The Best Things We Read In 2023
11:29 AM EST on December 27, 2023
This is what the Defector staff enjoyed reading in 2023.
Cassandra At The Wedding, by Dorothy Baker
This year, I fell into more reading slumps than ever before. I ended up reading fewer than a book a week for the first time maybe since I learned to read at the age of 4. Many of the books I read, also, were unremarkable. Something I did not expect when I began writing full-time is that as I have improved as a writer myself, I have become even more of a hater than before. It is harder to read now more than ever. I do not intend to repeat this mistake of a year. I will return next year to sicko behavior on a rigorous program of reading Only Good Shit.
I bought Cassandra at the Wedding in 2022 along with everyone else. In fact, according to my Bookshop account, I bought it at the end of 2021, so technically I could have been ahead of the popularity surge in 2022 if I had bothered to read it instead of throwing it onto a stack. Popularity surge for a novel released in 1962? Yes, it was very popular last year. The Strategist published a whole article attempting to find patient zero. I bought it because a well-read friend recommended it, but I read it because I was desperate to read and nothing was working. Usually when I'm in these states, anything with that New York Review of Books reissued cover will do the trick.
But Cassandra at the Wedding is so much more than a slump breaker. It's a beautiful book about a delusional girl and her twin sister. It's a book about realizing that marriage does actually change things. It's a book about being mentally ill and also insane. It's a book about who we can save and who we can't. It's a book that won the attention and love of Carson McCullers, which is really saying something. Baker is a master of structure. The pacing of this book is so good that even when exhausted after a show, I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading it, only stopping when I realized that if I turned another page, I would be up all night.
It has a marvelous twist, a halfway point where the book shifts perspective right as you wish it wouldn't. I have been on a high for six months since reading it, and I don't expect it will end anytime soon. It is rare for a book to linger with me for so long, but this one has. I'm going to buy a copy for all of my friends. - Kelsey McKinney
Come Closer, by Sara Gran
In broad strokes Come Closer, a 2003 novel I only got around to reading this year, follows the familiar beats of demonic possession narratives. For Amanda, a successful, married young architect, what begins as persistent noises of uncertain provenance, newly dark and selfish impulses, strange and seductive dreams—easily mistaken for the complexity of a mundane psyche and the general dissatisfactions of modern life—gradually reveals itself as something alien, wearing away at her self-control with ruthless purpose. By the time Amanda recognizes what's happening, she's unwittingly entered into a time-share arrangement in her own body, and might be the weaker of the two tenants.
What makes Sara Gran's short, cruelly effective novel so distinct and memorable is its fist-tight first-person perspective, the mirror-maze prison it makes out of Amanda's mind. You're trapped inside her perceptions just as absolutely as she is, which really brings to life the dawning horror of discovering that you're not alone in there. Telling the story this way makes its familiar outline all the more horrifying: What good is a sense of what's coming if you're possessed, and therefore can't prevent or stop it?
Amanda's addled communion with her new pointy-toothed mind-friend reminded me of the gauzy nightmare intimacy of Samanta Schweblin's 2014 novel Fever Dream, another quick, devilish, creatively told horror story I absolutely loved. I devoured Come Closer over a few hours spread over two days, and then immediately wished I could read another 200 pages of it. - Albert Burneko
Notes Of A Crocodile, by Qiu Miaojin (Translated by Bonnie Huie)
I first tried to read Notes of a Crocodile when I was in high school, because it just seemed like something that was necessary in terms of literary diet, insofar as there exists some Chinese or Taiwanese or Sinophone or some nebulous, flattened category of Chinese-American lesbian literary canon that’s adequately accessible in English. That was not the ideal time to read it. I understood the events, sure, but I did not “get it.” Instead, I went in feeling like I was going to come out of the experience emotionally changed forever, and mostly felt nothing.
Notes of a Crocodile follows the four-or-so years of a Taiwanese university student in the late 1980s, her failed relationship with a girl a year above her, and her friends, almost all of whom are gay, and all of whom feel things very intensely. It’s a little epistolary, a little self-referential, and very clever, especially in these sections that parallel lesbianism with the existence of crocodiles, un-gendered: “Since their genders remain unknown, crocodiles all take the same form of address for the purpose of efficient communication.”
