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.

Walden

I was lucky enough to visit Walden Pond on a trip to the USA over ten years ago now, in a time when travelling overseas seemed a normal thing that one might aspire to. It was a pilgrimage of place, to the place that inspired Thoreau in his life and writing.

You can read a bit more about that trip on my earlier post HERE

I was reminded of all this by this short film I came across, just called Walden, a Ewers Brothers Production with input from Ken Burns and narrated by Robert Redford. I enjoyed it on a rainy late winter morning. You might too.

You can read more about Walden HERE

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.

Remembering Les Murray

When I typed that title I almost changed it. Remembering Les? I didn’t know him and I didn’t want this title to be a misleading invitation to some reader, eager for memories and anecdotes (there’s just one) but when I heard of Les Murray’s death this week I took a bit of time to remember what he meant to me as a poet over the years and also as an editor who supported my work.

When I discovered that poetry was still alive and real, and began reading and exploring poetry seriously for the first time, undertaking an MA at Monash University I soon discovered Les Murray. I wrote a minor thesis on the development of the long poem in Australia, from 1960 to 1980. It was an age of national re-evaluation and the study began with work like Captain Quiros by James McAuley and ended with Les Murray’s rollicking narrative of sonnets, The Boys Who Stole the Funeral. I read a lot, including all of Murray, and grew to love his breath-verse, his gorgeous verve with words with favourites like the early Driving through Sawmill Towns andThe Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle and one of my very favourites: The Broad-Bean Sermon.

Murray is often described as the ‘bard of the bush’ kind of writer but more precisely I think he’s a fine poet of place, and was a big influence on me opening my eyes to ways of seeing the very particular. His sense of locale, of the landscape and history of the place, a strange conservative environmentalist (like another distinctive Australian voice: Eric Rolls?) I loved his inventiveness, his wit and his way of turning the familiar into this wonderful surprising thing (almost) trapped in language.

From the late 1980s as I was working hard towards the publication of my first book of poetry, I was writing furiously and sending poems out to all corners, lot of times without success. Murray had begun as poetry editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant in 1991 and was receptive to my work, as I was hugely admiring of his. I copped a little flak from publishing in that journal from some quarters, but Murray’s endorsement as poetry editor trumped any concerns I might have had about the politics of that journal. Murray published seventeen poems of mine over the next few years and I was always grateful for that support and endorsement. One of the poems of mine he published was this one:

NORTHERLY IN EARLY SPRING

Outside, the wind in the trees
sounds like the sea,
but warm; a northerly
uncomfortable among the grey
still bare brooms of poplars
that line the rim of this paddock.
The wind is a warm liquid,
unsettling, visible in waves
along the yellow-green grass, flattening
like a helicopter does or a flipper
of a diver brushing away the fine silt
of legend.

Some crows, ink spots
in the high light,
are swimming like exotic fish,
suspended in it, sliding.
Their black fins, ragged,
torn along the edges,
as if something has been eating at them.

The one small anecdote? I was lucky enough to see Murray read his work several times over the years, at book launches and festivals. Once, while I was doing my Masters at Monash University, Murray did a reading for staff and students. Of course I went along and Les signed my copy of The Vernacular Republic (Poems 1961-1891) Afterwards, my supervisor suggested I join a few of the English Department teachers for a Chinese meal at a restaurant nearby: Les was coming along.

It was winter, dark, cold and I wanted to get home. I was tired, teaching full-time and trying to study and write. It was going to be a slow 45 minute drive home. So I didn’t go. I’ve always regretted it. Dinner with Les Murray. But, oddly enough, I really I didn’t, even then, feel a compelling need to meet the person because I knew so much through the poetry.

Luckily we’ll always have that.

Top: River Red Gums
Above: My copy of The Vernacular Republic, from the A&R Modern Poets series with the famously brittlely blued spines!, signed by Les Murray
Below: The broad, majestic Murray, near Mildura


Photos: Warrick

On Ted Hughes

2D35CBF100000578-0-image-a-3_1444333717878

I finished the monolithic biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate this morning and thought I’d reflect on some of that. At 672 pages it’s an effort, but mostly worth it, except for some of the more arcane analysis, particularly close examinations of notebooks and notebook poems and some tenuous links between life and art.

It’s a bit of a defence of Hughes against the ‘Libbers’ and, despite the fierce instance of the value of Hughes’s work in its own right, he remains a figure connected always with his relationship with his first wife, Sylvia Plath, a connection that’s evident in both the writing and the life lived forever after.

Bate argues that the release of Birthday Letters, late in Hughes’s career, marks a freeing up moment but Hughes didn’t live long enough after that to benefit from that clarity.

As a writer I was very interested in Hughes’s own working mode, his self-scrutiny and reliance on detailed notebooks, and observations of people and nature, many of which seem like poems themselves. This is an unauthorised biography, and it seems the estate did not give Bate permission to use poems in the text, behind the notebooks quoted a lot.

Most importantly, it’s drawn me back to a poet I thought very highly of when those first books came to my attention in the 1980s, and I pulled these two down from the shelf and re-read them both.

IMG_1490