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Tue, 28 Apr 2009 02:38
Fiona Robyn is a novelist living in rural Hampshire with her partner, cats and vegetable patch. Her debut novel The Letters was published by Snowbooks in March. Her previous books include A Year of Questions and Small Stones. She blogs about being a writer at Planting Words and edits a literary blogzine at a handful of stones. You can find out more about Fiona on her own website: fionarobyn.com.
This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich
After an illness, Ehrlich started travelling across the largest island on earth -- Greenland. She returns seven times, and takes us with her as she experiences the strange, cruel, magical landscape. She interweaves her descriptions of the light and the ice (which she described as poetry chopped up and sneaked into a book of prose) with Inuit stories from European anthropologists, portraits of the artists who came to paint in the luminous light, and her deepening relationships with the people she meets and spends time with.
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley
If you only have one anthology of poems in your house, it should be this one. Astley is the editor of Bloodaxe Books and he and they do a huge amount for poetry in the UK. He also has exquisite taste, and this book brings together an impressively broad range of contemporary poetry exploring human experience. The poems are vivid and affecting -- they really do have lives of their own. I have returned to this over the years and I keep finding more to enjoy and admire.
A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving
I could never read this book again, as it broke my heart. I love much of Irving's writing -- Until I Find You is another favourite -- but A Prayer for Owen Meaney packs the biggest emotional punch. The story follows a small, odd Owen Meaney (who accidentally kills his best friend's mum and who believes he's an instrument of God) and everything ties together beautifully at the end.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I made the mistake of re-reading this while I was writing my third novel, and it put me off for three months. How dare I even attempt to write a novel after reading something as pure and as true as this? Holden Caulfield is at least as real as most of the people I know. He's great company, too, and gives us an important reminder of what it's like to be an alienated teenager in a world that doesn't make sense.
A New Path to the Waterfall: Poems by Raymond Carver
This would be my desert island book of poems. Carver might not always be technically brilliant, but he writes so searingly honestly about work, alcoholism, illness and his family that you can't help but love him. The Blessing and Gravy are poems that have a permanent place inside my head.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Suzuki Shunryu
I didn't understand much of this at all the first time I read it. By my second reading I'd started to meditate regularly and had read much more widedly about Zen Buddhism, and I understood a bit more. I wish I'd known Shunryu. I feel like I'll be going back to this book for the rest of my life.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Dillard calls herself "an observer of nature" and she makes an art of this -- much like Mary Oliver. She writes with great precision and beauty about a natural world teeming with life -- sometimes terrible, sometimes marvellous. The whole book is steeped in spirituality and gratitude, and as well as enjoying her rich prose she can help us to learn to love the place we find ourselves in.
The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
McFarlane set out to find the last wild spots in the British Isles -- from his Cambridge base to the corners of Scotland, the edges of Wales -- all the desolate, people-less places he could find. His writing is intelligent and lyrical, and he reminds us that "we have in many ways forgotten what the world feels like."
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
This is a book about being a writer that has sustained me through many a dark time. Lamott has a talent for exposing the messiest parts of herself to help us feel like we're not the only ones in the world to feel jealous or full of despair. There is a lot of practical and helpful information in this book, but most of all I admire Lamott's spirit -- she's brave, honest, and very very funny.
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
This book of short stories contains one called Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens about the death of a cat, which even now brings a tear to my eye when I remember it. Moore, like Carver, specialises in the strange ordinariness of people. To quote one reviewer, she produces "a series of scorching, miniature portraits of absolute individuals, not one stereotype, full of the unexpected."
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