It’s maybe a coming-of-age story—that’s how the jacket copy describes it, and toward the end of the book, Qiu describes coming-of-age as a sort of “DEATH EXPERIENCE #1”—except I’ve always thought that coming-of-age stories rely on the benefit of retrospect, and often a sense of fond embarrassment. Like, say, “Sacred Heart” by Jennifer Egan, which is a wonderful story that focuses on the romance of life when you’re a teenager and then slowly draws the character into reality. But Qiu died when she was 26, and Notes of a Crocodile was published posthumously. Her narrator is trapped on the cusp between college and real life, and she never quite crosses that boundary, which, for her, comes with a prerequisite of gravitating towards men.
If you were to ask if I “get it” now, I would say, yes, and also that I’ve learned how to appreciate it in a way that doesn’t need me to relate 1980s Taiwan directly to 2020s America. But I still like that I tried reading it in high school when I was utterly unequipped to do so, for a similar reason as to why I like how Qiu writes a character who looks back in retrospect on the events of her freshman year as a junior. I read it one way before I was a depressed college student, and then another after I was a depressed college student. (Something I laughed at and underlined: “Secretly, though, I did sort of enjoy being a fucked-up mess. Apart from that, I didn’t have a whole lot going on.”)
And I’m sure 10 years from now, when depressed college studenthood is sufficiently far back in my memory, I will read it in an entirely different way. Maybe I’ll even find it, or rather myself, silly. That would be a wonderful consequence of writing about something—especially your youth—without the benefit of retrospect, and especially with no regard of future embarrassment. - Kathryn Xu
The House Of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
Apologies for putting it this way, but Edith Wharton is so goated. I somehow made it through all of high school and college without ever reading one of her books, and so when I read The House of Mirth this summer, I was very mad that I had spent all that time in school reading Jane Austen and not Wharton. Jane Austen? More like Jane LOSTen!
I don't think I've ever encountered a book in which the author is in as much control as Wharton is here. The whole thing is perfectly plotted and paced, and there isn't a single wasted word or sentence to be found. I've never liked a book enough to maintain a ranking of its chapters in my head months after finishing it, but that's the sort of reverence this book demanded of me. Chapter 14 takes the No. 1 spot, by the way. - Tom Ley
The Preface To The Second Edition Of Thérèse Raquin
Émile Zola had a blogger’s heart. Thérèse Raquin, the actual book, is a nasty and compelling tale of sex, murder, guilt, and misery. But Zola’s thrilling response to the initial outrage it provoked from an establishment that confused depiction with endorsement made me giddy when I first read it, and still stands up in 2023 as an exemplary way to confront the whiniest of gripes.
The preface to the second edition, included in my library copy and available here, is a parade of hilarious slights and undaunted declarations. In a fed-up tone that would be sanctimonious if it wasn’t so right, Zola presents an airtight case for his own writing philosophy while insulting any critic who could dare to be so dense as to need one. Instead of play-acting some respectful idea of debate club, he shuts down so many careless thinkers in one fell swoop, and even though his language is so flashy, he never oversteps himself and remembers, at the very end, to re-center his good audience and even apologize for the need to run them through this whole farce.
“It requires all the blind obstinacy of a certain class of critics to force a novelist to write a preface,” Zola writes. “As, for the sake of light, I have committed the fault of writing one, I crave the pardon of those intelligent persons who have no need to have a lamp lighted at mid-day to enable them to see clearly.”
If I were one of these critics in 19th-century France, I would have run out of every room Émile Zola entered for the rest of my life. - Lauren Theisen
The Shards, by Bret Easton Ellis
The Shards is not the best book of 2023. It’s not even my favorite book that I read this year, but it is a book that underscores what’s missing while being a sign of where we might be headed culturally. BEE, as I like to call him, has long held a controversial reputation: first as an author that dealt with misogynistic and violent tropes in his books, often carelessly, and then as a post-Joe Rogan champion of anti-cancel culture. He could be loud, tasteless, and ridiculous, which made him insufferable and made his art veer wildly between fascinating and fascinatingly awful.
