Top 50 Books of the Century (so far …)

 

DruryLike all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.

Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000)
Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000)
Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001)
The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002)
That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002)
Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003)
The Master : Colm Toibin (2004)
Runaway : Alice Munro (2004)
Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004)
Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005)
The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005)
The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006)
Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006)
This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006)
Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007)
So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007)
Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008)
American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009)
The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009)
Truth : Peter Temple (2009)
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009)
The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009)
Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010)
How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010)
The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011)
The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011)
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012)
May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012)
N-W : Zadie Smith (2012)
The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012)
Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012)
Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013)
10th December : George Saunders (2013)
Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013)
Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014)
The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014)
Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014)
Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015)
Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015)
Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015)
The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015)
Willnot : James Sallis (2016)
Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)

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A Day in the Life …

Now my days alone have a certain shape to them  – I wake about nine, turn on the symphony and have juice, fruit and a pot of black coffee. Read a bit (still Gide’s Journal), talk on the phone – to Richard [Miller], or Frank [O’Hara] – sometimes Mike [Goldberg], or others. The three or four, sometimes five hours on this canvas – it hasn’t begun to come yet, but I keep thinking of things to do.
Then a few d0mestic chores for myself, a cold shower, a cold hard boiled egg and one or two rums with Rose’s lime, more reading, more records. Tonight I meet Frank at the Cedar for dinner, then to the late showing of “East of Eden”.

The Journals of Grace Hartigan, July 1st 1955

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Grace Hartigan at the Five Spot, sitting opposite Frank O’Hara, with Larry Rivers to her right.

Howard Hodgkin 1932 – 2017

I first became really aware of Hodgkin’s work towards the end of 1995, the beginning of 1996, when I was able make several visits to a major retrospective of his paintings, first at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and then at the Hayward Gallery in London. It was difficult – nigh on impossible – not to be dazzled, delighted, impressed – the richness of colour, the seductive brilliance, all those glorious swirls of paint – echoes of other favourite painters, Bonnard, Vuillard.

It was only when visiting a late exhibition, at Oxford in 2010, that some doubts arrived, not about the earlier work, which I still loved, but the more recent. Had there, with age, been some kind of falling off, and if so, was that not perhaps inevitable? It’s a  question I asked myself about my own work at the time, and which I ask myself now, seven years later, seven years older, and some 20,000 words into a new novel. Is it, can it be, as good as the best of what’s gone before?

Early readers [we’re talking strictly family here] have noted what they see as a possible change of style towards something tighter, more propulsive, faster moving – anxious to get it finished, perhaps, while I still can.

Here’s the piece I wrote back in 2010, after visiting the exhibition in Oxford …

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Having walked round the Hodgkin exhibition at the Gagosian with my youngest daughter a couple of years back, I asked her what she thought. “Okay, but not as good as his early stuff.” She was all of 10. Challenged, she dragged me out to the foyer and a copy of the book we’ve got at home showing work from the early to mid-1990s. She had a point.

I remembered this standing in one of the upper rooms of Modern Art Oxford, which is hosting Time & Place, an exhibition of new Hodgkin paintings, dating from 2001 to 2010. Uncertain of my initial responses, I wondered aloud to my companion about the perils of continuing to work into the latter year’s of ones life and producing work that was less good than what had gone before, thus risking the sullying of one’s reputation.

It seems to me, she said, somewhat wisely, that you’re talking about yourself, not Hodgkin.

And she’s right. There have been times in the past – even before, in my mind at least, the age thing became an issue – when, having written something I thought pretty good – not great, but about as good as I could manage – I was cautious of moving on to something else for fear it wouldn’t be as good. I felt it after writing the first of the Resnick books, Lonely Hearts, aided on that occasion by my then editor telling me, in so many words, it had turned out rather better than he’d dared hope.

I’ve also felt, an analogous feeling, that I’d written (and worse, had published) something so poor that the next thing had to be bloody good in order to take the taste, as it were, out of my – and my readers’ – mouth(s).

