Summer Reads 2024 - Word&Way

Summer Reads 2024

Across the country in recent weeks, high school graduates walked across a stage to shake hands and receive a diploma. But one student instead had something to give to her superintendent. Upset that the Idaho Fine Arts Academy had removed several books from the library amid nationwide book ban efforts, graduate Annabelle Jenkins decided to demonstrate her disapproval.

As she walked across the stage, she pulled out a copy of one of those banned books — The Handmaid’s Tale (Graphic Novel) — to give to the district’s superintendent. When he saw the book cover, he crossed his arms and refused to take it. So she dropped it at his feet and kept walking. The moment went viral on TikTok.

“This place means a lot to me and libraries in general, I realize these are the types of spaces I want to spend my life protecting and curating,” Jenkins later told a local reporter while sitting in a library. “This is an issue that we can no longer ignore. Because if we do, it’s just going to silently move along until it’s at a worse place than we ever imagined.”

In a time when some people want to censor books and stop people from reading, we instead love to lift up books. So it’s time for our annual list of recommended books for your summer. We’ve once again asked several Word&Way writers to offer two books perfect for curling up with at the beach, on your couch, or in your backyard as you listen to the singing of the cicadas.

(Dan Dumitriu/Unsplash)

Some Recommended Books

Brian Kaylor, co-author Baptizing America:

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. The stories of five characters over eight centuries are connected by a fictional ancient Greek text from the second century. Each story is wonderful, slowly bringing the reader in — from a seamstress in Constantinople and a boy conscripted into the Ottoman army to attack the city in the 15th century to a Korean War veteran working at a library and a young teen enlisted by ecoterrorists in the present day to a young girl in the 22nd century aboard a starship headed for another planet. One by one I found myself excited for the various stories to pick up, until I enjoyed them all and didn’t mind leaving one to rejoin another. The real magic is when they weave together. Each of the five characters seek not just survival but also life in a story, the novel within the novel. Not just life and a story but life through and because of a story. “A story is a way of stretching time,” one of the characters remarks. And Doerr proves it.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy, you already know Collins is a talented writer. This prequel is masterful. And because it’s a brilliant prequel, you should read the trilogy before reading this book. Although set in an earlier time, it’s a true prequel that you read later to truly appreciate it (which is the same reason C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew should be read after The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). While crafting an original story in her dystopian world, Collins weaves in nuggets that allude to the later events in her other novels. She also does something impressive. In addition to creating suspense around the prequel’s main character even though we know his fate from the trilogy, she also gets you to care about and even root at times for this key villain from the trilogy. And after you’ve read the book, the movie is also good (especially the music).

Jeremy Fuzy:

Liberation Day by George Saunders. Short stories are one of my favorite things to read during the summer months. They are low-commitment, and you can always skip around to find whichever one matches your current mood. Pair this with one of our best living authors, and you just can’t go wrong. This collection of nine stories explores a wide range of topics from tedious office rivalries to dystopian science fiction memory wipes, assuaging guilt by spending too much time trying to figure out whether or not something is recyclable to ghoulish underground amusement parks. You will be entertained, but you will also keep thinking about these stories long after you close the book. And despite reflecting the times we live in back at us in inventive and literary ways, Saunders remains lighthearted and optimistic. No matter how bleak a conceit might seem, Saunders’s kindness and humor always shine through. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about empathy.

The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World by Marshall W. “Major” Taylor. It is quite possible that you have not heard about one of the most important athletes in history. But you can fix that by reading this memoir, penned in 1928 by the “Black Cyclone” himself. Despite facing overwhelming racism on and off two wheels, “Major” Taylor became the dominant cyclist of his era. This abridged edition from Belt Publishing with updated modernized spellings makes for a propulsive and compelling read as we are introduced to tales of high-speed success, sabotage, and impossible odds. It does not take long to realize that this world champion deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of more well-known athletes who fought for social change like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Serena Williams. And if you want proof that Taylor’s legacy is still alive and inspiring people today, there might even be a cycling group in your city dedicated to him.

Beau Underwood, co-author Baptizing America:

Before the Badge: How Academy Training Shapes Police Violence by Samantha Simon. Ongoing political debates and policy discussions about police reform often neglect a key element: how the attitudes, practices, and self-perceptions of law enforcement officers are formed. Sociologist Samantha Simon’s excellent and informative study of this issue arises from her immersive fieldwork conducted during a yearlong experience training at a police academy. While not your typical vacation read, this book is about as absorbing as an academic study can be. It explores a timely topic in a methodically sound way that offers valuable insights into one of the most perplexing and enduring issues of our time.

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks. Memoirs are one of my favorite genres as they allow us to see the world through the eyes of another. They are especially valuable when written by someone whose experience is radically different from your own. That’s what caused me to take notice of Meeks’s book and I’m so glad I did. This firsthand account of a sharecropper’s daughter who became a distinguished academic, an African American leader who has confronted racism and promoted reconciliation, and one who carries a deep faith that has persevered through great personal and societal turmoil will enlighten and inspire you.

Sarah Blackwell, author of God is Here:

Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner. One of the most anticipated summer movies is the sequel to the hit Disney movie Inside Out, which expertly captured the varied emotions of childhood with the help of consulting psychologist Dacher Keltner. At first glance, Keltner’s new book on neuroscience may seem a little technical for summer reading, but he weaves together the scientific with beautiful stories of real-world awe found in his research. Keltner notes eight types of awe from “Collective Effervescence” to “Sacred Geometries” that can inspire us and even change our brain chemistry. Keltner explains that awe puts our inner world into the right perspective in the universe — those who regularly make time to wonder are more likely to be involved in service to their communities and are also the recipients of many health benefits. His book is an inspiring call to take life a little slower this summer and be awed by the world around us.

