December 2011

Good summer reads for the mind and spirit

In this our last edition for 2011, The Good Oil invited ten people – some of our readers and some who have written for us this year – to nominate a book they particularly enjoyed and would recommend to others over the summer period.

BY The Good Oil’s readers and writers

Each was asked to choose a book of fiction or non-fiction, religious or mainstream, a recent release or a classic. However, the main criterion was that it stimulated the mind or nourished the spirit.

To nominate just one book was a challenge for some, while others seemed to find the task a bit easier! Perhaps you would like to add your recommendation to our small list of good reads for summer in the comments section below.

Various (recommended by Graham West)

One book for summer, just one! Something to fill in the nights when it’s too hot to sleep, or to hold in your lap while dozing on the verandah. Stimulating and nourishing, a counterweight to the inevitable blending of days. But to name one book, just one book?

By my bed sit Homer and Dostoevsky, but they sit unread from last summer! Guiltily, I look at the books I read during my holidays – C.S. Forester (Hornblower), Patrick O’Brian (of Master and Commander fame), Matthew Reilly – but I can’t put any of them down surely.

There’s always Le Carre, provoking, but too bitter sweet and melancholy for the season of goodwill. And Adiga’s books aren’t quite in the spirit either. Eucalyptus by Murray Bail? No, it won a prize and I’ll look pretentious. Ruth Park’s Harp in the South? No, I want uplifting. H.G Wells? Now his books really pack a punch, but I want to reflect on the better part of our nature.

I wonder if Tom Gleisner plans to bring out a new Warwick Todd diary?

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks (recommended by Joan Sexton SGS)

The blurb on the book’s cover says that Geraldine Brooks brings to vivid life a shard of little known history – the education at Harvard College of the first Indian American. The story she writes about Bethia and Caleb explores the intricacies of the human heart. The story, set in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries portrays the heartbreaking time of transition for the Native Americans living near Boston on what is now Martha’s Vineyard.

The writing begins at the close of childhood for both Bethia and Caleb – a time when they were exploring the beauty and wonder of nature around them. So many references to nature and the environment as well as the spiritual background to the life of both these characters, one a Calvinist and the other caught in the spiritual religion and sorcery of his culture, give us the social background to the tension that exists between the settlers and the natives.

Bethia and Caleb constantly move between the two religious worlds in their wonderment. In many ways, the book reveals a quest for knowledge, not only of wisdom and intellect but especially of the heart. Interspersed throughout is the conflict of love and faith, magic and reality which adds considerably to the sense of awe, mystery, adventure and achievement.

I loved the book. It is written so well – a story of love, compassion and tragedy – Caleb’s crossing but Bethia’s story.

Worse Things Happen At Sea by William McInnes and Sarah Watt (recommended by Georgia Cranko)

The memoir, Worse Things Happen At Sea is about family, love and the poignancy and beautiful messiness that come with raising children (and pets). William McInnes and Sarah Watt tell of their life together with little vignettes of humour, sadness and, above all, humanity – in both text and photographs.

The narrative describes ordinary and disorganised family holidays with their two children, as well as the devastating loss of their first child at birth and Sarah’s diagnosis with breast cancer. However, it is about being a friend, lover, parent, child and about the juggling of all of these roles.

This book is testament to the beauty of life – the devastating, and yet wonderful beauty of the impermanent, intangible and fraught moments of everyday life. It is a wonderful book.

Ransom by David Malouf (recommended by Margaret Malone SGS)

Here is a book that both stimulated me and also nourished my spirit. In David Malouf’s wonderfully poetic prose we are given an account of King Priam of Troy going to beg Achilles to give him back the body of his son Hector.

Malouf has taken a small episode of Homer’s Iliad and woven a story of a father’s love and a profound gesture of reconciliation around this. Achilles had killed Hector in revenge for the murder of his friend and then treated his body with utter degradation. The old man King Priam, in spite of the efforts of all to dissuade him, goes to Achilles having stated that “one of the chief concerns of a good king is the image he presents, and most of all when he grows older, the image that other men will keep of him when he is gone”.

We will indeed remember the image of Priam as he breaks through anger and the desire for revenge with his humble approach as a father to a father and is finally able to give the body of his son due honour. Afterwards I was stimulated to read The Iliad and I was moved and nourished by such a powerful story of love.

The Source by James A. Michener (recommended by Frank Pitt)

The Source was my introduction to historical fiction and it captivated me from the opening pages. Tracing the history of the Jewish people, this novel has as its centre an archaeological dig called Tell Makor. It is from here that Michener transports us back to the very beginnings of the Jewish faith and leads us on a journey through the history of the Jewish people from their earliest beginnings to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.

