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Christmas books: ‘Festive’ favourites from 2022

25 November 2022

In our 2022 Books for Christmas, speakers in next year’s Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature are making their choice from the past year.

The festival will return as an in-person event at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral from Friday 24 February to Sunday 26 February. For more details and to book tickets, visit faithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk. The Early Bird tickets offer ends on 30 November


Guli Francis-Dehqani

The Monastic Heart: 50 simple practices for a contemplative and fulfilling life by Joan Chittister (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99 (£14.99); 978-1-39980-085-3)

MANY of us are desperately in need of books that nourish the soul, but we don’t have the time for long tomes. We need encouragement and challenge in bite-sized pieces, but ones that have depth and will help us to grow spiritually. If that’s you, then let me recommend The Monastic Heart by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister and prioress of many years’ experience.

Chittister offers brief reflective chapters on 50 practices at the heart of Benedictine monasticism, and suggests ways of integrating each one into the reality of our contemporary lives. Headings include such things as Remembering, Silence, Beauty, Community, Serenity, Desert, Hospitality, Service, Listening, and many more. I’ve enjoyed reading it slowly and taking my time: no more than one chapter a day. Each one is a little jewel — a gift that continues filtering through the heart and mind long after the words have been read.

Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani is the Bishop of Chelmsford. 
At the festival, she will talk about faith, loss, and identity in “Exploring the Landscape of Faith from Wilderness to Paradise”.


Mark Oakley

Poetry Unbound: 50 poems to open your world by Pádraig Ó Tuama (Canongate, £18.99 (£15.99); 978-1-83885-632-8)

LES MURRAY used to think of religions as big, slow poems, and of poems as short, fast religions. It is true that lyric poems can hold within them epiphanies that reimagine the landscape — including your inner one — offering a freeze-frame moment of attention. Here, following his podcast Poetry Unbound, the wonderful Pádraig Ó Tuama reflects on 50 such poems with his usual ability to make us as his readers feel that we are on significant, even holy, ground as he does so. As he unravels our clichés, we feel the freshness.

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
At the festival, he will explore the theme “‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’: John Donne’s lessons for today’s Church”.


Rowan Williams

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Séan O’Hagan (Canongate, £20 (£18); 978-1-83885-766-0)

FAITH, Hope and Carnage, by Nick Cave and Séan O’Hagan, is a series of conversations between a photographer-journalist and one of the iconic figures of contemporary music. I must confess to having known Cave’s work mostly through my son’s enthusiasm for both words and music, but the book was a bit of an epiphany. Cave’s candour about the terrible, rending grief of losing his son is at the heart of these exchanges. He speaks about what this grief does to, and in, his music, and about the obstinate and trustful awareness of God in this process. A quite extraordinary testament, intensely moving.

Read a review here.

The Rt Revd Lord Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury. At the festival, he will give the Sir Tony Baldry Lecture, “Ethics and Solidarity: A basis for Christian politics”. His latest book, A Century of Poetry, is reviewed here.


Jay Hulme

Mordew by Alex Pheby (Galley Beggar Press, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-1-913111-12-0)

IT IS quite bold to tell the Church Times that one of the best books that I read this year is one with “GOD IS DEAD” emblazoned across the back in capital letters, but it’s the truth. I love fantasy and sci-fi — I’ve found that, although non-fiction provides fascinating answers, it is these novels that hold the most fascinating questions — and Mordew has more than most. Although the plot was excellent — and I look forward to the sequel — what sticks with me is the image of the corpse of God lying below the streets of Mordew, unconsciously spawning undirected life — and what an image that is.

Jay Hulme is an award-winning transgender poet, performer, speaker, and educator. 
Festival session: Jay Hulme will be in conversation with Canon Rachel Mann on the place of desire in her work as a poet, novelist, and theologian in “Mapping a Landscape of (Un)Holy Desires”.


Colin Heber-Percy

Future Days: Krautrock and the building of modern Germany by David Stubbs (Faber & Faber, £12.99 (£11.69); 978-0-571-34663-9)

BACK in January, I went down with Covid. Laid up in bed for three days, what could have been a miserable bout became a blessing, thanks to David Stubbs’s Future Days: Krautrock and the building of modern Germany. I love kosmische Musik, or krautrock, the music that came out of Germany in the ’70s: bands such as Can, Neu!, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk, and Faust. Stubbs traces the roots of the music in Germany’s peculiarly painful post-war context and in a refusal to accept rock ’n’ roll’s naïve hedonism. Determined and driven, it is the sound of recovery. Better than paracetamol.

