One for the Books
Jay Trachtenberg's Top Reads of 2015
A Brief History of Seven Killings leads a list of works exploring crime and politics abroad and at home
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Jan. 1, 2016
Nearly the first quarter of my reading year was taken up with Jamaican novelist Marlon James' gargantuan epic A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead). Released at the end of 2014 and named the winner of this year's coveted Man Booker Prize, it is a complicated, harrowing, violent tale centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in December 1976, an act with ramifications that extend into the NYC drug wars of later decades. Dickensian in its scope and huge cast of characters, many of whom speak Jamaican patois, it's an intense, exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating read.
Traveling this summer in Morocco and last summer in Turkey has naturally piqued my interest in the Muslim world. Two novels from this year were certainly pertinent to current events. Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq (just published stateside, translated by Lorin Stein), is the timely tale of what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood wins the French election in the near future. Insightful, dark, and very funny, it is interpreted from the viewpoint of an emotionally disenfranchised university professor. Highly recommended to political junkies. Also generating controversy upon its original publication in Algeria is The Meursault Investigation (Other Press), by journalist Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen). He cleverly revisits Albert Camus' 1942 existential masterpiece The Stranger, this time through the eyes of the brother of the heretofore nameless Arab murdered by Camus' antihero Meursault. Daoud addresses the legacy of colonialism and, by extension, the current state of Arab identity.
Two Austin-centric books of note are Scott Blackwood's See How Small (Little, Brown and Company) and Jesse Sublett's 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital (Arcadia Publishing). The former is a rather unsettling fictional account of the still-unsolved 1991 yogurt shop murders. The latter is the lively, noirish, and well-researched story of the largely forgotten Timmy Overton Gang and the Dixie Mafia that ran wild 50 years ago.