The Shards is a genuinely good book, almost autobiographical but with a serial killer plot placed between an '80s high-school drama. It’s never not interesting, while still fixating on BEE’s primary interests of sex, violence, drugs, identity, and the hypocrisies of the lifestyles of the moneyed. What I found most interesting about The Shards, even more than the book itself, is how culture seems to be coming back around to the BEE worldview, if only through his storytelling. The press run for the book was a big deal and seemed to announce that the author was hip again, that people still loved American Psycho as much as ever, and that his '80s sensibilities of new wave music, preppy clothes, sunglasses, cigarettes, sex, and high-quality cocaine were seen as the chic vices of a better time in America. We’ve been due an artistic backlash towards the mythical definition of “woke” content for some time now, and we’ve gotten it in pieces, but 2023 felt like the first true beginning of a next wave of things thumbing their nose at the concept. The Shards was a good example, certainly much more so than The Idol. - Israel Daramola
The Wager, by David Grann
All I ever want to read about at night are shipwrecks, castaways, murder, and men in remote places fighting off both death and sanity in equal measure: Skeletons on the Zahara, Over the Edge of the World, Endurance, and the rest of the dad-book canon. So when I learned that Distraction guest David Grann—best known as the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, which Martin Scorsese ended up turning into one of his best films earlier this year—was publishing an account of an 18th-century British naval vessel that wrecked on the coast of Patagonia, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. This is one of the greatest dad books ever written, and I loved reading it while all warm and snuggly in my comfy, comfy bed. - Drew Magary
Strong Female Character, by Fern Brady
I am a proud and even repetitive stan for Fern Brady, the Scottish comedian, so Strong Female Character, her book on learning, dealing, engaging with, and accommodating her autism while navigating the other stresses and strains of life, was not going to disappoint. It was a story not of some amorphous triumph over adversity, but of continually winning the game of the day, whatever it was, because autism isn't something you outgrow or can walk off. It's the thing that's there, and Brady's obvious writing gifts and clear eye both looking in and out make this a book not about autism, but her autism. It's educational without being preachy, it's fun without being flippant, and mostly it reads as honest in the noblest of ways. She's the best kind of protagonist because she doesn't seek good vs. evil, or revenge for a differently wired brain. She just says what is, how she came to recognize what is, and how she engages with what is.
Second place goes to David Mitchell's Unruly, a properly bewildering and just-jaundiced-enough look at English royals going back to the first ones who overthrew mud worship as the main form of government. The highlight: St. Thomas Becket's 12th-century negotiation of a marriage between the King of England's 2-year-old son to the King of France's 1-year-old daughter, what he brought for the trip (24 outfits, 12 packhorses to carry his silver dinner service, eight wagons of miscellaneous baggage and horses ridden by monkeys), and Mitchell explaining Becket's rationale as, If I don’t have horses with monkeys riding them, the King of France won’t take me seriously. Indisputably true. - Ray Ratto
A Swim In A Pond In The Rain, by George Saunders
I have a fraught relationship with classic Russian literature. I always think I should read more of it, but when I do it's almost always enough of a struggle for me that it feels like homework, and puts me off for a while. Turgenev's a little too schmaltzy, Tolstoy's a little too moralist. (Gogol whips, though.) Everything feels just so slightly off compared to the Western forms that I'm used to that I come away convinced I'm just not smart enough to properly appreciate it. So god bless George Saunders for writing a print version of his college course on the heavy hitters of Russian lit, so that dummies like me can appreciate them.
