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

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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

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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)

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Dirt by Sea

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I was pleased this morning to receive in the mail my copy of Our Home is Dirty by Sea, a new collection of ‘Australian poems for Australian kids’, published by Walker Books, and edited by Diana Bates, which includes my poem Immigrant House.

Immigrant House recalls my experience growing up and entering the strange European interior of a friend from school. It was published in my first collection Lost Things,  and I’m pleased that it’s likely to find a new (and younger) audience here.

I’m also in pretty good company with poets like Robert Adamson, Ian Mcbride, Susan Hampton and CJ Dennis! also included in the collection.

Walker Books describe themselves as Walker Books Australia ‘the leading children’s publisher in Australia and New Zealand.’

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My Books of the Year for 2015

My Books of the Year are unashamedly personal lists. They aren’t based on any votes or reviews and don’t generally cohere much with mainstream lists. That’s not entirely a bad thing. My book of the year is H is for Hawk, which won my non-fiction award this year.

Non-Fiction

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Winner: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

This book divides readers; it divided me as a reader, but like very good books when you read them, they startle and surprise and send your reading spinning off into new directions. I’m not sure I like the idea of trying to tame a hawk, nor am I sure I liked the persona here and her strange studied ignorance at times, but it’s beautifully written, and justly won the Samuel Johnson Prize, among others.

Highly recommended:

The Goshawk by T.E. White, an earlier hawking book that is directly and repeatedly references in H is for Hawk, and arguably a better book.

Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane is one of my favourite writers in the genre my daughter derides as ‘landscape memoir’, and this again takes up his love of the landscape and the names that frame it, in a deliberate act of restoration and recovery.

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. Finnegan’s surf memoir is anything but as limiting as that sounds. It’s a gorgeous, evocative, intimate account of growing up as a surfer and writer. It contains some of the most detailed descriptions of big wave surfing I’ve ever read and, more impressively, some of the most beautiful evocations of the power and terror of waves themselves. I listened to Finnegan read this as an audio book and I enjoyed that closeness and sense of intimacy with the writer.

Fiction

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Winner: Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Mason and Dixon was by far the most startling, difficult and interesting fiction I’d read for years. It’s not new, is nearly twenty years old, in fact, but seems fresh (though I did have some strange recall moments of Peter Carey’s fabulist tomes like Oscar and Lucinda and Illywhacker.

Highly recommended:

Let me be Frank with You by Richard Ford, new stories of middle America.

Poetry

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Winner: The Moon before Rising by W.S. Merwin

This is a lovely slim volume in the tradition of slim American volumes. Merwin is 86, former Poet Laureate of the USA, and an old master. But, though he reflects on ageing and mortality, it is with a precision and sharpness and loveliness too that is as sure as ever: as in:

All at once he is no longer

young with his handful of flowers

in the bright morning their fragrance

rising from them as though they were

still on the stalk where they opened

only this morning to the light

in which somewhere unseen the thrush

goes on singing its perfect song

into the day of the flowers

and while he stands there holding them

the cool dew runs from them onto

his hand at this hour of their lives

is it the hand of the young man

who found them only this morning

 

There’s a good review from the Guardian HERE

Highly Recommended: On Bunyah by Less Murray.

Nice to come back to old man Murray again! With some of Les Murray’s marvellous work rebundled here in a slightly more autobiographical format, coupled with some evocative photos of his family and local sites, the book stands as a nice reworking of Murray in a slightly more personal context.

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This list (C) Warrick Wynne 2015

 

Barbarian Days

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As a one-time surfer, and someone still in love with the sea, I’m conscious of just how difficult it is (and laughable it can be to real surfers) to try to describe to someone else the act of surfing.

So, I’ve been pretty impressed with Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan. It probably wont win my book of the year prize (teaser: full list coming soon!) but it’s just about the best thing I’ve ever read at capturing the act of surfing, and the beauty and terror of big surf.

I’ve been listening to this as an audio book (from Audible) and have been surprised at just how powerful that can be, especially perhaps, when read by the author themselves.

Highly recommended as I hone my book of the year awards! There’s a pretty good review from The Guardian HERE

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City of Stars

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I was delighted today to attend the launch, and read a poem, from a new collection called City of Stars, an ‘anthology of love poems for Frankston’ edited by Avril Bradley.

The new collection is published by Gininderra Press and features poems from Garth Madsen (the unoffical poet laureate of Frankston), Jennifer Compton, Ann Simic, Glenn Harper and others.

I was fortunate enough to have three poems included in the collection: Beginnings, The Day it Snowed in Frankston and The Wedding Train, about the train journey on the Frankston line, loosely inspired by Philip Larkin.

I read the one about the day it might have actually snowed in Frankston, inspired by a story a student named Eloise told me a long time ago.

It was good to hear some of the poems being read aloud, and to get together to celebrate a place that seems an unlikely catalyst for poetry at times. In praise of place.

You might be able to get a copy of City of Stars from local bookshops like Robinsons.

Below from left: Avril Bradley (editor) launches the collection, Jennifer Compton, Garth Madsen.

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Poetry of the Thirties

What so often happens to me in reading is thar one thing leads to another. As it should.

