Jay Trachtenberg's Top Reads of 2017
Four novels depict conflict and compassion in WWII Ukraine, present-day Pakistan and Israel, and a future America
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Dec. 29, 2017
The book that has haunted me most intensely this year is Rachel Seiffert's A Boy in Winter (Pantheon), a searing, ultimately bittersweet tale of a small Ukrainian town overrun by the SS in 1941. The story is told from three perspectives: a young Jewish couple herded up and awaiting deportation, their two young sons who have avoided the roundup and are taken in by a peasant girl, and a German engineer reviled by Nazi ideology. The intertwined narratives are riveting and compassionate.
Although written well before the 2016 election, Egyptian-born, American journalist Omar El Akkad's harrowingly dystopian novel American War (Knopf) can easily be viewed through the prism of that fateful event. Set in the last quarter of this century, it depicts the ravages of a second Civil War brought on by the ramifications of global climate change. The story centers on a Southern family, the endless tribulations they endure, and the vengeance passed on to future generations. "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin."
Tapping directly into the headlines concerning issues of immigration and refugees is Exit West (Riverhead) from Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid. It's a beautifully written story of a young couple who flee civil war in an unnamed Muslim country, making their way to London and then Northern California. A nice touch of magical realism lightens the load, and the immediacy of the topic makes this a particularly timely read.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf) is Nathan Englander's provocative second novel, one that deals largely with a Jewish American who becomes a spy for Israel's Mossad and then a traitor to his adopted country. It's also about Israelis and Palestinians, perceptions of loyalty and patriotism, shifting identities, and the large gray areas between the extremes of black and white.
Fans of local music should not miss Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir by Eddie Wilson and Jesse Sublett, an informative and very funny history of Austin's most famous music venue.