Thursday, 31 January 2013

What Light Can Do: Robert Hass

Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World.

I've always loved the poetry of Robert Hass, (I have his Apple Trees at Olema) though I had never read any of his essays.  Now, this is rapidly becoming one of my favourite books - on Kindle - and I'm buying a hard copy to read and re-read and underline and scribble in the margins - it's that kind of book.  What he says, and the way he says it, makes it a must-read.

In a week when Sharon Olds won the TS Eliot prize for poetry I re-read an essay sub-titled 'Poor Monkeys and the White Business in the Trees'.  It's a thoughtful discussion of autobiographical poetry about families.  Hass points out that it was a new subject when Robert Lowell published 'Life Studies' in 1959.  'It is a fact,'  Hass observes, 'that [you] can learn nothing about the aunts or the grandmothers of John Donne, Thomas Traherne, Anne Finch, Alexander Pope... John Keats, Emily Dickinson or Robert Browning' from their poetry.  He also feels that it may be a particularly American phenomenon.  'American poetry is full of aunts and grandmothers, but French poetry isn't, or Serbian poetry or Arabic or Brazilian or for that matter, English poetry'. Robert Hass takes us through some theories of Why this might be, which I found fascinating.

One of the essays is a deliberation on war - particularly the Iraq war.  'How did this happen?' Hass asks.  'And why are ordinary Americans not being driven crazy by it?'  The answer he supplies is 'fear, anger and ignorance'.   How could ordinary people be expected to know that 'bombing Saddam Hussein because of a terrorist act perpetrated by Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Muslim terrorists would seem to the people in the Middle East an act of pure aggression against all Islamic cultures by a power that could not distinguish among them.'  But government and the educated media should have been able to and Hass castigates them for their failure to do so, accusing them of 'morally culpable ignorance'.  He states that  'The moral and intellectual failure of American journalists and of political and policy intellectuals was breathtaking'.

There are several 'major' essays in the book;  one of them on 'Chekhov's Anger', which told me quite a lot I didn't know about the author's life as well as providing an illuminating analysis of the work.  Chekhov apparently began his career writing for comic newspapers and magazines in 19th century Russia - the same kind of 'penny dreadfuls' that Herbert Allingham wrote for in Britain.  Chekhov's grandfather had been a serf who had bought his freedom and become a bailiff - the classic case of poacher turning gamekeeper.  Chekhov's father was a small shop-keeper who went bankrupt when he was only 16 and the family moved to Moscow.  Chekhov began publishing stories, sketches and jokes to pay his way through a medical degree.  Soon he was keeping the whole family.

Robert Hass is very good on these early mass-market stories which were the 'equivalent of newspaper cartoons'.  it taught Chekhov a lot about writing - particularly economy.  This is Chekhov writing to Gorky - 'cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you like.  You have so many modifiers that the reader has trouble understanding and gets worn out'.

Hass points out that these early commercial stories have the same structure as the later stories that Chekhov is famous for.  'They depend on a surprise ending, usually, though not always on dramatic reversal, and the surprise in in one way or another wounding . . .  The gasp that the story evokes, the little cry of surprise and discovery, comes out not just because the ending surprises, but because it fits'.  The stories are also witty and it is 'the terrible presence of wit' that takes the stories from pathos into tragedy.  Chekhov knew what he was doing in his fiction and his drama.  'I finish every act as I do my stories;  I keep the action calm and quiet till the end, then I punch the audience in the face.'

Chekhov's anger came from the violent treatment meted out by his father, which he couldn't forgive, as well as the social injustice he witnessed in a Russia building up to civil war.  Anger, Hass observes, can be 'the wellspring of art'.  It reminds me of  Katherine Mansfield, who said that one of the 'kick offs' for her was a 'cry against corruption'.  Anger motivated many of her stories, and Chekhov was one of her big influences.   She too, wrote only short stories, never a novel.

There are other wonderful essays in this book - 'Howl at Fifty' takes another look at Ginsberg 50 years on and compares the style of it to passages from the Waste Land (I'd never made the connection with Eliot before, but it's so obvious I now feel stupid!).  He describes Howl as 'a kind of exploded, hallucinatory autobiography'.  He talks about the genesis of Moloch and observes that 'Moloch has still got hold of a good chunk of the American soul'.

