This Week’s Hot Reads: April 8, 2013

From André Aciman’s novel of a Harvard student struggling with his immigrant identity to a history of the women who ruled Renaissance Italy.

American Dream Machine By Matthew Specktor

An agent and his son play out the Hollywood version of the American Dream.

Matthew Specktor’s newest novel shows the cutthroat nature of how to succeed in Hollywood, a world where moving up means climbing over someone else. New-York-born Beau Rosenwald moves to Los Angeles in 1960, and his charisma helps him become a wealthy Hollywood agent. His son turns to drugs in his father’s shadow. The story is familiar: a powerful man struggles to keep control of his empire; the son searches for his identity outside of his father’s shadow. We get a voyeuristic joy in watching antiheroes conduct their business—something between The Godfather and House of Cards. The wild, ambitious world of Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s quickly becomes the driving force of the story. Specktor does for L.A. what Hemingway did for Paris and what Hunter S. Thompson did for Las Vegas: create a character that lives and breathes a city. Like hotels in Vegas, we see characters rise, grow dusty, and collapse.

Harvard Square By André Aciman

An Egyptian Jewish grad student at Harvard struggles with his identity.

With Cambridge emptied of students for the summer, our narrator, an Egyptian Jew and a grad student at Harvard University, wanders in the heat to avoid his studies, and meets Tunisian cab driver Kalaj at a café. Kalaj is the opposite of the narrator—brash, outspoken, adventurous, and canoe tipping—and they make an odd couple. Kalaj changes him, but when he meets a girl named Allison he becomes self-conscious again. He fears showing the WASPy Allison the side of him changed by Kalaj, and, similarly, fears judgment by Kalaj. Ultimately, he has to decide between the side of him that might be at home at Harvard, and the part of him that will never quite belong. Harvard Square is a paced, enjoyable read, and Aciman plays out his internal struggles on the Cambridge stage, between two doppelganger players. The book is hard to put down.

Time on My Hands By Georgio Vasta

Three schoolchildren in 1970s Italy idolize and imitate the state’s anarchists.

Children love to imitate things they see on TV. Time on My Hands follows the story of Nimbus, a philosophically minded Sicilian boy growing up in the capital city of Palermo in 1978. A product of a religious home in a politically charged atmosphere, Nimbus and his two closest friends begin an adventure of idolatrous imitation of the leftist Red Brigades, who have begun a wave of terrorist acts against the ruling party. As journalists report bolder acts by the renegades, Nimbus and his friends are forced to move further from childhood innocence. As a worst-of-humanity story, Time on My Hands falls somewhere between a philosophical The Most Dangerous Game and an urban Lord of the Flies. Absent a sociopolitical morality, these boys define their own in a world of growing anarchy. War and childhood exist in tenuous unison, a balance which is well constructed in symbol and style. The characters hold our attention despite the sometimes heavy-handed metaphor, and snowballing tension makes for a story that’s hard to put down. Jonathan Hunt’s translation bubbles with surface tension.

The Smart One By Jennifer Close

Three troubled siblings bring their problems home for a week at the family beach house.

Everyone has a friend, sibling, or relative who can’t seem to dig themselves out of a hole, but the Coffey family has three of them under one roof for a week at the summer beach house. Older sister Martha is home, and has been for six years. Overwhelmed by nursing school, she returned to her childhood home and slowly crawled her way up to the management level at the local J. Crew store, but an unwillingness to face certain facts about herself is keeping her from finding satisfaction. Youngest sibling Max is bringing his girlfriend along from college for the week at the beach, and having just learned that she is pregnant, struggles with what to do. Claire’s engagement has recently collapsed, leaving her agoraphobic and lifeless as she depletes her savings and refuses to give up an expensive apartment. Unable to pay her bills, and inconsolable by the few friends available to her in New York, she reluctantly heads for the family vacation home.

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There are of course some downsides to the dysfunctional family story. Like many before it, Close’s story presents derivative characters, people who start off as clichés. But nevertheless they’re entertaining, and that familiarity makes it quick and easy to be on board before they head to their coastal family getaway. And cliché doesn’t mean unrealistic. Close has found a way to use familiar pieces to create something new, like a successful sitcom. All of these characters are faint reminders of that friend you have: your annoying sister, or that coworker you end up talking with in the break room. They’re slightly predictable but nevertheless totally enjoyable to read about.

The Deadly Sisterhood By Leonie Frieda

A historical examination of the unique power held by eight women of 15th-century Italy.

Rather than chronicling one character per book as she did with her biography of Catherine de Medici, Leonie Frieda has created a web of Renaissance women bound together by blood, politics, and a gift for ruling on a level before their time. The lives of the princesses, queen mothers, duchesses, and the men around them were full of wealth, murder, and corruption. This was a time in Italy’s history in which an extraordinary set of conditions allowed for a unique role for many women. Feudal families held much of the power in an untamed empire of mercenary armies warring for control of small sections of land. These women seized their authority in subtle ways, in many cases using deference as the anchor for their work, under the premise of representation. They were the courtly first mates to their husbands. Power is used for, against, or in the shadow of these men, as would be expected in a society that granted them no real privileges. But that limitation really illuminates the talents of these women. They make the best of what they have, and their political savvy is all the more incomparable for it.