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Recommended reading

What’s on your summer reading list? A novel? A heavy-duty work of nonfiction you’ve been wanting to dig into, but have not yet had the concentrated time? Maybe something completely outside your normal genre or preferences?

We hope these recommendations might help you decide which direction you want to go as you vacation or simply slow down a bit. We invited a variety of people we admire to share with us books that made an impression on them and that they think others will find meaningful. Some of these books have been previously reviewed in our pages, others are classics and still others you may not yet have on your radar.

We’d love to hear if you take us up on any of these suggestions and what you think of the content within. Also, if you have suggestions of your own, let us know!

– Jill Duffield

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America
James Fallows and Deborah Fallows
Pantheon, 432 pages

Would you like to travel with James and Deborah Fallows this summer? Pick up a copy of “Our Towns.” It’s full of first-hand stories of America’s strength, ingenuity and grassroots growth. Over the course of five years, James, a writer for The Atlantic, and Deborah, a linguist and writer, ventured across America to towns and cities that rarely make the headlines. They spent several weeks in each place, talking to librarians and city council members, business owners and parents, teachers and religious leaders, artists and architects, movers and shakers. They were looking for what makes these towns tick — what helps them thrive.

They traveled by single-engine plane (James is a pilot). This allowed them great flexibility and further insight into the towns they visited as they talked with people at the municipal airports. When they arrived they generally split up, with Deborah starting out at the library and James going to the town government center. They would go about town, find people to talk to and follow the stories. They would talk together in the evenings and write copious notes for later distillation.

Each year they traveled makes up a different section of the book, with each town they visited treated with a separate chapter. This is partly what makes this a good summer reading book. I found I could pick up the book and read a chapter or two, without the need to read the chapters sequentially.

The Fallows settled upon 10 ½ distinguishing characteristics of civic success that are very interesting. (The ½ is being home to a craft brewery or distillery.) I found myself reflecting on these attributes as they might pertain to the church. It made for a very rich inner conversation.

Deborah McKinley is pastor of East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church in Craftsbury, Vermont.

Someone Knows
Lisa Scottoline
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 400 pages

Lisa Scottoline is a prolific writer, and I have particularly enjoyed her series featuring Mary DiNunzio, a lawyer whose extended Italian family in Philadelphia provides a delightful context. “Someone Knows” is set in Philly’s upscale suburbs. No DiNunzio here. We learn right off that the story has to do with a game of Russian roulette that had not ended well. Eager to know more, the reader begins turning the pages as rapidly as possible, only to be led to a scene set 20 years later.

The main characters are four (maybe five) teenagers, 15 years old at the beginning of the story. Julian Browne is the son of the real estate mogul who planned the Brandywine Hunt development where they all live. Sasha Barrow is his beautiful neighbor, with whom Julian is infatuated. David Hybrinski is Julian’s tennis partner/competitor, and the son of a business tenant of Julian’s father. Allie Garvey is suffering since the death of her older sister. Kyle Gallagher’s last name was changed to his mother’s when his physician father was imprisoned in Ohio for a horrendous offense, and Kyle and his mother fled to Pennsylvania. Scottoline describes five dysfunctional families, tracing the effects of familial instability on their offspring.

The first chapter opens with three of the characters, now 35 years old, undergoing a reluctant reunion at a funeral. Scottoline develops her story, moving backward and forward in time, finally exposing the traumatic event around which the characters’ lives have been formed. We discover which character died under what circumstances, leading, 20 years later, to shocking betrayals. Scottoline explores grief and guilt, psychopathy, sexual confusion and the damage caused by secrets kept.

Where faith is expressed in this novel, it is mostly faith in looking good and all the deceptions necessary to pull that off. Summer reading at its best.

