Recently published books by alumni

And faculty, plus recommendations


Jane Sherron De Hart ’58, A.M. ’61, Ph.D. ’67, professor emerita of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara and author of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life (Knopf), about what she learned about Justice Ginsburg from decades of research and countless interviews with her. De Hart received the graduate school’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award.

On the gulf between the justice’s personality and outsized persona: She was a very intense, private workaholic who was not given to small talk. Her husband was brilliant and was very gregarious and very witty, so she really relied on him to an enormous extent in social occasions.

What really got this whole “Notorious RBG” thing going was her dissent in the voting-rights case [Shelby County v. Holder]. A first-year law student at NYU was so impressed with the dissent, and how outspoken Ruth was in the dissent, that she started the Notorious RBG Tumblr. Ruth was totally unaware of this, until her clerks showed it to her. And she found out her granddaughters had Notorious RBG shirts. She went to give a lecture at Berkeley, and half the students were decked out in those T-shirts.

So she really has taken it in stride. And when she was asked what she and the dead rapper Biggie Smalls had in common, she said, “Well, you know, we were both born in Brooklyn.”

I knew that that was something I had to explain, how this celebrity developed, because it was certainly unusual. It seems so at odds with her personality. I knew I had to take it into account and explain it.

On the justice’s change in recent years: If you read her decisions and dissents, they’re for the most part rather dull. She hated personalized dissents, which Scalia did, and wrote articles objecting to them. When she disagreed with the court, the language was very neutral.

That changed on the Roberts Court. And it had to do with Roberts and Alito as replacements and particularly their views on civil rights. A series of cases there deeply antagonized the liberal wing of the court, and she just decided that she’d had enough. This had begun to happen on the Rehnquist Court—not that her dissents were hostile, but they were very pointed and provided excellent factual reasons for her disagreement with the position the majority was taking. I think her Gratz dissent [in Gratz v. Bollinger] is a really eloquent exposition of why she felt, for example, that affirmative action was necessary and why this business that emerges in the Reagan administration of how race has to be color-blind just does not work in the real world.

But her dissents really change on the Roberts Court: They become really direct, and she dissents increasingly from the bench. You do that when you’re so frustrated and so convinced that the majority has gone in the wrong direction, that you dissent verbally, and it’s an abbreviation of your written dissent.

On De Hart keeping her first biography project alive after losing all her drafts and research in a fire a decade ago: I had thirteen chapters written, and they aren’t the same thirteen in the first part of the book. One of my research assistants, a graduate student, had a much earlier draft of those chapters on her computer, and I was able to work from those.

At the time, I really, seriously debated whether to go on. But if you read about Ruth, if you know very much about Ginsburg, you know that she just doesn’t accept odds against her. She had had plenty of reversals of one kind or another in her teen years and afterward. And the idea of really giving up on it was totally inconsistent with the person I was writing about.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



Global Art and the Cold War (Laurence King Publishing) John J. Curley IV ’97

Four Guardians: A Principled Agent View of American Civil-Military Relations (Johns Hopkins University Press) Jeffrey W. Donnithorne B.S.E. ’97

Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring (Sarah Crichton Books) Richard Gergel ’75, J.D. ’79

Destroy All Monsters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Jeff Jackson ’93

The Hubley Case (Moonshine Cove Publishing) Justin Lee ’06

The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self-Care (TarcherPerigree) Emma Loewe ’15 and Lindsay Kellner

This Is the Way the World Ends (Thomas Dunne Books) Jeff Nesbit ’79

Our Way: The Life Story of Spike Yoh (The Day & Zimmermann Group, Inc.) Bill Yoh ’93


RECOMMENDATIONS from Evan Ratliff '97

In The Mastermind (Random House), Evan Ratliff divulges the unbelievable but true tale of the DEA’s years-long investigation to bring down twenty-first-century drug lord Paul Le Roux. Below, the author and cofounder of Atavist, an online publication devoted to long-form storytelling, reflects on the four books that most directly influenced his weaving of this story.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis: For my own book, I knew I would need to describe complex technical maneuvers by the main subject, a programmer- turned-crime boss named Paul Le Roux. Here, Lewis is absolutely masterful in the way he spools out the intricacies of the housing bubble—entirely through the eyes of his subjects and their journeys through those same revelations. As a reader, you are learning without knowing you are being taught.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: I love this book for many reasons—the reporting and writing are unbelievable— but I kept it by my desk while writing my own book because of the way Skloot deploys an unconventional story structure. I knew that I was going to stray away from a straight chronology of events, always a risky endeavor in nonfiction. But this book shows how a writer can move readers around in time seamlessly enough that the narrative never loses momentum.

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean: I return to this book constantly; for me, it is the ultimate nonfiction portrayal of obsession. Orlean shows that you don’t need a grandiose topic to write an irresistible book. What you need are the kind of intimate details that fill out a portrait of real human beings, particularly one with the quirky single-mindedness of John Laroche, the eponymous thief. I can flip through to any of her descriptions—of Laroche, of orchids, of the swamp—for evocative inspiration.

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler: I don’t read many mystery novels, but someone turned me on to Ambler and his 1930s spy novels right as I was beginning my book. It turned out to be the perfect inspiration: a gripping but complex murder mystery laced with international geopolitical intrigue. The first-person narrator who attempts to navigate a world of spies, drugs, and lies became a surprising model for the role I played in my own book, doing the same and trying to bring the reader along with me.

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