For this reader, 2013 was an eclectic and rich year. Here are my top five favorite reads, a mix of recent and not so recent releases:
American Dream Machine, by Matthew Specktor. This sprawling and totally absorbing novel (Specktor’s second) portrays Hollywood, from the inside, blending the movie business, agents, writers, east coast and west, all conveyed in the sharp, yet slightly regretful voice of its narrator, Nate Myer, the illegitimate son of the self-made man and film agent, Beau Rosenwald. A novel you’ll want to clear your calendar to spend time with.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. A different variety of self-made man marks the first in Mantel’s trilogy of fictionalized biographies of Thomas Cromell. Wolf Hall charts the years from 1500 to 1535, as Cromwell moves from street waif to chief counsel to Henry VIII. I can’t think of another writer whose sentences are so vivid—you don’t so much read them as feel them grip you by the back of the neck. The voice of Cromwell is biting, tender, deep and highly attuned. We feel his scoundrel of a father’s beatings, hear the rustle of Anne Boleyn’s veil. Mantel could describe anything and I’d read it.
This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. Well before the memoir boom, before The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes, there was This Boy’s Life. First published in 1989, it has since become a classic of the contemporary genre. The voice of Toby, who charts his course from a fatherless 11 year old to a dubious candidate for prep school, offers a wry and sympathetic regard for his beautiful, unmoored mother. Unforgettable.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Fans of Lahiri will note, from the first pages of her newest novel, which was short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and National Book Award, will from the first pages sense that Lahiri is charting new territory here. Known for her portrayals of Bengali Americans, The Lowland, in its story of brothers caught up the in the leftist Naxalite movement of the 1960s, picks up this thread, but in language that is far more austere than her previous works. Starkly beautiful, readers both familiar with Lahiri’s work and those who are new to it, should read this affecting book.
Light Years, by James Salter. First published in 1975, this novel is considered among the most enduring of Salter’s novels. Known for the beauty of his sentences, ones that Jhumpa Lahiri called “so precise, so clean, so fervent and yet so calm.” Light Years, Salter’s second novel centers on the marriage of Nedra and Viri, a well-educated and chic couple who live in a ranging house by the river outside of New York City. As captivating as their charmed life seems, the book is, in a way, about unhappiness, one that isn’t apparent until it begins to dismantle their lives.
Next time, the books I’m looking forward to in 2014.