I have read some wonderful, interesting, thought provoking books this year - thanks again to my book loving friends, family and superb local library. Here are some highlights:
Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore (2021)
A serendipitous find at my local library. I fell in love with the cover and the blurb on the back. While it may be classed as "young adult fiction", I think it's for anyone and everyone - and so beautifully explores the complexities of adolescence, grief, identity and place. The 14-year-old narrator, Dylan, is quirky and refreshing. Highly recommend.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff (2018)
An urgent and important read for our times. What can we do about the myriad ethical, social and political dilemmas amplified by the online spaces we occupy and the digital devices we rely on? Who has the power and what are they doing with it? I found myself disturbed by the details of deceptive and behavior-altering actions of our wealthiest companies and platforms online. It is worth reading for her final essay "Sanctuary" alone.
Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles (2021)
This is an exquisite book. Nina's prose moves like water: caressing your feet, trickling over your hands and at times rushing over your entirely. She transports the reader to beautiful, raw inner landscapes as well as the various places, cities and countries she has called home.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (2014)
I loved this. I think my favourite novel in her Gilead series so far. I couldn't put it down. It was sad, beautiful. Evocative. Robinson is a master of prose and telling the stories of ordinary, complex human relationships. Lila is my favorite character of hers yet.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (2020)
It took me a while to get into this one - but once I did, I was completely enthralled in the bizarre and magical world of Piranesi. Humorous, dark and intriguing. I won't say anymore, just go and read it!
How to End a Story, Diaries from 1994-1998 by Helen Garner (2021)
I don't think I will ever tire of Helen Garner. This is her most recent collection of excerpts from her personal diaries through the years her marriage was ending. I loved the details of everyday life - food, music, church, swimming, conversations and observations. I recall some of the more hilarious scenes and chuckle!
To the River by Olivia Laing (2017)
This book follows Olivia Laing's journey on foot along the river Ouse in Sussex - where Virginia Wolfe lived and died and many other notable characters from literature, art and history. I enjoyed how she weaved personal memoir with travel notes, mythology, history and poetry. At times it was fast paced and refreshing and at other times meandered slowly, like the river itself.
The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo (2021)
My mum lent this to me and assured me I would love it. Which I did. A whimsical, tragic and beautiful story set in a fantastical, medieval past intended for children (and everyone) about fate, love and power of words. The child at the centre of the story is wise and curious - then there's her fierce protector goat, a kind-faced monk and a brave boy. I look forward to reading this aloud to my boys.
How about you? What have you read this year and loved?
“The screen is the empty mirror where the simulated shadows of things relentlessly replace each other. In our craven fear of being forgotten, we remain glued to the empty window”
- John O'Donohue
A year ago I decided to quit instagram and facebook. To delete my six year history of posts and catalogue of carefully curated squares of lovely and hard life: things baked, clothes made, babies birthed, eggs cleaned, poems penned, plants tended to. I wrote a blog about the decision to quit here.
Thirteen months has given me room to ponder what it was I needed in that decision.
First and foremost it gave me a sense of agency to let go, and in actually letting go, I noticed how good it felt to make a decision for myself that other people wouldn't necessarily want or accept or even need for themselves. A friend said leaving instagram was like "coming home to herself" and I couldn't agree more.
I also needed the gift of space it afforded me. What happened in the space freed from spending hours every day on instagram and facebook? It was simply absorbed in the day (and night) as little pockets of moments between the chores and doing and going - to simply be: to pause, to take more care or a deeper breath. These pockets, like the best placed, generous pockets of a beloved dress or coat, are warm and homely. They are essential to being comfortable, safe even, in the middle of the mess and clamour and unpredictability of life. I am sure there are ways to carve out digital pockets that are relaxing and constructive, and perhaps writing and reading blog posts and long-format news pieces is mine, but it still pales in comparisons to the real life sun-on-your-face pockets of pause and breath. I wouldn't cut them out now for anything.
