolina: “The Postmortal,” by Drew Magary. A novel that’s set in the near future. Humanity has discovered a cure for aging, but that brings a new set of problems.

UNC Chapel Hill: “Home,” by Toni Morrison. This is the 10th novel from Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s the story of a black Korean War veteran returning from an integrated Army to a segregated homeland.

Wingate: “Wine to Water,” by Doc Hendley. A North Carolina bartender tells how he began raising money for clean-water projects around the world and ended up traveling to one of the world’s most dangerous places – Darfur. (UNC Charlotte is also teaching the book in many first-year courses as part of its Common Reading Experience.)

Winthrop: “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. In this true story, Kamkwamba demonstrates the power of imagination and determination as he uses scrap metal, an old bicycle wheel and other discards to construct a windmill for his poverty-stricken village in Malawi.

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