Saturday, 30 December 2006

Books of the Year etc

As I mentioned the other day, an awful lot of my reading and listening these days is what you might call back-catalogue stuff, usually catching up with books and records that have been acknowledged as classics for decades (at least) yet which I've somehow managed to avoid without even trying.
That's meant there's been precious little room for new material, and of course there's also the fact that new books are so expensive. But anyway, here goes.
As regards poetry, I've bought a lot, but very little of it new. Andy Brown's Selected Poems, Fall Of The Rebel Angels, was a pleasure, particularly as it's good to read a poet who makes no bones about keeping feet in all the (supposedly antagonistic) poetry 'camps'. It's eclectic enough to ensure that there's something in there for most tastes. Geoff Hattersley's New and Selected, Back of Beyond, was enjoyable enough too, although I suppose it would be fair to say I was disappointed with the newer work, and happier with the older material (especially the stuff I hadn't seen before). Simon Armitage's Tyrannosaurus Rex vs The Corduroy Kid was a difficult one to work out. In fact, Andy Brown had given it a rave review in Stride Magazine but again I was a little disappointed, feeling that there was maybe too much filler in there. That said, there was a refreshing willingness to try new directions too, so I suspect one or two of the pieces that didn't hit home first time round might grow on me on second reading.
That leaves Peter Sansom's The Last Place On Earth (see earlier post) and Hugo Williams' Dear Room as my two favourites. Now the latter certainly didn't explore new directions, or take obvious risks, instead picking up pretty much where the excellent Billy's Rain left off, and I suppose it was the sort of book you'd hate if you hate Williams' poetry, if that doesn't sound blindlingly obvious. But the point is, I do, like it that is, precisely because, in its own understated, unobtrusive way, it's as individual as any poetry being written in the UK. Williams consistently pulls off a very difficult balancing act, of being wryly funny even as he dissects failing relationships, and best of all, of creating an elegant, almost foppish poetic persona that is seemingly him but that couldn't really be (no one could write such honed, taut poetry and actually be as bemused as all that, could they?).
Three more to mention. Of the pamphlets (and I read a lot, either through reviewing or because I like the look and feel of a chapbook far better than a full collection a lot of the time), Gill McEvoy's Uncertain Days was the highlight. I make no apologies for picking a fellow Happenstance poet - buy it and you'll see what I mean. Intensely personal, but perfectly controlled too.
Finally, there were two books by a Nebraskan poet, Matt Mason. I got his chapbook, When The Bough Breaks, through an online pamphlet exchange scheme (more on that and Matt in a few weeks) and intially wondered what I was in for, given that it's about the death of his father from AIDS. In fact, it was wonderful - very moving, but also very funny, and with some imaginative leaps that really take you by surprise. His full collection, Things We Didn't Know We Didn't Know, was just as good, if more wide-ranging in its subject matter, but as I say, I'll post full details of how to buy both books early in January.
Where the back catalogue is concerned, Lee Harwood's Collected Poems is proving a favourite. There's plenty to puzzle over, plenty to dislike, even, but also huge amounts to inspire and delight.
My reading of novels was pretty restricted (although I've got a few good ones saved up for the New Year), and few stick in the memory. David Mitchell's Black Swan Green was good enough, but a big letdown after Cloud Atlas, which I loved. Lavinia Greenlaw's An Irresponsible Age had me spluttering with annoyance in a handful of places (mainly when she strays from her pleasingly spare prose to be self-consciously poetic), but was otherwise excellent, not least because most of the characters were so well drawn.
Music? Well, predictably, I loved Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, which returned to the inspired genre-hopping of 1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It's maybe not quite up to the standard of that particular classic, but it still contains more ideas than a lot of bands have in a lifetime. It's the only album this year that I can honestly say I can't stop listening to, so it'll have to be my number one.
And that's it. Happy New Year to everyone - see you all in 2007


Rob said...

Some good choices in there, Matt. Don't feel bad about picking a fellow HappenStance poet. The stuff is good. Will any of the chapbooks be picked for the Callum Macdonald award shortlist this year, or will they be ignored again? Look out for that. I just read Michael Mackmin's new one on HappenStance, and it leapfrogged onto my Picks of the Year.

Matt Merritt said...

Yes, I'm halfway through the Michael Mackmin chapbook - I thought about putting it in there, but it'll have to be the first name on next year's list!
It'll be very interesting to see the award shortlist when it comes out.