But back to Mr H0dgkin. In the catalogue essay, which I read on the train home, Sam Smiles writes interestingly about the notion of ‘late work’. Vasari, he notes, having visited the elderly Titian in his studio, deprecated the fact that Titian had carried on working, harming his reputation as his creative powers “inevitably waned”. This, Smiles asserts, is not necessarily the case (check out Beethoven’s late quartets, Picasso, de Kooning et cetera, et cetera). What you can find – and what Smiles finds in Hodgkin – instead of ‘late work’ is a ‘late style’. And yes, these paintings are, on the whole, less busy, less baroque, less full, less likely to confound and astonish the eye; what you have instead is something simpler, more direct, more content with a simplicity of image, of stroke, of colour, of line. Marks that have the appearance of being quickly, urgently made. The single, supple swirl of “Leaf”; the fierce bands of light and cloud in “Yellow Sky”; the force and gravity of “Spring Rain”, a brisk and sudden downpour of oil of wood.

Late work, good work. Work that gives the heart a lift.

And here- for the second time on this blog, but hey, I like it! – is my poem based on one of Hodgkin’s paintings, After Corot

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After Corot

‘After Corot’ 1979-1982 by Howard Hodgkin

the train turning into the bay
enough to bring tears to your eyes

sleeping, your skin ivory
reach & fall of your breathing

your hand

in the painting everything is
at a distance: cliff, harbour,
sea, sky

tight within a frame
within a frame

only wait
and the light breaks white
on the horizon, mastheads etch
contours green beyond the wall’s bulk
and as a small boat painted red hoves into view
the land slips another foot into the sea

you throw up your arm

untrammelled
blue seeps under the edges of the frame
refusing to be bound

the rocking of the train
as it rounds the slow curve

your waking breath

the sea

Going Down Slow …

A while ago, 2009 to be precise, Nottingham-based small press publisher, Five Leaves, brought out a snazzy-looking hardback collection of my stories and poems in a limited edition. Minor Key, by name. The good news is they are going to follow it up, this November, with a similarly sized book, also a limited edition, bringing together seven stories which have not previously appeared together in any collection.

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Going Down Slow & Other Stories will include two Charlie Resnick stories, three featuring my North London-based private detective, Jack Kiley, and two others.

Of the Resnicks, “Going Down Slow” was first published as an ebook by Random House in 2014, and then reprinted in the same year in a special Arrow paperback edition of Darkness, Darkness for exclusive sale at Sainsbury’s.“Not Tommy Johnson”was first published in OxCrimes, edited by Mark Ellingham & Peter Florence for Profile Books, also in 2014.

The first of the Jack Kileys, “Fedora” was first published in 2013 in Deadly Pleasures, edited by Martin Edwards for Severn House and was the winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger in 2014. “Second Chance” was first published in 2014 in Guilty Parties, again edited by Martin Edwards for Severn House.The most recent of the three, “Dead Dames Don’t Sing”- more a novella, I like to think, than a short story – was first published as No.32 in the Bibliomystery Series, edited by Otto Penzler for the Mysterious Bookshop in New York in 2016.

Which leaves two strays: “Handy Man”, which was published in Ambit magazine, No 204, in the Spring of 2011, and “Ask Me Now” , which was published in 2015 in These Seven, edited by Ross Bradshaw for Notingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop, in association with Bromley House Library and Nottingham Writers’ Studio.

Take all this as an early warning; there will be more details, including how and where to order copies, at a later date.

 

Poetry : Outstanding Books

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For its current issue, The North asked thirty poets to nominate the poetry book that has meant most to them in the past 30 years, with the opportunity to nominate an anthology and a pamphlet should they wish. For me, it was always going to be a toss up between Lee Harwood and Robert Hass and, in the end, it was Hass’s Human Wishes that won out.

Published in 1989, and so just inside the 1986 cut-off point, while being a favourite, it isn’t, in all honesty, my actual favourite of Hass’s work, which is the earlier book, Praise, but that was first published in 1979.

Praise contains what I think are probably among the best of Hass’s shorter poems – “Heroic Simile”, which begins with a reference to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; “Meditation at Lagunitas”, which begins “All the new thinking is about loss/In this it resembles all the old thinking”; and the wonderfully titled, “Picking Blackberries With a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan”. It also includes what is still my favourite of the longer poems – a form which by the time of Human Wishes had become more complex and assured – “Not Going to New York: A Letter”, which begins …

Dear Dan –
This is a letter of apology, unrhymed.
Rhyme belongs to the dazzling couplets of arrival.
Survival is the art around here. It rhymes by accident
with the rhythm of days which arrive like crows in a field
of stubble corn in upstate New York in February.
In upstate New York in February thaws hardened the heart
against the wish for spring.