It has also given me a renewed appreciation for waiting, that easily neglected, yet necessary part of being human. I love Marnie Kennedy's reflections on waiting as a kind of prayerfulness:
"Instant knowledge, instant gratification, instant success are the messages of the media. However, waiting is of the essence of creatureliness and is the characteristic of genuine prayer, for it helps to purify the heart of impatience and consumer addiction. Waiting is in itself a deep place of revelation and leads to the unmasking of illusion, prejudice and fear"
I realised I could wait before taking a photograph of something beautiful or sharing something with friends or family. I could also wait before purchasing a new knitting pattern or ordering beautiful fabric to recreate something I'd see someone else make. I could wait before writing something that others would read in my newsletter, for ideas to come and go more gradually. I could also wait for feedback which didn't come very often and was perfectly alright to keep creating and contemplating without instantaneous feedback and encouragement. I can wait for relationships to simmer and grow in real time. I can wait - and am still waiting - for my body to heal from illness without any guarantee or when or how. I can wait with less instead of impatiently craving and cramming in more.
I'm sure you've come across these famous lines by Mary Oliver from her poem "Sometimes":
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it."
But what is she saying here? What does the whole poem speak of? Is it a glittery prompt to document our lived experiences for all to see? To labour over photographs and catchy descriptions on our digital devices? Or is it simply to remind herself - and us the readers - to sit with the present moment, however mundane or extraordinary, and drink it in. To savour the sublime ordinariness of grasshoppers and afternoon light, and the gifts of idleness and solitude, the messiness of faith and relationships. What if telling about it was just bearing witness to our own senses? To the stories and feelings of others in real time?
I used to live a life of squares
beautiful confines to capture
bread still steaming
children in play
kind of thing.
You saw what I saw
but you didn't see me
with my phone
body rigid and fingers
tapping the scene
What if paying attention
to my own body is the gift?
That it's enough to feel my senses
hold the present:
I live a life off-grid now
a beautiful freedom to
savour the seasons.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Read for my bookclub. It was so strange reading slowly and dissecting it with others. I realised how much I had forgotten, or overlooked in past readings. I loved this book so much as a young adult and found such beauty and consolation in Jane's story, and yet now reading it, I was frequently troubled, especially in Jane and Rochester's relationship and romance. Charlotte is a master storyteller. So worth reading if you haven't before.
Assembly by Natasha Brown (2021)
Lent by a friend. This was a fast read - maybe over two nights - and seemed to end too soon! I found it really engrossing, interesting, horrifying and thoughtful. Highly recommend.
Right to Sex by Amia Svinivasen (2021)
I have been wanting to read book of essays for some time. I was delighted when it was lent to me! Svinivasen explores issues of sexuality, consent, pornography, incel movements, desire, racial injustice and more - she looks at how feminist and philosophical theory has sought to understand these issues over time, and where such theories are lacking or unsatisfactory for our times. Her essays are intelligent and personable, thoughtful and arresting. Svinivasen skilfully balances her own views and questions with those of other academics and I was left with much to ponder and examine further. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Gift From the Sea By Anne Morrow Lindberg (1955)
A re-read after many years. It was the perfect book to take down to the sea side on our holiday in November. I found Anne's reflections on life and shells, on motherhood and faith, as profound, beautiful and timeless as I did the first time. So worth reading.
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer (1999)
Read for my studies last semester. I found Palmer's life story fascinating and his thoughts around vocation and coming to more contemplative (yet practical) faith really fresh and compelling. He writes: "Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits by Ashley Hayles (2021)
Mum gifted me this book and I took it away on holiday. I savoured it slowly, and appreciated Ashley's honesty and vulnerability. She weaves in personal stories, scripture, reflection and practical suggestions carefully and beautifully. We are not called to lives of hustle and hurry, of stress and bitterness Ashley argues - but to spaciousness and healthy limits, to healing through play and rest, community and connection, to faith that renews and refreshes our whole beings - body, soul and mind, Highly recommend.
