The Best Books of 2023
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The Best Books of 2023

It won’t surprise PopMatters readers that many of our best books of 2023 are excavations of our increasingly clamorous culture. It wasn’t a year for escapism.

Gone to the Wolves by John Wray
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Like the death and black metal bands it includes, John Wray’s novel Gone to the Wolves is a full-on assault on the senses that doesn’t hold back. His work ranges from a novel about a teenage schizophrenic roaming the streets of New York City (2009’s Lowboy) to a story about a man who has become separated from the flow of time (2016’s The Lost Time Accidents). But he said he’s never had more fun writing a book than he did with this one, and it shows. The exacting details of Gone to the Wolves reflect metal culture’s febrile, heady milieu.

Music is a flamethrower that burns away lies to reveal the truth. Because of that, Gone to the Wolves is the most authentic and exhilarating novel about music I’ve read. Any music head—even those who aren’t fans of the genre—will find plenty to enjoy here. – Steve Woodward

See also “Author John Wary on the Death Metal Novel As Flamethrower“.

The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels by Michael Hann

A good rock book can show you how wrong you are about your favorite acts in ways that deepen your appreciation for their craft. Despite the name and their incredible tightness, the Hold Steady is not the singular vision it seems to be. The oral history contained within music writer Michael Hann’s The Gospel of The Hold Steady reveals the band as always in flux, either scraping together songs, finances, or band members into a fragile unity. It turns out that the outfit’s shoestring, haphazard nature means that the band knows the themes of community, endurance, and redemption as profoundly as their songs suggest.

The Gospel of The Hold Steady shows the fragility at the center of the band is something fans feel in their own lives. They use the concept of the Hold Steady to find a sense of stability within that chaos.  – Jeremy Levine

See also” The Gospel of the Hold Steady Captures Their Unhinged Magic“.

Goth: A History by Lol Tolhurst

The Cure co-founder, drummer, and keyboardist Lol Tolhurst has been steadily “reclaiming” and “repossessing” his art, as he puts it in his latest tome, Goth: A History. With the release of Cured in 2016, he details his beatific highs and bottomless lows with The Cure and his attendant struggles with alcoholism. Goth could be considered a sequel to Cured, as his tales involving the making of the storied proto-gothic trilogy Seventeen Seconds, Faith, and Pornography are like comfort food for the ravenous Cure fan. Goth details in intimate fashion an encapsulation of the mercurial music movement, interweaving anecdotes and personal memories with descriptions of how the “architects of darkness” such as the Banshees, Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, and, yes, the Cure, helped generate a style that is more pervasive today than ever, with sartorial nods on display in malls across the world, movies, and TV shows implicitly or explicitly infusing gothic themes, and endless streams of post-punk and goth revival bands.

The Cure may not be a true goth band, given their later forays into sundry sonic territories, but Tolhurst makes a strong case that the Cure (obliviously) played a formative part in the original movement. He makes an equally strong case that, contrary to popular perception, goth music doesn’t exacerbate melancholy but rather relieves sadness through validating its listeners’ emotions, making tangible their anguished yearnings, and enabling a sublimation of such longings into something more bearable and, dare we say, beautiful. In other words, goth might be our salvation. – Alison Ross

See also: “Gothic Tribes: The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst Explores Pop Music’s Dark Artists”.

Here in the Dark by Alexis Soloski
(Flatiron Books)

Here in the Dark is the debut novel about a theater critic by Alexis Soloski, herself the former theater critic for The Village Voice and now a staff culture writer for The New York Times. While the novel has an engaging, twisty plot full of surprises and snappy dialogue, it is also so much more – a many-layered meditation upon the concept of ‘performance’ both on stage and off – the act of stepping into and out of character and the critic’s sought-after mind-meld with a performance while sitting unseen in the dark.  

Soloski considers what it means to be a person as well as the relationship between art and life, all while engaging the reader in a fast-paced narrative that embeds mysteries within mysteries, springing shocks along the way that will stop readers in their tracks. Writing with confidence rarely found in a debut novel, Soloski knows how to pace a story through just the right dialogue and degree of description while leaving narrative space for her deeper inquiries into the psychology of the critic in general and, in this case, quite an odd yet fully-dimensional protagonist performing in quite an odd situation. Here in the Dark is itself a bravura debut performance. – R.P. Finch

See also “Personhood and Performance in Alexis Soloski’s Here in the Dark“.

Hit Parade of Tears by Izumi Suzuki

Following Terminal Boredom (2021), Hit Parade of Tears is the second fiction collection by Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986), the pioneering Japanese feminist sci-fi writer, to be published in English over the past several years. Suzuki was part of Tokyo’s bohemian scene, where she worked as a model and actress before achieving acclaim as a writer. The 11 stories of Hit Parade of Tears demonstrate a range of speculative fiction techniques – time travel, the antinomies of technology, fascist states, and off-planet beings – with pop references like Catherine Deneuve and “Time of the Season” song by the Zombies.

Female protagonists beleaguered by men populate these stories, providing sources of humor and menace alike. “Full of Malice” is a bleak story of forced institutionalization, while “The Covenant” features child rape and self-cutting (be warned). “My Guy” is more fanciful, involving a boyfriend who may be an alien. Suzuki’s strongest stories like, “Memory of Water” and the title story “Hit Parade of Tears”, have a strong Kafkaesque feel. The former has a character suffering from multiple personality disorder, while the latter concerns a protagonist arrested for being a thought criminal in a future Japan. Suzuki committed suicide at the age of 36. Hit Parade of Tears reaffirms her cult status and important legacy. – Christopher Lee

See also “The Punk Rock Sci-fi of Izumi Suzukir’s Hit Parade of Tears“.

