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)

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

 

Birdcall

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As I blogged about earlier, I joined a good sized audience this week at 45 Downstairs to hear some short fiction loosely focused on the idea of ‘love and loss’, short story readings from Carrie Tiffany, Arnold Zable and Toni Jordan, which were all interesting and 45 Downstairs is a great place to hear writing.

However, I was really there to hear Liam Davison’s work read. And I was so pleased with the choice, a story called Birdcall which was featured in the Best Australian Short Stories 2013, (Blackinc)

It’s a beautiful story, classically about love and loss, but imbued for all of there with the heard-rending sadness at the loss of the author.  It’s a beautiful story, about a father and son, about putting away the past, about connections and disconnections. The central image of the birdsong, and the bird-caller is wonderfully balanced and subtle and restrained, like his best writing so often was.

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It was also beautifully read by actor Paul English (above). It’s not an easy story to read, with its birdsong (see the opening below) built into the story. Easy to get wrong. And Liam’s voice is also hard to read sometimes, the tone matters, and English got it just right.

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It was very moving to hear Liam’s words out loud again, with lots of his family and friends in the audience too. And I thought I held it together pretty well; I really wanted to hear the story and listen to it, listen to it as a beautifully written piece of fiction and not get all mixed up with thinking about everything else around it.

And I mostly did that, but when we got to the passage below I couldn’t help but think of all the writing that we now won’t get from Liam and that hurts. And maybe I lost it a little then.

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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.

 

The Old Ways

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A bit premature to call my ‘book of the year’ in February, but maybe, just maybe, The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane might be it.

The Old Ways is a series of ‘journeys on foot’; ‘Always everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering’ opens Macfarlane, quoting from Thomas Clark’s prose-poem In Praise of Walking, and this book is a re-tracing and celebration of those people and those pathways.

One person at the centre of much of these re-tracings is the English poet Edward Thomas, who died in World War I. I’ve written about Thomas before, one of my favourite ‘minor’ poets and of Rain, a particular favourite here.

Thomas is the ultimate wandering doomed walker, but there is nothing maudlin in this book that celebrates the journeys, rather than mourning the end of them. Thomas would set off along ‘indelible old roads … worn by hoofs and the naked feet and trailing staves of long-dead generations’ and Macfarlane wants to bring some of those old ways back. Thomas would make one-day walks in the design of a ‘rough-circle’, trusting that he might ‘by taking a series of turnings to the left or a series to the right … take much beauty by surprise and … return at last to my starting point’ (278)

In his own rough-circle, Macfarlane connects up with walkers like Wordsworth, Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens, Wittgenstein and the English watercolourist Ravilious. It’s a literary book for a walking book. Geological too, with its section titles: ‘Chalk’, ‘Silt’, ‘Peat’, ‘Granite’, ‘Limestone’, ‘Ice’,’Flint’.

I was reminded of other books I’ve been reading lately; The Old Straight Lines gets a mention and a much more recent English walking book: London Orbital. It’s a book about landscape ultimately, ‘and how the places we inhabit shape the people we are’ (187)

‘and everywhere I met people … for whom landscape and walking were vital means of making sense of themselves and of the world’ (32) And so say all of us.

You can read more about the Icknield Way here.
Download Edward Thomas’s ‘Icknield Way’ here.
You can read more thougthful and detailed reviews than mine here from NY Times,  The Guardian/Observer, The Guardian,  The Telegraph, The Independent

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My 2012 Books of the Year

Just in time for Christmas shopping, my books of the  year awards!

Fiction

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Non-Fiction

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Christopher Ricks – Dylan’s Vision of Sin

Poetry

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Fire Diary – Mark Tredinnick

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Christmas shopping list.

Take this to Readings or Collected Works

Fiction
Richard Ford – Canada*
Gerald Murnane – A History of Books

Non-Fiction
Christopher Ricks – Dylan’s Vision of Sin*
Iain Sinclair – London Orbital
Robert Penn – It’s All about the Bike
Michael Langley – Journals
Tony Taylor – Fishing the River of Time
James Boyce – 1835
Paul Carter – Ground Truthing
Austin Kleon – Steal like an Artist
May Ward – The Comfort of Water
Geoff Nicholson – The Lost Art of Walking

Poetry
Mark Tredinnick – Fire Diary (Puncher and Wattmann)
Robert Adamson – The Golden Bird
John Tranter – Starlight (UQP)
Lisa Jacobson – The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands)
Michael Sharkey – Another Fine Morning in Paradise (Five Islands)
Brook Emery – Collusion
John Tranter (ed) – Best Australian Poems 2012 (BlackInc)

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You can read the full list, and past winners on my website here as well