Fifteen of The Good Oil’s writers and readers offer their book, film and podcast recommendations for the summer season – recommendations they think will engage your mind and nourish your spirit.
BY The Good Oil
Each was asked to choose either a book, film or podcast that they would recommend to others. It could be a recent release or a classic; the main criterion was that it engaged the mind or nourished the spirit. We hope you enjoy their selections!
Jirga – recommended by Mary Clarke
Jirga, a deeply haunting and beautiful film, is set in the troubled countryside of Afghanistan, a country ravaged by the Taliban, Russia and others for hundreds of years. Benjamin Gilmour, director, features an unnamed Australian soldier who takes a pilgrimage to try to offer the relatives of a villager killed in random assaults by the Coalition, money in reparation. In scenes of unbearable tension, the Village Council completely misunderstand his motives in returning and it is the truly compassionate decision of the teenage son, who spares the soldier and forgives him for the death of his innocent father.
Jirga was filmed with limited resources, in dangerous conditions, with a hand-held camera. This gives the film its extraordinary intimacy and emotion, nuanced and subtle, where the love from the human heart overcomes rational thinking and adherence to tradition. The pristine, harsh beauty of Afghanistan is captured brilliantly and the poverty of the villagers is a shake-up to the privileged viewer.
I recommend all lovers of the Benedictine tradition to watch and be presented with the weaving strength of community, an extraordinary display of justice and poignant compassion in the middle of grief and haunting loss. In the lead-up to the joy of new birth, this director is challenging us to shed old prejudices and be filled with a sense of light and acceptance.
Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales – recommended by Catherine Slattery SGS
For Leigh Sales, the anchor of 7:30 on ABC TV, the news is food and drink, and her capacity to interrogate news-makers is well established. Those at the receiving end of her penetrating questions soon learn that their responses are best served straight and true.
Our news stories are often about trauma, disaster and catastrophe. Sales is curious about the impact of such trauma on those who experience it. As a writer, Sales uses her capacity to ask penetrating questions to learn about the courage and hope that emanates from people who have suffered deeply, people who have been ‘blindsided’ by the experience of personal trauma, people who have every reason to feel hopeless and resentful at the hand that life has dealt them.
Using real life stories, this book is an honest attempt to understand the choices of such people who continue to embrace life with joy and hope.
On Being with Krista Tippett – recommended by Judith Scully
Podcasts, one in particular, have introduced audio joy into my life. I’m aware that it’s possible to clean, cook, eat, walk and exercise while listening to a podcast, but my magpie mind appreciates them most when I’m driving.
On Being is a public radio show and podcast created by Krista Tippett, an American with a background in journalism and diplomacy, who also studied theology. For more than 20 years she has broadcast her conversations with people of deep faith and spirituality, the kind of people who often go unnoticed by modern media.
So I plug my phone into that mysterious Bluetooth connection in my car and listen to Krista conversing with Mirabai Bush, David Whyte, John O’Donoghue, Christian Wiman, David Steindl-Rast, Rebecca Solnit, Pico Iyer – and others, all talking about their faith and how it shapes their outlook and their lives. And I feel that I’m among friends.
Cooked – recommended by Moira Byrne Garton
Cooked (on Netflix) is a four-part documentary about food, presented by journalist and food historian, Michael Pollan. Each episode is themed around the classical elements of fire (roasting and smoking), water (boiling), air (baking) and earth (fermenting). The series features beautiful images, a gentle narrative voice, well-researched interviews with experts, and interesting insights.
Each episode inspires me to be more mindful and enjoy the simple pleasures found in selecting and preparing food. I particularly enjoyed the ‘earth’ episode, where a Benedictine nun and microbiologist describe a traditional French cheese-making process.
Cooked is a reminder that real food not only nourishes our bodies, but our relationships, as we gather over shared meals around a table.
Milkman by Anna Burns – recommended by Leonie Keaney
Milkman is the deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction. It is a breathtaking, sweeping, provocative book set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s – although no settings or characters are actually named.
The novel’s voice and main character is “middle sister”, who recounts in minute, and sometimes shocking detail, her experience as a young woman who is pursued by the eponymous Milkman and becomes then the victim of devastating gossip. With a wider lens, the bleak and dark life of Belfast during the Troubles is laid bare. There are no heroes and this is not a partisan book. Governments, paramilitaries, the IRA – all are damaged and do damage.