The book features in their entirety seven classic short stories, and each is followed (or in case, interrupted page-by-page) by Saunders breaking down the story with a writer's eye on the many individual choices made by the author, and how they do or don't mesh with a reader's innate assumptions while reading. You'll learn many things, but even more enlightening is when you'll have things you did already feel on some level put into words. It's the best book on writing that I've read since Stephen King's, while also managing to be a joyful collection of masterworks. I promise the dead Russians I won't stay away so long after this one. - Barry Petchesky
The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
I have two copies of Thomas Klise’s wild and wildly out-of-print 1974 novel, The Last Western, and my friend Maria gave me both of them. It’s a strange, shaggy, ambitious book—one of those classic Catholic Social Apocalypse/Baseball novels, whose protagonist both pitches in the Major Leagues and becomes the pope, among other things; we talked about it at The Awl back in 2012. As it is not the social baseball novel that I’m writing about here, I will move on from it beyond encouraging you to seek it out. The reason I bring it up has more to do with Maria’s practice of buying a copy of the book whenever and wherever she finds it, and then giving that to someone she thinks would get something out of it. This seemed strange to me at the time, and I told her as much, but it makes more sense to me now. If you are going to love a book that’s hard to find, and want other people to love it, too, that is what you will have to do. And so, at least until Defector Classic Editions comes into existence and publishes a deluxe new edition of the book, I am committing to doing it when and wherever I find a copy of Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s 1983 novel The Celebrant, the book I most enjoyed in 2023.
The Celebrant is easier to find than The Last Western, if nothing else; first editions are expensive and seem decently rare, but you can get copies of the most-recent printing, from 1993, from the University of Nebraska press and on Amazon. And I imagine it would still work if you got it that way, but there was something about how I found it that felt auspicious. Some friends had recommended it years earlier, and critics had praised the book widely when it came out decades before that, but the fact that it had fallen so far out of the conversation—it’s the only book that Greenberg ever published; he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page—made it seem all the more significant when it finally turned up on a shelf at The Strand. If you can get a Lost Classic on Amazon, it feels less lost, somehow, and maybe even like less of a classic for being on there alongside all the self-published anti-vaccine claptrap and knockoff HDMI cables. The thrill of discovering it, right in its place and where it had never been in any of my previous visits, felt more like what I’d imagined.
However lost it was, The Celebrant is indeed a damn classic. The Last Western concerns the end of everything—a whole world collapsing under the weight of human cynicism, malaise, jealousy, greed, unbelief, and all the other 1970s American Classics. The Celebrant, which is set around the turn of the 20th century and tells the story of a Jewish immigrant family and their complicated personal and professional relationships with baseball in general, the New York Giants more specifically, and the iconic Giants ace Christy Mathewson in particular, is more a novel of beginnings than endings. It is a story about how baseball has made people into Americans, which it always has, and how fraught and complicated and implicating a thing that is. There is a lot of baseball in it, and Greenberg writes it elegantly and expertly; the turn-of-the-century details are carefully wrought; there’s nothing showy about the language, but the steakhouses and train carriages and ballparks are described in evocative and graceful ways. It feels real enough—crowded and smoky and half-drunk, or starched and fancified and lonely—that Greenberg’s detours into more debauched and dreamlike corners are made all the more disorienting.
It is a commanding performance, all told, and Greenberg’s stuff is all the more effective for how well he controls it, and how meticulous he is about setting up what needs to be set up, and how comfortably he changes speeds. As good as the baseball writing is, and as colorful as the color is, what has stayed with me about The Celebrant is how deftly Greenberg navigates the concentric and contradictory layers of reverence and awe and unreality and devotion that make fandom so simultaneously deranging and enriching a lived experience. The Kapinski family comes closer to these icons—to Mathewson, especially, and to the Giants’ irascible manager John McGraw—than they are strictly comfortable with, and ultimately perhaps closer than they can strictly handle. You’re not supposed to do business with your gods.
If what follows is tragic, it is mostly so in the same accumulative way that stories told over sufficiently long periods of time tend to be. Everyone is pushed and pulled by the forces that always push and pull people, and also by the abiding and All-American subsuming of the small by the large, and the past by the future. It’s a smaller book than The Last Western in a bunch of ways, if just as worthy of rediscovery. Both have to do with belief, but if The Last Western is about the crisis of a world without it, The Celebrant is about the strange and shifting shapes that belief can take, and the lonesome places our devotions can take us. - David Roth
Confessions Of The Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg
Growing up, my favorite book was William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, which is framed as Goldman’s heavily annotated abridgement of just the “good parts” of a much longer, drier text by a writer named S. Morgenstern. As a kid, I didn’t realize that S. Morgenstern was not a real person and that the abridgement was also a metafictional device—a story within a story. When I realized this, it broke my middle-school brain. It blurred the line between fiction and reality and helped to elevate the mythic grandeur of the epic love story of Princess Buttercup and Farm Boy Wesley, a love that is tested by the slimy Prince Humperdinck, quicksand, rodents, and even death itself.