Ron Byars is professor emeritus of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving
William Morrow, 627 pages

What makes a novel classic? Some say the capacity to bear multiple readings over several years is what makes a classic. This summer I’m going to discover if “A Prayer for Own Meany” is one. The story of Johnny Wheelwright and his friend Owen Meany that I read many years ago in a different era still echoes in me. The details are not solid but the sense of astonishment originally evoked remains. Faith, politics, war, history and friendship are the themes. This time I will be reading the book with a group of pastors who gather ever summer in Colorado for hiking, theological reflections, conversations and conviviality. We choose “A Prayer for Owen Meany” because many of us could remember precisely the moment we first encountered the story. The famous first line is enough for me to want to read it again: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” Even so, it’s not the beginning but the closing scene that I remember vividly to this day. That memory still haunts me and in subtle ways influences my own pastoral practice.

Roy Howard is pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland, and the book editor of The Presbyterian Outlook.

Jayber Crow
Wendell Berry
Counterpoint, 384 pages

This summer, I plan to reread an old favorite, Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow.” The novel is set before and after World War II in the fictitious small town of Port William, Kentucky. “Jayber Crow” is the name of the town barber, gravedigger and church janitor, but in a deep sense he is the village griot and unofficial pastor of the community. People tell Jayber their stories and share their secrets, and Jayber savors the first and keeps confidence with the second. What compels me to go back to this beautiful novel is not only Berry’s mastery of the particularity of time and place, but also the wisdom and kindness of his prose. I find myself saying a silent “amen” when Jayber muses: “I have got to the age now where I can see how short a time we have to be here. … There are moments when the heart is generous, and then it knows that for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with another and with the place and with all living things.” I feel the desire to get reacquainted with this novel now because of the hopefulness of Berry’s vision, energized by the gospel and the narratives of the Christian faith; his commitment to see people, foibles and all, with compassion; and his capacity to speak the truth in love. At this moment in our conflicted cultural life, “Jayber Crow” promises a refreshing cleansing of the palate.

Tom Long is the Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.

The Animators
Kayla Rae Whitaker
Random House, 384 pages

I don’t know why I fell for this book so hard. It’s not a classic or a bestseller.

But it rings so true. It’s mostly about an intense, creative friendship between Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught, artists and young women who connect as they start on the messy road trip of life. They form an artistic collaboration, extracting from their own histories and memories as they make animated films. Its characters love each other even when they’re not always good for each other. People in this novel do the right thing and the wrong thing and make each other crazy. They’re on fire creatively. This is about wild intense living, deep friendship, ambition, memory, a sense of place — both on the gritty edges of Brooklyn and in eastern Kentucky, a rural reality portrayed with integrity instead of hillbilly stereotypes, as the author, Kayla Rae Whitaker, grew up there and lives in Louisville now.

I liked that this novel pulls me into a type of art – the impact of cartoons on television and imagination – that I knew nothing about. It’s honest about the cost and pull of addiction.

At some point, the story turns to the possibility of making art from Sharon’s List — the “secret compendium of every man with whom I have ever fallen in love.” And that raises questions that parallel those rising from the hot memoir genre — how much it’s fair to tell of one’s own story when it intertwines with others lives. Whose secrets can we tell?

I also like that Whitaker wrote “The Animators” as a regular person: rising early to write before heading off to her office job, writing on the subway and during her lunch hours. As a small-town Kentucky girl turned writer, she animated her own bigger universe.

Leslie Scanlon is the national reporter for The Presbyterian Outlook. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Toni Morrison
Knopf, 368 pages

 “Writers – journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights – can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma that despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to. That is their peril. Ours is of another sort.”

Thus begins Toni Morrison’s newest book “The Source of Self-Regard.” This is the question of our time: What is the source of self-regard? When we discover the true source of our self-regard, we will begin to know what is like to live in peace and value life of all kinds and their differences on the planet. I never crack open just one book, and there are only a few books that I read to the very end. I am certain I will revisit this book’s pages on every occasion to go to the beach this summer! It will be a resource I carry for years to come.

