Book Number Seven: Winter Hours – Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems by Mary Oliver
(Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999)
I was introduced to this book, and to Mary Oliver, by an American friend. Since then I have read a lot of Mary Oliver’s work and every piece has been just beautiful – she is so engaged with nature – so observant – and her prose and poems are simple with a real love at their heart.
I love the varied material in this book. The way we get an insight into the author and her world and how she sees things. We watch as she is unable to clean the stairs of her house because a spider is building its web there, we see turtles travel to the beach to lay their eggs, we are allowed into the secrets of how she came to write her poem ‘The Swan’.
Mary Oliver talks about poems needing to have ‘sincere energy’ and ‘a spiritual purpose’ and I think these are the qualities that I love in her work. Here is gentleness and insight alongside the raw realities of life.
Book Number Six: Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
(First published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury in 2010)
Oh, this is such a good novel!
I love Jon McGregor’s work. I love his descriptions and the way he gets to the heart of small, everyday things and unpicks them so that they open up like a flower. I love the way that he brings us a thousand small insights that make a greater whole.
But this book, this is so different from his other work. Its subject matter is perhaps what you might call darker (a community of people immersed in a culture where drugs and homelessness and marginalization are the norm) but the book just fizzes with energy and love. Here are characters we can engage with, here is urgency in living life even though the story centres around a man’s body lying in a ruined flat.
Read it! I think you absolutely need to…
Book Number Five: Quaker Faith & Practice
(Published with regularly updated versions by The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain)
This book is both a personal indulgence and inspiration. The subtitle is ‘The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Sociery of Friends (Quakers ) in Britain’, but this does it no favours. Originally there were two books – one looking at the ‘Faith’ side, and the other at how this is ‘Practiced’ by Quakers.
But this is not dry or religiously heavy material. It contains inspirations and insights into the working of God/Spirit in the world from many people over many generations. If you want to know anything about Quakers, read Chapter One which contains 42 succinct ‘Advices and Queries’. ‘Take heed, dear Friends,’ says the first one, ‘to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’
I love this book. In here I can see how others have dealt with death and divorce, with politics and people who are very different from ourselves. In here I can learn how a ‘Meeting for Worship for Business’ might be conducted, or how the testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, Truth, Peace and Sustainability/Stewardship of our earth might impact on me. In here I am always redirected to the Light – the divine – that is at the heart of every person and situation.
There is an online version too. Do check it out at: http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/
Book Number Four: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton
(First published by Jonathan Cape in 1948)
This book is subtitled: A story of comfort in desolation. Perhaps I need say no more. It is a wonderful novel that reads almost as the most poignant documentary – the story of a Zulu parson’s search for his son in a Johannesburg immersed in the racial problems of South Africa at that time.
There is a sense of inevitability about where the search will lead. The landscapes are beautifully described – realized as places carrying the emotion of the people and burdens of the country and its history – and it feels like a eulogy to this ‘beloved country’ as well as to what the love of a father can overcome. So achingly sad. Get the tissues ready.
Book Number Three: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
(First published in 1998 by Faber and Faber Limited)
If I absolutely had to pick a favourite book of poetry, this would be it.
It’s not that Ted Hughes is necessarily my favourite poet (he isn’t), but more that it reads like a cross between an autobiography (which it is) and a novel. Intensely personal, and charting so much of his relationship with Sylvia Plath, the beauty of this book is how it is so fiery and emotional – how it gets under your skin and makes you feel that it is you who is reliving an event or activity through each poem. You feel like you are in each moment, the prose is so immediate, yet it is so personal that you almost feel embarrassed that the moment has been shared with you, a stranger.
This is a book that takes you on a journey through a relationship – more poignant for it being a famous one where we know the sad outcome. In every poem there are brilliant and brightly lit moments – the ups and downs, the intensity, the passion and the frustrations. It is a book with a journey in it, and you move inexorably to the end – carried on a big tide and unable to jump free if you wanted to.
Book Number Two: Wonderland – A Year of BRITAIN’S WILDLIFE Day by Day by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss
(Published by John Murray (Publishers), 2017)
My son bought me this book for my birthday, and it is just the most wonderful Treasury. Each day has a little piece of writing by one of the two authors (you can spot their individual styles as you go!) on some creature, or bird, or plant that might be spotted at that time of year.
Apart from an achingly beautiful cover, there are no illustrations. But this is a brilliant collection of encounters – with both rarities and the everyday – and the authors just bring such joy and knowledge to the table that you can’t help but smile. They take you into the world of nature and share their insights and enthusiasms so that you feel you are there with them as they make their discoveries and connections with the living things we share our world with every day but often miss.
Something to dip into and enjoy, not just day-by-day but year-by year.
A friend of mine took up a ‘Seven Day Book Challenge’ on Facebook recently and suggested that I might follow suit. This seemed to involve recommending a different book every day for a week. I was a bit tardy in following this up, but it got me thinking about the wonderful range of books that have spoken to me over the years and it occurred to me that it would be a lovely thing to share through my blog – so here goes! I’ve cheated a little in not sticking to the single sentence I was meant to use to introduce the books…
In no particular order:
Book Number One: The Bone People by Keri Hulme
(First published in Great Britain 1985 by Spiral in association with Hodder and Stoughton)
This book is my all-time favourite novel. It won the Booker McConnell Prize in 1985 and I recall that it divided opinion at the time. It is an intense book, with intensely poetic and beautiful prose.
Set on the South Island beaches of New Zealand it has the sense of a timeless fable, immersed in nature and Maori myth, but at its heart it is the story of three people – Kerewin who sets up home in an isolated tower by the beach, a boy who befriends her, and his father, Joe. I don’t know Keri Hulme managed to write such heart-achingly personal prose – so deep and intense and embedded in each character and their troubles – but it’s absolutely why I Love Love Love this book.