Books of the Year

Being the best books I read this year. Most of which were not published this year or perhaps even this century.

The books I own are dispersed between three distant attics , a car boot and a Kindle ( for which I have lost the charger) so I am relying on memory, and maybe that’ s the way it should be. And of course me being a Scotsman of a certain age,  many of these were borrowed from that archaic institution, the public library – soon to be axed by a local authority near you, thank you John Swinney.( This month closures announced in Fife, cutbacks in Edinburgh and East Lothian)

Lichens – New Naturalist 86 , Oliver Gilbert

New Naturalist were designed for the public of public libraries in the 1950s and like most formats are at their best when their authors struggle to keep within their limits.. Mr Gilbert is a pioneer lichenologist who enjoys being winched onto top of mountains and offshore islands to classify the lichen flora. I imagine one of the cast of Detectorists in the film of the book.. I did learn some stuff about lichen too – and also from the excellent pamphlets of Plant Life Scotland.

Incidentally this now retails for around £100 on Amazon , so hurrah for Edinburgh Public Libraries keeping the info in the public domain

Saharan journey: Desert Divers and Exterminate all the Brutes – Sven Lindqvist

Apparently Sven’s stuff is in the expensive-out -of-print range too but again I got a library copy.. I read this for the experimental writing course that finally got me to start my blog.. Its about colonialism, travel, geography and biography .. I cant remember which style the course catalogue fitted him into but it looks like new journalism to me..


The Book of Ways – Colin Will

I bought this from Colin in Haddington Public Library where I surprised him doing a workshop. He has been an inspiration for some time – this is a collection of haiban  – part Haiku part essay , popularised by Basho.  Colin’s journeys are always interesting and personal. Once I find the book again I ll dig out his haiku about meditation , which is the funniest thng I ve read all year..

Sitting about, to no great purpose, makes the place untidy  ( from The Way Of Zen)


Arctic Dreams – Barry Lopez

This is a classic of travel and environmental writing , cited by everyone.. The sense of place and love for the great white North is tangible.. This seems to be a coming thing. I met a bright young person at a party who was excited about heading north to the Arctic to watch the sun come up on the winter solstice – I confess I am not sure that it actually does. She did have a very warm looking coat though.


Falling into Place – Jane Routh

Janes internet profile says she lives in rural Lancashire manages a wood and keeps geese. This is about those things , observed with care and attention.


Held – Elizabeth Burns

Liz gave me Jane’s book and one of the last great things I read this year was Jane’s obituary of Liz. It was always hard for me to talk to Liz about her poetry and as a result I find it hard to talk about it to others. Following her loss it is appearing everywhere, swathed across a hotel site in the Royal Mile and bigged up as Britain s largest poem ( this one does at least have a fairly cosmic scope) – you can see why she wanted to keep it under control.. My favourite is  ‘This Life’,  about the escape from the underground – which her daughters chose to read at her remembrance ..


The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard

I refound this unexpectedly in an empty house ( well empty of people) on holiday and had time to read carefully, as well as think about the space without its owner – its the only thing I ve read that links phenomenology in theory to the existence of humans and their expression of it,and that’s a big thing to do.


Transactions of the Society of Edinburgh, Volume 5 – The life of Dr Hutton , by James Playfair

The journey itself is the thing and we’ve already come along way from a tramp along the cliffs at Pease Bay last February , and hopefully it will all be disembargoed soon,, like..

Like in fact the transactions which will pour into your computer from the internet if you let them

This is one of the places I’ve gone  since , freely downloadable and notable for the holistic tone of the natural philosophers , as they tip towards the sublime through the particulars of a well chosen ramble as we were also to do later, much later.


The Wallcreeper – Nell Zink

If there wasnt a Nell Z (aka the Bad- Belzig cuckoo), you d have to invent her- and perhaps someone has. However she has already made a more significant contribution to the protection of migrant birds than the RSPB, and written a couple of really funny novels, so lets just be grateful she isn’t Donna Tartt. This one is an adventure novel about ornithology and sex so I was always going to be in the target audience – I haven’t seen a review in Birdwatching yet..


