… and also in the new monastic community I belonged to until July – it’s time for a ‘what I’ve been reading’ summary post!
This year hasn’t allowed me anything like the time I’d like for fiction, but what I have read I’ve hugely enjoyed. I spent a lot of 2016 & 17 catching up on weighty 19th century novels I’d been planning to read during my degree, and this year I needed a change! As living in semi-Religious life means I don’t have an income, almost all of these books came from Monmouthshire Libraries or the convent library. From Abergavenny Library I borrowed Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and The Good and The Book and the Brotherhood, (I currently have The Bell on my reading pile), and finally, a huge stack of Ursula Le Guin books sourced from libraries across south Wales – Rocannon’s World, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and Four Ways to Forgiveness. The staff of Abergavenny library really went above and beyond searching for Le Guin books, and I’m very grateful for their effort! I bought Becky Chamber’s A Closed and Common Orbit for my sister, and prompty borrowed it for six months; I’m hoping I’ll have an opportunity to ‘borrow’ the third book in her Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few. In the convent I’ve read Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant – historical fiction, which isn’t my normal genre, but which I very much enjoyed, several Agatha Christie stories, Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, and two of Tove Jansson’s Moomin Troll books – a shamefully late discovery, but I’m enjoying catching up. I’ve also just started Susanna Clarke’s famed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which already has me gripped.
One fiction recommendation? Definitely Ursula Le Guin – the Earthsea series would be one of my ‘desert island’ books. She’s the best world-builder I’ve ever encountered; her characters are flawed, believable, and entrancing; she explores huge swathes of socio-economics and anthropology without being dull or preachy; she knows when to slip in a sly joke, when to be solemn, when to let the dialogue speak for herself; and finally, she was a defining light in science fiction in a time when most men thought women didn’t know one end of a car from the other. Read her.
Most of the poetry I’ve read this year has been fragmentary: links on other people’s twitter pages, poetry read once on the back of a paper. One of the difficult parts of being unable to purchase books has been seeing all the exciting new poetry published by friends and people from the UEA writing community, and not being able to support them. My wish lists are going to be full of poetry for some time.
One project I’d like to highlight is the poetry of refugee children shared by poet and writer Kate Clanchy, via her twitter feed (@KateClanchy1). However Clanchy is teaching her workshops, we all need to be taking notes: these are some of the most incredible, moving, delightful poems I have ever read. Clanchy has a book coming out next year called Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, which I would very much like to get my hands on…
We’re very blessed with an excellent poetry collection at the convent, and so far I’ve enjoyed spending time with Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, Michael Symmons Robert’s Corpus, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet. Malcolm Guite’s poems have been a source of enjoyment and meditation this year, and he has an excellent blog where you can find much of his work. I’m halfway through Mark Oakley’s book The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, which is an anthology of poems by other poets with accompanying short, reflective essays by Oakley himself. His selection is diverse, with writers ranching from Hafiz to Liz Berry, and his reflections are honest, varied, and stimulating. He manages to be both intelligent and intelligible, making this a good book both for the casual reader and for academic reference. I only wish it had been published in 2016, when I was writing my dissertation around Christian poetry – although perhaps it would have been too easy to give up and wish I’d written this book instead.
One poetry recommendation? Look up the poetry written by Kate Clanchy’s students. Their voices are incredible, and the more people that hear them, the better.
In the last few weeks I’ve read three autobiographies by three incredible women.
Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness gripped me entirely. One of the founders of the Catholic Worker’s Movement, her faith, politics and attitude to life are radical and refreshing. The nineteen-year-old me who proudly announced that she was a ‘Catholic Marxist’ to her seminar group fell entirely in love with her, and the conviction and determination with which she lived her life. Even if you find yourself at odds with her, this book is worth reading for the sense of sheer terror the reader feels for her through the rather dramatic turns of her life, whilst Day remains stubbornly calm and composed.
