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‘The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion’

by Meghan Daum

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 245 pp., $26

Hannah Horvath, on the HBO series “Girls,” famously backed away from calling herself “the voice of my generation,” electing instead for the flimsier “a voice of a generation.” A couple of decades older and wiser than Hannah, the essayist/columnist Meghan Daum could, quite possibly, make a legitimate case for the former claim.

A sensation in 2001, then in her early 30s, for the essay collection “My Misspent Youth,” Daum has been a columnist for the Los Angeles Times since 2005. Daum, hardly misspending her youth, has also published a novel (“The Quality of Life Report”), a memoir about her obsession with real estate (“Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House”) — and now another essay collection, this time focusing on her own early middle-age.

“The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion” at first seems like it might be yet another navel-gazing session from an author enamored with his or her own life (“The Unbearable”?), but Daum has, in addition to the kind of best-friends voice that immediately draws the reader in, an uncanny knack for turning the personal into the universal. Her general theme here, as explained in a brief introduction, is to look at how certain events in our lives are expected to elicit a particular emotion, and how she — which is to say, we — reacts when that emotion just isn’t there. The book’s first essay, the searing “Matricide,” has Daum describing her troubled relationship with her mother, and her feelings upon her mother’s death; it’s raw, honest and strangely beautiful. “I only know that I’ll probably never finish telling it,” she writes of her story, in conclusion, “and it almost certainly will never be whole.”

In “Difference Maker” (which recently appeared in The New Yorker magazine), Daum examines her own decision not to have children: “As a role, my role, it felt inauthentic and inorganic. It felt unnecessary.” The complex feelings surrounding that decision, though, led her to become a court-appointed advocate for children in foster care — and through this we meet Matthew, a lost boy Daum tries to help, but doesn’t much succeed. She’s hard on herself in this essay, in a way few first-person writers are; you can see how this child haunts her, and how some choices, even when they feel like the right ones, stay with you, like a whisper hanging in the air.

Other essays explore less weighty topics: Daum’s love for Joni Mitchell, her beloved dog, her relationship with food. The latter is the book’s weakest link — it feels less universal and more like something blathering about their own particular food preferences. (And can’t we experience that at any party, or any gathering of more than one person?) But a chapter about attending a party at Nora Ephron’s house is delicious fun, with Daum as a celebrity-watching fly-on-the-wall. (Who knew Nicole Kidman wasn’t really into charades?) The book leaves you hoping that this wise observer — who is, perhaps, the writer Hannah Horvath wants to be — has a few more stories to tell.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.