Best Of 2019

Best of: October

Of these three, the Alice Oswald was the only book that I chose for myself this month. One was a gift, and one was recommended many times by a booktuber I follow before I finally picked it up when I happened to walk past it in a shop. Every so often I wonder whether I spend too much time watching review videos, but although I have had some occasional duds, I’ve read some things that really stretched me – which I’m grateful for – and also discovered some brilliant authors. I could easily fill the rest of my reading life with books and authors I already know about, but I think it’s really important to read outside our area of familiarity.

Best Novel: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield. I hadn’t heard of Setterfield, or any of her novels, until I started seeing this one around last year, and then later I noticed Katie was mentioning it often. Setterfield’s first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, was a big hit, but I hadn’t heard of that either. Possibly it wasn’t as popular in Australia, or it just fell into a gap where I wasn’t reading so much. I really want to read it, and also want to read her second book which is about death, so right up my overgrown cemetery path at the moment. Once Upon a River is a story about storytelling, with rivers and boats and mystery. It’s a story about how a community comes together when there’s trouble. There’s also a sizeable plot-line about Victorian photography which I found fascinating. I was reminded of Philip Pullman while reading this and am recommending it to everyone I meet.

Best Poetry: Nobody, by Alice Oswald. I’ll read anything Alice Oswald writes, and in this book she draws again on classical myth, so basically a double win for me. When Agamemnon sailed for Troy he left a poet to guard over his wife, Aegisthus seduced her and stranded the poet on a desert island. This poem is told in part from the perspective of the forsaken poet, but also encompasses a broader perspective of the un-named observer.

This is one kind of water when it hangs over him
a man is a nobody underneath a big wave
his loneliness expands his hair floats out like seaweed
and when he surfaces his head is full of green water

The stories in this long poem are as fluid as the water that surrounds them, and familiar characters from myth (I didn’t recognise them all tbh) drift in and out through the pages. The imagery is always surprising and beautiful and if the meaning is rather obscure in places then I’ll say it’s not really the point to try and ‘understand’ Oswald’s poetry, sometimes it’s enough to just read something that stirs you.

Best Non-fiction: The Word Pretty, by Elisa Gabbert. This was a gift, and I’d never heard of the author, although I gather she is fairly well-known in the US. This book of essays ranges over topics from crying, to what poetry is, to sketches of Alcatraz. It seems at first a bit of a mish-mash, but there is a strong underlying current of close examination of things that we may not customarily notice. I often buy books of essays and I don’t often read them, usually because – I guess I pick the wrong ones – they feel a bit over my head. These are very accessible. They discuss things I already know a bit about, e.g. the complexities of translation, and I felt I was looking at things in new ways but not having to learn it all from scratch. I enjoyed it very much, and it’s made me think about how I choose essay collections, I’m going to be a bit more selective in future, and hopefully read more of them.

That’s it from me for October, What have you been reading lately?