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Howard Zinn in the military during World War II.

Howard Zinn in the military during World War II.

The book on Cambridge

When a journalist from Chile who is studying at Harvard this year asked me which novel she should read to understand Cambridge, my first thought was Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, with its intimate rendering of the Indian immigrant experience in Cambridge, is one of my favorite books. Yet Lahiri’s world is just one slice of life in the city.

George Packer’s novel “Central Square” also came to mind. His characters, with their messy lives and liberal politics, are the kind of people you might pass on Mass. Ave., but what the book offers is the equivalent of a neighborhood, not an entire city.

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I told the journalist I’d research her question and get back to her. In the meantime, knowing that she is taking a writing class taught by Anne Bernays, I recommended “Professor Romeo,” Bernays’s novel about a philandering Harvard professor. Yet Harvard certainly isn’t a stand-in for all of Cambridge.

When I asked a handful of local authors and critics to name the best Cambridge novel, no consensus emerged. Among the recommendations were Lahiri’s novel, “The Namesake,” about an Indian couple, and Allegra Goodman’s “Intuition,” about scientists and faked data at a research lab.

Former Boston Globe reporter and editor David Mehegan, who used to cover the literary and publishing world, wrote in an e-mail, “Come to think of it, Cambridge is such a funny place that it doesn’t really have a distinctive character: it has the plain working class (think Tip O’Neill) as well as Harvard and MIT, and the international demographic, but I can’t think of a book that tells you what it would be like to be there and live there.”

There have been tons of novels written about Harvard, but I’m still looking for one that will help a temporary resident of Cambridge understand what the city is all about. If you, dear readers, have a recommendation, please let me know.

Howard Zinn addressing an antiwar rally on Boston Common in 1971.

Howard Zinn addressing an antiwar rally on Boston Common in 1971.

A look at Howard Zinn

Once Howard Zinn started questioning the status quo, especially after serving as a bombardier during World War II, he never stopped. That fact is central to Martin Duberman’s “Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left” (New Press).

Zinn, a Boston University history professor and political activist, died in 2010. His book, “A People’s History of the United States,” sold 2 million copies and changed the way history is taught. It presented the nation’s story, not as one fashioned by the elites, but as one of common people rising up.

In an effort to ensure that future biographers focus on his politics and not his personal life, Zinn purged his archives of private details. Duberman made up for that through his interviews. One of his discoveries is Zinn’s years of infidelity to his wife, Roslyn.

Coming out

 “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories”by Carlo Rotella (University of Chicago)

 “Foundation: The History of England from its Earliest Beginning to the Tudors”by Peter Ackroyd (St. Martin’s)

 “The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel that Defined the Renaissance”by Jonathan Jones (Knopf)

Pick of the week

Jean-Paul Adriaansen of Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., recommends “Phantom” by Jo Nesbo (Knopf): “Leaving his career as a police inspector, Harry Hole moves to Bangkok. But when Oleg, the son of his beloved, is arrested for murder, Harry returns to Oslo. Without official authorization, he starts an investigation that brings him in contact with high society and drug dealers. This captivating story is full of twists and turns.”

Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.
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