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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 1

My reading took a somewhat different direction this year. I read very little in the young adult genre, but a lot of mystery and multiple nonfiction works. There were even a few classics because you don’t just stop being an English nerd. Here are my favorite books read in 2016, numbers 10 through 6!

10. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris

pictures-at-a-revolution

My Classic Hollywood education has naturally progressed to reading. Pictures at a Revolution follows the production of the 1967 Best Picture nominees and the breakdown of the studio system. The book could have easily been a confusing collection of names, but Mark Harris makes the stories easy to follow without feeling the need to refer back to earlier chapters. Like the best writers of film history and analysis, he brings immediacy to the rebellious beginnings of films that are now established classics. I stayed interested from start to finish.

9. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood is a scholarship student at a prestigious East Coast college doing a summer internship with a women’s magazine in New York City, during which she experiences mental breakdown. Swap Esther Greenwood for Sylvia Plath, and all of these details remain true to her life. While sometimes stressful, The Bell Jar provides spot-on descriptions of the acute pain of depression. Having read a biography of Plath’s early life in 2014, I enjoyed finding the fictional counterparts to real-life people. It’s a tough but worthwhile read.

8. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

prayers-for-rain

As mentioned in this post, I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro mysteries this year. I liked all of the books, but Prayers for Rain stands out as a favorite. Being the fifth book about these characters, the emotional threads start to come together in satisfying ways. Patrick and Angie’s repartee is as sharp as ever, and at this point Lehane has become deft at asking complicated moral questions without being heavy-handed. The psychopathic killer also provides a particularly mind-bending mystery for the detectives and the reader.

7. Me Before You by Jojo Meyes

me-before-you

I avoided reading this book for a few years because of the weepy storyline. Then I took it to Florida with me, and while there are weepy moments, I was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of the characters and pacing. When the movie came out, many people took issue with the story’s approach to the paraplegic character. All I can say as a reader is that I took his choices as particular to him and not representative of how all paralyzed individuals feel or think. To recommend itself, the book has witty dialogue and a narrator worth loving.

6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca Cover

I had a running joke with my mom about long it took me to read this book. However, the delays were a product of library book interruptions, not a dislike for the book itself. Daphne Du Maurier’s writing reminds me of my favorite Gothic novels. In fact, the setting and plot are somewhat reminiscent of Jane Eyre, which blends the styles of Gothic and Victorian novels. While maintaining its foreboding atmosphere, Rebecca also made me feel a kinship with the narrator. I was glad to take my time with it. (You can read my full review here.)

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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Mad Girl’s Biography: Dating and Doubt with Sylvia Plath

Mad Girl's Love Song

Like any good angsty teenager with literary inclinations, I was a fan of Sylvia Plath. I actually preferred Anne Sexton’s poetry, perhaps because I found her subject matter more tangible, but I spent my fair share of time with Sylvia. When I learned about this new biography by Andrew Wilson, my inner sixteen-year-old demanded that I read it. I was drawn to the idea of a biography that focuses on her life before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.

I was quite immersed in Mad Girl’s Love Song during the week I spent reading it. One of my coworkers actually walked away when he heard me starting another Sylvia anecdote. Still, it’s a testament to the book that I felt compelled to share the facts that I learned.

Mad Girl’s Love Song showed me that Sylvia had a powerful but fragile ego. Her sense of self-worth was strongly tied to winning the admiration of others, whether it be through awards, publication, or dating. She put enormous academic pressure on herself in high school and later at Smith College. Having attended a liberal arts college myself, I enjoyed comparing her experience at a 1950s women’s college to my own. She dealt with financial strain on top of academic and social stress. It’s not hard to see why her first mental breakdown occurred at age twenty.

Sylvia Plath at Smith

In focusing on Sylvia’s life before Ted, the author seems to be making two points. The first is that Sylvia began to suspect her own mental instability at a young age, long before her tumultuous marriage. The second is that she dated “literally hundreds of men,” often beginning a relationship with gusto before quickly detaching herself. The fact that her father died when she was eight is the most obvious explanation for her preoccupation with men. However, it is apparent that Sylvia formed intense but volatile bonds with many people in her life besides romantic prospects. She repeatedly wrote in her journal about feeling like an incomplete or fragmented person. Did she hope to somehow find herself through other people?

Although Sylvia’s active dating life provides insight into her character, it is also this biography’s greatest challenge. At times the text started to feel like a list of men she dated, rather than a nuanced account of a person’s life. It doesn’t help that Sylvia was often dating several men at once, plus keeping up correspondence with others. Wilson usually alerts the reader to men who will stick around for more than a few pages, but those passages could still feel tedious. I wonder if the information could have been presented in a more compelling way or even condensed.

Of course, I’m not particularly well-versed in biographies, so I may be approaching my critique from a fictional mindset. Wilson had access to unpublished letters, which must be a biographer’s dream, and creating a complete account of a writer’s early years has its own merit. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a worthy read for any Plath enthusiast.

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