Some books I read in 2022

December 30, 2022 3 Comments

Covid may have loosened its grip, but its ‘stay home’ message has lingered, so just as many books got read in 2022 as in the previous year.  I’ve been steered to some of them by research needs, but that hasn’t reduced the enjoyment.  Here are some of my favourites.  The list doesn’t include any charity shop serendipidies, though I’ve picked up a lot of unplanned reading from Tenovus, the Air Ambulance and the Cats Protection League.

Elin Jones, Hanes yn y tir: edrych am hanes Cymru (2021)

Hanes ar y tir, along with its English version, History grounded: the visual history of Wales from the cromlech to the Senedd, is unusual, in that the Welsh Government arranged for every school in Wales to receive a copy as a child’s introduction of the history of Wales. It’s safe to say that no one has done more than Elin Jones to promote Welsh history in education. Historically, only O.M. Edwards could compare with her.  Her book, which Elin tried out in draft on many teachers and students, is an object lesson in how to make history come alive – not just for children but for anyone.  It covers all periods, from Pontnewydd Cave to the Red Wall, and it does justice to subjects underplayed in traditional histories, especially the role of women and black and other ethnic minorities.  Whole pages are devoted to women: Nest ferch Rhys ap Tewdwr, Gwerful Mechain, Catrin o Ferain, Ann Griffiths, Elizabeth Miles, Eileen Beasley, Betty Campbell – as well as my favourite strongwoman ‘Vulcana’ (Miriam Kate Williams).  It’s stuffed full with vivid illustrations, and has a specially delightful, celebratory cover.  Throughout, Hanes yn y tir embodies one of Elin’s main injunctions to everyone learning history: ‘look around you!’. 

Kerri Andrews, Wanderers: a history of women walking (2020)

This is the kind of book I like: one that opens your eyes to new people and a new world, and in a single reading expands your mental horizons.  Wanderers is not really what it advertises itself as, a history of women walking.  Instead, it focuses on just ten women, and most of them are British (or rather, English and Scots).  But the choice is well made, and the chance to concentrate on a few individuals brings you close to their (very different) experiences of life – and of walking.  Some of the women are well-known, like Dorothy Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf, but looking at them from the point of view of walking alters how you habitually think of them.  Others are more obscure, like the astonishing eighteenth-century scholar Elizabeth Carter, Ellen Weeton, a Lancashire governess and fearless solo climber of Yr Wyddfa, and Nan Shepherd, the woman who has recently been rediscovered as almost the presiding genius of the Cairngorm mountains.  Walking, often alone, gave all these women them a sense freedom and independence that social and economic norms, not to speak of the domination of individual men, usually denied them.  As you might expect, the traditional literature of walking is almost completely dominated by men.  It seems to me, though, that many of the most interesting and unconventional narratives of walking within the last couple of decades have been written by women.  Wanderers is a good place to start before you explore them.

Jane Fraser, Connective tissue (2022)

Jane Fraser lives in Llangennith, and most of the eighteen short stories in Connective tissue are set in Gower, fertile ground for imaginative writing, and close, geographically, to Swansea University, where Jane was a student on the creative writing course.   Some of the stories – they are very short, and she is clearly a strong believer in ‘less is more’ – made me wonder if there is such a genre as Gower Gothic.  The story entitled ‘Plenty of time, Jane’, for example, begins:

Mrs Tucker was flat on her back in the driveway.  She was there because her husband had run her over.  She had her left hand stretched out and was clinging onto the ivy that she noticed was rampant and quite out of control along the dry stone wall.  She was thinking that if it had been husband number one who had done this, she might have understood.  That it was husband number two came as quite a shock to Mrs Tucker.  But, there you go.

The other stories are less dramatic.  They use small incidents to illuminate relationships, often within families, in language that is precise and measured.  After reading each one, you feel an immediate need to reread it, just to see how expertly the author sewed her story, and her words, together.  After finishing the book, I immediately sought out Jane Fraser’s novel, Advent, and it’s on my to-read list for early 2023.  (Another Swansea book I enjoyed this year was Steven Lovatt’s Birdsong in a time of silence (2022), the silence being the quiet of Covid lockdown; writing a whole book about birdsong, I think, is quite a feat).

John Morgan-Guy, ed., Trysorau: casgliadau arbennig Prifysgol Cymru y Drindod Dewi Sant (2022)

I was sent this book recently for review in Barn – there’s also a parallel version in English – and it didn’t disappoint.  It was published to mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of St David’s College in Lampeter (now part of the University of Wales Trinity St David), and consists of reproductions of illustrations from manuscripts and printed books in the Special Collections in the Library at Lampeter.  Three things about it make this an outstanding book: the choice of items, the quality of their reproduction, and the excellence of the explanatory texts that go with each item, written by scholars and curators at Lampeter.  The Special Collections at Lampeter really are special, and much wider in scope than the tedious theological tracts you might expect.  Here we have some finely illuminated manuscripts – the earliest is spattered with red stains, said to be the blood of slain monks, but more likely, according to the accompanying text, to be red wine – early printed books, including Conrad Gessner’s phenomenal encyclopaedia of animals, both real and imaginary, and more recent volumes like John Frederick Lewis’s exotic sketches of the Alhambra.  It all amounts to a kind of condensed world history in one volume.  At the start is a fascinating history of the Library by John Morgan-Guy, and at the end a thoughtful piece by the current curators about the future of the special collections.  Both essays try to grapple with the awkward but undeniable link between those responsible for building the collections (and the College) and the wealth they derived through slavery.  Beauty and horror co-exist.

