The Oak Papers

I finished The Oak Papers this morning

On my GoodReads page I reviewed it like this:

‘A thoughtful, sometimes melancholy book as the author finds solace from the stress of life in visiting and re-visiting some ancient oak trees. It is always alert and sensitive, and links to both science and mythology about these trees as well as some extended conversations with experts of various kinds, but there’s a little too much strain in the ‘awe’, ‘wonder’ and ‘glee’ for me as the writer climbs deeper and deeper into his woody meditations.’

I should have added that it DID have the effect I like, even when I sometimes haven’t loved the book, that it drew me out into the world and to re-visit some local oaks in The Briars near my house. So, it was worth reading after all.

Above: one of the oaks near my house. (Photo: Warrick)

My 2020 Books of the Year

2020

In a year when I thought I might have read more than ever, I read only 30 books, much below my GoodReads challenge of 40. You can see the full list HERE

So, you should rightfully temper any judgements I make here with that caveat firmly in mind! Nevertheless, here’s my list:

  1. Horizon by Barry Lopez (NF)
Horizon, by Barry Lopez

I was surprised to feel as sad as I did when I heard the news that Barry Lopez had died on Christmas Day. I’ve valued his work over a long time but that news, coming so soon after I finished Horizon, shook me a little. Horizons is a fitting end-piece to a career of genre-defining writing about space and place. The NY Times Obituary likened him to Thoreau; what a compliment: 

‘In a half-century of travel to 80 countries that generated nearly a score of nonfiction and fiction works, including volumes of essays and short stories, Mr. Lopez embraced landscapes and literature with humanitarian, environmental and spiritual sensibilities that some critics likened to those of Thoreau and John Muir.’

2. Wallace Stegner Crossing to Safety (F)

I hadn’t read Stegner before, and also read *Angle of Repose’ this year, but this novel seems stronger, masterly in its construction. As with all great novels I wonder at how it could be constructed by one mind. Beyond the great art of its making, it spoke to me too about friendship and a life in and around writing and reading.

3. Richard Ford – Sorry For Your Trouble (Stories)

Richard Ford has won my Book of the Year Awards three times, and almost won it again with this collection. A writer who keeps delivering, with a body of work behind him as substantial as any contemporary American novelist.

4. Haruki Murakami – Dance Dance Dance (F)

Weird, but wonderful. I’m always about halfway through a Murakami book and wonder, is this going anywhere? Maybe not, but the strange journey is enjoyable, and provoking.

5. Jonathan Bate – Radical Wordsworth (NF)

A not so radical biography of Wordsworth that focuses on the early years and the revolutionary Wordsworth who would return from revolutionary France and put all that away.

My Book of the Year

My Book of the Year

I recently completed my year in books. I read 37 books this year, hardly qualifying me to pontificate on any of the ‘books of the year’.

And, I liked how Maria Popova, over at Brain Pickings put it:

Long ago, when the present and the living appealed to me more, I endeavored to compile “best of” reading lists at the close of each year. Even then, those were inherently incomplete and subjective reflections of one person’s particular tastes, but at least my scope of contemporary reading was wide enough to narrow down such a selection.

In recent years, these subjective tastes have taken me further and further into the past, deeper and deeper into the common record of wisdom recorded decades, centuries, millennia ago, drawn from the most timeless recesses of the human heart and mind. Outside the year’s loveliest children’s books — a stratum of literature with which I still actively and ardently engage — I now nurse no illusion of having an even remotely adequate sieve for the “best” of what is published each passing year, given that I read so very little of it (and given, too, that this particular year I birthed the first book of my own — itself the product of a long immersion in the past). But of the books I did read in 2019, these are the ones that will stay with me for life.

Wise words. There’s a case against too much of this and I don’t pretend to speak with authority. Simply put, my book of the year was Overstory by Richard Powers, a story for our times. You can read others I liked, and lists from previous years here at my poetry pages here.

Coming soon, my books of the year

I aimed to read 40 books this year. According to the good folk at GoodReads I’ve read 35, with a couple on the go. I might not quite get there.

Nevertheless, I will be publishing my annual book of the year awards soon! I enjoy looking back on the year and what I enjoyed and, as so often happens in reading, one book leads to another.

You can see my previous winners listed HERE.

My Books of the Year 2016

This year I began listening to audio books more earnestly, with Reece Witherspoon’s southern-accented reading of Go Set a Watchman and Kenneth Brannagh’s passionate reading of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness showing just how important a good narrator is to this experience.

Elsewhere, I kept reading non-fiction, what my daughter calls ‘landscape memoir’, in particular, and it’s here where I found most of the really enjoyable things although enjoyable is not the word for Primo Levi’s horrifying memoir of life in Auschwitz.

Fiction

anne_tyler-a_spool_of_blue_thread

Winner: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I’ve enjoyed Anne Tyler’s work for a long time so I was surprised, when I looked back at my list of books over the years, that this is the first time she’s won my book of the year prize. A Spool of Blue Thread is like lots of her work: family, change, the passage of time, the minutiae of a relationship. All the same, someone criticised her; all the same I said, just like Dickens’ work is all the same. It’s tender and moving, held together by the threads of family, tradition and the untugging forces of time.

Highly recommended

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy (short stories)

Non-Fiction

if-this-is-a-man

Winner: If this is a man …’ / ‘The Truce’ by Primo Levi

This is a harrowing account of Levi’s immersion into the hell that was Auschwitz in World War II. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time but felt I have not quite had the strength. I’m sure part of that reluctance was a kind of holocaust fatigue; the Year 12 English course has regularly featured works of this kind, but also, more personally, a fear of facing again these dark sides of our nature. I’m glad I did face it, though several times I found myself in tears.

Sadly, this is not just a dark chapter of history but has lessons here and now, in the alienation and exclusion of the other or, as Levi puts it early on: ‘Many people, many nations, can find themselves holding more or less wittingly, the idea that every stranger is an enemy.’ I’d like to say that this is a story or triumph, recovery and the survival of the individual spirit, and there’s elements of that, but it’s a place of death and defeat and humiliation of the human too. Levi also writes here: “We cannot understand Fascism but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard…because what happened can happen again…For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”

You can read more about this book, like Howard Jacobson on ‘re-reading’ this book, and more about Levi himself in The Atlantic HERE and The New Yorker HERE.

Highly recommended

Our Man Elsewhere: In Search ofAlan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish

Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden

Rain, a natural and cultural history by Cynthia Barnett

A Land by Joquetta Hopkins Hawkes

Poetry

Winner: Have Been and Are by Brook Emery

I’m a fan of Emery’s poetry (he won this award back in 2001 with and dug my fingers in the sand) and this book delivers on earlier writing I’ve enjoyed.

These poems are a little looser, more talky, less certain somehow and a voice of man questioning things that have always felt certain.

Highly recommended

Meditations in Time of Emergency by Frank O’Hara

Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence

This list © Warrick Wynne (2016)