The pamphlet I chose was Lee Harwood’s The Books, a tiny 8 page booklet published by Longbarrow Press, which comes in an envelope also containing an equally small CD of Lee reading, that was recorded in Brighton in April, 2011.

Not the beginning this time, but the ending …

She climbed down from the tree a queen.
As we all do, and then set out
across golden stubble to the river.

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

I didn’t choose a favourite anthology, because, if I were to stick reasonably close to the truth, my favourites, in so far as The North is concerned, were published too soon.

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Penguin Modern Poets 10: Adrian Henry, Roger McGogh & Brian Patten. 1967
Penguin Modern Poets 19: John Ashbery, Lee Harwood & Tom Raworth. 1971
The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revisited. 1982

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Amongst the other poets choosing their favourites of the past 30 years in The North are Mimi Khalvati, Ian McMillan, Helen Mort, Sean O’Brien and Matthew Sweeney. Amongst the authors chosen, Thom Gunn, Sharon Olds, Seamus Heaney, Moniza Alvi and Phiullip Levine.

To find out more about The North and/or to order a copy of the current issue, go to the Poetry Business web site.

Last Dozen Films I Saw

 

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Blood on the Moon : Robert Wise (1948)
To Have & Have Not : Howard Hawks (1944)
Manchester by the Sea : Kenneth Lonergan (2016)
Red Road : Andrea Arnold (2006)
Parisienne (Peur de Rien): Danielle Arbid (2016)
Cinema Paradiso : Giuseppe Tornatore (1988)
Jackie : Pablo Larrain (2016)
Toni Erdmann : Maren Ade (2016)
Thumbsucker : Mike Mills (2005)
Portrait : Sergei Loznitsa (2002)
Twentieth Century Woman : Mike Mills (2016)
Old Joy : Kelly Reichardt (2006)

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Tom Raworth, 1938-2017

Tom Raworth Sept 2015

The first book of Tom Raworth’s poetry I bought was The Relation Ship; a second, 1969, edition of the book originally published by Goliard Press two years previously.  Goliard, later Cape Goliard, being an important small press – vital, at the time – set up by Raworth himself and Barry Hall.  I would have bought it almost certainly at Compendium in Camden Town, discovering Raworth round about the same time as I did Lee Harwood, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn.

It’s battered now with use and faded, but the poems still have freshness and delicacy and precision – you can sense Raworth stepping with care between the words …

THE OTHERS
(for anselm & josephine)

she said nothing
leaned on the stone bridge             the wind
howled in my ear, pause
between the dropping
of the record & the music

dust                      the wind                 the streets
already in shadow

we walked                  someone
playing the piano in a tiled room

oh
said her mother a
mister dante called you
beatrice

And I’m surprised, reading these early poems again now, the extent to which, in some, Raworth sounds like Harwood and vice versa. This is Tom, but it could be Lee – the title, especially.

YOU WERE WEARING BLUE

the explosives are nearer this evening
the last train leaves for the south
at six            tomorrow
the announcements will be in a different language

i chew the end of a match
the tips of my finger and thumb are sticky

i will wait at the station and you
will send a note, i
will read it
it will be raining

our shadows in the electric light

when i was eight they taught me real
writing
to join up the letters

listen you said i
preferred to look
at the sea.   everything stops there are strange angles

only the boats spoil it
making you focus further

Towards the ends of their lives they were both living in Brighton and Hove – the same ships, the same sea. The last time I saw Tom was in September, 2015, when, with others, we were reading at the Red Roaster Café in Brighton, as part of an evening celebrating Lee’s life and work – he had died that July – and that’s where the photograph of Tom at this top of his piece was taken. He may have needed a little help up onto the stage, but, as I’ve said elsewhere, when he read he read like a lion.

The final entry in his blog, dated 23rd January, read …

Last Friday after two days of tests, scans, bone-marrow extraction and so on, our Doctor came in the evening to say the cancer had badly metastsized…to bone marrow, liver, right lung, kidney and small bowel. Nothing to be done except palliative care and that I had at most two weeks to live. So that’s it. I can’t see I shall ever get back here. Emails will reach Val val.raworth@gmail.com who obviously will pass along to me whatever she can. Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run.