I also loved 'Imagining the Earth' - his essays on eco-poetry and literature, and one on 'Teaching Poetry' which I can't even begin to precis.  It touches on the oral nature of poetry on the page - poetry is 'a kind of speech that's meant to be said by others'.   In other essays he explores the connections between poetry and the natural world. He is pessimistic about our generation's custodianship of the planet. 'What a depleted world our students are inheriting'.  Will they be able to save it? 'The task may be beyond us.'   But  'We have to act as if we can accomplish it, as if we can preserve that richness and diversity.  We have to act as if the soul gets to choose.'

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves literature - it's a great companion volume to Robert Hass's collected poems too.  Thoughtful, profound, outspoken - the writings of a compassionate individual who is also a great poet.

What Light Can Do:  Essays on Art, Imagination and the Natural World.
Robert Hass.

The Apple Trees at Olema:  New and Selected Poems
Robert Hass.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Man Who Walked Through Walls: Marcel Aymé

The Man Who Walked Through Walls:  Short Fiction

I've never read any of the French surrealist writers before - though I think that some would classify these stories as 'magic realism', but for me they belong with the surrealists. The Pushkin Press book cover appropriately features a painting by Giorgio de Chirico.  Marcel Aymé was a very popular French author of novels and stories during the thirties and forties, winning a number of big prizes.  He's little known in England, which is a pity.  The humour and elegance of his prose - the boisterous delight in the ridiculous that is apparent in these stories - is a tonic.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is 'Tickets on Time'.   The government have decided that there are simply too many people using up resources and issue an edict that sectors of the population 'consumers whose maintenance is offset by no real contribution to society', will have their lives rationed.  They will be issued with tickets for each day of the month they are allowed to live.  The narrator, a rather opinionated writer, has no qualms about his own worth, expecting to be able to live one hundred per cent of the time.  He is rather shocked when he discovers that creative artists are not on the list of those making a worthwhile contribution to society.   'I could understand, at a pinch, if the measure were to apply to painters, sculptors, to musicians.  But to writers!'   He finds that the government values his contribution at a meagre 7 days a month.  The inevitable happens of course - the worthy poor who are working to support everyone else find that they can enrich their lives by selling their tickets on the black market.  Why live miserably for a month if you can live like a king for seven days?  Strange things begin to happen to the space/time continuum.

The title story  of the collection is one of Aymé's most famous - in French Le Passe-Muraille  - and there is a sculpture in Paris that features the story's main character, Dutilleul, 'The Man Who Walked Through Walls'.  Dutilleul discovers that he has an amazing gift and, although he has lived an exemplary life until then, the temptations offered by his ability to walk through walls freely, soon become irresistable and he embarks on a life of crime and debauchery which eventually catches up with him.

There's also a new take on the rape of the Sabine women - which aroused some feminist discomfiture.  Read crudely, the rape seemed to be a punishment for female sexual incontinence (on a grand scale!) but at the same time as my feminist hackles were rising, I was also arguing the writer's case.  Am I confusing the point of view of the narrator with the moral point of view of the author?  And is the kind of perturbation I'm feeling actually what the author intends?  It certainly makes you think about sexual morality.  As many of the stories in this volume do.  There is the fate of  Duteilleul to consider.   Let the punishment fit the crime. And the woman who has preserved her virginity in the service of the church expecting to go first into heaven, finds that things are a little more complicated than she had thought.

Not all the stories are completely humorous.  'The Proverb' is about a stern and moralistic father who has ambitions for his son.  The point of view of the over-bearing father and the emotionally tortured son are both very clearly laid before the reader.  People don't always get the fates that they deserve.

This is a wonderful collection of stories, in a completely different tradition. Thank you Pushkin Press and a big thank you to Sophie Lewis for a brilliant translation.  Thanks too to Elizabeth Stott (who has a great blog) for pointing me in this direction!

If you haven't discovered Pushkin Press yet, take a look - they publish some wonderful writing from around the world in beautifully produced editions.

"Pushkin Press was founded in 1997. Having first rediscovered European classics of the twentieth century, Pushkin now publishes novels, essays, memoirs, children’s books, and everything from timeless classics to the urgent and contemporary.

