Occasions Critics’ High Books of 2020

“THE POSTHUMOUS MEMORIES OF BRÁS CUBAS” From Machado de Assis. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright). The most modern, mind-boggling avant-garde novel I’ve read this year was originally published in 1881. Jull Costa and Patterson offer an incomparable translation of this comic book masterpiece, narrated by a flawless, pretentious, impossibly victorious aristocrat from Beyond the Grave. The Brazilian writer Machado was obsessed with the license of fiction and social criticism that only comedy allowed. Read this hilarious, wildly inventive work and how conservative, how painfully corsetted so much modern fiction suddenly appears. (Read the review.)

“A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star” From Sanam Maher (Melville House). In 2016, Qandeel Baloch – “Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian,” the country’s first social media star – was murdered by her brother Waseem Azeem in an honor killing. In this exemplary work of investigative journalism, Maher deals with the story of a woman who is just as misunderstood in death as in life. Azeem and his staff killed Baloch, she argues, but they did not act alone. Her meticulously reported book also tells a larger story of the rifts created by social media that encourage freedom and daring in dangerous conflicts with a conservative society. (Read the review.)

“The story of a goat” From Perumal Murugan. Translated by N. Kalyan Raman (Black Cat). Murugan’s latest novel folds the violent oppression of India today – casteism and communalism – into the biography of a deeply unhappy little goat. Murugan traces her whole life: her despair, her longing, her love affairs. Every sentence in Raman’s translation is modest and formed, but behind each one can feel a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of rain, politics, animal and human behavior. Chekhov once said that anyone could write a biography of Socrates, but it takes skill to tell the stories of smaller, more anonymous lives. Murugan shows us that there are no small lives. (Read the review.)

“The discomfort of the evening” By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Translated by Michele Hutchison (Graywolf Press). Novels disappoint not only by being awkwardly written or conceptualized, but by presenting versions of the world that are simpler and more hygienic than we know. Childhood fiction is particularly prone to this. Rijneveld’s uninhibited imagination comes as terror and comfort in this first novel in which a family falls apart after the sudden death of the oldest child. While the parents withdraw in mourning, the surviving children have to invent their own rules. You find solace in desperate, frightening rituals that blur all simple ideas of victim and perpetrator. Even now my blood is jumping to remember certain scenes. (Read the review.)

“ERNSTE MITTEILUNG: Selected Articles 1997-2019” By James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). No modern critic has had as much influence on our reading as James Wood. So many popular ideas about what makes a meaningful detail or a plausible character flow from his work. His latest insights from his previous collections – personal pieces as well as essays on his Lodestars (Chekhov, Bellow, Woolf) – convey a beautiful and moving feel for the criticism that Wood has vigorously practiced for 30 years without a break. to do this job well and what does it contribute to the world? What has it added to its life? “To notice is to save, to redeem,” he writes. “To save life from yourself.” (Read the review.)

“AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY: 250 Years of Fighting & Singing” Published by Kevin Young (Library of America). It is overwhelming to think about the diversity contained in this monumental homage to black poetry from colonial times to the present day. The anthology is a history of forms and also a form of history. Poets comment on their time, the birth of jazz, the Scottsboro trial, the Vietnam War, police killings, racial terrorism – as well as food and music, labor pains and menopause, first love and friendship. The poems themselves have the power of events. They were written as public acts of funeral and as secrets; they are love poems and bitter quarrels. They are valued companies. (Read the review.)

“Putin’s People: How the KGB Recaptured Russia and then Took the West over” By Catherine Belton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). As an investigative reporter, the intrepid Belton tracked down documents and followed the money to create this carefully compiled portrait of Vladimir Putin’s circle. Belton tells of the emergence of so-called “KGB capitalism” – a form of ruthless accumulation of wealth that is supposed to serve the interests of a Russian state that is “inexorable within its reach”. Putin presides over the country and its resources like a tsar, Belton writes, supported by a cadre of friendly oligarchs and intelligence agents who have helped turn the Russian legal system into a weapon and a fig leaf. (Read the review.)

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