Therese Taylor-Stinson is a ruling elder serving National Capital Presbytery. She currently serves on the presbytery’s Mission Coordinating Committee as liaison for race and reconciliation.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman
Penguin, 352 pages

I had “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” in my duffel bag when I recently left on a weekend trip to lead a women’s retreat. I was slightly more than halfway through the novel and thought it would be good reading for a relaxing weekend away from home. That proved to be correct. “Eleanor Oliphant” is easy to read and funny, but also a good story that presents serious content in a relatable way. The protagonist/narrator is a trauma survivor, a single woman of 29 who lives alone. It is clear from the beginning that her ability to connect with people is compromised. However, given the tragedy she has already endured in her young life, she believes she is doing very well. Eleanor is so wounded that she clings to routine and solitude as the means of keeping her “safe.” When co-workers or her social worker suggest various options for making friends, Eleanor resists them emphatically. She has no desire to risk the fragile equilibrium she has achieved with the help of isolation and alcohol.

The book doesn’t hold any tremendous surprises. Eleanor forms a tenuous connection with a co-worker and through him begins to expand her almost non-existent circle of friends. She enters therapy and by the end of the novel has changed her life in small but meaningful ways. Gradually the reader learns more about what led to her brokenness, as well as the power of friendship and community to repair us. I enjoyed this book because of its hopefulness juxtaposed with its frank treatment of neglect, abuse, loneliness and mental illness.

At the same retreat where I was reading this book, I kept seeing other women who were reading it too, which sparked a lot of conversations. I recommend it for beach or airplane reading; it is light but has enough substance to be worth the reader’s time.

Leslie A. Klingensmith is pastor of St. Mathew’s Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice
Belden C. Lane
Oxford University Press, 288 pages

Throughout the pages of “Backpacking with the Saints,” Belden C. Lane invites the reader to explore the spiritual depths of wild landscapes as he embarks on a journey through the Ozarks and across Southwest America. He draws on the voices of a variety of saints and theologians throughout Christian history including Søren Kierkegaard, John of the Cross and Thérèse of Lisieux. Interpreting nature through the lens of these spiritual giants offers new perspectives for outdoor recreation and spiritual growth.

Lane’s stories describe a wild landscape for the reader to immerse herself in. Each chapter highlights a different backpacking discipline and by extension a spiritual virtue, such as mindfulness, discernment and traveling light. He provides insights into the ways hiking and backpacking are innately spiritual and draw us closer to the Creator. While winding down an obscure trail or peering over the edge of a canyon, Lane weaves together theology, spirituality and his own personal musings. He shares his own struggles and how nature was a solitary place for him to reflect and gain perspective. By projecting the writing of saints outwardly onto the surrounding landscape, he illuminates the text for a contemporary audience.

As an outdoor enthusiast, I was especially drawn to this book. Lane skillfully puts to words how many of us feel when we are in the wilderness: wonder, peace and an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. His writing offers new insight into the significance of finding God in nature drawn from the writings of those saints who came before him. I highly recommend this book for anyone with a love for nature and the desire to develop a deeper sense of spirituality.

Rachel Cheney is a youth pastor in North Carolina who loves to run and rock climb and is interested in outdoor spirituality.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Hank Green
Dutton, 352 pages

Do you have a friend you can always trust with a good book recommendation? Who never recommends a dud, but always has just the right title to pass along?

Rachel is that friend for me. I led her to author A.J. Jacobs, and she steered me to Matthew Dicks and the delightfully quirky, “Something Missing” — before I had to devour the rest of his catalogue.

This year, she suggested “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” I asked no questions and immediately added it to my list.

“An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” is the first novel by Hank Green, brother of acclaimed YA novelist John Green (known for “The Fault in Our Stars”). It’s a rollicking story set in Manhattan that explores media, mystery, fame, YouTube, puzzles of an international scale, art, growing up — and the choices one makes for good and for gain when suddenly thrown into the spotlight. But if that sounds like it’s not telling you much, that’s intentional.

I took the book with me on my flight to the NEXT Church conference in Seattle and read it without knowing anything about it. And I think that’s the best way to go into it. Trust me or trust Rachel: Read this book. It eased the pains of long flights and flight delays. And when I set it down, I looked forward to a time when I could pick it up again and rejoin the story.

The publisher has announced that it is the first is a two-part series. Part two can’t come soon enough.

Jana Blazek is the associate editor for print and online content for Presbyterian Outlook as well as the pastor at Rogers Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago. 

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