“I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life….I trace back this sense of biological meaning to Darwin’s epiphany on the meaning of flowers, and to my own intimations of this in a London garden, nearly a lifetime ago” Oliver Sacks from The River of Consciousness
The Books I Can Remember Reading in 2017
I say remember because this year in June, I moved to the US and left all my books behind to be shipped sometime in the future. So, today I bring my usual yearly selection of great books I’ve read from different genres. This list does not include the shit-load amount of journals and magazines I subscribe too.
It hasn’t been the most proactive reading year due to many big changes happening (including the publication of my first book :-), but, still clocked up 40+ books with a stack still to get through. If you read this list, you will see a pattern of style I like so any recommendations are most welcome, please leave in the comments…2018 is upon us.
I probably read poetry books more than any other genre. And I love to collect these. This year has been a fantastic year for discovering new writers as well as old undiscovered gems. I highly recommend checking out each poet here and buy their books.
Poetry Book of the Year
Olio, by Tyehimba Jess
It had been a while since I could not put down a poetry book and Olio, by Tyehimba Jess, blew my socks off. The well deserved, 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry is a very ambitious project which I’ m sure took heaps of research and hundreds of hours of hard work to produce a book that brings us memorable characters, explores collective memory with stories based around American blues, church hymns and worksongs from the lives of unrecorded African American performers as well as better known historical figures.
It is a remarkable, powerful, beautiful and heartbreaking piece of art. This is not a book created in the traditional format of poetry books. No, it is large in size, 8×10 inches. We have drawings, photographs, poetic interviews, poems that can be read as one poem or three, pages that can be pulled out and made into other poems. Jess uses many forms from sonnets to ghazals, psalms, blues to news clippings. There are also headers and footers with the names and dates of African-American churches that give the year the churches were burned or bombed or attacked in some way. I could go on. There is so much more to this book than I can give praise to here since this is not really a review. Trust me and buy it. You will be transported into a world that Jess has made exciting, informative and gripping, using what I call in a sense, poetic-journalism. Hands-down savage book and I can’t wait to read it again.
Two new translations of Pablo Neruda brightened my year. Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda, translated by Forrest Gander and published by Copper Canyon Press, brings us brand new, newly discovered poems. It is as you would expect, elegantly written, moving and pure Neruda. It includes color copies of the original poems in Neruda’s handwriting.
Book of Twilight, translated by William O’Daly and again by Copper Canyon Press, brings us a translation of Neruda’s debut book, written when he was a teenager. Though these are highly romantic poems written from an adolescent, they are a great insight into a developing writer that was soon to conquer the world. I loved the innocence and beauty of this book. This is O’Daly’s 9th translation of Neruda’s work and yes, I’m a huge fan. William O’Daly also published Water Ways in 2017, a gorgeous book collaborating with JS Graustein who adds photographs and prose. A superb little book that explores the New Hampshire lakes and waterways.
To the Place of the Trumpets by Brigit Pegeen Kelly was a contender for the poetry book of the year. A winning volume in the 1987 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, this is a small little gem. Like her stunning books Song and Orchard, these poems are a unique kind of folk and myth storytelling, out-of-this-world lyricism, rendering the everyday mystic. Kelly is unique and rare in her style, a true poet and the reason she is one of my favourite women writers. Pity we lost her in October 2016. Do check out her 3 books, stunning work.
In Ireland, Kevin Higgins launched his Song of Songs 2.0: New & Selected Poems, published by Salmon Poetry and gives us a selection from his 4 previous collections as well as new poems. Knee deep in the political, sometimes brutally savage and often very funny, Kevin’s work over the years has kept me entertained. Elaine Feeney launched her third collection Rise, to me her most intimate. I loved this book (love all 3 of them.) It deals with illness and recovery, often dark and equally beautiful, courageous and honest. Trevor Conway’s debut collection Evidence of Freewheeling was a very enjoyable read, quite skillfully musical in technique, and brilliant storytelling through observations and the world around us. Dani Gill too launched her debut After Love, a book exploring the aftermath of a breakup from a long-term relationship but also the process of healing, an intimate, delicate collection packed with striking imagery.
Across the pond, or, where I am now, I never go a year without a Charles Simic book. This year I read and loved The Lunatic, a book with his usual humour and quirky command of language that makes Simic stand tall above all, and his latest, Scribbled in the Dark, full of crazy scenarios and worlds, beautiful and surreal, spontaneous and unforgettable.
I had the privilege of meeting Terrance Hayes this year at the Cuirt Festival. It made me re-read his savage book Lighthead and of course, buy and get signed his last collection How To Be Drawn, his fifth book, a book of raw inventiveness, full of music raging through themes of blackness, masculinity, history, family, art, social conscience, and language.
Vintage Hughes is a fantastic collection of everything Langston Hughes. Most of his famous works are included in this collection as well as three stories from The Ways of White Folks. A delicious book to introduce to the work of a brilliant writer.
I did a reading with Casey Thayer in Evanston this year and listening to him read, I had to buy his book, Self Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur. This is a wonderful book, engaging in storytelling and narrative with a unique knack for observing the world we live in, in a peculiar language twisting and commanding way, it was one of my favourite reads of the year.
I had to go and re-read Ocean Vuongs Night Sky with Exit Wounds, maybe my third read, simply because I love it. And similarly, I re-read Nathalie Handals Love and Strange Horses, still one of the most beautiful books I’ve read from my favourite living female poet, this her finest book for now.
Fiction Book(s) of the Year, 3 winners, Can’t decide.
I’m very late to the party and work of Naguib Mahfouz, who is set to become one of my most read authors of 2018. An Egyptian writer, he sets Morning and Evening Talk, this unusual epic, in Cairo, tracing back two centuries of generations of a handful of families, each person getting there own small chapter. It is a stunning piece of literature. I couldn’t put it down. Check it out, please.
Psychotic Episodes by Alan McMonagle
When I heard Alan McMonagle read his short stories at the Inish Festival I couldn’t stop him stalking my mind for weeks. It took me a while to get around to buying and reading Psychotic Episodes but eventually this year it happened and let’s just say, the voice he creates in his stories will haunt you as will the dark often humourous unique images and surreal realities that embed each story. Loved this book so much.
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
I honestly could not put this down and finished it in two long nights. Don’t know why it took me so long to get round to reading it but it happened. A prequel to the A Song of Ice and Fire books, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a simpler story or tale and not as heavy or violent as the original epic, but it is such brilliant storytelling, outstanding charter development and dialogue, rich in human drama; it makes you happy to be alive. This particular book is three books of the Dunk and Egg adventures in one, brilliant.
At the start of the year, I re-read the five books of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, and A Dance with Dragons for the third time. They are my favourite books and you can bet I’ll re-read them again.
Finally got around to reading Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Lee’s famous accounts of English country life in the early 1930’s, a world now in a distant past is a beautiful simple poetic book. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t a patch on As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, a book that prompted me to take a month off and follow Lee’s footsteps around Spain, highly recommended book.
After meeting Kit de Waal at this years Cuirt Festival and hear her read, I had to buy My Name is Leon, an outstanding moving and intense book seen through the eyes of a child and based around race, adoption and foster homes. I beg you to read this and not well-up.
In 2016 I became a Franz Kafka fan (late getting around, just as I am also only starting to discover Chekhov) and this continued into 2017 with The Essential Kafka: The Castle; The Trial; Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Just brilliant storytelling, very unique and surreal scenarios, funny and out-there.
The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinead Gleeson is an excellent collection and selection of short stories by Irish women writers spanning around 200 years. I won’t name names or I’ll be here all night but the range in topics and themes is savage and the quality of work just amazing, makes me proud to be from a small island with so many talented writers. Check it out.
Non-Fiction, History, Science
Science Book of the Year
One of my favourite people living among us now that we should cherish, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s masterful Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a must for any inquisitive human. Big questions of space, reality, time, quantum mechanics, quarks, dark matter, dark energy and on are told in the only way DeGrasse Tyson can, clear, informative and funny. Such a brilliant book. It is small, I read it in a day, The last essay, Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective is one of my favourite essays ever, it is actually like a giant poem, very poetic and inspiring. The book is worth buying alone, just for this.
History book of the Year
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy is an astonishing addictively readable book. I couldn’t put it down and finished it in 2 days. It masterfully tells about an army of American female cryptographers, nearly 10000 of them, whose work played a crucial role in ending World War II in breaking the codes of the German and Japanese armed forces. The author does an incredible job of bringing these individuals to life and showing us how this system came about and worked. Savage.
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin, a poetic book about gravitational waves will leave you spellbound. A beautiful voice of science, storytelling, and insight into the long and hard journey scientists go to reach a certain goal, in this case, the discovery of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein. A truly beautiful book in contention with DeGrasse.
The Theory That Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress by Philip Lieberman is an outstanding accompanying book for lovers of Darwins ‘On the Origin of Species’ using fresh contemporary findings and Liberman’s own research. Fascinating stuff.
Ok, are you interested in the bizarre, the fucked up, the unknown natural world we live and the unusual creatures evolution has shaped, look no further than The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems by Matt Simon. Read this before bed-time for messed-up dreams…absolutely mind-blowing book. Quick and easy to read, very very funny and just horrific. Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist by Richard Dawkins was as expected, very engaging and entertaining. Three decades of fascinating essays, articles, near 40 short pieces on many different topics. Highly recommended.
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks is a must-have collection of essays from a great mind much missed. Again, very easy to read, with essays on Darwin’s love for flowers, Freud’s contributions to neurology and other quirky histories of Evolution, Science, and Medicine. Outstanding, inspiring and will make you feel human. The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell, a book all about trees, is an astonishingly beautiful philosophical analysis of how trees shape us, how they help us and what role they play in history and modern culture. A very poetic book written in beautiful prose. A homage to trees and an exploration of their biology. You have to read this book.
The Science of Game of Thrones by Helen Keen is a book that investigates the science that happens in Game of Thrones, the popular TV show, and books. Think head-squashing, poison, wildfire, incest, dragon sex, you name it, this fantastic gripping very funny and thoroughly researched book was one of my best reads of the year. Savage stuff. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris is a gorgeous guide to many spiritual practices and meditation while trying to understand reality beyond science and secular culture. A truly fascinating book from a great mind. As Tom Holland is my favourite historian, I was delighted he dropped another book Athelstan: The Making of England, part of the Penguin Monarchs series. It tells the history of rival kingdoms in England and the attack by Vikings, about Athelstan’s achievements and his importance as the first king of a united England. As always with Tom Holland, told to perfection.
There you have it. Some of the books I can remember reading throughout 2017. Not my most prolific year but happy nonetheless. I have a stack of books and waiting on others to start the year that will include Elaine Cosgrove, Tishani Doshi, Linda Ashok, Anton Chekhov, James Galvin, Federico Garcia Lorca, Richard Carrier.
If you have read this page and have any recommendations similar to my taste, please leave below in the comments so I can build that wall…I mean stack.
And still fucking waiting on WINDS OF WINTER…Hurry up Martin