Books are a great Christmas gift—for others and for ourselves! They are treasures we grow up with and mines of wisdom for us to grow old with. As the year winds down and the summer break beckons, it’s a great time to start catching up on books we’ve missed, especially the longer ones we don’t have much time for.

In the following list of books, there is enough magic and wonder, lore and laughter for a variety of ages, from children through to adults. They’re highly informative and fascinating across a range of topics related to life, adventure, Christianity and Catholicism in particular. These books are chosen for the curious of mind and the heart that loves being taken deeper and farther.

Blessed: Meditations on a Life of Small Wonders by Ann Rennie (2021)

Blessed: Meditations on a Life of Small Wonders, by Ann Rennie (2021)

Ann Rennie is a teacher at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne and a graduate of ACU with two Masters under her belt, in Educational Leadership and Religious Education. She has a national column, Unguarded Moments, in Australian Catholics magazine, and has published widely on issues of education and faith. Her latest book, she said, was an attempt to ‘anthologise’ her work, to bring it together so that it told her story in education and faith and life. In conversation with Melbourne Catholic about the book, she said, ‘while I share stories in the book about being at school and the Catholic faith, I also discuss Elvis, my first kiss, pilgrimages and Paris. I wanted to look at the small, the shy, and the incremental things in life; the small wonders that can get overlooked in our busy lives.’

Blessed is a series of reflections, meditations and musings that is also something of a memoir. Whilst there is educational commentary, there is also poetry, travel vignettes, and prayerful reflections that will provoke you to a deeper consideration of the small joys and wonders of life.

Christians by Greg Sheridan (2021)

Christians: The Urgent Case for Jesus in Our World, by Greg Sheridan (2021)

Greg Sheridan is foreign editor of The Australian and one of Australia’s most highly respected journalists. He graciously gave Melbourne Catholic the time for an interview about his latest book, which serves as a sequel to his previous “coming out” in the public square as a Catholic, God is Good for You (2018).

This new book has two halves. The first is a survey of the field of biblical academic literature, and an attempt to determine whether or not the Gospels and the New Testament can, broadly speaking, be trusted as a source of understanding Jesus. The historical literature has developed in strides over the past few hundred years, and his discovery is that overwhelmingly yes, they can be trusted as witnesses to real, historical events. The second half is more about Christianity in the modern world. In a world sceptical of Christianity, he brings our attention to stories of new life, where faith is blossoming in unexpected places – from media and the arts, to Africa, China, England, America, and Australia. He also includes interviews with several prominent Australian figures, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, and Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli of Melbourne. Despite the subject matter, this book is a breeze. Sheridan writes with energy and wit, ensuring it to be one of the least taxing books you’ll read on the subject.

The Catholic Church and Conversion, by G.K. Chesterton (1926)

G.K. Chesterton is one of those literary figures who is quoted constantly, and he certainly had a way with words. The reason this particular book has made the list is because he wrote it not long after his conversion and there is still something of the wonder of discovery in his writing.

If we’re being honest, the reality of constant digital connectivity and 24/7 news coverage can serve to breed cynicism and contempt for even those things we love, like the Church. We can let the failings of the Church, in its human dimension, obscure the wonderful and divine reality that the Church also is. It’s refreshing to read this old book by Chesterton in today’s context; there’s so much in there that can rekindle our faith and love for the Church against its contemporary critics. He introduces us to a Church that is ‘bigger on the inside than the outside,’ and one that ‘is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.’ So many of the things we take for granted as Catholics, Chesterton brings out in their oddity and humour with an almost childish delight.

How do you live
‘How do you live?’ by Genzaburō Yoshino (2021 edition)

How do you live? by Genzaburō Yoshino (1982)

For those familiar with Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki (the creator responsible for such films as Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and others), this novel is one that Mr Miyazaki is coming out of retirement to adapt to film. Apparently this was his favourite childhood book. Originally published in 1982 by the writer Genzaburō Yoshino, How do you live? is a story with two voices. The first is Copper (named after the scientist Copernicus), a young boy growing up in Japan who tries to answer the most basic human question: how do you live? After the death of his father, Copper goes to live with his uncle, and it is his uncle’s letters to Copper that sporadically make up the second narrative voice as he offers his nephew advice and wisdom on the challenges of growing up. In a world that is infinitely large, with so many people living alongside him, Copper looks to the stars and to the heavens and the earth in order to discover what it means to truly be human.

In the latest edition, published with a fresh translation in 2021, Neil Gaiman has written a forward in which he says this:

This is such a strange book, and such a wise book … In How do you live?, Copper, our hero, and his uncle are our guides in science, in ethics, in thinking. And on the way they wake us, through a school story set in Japan in 1937, to the heart of the questions we need to ask ourselves about the way we live our lives. We will experience betrayal and learn about how to make tofu. We will examine fear, and how we cannot always live up to who we think we are, and we learn about shame, and how to deal with it. We will learn about gravity and about cities, and most of all, we will learn to think about things – to, as the writer Theodore Sturgeon put it, ask the next question.”

Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, by John O’Donohue (1998)

Finally, if you’re looking for a more reflective read, Anam Cara comes highly recommended by Melbourne Catholic’s Fiona Basile. The term Anam Cara is Gaelic for “soul friend”, and the book itself is a beautiful combination of poetry and spirituality. Covering a range of topics – such as the mystery of friendship, the spirituality of the senses, the nature of work and solitude and the soul – this book is an invitation to rediscover the reality of our deep and everlasting relationship with God and others, the beauty and mystery of life as it is, and the reality of life’s abundance, gifts and blessings.

Fiona writes:

With each turn of the page, my heart was moved, and I felt expanded. My spirit felt a sense of recognition and deep knowing. On page 21 he writes, ‘A world lives within you. No-one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through our voices, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul.’ I am encouraged to bring voice to the unique gifts I bring to the world, along with celebrating those offered by others. Indeed, the every essence of this book is gift.
Architecture of devotion cover
The Architecture of Devotion: James Goold and his legacies in Colonial Melbourne (2021)

The Architecture of Devotion: James Goold and His Legacies in Colonial Melbourne, edited by Jaynie Anderson, Shane Carmody and Max Vodola (2021)

Published by The Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Press (MUP), this is the second volume in a series exploring the life and legacy of Melbourne’s first bishop (later archbishop) James Alipus Goold. This volume brings together a series of essays that were originally presented at a symposium in February 2020, and offers readers a glimpse into Goold’s vision for the newly created diocese and his eventual establishment of an extraordinary network of schools, churches, and welfare institutions across the state, many of which remain to this day. Even though Goold arrived in a provincial town in 1848, the editors note that when he died in 1886 he did so in a ‘major international city.’ Melbourne was what it was in no small part because of Goold’s daring vision and tireless work. For the history buffs among you, this will be a gem to add to the collection; or simply if you would like to appreciate Melbourne and its Catholic history in a whole new way. The book was recently launched at Newman College and praised as ‘a book where relationships and networks matter. It takes us close to the currents of spirituality that were flowing through the institutional edifices, and to the fine grain of interactions and personalities that played out in decisions.’

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman (2013)

This best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman is one that will satisfy readers who have a love for fairy tales and memoirs. It is the story of a man who returns to his hometown, forty years after leaving it, and begins to remember the chilling events that took place there. Through a series of happenings, and with both of his parents working, a strange woman called Ursula Monkton is hired to look after the protagonist and his sister. This woman turns out to be a sinister creature, a supernatural being that has found her way into this world, and who threatens the protagonist and his family. Fortunately, the protagonist makes some magical friends of his own, in the form of the Hempstock family who own a nearby farm, and the story follows their struggles against Ursula who tries to destroy their world.

This book has some mature themes and is intended for adults, actually, but the fact that the story recounts the life of a child and the challenges he faces growing up means there is a strange tonal hybrid here, a mixture of what feels like adult and children’s literature. This is appropriate, probably, for teenagers and above.

Mary G Lowrey Book Cover
Autobiography of Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ: ‘God’s Good for Nothing’ (2021)

Autobiography of Dr Sr Mary Glowrey JMJ: ‘God’s Good for Nothing’, by Mary Glowrey, edited and with commentary by Fiona Power (2021)

If you’re familiar with Melbourne’s Mary Glowrey Museum then you might know a little bit about who Dr Sr Mary Glowrey is. Whether you do or not, this new book – published a century after Glowrey’s temporary vows with the Society of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – will provide fresh insight into her life. Before moving to Guntur, India, Dr Sr Mary Glowrey (1887-1957) worked in medicine and was a significant figure in the life of the local Church in Melbourne. In the last year of her life, Mary’s Superior requested that she write an account of her life, which she did, writing twelve chapters covering her upbringing in Victoria, her vocational calling, and the beginning of her work in India. God’s Good for Nothing was Mary’s own title for the work, and due to her death, it was never completed nor published – until now. Archbishop Peter A Comensoli has written the forward to this edition, and there are copious commentaries and added research to guide you through the book and provide sufficient context as you learn about this incredible Australian woman – now on the path to sainthood – who made such a difference to the poor and the sick around her.

The Books of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

Ursula K. Le Guin is a classic in the genre of fantasy and magic. Her Earthsea series was originally composed of four books: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), The Farthest Shore (1972), and later Tehanu (1990). The world of Earthsea is mainly a vast archipelago consisting of hundreds of islands surrounded by an enormous, unexplored ocean. The books largely follow the story of Ged, otherwise known as Sparrowhawk (because giving your true name is a dangerous thing in Earthsea, a world of magic where people can use your name to control you). It is a coming of age story, in part, as a young boy becomes the most powerful wizard in all of Earthsea. As he grows into that, he must wrestle with the realities of power and responsibility, and also with the reality of death as it confronts him.

The books of Earthsea have been called some of the wisest, most thrilling and beautiful children’s literature out there. Although it is written for youth and young adults, it is fitting for all ages. I wish I had read it as a child instead of later in life, but even for an adult these books have the magic and whimsy and wonder about the deeper things of life to make you feel young again. In some sense, in a world that corrupts the imagination with cynicism and politics and constant digital connectivity, an escape into the world of Earthsea is just what the heart and mind needs.