The Last Guests by J P Pomare (2021)
I don't usually read this genre (suspense, crime, thriller), but after reading an interview with the New Zealand born author I was intrigued and requested a copy from my local library. I ended up reading it over the two days I was stuck in bed with a stomach bug at the beginning of December. It was the perfect escape - a thrilling, quick read with rather unexpected twists and intriguing characters. It definitely made me think twice about air bnb's and house surveillance~
The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage (1967)
I loved this. It was a quick and thrilling read over a couple of nights. The language is spare and evocative. It makes me want to delve into the world of American gothic westerns! The dialogue seamlessly slips from spoken words to thoughts and stream of consciousness in the main characters. It is as much a portrait of personal relationships and family as much as it is a thrilling Western. I read it after watching the film (which is beautifully composed and acted) - but definitely enjoyed reading the book and getting so much more from the characters and back stories.
Top 9 books of 2021:
1. The Tall Man
2. You Are Not a Gadget
3. Adam Bede
5. Hold Your Fire
6. This Golden Fleece
7. The Year of Magical Thinking
8, Right to Sex
9. The Power of the Dog
Find more details of books read this year in the posts below.
Much Loved by Mark Nixon (2013)
This is a book of photography and storytelling - of much loved soft toys and teddies and the memories they hold for us. I stumbled across this book by accident at the library and brought it home with the intention of reading it with the boys - some of the toys are so quirky, loved and threadbare that they are barely hanging together. It was later when I read it by myself in bed that I was moved to tears by the stories behind the much loved items. Mark Nixon's photography is simple and sublime.
Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859)
I have read some of Eliot's other works (Silas Marner being one of my favourite novels of all time) but never Adam Bede. It was her first novel written. I actually read it in a bookclub with my mum, sister and her partner and we shared our thoughts and feelings on it every few weeks via zoom. Who would have ever thought of a zoom bookclub a few years ago?! I found the story deeply engrossing and moving. Eliot is a master storyteller and she sets the pastoral scene and nuanced characters and conversations so well. So many of the issues she raises can relate to today - this quote stood out: " Falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult... Examine your words well, and you will find that even when you have no motive to be false, it is a very hard thing to say the exact truth, even about your own immediate feelings - much harder than to say something fine about them which is not the exact truth"
Quarterly Essay 72: Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age by Sebastian Smee (2018)
Does a long essay count as serious reading? I think so. I was able to access a digital copy of the magazine through my library. Critic Sebastian Smee writes with wit and insight on the idea of "the inner life" as explored in art and culture and how it has been changed or lost in the wake of digitisation. He writes: “Every day I spend hours and hours on my phone . . . We are all doing it, aren’t we? It has come to feel completely normal. Even when I put my device aside and attach it to a charger, it pulses away in my mind, like the throat of a toad, full of blind, amphibian appetite.”
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (2019)
Reading the Smee's essay promoted my interest in reading this one by Cal Newport. Instead of reading the pages, I borrowed the audiobook from my library and listened to it, slowly, over two weeks while I cleaned the eggs. There is something appropriate, I felt, to digest this one carefully - to listen to it an hour at a time with ample space afterwards to contemplate his ideas. Cal Newport is not dismissive of the benefits of digital technology, but calls for a more holistic (and minimalist) approach to using it: one that places more emphasis on developing a sense of self, of leisure and rest, deep work and building relationship over mere connectedness, and aligning our choices about digital tools with our deeper values at the fore. He writes: "How much of your time and attention must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on social media platforms?"
Wild Light by Robyn Mundy (2016)
An engaging, fast-paced novel set on a remote Tasmanian Island. I enjoyed the descriptions of the wild weather, lighthouse keeping and local flora and fauna best of all.
Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison (2019)
I requested my library to buy a copy of this book and was so delighted when they did. I've been listening to nutritionist and journalist Christy Harrison's podcast "Food Psych" for a few years now and always found her conversations around food, shame, diet culture, intuitive eating and mental health really fascinating and insightful. She draws on so much good research and evidence to explore the perils of our modern obsession with diets, weight loss and wellness. It made me angry and sad, empowered and energised - so much better informed. She also draws on personal stories including her own and her clients, and offers practical suggestions for deconstructing the unjust and unfounded beliefs that proliferate about bodies and food. I cannot recommend this book enough.