The novel alternates between present day and ancient times, exploring the early life of the Hebrews and their persecutions, the impact of Christianity and the Crusades through to the modern day conflicts in the Middle East.

While this is a long book – over 1000 pages – it is a book that will absorb you and help you to further enjoy the long summer days ahead.

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe (recommended by Pam Grey SGS)

This book is the quest for the voice of Akenfield of 1967. Blythe tape-recorded the stories of the old village people, whom he calls “the mysterious and intuitive”, and the new folk, who are “the literate and informed”.

Meet Sammy, the bell-ringer: “The old people have gone and taken a lot of the truth with them. When old Billy died, his wife walked down the garden and told the bees”; Francis, the forge worker: “I look at everything. I don’t open a church door without looking at the hinges”; Davie, “the Touched”; “never mind the song – it was the singing that counted”.

Blythe looks with soft eyes on the humankind of Akenfield, and with wit and wisdom sees to the heart of things. I chuckled, sighed and wondered at these voices, who perhaps, were echoes returning.

What Name Shall I Tell Them? Reflections on the Biblical Names and Images of God by Verna A. Holyhead (recommended by Glenda Bourke SGS)

Verna had a threefold aim for this book: that readers would enjoy their journey through many books of the Bible; that the names of God treated would provide an enriching resource for lectio divina; and thirdly that readers would gain a richer vocabulary for addressing God.

There are two sections: “Names and Images Related to People” and “Names and Images Related to the Natural World”. The research is profound, yet it is simply expressed; and there are many biblical references for each of the 40 names explored. An added advantage is that enriching suggestions for journalling are given after each name.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; but a slightly disappointing feature for me is that its basic format does not quite do justice to the richness of Verna’s biblical research.

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr (recommended by Garry Everett)

“We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

I was meant to read this book, because Rohr used three hooks to get me into the text. The first was the quotation above which he used, and is from one of my favourite poets, T.S. Eliot. The second hook was that the theme of the book mirrors that of one of my much loved classical Greek stories, Homer’s The Iliad, and its chief character Odysseus. Thirdly, Rohr hooked me in with mention of a spirituality for the second half life, a stage in which I am reasonably well advanced!

In one sense this is a typical Rohr book: grounded in traditions; filled with spiritual wisdom; exuding the essence of experience; and honest as the day is long. He sketches accurately the struggles of the first half of life to establish our individual and community identity. He then reveals that the identity we establish is not always the true self, which can only be discovered in the second half of life – but at what cost!

Be brave! Join the journey. Let Rohr be your mentor – but be prepared for the unexpected! He won’t let you miss the meaning.

Wonders of a Godless World by Andrew McGahan (recommended by Catherine Slattery SGS)

A book that stimulated my mind! In his latest novel, Wonders of a Godless World, Andrew McGahan has written a powerful tale of inner demons, desire and devastation. For those familiar with McGahan’s other work, this book is very different. It is more like an apocalyptic fable that draws the reader in – at least that was true for me, even though I am not normally a fan of this literary style.

Like a gothic fairy-tale, the story is told through the orphan, a young mute woman who cannot understand the speech of others. When a comatose new patient – the foreigner – arrives at the hospital, the lives of the patients and the island’s inhabitants are thrown into turmoil.

As the story progresses the orphan becomes aware of her deep connection to the energy of the planet and her own capacity to influence events and lives. What happens between the orphan and the foreigner is an interesting exploration of consciousness, reality, disorder and madness.

A New Climate for Theology: The World and Global Warming by Sally McFague (recommended by Mary McDonald SGS)

Recent public debate has focused on global warming, coal seam gas, clean green energy. In seeking underlying theological and spiritual dimensions of these issues, I read American theologian Sally McFague’s work, entitled A New Climate for Theology: The World and Global Warming.

McFague begins with the science and evidence of climate change, and then develops a metaphor used in her earlier works of the world as God’s body. From the perspective of God in all things, the human is understood as being in inter-relationship and inter-dependence and challenged to live within limits. “Mysticism is radical incarnationalism… is delight in things and in God.”

While not always easy reading, McFague gives a hopeful, practical message with some beautiful insights from Julian of Norwich and Gerard Manly Hopkins.

A must read is Rhubarb by young Australian writer, Craig Silvey (Fremantle Press, 2004). The Sydney Morning Herald says it all: “A sheer joy….more please…”.

The Good Oil

‘The Good Oil’, the free, monthly e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters, publishes news, feature and opinion articles and reflective content which aims to nourish the spirit, stimulate thinking and encourage reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues from a Good Samaritan perspective.

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