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)

Lunch Poems

I read an interesting little blog post on 43 Folders today on how you might define a writer; someone who makes writing part of their life or someone who feels guilty about not writing. And a little about the poet Frank O’Hara who made writing a big part of a bigger life:

Frank O’Hara didn’t seem to have this problem. He made it a point not to be a professional poet, but to write poems and essays and catalog introductions and letters and his own life in the due course of long days he filled equally with chatter, lunches, working at the MOMA, talking on the phone. Kenneth Burke called literature equipment for living, and O’Hara never put his away. He was always making. Sometimes poems, sometimes friends

O’Hara had a book for poems his wrote in his lunchtimes. Nice idea.