Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Suggestions, Anyone?

This semester, I'm teaching a Critical Thinking and Speaking class for the Honors College. One of the assignments is to do a book review, and I gave the students a list of books from which they can choose. The list contains non-fiction, memoirs, novels, theological texts, philosophical texts, meditations; no limits on genre. The only criteria is that they are well-written and have caused me to think critically. I might agree with the author, and I might not. That's not the point. Expanding my mind is.

Here's the list for this semester. I have a few books on my nightstand, like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, and Stephanie Paulsell's Honoring the Body that I may choose to add after I've read them. Any suggestions for the future?

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Receiving the Day by Dorothy C. Bass
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
For The Time Being by Annie Dillard
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson
Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Walking on Water by Madeline L’Engle
Spiritual Direction by Henri Nouwen
Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Technopoly by Neil Postman*
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Shaffer
How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer
An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett
Night by Elie Wiesel


Anonymous said...

Living Buddha Living Christ

Thich Nhat Hanh is a fantastic author for this kind of book. He describes both Buddhism and Christianity in their best forms and shows what they have in common.

I am much more attracted to this presentation of Christianity than most presentations I have heard in Christian churches. It's relatively short and easy to read, but it is very illuminating.

Kelly said...

What? No Stephanie Meyer?

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Here are some that made me rethink and re-think lately.

"The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died" by Philip Jenkins, which is about the close interlinking of Christianity and Islam, both religiously and culturally. It really made me think.

"Tortured Wonders: Christian Spirituality for People, Not Angels" by Rodney Clapp

"The Genealogy of Morals" by Friedrich Nietzsche

You may consider pairing Elie Wiesel's "Night" with "A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary," a book written by anonymous woman survivor of the final days of WWII in Berlin (and translated by Philip Boehm). The book is autobiographical, by a woman journalist who herself has to fight for survival under the horrors of the Russian occupation of Berlin at the end of WWII, with a frank and honest reflection on what the horrendous circumstances of war do to women everywhere and the choices they are forced to make in order to survive. The book is also subversive because it requires readers to reconsider the notion, which Wiesel has no small part in propagating, if more because of how he is discussed in classrooms than by his own intent, that in WWII (and any war) there are clear sides, with clear victims and perpetrators - an issue that's always relevant - and it shifts the story of that time from the battlefield to the lives of civilians like you or me, dove-tailing nicely with Wiesel, and raising questions just as important.

Along those lines, "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque, still the best novel reflecting on war.

(I don't know why war is on my mind as I put this list together. Sorry. Maybe because it makes us ask so many hard questions.)

Also, maybe something by G.K. Chesterton?

If you really want to push it, you could offer "When Women Were Priests" by Karen Torjesen (which is discredited academically but certainly challenging in its suggestions about gender roles in the early church) or "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" by Robert Wilken, although maybe Wilken is safer. He does give an amazing insight into the "first century Christianity" that was, in all its variety and surprising iterations, rather than that which the NT fragmentedly suggests. But like I said, maybe that's too much critical thinking.

Also good as a thought exercise: "The 48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene, which is basically Machiavelli rehashed for contemporary men. If you want to have students consider pragmatic social and business climbing vs. being a good person, for instance.

I guess I'm reacting a bit to the list as it stands with all these hardened topics - sorry if that's the case. It just seems so rather heavy on the spiritual and spiritualesque...

P.S. Do you know about Mars Hill Audio? They're an NPR-like audio journal that reviews books of the sort you've got listed here, from a (mainstream) Christian perspective, and interview the authors, etc. It's very thoughtful. You may enjoy it. You can find them here.

Stephanie said...

No, Kelly, after carefuly consideration I decided to omit Stephenie Meyer from the list. That made me sad because I like her first name, even if her mom did misspell it. :-)

My to-read list is growing exponentially today. Thanks, guys. These are just the kinds of books I want to add. I didn't have much time to prepare for the class and had to compile a list from books I'd already read and a few that had been suggested to me and were already on hand. But I plan to expand the list as I have time to read more. It's really difficult to grade a book review on a book you haven't read. (Although students often try to write papers on things they haven't read. But I digress.)

I hadn't thought about All Quiet, but it's a great book and I'm adding it now.

It's not the best novel ever, but The Good German addresses those murky moral issues of war and the way we like to draw clear, straight lines between the "good" guys and the "bad" ones. I was thinking, too, of adding Tim O'Brian's The Things They Carried, but the language might be too much for HU. What do you think?

Stephanie said...

Oh, and I added The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. I read it in a German Lit class when I was an undergrad. JGR, have you ever read it?

Anonymous said...

Do you have my brother in that class?

Stephanie said...

No. Dr. Hammes has the other Honors 201 sections. If your brother's taking it, he must be in his class.

Anonymous said...

How unfortunate for him...

Stephanie said...

There are two ways to take that . . .

Anonymous said...

Well, I had Dr. Hammes when I was a freshman. So I know what he is like. And I read your blog all the time, so I know what you are like.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Other challenging books:

"The Discovery of Heaven" by Harry Mulisch. This is a postmodern, magical realist novel about a boy who seems to have a divine mission to find the lost tablets with the Ten Commandments and restore the brokenness between heaven and earth, when, it turns out, the divine really wants him to return the tablets to heaven to complete the final rupture between haven and earth (it's sort of Eco-esque, by one of Europe's finest writers... and it was published well before the Da Vinci code ruined this genre).

