Favourite books, 2015

15.40, Wednesday 30 Dec 2015

Favourite books read this year:

New Things is so undramatic – the story of a wife at home, and a husband who is a Christian missionary taking the word to people who are hard to understand. Communication and distance runs through this book: Between the couple; between the missionary and his community; between what’s really happening and the reader.

It’s a delicate book. Half-told shadows of truths, understated language that circumnavigates huge black holes of feelings where light doesn’t go.

I found out after reading it that Michel Faber intends this to be his final novel – he wrote it while his wife was dying. Heartbreaking. You can tell.

Wild Life is by Molly Gloss who wrote The Dazzle of the Day, a novel about a village of Quakers who travel to another star system on a generation ship. They treat repairing the solar sails like farming the fields. And it talks about something that can’t be talked about from the inside: Silence.

So Wild Life isn’t sci-fi, but - like Strange New Things (did I mention the Christian missionary visits aliens on another planet?) - it’s speculative fiction: A woman gets lost in the woods, I don’t want to say much more than that.

Except this. There’s a memorable period of silence in the woods. For me it highlights what happens in silence… you become detached from what words do. Words, somehow, add our expected reality onto our perceptions. Silence, by removing words, simultaneously creates dissociation - a dreamlike state - but also brings you closer to reality itself, requires you to become embedded.

The beginning, middle, and end of the silence is sensitively and insightfully told.

Archdruid is nonfiction. It’s John McPhee’s portrait of David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth, told in three parts, each part a fight with another individual, an opponent, over an environmental issue: Mining, property development, the damming of rivers.

The third part grabbed me especially – David Brower rafts down the Colorado River with Floyd Dominy, through sites where Dominy has won and Brower has lost. McPhee is there too, a participant observer. This isn’t journalism, it’s telling a story through describing what happens between the three of them.

It strikes me that what these books by Faber, Gloss and McPhee have in common is they all describe character enormously well.

Brower is speaking on behalf of wilderness. Rocks, trees, these things are silent, at least in our human conversations. So we need people to speak for them. Maybe. It’s a fuzzy domain. On the one hand, that which doesn’t speak sometimes needs a voice, so perhaps we need speakers who will hold its viewpoint inside. Essential if the rest of us aren’t going to destroy it by trampling. But the risk is that when you speak for a thing that holds its own counsel, you undermine its subjectivity and its sovereignty – its right to be understood on its own terms.

McPhee describes the land in words that speak to me: The Utah canyonland had been severed halfway up by a blue geometric plane, creating a waterscape of interrupted shapes. He is also the author of Annals of the Former World.

What happens between people:

I have been having my mind slowly transformed by Group Psychotherapy by Foulkes and Anthony. I’ve had a long-standing interest in small group dynamics that I’m really beginning to indulge this year, and along with Wilfred Bion’s Experiences in Groups, this is the best eye-opener I’ve found.

Groups (social interactions, company) are the water in which we swim. Having common group phenomena pointed out, or to be shown details of a group’s evolution and its impact on individual behaviour, makes me feel like I’m finally seeing something that was in-front of me all along.

This is also the book that introduced me to the role of the “participant observer”… in these psychoanalytic situations, the person who attempts to speak for the group, but is also part of it. Tricky. Enlightening.

When you can see something, well, that lets you ask questions like, why couldn’t this be otherwise? And, what about the groups I haven’t looked at yet, the ones with trees and rocks and other non-humans?

Group Psychotherapy includes an analysis of the three person closed group in No Exit, the play by Jean Paul Sartre in which he says Hell is other people. I hadn’t clicked what a tight description of the group this is. Now seeing how real it is, there’s more there for me to read.

I guess that’s what brings together all of my favourites this year. There’s a reality to the characters, and their interactions, and their behaviours and evolution, and their situations; and so they tell me more - by speaking and by not speaking - and they live longer in my imagination.

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