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Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Category: Art & Culture,Books

‘THE IMPOSTOR: A TRUE STORY’ By Javier Cercas, translated by Frank Wynne (Alfred A. Knopf). For three decades, Enric Marco, a Catalan mechanic, was a prominent public face of Spanish survivors of the Holocaust, until his story was revealed to be a hoax in 2005. Cercas, a novelist, becomes Marco’s (somewhat reluctant) Boswell in this work of nonfiction as he tries to understand why the man lied and why he was believed, and to investigate his own queasy feelings of kinship. It is thrilling to be in the room with the two of them once their cat-and-mouse game commences. (Read the review.)

‘YOUR DUCK IS MY DUCK: STORIES’ By Deborah Eisenberg (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers). Eisenberg is a writer of legendary exactitude, and slowness. This is her first new collection since 2006, and well worth the wait — so instantly absorbing that it feels like an abduction. These are stories of painful awakenings and refusals of innocence, emerging out of the ashes of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, despoliation and environmental plunder. The sentences are full of syntactic fireworks, breakneck swerves and very black humor. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life,” the narrator of the title story tells her therapist. “Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish — me first, or the world.” (Read the review.)

‘ASYMMETRY’ By Lisa Halliday (Simon & Schuster). Halliday’s first novel is two in one: a May-December romance featuring a character who bears a terrifically unabashed resemblance to Philip Roth and a slowly unspooling tragedy about an Iraqi-American detained at Heathrow Airport. A third section hints at the link between these two stories that never explicitly intersect. The deep pleasure for the reader is to trace resonances, how themes chime and rhyme as well as Halliday’s underlying, beautifully articulated arguments about fiction’s possibilities and obligations. It’s the kind of book that makes you a better reader, a more active and subtle noticer. It hones your senses. (Read the review.)

‘AMERICAN SONNETS FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN’ By Terrance Hayes (Penguin Poets). In these 70 sonnets, written after the election of 2016, Hayes set himself the challenge of writing political poems in the guise of love poems. Each one is distinct: Some are sermons, some are swoons. They are acrid with tear gas, and they unravel with desire. Hayes revisits lifelong obsessions — the cage of masculinity, the gulf between fathers and sons — and plays with different registers, returning to lamentation, to annihilating grief for “all the black people I’m tired of losing,” as one narrator says. “All the dead from parts of Florida, Ferguson, / Brooklyn, Charleston, Cleveland, Chicago, / Baltimore.” (Read the review.)

‘BELONGING: A GERMAN RECKONS WITH HISTORY AND HOME’ By Nora Krug (Scribner). Krug slashes through a fog of shame, determined oblivion and misdirection to unearth her family’s role in the Holocaust as well as the stubborn silences in German life. Her visual memoir takes the form of an overstuffed scrapbook, jammed with letters, photographs and passionate paeans to household goods of her childhood — soap, a brand of bandage, a rubber hot water bottle — that speak to those unappeasable desires to wash away stains, mend scars, make whole. The wisdom of this book is that it eschews such palliatives. What Krug pursues is a better quality of guilt, a way of confronting the past without paralysis. (Read the review.)

‘THE COLLECTED STORIES OF MACHADO DE ASSIS’ By Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Liveright). For the first time, the short stories of this 19th-century Brazilian master have been collected and translated into English, allowing the reader to trace the arc of Machado’s career, from the straightforward early love stories to the postmodern later works. Certain preoccupations persist: alluring widows, naïve young men, a fondness for coincidence. Above all looms the figure of the bibliomane. “This is my family,” one says, pointing to his bookshelf. Like his characters, Machado was a creature of literature; ink ran in his veins. It is breathtaking to see the development of his style as well as his deep engagement with storytelling all over the world. (Read the review.)

‘THE TANGLED TREE: A RADICAL NEW HISTORY OF LIFE’ By David Quammen (Simon & Schuster). Quammen’s latest is the biography of a groundbreaking idea — and its many midwives, chief among them Carl Woese, “the most important biologist of the 20th century you’ve never heard of.” Our greatest living chronicler of the natural world, Quammen makes elegant work of complicated science, describing the discovery of horizontal gene transfer and its challenge to our conception of stately Darwinian inheritance with vivacious descriptions on every page. The sentences are spring-loaded and each section ends with a light cliffhanger. Quammen has the gift of Daedalus; he gets you out of the maze. (Read the review.)

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