Pushkin Press books represent exciting, high-quality writing from around the world. Pushkin publishes widely acclaimed, brilliant and often prize-winning authors such as Stefan Zweig, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Antal Szerb, Paul Morand and Hermann Hesse, as well as some of the most exciting contemporary writers, including Pietro Grossi, Héctor Abad, Filippo Bologna and Andrés Neuman."

The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé. Published in 2012 by The Pushkin Press, in paperback and e-editions.
Translated from the French by Sophie Lewis in 2012.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Opium Eater - Grevel Lindop

The Opium Eater - the Life of Thomas de Quincey
by Grevel Lindop - newly published in e-book format

Genre:  Biography

Thomas de Quincey is best known for having written one of the first memoirs of drug abuse - Confessions of an English Opium Eater - a handbook for heroin users that has never been out of print since it was first published.  But he was also the author of scandalous biographical anecdotes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and other Lakeland literary figures, a sought-after journalist, and crime-writer.  I first read his work when I was researching my biography of the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families - A Passionate Sisterhood - and found him fascinating, if rather sad, figure.

Thomas de Quincey was a Manchester merchant’s son, but his father died of TB while he was still a child and his mother was a difficult personality, not equipped to deal with sensitive boys. De Quincey was precociously brilliant, but constantly taken away from schools where he was happy and sent to inferior institutions where he was not.  His mother seemed to have a dread of her son being ‘noticed’.  De Quincey ran away from school and home at the age of 16 and lived rough in London until he became penniless and was forced to go back.

He loved books and read voraciously.  Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads impressed him so much that he summoned up the courage to write to Wordsworth, who replied kindly, with an invitation to visit, if De Quincey was ever in Cumbria.  De Quincey was desperately short of money - the allowance granted by his trustees out of his father’s estate (which was being negligently managed) was only £100 a year.  Neither the trustees, nor his mother (who sounds dreadful) seemed to care about getting him an education.  In the end he went up to Oxford and enrolled himself in the cheapest college and spent four or five years reading and studying - largely by himself.  He was reprimanded for having threadbare clothes but spent most of his money on books, without caring what he looked like.

While at Oxford De Quincey’s younger brother also ran away from school to escape repeated floggings - the whole family story of the de Quincey’s is one of mismanagement and a lack of care for the well-being of the fatherless children. The boys in particular felt unloved and unappreciated.   Grevel Lindop makes a good case for this being one of the major factors in making De Quincey permanently lacking in self-confidence, and susceptible to substance abuse. Opium was the only effective pain-killer in the 19th century and it was freely available, both as raw heroin and distilled with alcohol into Laudanum.

It was during his period at Oxford that De Quincey first noticed the effect of Laudanum after he took it for a particularly bad abscess on one of his teeth.  He observed the feeling of calm and well-being and the enhancement of observation.  As a troubled, lonely and extremely shy young man, he began to take it regularly to lift his spirits.  De Quincey was so shy he went to the Lake District 3 times and, despite his invitation from the poet, couldn’t pluck up the courage to knock on the door.  He was similarly timid about his degree.  Fearing, on the first day of his examinations, that he hadn’t done very well (he had been outstanding) he failed to appear for the rest of the exams and left without a degree.

Meeting Coleridge in the west country while staying with a mutual friend, De Quincey overcame his shyness,  moved to the Lake District and began to make himself useful to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  But his willingness to be a literary dogsbody led both men to distrust him instinctively - there were numerous misunderstandings and clashes of ego.  The women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge families liked him - he may possibly have been in love with Dorothy, despite the age difference - and he adored the children and they him.

Grevel Lindop makes a good case for Wordsworth’s daughter Catharine having had Down’s Syndrome; their little ‘Chinese Maiden’ who was different from the others and died before she was 5 from convulsions.  De Quincey had been very fond of her and went into such paroxysms of grief that local people believed him to be her natural father.  But her death seemed to re-awaken in De Quincey his suppressed grief at the death of a beloved sister when he was a child.

Wordsworth comes over as dour, egotistical, quick to take offence, a man of decided opinions and an incurable worrier.  De Quincey went to London to oversee the publication of a pamphlet for him, but between Wordsworth’s constant afterthoughts and anxieties about libel, and De Quincey’s perfectionism in punctuation and prose, the printer was driven half mad, publication was late and the pamphlet satisfied none of the parties involved.  The public didn’t like it either.  The relationship continued to sour and broke down completely when De Quincey began to publish his ‘Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets’ in various periodicals.

