So, as promised, here is the remaining list of some of the books I read and cared about (or the opposite thereof) in 2009. If you missed the first instalment, you can get caught up here.
Mole, Patrick Warner: I’ve read Warner’s previous two books and have enjoyed them quite a bit. There is a majesty in the everyday that comes through his latest that I love. Highs: There are many (here you can read a short review I posted a while back). Lows: I’m not sure if Warner’s work is for everyone. He is a master of the quatrain, a form that he uses quite a bit. Some greater structural variation might do some good.
The Sentinel, A. F. Moritz: There’s not a lot that can be said about Moritz that hasn’t been said by someone already. He’s a fantastic poet with some real insight into the complexities of circumstance and the human character. He won the Canadian end of the Griffin Poetry Prize this past year. Just read the judges’ comments to get an idea of what’s going on in this book. Highs: Moritz really has a knack for crisp, clear, and beautifully structured images. Lows: Your pocket-book will take a hit as you inevitably acquire Moritz’s other books.
The Odes, Horace: Horace is one of those writers that truly endure beyond the scope of their own lifetime. These poems are some of the most beautiful and honest the western world has produced and are testament to the deep influence the classical world has on the present. I’ve enjoyed translating a few of these from the Latin in recent months. Highs: So many great poems that span many, if not the entirety of the human emotional spectrum. Lows: The translations in the particular edition I have (Wordsworth Classics) are by a number of different translators and for this reason the collection could be more cohesive had one author, preferably a poet, done the work.
Selected Poems, Ezra Pound: Who doesn’t remember that short haiku Pound whittled out of a 70-odd line poem? It’s memorable for sure. He has some other great poems, in particular the Asian inspired ones. His “Homage to Sextus Propertius” introduced me to the writing of a Latin elegiac poet I hadn’t read before (it’s still a trial finding a good edition of his works). Pound has been important in 20th century poetic development and that, if for no other reason, is why a collection of his works should be studied. Highs: The Asian inspired poems are magnificent, as are some of his shorter works. Lows: The book (NDP Edition) does provide a good survey of pounds work, but some poems could have been dropped in favour of other, stronger ones.
Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster, Mike Heffernan: I don’t often read books like this, but I made it to a reading Mike Heffernan did in St. John’s and, though I missed his reading and caught that of his co-reader, I thought the book itself looked like it would be a good read. I wasn’t wrong. The book views the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil platform through the lens of friends, family and colleagues of the people who died. I bought it primarily as a teaching aid for an offshore oil resource unit in Geography classes, but I enjoyed it very much. Highs: First and second-hand accounts of conditions and circumstances surrounding the disaster that are well written and well presented for a wide range of readers. The book does an excellent job of making the disaster accessible for a new generation of readers who may not be familiar with it. Lows: While most of the stories have enough fuel to ignite excitement about the topic, some fall flat, partly due to repetition of character actions and smaller events leading up to the sinking (I realize this repetition can serve as support for the validity of these facts, but at times I felt there was a little too much of this).
The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, The Most Devastating Plague of All Time, John Kelly: It’s a long title, but does its job in describing the book’s topic. Truthfully, I didn’t finish this book, but read a fair bit of it. I was interested in reading more of the spread of the Plague from East to West rather than the after effects. This book handles both and I will return to it later for specific sections and topics of interest. Highs: Kelly does a great job of covering the material and making it easily readable. He likes to focus on specific anecdotes and recorded stories to flesh out the effects of the plague that had such an incredible effect on mankind. Lows: At times these anecdotes can seem like fanciful fiction, but make the history more palatable for the reader not used to history tomes.
Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich: Julian was an anchoress in Norwich, England during the late medieval period. This book recounts her first person account of mystical visions she experienced while sick and bed-ridden. A must read for anyone interested in women’s literature or religious/medieval writing. Highs: The faith and strength of Julian’s account is remarkable and allows the modern reader an opportunity to see inside the medieval mind. Lows: Absolutely none.
Revolver, Kevin Connolly: This book has gotten a great amount of press this past year, most of which has been positive. Connolly’s insistence that multiple voices and poetics can be mixed to produce a quality volume of poetry is proved valid in this accomplished book. Highs: The book contains poems with a range of difficulty and ambition, sure to prevent readers from resting on their laurels. Lows: At times I found the variety of writing fresh, but there wasn’t as much I could latch onto that I really loved. Not all writing is for everyone and I found some of these poems not to my taste.
The Golden Ass, Lucius Apuleius: Apuleius was a brilliant writer who had a talent for satire and parody. This book follows trials and tribulations of a character (also named Lucius) who, through one bawdy plot turn to another, is transformed into an ass and is passed from one owner to another, experiencing a range of lifestyles. Highs: The writing style is one of storytelling and oral transmission, though the text is very well composed. The humour is brilliant with wonderful description. Lows: None. This is one of the best works I’ve read this year, period. I referenced this a while back if you feel inclined to read about it.
Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, Zach Wells (Ed.): You can’t read too many sonnets. It’s the one form that has been so well received and so versatile as to resist time’s ravages. This book contains a wonderful variety of sonnets from a number of well-known and lesser known sonneteers across the country. There are no particular topics that Wells has adhered to in the selecting, but has instead let quality and freshness be the deciding factor. Highs: Great poems all around, with some wonderful treasures I have not read and authors I had not been aware of at the time of reading. Lows: The majority of these poems are more contemporary, some of which are quite recent. This is admirable, but I think this was done at some cost to expressing past writers more fully. Generally speaking however, I do believe contemporary poets deserve plenty of exposure, so if this is Wells’ purpose he has succeeded brilliantly.
Track & Trace, Zach Wells: Speaking of Zach Wells, did you know he released a book of poems this year? As a proponent of metrical and formal verse he does a great job of showing his own skill at the craft. The art for the book, by the way, is done by Seth and is quite fitting for the volume. Highs: Some excellent poems here that cover a variety of subjects, while the settings range in place across Canada and, in one case, into Scotland. Wells has also provided us a volume of poetry that doesn’t contain much filler; there are 30-odd poems, keeping the contents trimmed to showcase more good poems, undiluted. Lows: I would have liked to have seen Wells attempt a variety of other poetic forms beyond sonnets and a couple other metrically driven structures. That said, the ones included are quite competently composed.
Vis a Vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, Don McKay: This one I borrowed from the library, whereas most books I read I purchase. I wasn’t sure what to think of this one at first. I hadn’t heard much about it, but wanted to see what McKay thought of nature poetry in his own words. As a book it only has a few main concepts that are elaborated upon quite well and will no doubt be of use to people who are interested in the topic. Highs: For the most part it doesn’t read like a book of criticism or academic origin. The personal anecdotes used throughout frame the arguments made quite well. In essence this was primarily an exploration of some of McKay’s thought on poetry and natural observation. Lows: When I finished reading the book I felt like there was more to read that wasn’t included between the covers (maybe this means I liked it so much I wanted more?).
Something Burned Along the Southern Border, Robert Earl Stewart: I’ve not met Stewart, but after reading this collection I certainly would like to. There is a fascination with the everyday in Stewart’s poems that shows a keen mind and attention to detail that don’t come naturally to other writers. The range of rhythms used in the book keeps a wonderful freshness flowing throughout. Highs: Stewart’s ability to be at once humourous and deadly serious is perhaps his greatest quality. He can use both to write honest and poignant pieces on nearly any topic. One wonders if there is anything he’s not qualified to write on. Definitely recommended. Lows: The number of poems in the volume (there are many) will inevitably lead to a fewer number of truly spectacular poems and a larger count of those varying in effectiveness. There could have been some trimming done to ensure a greater ratio of good poems to excellent poems.
Selected Poems, John Ennis: I had the honour of attending a reading by Ennis a few years back. I enjoyed it very much and wanted to explore this Irishman’s work to a greater degree. It took me a while, but I found a large edition of his poems and promptly ordered it. Highs: Ennis has a strong belief in muscular language, using wonderfully colourful descriptions; his diction being varied and very well-chosen. He also is well acquainted with the long poem, a subject not unfamiliar to potential Canadian readers. A fine mix of free verse and metrical poetry here. Lows: Some poems can be quite academic, which is good for those who enjoy this, but can be a turn off for those who prefer a different approach to writing. That said, this is balanced by a mix of other approachable poems that many readers should be able to enjoy.
Away From Everywhere, Chad Pelley: As you may be able to tell from this list, I’m not a big reader of novels. I try to read a couple a year to keep myself a little more rounded a reader, but far too few I’m afraid. Pelley seemed liked a writer on the upswing and I wanted to see where he was coming from and what writing was taking him there. Away From Everywhere covered the gradual decline of a man and his relationships to his family. Through alcoholism, questionable priorities, mental illness, and a lack of social morals the protagonist manages to live an interesting if downwardly mobile life. Highs: Pelley’s writing style is attention grabbing. From page one he sucks you in and gives you a world of hardship and struggle that is excitingly gritty and keeps your attention throughout. Certainly a new fictioneer to keep your eyes on. A recommended read for sure. Lows: Though I enjoyed the book overall, I found the presentation of schizophrenia to be, at times, inconsistent with my own experience (a family member of my own having struggled with this unfortunate condition for quite a while). This coloured my view of certain plot points in the book.
So that’s it for my list of some of the books I’ve read this past year that struck me as significant or interesting for whatever the reason. There are many others I’ve read that I either have forgotten about or didn’t feel should end up on a list of this nature. I’ve also not included books I’ve re-read, or of which I’ve only read a small selection. There also comes a point at which these lists get too long and boring (and I certainly wouldn’t want to bore you to tears).
I’m in the process of organizing some reading for the new year and will also be back with a list of books I’ve plans to read in the coming weeks. A prosperous new year to you!