2666 and Amulet – Roberto Bola˜no

Like, epic.. but see separate piece


Post Capitalism – Paul Mason

I ve had three conversations about this book since the May election ,and finished it on Xmas Day. Its a tremendous effort at synthesis of economic and social history and gives us somewhere to start – hence the conversations..

Youd be left feeling pretty bleak if you didn’t buy the sketchy prognosis for the post-capitalist programme at the end. Like most of my generation I am thinking about my life expectancy and being glad that I ll be gone by 2050







Roberto Bolano


Last Xmas, rather than giving anyone my heart,  I went into an Oxfam shop in Dundee to keep warm. I bought a copy of 2666 for £2.50 – it was a loyalty purchase. Apoyo or not I had no prospect of reading a nine hundred page novel. Then I got ill and for weeks fevered visits to Santa Teresa defined my days.

This Xmas, rootless wanderer, I found Amulet in the library and gulped it down over a dank weekend.

No-one I ve introduced Bolano to likes him so far, although clearly a lot of people ultimately do.

What do I like? There are the epistemiologically risky, endless digressions , the dissolute personalities, and scurrulous, self-referential humour – all of this reminds me of my previous post-modern fav , Thomas Pynchon ( but, y’know,  I prefer his early stuff..). Yet there is a further thing with Bolano.  It is about a desperate urge

And although the song I heard was about war, about the heroic deeds of a whole generation of young Latin Americans led to sacrifice , I knew that above and beyond all , it was about courage and mirrors and desire and pleasure.

And that song is our amulet.

This is the end of Amulet – written urgently following the death of his friend Mario Santiago Papasquiaro ( the basis of Ulisses Lima, from the Savage Detectives) .

John Banville’s review of Amulet disses this sentence in a rather bitchy way – and , yeah, its not typical , it has a STATEMENT quality that Bolano usually strives to avoid , and , que horror ! , maybe has a touch of magical realism in there, but in all those milliones palabras perhaps there are moments when you need to speak of yourself.

Here then is Bolano’s truth, his autobiography of Chile, Mexico , exile and diaspora, defining his work as a constant experiment to deliver that song in still more impactful ways.

In 2666,  at the heart of the mighty novel , of a number of overlapping narratives which pass through the city of Santa Teresa, is a series of forensic descriptions of the crime scenes of horrific murders of hundreds of women in the city . These are based on a series of actual murders which took place in Cuidad Juarez on the Mexican side of the US border. The catalogue is almost unbearable and shot through with a sense of desperation, horror, disgust and ultimately despair – as the realisation creeps into the reader that no sense will be made of what has happened . The courage and mirrors , desire and pleasure lead again to death , but stupid death rather than sacrifice.

I realise this doesn’t look like a recommendation for an enjoyable read – all I can say is that it brings me to an experience of the fragileness and value of human life that I occassionally get from a novel, and in a way I have never had anywhere else. Thus to my list of War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, Sunset Song et al.  I add 2666.

In 2666, the character, Jorge Amalfitano, who recurs (as many characters do ) in other novels ( and looks to me like a cipher for a mature RB) , is having a breakdown , while trying to shield his daughter from his growing sense of the violence and corruption of the town . She escapes through a convoluted meeting with a hard-boiled American journalist , who is literally a character from another type of fiction (he’s called Fate, duh),  as her father , like most of the other characters ( and as in most Bolano works), is drawn down a vortex (or plughole) of vague dissolute internal narrative, until he disappears.

And what about Bolano? In Amulet, the mother of Mexican poetry, hallucinating in the bathroom of an occupied university, prophesizes the fate of various writers over the next thousand years ( famous, obscure and imaginary) . ‘Read, rediscovered, forgotten..‘ , ( what price John Banville?) – Bolano teases his peers vanity( and perhaps his own? – well, it certainly crossed his mind)..

My prophet is Walter Benjamin. His view that what we need with us flashes up at a moment of danger – and at those times people will find Bolano ( hopefully with the correct typography for his surname – apols for not being able to locate a tilde on WordPress), telling them useful stuff about courage , mirrors, desire and pleasure.