Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

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2013 Books of the Year

Warrick’s Book of the Year 2013

What a year of reading it was! More fiction than in the last few years and a bit less poetry. I keep finding interesting things in the non-fiction shelves: walking, criticism, history, adventures in local places. But I enjoyed the fiction this year too.

Warning, some of the items on this list are praised more highly because I’m planning a walking trip to England and Scotland next year!



The Old Ways – A Journey on Foot – Robert Macfarlane
Robert Macfarlane is carving out a nice for himself as a landscape writer of repute, writing of mountains, place and change. This is a celebration of walking in significant places, the final part of a trilogy that includes Mountains of the MInd and Wild Places, both of which I enjoyed enormously. But this is the best of them all. It’s a celebration of walking. Of walking as a creative act. Of place. And of that particular English ‘footpath’ walking and the idea of Common Ground. As the Guardian put it: “Writing and walking are great companions – think of Iain Sinclair, or Will Self, whose two walking books, Psychogeography and Psycho Too, are sorely underrated. Here is a first-rate addition to the genre.”
Read the Guardian’s fulsome review HERE and one here from METRO

Highly Recommended

A Place in the Country – W G. Sebald
Is this fiction or non-fiction? Who can say? It certainly is undeniably compelling in an intellectual European kind of way. Sebald has been dead for some years now but the books keep coming. This one is a homage to the Europe he left behind, part history, fiction, memoir, biography.

Walking Home – Simon Armitage
A poet walks home via the Pennine Way. What could be more natural? A day by day account of walking in the wilds of England and living off the earnings of poetry readings at night. What’s not to like?

Pondlife (A Swimmer’s Jornal) – Al Alvarez
Alvarez was an important critic, friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and this is a kind of diary of swims. Except Alvarez is in his eighties, and he swims all through a London winter in the ponds of Hampstead Heath. The Independent review opens: “Al Alvarez – poet, critic, poker player, rock climber, old-school literary mensch – took his first dip in the ponds on Hampstead Heath at the age of 11. Sixty-five years later, he was still at it. Here’s a standard journal entry – for January 31 2004: “The water was just above freezing, the wind howled, the rain stung my face when I swam on my back. I came out feeling wonderful.”
Alvarez hates it when summer comes, and all the people arrive. The colder the better. It makes him feel alive. It reminds him he’s alive. I showed this to a colleague who’s a real swimmer. She hated it. You can read the Independent Review HERE and the Guardian’s take on it HERE.

The Lonesome Traveler – Jack Kerouac
Ah. Does anyone self-mythologise better than the Beats? Okay, maybe the Bloomsbury crew. And that gang who used to hang around with Byron. Anyway, this Penguin Classic, beautifully priced in the $10 Penguin pile, is Kerouac’s recollections of early travels on trains, hitch-hiking, on tramp steamers, discovering New York for the firs time, beginning to find his voice. There are moments when you can hear the voice emerging. Makes me want to roll up a blanket and hit the road.

The Use and Abuse of Literature – Marjorie Garber
When I was at teacher’s college I remember a course in literary criticism that that spent a lot of time talking about the purpose and traditions of literature. What is it? What is it for (delight, it seems) This is firmly in that tradition, but a more modern manifesto on the place of Literature today.

Walking with Wordsworth in the Lake District
Okay. This only gets mentioned because it has maps, mentions Wordsworth and Walking in the title.




House of Earth – Woody Guthrie
Primitive, visceral, sexually charged, polemic, written in 1947 but only published now, this long delayed publication of Woody Guthrie’s only novel brings us a clumsy, beautiful, intimate personal-political evocation of the depression era strugglers that populate his songs. You just want to put that Woody playlist on full blast and let those Dust Bowl blues wash over you.
The Guardian thinks this is just an ‘historical curio’. They got that wrong. Read more of what they said HERE

Highly Recommended

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
This strange backwoods-gothic ‘tragedy in the woods’ novella, is simply wonderful. The NY Times wrote: “The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.” Yes, but crazy-beautiful too. The Guardian called it a ‘miniature masterpiece’ and there are small moments in this small book that I’ll take with me forever. Maybe that’s what a masterpiece is.  Read more from the NY TImes HERE  and from The Guardian HERE

The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers
This generation’s All Quiet on the Western Front? Big call, and well, not quite. It lacks that grandeur or gravity or something. But this is a violent and graphic unpacking of war, Powers was an Iraq veteran and this novel rings with a confronting reality. But bend the dust and blinding light of the place, it has a kind of mythic inevitability about it too. This was one of my top “Father’s Day” recommendations for my Lit class this year. The NY Times wrote: “At the age of 17, Kevin Powers enlisted in the Army and eventually served as a machine-gunner in Iraq, where the sky is “vast and catacombed with clouds,” where soldiers stay awake on fear and amphetamines and Tabasco sauce daubed into their eyes, where rifles bristle from rooftops and bullets sound like “small rips in the air.” Now he has channeled his experience into “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo.” Read a review HERE  and that NY Times review HERE

Ancient Light – John Banville
Banville has the poet’s touch of writing fiction where nothing much happens. And everything, of course. Memory, longing, unspeakable loss, the memory of a kiss from twenty years ago jolting you awake. It’s easy to see this as about teenage lust, or a sexually repressed mid-life crisis. But there’s something happening here, even though it’s happening so slowly that you maybe don’t notice. The NY Times were a bit ambivalent: ‘In the trompe l’oeil universe of the versatile Irish novelist John Banville, things rarely happen just once. The actual event in a particular intersection of space and time — the secret tryst, the trusted friend betrayed — is filtered through a kaleidoscope of memory and dream, lies and subterfuge, hallucinations and ghosts. In Banville’s latest novel, “Ancient Light,” there is the added distorting mirror of a movie version of events long past. The biopic in which the narrator, an ageing actor named Alexander Cleave, is unexpectedly invited to star — landing “this plum part without applying for it, without even an audition” — is called, to hammer home the point, “The Invention of the Past.”’ but if you loved Banville’s earlier work The Sea, and this is not quite that, then you’ll relish this. Read the NY Times review HERE


Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
Okay. I admit. I don’t really see why Murakami is so highly regarded. This early work is always readable, and mostly believable(is that even a criteria any more) but do we care about any one of these strange repressed people? I’d rather listen to The Beatles.




Picnic Lightning – Billy Collins
Hardly new. But I didn’t read as much poetry this year. This is about as populist as poetry gets before it ventures into Pam Ayres territory and they’re all dressing at the reading in primary colours. It’s accessible, interesting and unexpectedly moving.

Want to see a more informed list of what the great books of the year were?
Check out the Guardian HERE or from SLATE HERE

Written by warrick

December 8, 2013 at 12:42 pm

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  1. […] Read the details of why I liked these, and the other contenders HERE […]

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