At the end of a school year in which you read to teach and read to learn more than read to enjoy, you might be hungry for a few books that don’t require anything of you. Let me rephrase that. The best books do require something of you, but they require who you are, not who you feel you should be. They require heart as well as head. They require you to slip not into facts but mystery — the mystery of connecting soul and mind in a way that nothing else can. So here are a few of my favorite novels and nonfiction books that bring my head and heart, soul and mind together.
Some of these books are written from a Christian worldview but most are not. For an excellent article on the beautiful dangers and truths of reading a variety of novels, see Dangerous Truths and True Dangers. Finally, if you’d like more book ideas, along with group discussion questions, check out the book Reading Group Choices 2012.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Well written and highly entertaining, The Thirteenth Tale is the story of a woman charged with interviewing Vida Winter, a reclusive author now ready to reveal the secrets of her past. A deadly fire, a set of twins, and a haunted (or is it?) house in an undetermined time in history make this a wonderful, not-too-light, not-too-heavy summer read.
Dwelling Places by Vinita Hampton Wright
This quietly powerful novel follows the loves and losses of an Iowa farm family. Mack travels to another town to find answers for his depression while his weary wife, Jodie, contemplates having an affair, their fourteen-year-old daughter, Kenzie, seems to have gotten involved with a Christian cult, and their seventeen-year-old son, Taylor, falls into a silent Goth obsession. A beautiful book in which the land is a character in itself, Dwelling Places gives authenticity to family relationships in a way few novels do.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of four novels, all of which rank high on my list of favorite books. Caleb’s Crossing is her most recent novel, the story of Bethia Mayfield, a young woman growing up in 1660s Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia’s father is a Calvinist minister who fosters a mentoring relationship with Caleb, one of the native Wampanoag who her father hopes to convert. Caleb’s Crossing is based on the true story of the first Native American graduate of Harvard. The history and the cross-cultural, cross-faith questions will stay with you (the scene of Bethia watching the Wampanoag dance is worth the whole book), and the storyline itself makes this a great read.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the first of Angelou’s highly readable five autobiographies and it has earned its distinction as a classic. It is the story of Angelou’s childhood in a small southern town, where she knows the pain of racism and the love of family. If you haven’t yet experienced Angelou’s poetic storytelling, this is a great place to start.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang
If you are looking for a total escape from the academic world this summer, this one probably isn’t for you. If you’re looking for an elegant, highly quotable book about an artist’s vocation, you might give this one a try. It’s the story of two friends, gifted poets, who meet in a graduate school writing seminar. The path of their post-graduate lives diverge as one sees writing as a calling and one as means to fulfill ambition. The book explores the relationship between teachers and students, the cost of artistic drive, and the loneliness and connection that art brings.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
This story of twin boys coming of age in a politically unsettled Ethiopia will take you from India to Africa to an inner-city hospital in New York and back again. Medicine, family loyalties, and cross-cultural experiences (Marion’s first taxi ride in the United States is unforgettable) make this a powerful read. Verghese’s memoir, My Own Country, is also worth recommending — an evocative chronicle of Verghese’s experience in eastern Tennessee at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
Based on a true story, this young adult novel from Newbery medalist Linda Sue Park follows the lives of Salva, on the run from rebel soldiers in Sudan in 1985, and Nya, a Sudanese girl in 2008 who walks eight hours a day to get water for her family. As the best “children’s” books are, Long Walk to Water is a powerful book for any reader. In this case, Park takes today’s headlines — which can seem overwhelming — and gives faces, and hope, to go with them.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
This was on many Top 10 lists for 2011 and is well worth reading. It’s the story of Marina Singh, sent to the Amazon to find out what happened to a colleague who is reported dead. There she discovers beautiful, blistering, insect-ridden jungles and a scientist developing a secret miracle drug. State of Wonder raises questions of scientific ethics and cultural rights even as it tells a great story.
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
All of Potok’s novels are good, but this is the one I return to most. Asher Lev grows up in a cloistered Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn following the Second World War. He keeps kosher, obeys his father, and follows the rituals of his community — but he is also an artist who feels driven to express the world as he sees it, whatever the cost. This sparse, poetic novel follows Asher’s struggle to reconcile his love of family, his call to God, and his artistic gifts.
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
Classified as a young adult novel, this funny and haunting book was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Awards. Doug Swieteck is a fourteen-year-old boy trying to find his place in a new town with no friends, an abusive father, and a wounded older brother returning from Vietnam. Okay for Now is a surprisingly hope-filled book about the power of art, nature, and books to build relationships and offer redemption.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
It is 1950s Spain and young Daniel’s father has a secret to show him: the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a labyrinth of volumes saved from oblivion. Daniel chooses one book from the shelves: The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. His choice leads him on a life-changing detective hunt as he grows into adulthood. If you are drawn to gothic, fantastical novels, you’ll love this dark romp through the streets of foggy Barcelona.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
A profound and gentle book, Peace Like a River tells the story of young Reuben Land, an asthmatic, tender-hearted boy on a journey with his father and sister to find his outlaw older brother in the 1960s. A weaving of miracles, manhunts, and legends of the Old West, this is one of the best novels of faith and family you’ll ever read.
Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer by Richard Foster
This slim volume explores the contemplative roots and modern-day challenges of prayer, with beautiful quotes and practical helps to guide you whether you have started the practice of prayer in your own life or not. Any of Foster’s books (such as Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home and Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth) make wonderful summer devotional reading because of his strong writing and deep knowledge of the mothers and fathers of the faith.
My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir by Lewis B. Smedes
This is a beautiful memoir of one man’s faith, written shortly before his death in 2002. It is an honest account of longing, discovering, and longing again as Smedes describes his growing and changing relationship with God throughout his years.
Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey
Filled with Yancey’s unique stories and hard-won insights, this is one of the best books on prayer I’ve read. He addresses the confusions and frustrations of prayer head-on as well as the beauty and power of prayer that he has seen in his international travels, his own life, and the words of Jesus.
Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell
Whether or not you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, this is a fascinating book from the perspective of a kitchen maid in England in the first half of the twentieth century. What I liked most about it were the author’s words (she published the book in the 1960s) about how class and culture changed over her lifetime. The stories of hunger, romance, and the dynamics between the lower classes and “them” (the upper classes who lived upstairs) are not polished, but even their rawness has its own appeal.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
After hiding her past for twenty years, Walls tells of her incredible childhood in this memoir that reads like a novel. The most amazing thing about The Glass Castle is how Walls depicts her parents with love even though their eccentricities and nomadic lifestyle lead their four children into desperate times and bitter betrayals. Walls’s strength to overcome a life of poverty is as fascinating as how she tells the story.
What are some favorite books you would recommend to readers at The Well?