About one chapter into Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, I felt my brain buzzing just as it did when I realized the great trick of The Princess Bride. This time around, I knew before reading that Confessions of the Fox was also a story-within-a-story—the memoirs of the thief and famous folk hero Jack Sheppard, who escaped from prison four times in 18th-century London, as discovered and annotated by a modern-day professor, Dr. Voth. Like The Princess Bride, Confessions is a swashbuckling tale of action, adventure, betrayal, prison break, instruments of unimaginable cruelty and the indefatigable power of love. (Unlike The Princess Bride, Confessions is unabashedly horny.) The book remembers Jack Sheppard as a transgender man and his great love, Bess, as Southeast Asian. Many reviews frame these details as a “reimagining.” But isn’t the popular narrative of a figure as famous and frequently mythologized as Jack Sheppard also a reimagining? And when a man of history is so frequently described as small and effeminate, is it so fantastical to think him some kind of genderqueer?
But Confessions of the Fox broke my mind in a new way. If the metafiction of The Princess Bride was often deployed for a warm kind of irony, pruning its love story from becoming too serious and mocking the fairytale form, the metafiction in Confessions is wholeheartedly earnest in its ultimate ask, which is that the reader imagine a world freed from imperialism and prisons and consider how we might achieve such a utopia. It is at times a painfully earnest book, which deeply appealed to me, a painfully earnest person. It’s easy as a trans person to imagine you would not have existed centuries ago. But of course we did, in ways that are probably both recognizable and unimaginable in our modern lens, and it is breathtaking how Rosenberg makes this queer and trans 18th century London feel so rich, joyful, and deeply alive.
It bears mentioning that, like The Princess Bride, Confessions is stupidly fun to read, even as someone who has not read Spinoza or any of the other theorists who appear in the footnotes. It is an epic, bawdy love story between Jack and Bess. It is written with the gloriously arbitrary capitalization of 18th-century London, where people are Newly Monied or found Dead of Cold, and melodic insults, like "lizardy fuckwit" and "Satanic Cunt-Stable." Its plot is as quick as it is dazzling. I read the entire thing feverishly on two plane reads, listening to the same song as I fell into a trance imagining myself in its setting. And I cried, obviously! It made me question the kind of story I wanted and the kind of story I expected to get, and why those two stories were so rarely the same. Ask me again in a year, but this may be my favorite novel I’ve ever read? - Sabrina Imbler
The Sly Company Of People Who Care, by Rahul Bhattacharya
I've always been fascinated by the Guianas, for their profound geographical isolation, unique colonial legacies, and linguistic divergence from the rest of South America. Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana are among the least densely populated countries on the planet, cut off from Venezuela and Brazil by mountains, rivers, and gnarled thickets of forest. Probably you know about Devil's Island, Jonestown, and the French space port in Kourou, though the three countries have a small cultural footprint despite their fascinating histories. After chancing upon a used copy of Rahul Bhattacharya's 2011 novel The Sly Company Of People Who Care at the local bookstore and reading that it was the story of a 26-year-old cricket journalist ditching his job in Bombay to be a "slow-ramblin' stranger" down in Guyana, I was intrigued, and when every review mentioned his ambitious sentences and linguistic playfulness, I was sold. What a lovely little book.
Sly Company is part travelogue, part failed romance, part coming-of-age autobiography, propelled less by a plot in any real sense of the word and more by Bhattacharya's sense of wonder and curiosity. He is fascinated by Guyana, its transglobal blend of cultures and the honeycombed racial politics therein, and its weatherbeaten beauty—"The low sky, the red earth and brown water made me feel humble and ecstatic. The drenched wooden houses on stilts wrenched my soul." Where a lesser pen would seek chiefly to explain or, god forbid, diagnose the country, Bhattacharya instead seeks to be consumed by it.
The byproduct is gorgeous, as he gleefully vaults into the jungle with a self-professed con-man to go pork-knocking for gold and diamonds; wedding-hops with my favorite character in the book, the serial wedding-hopper Ramotar Seven Curry; and dips his toes into Venezuela and Brazil all while seeking something about both himself and the place he's decided to be subsumed by. Music thrums through the novel, a constant reggae beat that keeps Bhattacharya's narrator moving forward, running into a cast of characters that are outlined lovingly and never for too long. There really aren't many books like this that I've read, and the melancholic turn in the final act feels right: How sad I was that it was over. - Patrick Redford
To Catch A Thief, by David Dodge
Danielle Foussard gets a raw deal in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 adaptation of David Dodge’s To Catch a Thief. For one thing, she’s a teenager. For another, she has been working for an outlaw gang of thieves for as long as she has been able to walk. Importantly, one of the members of the outlaw gang of thieves was her father, a scary man with a bum leg who taught her the trade so that she could spend her childhood doing all of his dirty work.
Danielle spends most of the movie going out of her way to lure retired cat burglar and protagonist John Robie out of danger. She does this by trying to seduce Robie, played by Cary Grant, to leave Europe with her for South America, warning him that the remnants of the outlaw gang are out to get him, and sending him anonymous letters explicitly telling him when and where to avoid danger. And what does she get for her troubles? She gets a dead father and a lost love, she is dangled off a rooftop and threatened with death, and she is handed over to manifestly unscrupulous police by the very person she has been trying to protect. Rude! Very rude and very unfair.
Try explaining any of this to my mom, who loves Cary Grant enough to instantly detest anyone who makes any character played by Cary Grant uncomfortable for even one second. Nothing drove home to me the unfairness of Hitchcock’s handling of Danielle like the absolute impenetrability of my mother’s hatred of her character. Yes, it was wrong of Danielle to call John a murderer over the gravesite of her father, but she is standing over the gravesite of her father! And her father would not be dead if John had not gone to the damn villa! Which she fucking warned him not to do! And she is a teenager!
This is only part of why you should read Dodge’s book. If it’s slightly less of a sun-drenched showcase of the French Riviera—the incredible scene in the movie where Robie and then Frances Stevens swim out to the raft at Cannes and banter with Danielle is nowhere to be found—it manages to be much more delightfully French, which comes through in all of Dodge’s many French characters, most of whom Hitchcock consolidated and discarded in favor of American Jessie Stevens and Brit H.H. Hughson. Gone are Commissaire Oriol and Robie’s good and loyal friend Paul du Pré; gone are the handful of charming outlaws called to Robie’s aid; gone is Danielle’s prideful would-be boyfriend. In the book it is the dispositions and personal motives of those discarded characters, all very thoughtfully considered and depicted, that allow the plot to develop in much more interesting directions, and to resolve itself much much much more satisfyingly.
Hitchcock ends his movie with Robie feeling no shame whatsoever about doing the dirty work of the police, who are themselves working to recover the grotesquely ostentatious baubles of the ultra-wealthy, at the expense of a young girl who is at an earlier stage of the very career that he himself used to gain a life of comfort. The cops win, and they win by recruiting Robie to pull up the ladder he used to climb out of a life of hardship. I say this as someone who loves this movie very dearly: That’s insanely wack.
Dodge had more characters and more space, and a fuller sense of who Robie is and where his life has taken him. He didn’t burden John and Danielle with any history, and didn’t bog the story down with villains. There are just people and pressures, and there’s a mystery, and there are people in there who have more information. That’s enough to get things moving. It’s a zippy, engaging story, tense in places, funny in places, sweet in places, and always in motion. You will read it in great big chunks, and then after you’re done you’ll hunt around desperately for another one just like it. They’re hard to find. You can see why Hitchcock made it into a movie. - Chris Thompson