Book Recommendations from a Semi-Retired State

One of the many blessings of my semi-retired state is that I am now reading more books not directly related to preaching and the practice of ministry. I planned to read Elizabeth Johnson’s and Walter Brueggemann’s new books for my summer mental exercise. But the ratio between work and pleasure reading has wonderfully reversed itself. Acknowledging that it is always risky, given the peculiarities of individual taste, to recommend a book, movie, or restaurant for that matter, here are a few that I thoroughly enjoyed and was glad I read.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 43 weeks. Brown tells the remarkable story of of the 1936 University of Washington rowing team which defeated far more well known and historically championship rowing teams to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The author engaged me immediately by introducing and then telling the story from the perspective of one of the team members, Joe Rantz, a raw teenager who has no family to speak of, no resources beyond his own determination and strength, and few prospects. Rowing, a sport that demands almost ultimate self discipline and sacrifice, becomes Rantz’s route to self confidence and redemption. Along the way the reader is introduced to other fascinating characters, among them the legendary rowing coaches of the day and a British boat builder, George Yeoman Pocock who not only builds the best racing boats in the world but also becomes Joe Rantz’s confidante and advisor, almost pastor. He sounds like a skilled chaplain when he tells Joe: “What matters more than how hard a man rows was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to.” The backdrop to the story is Hitler’s Third Reich preparing to host the 1936 Olympic Games and demonstrate to the world the superiority of Arryan culture. The final race between the German and American national teams is about as exciting as anything I’ve read in a long time.

I loved Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead and Home and looked forward to reading the third in the trilogy, Lila.  It is a tender, moving story of grace and love which Robinson grounds subtly but solidly in Christian faith. The Iowa town of Gilead, the church, the pastor – the Rev. John Boughton- are familiar to Robinson’s readers. Lila herself is a fascinating character who shows up in Boughton’s life in the most unlikely way. She was rescued as an infant by an itinerant farm worker and grew up in migrant camps and steps into Boughton’s church one Sunday morning to get out of the rain. He is much older, widowed, but slowly, gracefully they are drawn to each other. Robinson knows about church from the inside and I sense throughout her writing a deep appreciation for Reformed Christian doctrine and theology. Her descriptions of the mystery of the Sacrament of Baptism are profoundly eloquent. Lila asks to be baptized and it happens in a field of wild flowers, with a bucket of water from the river. “His voice broke. ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father. And of the Son. And of the Holy Spirit.’ Resting his hand three times on her hair. That was what made her cry. Just the touch of his hand. He watched her with surprise and tenderness, and she cried some more. He gave her his handkerchief. After a while he said, ‘When I was a boy we used to come out along this road to pick black raspberries. I think I still know where to look for them.'” Anyone who has had the privilege of presiding at the Sacrament of Baptism deeply understands that.

Louis De Bernierres, author of Corelli’s Mandolin, has written another fascinating, informative and highly engaging book, Birds Without Wings. The characters are authentic, charming and the book takes the reader through the experience, from their perspective in a small town, of the final days of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of modern Turkey. It is a topic about which many of us, I fear, know very little. As we witness religious and ethnic violence in the Middle East, Birds Without Wings reminds us of a time when Muslims, Jews and Christians got along very nicely.

The best book by far I have read recently is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Winner of several prestigious literary awards including four O. Henry Prizes, I found Doerr’s wonderfully descriptive writing compelling. He deftly weaves the stories of two youngsters caught up in very human ways in World War Two: Marie-Laure, a French girl, blind, living with her father in Paris, and Werner, a boy who lives in an orphanage in a German mining town. Werner’s technological genius is recognized and exploited by the Nazis. The two stories slowly, inexorably converge. The two children, miles apart, each experience the paradoxical human capacity for selfless goodness but also demonic evil. This book is so good I felt lost for several days after finishing it.


  1. Susan Van Hooser says:

    John, I’ve already read most of these. I agree that the WW11 story of the young blind girl and the radio boy was by far the best. It sticks with me and will continue to do so. The courage of the young blind girl and the people who loved her was so touching. I’d love it if you keep recommending books. We miss you. Love, Susan Van Hooser. PS: I’m a good friend of Joyce Shin’s. God bless her!

  2. Totally agree with you and Susan on All the Light – fabulous! And my parents who live in a rural suburb east of Cleveland get their free-range eggs from their Doerr neighbors – the author’s parents!!

  3. Roger Dale McAbee says:

    I just read Silas House’s “Southernmost” in one sitting. I commend it.

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