5 HOT BOOKS: World War I Pacifists, a Muslim Father Speaks Out, and More

Here are five books people are talking about this week — or should be:

1. War Against War: The American Fight for Peace 1914-1918 by Michael Kazin (Simon and Schuster)

Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown and editor of Dissent, brings a fascinating perspective to the war that is still known as the Great War.  He focuses on Americans who advocated for peace, seeking to understand “empathetically but not uncritically” the thinking of those who were convinced America was better off on the sidelines. Kazin paints a portrait of the diverse coalition of both realists and idealists who sought, instead of resorting to military force, to create a new global order, one based on “cooperative relationships between nation states and their gradual disarmament.”  He convincingly argues that the U.S. decision to join the Allies was a turning point in history, and one that still reverberates today — including in the form of the “surveillance state, “ which he notes was “launched during the First World War primarily to spy on U.S. citizens” who did not support their nation’s role in the conflict. 

2. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Atlantic Monthly Press)

In this intricate, beautifully written debut novel, largely set in the remote northern part of Minnesota during the 1970s, Fridlund focuses on the coming of age of a 15-year-old girl who lives in her parents’ failed utopian community.  The novel, which take its title from a project on which the girl had embarked in school, flashes between the protagonist’s childhood and the present.  And it moves between two emotional touch points – her teacher being discovered in possession of child pornography, and a mother and young son who relocate into her orbit.  The book smolders with moral tension, enriched by Fridlund’s subtle eloquence.

3. Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash (Picador)

In this short book Ghobash, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, writes in the form of letters to his sons (born in 2000, and 2004), which draw on his own life and family history.  “I want you to know about the things I believe after more than thirty years of thinking about my father’s death,” he says. “His death forced me to try to answer a bunch of difficult questions; it shaped the way in which I view the world.” The diplomat states emphatically that “Islam is a religion of peace” and insightfully explains the Muslim landscape in the Arab world, as well as Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and North Africa.  Writing in challenging times, he makes a clarion call for perseverance, kindness,  and humor that will “create a ripple effect in our culture.”

4. The Strays by Emily Bitto (Twelve)

This sparkling debut novel, a recent winner of the Stella Prize, which is awarded to a book of any genre by an Australian woman, is set in the excitement of the 1930s Melbourne avant-garde art scene.  Bitto focuses on a girl drawn to a talented bohemian family at the center of this rarefied world.  She adeptly captures the girl’s perceptions from the periphery as she wrestles with her complex feelings of both resentment and idealization of an alluring family of which she will never fully be part.  

5. Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In his wonderful past fiction like Eight White Nights and Call Me by Your Name, and his vivid memoir Out of Egypt, about his dazzling, cosmopolitan Egyptian-Jewish family, Aciman is a divining rod of human emotions. In his new novel, Enigma Variations, Aciman returns to this territory and focuses on one man, named Paul, and the various loves he experiences from childhood on — an unusual and compelling story that he tells in episodic explosions of often conflicting, complicated mixtures of desire, heat, and passion.