Best Books of 2020 according to Jennifer Szalai

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.

THE PRICE OF PEACE: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes By Zachary Carter (Random House). Carter’s outstanding intellectual biography of John Maynard Keynes offers a resonant guide to our current moment, even if he finished writing it in the time before Covid-19. The protagonist dies about two-thirds of the way through the book, but the narrative keeps going, tracing the splintering of Keynes’s intellectual legacy and the neoliberal backlash. Still, Keynesianism could never get stamped out for too long; its tools proved to be too useful. It’s rare to find a 600-page economic history that moves swiftly along currents of lucidity and wit, and this book happens to be one of them.

FRANCHISE: The Golden Arches in Black AmericaBy Marcia Chatelain (Liveright). In this smart and capacious history, Chatelain recounts how early battles between McDonald’s and civil rights activists mainly revolved around who got served and who got hired. Later, activists began to petition for Black ownership of franchises located in Black neighborhoods — a demand that McDonald’s was initially slow to meet but eventually pursued out of shrewd self-interest. This isn’t just a story of exploitation or, conversely, empowerment; it’s a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to provide what the public needs, and how promises of real economic development invariably come up short.

TIME OF THE MAGICIANS: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy’ By Wolfram Eilenberger (Penguin Press). Eilenberger’s book begins in 1919 and ends in 1929, elegantly tracing the life and work of four figures who transformed philosophy in ways that were disparate and not infrequently at odds. A terrific storyteller, he unearths vivid details that show how the philosophies of these men weren’t the arid products of abstract speculation but vitally connected to their temperaments and experiences. All of them shared a sense that the old ways of philosophizing had failed to keep up with the reality of lived experience. Yet as much as they were wrestling with life-and-death philosophical questions, the bigger crisis was still to come.

YOUNG HEROES OF THE SOVIET UNION: A Memoir and a Reckoning’ By Alex Halberstadt (Random House). Halberstadt has written a history of his family and the country where he was born — a loving and mournful account that’s also skeptical, surprising and often very funny. He recreates the lives of his parents and grandparents, tracing their experiences in order to better understand his own. There’s plenty of confident, precisely drawn imagery that will make you remember what Halberstadt describes in his own unforgettable terms. Leonid Brezhnev “appeared fully rectangular from every angle”; a childhood bully’s “thick prescription lenses shrank his eyes to furious raisins.” It’s the unexpected specificity of Halberstadt’s observations that ultimately makes this memoir as lush and moving as it is.

‘MINOR FEELINGS: An Asian American ReckoningBy Cathy Park Hong (One World). Hong’s book wanders a variegated terrain of memoir, criticism and polemic, oscillating between smooth proclamations of certainty and twitches of self-doubt. Citing the poet Claudia Rankine and the theorist Sianne Ngai, Hong distinguishes minor feelings from the major emotions that propel typical narrative arcs and moments of revelation. Minor feelings don’t lend themselves to catharsis or change; they’re ambient and chronic, “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Her book, then, conveys her perception of reality, as she rescues it from the flattening forces of her own distortions and other people’s expectations.

‘A PROMISED LAND’ By Barack Obama (Crown). Nearly every president since Theodore Roosevelt has written a memoir that covers his years in office; this one, which doesn’t even cover Obama’s entire first term, contains some inevitable moments of legacy-burnishing, though the narrative hews so closely to his own discursive habits of thought that any victories he depicts feel tenuous. At a time of grandiose mythologizing, he marshals his considerable storytelling skills to demythologize himself. Obama addresses the book to the “next generation,” to young people who seek to “remake the world,” but the story he tells is less about unbridled possibility and more about the forces that inhibit it.

‘SELF-PORTRAIT’ By Celia Paul (New York Review Books). The painter Paul’s captivating memoir is an account of her life and her work — or, more precisely, of her attempts to realize the possibilities of each despite the constraints thrown up by the other. She recalls her decade-long relationship with Lucian Freud and the son they had together; she also describes yearning for a solitude that wasn’t always easy for her to obtain. (She lives separately from her current husband, who doesn’t have a key to her flat.) The arc of her story is not one of triumph, but endurance.

Jennifer Szalai is a book critic for The New York Times. She was previously a columnist and editor for the Book Review. Her work has also appeared in Slate, New York, The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, where she was a senior editor until 2010.

Published by Samuel Ng'ang'a Mwangi

One day I had too much to tell but there was no one to tell the story. I had to write articles, print them and then give them out to anyone who cared to read. Author of "So You Want To Get Into Courtship?" A Guide To Purposeful Christian Courtship. I write and rewrite on my blog

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