Burns channels her Irish literary forebears with her fast-paced, intense, word pictures which place the reader inside the mind of the protagonist, exposing the destructive force of rumour and inviting exploration of the terrible consequences of doing nothing.
Heavyweight – recommended by Evan Ellis
The premise of the podcast Heavyweight defies neat descriptions. Each episode is named after a single person with some sort of unfinished business. The affable narrator, Jonathan Goldstein, invites that person to return to a sliding-door moment in their life, where either through their actions, or the actions of another, their life was irrevocably changed. This could be a juror who sentenced a man to death, a Harvard student who let down their mentor, or in the frequently laugh-out-loud episode “Gregor”, a man who never got his CDs back from a friend (the friend is international superstar Moby and the CDs featured prominently on his breakout multi-platinum album).
By inviting people to make amends, seek redress or even just ask why, the podcast develops into a moving and idiosyncratic reflection on forgiveness and redemption.
There Is No Long Distance Now by Naomi Shihab Nye – recommended by Pam Grey SGS
Naomi Shihab Nye is a tantalising writer of very short stories, in fact she has written 40 stories in 200 pages of her book There Is No Long Distance Now.
Naomi writes like a magician. One minute I felt I knew what may come next, only to discover a total reversal – aha moments aplenty in her book! Here is one example from her story “Allied with Green” (p.76):
“For her paper on ‘What I Believe In’, Lucy writes first ‘the colour green’.
That’s how everything starts. A tiny shoot of phrase prickling the mind…”
I wondered what I really believe in life and who fires my imagination. I was totally engaged.
Because Naomi provoked me to guess what may happen next in each story, I willingly entered her world and came away delighted. I discovered anew that the world we share is filled with amazing people and characters.
American Animals – recommended by Alice Priest
Pursuing a life less ordinary. American Animals is a really interesting and well-made 2018 American film which recounts the intriguing true story of four college boys experimenting with the trajectory of their lives. You might vaguely remember the 2004 headlines of their bungled library heist. The film seamlessly flips between actors and the actual felons.
For me, two things most recommend this film. Firstly, the building of empathy with the heisters who are facing final exams, facing their adult futures, but are already aware that regardless of their efforts and talents, they are only destined for perfectly good, but perfectly ordinary lives. It’s understandable that they want more; it’s fascinating watching their sincere attempt to be more. And secondly, the film’s portrayal of ‘what really happened’. This cleverly shifts from one perspective of truth to another, leaving the viewer to consider, as Pontius Pilate put it, “Truth? What is that?”
The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre – recommended by Elizabeth Brennan SGS
The most compelling novel I read this year was the non-fiction thriller, The Spy and The Traitor, by Ben Macintyre. John Le Carré claims it is the best true spy story he has ever read – and Le Carré should know. It tells the astonishing story of a Cold War KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky, who spied for MI6 from 1974 to 1985.
From childhood Gordievsky is schooled in the KGB way of life and thinking. Yet as he matures, he experiences a growing disillusionment with the grey, totalitarian world of the 1960s. When he witnesses the shock event of the Berlin Wall being erected, followed in 1968 by the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the consequent break-up of families and communities, he is propelled towards the West and executes a betrayal that Macintyre calls “whole-souled” and “righteous”.
What captured my mind was Oleg’s search for a bigger truth, his deep desire for freedom, his conviction, courage and resilience. For this extraordinary contribution he takes no money, suffers the loss of his family, is smuggled out of Russia and now lives in hiding in England under the constant threat of death.
The Insult – recommended by Garry Everett
“How could that happen?” exclaimed my 95-year-old movie-going friend. We had just watched a potentially Oscar award-winning movie called The Insult.
The film is set in Lebanon. It opens with a simple scene in which one of the characters accidentally sprays some water on a worker nearby. The worker responds with a spontaneous obscenity – the first insult. From there, the story unfolds with an unexpected escalation of insults, each exacerbating the situation.
Matters finish in court where one party is defended by the best lawyer in Beirut; the other, by that lawyer’s daughter. This family tension, which we discover has many layers, plays an important part in the unfolding drama.
