Summer is a season of SWIMMING pools, fireworks, suntans and sunburns. It's also a time to catch up with old friends and good books.
Need some help putting your summer reading list together? We asked several friends and contributors to I&L to provide a few recommendations.
- Redeployment by Phil Klay // recommended by Andrew Armond
- Citizen by Claudia Rankine // recommended by Laurie Jean Cannady
- The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber // recommended by D.L. Mayfield
- Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke // recommended by D.L. Mayfield
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James // recommended by Juan Morales
- Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts // recommended by Juan Morales
- The Odyssey // recommended by John Poch
- Questions of Travel by Elizabeth Bishop // recommended by John Poch
- Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett // recommended by Glenn Sanders
Below, read why each of these books were especially recommended:
I’m recommending the book Redeployment by Phil Klay. This is a collection of 12 short stories written in 12 different voices, but each of which speaks to a soldier’s experience in the Iraq War. Klay himself is a combat veteran, a Marine who served in Anbar province during the 2007-2008 Surge. This book won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014.
My previous experience with war literature was mainly through teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried every year in a Western Civ class. O’Brien, of course, is a masterful writer, not just a soldier recording memories, who tells stories in an artful way that recreates the emotional landscape of what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam.
What O’Brien did for Vietnam, Phil Klay does for Iraq. Every page of this book is layered, textured, and brutal narrative. Klay writes not only of the moral ambiguity of war, the extreme fatigue and confusion, but also recreates the incredibly disorienting and often violent experience of returning home in prose that is spare and haunting. Take this example:
“So here’s an experience. Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington. Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him. The Marine behind him checks the windows on the top levels of the buildings, the Marine behind him gets the windows a little lower, and so on down until your guys have the street level covered, and the Marine in back has the rear. In a city there’s a million places they can kill you from. It freaks you out at first. But you go through like you were trained, and it works.
“In Wilmington, you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon. You startle 10 times checking for it and it’s not there. You’re safe, so your alertness should be at white, but it’s not.
“Instead, you’re stuck in an American Eagle Outfitters. Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room. You close the door, and you don’t want to open it again.”
One of the most striking chapters in the book is a first-person account written from an Army Chaplain’s perspective. It’s an amazing piece of work, hitting on the theological, practical, moral, and political ambiguities of war. There is a character in that chapter, Rodriguez, who is struggling with the fact that he’s killed a civilian, or at least someone he thinks might have been a civilian—it’s really hard to tell. Rodriguez is a Catholic, and he comes to the priest with his concern about hell. The Chaplain writes in his journal:
“I had at least thought there would be nobility in war. I know it exists. There are so many stories, and some of them have to be true. But I see mostly normal men, trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstance. And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about hell. The moon is unspeakably beautiful tonight. Ramadi is not. Strange that people live in such a place.”
I think it’s really important for us to read war literature. I think it’s a civic duty for those of us who haven’t or will not serve: we need to understand what goes on in the wars we fight overseas, and we need to understand what soldiers undergo, both the literal battles and the emotional battles fought back home. This is a book that’s incredibly foul-mouthed, emotional, difficult, funny, horrifying, and cleansing, and it is thus a humanizing and spiritual experience to read.
Andrew Armond, PhD, is a chaplain and religion teacher at the Episcopal School of Acadiana.
Laurie Jean Cannady
Claudia Rankine's Citizen is a must-read, especially in our current political and social climate. It's a stunningly lyrical, "can't put it down" book. Yet, I have had to put it down, often, because the reality of our current situation, penned eloquently by Rankine, is so difficult to digest, it must be consumed slowly and with much reflection.
Laurie Jean Cannady, PhD, is a Professor of English at Lock Haven University. Her memoir Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was named one of the best nonfiction books by black authors in 2015 by The Root online magazine.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber—part sci-fi missionary tale, part literary exploration on marriage and vocation, this novel is beautifully written and will make you think about both the ethics of conversion and the implications of the collapse of the world as we know it.
Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke—A gorgeously written work of literary non-fiction on what it means to connect with the people most ostracized in our world—convicted felons—and the pleasures and despair of discovering God in their midst.
D.L. Mayfield is the author of Assimilate Or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith (available August 16th from HarperOne).
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James is powerful book that weaves together politics, poverty, violence, and a multitude of memorable voices that tell the story of Jamaica.
Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts inspires serious thoughts in the discussion of injustice, incarceration, and racism in our country through movingly honest poems.
Juan Morales' second poetry collection, The Siren World, was selected as one of "2015 Latino Books: 8 Must-Reads from Indispensable Small Presses" on NBC News.
The Odyssey: This poem has been around for 3,000 or so years for a reason. It speaks to the depths of who we are as civilized and broken and spiritual beings. If you haven’t read it, you have a monstrous gap in your education.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel: As you take a vacation this summer, near or far, this book can help you navigate what it is to be a traveler who deep down longs for home. The second section, Elsewhere, is a look back at Bishop’s childhood, among other things.
John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize.
I just finished Krista Tippett's Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. She draws on the four-hundred-plus interviews from her radio shows (Speaking of Faith, On Being) to elaborate on significant trends of thought on the practice of virtue in complex public spheres. She's a major promoter of gentle conversations as important ways to improve our lives together. The book contributes to a "third way" that's building connections and communities in the face of polarizing ideologies and contested resources.
Glenn Sanders, PhD, is a Professor of History at Oklahoma Baptist University.