How Coppola Became Cage by Zach Schonfeld
(Oxford University Press)

Zach Schonfeld’s compulsively readable, well-researched book on Nicolas Cage, How Coppola Became Cage, gets to the heart of the unique, multitalented actor. Cage is regarded as a method actor who takes his methods to unusual lengths, and those are discussed in the book but never in a titillating, gossipy manner; rather, to serve the narrative of Cage as a committed artist (Schonfeld insists in the book’s introduction that he wanted to “demythologize” Cage). Schonfeld wisely concentrates on Cage’s artistry, the filmography, and the “method to his madness” – a phrase that some may feel is almost too on-the-nose for the decidedly oddball thespian.

Schonfeld nails the essence of Nicolas Cage within 13 distinct, creatively essential years. The dozens of “paycheck” projects, the pulpy, shoot-em-up movies, the ham-fisted throwaways, and even underappreciated gems like John Dahl’s Red Rock West and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead certainly get their due here, but the main story involves the time from his first film to his Oscar win. “Cage is never perfect,” Schonfeld writes. “Rarely has he strived for perfection. But his failures are often more interesting than other actors’ successes.” – Chris Ingalls

See also “Nicholas Cage Biography How Coppola Became Cage Focuses on Methods and Cooperation“.

Living Colour’s Time’s Up by Kimberly Mack

Rock-loving professor Kimberly Mack spends some time with Living Colour’s Time’s Up, giving the album and the band well-deserved attention and appreciation. One of the many strengths of Living Colour’s Time’s Up is that it includes extensive comments from all four band members who played on the first two Living Colour albums and many others who worked with the band on those records. What the band members shared with Mack about their upbringings helps explain why they chose the adventurous route, as their high level of sophistication nudged them in that direction.

Mack helpfully shines a light on a still-excellent album and band that have all too often been overlooked over the past 30 years, but it’s important to note the inspiring personal element of her book. Living Colour helped validate Mack as a Black woman who is a die-hard rock fan. She grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses, the same projects as Jay-Z, so some might have expected her to listen exclusively to hip-hop. She was sad to see so few Black faces at the rock shows she attended, but Living Colour was an important corrective. – Jordan Kessler

See also “Living Colour’s Time’s Up Isn’t Over“.

Miles Davis and the Search for the Sound by Dave Chisholm
(Z2 Comics)

Dave Chisholm uses creative methods for his graphic non-fiction novel about Miles Davis, including gorgeous artwork to illustrate the jazz icon’s artistic quest. Rather than try to craft a new biographical narrative, Chisholm uses Miles Davis’ own words from various biographies, interviews, and album liner notes. This imparts authenticity to Miles Davis and The Search for Sound‘s storyline and relates Davis’ views on his own musical philosophies and personal flaws. But what makes this graphic novel a triumph is the creative style Chisholm employs in his artwork to illustrate the jazz icon’s musical explorations and breakthroughs. Most of the scenes depicting Davis and his bandmates in action utilize a translucent watercolor technique to convey the multi-dimensional nature of the music, and it works like magic. 

There’s plenty of interesting material about the ups and downs of Miles Davis’ personal life, his often turbulent relationships, and his struggles with racism and drugs. But it’s the portrayals of the ever-ongoing search for the next sound where Chisholm’s brilliance as a graphic artist shines the brightest. – Greg M. Schwartz

See also “Depicting the Artistic Quest in Miles Davis and the Search for Sound“.

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Old Babes in the Wood brims with biting humor, precise detail, and incisive observations about life and aging. Atwood’s literary versatility is on full display in these stories, encompassing a wide range of genres, from science fiction to speculative fiction and historical fantasy. Her talent shines when writing about growing older, navigating grief, and exploring the vastness of the human experience in all its richness and complexity. Old Babes in the Wood‘s central theme is storytelling and the blurred lines between truth and fiction, and there are some surprisingly playful stories here, considering how thematically heavy much of the collection is.

Atwood has a knack for cutting to the heart of things and forging an emotional connection with her readers, leaving an impact long after turning the final page. – Eleni Vlahiotis

See also “Margaret Atwood’s Old Babes in the Wood Fears Nothing“.

Playing Oppression: The Legacy of Conquest and Empire in Colonialist Board Games by Mary Flanagan and Mikael Jakobsson
(MIT Press)

In Playing Oppression, scholars Mary Flanagan and Mikael Jakobsson lay bare the colonialist origins of board games. European board games are steeped in social Darwinist ideology. Many of these games present European civilizations as superior to those they encounter. Playing Oppression explores a history dating back centuries. Readers will be shocked at the findings presented in this book. Flanagan and Jakobsson studied over 900 games and performed research across the globe in international archives (including the Getty Museum and Bodleian at Oxford University). The games discussed within Playing Oppression were created between the 18th and 21st centuries, and all deal in certain ways with colonialism.

Playing Oppression does not aim to stop players from playing their favorite games but instead opts for the more constructive approach of giving readers a more critical and complete view of what they play. This is done to offer “a stepping stone for a greater movement toward a better board gaming future”. – Luis Aguasvivas

See also “Cultural Self-Aggrandizement Has Us Playing Oppression“.