If you are interested in how a small offensive remark can lead to a court room where the issues involve race, politics and religion, then you will enjoy this movie. The leading actors are brilliant in their performances, and the directorial work of Ziad Doueiri will have you applauding his skill. A movie with a difference.
The Memory Game by Nicci French – recommended by Moya Weissenfeld SGS
The Memory Game engaged my mind and expanded my spirit. This novel deals with the disappearance, some 25 years previously, of the 16-year-old best friend of the writer. It was presumed she had run away, but now her bones are discovered in the family space on the eve of an extended family celebration. Over a period of months the writer undergoes therapy, as she feels there is something missing in her memory of her friend’s last days with her.
I found the engagement of family relationships fascinating, together with the intricacies of “retrieved memory”. The uppermost desire of the writer was to unfold the truth, regardless of how painful or humiliating that may be to self and others.
I found this book well worth reading, getting the reader in touch with the battle within oneself to keep pursuing the truth and then naming it. This reminds me of something Joan Chittister OSB wrote: “Benedictine spirituality requires that we be willing to stand up for something and be willing to pay the social price that comes for taking a stance”.
In Pursuit of Silence – recommended by Judith Valente
Silence is a fast-disappearing commodity. Beside ever-present mechanical noise, there is the “white noise” of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media that interrupts our days. The documentary In Pursuit of Silence is balm for noise-weary souls. Two young filmmakers, Patrick Shen and Cassidy Hall, spoke to spiritual masters across the world about why silence remains at the heart of spiritual transformation across faith traditions and cultures. Particularly affecting is the story of a young man who walks across the USA in silence, communicating only by writing on a notepad.
As the writer Pico Iyer notes, observing silence means “stepping toward everything that is essential. It’s about learning to love the world again”. I have shown this film numerous times while leading retreats and am always riveted. Cassidy Hall, one of the filmmakers, also co-hosts a wonderful podcast called Encountering Silence, which I also recommend.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris – recommended by Mary McDonald SGS
In 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, was transported to Auschwitz. Because Lale spoke several languages he was assigned to tattooing incoming prisoners. Not long after arriving, Lale tattooed 34902 on Gita. Much of the story revolves around how they developed and managed to maintain their relationship in the prison and beyond.
As tattootist, Lale witnessed horrific atrocities but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he used his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep other prisoners alive. He once survived cruel punishment when discovered.
This story, full of beauty and hope, is based on the years of interviews New Zealand author Heather Morris conducted with Auschwitz tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov. It is inspiring and unforgettable.
Sounds True: Insights at the Edge by Tami Simon – recommended by Sally Neaves
It’s not every day one finds accessible and enjoyable podcasts devoted to evolving human consciousness. Tami Simon’s Sounds True: Insights at the Edge is one of the few. Her challenging interviews of contemporary, leading and emerging authors, teachers and spiritual luminaries (such as Joanna Macy, Paul Hawken, Mirabai Bush, Margaret Wheatley, Joan Chittister OSB, Jack Kornfield and Charles Eisenstein) stand out for their unscripted sense of being on the emergent ‘edge’.
The distinct weekly gems ultimately arrive at the same truth: the profound interconnectedness and interdependence of all life. Simon’s interviews are surprising; they do not assume that her subjects have anything to offer the listener. She often takes the belligerent position of devil’s advocate, pushing further, leaving the listener to decide.
Simon’s work reflects the purpose of the whole Sounds True enterprise: to create shifts in consciousness that unlock our greatest human capacities to love and serve.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – recommended by Kerry Pattenden
Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire is compelling from start to finish. The story is adapted from Sophocles’ Antigone and, as such, carries the weight of dread and inevitability that is the character of tragedy. Yet, it is an intensely contemporary story of identity.
The work is structured around four main protagonists, all related, each having her or his own voice. We begin with Isma as she goes to study for her PhD. Then we follow her sister, Aneeka, and outsider-insider, Eamonn. Their brother, Parvaiz, is the chorus tying them together and drawing them to their ends.
The prose is deep and clear. Shamsie’s writing is light and free of emotion or authorial commentary. We flow with the characters towards their ends. Her descriptive passages etch a sense of timeless self-awareness.
At the final sentence of the book we sit quiet, still, and without realisation, for a moment, of the journey we have travelled.