I read so many great books this year, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which hijacked my life for two weeks with its absorbing story of an orphan, his grief, and that stolen painting, to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (reviewed here), which I still sigh over lovingly each time I pass it on the bookshelf.
However, two books stood above the rest in 2013, one a novel and the other a work of nonfiction…
It doesn’t matter that I attended public school (L.A. Unified in the house!) whereas Matthew Specktor went to one of the best private schools in Southern California. Or that his dad is a legendary Hollywood agent, while mine works below the line as a location manager. Or that he was a boy in L.A., probably burning bugs with a microscope, or whatever boys do, and I was a girl, filming fashion shows with my sisters in the living room, getting my ears pierced on Melrose. None of these piddling distinctions mattered when I read Specktor’s brilliant and ambitious novel, American Dream Machine, which waxes poetic about the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset (R.I.P.!) and Damiano’s, the cave-like pizzeria on Fairfax, and which comes out swinging with descriptions like this one: “And eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.” My city, its ash-colored plane! There it is! Specktor’s gorgeous book, about the flawed, chauvinist, talented film agent Beau Rosenwald, as tender as he is damaged, made me feel like my native city had been properly seen. It made me feel like a piece of fiction had finally and properly seen me. And if you’ve never even been to Los Angeles? No matter. Specktor’s prose alone is enough to lure you in: it’s sharply observed and nimble, like a more mischievous cousin of John Cheever, and his characters are wonderfully and deeply complicated, wounded and secretive. American Dream Machine is narrated by Beau’s illegitimate son, Nate, and the sprawling first person omniscience (first person omniscience!) is what I keep coming back to, months later, to puzzle over and admire. How did Specktor do it? He’s a magician, I tell you.
If I see you at a holiday party this December, I will corner you at the punch bowl and talk your ear off about Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which resonated with me not only as a mother and as a daughter, but as a human being on this big messy planet of human beings. It’s page-turning nonfiction in the tradition of Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Columbine by Dave Cullen, a genre I love but don’t read enough of. Solomon spent years researching this book, and he interviewed many, many parents with children who are different from them; the book includes chapters about the deaf, the autistic, the schizophrenic, geniuses, and so on. Solomon depicts these communities with respect and compassion, and he consistently raises meaningful questions about tolerance and empathy. Solomon’s book pushed me to investigate my own notions of normalcy, and I came away grateful to my own parents, for letting me become who I needed to become. This book is a masterpiece! And, hey, here, let me ladle you some punch, that’s a nice sweater, etc.
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