Hold Your Fire by Chloe Wilson (2021)
Oh I just loved this one. It was one of those books I saw the cover of at the library and wanted to borrow on impulse alone. I stayed up way too late reading it bed because I just couldn't put it down. It reminded me how much I love short stories, and these ones by Australian writer Chloe Wilson are absurd, funny, dark and beautiful. Go and read!
Read my summer reading here //
Summer tends to be the season with the most reading for me - something perhaps about those long, light-filled days and the prickle of heat that makes me want to put my knitting away and stare at pages with the fan gently humming. Maybe there's a part of me, a learnt pattern in my body, that associates summer with reading - as mum would always gift us books for Christmas. Reading never feels like a chore in summer, a bit like walking at night: the very air of summer ushers permission to be consumed with words and breeze.
There, there by Tommy Orange (2018)
Christmas book from my sister, the first novel by Tommy Orange. It read almost like a play, dramatic and atmospheric. I found it a refreshing read and haunting in some scenes and dialogue that have stayed with me long after finishing. Highly recommend.
The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper (2008)
I wanted to read this as soon as I finished Chloe Hooper's other brilliant book The Arsonist. Hooper writes masterfully, poetically, with such clarity, sensitivity and humanity around issues that are so difficult - like this: the death of a young Aboriginal man in custody on an island I'd vaguely heard of. She paints the landscape and the characters of Palm Island with nuance and freshness that help you feel it all deeply, and not easily forget. The Tall Man is investigative writing on crime, racism, policing, history and mythology in Australia of the highest calibre. I didn't want it to end, and I longed for an ending that never came. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
10 Reasons to quit your social media right now by Jaron Lanier (2018)
I had to read this even though I could think of thirty of my own reasons to quit. Jaron Lanier is a computer engineer, philosopher and musician. His "reasons" for quitting are sensible and intelligent and is definitely worth reading and pondering on.
You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier (2010)
I enjoyed this longer manifesto of Lanier's even more than the one above. He wrote it almost a decade ago and is uncanny in his accurate predictions and concerns for what social media platforms and technologies were becoming - and have become - forces for immense social, cultural, political and economic upheaval. Highly recommend.
The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall (2020)
A speedy and enjoyable read. The plot is quite thrilling and fascinating, and while I didn't feel totally convinced by the main characters and the ending felt a bit clunky - there was something very poignant and timely about the near-future reality in which we are all micro-chipped and answerable to a global governmental system, as well as the over-reliance on digital devices, threats of constant surveillance. Critics mentioned a likeness to Atwood and I felt that too. Definitely worth a go.
The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer (1997)
Have you ever begun a book only to fall in love with it on the first few pages, only to struggle to finish it half way and then fall out with it completely by the ending? I guess my reactions with this one was as capricious and changing as the clouds. Yes, there are some really clever, beautiful sentences, and the descriptions of the Blue Mountains at the turn of the 20th century is quite mesmerising, but something fell flat and unsatisfying half-way through. If you love Ondaatje you will probably enjoy this one...
The Twilight of Democracy by Applebaum (2020)
Oh this was a fascinating read. Insightful and frightening. I asked my local library to purchase a copy of Applebaum's book after I heard her interviewed on the New Yorker politics and more podcast. I'm glad they were able to get it in. Applebaum has been watching and writing about (and living) politics in Central Europe for decades, but has much to say about her place of origin USA too. Highly recommend.
Water my Soul by Luci Shaw (2003)
A re-read. Shaw explores the rich, interior life of faith through the seasons of the garden. Beautiful, wise, timeless. Highly recommend.
Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird (2006)
Read for my course in contemplative faith. I'd never heard of it before. I love the way Laird weaves in personal stories, poetry, literature and wisdom by the great Christian mystics along with more practical tips and exercises for cultivating a prayer-filled awareness of God's loving presence in everyday life. I would definitely recommend this one for anyone starting out on the contemplative journey //
What have you been reading lately?
ABOUT the author
Emily Clare Sims is a farmer and mama to three young boys. Each day she looks for ways to notice beauty, contemplate her faith and savour the seasons...