He died on February, 8th, the world a lesser place.

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New Beginnings …

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“Now it is necessary to get to the grindstone again.”
Ernest Hemingway, 1938

“So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time.”
Renata Adler : Pitch Dark

Two quotations which were very much in mind at the end a week in which I began writing a new book for the first time since I set out on the road to Darkness, Darkness back in 2013. Not another Charlie Resnick, of course, but what, if things go as planned, will be the fourth of the Frank Elder series, tentatively titled Body & Soul. Where Frank is concerned, it’s been a while. The third, and last up until now, Darkness & Light, was written in 2005, published in 2006; Ash & Bone was published in 2005 and Flesh & Blood, which I began writing in London and finished in New Zealand, was published in 2004.

Up until recently, my standard answer to the question, would there be another Frank Elder book, has always been no, no way: the central element in the books, for me, had been the changing relationship between Elder and his daughter, Katherine, and by the end of Darkness & Light that seemed to have settled to some kind of conclusion, a compromise, at least. A trilogy, over and done. But nothing comes from nothing and, a little over a year ago, the germ of an idea struck me. Not exactly an idea, an image: one which suggested a retread of the scene at the beginning of chapter two of Flesh & Blood, in which Elder meets Katherine after she has travelled down to Cornwall to visit.

As I say, nothing comes from nothing. That image wouldn’t let me go. What was she doing there? How long has it been since, father and daughter, they have seen one another? Why has she come?

I have a notebook in front of me now [Yes, all right, I’ve fallen for all the hype and it’s a Moleskine] which has Body & Soul in ink on the wrap-around cover and on the first page, the title again, with, underneath it, towards the bottom of the page, Dec. 2015. On succeeding pages are the notes and ideas that occurred to me in the ensuing months, some just a few words long, some longer and numbered into what could be a sequence; others, more elaborate and connected by arrows, the beginnings of a structure; then there are lists of the possible names of characters; things I need to find out, people it would be useful to talk to, what I need to talk to them about. I had briskly re-read the other novels in the series a couple of weeks before starting, making brief notes and marking passages I thought I might need to refer to. The next step was to process all of this into a different form. Armed with a white board and coloured markers I made as close as I ever get to an outline, not linear, but circular, beginning by placing the central event around which the action will be focussed at the centre and arranging the principal characters and actions around it.

My other preparation has been to go through my usual palate cleansing exercise of reading Hemingway – the first section of A Farewell to Arms and a selection of the short stories – the Nick Adams stories and some of those set in Europe, “A Simple Enquiry” for instance, and “Che Ti Duce La Patria”. Why? See the Adler quote above.

At some point, the reading has to stop  …

Monday, January 30th, 2017. Somewhere around 9.00/9.30am, having been at my desk since 8.00, hovering uncertainly over the crucial first sentence, the first line, I settled on this …

The house was at the edge of the village, the last in a row of stubby stone-built cottages backing onto fields leading down to the sea.

Not much, perhaps, but it felt right, it was a start …

After that, things moved along with, for me near the beginning of a book, almost worrying speed. Just short of 700 words on the first day, close to 1,000 on the second and third, and then 1, 300 or so on the fourth. I don’t know how that compares to other people, but for me, these days especially, it’s pretty good going. But now it’s another Monday, and the beginning of chapter 4.

She had first seen him …

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iPod Shuffle, February 2017

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  • Pancho and Lefty : Townes Van Zandt (from Live at the Union Chapel)
  • Satie: Ogive No. 2 : Sarah Rothenberg (from Rothko Chapel)
  • Famous Blue Raincoat : Jennifer Warnes (from Famous Blue Raincoat)
  • Sitting on Top of the World : Mississippi Shieks (from Stop & Listen Blues)
  • Cold Enough to Cross : Joe Henry (from Scar)
  • Three Guitar Special : Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (from Anthology, 1935-73)
  • No One Gets In : Bill Frisell (from Disfarmer)
  • Driving Home : Liz Simcock (from Seven Sisters Road)
  • Let Him Roll : Guy Clark (from Old No. 1)
  • My Girl : Otis Redding (from Otis Blue)
  • In a Mellotone : Duke Ellington (from Highlights of the Great 1940-42 Band)
  • I’m Pulling Through : Billie Holiday (from Billie Holiday & Lester Young, Complete Studio Recordings)

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