Also good, "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn, which has a talking gorilla share his observations about humanity.

"The Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie? It's about the legend that some of the suras in the Qu'ran were inspired by demonic djinns. This might work to get students thinking about the way scripture functions without being defensive about it, since in this case they'd be thinking about another culture's scripture, not their own. Also, it's a good book.

Arthur Phillips' "The Egyptologist" struggles with the desire for recognition and being remembered as a root for the idea for eternal life. (It's also an archaeological thriller/mystery set, among other places, in late 19th century Egypt, Oxford, Boston, and WWI Flanders.)

"An Instance of the Fingerpost" by Iain Pears is a mystery novel full of intrigue set in 17th century Oxford that is AMAZING, but I list it here primarily because it tells the same story four times through four unreliable narrators, which does make the reader think about truth, what it is supposed to be, and whether it matters. (And whether we ever find out the real story.)

"Lying Awake" by Mark Salzman is about a nun who begins having intense mystical visions, causing her to write voluminously and inspiring many. When she falls ill, doctors decide her visions are caused by epileptical seizures, and the nun has to decide whether she wants to be cured or not, given what she would lose, and also wrestles with how she should think of her visions once it's clear that they may or may not be caused by epilepsy.

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" by Patrick Süskind is a literary thriller set in 18th century France, where the protagonist is a man gifted with such an intense sense of smell that his life is entirely re-/disordered by it. Apart from being a weirdly wonderful read, it makes readers think about how our senses dictate what we do, and how life would be if we were less focused on sight and instead driven by a sense for which there aren't any social conventions, laws, or moral frameworks. (Robert Schneider's "Brother of Sleep" does something similar with the sense of hearing and sensibility for music.)

And Kafka's "Trial" is always good for a universal take on how society makes us feel as it runs our life, including how it induces a sense of guilt in us even if we don't know what we did wrong.

Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" is about an interrogation, along the same lines as Kafka's except during Stalin's purges, where the accused is innocent, but because of how the interrogators handles him, simply in conversation, he ends up confessing to a long list of things he didn't do, just so he can get off on one point that is important to him personally but that won't save him from execution. Brilliant study in human rationalizations.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

About the other three...

I think "A Woman in Berlin" does exactly what "The Good German" was supposed to do, except more unflinchingly and without the moralizing. This is my German sensibilities talking, probably, but I am reluctant about books that ask explicitly about responsibility (I think that question is settled) or whether some people were good and some were bad, some were more guilty than others, etc., because in a sense that is just a reiteration of the older question of black vs. white. "A Woman" is more straightforwardly an autobiographical account, not apologetic, not asking for sympathy, simply reporting about what happens if you're a woman in a war zone when all the men are gone and the incoming soldiers think of you as at their mercy. There's been a lot of talk about similar topics regarding the civil wars in Congo and Sudan, but I find stories like this tend to make us think more and patronize those poor savages less when the victims are most like us and yet surprising -- and that certainly is true about German women in Berlin at the end of WWII, who are white, urbane, highly educated, witty, consume-happy, etc., and yet are supposed to be part of the dark side.

"The Things They Carried," I thought, is at its best in the one chapter that gets anthologized as a short story of the same title. But I wouldn't shy away from it for language -- after all, that should be one thing students can think critically about, and O'Brien doesn't use it unrealistically. (You could always go with Catch-22 instead, of course, or Slaughterhouse Five.) Anyone who's ever been around soldiers knows they are extremely vile in their discourse, and that, too, is worth thinking about -- that real soldiers don't fit the recruiting ads we see on TV and like to think our boys are like. If you want something more updated, an embedded journalist called Evan Wright wrote a book on the Iraq invasion called "Generation Kill" (also a great HBO series now by the same people who did "The Wire"), which is all about real soldiers on the ground, generally sympathetic, but quite unflinching.

I've never read "The Wall," though I should, I'm told. A major failing on my part. On the other hand, from what I hear about how it subverts gender stereotypes and yet is deeply introspective, that would be a perfect novel for Harding students to read.

Travis said...

I never thought of characterizing soldiers as being "extremely vile in their discourse" and not fitting the stereotypical recruting poster model. That's squeezing about 1% of the population into a rather vile category.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Travis, I spend a lot of time around soldiers, so that was meant as descriptive of their cursing habits, not a judgment of their character. Even the chaplains curse up a storm. Of course, I'm sure there good boys who are stellar exceptions, but they don't speak up much.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

And now I've checked your profile and saw you're also military. So I think you know what I'm talking about. No disrespect intended. Just that there's a different set of behaviors, in particular to their diction, between soldiers among soldiers as opposed to soldiers among civilians, especially their mothers and their kid brothers and sisters who are college freshmen.

Heather Mac said...

I would suggest The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. I've never read it, but it was recommended to me by a close friend, and it's been on my List for ages. I know we're not supposed to do these things, but here's the link to wikipedia:

Also, I know David's comment was complimentary, if there was still any doubt. :)

Charrichis said...

Just stumbled upon your blog while searching for information about Tyler Parten, a good friend of mine. Wonderful post about him, by the way!

Have you considered throwing some comedy or satire into the mix? Maybe David Sedaris or George Carlin?

I'm hoping to head to grad school in the fall in the hopes of becoming a writing professor, so I will be following your blog from now on :)

Stephanie said...

Thanks--for the compliment & the suggestions. Good luck in grad school, and I hope you'll comment again.