Summer reading list: Extra-credit edition

(RNS) What to read at the beach, at the pool or in the hammock without leaving your brain — or your interest in religion — behind.

The RNS 2017 summer reading list

(RNS) Summer vacation is almost here, and with that comes the “suggested reading list” kids bring home from school. Here is our suggestion for the grown-ups — fiction and nonfiction titles in which religion and spirituality play a role, but without proselytizing or offering self-help platitudes. And there’s even an extra-credit book for those who like a little heavy lifting with the summer sunshine.


“The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch. Image courtesy of HarperCollins

The Book of Joan‘ by Lidia Yuknavitch

Post-apocalyptic novels are all the rage, but the reviews for this book promote it as an instant classic of speculative fiction (aka science fiction). The year is 2049 and the Earth is beset by global warming and a band of space marauders who siphon off its waning resources. Enter a potential savior, a young woman from the countryside who can unite the surviving creatures to fight back. Her story is told by Christine Pizan, who tattoos Joan’s saga on her own body as a form of protest.

Faith factor: Joan is a futuristic Joan of Arc on a spiritual quest, this time across the world, not just France. The character of Christine Pizan is drawn from the 16th-century Italian writer Christine de Pizan, a contemporary of Joan of Arc’s who wrote a famous biographical poem about her.

What the critics say: The book must be better than it sounds reduced to two sentences. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Jeff VanderMeer (whose own novel, “Borne,” is being hailed as one of the year’s best) called it a “brilliant and incendiary new novel, which speaks to the reader in raw, boldly honest terms,” and said it is “radically new, full of maniacal invention and page-turning momentum.”

“All The Rivers” by Dorit Rabinyan. Image courtesy of Random House

All The Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

Ah, the eternal enticement of the Romeo and Juliet story. This one is between Liat, an Israeli, and Hilmi, a Palestinian, who meet while visiting post 9-11 New York City. Can their love survive the conflict between their two countries?

Faith factor: The book, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen, focuses more on the cultural and political conflict between the two characters. The protagonists’ different religions are present in the backdrop to their story. The author has said of the story, “My real subject was Liat’s fear that her Jewishness would dissolve into her partner Hilmi’s Arab identity.”

What the critics say: Author Amos Oz called the book “astonishing” and said, “Even the (asymmetrical) tragedy of the two peoples does not overwhelm this precise and elegant love story, drawn with the finest of lines.” Some Israeli readers were less ecstatic — the book was banned in Israeli schools.

“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. Image courtesy of Penguin Random House

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Another pair of star-crossed lovers, Nadia and Saeed, populate this novel, which takes place among refugees in an unnamed city in the midst of war and unrest. Allegory alert: There are are magical doors that open between people and places. Nadia and Saeed step through one together, entering new lives in new places that will threaten their relationship.

Faith factor: The main characters are both Muslims, but religion is something they take on and off, like a garment. Saeed thinks prayer is “a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”

What the critics say: Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for The New York Times, said, “Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines, while at the same time painting an unnervingly dystopian portrait of what might lie down the road.”

“The Yoga of Max’s Discontent” by Karan Bajaj. Image courtesy of Penguin

The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj

Max, a young man with a tragic past, reaches Harvard and Wall Street. But when his mother dies, he questions the meaning of life and gives everything up to journey to India and find the answers.

Faith factor: Yogic spiritual practices are key to Max’s enlightenment. The author is a Hatha Yoga instructor who lives in an Indian ashram.

What the critics say: Reviews have been mixed. “Bajaj is best at balancing the tensions of place and practice: India’s privilege and poverty, Max’s mind and body, yoga’s mix of the spiritual and the terrestrial,” Publishers Weekly said.  Kirkus Reviews concluded, “Do not try this at home.”


“The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple” by Jeff Guinn. Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

There are already enough Jonestown books to fill a library. But in this one, Guinn, a former reporter, draws on his investigative skills to literally retrace the Rev. Jim Jones’ footsteps from Indiana church pastor to jungle madman.

Faith factor: Jones was a Disciples of Christ pastor before he was a mass murderer. Many of his followers thought he was Jesus, while others thought his religious faith was a tool. But they all followed him into the jungle.

