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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A group at NYU’s journalism school has named “The Top Ten Works of Journalism of the Decade in the United States.” Four of these are books: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.
I’ve been reading Megan’s blog Bookdwarf for a long time now. I met Megan amidst all the crazy book folk at BEA this year and was surprised to find her not as short as one might have expected. While the name of her blog may be misleading, however, her taste in books can be trusted. As such, here are Megan thoughts on the best books she read this year:I love reading the lists you collect because they give me a chance to reflect on what I’ve read this year. I feel lucky – I read a lot of great books this year, some old and some new. One of my favorites was Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which I was glad was nominated for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction. Hessler, who has lived in China for over ten years and speaks Mandarin fluently, writes about the changes occurring in China today. Not quite a travelogue nor a memoir, it’s a cultural portrait of a rapidly changing world. What makes it so great is Hessler’s ability to disappear from the narrative and paint a vivid portrait of everyone he meets and everything he sees. He shows us a big picture view with enough complexity and contradiction that we see all nuances.Another favorite this year was Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, part of the NYRB Classics series. First published to great acclaim in Hong Kong in the 40s, Chang’s short stories are being published in English for the first time. She writes about men, women, and the ways even the smallest actions or words can transform relationships. The cultural divide in Chinese society between ancient patriarchy and the tumultuous modernity forms the vivid background. The stories seem to be about how life never works out. They’re bleak and yet you can’t help but be enchanted by the characters.Other books I enjoyed this year were Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, whose talented writing enchants this novel about the war in Biafra, and Random Family by Adrian Leblanc, who spent 10 years researching this finely written portrait of an extended family.PS I also second Mark’s love for Gregoire Bouillier’s Mystery Guest and Ed’s love for Echo Maker, not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s haunting The Road. I think I’ll try to read more older stuff in 2007. It’s part of my job to read the new stuff, but there’s so much out there already that needs reading.Thanks Megan!
The annual MacArthur “Genius” Fellows were named today. This award gives people from diverse fields $500,000 with “no strings attached,” for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances.” There are typically a handful of literary types among the scientists, artists, and musicians who become Fellows, with this year being no exception. George Saunders is probably the best known among them, but I’ve listed all of the literary winners below along with some relevant links:David Carroll – Naturalist Author/Illustrator – From the bio on his site: “David is an active lecturer and turtles/wetlands preservation advocate. His art and writing, as well as his extensive fieldwork with turtles and wetlands has been widely recognized, and been the subject of many feature articles.” He is the author of a recently published memoir, Self-Portrait with Turtles and “the wet sneaker trilogy” of The Year of the Turtle, Trout Reflections, and Swampwalker’s Journal.Atul Gawande is a prominent surgeon, but he is better known for his book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science and his articles in the New Yorker, including “The Bell Curve: What happens when patients find out how good their doctors really are?”, “Piecework: Medicine’s money problem,” and many others. In my opinion, Gawande’s best quality is his ability to bring his perspective as a surgeon to his stories. Nearly all of his articles start with an observation he has made on the job that he then investigates further. (In this respect, he’s not unlike another great medical writer Oliver Sacks.) Other links: A Slate diary Gawande did in 1997; Gawande’s 2005 commencement address at Harvard Medical SchoolAdrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was an incredible work of journalism. To write the book, she spent ten years following the lives of an extended family in the Bronx to paint a detailed portrait of the lives of people that don’t get typically get such attention in the press. In an interview with Salon from 2003 (you have to watch an ad to read it), LeBlanc explains what she discovered while writing the book. See also: a recent article by LeBlanc on child actors in the New York Times Magazine, reprinted here.David Macaulay is the illustrator and author behind those incredible “The Way Things Work” books. In them, he deconstructs everyday objects as well as big buildings and other structures in engaging, lighthearted, yet incredibly detailed illustrations. You can see a few of those illustrations here. Macaulay is probably best known for The Way Things Work, but his architectural books, like Mosque are fascinating as well.I can’t pretend to know much about Sarah Ruhl – theater is a blind spot for me – so I’ll point instead to this long and glowing profile from the Washington Post: “She has been writing and rising steadily ever since, creating plays that aren’t easy to categorize. (An anthology of her plays will be published this fall.) The Clean House is tight and funny, skirting the polemics you might expect from a scenario that begins with a demanding WASP doctor and her recalcitrant immigrant maid. Yet it deepens by sly degrees, sweeping the audience on a surprising cloud of feeling as the characters deal with terminal illness in unorthodox ways.”George Saunders likely needs little introduction here as he’s been a favorite at The Millions and on many other book blogs. He is known for his unique, dystopian yet bleakly funny style that somehow manages to capture everything that is weird about our world without being obvious about it. For more George Saunders fun, check out an interview at Identity Theory, his story “Adams” from the New Yorker (there’s more where that came from), or his books, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and In Persuasion Nation.
Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe’s anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton’s book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists – well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: “If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism’s calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism’s distinguishing mark, Boynton insists.” Though the boundaries of this “new new journalism” may be fuzzy, it’s exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this “new new journalism” is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton’s book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review “Art of…” interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here’s an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the “new new” stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor’s WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America’s DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson’s Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.
Now the much-vaunted “Oprah effect” has hit Britain, where a brief mention of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea on a popular daytime show caused sales to go through the roof. Stunned by the response, the hosts claim that they will once again press their producers to allow them to start a book club. It’s amazing to me that the TV book club phenomenon did not actually originate in England, where the world of books is far more integrated into popular culture. In fact, last summer’s “Big Read,” a sort of all time greatest books countdown show on the BBC, was wildly popular and apparently bumped book sales in England noticeably. Meanwhile, Star of the Sea, a book that received decidedly mixed reviews gets a boost that points to the power of the television in the world of books. Here’s the original “Oprah effect” story.To anyone who has read Dan Brown’s mega-blockbuster The Da Vinci Code, here’s an interesting article from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that tries to separate the facts from the fiction.The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced in a couple of months and I’ve been thinking about who might win. I’ve lately been favoring Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc in the General Non-Fiction category. I’ll probably muse over who I favor for the next several weeks, and stay tuned for the First Annual Millions Pulitzer Pool (complete with prizes!). Details to come.