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Times Critics’ Top Books of 2020

‘THE POSTHUMOUS MEMOIRS OF BRÁS CUBAS’ By Machado de Assis. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright). The most modern, most startlingly avant-garde novel I read this year was originally published in 1881. Jull Costa and Patterson offer a peerless translation of this comic masterpiece, narrated from beyond the grave by a feckless, pretentious, impossibly winning aristocrat. The Brazilian novelist Machado was besotted with the license afforded by fiction and the social critique permitted only by comedy. Read this witty, wildly inventive work and how conservative, how painfully corseted so much modern fiction will suddenly seem. (Read the review.)

‘A WOMAN LIKE HER: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star’ By 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 a so-called honor killing. In this exemplary work of investigative journalism, Maher delves into the story of a woman as misunderstood in death as in life. Azeem and his associates killed Baloch, she argues, but they did not act alone. Her meticulously reported book also tells a larger story of the fractures opened up by social media, which encourages a freedom and daring in dangerous conflict with a conservative society. (Read the review.)

‘THE STORY OF A GOAT’ By Perumal Murugan. Translated by N. Kalyan Raman (Black Cat). Murugan’s latest novel folds the violent repressions of contemporary India — the casteism and communalism — into the biography of a deeply unlucky little goat. Murugan traces her entire life: her despair, her longing, her love affairs. Each sentence in Raman’s translation is modest and sculpted, but behind each you sense a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of the rains, 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, anonymous lives. Murugan shows us that there are no small lives. (Read the review.)

‘THE DISCOMFORT OF EVENING’ By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Translated by Michele Hutchison (Graywolf Press). Novels disappoint not only by being clumsily written or conceived but by presenting versions of the world that are simpler and more sanitized than we know it to be. Fiction about childhood is especially prone to doing this. Rijneveld’s uninhibited imagination arrives as terror and solace in this first novel, in which a family comes apart after the sudden death of the oldest child. As the parents retreat into grief, the surviving children are left to invent their own rules. They find consolation in desperate, frightening rituals, blurring all easy notions of victim and perpetrator. Even now, my blood jumps to remember certain scenes. (Read the review.)

‘SERIOUS NOTICING: Selected Essays 1997-2019’ By James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). No modern critic has exerted comparable influence in how we read than James Wood. So many popular notions of what constitutes a telling detail or plausible character flow from his work. His latest pulls from his previous collections — personal pieces as well as essays on his lodestars (Chekhov, Bellow, Woolf) — to offer a beautiful and moving sense of the stakes of criticism as Wood has practiced it, vigorously, without interruption, for 30 years: What does it mean to do this work well, and what does it add to the world? What has it added to his life? “To notice is to rescue, to redeem,” he writes. “To save life from itself.” (Read the review.)

‘AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY: 250 Years of Struggle & Song’ Edited by Kevin Young (Library of America). It is overwhelming to contemplate the variety contained in this monumental tribute to Black poetry from the colonial period to the present. The anthology is a history of form and also a form of history. Poets comment on their times, on the birth of jazz, the Scottsboro trial, the Vietnam War, police killings, racial terrorism — as well as food and music, birth pains and menopause, first love and friendship. The poems themselves have the force of events. They were written as acts of public mourning, and as secrets; they are love poems and bitter quarrels. They are prized company. (Read the review.)

‘PUTIN’S PEOPLE: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West’ By Catherine Belton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). As an investigative reporter, the dauntless Belton tracked down documents and followed the money to create this meticulously assembled portrait of Vladimir Putin’s circle. Belton recounts the emergence of what she calls “K.G.B. capitalism” — a form of ruthless wealth accumulation designed to serve the interests of a Russian state that is “relentless in its reach.” Putin presides over the country and its resources like a czar, Belton writes, bolstered by a cadre of friendly oligarchs and secret service agents, who have helped him turn Russia’s legal system into a weapon and a fig leaf. (Read the review.)

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