The Revd Colin Heber-Percy is an Anglican priest, writer, and screenwriter. 
At the festival, he will talk on why we need to throw away the map and set off anyway in “Lost in Wonder, Love and Praise!”


Stephen Cottrell

English Grounds: A pastoral journal by Andrew Rumsey (SCM Press, £19.99 (£15.99); 978-0-334-06114-4)

English Grounds: A pastoral journal is my book of the year. Andrew Rumsey, the Bishop of Ramsbury, writes beautifully. “The way God loved the world was by first loving it personally and locally,” Rumsey writes; and this is the theme of the book. A collection of essays about many different places, showing how the things that endure are those with the deepest roots. The particular leading to the universal. A book of vignettes. A whole symphony. I loved it.

The Most Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York. 
At the festival, he will explore the themes from his new Lent book, Godforsaken, in “In the Landscape of Death”.


Jo Browning Wroe

The Colony by Audrey Magee (Faber & Faber, £14.99 (£13.49); 978-0-571-36759-7)

I HAVE had an exceptionally rich year of reading; so to choose one book is very difficult, but I’m going to say The Colony, by Audrey Magee. Set in the 1970s, with violence erupting on mainland Ireland, it tells of a dwindling rural community on a small island off the west coast. They are visited by an English artist, seeking inspiration from their landscape, and a French academic studying their language. The book takes an unflinching look at community, colonialism, and ambition, besides being a masterclass in place and character.

Jo Browning Wroe is a creative-writing teacher. At the festival, she will introduce her novel 
A Terrible Kindness (Book Club, 1 September).


Mark Clavier

War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian war diary, 1943-1944 by Iris Origo (Pushkin Press, £12.99 (£11.69); 978-1-78227-265-6)

FEW books have conjured up a greater sense of place for me than Iris Origo’s captivating account of living in a Tuscan villa during the Second World War. Her love for the land, and the people living and working on it, is palpable, as is the destructive advance of modernity. Yet, amid the wrenching experience of the local entirely at the mercy of global forces, she never loses sight of people’s essential humanity, from local communist partisans to foreign escaped POWs and Nazi soldiers.

The Revd Dr Mark Clavier is Canon Theologian in Swansea & Brecon diocese, and Vicar of St Mary’s, Brecon. 
At the festival, he will explore some of the paradoxes at the heart of Christian faith in “A Pilgrimage of Paradoxes”.


Rachel Mann

The Ruin of All Witches: Life and death in the New World by Malcolm Gaskill (Penguin, £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-14-199148-1)

THIS is that rarest sort of history book: scholarly, yet written with the verve of a thriller. Gaskill’s narrative, which examines a single incident of alleged witchcraft in New England in 1651, reflects more subtly on heresy, hope, and the origins of culture wars than most theologians. At the book’s heart, however, are the God-fearing, envy-ridden villagers of an isolated Massachusetts settlement, Springfield. They are, by turns, mean and gracious, greedy and pious. They see monsters in the shadows. Gaskell’s feat is to make them always human and three-dimensional. Like a classic folk tale, this story lingers. An exceptional read.

Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University. 
At the festival, she will talk about the place of desire in her work as a poet, novelist, and theologian in “Mapping a Landscape of (Un)Holy Desires”.


Sam Wells

Goodnight, Vienna by Marius Gabriel (Lake Union Publishing, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-5420-3523-1) 

MARIUS GABRIEL’s Goodnight, Vienna was recommended to me by the subject of a broadcast I did on Radio 4: Dr Adam Towler. It’s a gripping novel about an autistic girl in post-Anschluss Austria. I gobbled it up so fast that I soon raced through Gabriel’s equally enjoyable novels The Ocean Liner and The Designer.

One distinctive feature is the way in which historical figures pop up in in minor plausible roles. In Goodnight Vienna, the elderly Sigmund Freud and the sinister Dr Asperger each advance the plot. Gabriel entices you to suspend your proper duties and attend to his narrative. It’s a precious gift.

Canon Sam Wells is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. At the festival, he will be talking about the different ways of thinking about justice in “Act Justly”, also the title of his new book, reviewed here.


Peter Stanford

You’ll Never Walk Alone: Poems for life’s ups and downs by Rachel Kelly (Yellow Kite, £16.99 (£15.29); 978-1-5293-9534-1)

THESE are turbulent and troubling times. In seeking solace and support, poetry is a wonderful balm, as words unlock our feelings. In You’ll Never Walk Alone, the mental-health advocate Rachel Kelly draws on her own lived experience to offer a selection of verses down the ages for each season and for most eventualities.

Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster. At the festival, he will join Emma Wells to discuss how our cathedrals define our past and shape our present in “Carved in Stone: Stories from our sacred buildings”.

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