Christ and Pop Culture Summer 2018 Reading Guide
Summer is for camping and road trips; it’s for cookouts and s’mores, lazy days and fireworks. It’s also for reading, as time is freed up with fewer kids’ activities and perhaps some time off from work. Lots of people who don’t read much during the fall and spring will grab a book and head to the hammock or out to the beach to escape into its pages. If that’s you, but you’re still looking for something to hook you, we at Christ and Pop Culture have you covered! Our writers share below the books they’ve found valuable and that they think you might, too.
The Fisherman by John Langan
For those who follow horror and weird fiction writers, beyond the flashier names like Stephen King, John Langan has quietly emerged over the past few years as a distinctive voice, and nowhere is that so evident as in his 2016 novel The Fisherman. The book’s narrator, Abe, is a widower who worked in IT during the 1990s and has used fishing as a way to cope with his loss. He and a colleague, also widowed, begin to hear rumors of a place in upstate New York that may be the domain of a mysterious man called the Fisherman, a figure whose story is centuries old. When they dare to enter that realm, they encounter an ancient and powerful force that makes them meet their grief head-on.
For anyone who appreciated the horror of H. P. Lovecraft but would like somewhat fewer adjectives and more character development, The Fisherman is the perfect read. Langan gradually fleshes out a fascinating mythology, one distinctively his and suggestive of a grander world but also rooted deeply in existing human stories and legends, from the Bible to Moby Dick to Lovecraft. Beyond its sublimity, though, The Fisherman is also an achingly honest look at the ways men work through personal trauma—a look that is especially brutal in the book’s bleak worldview but that retains authenticity even for the Christian reader.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a contemporary young adult fiction novel, debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list in February 2017. The novel is narrated by sixteen year old Starr Carter, who attempts to make sense of her world after her best friend, Khalil, is murdered by a police officer. Starr has always straddled the line between two worlds. In Garden Heights she is Big Mav’s daughter, a Black young woman who has witnessed injustice throughout her life and is lucky enough to live to tell the tale. At Williamson Prep, a private school filled to the brim with mostly white, affluent students, Starr is different; she speaks and acts in a manner that serves one goal: to blend in with her white peers. When Khalil is murdered, though, Starr’s worlds violently collide, and she is forced to decide which Starr she really is. Thomas masterfully weaves a story that illuminates timeless coming-of-age struggles while also facing down pertinent systemic injustices. This is a must read for fans of young adult fiction, and this summer is the perfect time to read it before the film adaptation hits theaters in October 2018.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s retelling of classic Norse tales ventures from the creation of the world, which includes a great flood with only two surviving giants, to the end of the gods at Ragnarok. Spotlighting a great number of the Norse pantheon, as well as dwarfs and giants, Gaiman centers the book on three of the most popular deities: Odin, the all-father who was sacrificed by himself to himself to become the wisest of the gods; Thor, the strongest of the gods, but quick-tempered with a thick skull; and Loki, the trickster half-giant and blood brother of Odin. These are not the familiar Marvel gods and heroes of pop culture. Instead, Gaiman draws from classic Norse texts such as the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and well as other stories of kings and conquerors.
Norse Mythology is structured like a collection of short stories, but it drew me in from beginning to end as any engrossing novel should. Gaiman’s prose and characterizations are certainly the central strengths of this book, with Loki, in particular, stealing the spotlight. While many readers may be familiar with the Greek pantheon and stories of heroes like Hercules, the Norse gods and stories are not as commonly known outside their superhero and comic book counterparts. Gaiman’s Norse Mythology brings these tales and myths to life in a unique way that serves as a good summer read and an even better reminder that we have a God who made us in his image rather than gods made in ours.
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse
Reacting to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, businessmen and religious leaders formed a coalition—the Religious Right—to combat FDR’s programs that cut into their profits. In One Nation Under God, Kevin Kruse outlines the historical account of how, through such actions, America’s clergymen, businessmen, and politicians infused capitalism and Christianity into one synonymous American concept. I was surprised to find out in this book that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the country’s official motto as a result of this radical conservative-capitalist movement. Such insights make the book worthwhile. I would recommend listening on audio book format for most of the book, though some informative backstories lost my attention for awhile.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama, several times in 1927 to interview Cudjo Lewis, an 86-year-old who was the only survivor to tell his story of how he became one of the last Black bodies shipped (illegally) from Africa. Hurston recorded Cudjo’s firsthand account of all the events that led to his enslavement—from the raid of a rival tribe, to his first time ever seeing the ocean he would travel across to North America. Hurston brilliantly writes Cudjo’s story in his unique dialect and vernacular. Because of that, Barracoon gives the reader an inside look at the long-term damaging effects slavery had on one man’s life, which was but a snapshot of the widespread damage done to many lives. The delayed publishing of Hurston’s work is a priceless offering to America’s history and culture. (I’d highly recommend listening to this book in audio-format as it is written and read in the dialect of Cudjo.)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I read this book a year and a half ago, but I can’t get it out of my head. Most people probably know Trevor Noah as the host of The Daily Show ever since Jon Stewart left, but Born a Crime betrays a depth of insight that no half-hour of silly news could ever convey and that can only be won by a lifetime of hard knocks. Portraying a world many Americans rarely think about—Apartheid South Africa—the book chronicles Noah’s rise from the ghetto to a successful comedy career, muses on life in one of the Western World’s last legally segregated societies (and one which drew deliberately from many of the ideas employed in the United States, as Noah points out), and shows how a child can be dragged up out of poverty by one very determined, hardworking woman. In other words, it’s the book we all probably should have been reading instead of Hillbilly Elegy.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
When Taran, orphan foundling and assistant pig-keeper to an oracular pig, runs off into the forest one day to catch his errant pig—he really only has one job to do, after all—and stumbles upon the Horned King, his life is turned on end. What unfolds over the course of five adventurous stories is a tale of friendship and loyalty, love and loss, magic and mystery, as one of the greatest casts of fantasy characters ever put to page rallies around Taran: a boy who longs to be both a man and a hero, and who has no idea how to be either.
