So we’ve finally waded through the cesspool that was the Aughts of the third millenium. I’ll stop you there before you say, “Oh God, not another of those decade in review posts”; this is in fact not the case. I can’t get my head completely around the Aughts yet and have no desire to torture myself by doing so. Instead, I’ve been thinking a little of the books I’ve read over the last year. “That’s more like it,” you say.
A year ago I was rather upset by what I considered to be a lack of dedicated reading in my personal life. Sure I’d read a number of books as they were suggested to me or as I purchased them on a whim, but in no way did I make regular reading an important part of my life. So, when 2008 ended and 2009 began I intended a more directed focus to my exploration of literature and expand my reading (primarily as it relates to poetry and history). The result is a list of some of the books I’ve read this past year (I say some because some were re-reads or partials, or some not interesting enough for me to bother recording). I’ll not attempt to reproduce all these here, but will comment on some of the more significant volumes that I enjoyed immensely, or hated intensely in 2009.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: This is actually the first book I finished reading this past year. It’s a classic that I hadn’t read, though I have seen a number of film and television adaptations over the last couple of years (my wife being an Austen fan). Highs: reading most of it with my wife curled up in bed (she adds voices and everything). Lows: knowing that the modern sequels with likely suck or be, at best, mildly annoying.
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy: I began reading this for two reasons: 1) my exposure to prose of the period was appalling and 2) it was pitched as one of the most depressing books my wife had ever read, next perhaps to some Dickens. Highs: Hardy has an incredible knack for language and description and his writing style is addictive. Lows: The low points of the book don’t let up. Jude is one of the most plagued figures I’ve read in literature. If he gets a break at all it is for the purpose of him coming down harder a few pages later.
A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, John Newlove: Before reading this book I had only read Newlove’s work in anthologies of Canadian poetry where he never seemed as prominent as some of the other authors included. This turned out to be an excellent buy that I would recommend to anyone who hasn’t been intimately acquainted with Newlove’s poems. Highs: 251 pages of Newlove to fall in love with. Lows: Only 251 pages of Newlove.
Muybridge’s Horse, Rob Winger: I posted a brief review of this earlier in the year that you can read here. It’s a great collection that explores the life and influence of Eadweard Muybridge on photography, film and now poetry. Highs: the cover design is brilliant, as is the sequence of Muybridge in Central America. Lows: Damned if I can think of any.
The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millennium, Robert Lacey: As an amateur medievalist I require regular reading on a variety of subjects related to the Middle Ages. This one covers a good spread of activities that would be commonly conducted annually in England circa 1000. Highs: The book follows one whole year as presented in the Julius Work Calender (a document that details life and tasks of the period). Lows: If you’re looking for reference to specific political and historical details, you’ll likely not find it here. This is more of a day-in-the-life-of title for the peasantry.
Selected Poems: 1977-1997, Patrick Lane: This is a must have for any fans of Lane’s work. I first read him in 15 Canadian Poets x 3 and bought Go Leaving Strange a few years ago. I’ve been adding to my Lane collection ever since. Highs: A good survey of the author’s poetry in the two decades covered. Winter, as a section, is one of my favourites. Lows: I haven’t been able to get my claws on many of his earlier collections and this has to do…for now.
William Marshal: the Flower of Chivalry, Georges Duby: When I took my degree in Medieval Studies, this was pretty much a required reading text. It is a critical biography of the life of William Marshal, one of the most renowned knights of the period. The book follows the man’s life from childhood obscurity to his eventual regency of England. Duby is one of France’s foremost medievalists and this book is more than sufficient proof of this fact. Highs: For a work of historical criticism it is very accessible for anyone who wishes to explore Marshal’s life. Lows: I can’t find the actual poem that Duby used as one of his major sources for this book. I’d do nearly anything to have a copy of L’Histoire de Guillaume le Marechal.
Watchmen, Alan Moore: I’m amazed this passed me by in the 80’s and 90’s. I know I wasn’t a big comic book fan as a kid, but you’d think I would have at least heard of this before the movie was slated for release. Again, my wife had told me it was a must read and that the movie would have to be watched, if for no other reason than to complain about how it could not do justice to the book. I read it a week before the movie. Highs: Excellent creative work by both Moore and Gibbons in creating one of the better hero titles I can remember reading. Lows: There’s never enough of The Comedian.
Breaker, Sue Sinclair: I had a chance to hear Sue Sinclair read at the March Hare literary festival in Gander this year and must say I enjoyed it immensely. I found this collection more accessible than Mortal Arguments and splendidly written. Highs: Sinclair can balance the worlds of flesh and spirit expertly and does not shy away from some words (e.g.: beauty) that can lead poets down the cliché highway, since she applies a freshness to them each time. Lows: At times a heavy-handedness comes through in some of the poems, almost flirting with didacticism.
Moy Sand and Gravel, Paul Muldoon: This was my first introduction to Muldoon’s poetry. I had wanted to acquire a selected or collected volume, but since I hadn’t at the time I decided to pick this one up. Highs: Some really great poems that span a variety of subjects from childhood episodes to a miscarried child, some of which show an incredible attention to detail and other “small wonders”. Lows: There are some things I didn’t grasp on first read due to differences in language and place. That doesn’t mean I won’t try again.
The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen, Gwendolyn MacEwen: Many of the poems in this selected edition are beautiful and outline the major progress of MacEwen’s work. I had minor exposure to the entirety of her writing until reading this, which has helped remedy the situation. Highs: “Dark Pines Under Water”, what else could you want? Lows: It’s not as comprehensive in the poetry department as I would have hoped (it includes excerpts from MacEwen’s other writings as well).
Last Water Song, Patrick Lane: Another great collection from a great poet. I ordered this one after reading the selected poems (see above) and was quite happy with it. The first section contains a group of letters written to dead colleagues and poets who have been important in Lane’s life. The honesty that comes from these is a focused and well-lit fire. Highs: Getting to read another book by this author. Lows: None.
Gun Dogs, James Langer: I posted an entry concerning this book a little while ago which pretty much summarizes my thoughts on it. A recommended read for any who have not had the pleasure of experiencing Langer’s poetry. Highs: Excellent use of sonic poetics throughout, while seeking to place mankind in a societal/environmental/animal context. Lows: It will doubtless be a while before another collection of Langer’s is released.
Pigeon, Karen Solie: One of the better collections of poetry I’ve read that has been released this past year. Part meditation upon technology and human waste of the land and part journey through the natural world, this is worth reading. Highs: Made me want to seek out everything else Solie has written. Lows: None.
That’s it for installment #1. It’s late and I need to go to bed. More to follow so stay tuned!