Watership Down: The Graphic Novel by James Sturm, Richard Adams, and Joe Sutphin. I love the brave rabbits of the Watership Down Warren, but the novel is a meandering tale that can be difficult for younger readers. This summer, though, the perfect compromise to the adult desire to read something meaningful with their children and young people’s pull to the graphic novel storytelling format is this new illustrated edition of the classic tale. James Sturm expertly condenses the story to include the major tension points of the novel while keeping the action moving along. Joe Sutphin created gorgeous illustrations that put you right into the action of the English countryside. The rabbits must join together to make sense of the world around them with its perils and mysteries just as our own young people must. In this election year, it is also a good touchpoint for discussion about leadership models that promote flourishing and those ingrained with power and control. May we all learn a lesson from Hazel, Fiver, and Bigwig this summer!

Kristel Clayville:

God Speaks Science: What Neurons, Giant Squid, and Supernovae Reveal About Our Creator by John Van Sloten. In this book, Rev. Van Sloten offers the reader a process for thinking about how religion and science do and can talk to each other. From the first pages, we find Van Sloten suggesting that science pointed him to theology and theology pointed him back to science. It builds on the long conversation about the relationship between science and religion, one that has often offered four models of relationship: conflict, interdependence, dialogue, and integration. Van Sloten deepens the more productive of these models by creating dialogue at specific points of intersection, like the body’s ability to heal, the structure of the knee, and how we use our brains to learn. Each chapter includes voices of scientists as well as theological reflection and practical exercises for the reader to do as part of the process of seeing God’s creation anew.

Between Two Trailers: A Memoir by J. Dana Trent. Is home in our rearview mirrors? In front of us? Both? In this book, Trent wrestles with a childhood that she thought she had left behind when she moved from small-town Indiana to Duke Divinity School to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. Her specific past involves living with her father (King) and mother (the Lady) as they sell drugs, navigate mental illness, and endure bankruptcy and homelessness. Trent’s memoir is full of insights about social location, geographical location, self-knowledge, and how education allows us to know ourselves better and also creates distance between ourselves and others. It combines the significance and gravity of the story with a sense of humor that brings levity and momentum to the reading experience.

John Sianghio:

Babel by R.F. Kuang. This book builds a world where the impossibility of conveying the full meaning of words translated between languages is a magical force powering everything from the mightiest weapons to children’s toys. “Babel” is the colloquial name of the fictitious Royal Institute of Translation housed at the very real Oxford University. Its translation work produces technologies that drive industry and commerce in the book’s rendering of 19th-century Britain, as well as the colonialism and cultural oppression that were so often their corollaries in the true history of the Empire. The book’s protagonist, Robin Swift, is an orphan “rescued” from the streets of Canton in China by a White professor at Babel. The plot centers on Robin’s struggle to come to terms with his love of his work, the privilege it affords him, and the very real injustices and cultural apartheid he knows he is complicit in. Babel’s masterful magical realism and compelling combination of linguistic philosophy worthy of Derrida and yippee-ki-yay action reminiscent of Die Hard make it a particularly poignant read amidst the resistance movements centered on college campuses this year.

The Just City by Jo Walton. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Hamlet. Walton’s book seems to make a similar point. Its premise is an experiment undertaken by the Greek deities Athena and Apollo to build the eponymous “just city” envisioned by Plato in The Republic. Like Plato, Walton explores the nature of justice, community, and the good life. But rather than the Socratic dialogue full of logical syllogisms that animates The Republic, this book explores the meaning of justice and the meaningfulness of relationships through the tete-a-tete conversations of its characters and the emotional connections they make that seem to defy and even transcend logic. In the same way The Republic claims to be an exploration of the human soul through the analogy of a community, The Just City gives insight into the nature of community when it attends to the deepest longings of the human soul.

Juliet Vedral:

Have you ever had the feeling, after finishing a classic novel, that you just wanted to spend a little more time with those characters? After reading several Jane Austen novels, I experienced that sensation — I just wanted to know these characters a little more. I then discovered the “Austen Project Series”: Jane Austen novels retold in a modern setting. Caveat: there are only two that I would recommend because Austen’s send-up of Regency Era social issues doesn’t translate perfectly to modern times (Emma by Alexander McCall Smith does not work in the 21st century).

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld is an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and it is delightful and weird, in the best way. Set in 2010s Cincinnati, Liz and her sister Jane return to their hometown to nurse their ailing father back to health. Instead of balls and walks to Meryton, there is CrossFit, reality TV, and backyard cookouts. It’s not Pride and Prejudice, but it is a “novel” way to experience these classic and beloved characters.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. This modern retelling is fairly true to the original, though it is set in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, not Bath during the Season. Still, the classic tale of a young, naïve girl exploring the world outside her small town is delightful. McDermid’s novel also has a great send-up of the Twilight books while also bringing Edinburgh to life on the page. It’s an easy summer read, but beware, you too might get carried away by your imagination.

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Read On

With the variety of books we’ve compiled, we hope you’ll find a couple worth adding to your summer. And if you need more options, you could always look back at our 2022 and 2023 lists. You might even find a new one on Christian Nationalism worth your time.

Let’s be counted among those who love books, not those seeking to ban them.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Jeremy Fuzy

A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way.

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