As we note the passage of Memorial Day, we recognize the unofficial start of Summer. And that means it is time for the UUA Advocacy and Witness Summer Reading Guide. I find it very interesting that this year’s guide, as opposed to last year’s, has considerably fewer titles that are “political” in nature.
Before we get to our individual titles, I would like to mention that the Washington Office would overwhelmingly like to suggest Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel. This book is one part spiritual memoir and one part history of the Interfaith Youth Core. Patel’s story is thoughtful, powerful and deeply spiritual. It came highly recommended to me by a friend who saw him speak at GA last year and it quickly turned into the first (and thus far only) Unofficial Washington Office Book Club.
What books are on your reading list this summer? We would love to hear from you. Please place your recommendations in the comments below.
Pick up the next Clive Cussler novel you find in the free pile at a yard sale. It won’t change your life (or the world), but it’ll be fun. Wikipedia likens Cussler to Michael Crichton, but draws the following distinction, “Where Crichton strives for scrupulous realism, however, Cussler prefers spectacles and outlandish plot devices.” Nothing soothes the social justice soul on the brink of burnout like an outlandish plot device. Trust me; Cussler has gotten me through some real tough times. Its like going on an incredibly adventurous, mysterious vacation on your bus ride to work. Basically, its a chance to get away and forget about (real) life, which I believe should be a part of everyone’s spiritual practice.
As an avid “urban homesteader,” I love reading about lost knowledge and techniques deemed archaic by today’s standards, Lost Crafts has become my go to manual for how to make the best butter I have ever ate, improving my canned pickles and dreaming about keeping bees. Two books that have changed the way I see my food are the considerably spiritual Animal Vegetable and Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and, the much more stoic, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Both books explore Western Culture’s relationship with food.
For the families out there, I recommend the classic L. Frank Baum masterpiece The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Everyone should already be familiar with the 1930’s Judy Garland movie. But Baum’s book was actually a parable for 19th Century agrarian populism. Through this fantastic adventure, learn about the plight of the subsistence farmer in the *first* Great Depression (post Civil War America) and how the silver standard is superior to the gold standard. In this time of renewed interest in populism and economics, now is the time to put some things in some historical perspective.
My recommended summer read is Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase. It’s the kind of blood-and-thunder tale that Prof Bhaer dissuaded Jo March from writing, which is too bad, because Jo/L.M. Alcott wrote killer pot-boilers. (It was declared “too long & too sensational!” at the time, which is the sign of a fantastic book, if you ask me.) The story has all the tropes we associate with an overwrought Victorian tempered with New England resoluteness. Pious heroine? Check. Maniacally obsessed villain? Check. Sham marriage? Check. Multiple foreign locales of an excessively Gothic nature? Check, check, and check. Unlike many 19th century novels, our heroine doesn’t develop the vapours and wait for the hero – she takes her own life in her hands and the result is pretty awesome.
If tawdry fiction isn’t your thing – but you could go for a little heat this summer – I recommend Barry Werth’s biography of Newton Arvin, The Scarlet Professor. Winner of the second National Book Award for his biography of Herman Melville, Arvin was also Truman Capote’s lover and an internationally renown literary critic and professor at Smith College. Deeply closeted, Arvin struggled with depression and feelings of worthlessness even as a his works received numerous accolades and awards. Most heartbreaking, Arvin was arrested at age 60 for possession of homosexual porn; the ensuing scandal ended Arvin’s career at Smith and led to the arrest of other closeted homosexuals in Northampton. Werth’s biography is sympathetic and compassionate; it reads like a novel without being simplistic or sensational.
For summer reading, a sci-fi classic from the 70s that, sad to say, I’ve only recently read: Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this updated version of Dante Aligheri’s masterpiece, sci-fi writer Allen Carpentier takes the place of Dante and Benito Mussolini takes the place of Virgil, his guide through Hell. First of all, I love (good) re-envisionings of classic stories, making them more relevant to our times. And this is what Niven and Pournelle accomplish. For instance, the sin of simony is all but extinct now, but as our society has changed over the centuries, new ones have taken its place, and the residents of Hell reflect these changes. Secondly, despite the gruesome descriptions of eternal torture, there is a universalist message to the story. Inferno, an easy, fun, provocative read. If you haven’t already, grab a copy.
My summer book recommendations include Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino, Swinging on the Garden Gate: A Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth Andrew, and The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex.
I like to read trashy ‘cozy mystery’ novels that embarrass my daughter when I carry them around. With spunky heroines who don’t stop when they’re told to. No title can embarrass me (thankfully I’m not twelve any more) so I have recently read such gems as “Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver?” and “Gruel and Unusual Punishment.” I don’t really care who did it; I just feel happy to know that, unlike real life, the bad guys will get found out in the end and the strong woman will prevail!
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is one of my favorite love stories with a serious twist: the main character, Henry DeTamble, travels thorough time at any moment and without warning, and often ends up at significant moments in his own or his loved one’s life. It’s beautiful and heart wrenching and not sappy, and it’s also set mostly in Chicago. I like reading a book where I know the setting so well that I get little inside references that people who haven’t spent a lot of time there wouldn’t pick up on. Oh, and they’re releasing the film they just made of this one on August 14th. I hope they didn’t screw it up!
My other fascinations are long and involved series with lots of characters, complex plots and rich descriptions of alternate universes. I know there are many more out there that I haven’t yet read, but one of my favorites so far is the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R R Martin. The series consists of the books, A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and the long awaited and hopefully forthcoming A Dance With Dragons. I also love Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series, which is full of strong characters, love, high adventure, and a lot of arcane and beautiful religious imagery and symbolism. Someday I hope to understand most of it.