Story of a Soul by St Therese of Liseux was an unusual choice for me. I visited her shrine in Liseux as a teenager and doggedly refused to me moved by it. I picked up Story of a Soul out of curiosity, remembering how fondly both of my parents had spoken of it, and not expecting to find it personally appealing. To my dismay, I couldn’t put it down. Reading it over a week’s silent retreat, I raced upstairs after meals and offices to curl back up in the ‘reading nook’ I had made for myself to sit with St Therese. It’s written in quite an unusual voice, and at times I found myself struggling with a sense of primness around her, but the intensity of her love and devotion blazes off the page.
Most recently I read The Choice by ‘Sister Kirsty’, a pen-name used by one of the sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage. Written some decades ago, it tells her story from entrance to the community as a Postulant, up to her Profession. Sr Kirsty has a wonderful sense of humour and speaks honestly and openly about the struggles and joys of becoming a Religious Sister. Although a few decades have passed since it was written, there were many moments reading The Choice when I felt that I could have been talking to another postulant today, laughing at the idiosyncrasies of convent life and wondering if we’ll ever get to grips with it (and Sr Kirsty is very encouraging on this front!). I’d recommend this to anyone considering the Religious Life, or anyone with a family member considering it.
One autobiography I’d recommend? I’m unable to pick a favourite here – whilst I was reading each of these women felt like companions in faith, teaching and guiding me. Dream dinner party companions?
Living in a convent with a huge theological library is like living in a sweet shop, but better, because the Community makes excellent cake to go with the books. So in no particular order, here are the books I’ve read this year:
Rowan Williams, Holy Living; Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island; Henri Nouwen, The Return of The Prodigal Son and The Way of The Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers; Jean Vanier, Community and Growth; Bonnie Thurston, For God Alone; Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed; Mary Wolff-Salin, The Shadow Side of Community and The Growth of the Self; Charles Cummings OCSO, Monastic Practices, and Grace Jantzen, Gender, Power, and Christian Mysticism.
I also read The Garden Expert, but as much as I love reading about different types of apple mould over dinner, I might pass on the chance to re-read it…
Any of them any good? Mostly! Holy Living is wonderful, but I did have to read it twice to understand most of it – time well spent, and I’m looking forward to reading more of William’s books, which are stashed all over the convent. Bonnie Thurston deserves a special mention for the poem at the beginning of For God Alone, which has been going around and around in my head ever since. I read God: A Guide for the Perplexed because a section of it was a set text in my A-Level RE, and I was too lazy then to read the full book. Unfortunately, it only made me feel even more perplexed. Grace Jantzen‘s Gender, Power and Christian Mysticism takes a deconstructionist approach to understandings of ‘christian mysticism’. It’s illuminating, well-structured and argued, and opened a world of new questions and ideas to me, and often sent me running for paper and pen to sketch out my own responses and applications to other texts I’ve encountered. Will I ever write the essay on Christian mysticism and Jane Eyre I planned after reading this book? Probably not, but Jantzen made me want to write and reflect. She is also responsible for the inclusion of an illustration of Waldesian ‘heretics’ kissing a goat’s bottom which made me cackle with laughter during a silent meal.
Okay – one recommendation! If there’s just one of these you search out and read, it has to be Jean Vanier’s Community and Growth. I read this book slowly over a number of months, often in small sections, in odd minutes caught between offices and work and sleep, and it became a very dear companion. His advice on community life, on living with pain and injury, beauty and difference in others, on identifying and living with your own shadow side, and on seeing Christ in community has been a lifeline over the last year and a half. Community and Growth is prayerful, loving, meditative, joyful, and real. When I packed to become an Alongsider I restricted myself to only a few books from the four hundred or so I’ve accumulated in the last decade, and this was one of them. Of all my recommendations from this year, Community and Growth would have to be my number one.
What have you been reading this year? What are you planning to read? What’s been sitting on your ‘to-read’ pile for months and hasn’t been tempting enough to open? And do you have anything you’d like to recommend?
I wish you all happy reading in 2019.