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The Best of the Brooklyn Rail’s Books in 2020

To mark the end of this annus horribilis, we are sharing a list of the best books we read and covered in the past 12 months. Piece by piece, the list reveals what—and how—we have endured.

In Conversation

In Conversation: SUSAN SHAPIRO with Stephanie Siu

Can you forgive someone who isn’t sorry? Should you? That’s what haunted popular New School writing professor Susan Shapiro following the perplexing betrayal of a trusted mentor after 15 years of friendship. In Shapiro’s candid, captivating new memoir, The Forgiveness Tour, she tries everything to move on: ghosting him, play-by-play analysis of their fights, even summoning a Yiddish curse for revenge. She stumbles on a “billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry touting the personal benefits of absolution,” but the skeptical journalist “fears it’s all bullshit.”

Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu

Over the last decade and a half, Scholastique Mukasonga has resurrected an entire lost culture. Though she was nearly 50 when her first book appeared, and writing in French, her third or fourth language—depending how you count the indigenous tongues of Rwanda—her output amounts to a small but essential library memorializing the Tutsi.

In Conversation

PANKAJ MISHRA with Pac Pobric

His latest books of essays, Bland Fanatics, which collects writings published mostly in the 2010s, focuses on the failures of Western liberalism, its mainstream media, and the bankruptcy of its most revered intellectuals. We spoke with Mishra on the occasion of the book about liberalism in disrepute, the lessons of Antonio Gramsci, and the usefulness of certain literary styles.

Vincent Van Gogh: A Life in Letters

Though lacking the inexpensive allure of the old paperback editions—not to mention the comprehensiveness of the six-volume collector’s set released in 2009—A Life in Letters succeeds by placing a modest sampling of Van Gogh’s correspondence into dialogue with both the life and the paintings. Each phase of the artist’s wandering is bracketed with a brief biographical précis, refreshingly unadorned and free of the usual apocrypha.

Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest

A sense of the communal persists in Jonathan Lethem’s fiction, but, within these imagined and would-be idealized communities, anarchy, the threat of violence, and violence itself percolates and sometimes even thrives.

Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism

In examining historical parallels, I recently reread Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. Arguments over whether the United States is a fascist society or not are less important than understanding the conditions that have given rise to the form of authoritarian government, with a representative democratic face, we experience. 21st-century society is not a reproduction of 1930s Europe. But we can learn from previous historical eras.

Kevin Carey’s Murder in the Marsh

Kevin Carey’s latest novel, Murder in the Marsh, is everything you could want in crime noir. It’s gritty and face-paced, centering around a “murky marsh” and a down-and-out detective with a fuzzy past that haunts him.

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The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 20-JAN 21

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