Thoughts for Thursday - more great picks from 2006

Although Swann's Way blew the competition away for the Best Read of '06, other favorites do come to mind. How do I determine a favorite? Easy. If I can still remember the title, without looking at my list for prompting, then it managed to retain its hold in my subconscious despite the strain and stress of everyday life -- that's a good read.

Here are my other picks for 2006:

1. Never Let Me Go. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite contemporary authors, simply on the basis of the two books I've read. I loved Remains of the Day, loved this book. The prose and stories of these two novels couldn't be more different, but they both are so excellent, I am simply going to add one of his other novels to my 2007 reading list.

2. Turn of the Screw. I was frustrated by his ambiguous prose, but this one wouldn't let go of my psyche. Oh, Henry, what have you done to me!

3. Big Sur and The Dharma Bums. Kerouac deserves a two-for-one. His exuberance just crashes forth from the pages.

1. Marching into Sunlight. Maraniss takes two unrelated events -- the start of the Vietnam War protests in the States and a turning-point battle in 'Nam -- that happened on the same day, and produces some new insights on this war. (And more reasons why no one should be listening to Dick Cheney.)

2. The February House. I'm a sucker for tales of literary cliques, groups or cabals, and the group in The February House ranks as one of the quirkier bunches. Fun read.

3. Man's Search for Meaning. There's a reason why classics never go out of style.


Ask not for whom The Bell Jar tolls

As several people expressed interest in Sylvia Plath's work, and as I've read just about everything she's written or that's been written about her, I thought I'd share some suggestions for further reading.

First off, I should explain that I'm not a huge fan of her prose, which admittedly doesn't amount to much: The Bell Jar and her collection of short fiction, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Unfortunately, she wasn't able (in my opinion) to push her prose to the levels reached in her other work. If you really want to experience Plath, you must read her poems and journals. Fortunately, for someone who died at 30, Plath left a fairly extensive legacy of these.

Readers who have only experienced The Bell Jar really should consider beginning with the work that established Plath's reputation: Collected Poems. Original editions of her posthumous collection, Ariel, simply are too narrow; for one thing, Ted Hughes, the husband from whom she was separated at the time of her death and executor of her estate, rearranged the order and selection of poems that Plath had left. (A restored facsimile of the original Ariel was issued recently.) But the Collected Poems show the depth and breadth of her poetry. In addition to her famous poems, Daddy, Ariel and Lady Lazarus, readers can find gems such as Morning Song (one of my favorites) or Words.

While you're dipping into Plath's poetry, you might also read The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Surely, these are among the best literary artifacts around, ranking with Virginia Woolf's diaries in the quality of prose. It is here that you will recognize the voice that was finally achieved in her Ariel poetry and that sadly is missing in most of her prose.

Finally, there is the canon of Plath-related material that may or may not give you more insight into her life and work. You can search Amazon.com and choose any of the better known biographies: Rough Magic, Method and Madness, Bitter Fame (which has what I feel is unwarranted controversy surrounding it). Here also are three of my recommendations:

1. Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes. Part of the Plath allure undoubtedly lies in her literary and romantic partnership with the famous English poet. Birthday Letters not only shows a more "confessional" side to this notoriously unconfessional poet, but it also sheds some light on their relationship. Released just before his death in 1997, this collection addresses his experiences with Plath. To me, it's fascinating about what he doesn't say; this is a man who doesn't leave his fingerprints on anything, even a marriage.

2. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm. With all of the controversy surrounding Plath's varied biographies (Hughes and his sister Olwyn fought bitterly to control any information concerning Plath, particularly anything involving her relationship with Hughes), Malcolm authored this interesting biography which, while discussing Plath, also examines the role and authenticy of biographies. Even Hughes apparently admired this book.

3. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath by Jo Gill. This excellent academic examination of all Plath's work is for the serious Plath reader.


Next stop, Pooterville!

Warning: A full-tilt pooter post ahead, with lists and random ramblings and personal opinions from someone who doesn't get paid to give them. (If you haven't been keeping up with the pooter debate, well, you'll just have to trust me on this one.)

1. Worst of 2006: I have a theory about crappy books, novels or otherwise. Bad books are like bad relationships: You get out as soon as decently possible and never look back. How long you stick with an untenable situation is an individual preference; me, I tend not to hang around more than 30 pages (with a book; I've been known to last fewer than 30 hours with a bad relationship).

But this year was different. For various (and somewhat unsavory reasons) I actually read a bad book, cover to cover. So, now I have a Worst of 2006 to contribute. And the loser is: The Mephisto Club by---Whoever it is Authoress I Shan't Read Again.

To put it in Paid-Book-Reviewer parlance, what a piece of drek. Cardboard characters, unconvincing romance (with a priest, no less. Hasn't Tess Whose-It ever heard of The Thorn Birds?), over-the-top gratuitous violence and a rather morbid fascination with autopsy detail. (I think the author is a slicer-dicer in "real life," but I am feeling pretty uncharitably disposed toward this author who obviously has signed a multi-book deal along the way.)

I hated it. There, an uneducated, unsubstantiated, full-on personal Pooter opinion.

2. The Best of 2006. Swann's Way, of course. I can't rave on about Proust enough, but I can say I have cleaned off a shelf for him on my newly purchased bookcase (and considering how valuable bookshelf real estate is in MY apartment, that's saying a lot). I can't wait to continue with the Proust Project. And I hope I have something less Pooterish to contribute about him in the future. For now, RAH!

3. Never Cry Wolf: The Good Weekend Read. What with Christmas and 10-hour work days and multiple appliance disasters, I haven't been able to concentrate on really good fiction. So, this weekend I spent time cleaning my bookshelves (including purchasing two new ones from Craig's List). I now have an official TBR shelf. And I gave my books a good shot with Windex and a paper towel (works wonders on most books, save the really old ones) and then packed them into shelves with books of similar topic. I felt like a matron who had scrubbed up her scruffy little orphans and tucked them into a nice, clean bed. One of the glories of cleaning bookshelves is discovering hidden treasure. I found something I must have picked up from a 4-for$1 cart, Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. What a great read! Mowat spins his tale about wolf observation in the Canadian wildnerness with a gentle sense of humor. Really enjoyable. (Mowat also wrote one of my favorite bios, about Dian Fossey, called Woman in the Mist.)

I leave you with one last thought: Pooters Rule!