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Christmas Means Reading by Ailsa Piper

Words || Ailsa Piper

For me, Christmas means reading. Every year of our marriage, my husband and I would give each other a Christmas book. After our ritual breakfast and a bit of time with the wider family, there would come a moment when we would retreat to curl up on comfy chairs or a picnic rug, and begin to drift into other worlds. We’d occasionally ask one other to stop and listen to a sentence or paragraph, but mostly, we would be immersed in our books – together but also questing separately. A sip of wine. A nibble of a mince tart. A bird call. These might punctuate the book hours. But that shared silence and discovery was, for me, the best Christmas gift. Since Peter’s death in 2014, my Christmas book is the Yuletide ritual I cherish most. I choose it with care, and as I read, I remember him with such gratitude. I’m not sure yet what I’ll be reading this year, but here are some that would make any afternoon gold . . .

UPSTREAM by Mary Oliver
Well, actually, anything by Oliver. She is my great guru and prophet, and I could not bear a world without her words. This collection is different – it’s essays, not poetry. But oh how her words sing across the page as she explores everything from the writing life to a rescued gull. She makes the universal present in a leaf, a caterpillar, a droplet. She is sacred and earthed, funny and wise. And always, she opens my eyes to wonder.

This book has been my great teacher in 2017. I love Helen Garner’s work, and felt I knew it intimately. But Brennan showed me connections and by-ways that lit it up again, making me return to all my books with a deeper hunger. And the anecdotes and criticism are delivered with such elegant restraint. Brennan’s sentences are clear-eyed and beautifully formed. She taught me about Garner, but also about craft. She made me want to write better.

Well, there had to be one from HG. I can read and re-read her endlessly. Most of these shorter pieces were familiar to me, but reading the collection was a master-class in how to observe self and others. It made me want to hang out with her, to dance with her, to ride trains with her, so that I could see what she sees. It made me so grateful that we have her particular gaze to illuminate the moments of pain, joy and grace that are our shared humanity.

Having co-authored a book of letters, it would be remiss of me not to include a collection. This one is special to me, because Leunig is special to me. My co-author, Tony Doherty, and I met Michael on the festival trail this year and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. He has marked out my days for decades. My mother and I referred to each other as Curly and Vasco, and when I want life directions, I look to Michael and his ducks. A national treasure. He has to be in my stocking.

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith
I’ve just seen the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Art gallery of NSW, and it reminded me of the deep pleasure I felt when I read this. Friendships are crucial to my days, and Smith’s account of this astounding artistic collaboration that grew from and around the love they shared is inspiring, revealing and somehow reassuring in equal measure. It was a time like no other, and they were kids like no others. A chemistry of brilliance.

I’m a huge fan of The Natural Way of Things, but this sprawling, lush and so tender tale made me ache and marvel. The characters are drawn with all the particularity and attention that is characteristic of Wood, but underpinning the whole narrative is beauty that is deeply felt and captured – it is like the reversal of Natural Way, and yet there are so many links and connections in the way she treats landscape and people. I wish I could write such a love song to living.

THE OLD WAYS by Robert Macfarlane
I describe myself as a walker, and wrote a book about a 1300 kilometre walk, so I guess it is no surprise that I’d include a book about perambulations. There are many that I love, but this one captures so much of what I value and find mysterious and essential about the act of putting down one foot in front of the other. Landscape, spirit, mind, song, sacred, profane, primitive and modern..all are here and all are wonderfully evoked.

ANAESTHESIA by Kate Cole-Adams
I have not been able to stop thinking about this book since I read the first astonishing sentences, in which she describes a crucifix with its “limp passenger.” She is in hospital, about to undergo an operation, and the reader is at the beginning of a wild ride with her, as she seeks to understand the mysteries of the mind, of consciousness, and of what lies beneath us all. It is science, memoir and journalism, and it is writing of the highest and most refined order.

TIMEBENDS: A LIFE by Arthur Miller
Recently I’ve been reflecting on Miller’s sweeping understanding of humanity, and how his plays still sing about our present circumstances, all these decades later. His autobiography is a portrait of an astonishing life, caught up with public morality, fame, personal responsibility, art, America and Monroe…just for a start. The prose is muscular and exquisite, and the final two paragraphs remain my favourite writing of all time. I carry them in my purse. Always.

MEDITATIONS by Marcus Aurelius
My friend Marina gave me a copy of this, and opened my eyes to a voice that comforts, challenges, provokes, and reassures me that in the continuum of history, we are somehow still the same, still connected and still searching for the things we’ve always sought. Marcus is a friend for the good and bad days. He reminds me about the middle, rational path when I have wandered or run down the by-ways. Essential. What a gift.

Sometimes books are described as luminous. This one really is, because it seems to be lit from within. Maybe it’s also because Hayes is a photographer, and so he knows something about how to capture the moment when people shine. Or maybe it’s because it is about love after loss – and the discovery of first love late in life. Hayes tells of his relationship with New York City and with the great Oliver Hayes. It will ignite you and it will make you grateful for life and for our ability to love across perceived boundaries. Beauty-filled. An eleventh book at the eleventh hour, I couldn’t leave this off my list. I feel lucky to have read it.

Merry Christmas. Happy reading.


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