I read a book nearly every day -- some trash, some classics, some repeats -- so I can’t really focus on a definitive list. I can share some of my favorites, especially those less familiar ones. As fickle as I am, the featured books are sure to change. Perhaps you’ll “flirt” with one of the titles here . . .

Memoirs by Pablo Neruda

Memoirs by Pablo Neruda, the Nobel-Prize-winning poet, is a loosely chronological, autobiographical journal, mostly composed of observations and commentary, not thorough, nor factual, perhaps not even sensible. Neruda can become tedious when he decides to tell the reader what he thinks the reader should know. But when he abandons messages and loses himself in the writing, Memoirs is too rich to eat in big servings.

The book has many flavors, but they do not blend: the man who owned a Stradivarius so beautiful he would not allow it to be played, even taking the violin into his coffin . . . the panther with eyes like yellow knives . . . the search for rich, white vellum and the feel of wicker . . . stairways . . . hairy spiders? Neruda writes, The closest thing to poetry is a loaf of bread or a ceramic dish or a piece of wood lovingly carved, even if by clumsy hands.” How easy! Poetry must be everywhere, and we must all be poets.

The section, My First Poem,” is typical of the others and, certainly, does not start with Neruda's first poem. Neruda begins with the brutal hunting of swans, poor flyers, clumsy, easily caught and killed with sticks. He recalls a battered swan he tended for twenty days when he was a child. Even though the swan was almost his size, Neruda carried him in his arms down to the river every day until he found out that swans don't sing when they die.” Half of a page, then Neruda writes of eating green plums dipped in salt . . . of writing poems in his math notebook . . ..of catching bumblebees in his handkerchief . . . of reading books about breadfruit and Malaysia . . . of a day when he finally set down a few words . . . different from everyday language”. . . Poetry?

When did Neruda write that first poem? The day he handed his stepmother a neatly-written poem? Or the day a swan died in his arms? And what is to be made of the following passage:

You can say anything you want, yes sir, but it's the words that sing, they soar and descend . . . I bow to them . . . I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them . . . I love words so much . . . The ones I wait for greedily. . .they glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish, they are foam, thread, metal, dew . . . I stalk certain words . . . They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem . . . I catch them in midflight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives . . . And I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them . . . I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, like pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves . . . Everything exists in the word.

Whether writing about familiar friends or famous people, his native Chilean cities or foreign places he visited as a diplomat, Nerudas memories are intensely lyrical. No foreign city is more beguiling than his beloved Valparaiso, secretive, sinuous, winding,” where every hill has a profound” name and the stairways that spill down those hills are shed like petals.” With his reedy, almost childish voice,” Fidel Castro seems but an overgrown boy whose legs had suddenly shot up before he had lost his kids face and his scanty adolescents beard.” After Nerudas generous friend Alberto Rojas had given away his material belongings, he would jot down a line from a poem on a scrap of paper" and offer it as if he were putting a priceless jewel in your hand.”

Each exotic city becomes an eccentric friend, and the famous become equally as familiar as Nerudas friends. Every memory he shares with us reveals a poetic sensitivity, a magical juxtaposition of the mundane and the mysterious. Memoirs is a book to pick up for minutes and think about for hours. Few books make it so easy to see the poetry in our own lives, to turn so satisfyingly to our own memoirs, to hunt so eagerly for our own pens and paper.

What was Nerudas first poem? He never tells us.

Other Favorites

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zorah Neale Hurston is an unusual rite-of-passage story that shows off Hurston’s stylistic expertise, as she shifts effortlessly from gutter dialect to sublime lyricism. Trained as an anthropologist, she shares her insights into her own southern black culture, entertaining as she educates. Mule stories. The Dozens. More.

For fans of Sherlock Holmes, nothing beats an informed retelling, reinterpretation, or reinvention of the Master. Try any and all of these:

Good Night, Mr. Holmes by Carole Nelson Douglas
The Beekeepers Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The List of Seven by Mark Frost
The West End Horror by Nicholas Meyer