What the critics say: Jim Jones Jr., the surviving son of the Rev. Jim Jones, said, “The level of research and detail in ‘The Road to Jonestown’ is the best ever, and really lets readers understand not only what happened, but how and why.”

“The Islamic Jesus” by Mustafa Akyol. Image courtesy of Macmillan

The Islamic Jesus by Mustafa Akyol

Jesus is revered as a prophet by Muslims, and in this book, Akyol, a Turkish journalist and a Muslim, takes the non-Muslim reader through Jesus’ life and times as told in the Quran.

The faith factor: Did we mention it’s about Jesus and Islam?

What the critics say: The book has received glowing reviews, with a few quibbles. Most critics have focused on the last chapter, titled, “What Jesus Can Teach Muslims Today.” In it, Akyol says of Jesus, “The three great Abrahamic religions of our battered world, despite all the past and present tensions between them, come together. …  Whether we are Jews, Christians or Muslims, we share either a faith followed by him, or a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him.”

“Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory” by Aldo Schiavone. Image courtesy of Liveright

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory by Aldo Schiavone

Drawing on the historical accounts of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria as well as the New Testament, Schiavone re-examines what might have happened when Jesus and Pilate met.

Faith factor: Schiavone, a classicist, tries to suss out the real from the fictional in the Gospel story of Pilate.

What the critics say: “Schiavone’s account nicely lures Pilate out of the shadows, albeit briefly, even providing a measure of rehabilitation,” Randall Balmer said in The New York Times Book Review.

“The Sound of Gravel” by Ruth Wariner. Image courtesy of Flatiron Books

The Sound of Gravel by Ruth Wariner

Growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon enclave, the author had 41 siblings and underwent beatings, neglect and sexual abuse. Happy ending alert: She and three of her sisters escaped and Wariner became a high school Spanish teacher.

Faith factor: Wariner’s father, the founder of a break-away Mormon sect, was considered a prophet and her mother felt she was “anointed” by their  marriage.

What the critics say: “Spare, precise prose lifts what could have been a mawkish misery memoir — about a wretched childhood in a fundamentalist Mormon redoubt — into an addictive chronicle of a polygamist community that bred helplessness, dependency, and fear.” — Boris Kachka in New York magazine

“My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir” by Macy Halford. Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

‘My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir’ by Macy Halford

Halford grew up reading the Christian classic “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers and found it a great comfort as an adult navigating New York City. Here, she explores Chambers’ life, the story behind his perennial book and its effect on her own life and work.

Faith factor: Halford grew up a Southern Baptist. Chambers became a minister.

What the critics say: Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Carlene Bauer said the book will be most enjoyed by those who share Halford’s background as well as “those who struggle, or struggled, as Halford did, to reconcile the person who wants to believe with the person who wants to think.”

“Organ Grinder: A Classical Education Gone Astray” by Alan Fishbone. Image courtesy of FSG Books

Organ Grinder: A Classical Education Gone Astray by Alan Fishbone

What if a biker got a master’s degree in the classics and philosophy and wrote a memoir? Spoiler alert: He does.

Faith factor: Fishbone drives off into explorations of the nature of the soul, weighing faith against skepticism. Oh, and he hears voices, which may or may not be God talking to him.

What the critics say: “Fishbone’s mental mazes, irrepressibly personal, sexed-up, funny philosophical, and unconventionally spiritual, make for thought-provoking, entertaining reading.” — Annie Bostrom in Booklist


“The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances Fitzgerald. Image courtesy of Simon and Schuster

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America by Frances FitzGerald

Just lifting this 740-page book could qualify as exercise. FitzGerald, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award winner, traces the influence evangelicals have had on American politics and culture, making this a book vital for anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are now.

Faith factor: While the book focuses on a history of American evangelicalism, it also delves into its branches —Pentecostalism and Christian fundamentalism.

What the critics say: The reviews of this book are not just glowing, they’re on fire. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Alan Wolfe called it “a page turner” and said, “We have long needed a fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility, and FitzGerald has now provided it.”

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