Our top books of 2014 provided pleasures despite the pain
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Jan. 2, 2015
A monthlong, end-of-summer trip to Turkey dominated my reading choices for much of the year. Besides feeling compelled to spend endless hours reading through various travel guides, two Turkish novels were the best books I read all year. As it were, I learned more about the character of Turkey from Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's dense, evocative novel, Snow (Vintage), than all the travel guides combined. Set in the rundown border city of Kars in far eastern Turkey, it's the story of an expatriate poet who returns home to ostensibly investigate a rash of suicides committed by religious, adolescent girls. The book gives you a palpable feeling for the real tensions that currently exist in the ongoing struggles between Islamists and secularists in this vibrant, modern country.
Pamuk has called the late and far lesser known Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar the greatest Turkish novelist of the 20th century. Tanpinar's comic masterpiece, The Time Regulation Institute (Penguin Classics), was originally published in 1962 but virtually unavailable in English until early this year. Written in the guise of a memoir and populated with a large cast of colorful, eccentric characters, the book satirizes Turkey's march to modernization following the post-World War I collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent establishment of the Turkish Republic. I no doubt missed much of the book's humor because of my ignorance of the country's history. Still, it's far more than just a Turkish allegory; this is a universal, absurdist send-up of all modern bureaucratic states.
As someone who has read his fair share of Holocaust literature, I found Martin Amis' take on the subject to be intriguing if not unsettling. The Zone of Interest (Knopf) is a love story set in a Nazi concentration camp and tri-narrated by the camp's commandant, a camp official, and a prisoner. The "banality of evil," indeed.