Jay Trachtenberg's Top Reads of 2016
Top Books to Make Sense of a World Breaking Down
Three novels explore our planet in crisis in Israel, rust-belt Ukraine, and the Antarctic
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Dec. 30, 2016
My favorite read of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in a decade, Here I Am (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). It takes us into the workings of a multi-generational, middle-class Jewish family, particularly the fragile and dissolving marriage of Jacob and Julia Bloch. While hosting Israeli relatives, a major earthquake devastates the Middle East and provides a vehicle to explore the relationship of American Jews to Israel. A master of writing dialogue, Foer provides an often dense novel of ideas that is insightful, very funny, and ultimately compelling.
Serhiy Zhadan has been called "Ukraine's most famous counterculture writer," and his award-winning 2010 novel Voroshilovgrad (Deep Vellum) appeared in English this year (translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler). Set in the industrial rust belt of post-Soviet eastern Ukraine, it is a dark but funny tale of an urbanite who returns to his hometown to run his brother's gas station. It's a road novel with splashes of magical realism and an embrace of fraternal loyalty. In hindsight, the bleak, disheartening environs and attitudes make it hard not to notice parallels to Trumpian middle America.
The Lamentations of Zeno (Verso), a slender novel by German writer Ilija Trojanow (translated by Philip Boehm), tells of a misanthropic climate scientist working as a travel guide on an Antarctic cruise ship. With a sharp ear for pop song lyrics and a love of glaciers, our antihero seems to be fighting a losing battle against climate change and the clueless humans who foster it.
Two local books with music themes worth checking out are Comin' Right at Ya (UT Press), Ray Benson and David Menconi's fast-paced, often hilarious 40-year history of Asleep at the Wheel, with a cavalcade of great Benson-told yarns; and Troubadours: Love Death Rumba (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), the debut of Richard Lee Price, a heartfelt, often poetic ode to the healing and spiritual qualities of love and Latin music.