De Quincey married a Cumbrian farmer’s daughter to the disgust of his friends and family.  ‘De Quincey is married,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘and I may say he is ruined.’  Class divisions meant a great deal in those days.  But his wife struggled to provide him with a comfortable, settled home life, loving and caring for him through all the phases of his opium addiction.  When you read what she went through, you feel like giving her an award for ‘wife of the century’.

De Quincey - who quickly spent his way through the small inheritance which was all that was left of his father’s fortune - was always in debt.  And his addiction was not conducive to regular working habits.  He earned money from journalism, but was usually late for his deadlines, often failing to produce any copy at all.  But his work was sought after because of its originality and the breadth of his learning.  De Quincey had no business sense at all, and sold the most popular of his works ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ outright for less than £50.  It made a great deal of money for the publisher, while the writer was in penury.

De Quincey found himself unable to write in the Lake District - left to himself he fell into an abyss of depression and laudanum consumption.  When he went to London he was surrounded by friends and colleagues who cajoled him into producing copy and there were no family distractions.  So De Quincey see-sawed between home life in Cumbria - until the money ran out - and working life in London - until either his wife became too depressed to remain alone or he became too homesick to stay away.

Eventually, as the debt spiral began to catch up with him, he moved to Edinburgh, where he was published by Blackwood’s Magazine.  His wife and children joined him there, but De Quincey was more often a refugee from the bailiffs in a debt sanctuary at Holyrood Park where he was only allowed out on a Sunday.  Life was tragic - his eldest son died of a rare form of cancer and his wife died shortly afterwards, leaving De Quincey - still in Holyrood to avoid debtor’s prison - in charge of 6 children he wasn’t able to live with.  But, with the help of his eldest daughter he managed to stabilise his finances and his opium intake, rejoin his family and enjoy several relatively prosperous years before he died at the age of 74.

Grevel Lindop’s biography highlights the new accessibility of de Quincey’s work to readers of fantasy fiction and magic realism.  He is a ‘classic of Underground literature’; an explorer of ‘visionary states’.  His essays on the criminal mind, particularly ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, were a big influence on Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson, Dickens, Baudelaire, Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, William Burroughs and many others.  And his Confessions were the inspiration for Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’.  Opium addiction was the tragedy of his life.  Wordsworth described de Quincey as ‘a pest of society and one of the most worthless of mankind’, but after reading this biography I have to agree with Grevel Lindop that Thomas de Quincey was ‘a man both lovable and oddly heroic’ as well as one of the great literary minds of the 19th century. This is a beautifully written and researched biography and a joy to read.

Find out more about poet and non-fiction author Grevel Lindop at

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Like False Money: Penny Grubb

Genre - Crime Thriller

As most of you know, my secret addiction is to thrillers, which I consume like (and mostly instead of) boxes of chocs.  So I'm always happy to discover a new author.  Having read every Camilleri, every Anne Zouroudi or Kate Atkinson and, over Christmas, re-read every Margery Allingham I possess, I was glad when Penny Grubb's novel arrived through an online book site I review for (the Booktweeting service), with a new, female, protagonist I hadn't met before.

Like False Money is the first book in Penny Grubb’s series about the young private investigator Annie Raymond.  It’s Annie’s first - temporary - job and she knows that she has to prove herself in order to stay in the business.   The agency that employs her is based in Hull, a city in a part of England that’s unfamiliar to her and probably to many of the readers too.  It’s a good setting - there’s a dramatic landscape of sea and fenland and the city provides a wide range of class and racial contrast with all the social conflict created by a once thriving international port now struggling for its existence in tough economic times.

Annie Raymond is sent to Hull because one of the agency’s directors has fallen down a staircase and broken her leg. It takes Annie a while to realise that this may not have been entirely accidental.  In the beginning there isn’t a lot to do except make coffee for her sofa-bound employer.  There’s only one case to work on that doesn’t seem promising - investigating the apparently accidental death of a local journalist, Terry Martin, whose parents are obsessed by the desire to know the truth about how he died and where he was in the two days before his body was found.  The trail soon peters out and - with no other work on the books - Annie fears that she will soon be on a train back to London.

