Jay Trachtenberg's Top Books of 2019
From the social upheaval of the Sixties to the double life of an intelligence agent to the secular past of an Orthodox rabbi, splits resolved into memorable books
The book I most enjoyed this year was Joshua Furst's REVOLUTIONARIES (Alfred A. Knopf). Like an acid flashback for those of us who experienced it, even vicariously, and an eye-popping primer for those who missed out, this novel revels in the chaotic political, social, and cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s. It's the story of counterculture radical Lenny Snyder – a thinly veiled Abbie Hoffman – as seen through the eyes of his young son, Freedom (aka Fred). Populated with era icons like folkie Phil Ochs, attorney William Kunstler, and poet Allen Ginsberg, Revolutionaries digs deep into the fractious tenure of the times without forsaking its effect on the individuals involved, particularly father and son.
One of my favorite writers, Nathan Englander, hits the bull's-eye with Kaddish.com (Alfred A. Knopf), a cynical and very funny tale surrounding the clash of modern and traditional. As a former Orthodox Jew, Englander writes authoritatively of Larry, a secular Jew somewhat estranged from his Orthodox family but required to say Kaddish, the traditional mourner's prayer, for his deceased father. Instead, he contracts with a website, Kaddish.com, to unburden himself of this unwanted responsibility. Some years later, now an Orthodox rabbi, Reb Shuli, he goes to Israel to track down the website and thank them, much to his consternation.
BERTA ISLA (Alfred A. Knopf) is internationally renowned Spanish writer Javier Marías' novel (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) of a married couple whose relationship is defined by their time spent apart. The title character is married to Tomás, who hesitantly joins the British intelligence services and henceforth leads a secret life largely absent from his wife and family. Marías is a master of slow- simmering, cerebral intrigue. He deftly examines how an unforeseen situation can alter the course of one's entire life and that of those around you.
Two delicious Austin books are Joe Nick Patoski's AUSTIN TO ATX: THE HIPPIES, PICKERS, SLACKERS, AND GEEKS WHO TRANSFORMED THE CAPITAL OF TEXAS (Texas A&M University Press) and TEXAS FLOOD: THE INSIDE STORY OF STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN (St. Martin's Press) by longtime music journalists Alan Paul and Andy Aledort. Patoski's raucous read dives deeply into how the convergence of music, literature, film, food, and high tech has made Austin the unique place we love. With the benefit of two decades of retrospection and plenty of firsthand accounts from band members and musical family, Texas Flood provides the most complete story of music legend SRV to date.