Ruth Bidgood, New and selected poems (2004)

It’s only this year, stimulated by news of her death, and the realisation that she wrote about a visit to Strata Florida, that I’ve come to know the poems of the Powys poet Ruth Bidgood.  For some months I’ve been working my way gradually through this collection, a poem or two at a time.  As I’ve gone on my admiration for her work has grown and grown.  She’s often seen as the poet of the Empty Quarter or ‘Green Desert’, the semi-mountainous parts of central Powys where few people now live.  And it’s true that a great many of her poems deal with that the fate of that land, especially the abandonment of farms, chapels and churches and whole valleys, as the means for living, and the ways of life that depend on them, withered, then died.  But Ruth Bidgood is more generally, I think, a poet of loss, grief and memorialising.  Elegy is her natural pitch.  She was a gifted and careful historian, who had spent many hours in the local archives.  She was unusually aware of the long history of the country on the mountain edges.  She knew personally, or so it seemed, the farmers and their wives who lived there three hundred years ago (some of her poems are ‘found poems’, made from fragments of old documents she discovered in the archives, and churchyard inscriptions).  One of my favourites in the selection is an early poem, ‘Roads’, which, in retrospect, might have been written at the very end of her life:

No need to wonder what heron-guarded lake
Lay in the other valley,
Or regret the songs in the forest
I chose not to traverse.
No need to ask where other
roads might have led,
Since they led elsewhere;
For nowhere but this here and now
Is my true destination.
The river is gentle in the soft evening,
And all the steps of my life have
brought me home.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

One hundred years old, so I felt the need to re-read.  I bought my green-backed Bodley Head edition in Cardiff in September 1976.  But it was a replacement, I remember, for a dog-eared Penguin paperback edition I’d owned since being a student.  So I’ve been reading Ulysses since the early 1970s.  With one exception, it’s my favourite book.  I’ve never been convinced by the objection that it’s an impossibly difficult novel (Finnegans wake is a different matter, unless you’re ultra-multilingual).  It seems to me that you can throw yourself into almost any section and enjoy it, as long as you don’t worry en route that you’re ‘missing’ or ‘failing to understanding’ something.  You really don’t have to keep Stuart Gilbert by your side, or any of the hundred and one other companions.  What do I like about Ulysses?  Its amplitude – it’s a drama that contains as many scenes, characters, thoughts and emotions as you’d come across in a lifetime of real life.  Its democracy – each time I read the book, Stephen Daedalus seems more and more of a self-absorbed prig, and Leopold Bloom more and more a ‘man of the people’ in the best sense: tolerant, humorous, sensitive and open to the world.  And finally, its language (it, too, is democratic) – ideally, you should listen to Ulysses, not read it, because then the language really comes alive.  There’s no one who can write sentences like Joyce, at least in English.  Here’s a random example of the vernacular, the first words of the Cyclops episode:

I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye.  I turned around to let him have the weight of my tongue when who should I see dodging along Stony Batter only Joe Hynes.

          – Lo, Joe, says I. How are you blowing?

Not a word out of place.  With complete economy Joyce lets your inner eye direct the film of the scene.

Kim Moore, All the men I never married (2021)

What a book!  Even if you never read poems, give it a go.  Especially if you’re a man.  Kim Moore is a brilliant and versatile technician as a poet, but it’s what she writes about that takes your breath away.  As the title hints, it’s a book about men.  Men don’t come out of it all that well.  They mistreat women is a multitude of different ways.  The book is a kind of poetic catalogue of men and their various failings, aggressions, flatteries, deceits, neglects.  The beginning of No. 13 gives you a good flavour of one of her tones (there are plenty of others), and her likeness for repetition:

Although we’ve only just met, he’s already telling me
that, no, my suitcase isn’t heavy at all, as he lifts it
with one hand into the boot.

He’s not even reached the end of the road
and he’s already telling me I have a crazy soul,
that he can tell how crazy I am.

He asks me do I know what he means, and I smile
and pretend that I don’t.  He says all the women
he knows who are artists or poets or musicians are crazy.

Needless to say, matters only get worse in the rest of the poem, which, if nothing else, is an invitation to you to reconsider behaviour.  In November Kim Moore won the Forward Prize for 2022 for All the men I never married, which one of the judges described as a ‘phenomenal and powerful collection, and one I urgently want to share with everyone I know’.  I feel the same way. The book, by the way, has a stunning cover picture, ‘Fungi and flowers’, by the US artist Fred Tomaselli.  The publisher is Seren of Bridgend, who have produced a string of excellent poetry books in the last few years (they also published Ruth Bidgood).

Comments (3)

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  1. Dafydd Pritchard says:

    Diolch, Andrew, am y darllen difyr gydol y flwyddyn. Melys moes mwy!

    A blwyddyn newydd dda!

    • Andrew Green says:

      Diolch yn fawr, Dafydd. Melys moes mwy? Y bwriad yw cario ‘mlaen, cyhyd â bod rhywbeth ‘da fi i ddweud. Blwyddyn newydd dda i tithau.

  2. Rita Tait says:

    This is the year I shall read the James Joyce. My birthday after all is June 16th.

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