But nothing is accidental  - after all this is a thriller.  Why are the directors of the agency at war with each other?  Who are the three young girls who come to the funeral?  And what do they have to do with the joyriders who interrupt the funeral procession?  What is it that Terry has discovered in the disused shed?   Too late, Annie realises that her intuitions have let her down and her own life is in danger from a killer she didn’t suspect.  The ending is absolutely gripping.

I liked the way the author spelled out the realities of life as a private investigator in the modern world - the bread and butter slog of finding people for worried families, plugging the gaps left by an overworked, underfunded police force.  Annie’s relationship with the police is sometimes strained by mistrust (and sometimes by lust!) but in the end they need each other.  People will often talk to an ordinary person and give them information they wouldn’t give to the police.  Annie has the time to listen and her intuition isn’t hemmed in by bureaucratic rules.

I enjoyed this book very much.  It was, at the time it was written, a ‘first book’ and I sometimes felt that I was being given too much information too fast - the clues coming at me like a blizzard.  But that’s a minor quibble  -  the writing is assured and in places very good indeed and the plotting is clever. Not surprising it was nominated for a John Creasey Dagger Award.   Annie Raymond is an interesting character in her own right and I will be reading the next book in the series The Doll Makers which won the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award.

Like False Money is published by Robert Hale and is also available as an e-book.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman: Friedrich Christian Delius

This is another of the wonderful Peirene Press novellas in translation.  Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, is from Germany, but set in Italy in 1943.  It isn't a coincidence that the author, Friedrich Christian Delius, was brought up in Rome, where his father was a Pastor, during the war.  He captures the atmosphere beautifully.

A young girl is stranded in Rome by the war.  Her Pastor husband has been posted to north Africa - a bare two days after her arrival - and she’s alone and in the last month of her pregnancy.  She lives with protestant German nuns, sharing a room with another woman whose fiancé has been interned in Australia.   The Italians are unwelcoming, and the war is going badly, but the girl has no desire to return to northern Germany and the frugal, evangelical territory of her childhood.  Instead she waits, for her husband to return, for her baby to arrive, and - the reader feels - for some kind of epiphany.

'…she should not allow herself to feel this longing, it was not appropriate for a German soldier’s wife, who ought to be waiting patiently at home, first for the final victory and then for her husband, but she was not at home, she was in a foreign place, and carrying a child, she had thrown herself into an adventure, left her home and parents and followed her husband, without realizing that God had another plan for her, and nobody could expect her to stroll through this place with a happy heart . . .'

The events of the story occur within a single day, and are narrated in real time while the girl takes her customary daily walk across Rome, on the doctor’s instructions.   It took me a while to realise that there are no full stops in this story, just a rhythmic prose, arranged in stanza-like paragraphs, that carries you forward on a journey through one of the most beautiful of cities, and through the mind and the life of the young girl.

‘. . . the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all those things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners . . .’

The ending is very moving and it leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing again. It’s a beautiful, reflective piece of prose, as lyrical and perfectly structured as a poem.  Not surprising perhaps, as the author is also a poet and one of Germany’s finest contemporary authors.  It seems criminal that this is the only one of his fourteen novels that I can find in English, not to mention the five poetry collections.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
by Friedrich Christian Delius
Peirene Press

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Favourite Books of 2012

I’ve read a lot of books this year, not just for my own pleasure but for several book review sites - Book Munch, the Indie E-Book Review site, Awesome Indies and the BookTweeting service.  The books I was given weren’t always the ones I’d have chosen myself, but they were an interesting mixture and I read a wider range of material than normal - books like Stephen Dixon’s dystopian American short stories, paranormal romances like Linda Gillard’s Glass Guardian, fast-paced disaster-movie novels like Joni Rodger's The Hurricane Lovers set in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.  I read young adult novels and urban fantasy and chicklit romance.  Sometimes I was well out of my comfort zone, but I think it’s done me good.  It’s too easy to become a ‘cozy’ reader.  That’s fatal for a writer - you have to challenge yourself continually.

Among all the books I read, a large proportion of them were Indie published e-books and when I came to make my list of favourites, four of them made it to the short-list, which is quite an achievement given the competition.  There is real quality out there on the self-published cyber-shelves.  Significantly, several of the other books I loved were published by very small independent presses such as Salt, Peirene, or Quercus.