The Chronicles of Prydain is a chronological series, so it must be read in the following order: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. This middle grade story is a classic read, as The Book of Three was first published in 1964, but I highly recommend it for summer reading this year for all ages. As our culture debates what manhood is and means, I appreciate a story that depicts a heroic man as one who struggles, who seeks, who serves, who loves, and who defers. Lessons on heroism and manhood are just the tip of the iceberg with this excellent series, though, as The Chronicles of Prydain has much to say about a lot of great topics. If you enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings and have never picked up this series, either make it a fast summer read for yourself, or a read-along with your kids. By the time you finish the Newberry Award–winning final book, you will be wondering where this series has been your whole life—I guarantee it.
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
What if the prophesied hero… failed?
A thousand years ago the Hero of the Ages went to face the evil that threatened the world and instead left the world in ruin. Ash now continually falls from the sky; it hides the sun, chokes out life, and leaves everything a colorless grey. The people are harshly stratified: a ruling class gifted with magic lords over the skaa; the lower class, with violence and cruelty. And over all of them is the Lord Ruler—a god-like immortal and a tyrant. Every attempt at revolution has failed. But none of those rebellions has been led by Kelsier.
Mistborn is an action-packed fantasy novel, the first in a long series, by Brandon Sanderson. It combines all of the things that Sanderson does best: a vivid and well-developed world, a new and fascinating system of magic, believable characters, and a well-crafted story thick with twists and turns. Kelsier is the thief turned legend determined to take down the Lord Ruler and set the skaa free. Vin is a street-urchin with unusual abilities she has no idea how to control. Together, and with a whole lot of luck, they are going to remake the world. Mistborn is a modern classic in the fantasy world and a must read if you enjoy the genre. It has a measure of violence (it’s not suitable for younger readers) but its strong female lead, its depth of character development, and its well developed plot make it a yearly read for me and one of my all-time favorite summer reads.
A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake
Having loved Jordan-Lake’s first novel, Blue Hole Back Home, I’ve eagerly waited a very long time for her second. It doesn’t disappoint. The story takes us back and forth between the planning of a slave revolt in 19th-century Charleston and a 21st-century graduate student trying to piece together her family history. In the past, we get caught up in the dilemma of a wealthy young woman seeing the suffering of a slave and struggling to find the courage to help; in the present, we see the descendants of these people blindsided by the Charleston church massacre of 2015. A Tangled Mercy realistically and movingly portrays both horror and hope.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison made her quiet debut with the novel The Gin Closet, but it was her 2014 essay collection, The Empathy Exams, that solidified her reputation as a consummate stylist who combines deep compassion with uncompromising honesty. When I heard that she was turning that unsparing eye on herself for a new book that would be equal parts memoir and cultural history of addiction, I felt a little guilty about how excited I was by the news. When I found out that her main ambition with the book was to offer a portrait of the healing process that was every bit as compelling as the preceding downward spiral, I felt guilty for doubting that she could pull it off. The Recovering is occasionally uneven—the blending of memoir and cultural history is far from seamless—but it is unique in putting the emphasis on the portion of addiction stories we usually find to be the most boring—namely, the long, dull, one-day-at-a-time road to recovery. The fact that this book is so interesting, so well-written, and such a page-turner is a measure of Jamison’s success.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte
One of my abiding reading interests has been the debates around creation, evolution, and interpreting the early chapters of Genesis. I have gradually been trying to catch up on scientific reading as it relates to that discussion. Last summer, I read T. Rex and the Crater of Doom by Walter Alvarez and Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall. Both books detail the demise of the dinosaurs, the former by an eminent geologist and the latter by a theoretical physicist. This summer, I just finished The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. He is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, and his most recent work gives the story of the dinosaurs leading up to their extinction. While his is a well researched scientific work, Brusatte writes in a very narrative style, often using imaginative liberty to describe how the dinosaurs lived. The result is an engaging up to date account of the scientific understanding of where dinosaurs came from, and where they went. The notes on sources Brusatte provides at the end will be invaluable for readers who want to dig more into this subject.
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch
Although Andy Crouch’s Culture Making was published a decade ago, I only recently discovered it. But perhaps the timing was fortuitous, given that in its pages, Crouch is engaging with questions that have become more pressing in the last couple years. The 2016 election and its aftermath reveal a rot at the heart of American culture that I had been blithely unaware of, and I’ve been struggling since then with the enormity of the task that lies before the church and the paucity of resources with which to do so. It’s clear that a renewal of some sort must take shape, and Crouch’s visionary book offers a way forward. Crouch challenges the cultural warrior stance—that in no small part has gotten us into our current predicament—and instead encourages readers to embrace the role of cultural creator, a role Crouch explains that is at the heart of what it means to be made in the image of God. Despite the subject being big, Crouch makes it accessible and, in fact, extremely personal. While we may not be able to change the world, Crouch explains, we can change our world and open up new horizons of the possible.
One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler
Though we’re in very different life stages, I always learn so much from Jennifer. This wise and witty book, a follow-up to the equally wise and witty Something Other than God, shows how her faith and her community helped her learn to integrate a calling she’s passionate about with a demanding family life.