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I recently picked up a copy of Poetry Notebook 2006-2014, by Clive James at Readings and enjoyed most of the essays on poets that he’d felt were important to him over the years; Frost, Edgar, Eliot, Les Murray, Auden. James has a bit of fetish about form and all that, which is repeated a bit, but he always has something interesting to say. At one point, he waxes lyrical over a Louis MacNeice poem, Meeting Point and recommends the Penguin Classic anthology, Poetry of the Thirties, edited by Robin Skelton.

So, I dug out my old copy of that anthology and re-read the introduction and that poem and dippped into those poems from a decade haunted by the rise of fascism and the coming of another war. They are familiar names: Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Spender, but as Skelton says in the introduction, Auden ‘dominates (this period) from first to last’, and he certainly has more poems in this anthology than any other poet.

My favourite, Lay Your Sleeping Head, later published as Lullaby.

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Coincedentally, picking up my copy of The Monthly today, I read Late Styles, a review by Justin Clemens of Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past and Clive James’s Sentenced to Life.

The review labours to make the unsurprising point that Murray is a better poet than James, and takes James to task, describing his work in this collection as ‘sentimental’, ‘self-pitying’, ‘pretentious’, ‘platitudinous’, ‘narrow’ and ‘almost infantile’. My guess is that Clemens see himself as not shirking the truth of the review but really …?

I’d rather not end my thinking about poetry this week with the mean-spirited superficialities of the review of a dying man’s book, but go back to Auden again, and this poem, from 1937, which seems beyond politics, personal or otherwise.

Lullaby

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity

On the stroke of midnight pass

Like vibrations of a bell,

And fashionable madmen raise

Their pedantic boring cry:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreadful cards foretell,

Shall be paid, but from this night

Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:

Let the winds of dawn that blow

Softly round your dreaming head

Such a day of welcome show

Eye and knocking heart may bless.

Find the mortal world enough;

Noons of dryness see you fed

By the involuntary powers,

Nights of insult let you pass

Watched by every human love.

W.H. Auden

My Books of the Year for 2014

I was reading a lot about landscape again this year, and walking. And landscape and walking, preparing to walk in the Lake District and in Scotland, especially in Skye. I wasn’t disappointed.

Non-Fiction

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Winner – Four Fields by Tim Dee

Four Fields is an exploration four different landscapes, from the fens of England to the wind-swept aridity of the African veldt. It’s what my daughter would disparingly call ‘landscape memoir’ or I might call topographical writing. It’s beautifully written, more like poetry than prose often, and in touch with the human and the natural and with a recurring them of birds (Dee is a birder after all) My favourite landscape of the four explored was the fens, mainly because I finally got to see that landscape earlier this year, but it is all beautifully handled.

You can read a review from the Guardian HERE They called it ‘enthralling and unexpected and one from The Independent HERE

Highly Recommended

Swimming to heaven: the lost rivers of London by Iain Sinclair

This began as a monologue delivered as a speech, a pocketbook about the rivers that used to run through London, where they are now, and why they matter still. Sinclair is a poet and walker, I read London Orbital, a while ago, which describes his circular walking journey of London tracing the M1?, and loved it. This is lesser, but any lover of river literature: I’m calling them river

Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city by Russell Shorto

Travelling to Amsterdam for the first time I’m glad I read this. It’s a kind of sweeping social history of Amsterdam from its earliest founding to modern times, always with an emphasis on what it was that made this city somehow different from everywhere else in Europe, sometimes radically so.

And, I can’t leave the list-making without mentioning Walking with Wordsworth by Norman Buckley, our trusty guide to the Lake District and the only physical book I took on that trip. The walks featured all follow the Wordsworth trails and travels, and are all easily done in a day.

Fiction

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Winner – A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane is difficult. Or I find him so. A beautiful purist who pretends to be exploring the writing of fiction while he’s really exploring his old themes: love, landscape, our place, that place just at the edge of the fields with the road and the sun flashing off the windscreen of a car driving somewhere. However, whereas I found his most recent A History of Books almost unreadable, I found this also strangely moving as perhaps one of our best writers, struggles to capture the uncapturable past.

Highly Recommended

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

I would never have picked this up to read: ‘Meet Balram Halwal, the ‘White Tiger’: servant, philosopher, entrepeneur, murderer … See. I read it because I was writing something about it for a publisher as it is coming on the Year 12 English course next year. And it was better than I thought. A first person narrative that is part thriller but mostly expose of the modern India; a place in the fulcrum of a great change: or this is what the novel says. I’ve never been to India. And there are places described here that I definitely dont’ want to visit. But, after reading this book I also feel that there’s something happening across the Indian Ocean that’s pretty interesting

Poetry

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Winner – Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick

I like Mark’s Tredinnic’s poetry, an Australian poet based in NSW. He won my poetry award two years ago with Fire Diary, and this is just as good, a lovely looking and sounding collection of poems roughly connected with the ideas of birds. There’s a bit of a theme emerging here perhaps.

Highly Recommended

Swamp by Nadi Chinna

Topographical poetry is the NBT (next big thing) says I. Or is it pyschogeography? Hopefully. This series of poems is based on an imagine walking of the old, built over lakes and swamps of Fremantle, WA.