In the literary fiction category I loved Bella Pollen’s 20th century historical novel the Summer of the Bear.  Set in Scotland during the cold war it tells the story of a family trying to come to terms with the sudden death of their father and their mother’s disintegration.  Beautifully written, it is heart-wrenchingly good.  You’ll have to forgive the adverbs! 

Quite a few of the books I’ve read this year seem to have light in the title - two of them with lighthouses at the centre of the plot. Alison Moore’s first novel The Lighthouse, published by a small independent press called Salt, made it to the Booker shortlist.  It’s a very different kind of prose - spare with a very strong sub-text and a tightly controlled plot.  Very impressive.  As was Christopher Burns’ A Division of the Light published by another small press, Quercus.  Chris Burns has several novels under his belt - one of them with a Whitbread award.  He’s a very classy writer.

In the crime and thriller category the outright winners were two independently published books.  Avril Joy’s first thriller, Blood Tide, featuring private investigator Danny Beck, is set in Newcastle.  It manages to be both a sensitive character study and a compelling mystery.  I finished it wondering when I could read the next!   John AA Logan’s The Survival of Thomas Ford was one of the Indie success stories of 2012, reaching the Amazon #1 spot on a number of occasions.  It’s a chilling, dark, psychological thriller written in faultless prose.

After scaring myself witless over Thomas Ford I needed a bit of comfort food and found it in the gentle, feel-good romance The Dress, written by Sophie Nicholls and another Amazon #1 indie best-seller. Sophie is a Salt published poet who chose to go down the indie route for her first novel.  She is now working on a trilogy about the refugee mother and daughter at the heart of the story and I’ll definitely be there waiting when it comes out.   The other romantic novel that made it to the short-list is Catherine Czerkowska’s Curiosity Cabinet, set in Scotland and pitch-perfect for curling up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire.  I read a couple of other books by Catherine, including her Polish epic the Amber Heart and her short stories, A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture, but the Curiosity Cabinet is the one that stayed with me.

2012 was notable for the amount of really good literature in translation that found it’s way onto the internet and into the bookshops.  Probably the best book I read in 2012 was Satantango by Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai, translated by poet George Szirtes.  It’s a masterpiece of European literature.  I also discovered Peirene Press - a very small publisher producing novellas translated from a variety of European languages.  They were all good, but my favourite was probably The Brothers by Finnish author Asko Sahlberg.  It’s a breath of fresh air to find writers working within a different story-telling tradition and outside the creative writing factory that’s generating so much work in the UK and America.

Many of the books I read this year were poetry and it was difficult to choose from so much good stuff.   But the collections that moved me most were Whistle by UK poet Martin Figura - an account of his life in care after the murder of his mother by his father - and Here Bullet by American war poet Brian Turner   His beautiful poems, written during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, were among some of the finest I have ever read.   Another American poet, Robert Hass, has a collected volume recording a lifetime in poetry called The Apple Trees at Olema, and that stays on my bedside table to dip into again and again.  Alongside Seamus Heaney, Les Murray and Carol Ann Duffy, he is one of the contemporary greats of the English speaking world.

Non-fiction?  There were three books I really enjoyed - all three of them by writers who are also good poets.  Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning is a series of essays on poetry and literature and mythology and there are some memorable passages.  My copy is dog-eared and underlined all the way through - it was one of the books I read first as an e-book and then realised I had to have the hard copy!  Also compelling was Kapka Kassabova’s Twelve Minutes of Love - a searingly honest memoir about her addiction to Tango and her search for love around the world.  I read it because I’d loved her memoir of childhood in iron-curtain Bulgaria and I wasn’t disappointed.   I bought Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths because it told the story of the high pathways and abandoned villages of northern Italy, close to where I’m living.  It’s a lovely book, with excerpts from letters and memoirs of the people who once lived on those high, remote terraces and can remember a vanished way of life.

I read many more good and enjoyable books, but these are the ones that have ‘stuck’ in my mind long after I finished reading.    There will be less reading for pleasure in 2013 because I’m working on a new biography and already have a stack of books written by or about my subject waiting for my attention.  Which is a pity, because there are some very, very good books around.  They’ll just have to keep until I’ve finished!