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


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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Top 10s
Marjorie Baumgarten’s Top 10 Films of 2017
Marjorie Baumgarten’s Top 10 Films of 2017

Marjorie Baumgarten, Dec. 29, 2017

Steve Davis’ Top 10 Films of 2017
Steve Davis’ Top 10 Films of 2017

Steve Davis, Dec. 29, 2017

More Fiction
Jessi Cape's Top Reads of 2016
Top Books to Inspire Hope Amidst Change
Memoirs of activism and tales of suspense helped ground this reader during a roller-coaster year

Jessi Cape, Dec. 30, 2016

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

Jay Trachtenberg, Dec. 30, 2016

More Arts Reviews
Ground Floor Theatre's <i>There and Back</i>
Ground Floor Theatre's There and Back
This new play by Raul Garza lets us spend a lifetime with an immigrant and all the decisions she makes

Robert Faires, Aug. 17, 2018

ZM3 Live Productions' <i>Echo of a Refugee ... Me?</i>
ZM3 Live Productions' Echo of a Refugee ... Me?
Zell Miller III's latest was a state of the city address that called out Austin for gentrification and policies harmful to its black citizens

Robert Faires, Aug. 17, 2018

More by Jay Trachtenberg
Top 10 National Albums of 2017
Top 10 National Albums of 2017
National themed lists

Dec. 29, 2017

2017 Music Critics Poll
2017 Music Critics Poll
Best roadshow, best new local acts, R.I.P.s, etc.

Dec. 29, 2017


Top 10s, Fiction, Memoir, Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter, Omar El Akkad, American War, Mohsin Hamid, Exit West, Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Eddie Wilson, Jesse Sublett, Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir

AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2018

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle