There’s a reductive, hall-of-infinitely-receding-mirrors quality to the concept of critiquing the critics. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done (the vastness of YouTube must contain a show wherein critics judge different episodes of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies) or isn’t worth doing, especially when there is so much rich criticism out there to devour.
It won’t surprise PopMatters readers that many of our favorite books published in 2023 are excavations of our increasingly clamorous culture. The great Sasha-Frere Jones delivers a potent dispatch of music and memories, while other writers plumb the glories of acts ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Living Colour, Miles Davis, the Beatles (their films), Chuck D (his graphic design), John Prine, and the Hold Steady. Even some of the year’s best novels dip their toes into criticism, like the commentary on culture nostalgia in Jonathan Lethem’s cryptic autofiction Brooklyn Crime Novel. The non-cultural nonfiction titles here take hard looks at evergreen topics like poverty and colonialism but find something fresh and jolting to say.
In things fictional, the writers that blew our hair back hailed from some odder corners of genre. What can we say? It wasn’t a year for escapism. Margaret Atwood proves she is still the master of shorter fearless fictions, writers like Melissa Broder and Tom Broder deliver the uncommonly strange, and Stephen Markley shows us a future we know is coming but cannot quite imagine. Which is really what fiction should be all about. – Chris Barsanti
The 31 books that comprise our Best Books of 2023 list below are presented in alphabetical order by title.
Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film by Steve Matteo
(Globe Pequot / Backbeat)
If you are underwhelmed by the Beatles films, you might benefit from reading Steve Matteo’s Act Naturally: The Beatles on Film. Matteo hits the point home that without the five pictures the Beatles made together between 1964 and 1970, much of the band’s celebrated musical output wouldn’t exist. No “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Help!”, no “If I Fell” or “Ticket to Ride”, no “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” or “I Am the Walrus”, No “Get Back” and, if you can imagine, no “Let It Be”.
Matteo takes readers on one hell of a journey into how the films are mold-breaking artistic achievements beyond merely exploitative movies of the Beatles’ success. A Hard Day’s Night evolved from British New Wave, Help! from the British spy films, and Let It Be reinvented the rock documentary, Matteo argues. He lays out all this while providing the lowdown on how each film was conceived, written, financed, filmed, cast, produced, promoted, and received. Matteo’s meticulously researched and infectiously enthusiastic dive into the Beatles’ movies, Act Naturally, will make you love those silly films. – Adam Mason
See also “You Will Learn to Love the Beatles Movies“.
All Night Pharmacy by Ruth Madievsky
With the same shocking specificity that sets apart her poetry, Ruth Madievsky’s All-Night Pharmacy brings us uncomfortably close to everything the narrator witnesses in a hospital waiting room. That Madievsky works as a clinical pharmacist and that the narrator’s time at her own hospital job contains some of the novel’s most gripping prose is surely no coincidence. Everyone in the narrator’s world flashes with the immediacy and intensity of a club’s strobe light.
All-Night Pharmacy is a blazing success and a joyous addition to a collection of Los Angeles literature as sprawling as the lights in the hills. Pulsing prose and memorable one-liners make Madievsky’s story a helpful example of the “novels-by-poets-are-superior” argument. – Rachel R. Carroll
All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley
(Simon & Schuster)
Art is both a shared experience and a personal experience. The artist creates with the intention of communicating something to the viewer, but the viewer also brings their own perceptions to how they interact with the artist’s work. Patrick Bringley worked for a decade as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, spending days, weeks, and months watching the exhibits and observing the exhibits’ effects on the museum’s visitors. His memoir All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum and Me is a gracious, thoughtful meditation on that time.
As there is an art to memoir writing, there is an artfulness to describing the power of the visual arts. Bringley’s All the Beauty in the World is exquisitely rendered. – Fiona McQuarrie
Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song by Judith Tick
Music historian Judith Tick’s Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is the first major Ella Fitzgerald biography since the singer’s death in 1996 and one of the most anticipated books on jazz in decades. The book effectively reclaims the greatness of a musical treasure, including her musical eclecticism. Tick’s work corrects much of the myths surrounding the First Lady of Song, including key moments in her career, Fitzgerald’s image of unassertive humility, and her underappreciated political involvement. The exhaustive research, bolstered by unprecedented access to different archives, is obvious, and Tick adds much to the literature on Fitzgerald and jazz. The book showcases a wide range of intellectual discourse on Fitzgerald’s work.
Duke Ellington famously called Fitzgerald “beyond category”, and Tick stresses the ever-shifting nature of Fitzgerald’s life and art, including her musical repertoire. Tick argues for jazz as a process rather than a static style, and she shows how Fitzgerald crossed musical and cultural boundaries throughout her life. Although I would have loved more analysis of Fitzgerald’s recordings, Becoming Ella Fitzgerald is an excellent biography that expanded my view of one of music’s greatest singers. – Joshua Friedberg
The Bee Sting by Paul Murray
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Some novels describe lives, and some novels are lives rendered in text. The Bee Sting, Paul Murray’s triumphant fourth novel, is the latter. In a small Irish town, the Barnes family leap into a series of parallel disappointments: a failing business, a failing marriage, the void of adulthood, and the loss of childhood. Each family member is so absorbed by their own ghosts — some metaphorical, some more literal — that they miss how their own sadness is reflected in each other. The result is a cold novel written with a sense of love, a fraught combination that defines many families and only a skilled writer could balance faithfully.
While Murray’s breakthrough second novel, 2010’s Skippy Dies, is best remembered for its humor, The Bee Sting gives a new lease on life to the empathy and vulnerability that has defined his work. His commanding prose allows The Bee Sting to feature a rotating cast of narrators without feeling like a style exercise and plentiful flashbacks without losing its sense of pacing. The Bee Sting is a dazzlingly complete novel whose ending feels like breaking the surface after a long underwater dive. – Jeremy Levine
Brooklyn Crime Novel by Jonathan Lethem
Brooklyn Crime Novel is a fascinating interrogation of all the borough’s mythologizing, which Jonathan Lethem (seeming to include himself here as the “whiteboy Brooklyn novelist”) inadvertently kicked off with Motherless Brooklyn back in 1999. He comes at his material sideways with a flurry of short chapter snippets that range from fuzzily autobiographical reminiscence to block-by-block urban archaeology (certain readers may thrill to see neighborhood standbys like Queen and Sahadi’s get name-checked) and a near-forensic analysis of the area’s criminal, racial, and social mores.
All together, Brooklyn Crime Novel creates a clear-eyed vision of what it was like for the kids of the newly invented neighborhood of Boerum Hill (both those of the gentrifying parents and those who had to make room for the gentrifiers) to run the 1970s streets, both freer than kids of today may imagine while also more fraught. While the title seems like an ironic SEO-friendly joke, it makes more sense the closer Lethem gets to his story’s dark core, which will be disquieting for some urban romanticists. – Chris Barsanti
Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah
Like V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Calling for a Blanket Dance‘s Turtle and then Ever’s quest to find a home is central, though author Oscar Hokeah eschews much of the tedium (and hilarity) of Naipaul’s novel showing why a big family needs a domicile all their own. For Hokeah, Turtle’s and then her son Ever’s need is more elemental and tightly knit with a parent’s need to care for their children. Hokeah’s tale details the durability of family and tribal unity while analyzing the rips and tears that exist.
Calling for a Blanket Dance stitches an intergenerational quilt of rich themes: gift-giving, second chances, reclaiming culture, family loyalty, and the indelible search for a home. – Shaun Anthony McMichael
Death Valley by Melissa Broder
Through her previous novels, The Pisces (2018) and Milk Fed (2021), Melissa Broder has already established herself as one of the predominant magical realists working in fiction today. Now, with Death Valley, Broder offers her most ambitious project to date; even the title demonstrates that there’s more at risk than ever before. Certainly, our heroine has a lot to experience over the course of Death Valley. Time and time again, she finds herself in the delightful and surreal situations that are characteristic of Broder’s oeuvre. But even when the novel tips into the mystical — a collection of talking rocks, a giant heroic bird, what may or may not be a telepathic fluffle of rabbits — Broder keeps readers grounded in the more mundane details of the narrator’s trip.
Somehow, Broder has illuminated a tale of grief and loss with her characteristic wit and insight. The result is as dazzlingly brilliant as a desert sunset. Ultimately, Death Valley is a riotous victory. – Rachel R. Carroll
The Deluge by Stephen Markley
(Simon & Schuster)
The knock on Stephen Markley’s churning, ambitious, nearly 700-page novel is that it’s just too, too, too much. This is a fair criticism. Markley definitely does not know when to stop. He starts The Deluge a few years before the present, with a scientist discovering that methane plumes in the ocean are about to set off a climate time bomb. Then Markley leaves that threat tick-tick-ticking in the background as he sets an epic story of climate activists, eco-terrorists, researchers, and even a guilt-plagued ad executive churning through the tumult and terror of a world coming undone from climate change, ecological collapse, and accelerating schizoid political polarization and domestic terrorism.
Markley’s subplots have subplots, with romance and subterfuge and massive set-piece uprisings and massacres banging around and crowding each other off the page. But the all-too-close feeling of his writing makes the result feel more like dramatized nonfiction than a chaotic action plot. It might be difficult for readers of The Deluge to avoid feeling that the next few years of our climate change catastrophe will be just like it is in the book. Think of The Deluge as the airport thriller version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future by way of Rebecca Solnit. – Chris Barsanti
Earlier by Sasha Frere-Jones
Sasha Frere-Jones is best known for having served as the pop critic for The New Yorker between 2004 and 2015. He has since freelanced for publications like Bookforum and 4Columns, in addition to being a member of Ui, an experimental post-rock band. Earlier is a memoir of his life thus far, prompted by the passing of his first wife, Deborah, who died in 2021. The resulting book is a kaleidoscope of memory fragments in the manner of Walter Benjamin. This approach isn’t simply for the sake of style but serves as a strategy for untangling the multiple narratives in his life. We learn details large and small: his father’s closeted sexuality; seeing the Clash perform at a club in Times Square; Halloween and racism in Park Slope; attending St. Ann’s with Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys; a missed opportunity to open for Pixies (then unknown) at RISD; and, not least, Frere-Jones’s love of sandwiches.
What holds everything together is a lifelong passion for music and New York as an ongoing crucible for self-discovery. A former addict, Frere-Jones demurs from the task of imparting lessons, but he implies that openness and vulnerability are essential to being a great critic, which he is. – Christopher Lee