John Wilson

Favorite Books of 2010

And Books & Culture's Book of the Year

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The Woman Who Shot Mussolini. Frances Stonor Saunders. Metropolitan Books. In the introduction to our weekly e-newsletter for June 8, I mentioned the podcast that had been posted the day before, the subject of which, I said, "is a book sure to turn up on my list of favorites at the end of the year: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini, by Frances Stonor Saunders …. (You can readily find a brief video, two minutes or so, in which she is talking about an earlier book, a copy of which I just acquired. It's an interesting voice to have in your head as you read. And she has wonderful eyebrows.)" Flash forward to December: Yes, an exceptionally good book, shifting between the heart-breaking story of Violet Gibson (the woman of the title) and Italy under Mussolini, between the mental instability of a devout Catholic woman (whose "madness" made a kind of sense), abandoned by her family, and the megalomania of Il Duce, long indulged.

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. Edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. Norton. I wrote about this book for Commonweal's Christmas Critics feature (in the December 3 issue), from which I'll quote briefly: it is "a superb anthology that should turn up under many Christmas trees this December. Old-English originals appear facing the translations. Many of the more than seventy contemporary poets who are represented here—they include many prominent figures—do not know Old English. They worked with co-editor Matto or with other experts. The results are wide-ranging, both in the variety of original poems and in the distinctive voices of the translators. The useful supplementary material includes a foreword by Seamus Heaney and comments on translation by ten of the contemporary poets. And there are links to sites where you can hear Old English poems read aloud …. The Word Exchange invites us to a great feast."

Books and Culture's Book of the Year:

The Flower Seeker: An Epic Poem of William Bartram. Philip Lee Williams. Mercer University Press. On a podcast earlier this week, Stan Guthrie and I talked about this book. The podcast was almost twice as long as usual, but we could have easily continued for another fifteen minutes. That's how rich a work it is. Extracts from Bartram's Travels, reworked by Williams (as Ezra Pound reworked the sources for his Cantos), are the underlying strata of this work, which pays homage to the epic tradition in a distinctively American way. Curiosity and delight, beauty and sadness, loss and yearning, and all the "fragrant disorder of this world" are mingled here in a narrative that suggests the gratuitous abundance of Creation itself. And the physical book has been crafted with an expansive generosity that catches the spirit of the poem. Carve out time for it if you can.

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