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.

Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond

Most of Matthew Desmond’s writing—whether his long reads for the New York Times Magazine or his 2016 classic Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—relies on lengthy and in-depth reporting. This makes his work so crucial to the understanding of poverty in America, a country like many others in its often-rampant miscomprehensions about the lives of poor people. His latest, Poverty, by America, draws on that reporting to some extent, but it is more of an ideas book. Well, one idea, really. A big one: The abolition of poverty. Taut and coolly enraged, Poverty, by America is a deeply effective jeremiad about the structural systems—not moral turpitude or laziness, as so many believe—which keep the poor poor and simultaneously leverage for profit their struggle to stay ahead: “Some lives are made small, so that others may grow.”

Desmond does not pretend to develop inventive new strategies for managing this (living wages, equitable taxation, public housing, and healthcare investments), focusing on the will necessary to believe that doing better for the poor is not only possible but imperative. “If this is our design, our social contract,” Desmond writes, “then we should at least own up to it.” – Chris Barsanti

Prine on Prine by Holly Gleason
(Chicago Review Press)

Ambitious books about music have sometimes missed the mark at capturing their subjects by feigning superiority and displaying unearned condescension. John Prine, one of the most humane canonized singer-songwriters, would have had none of that. So, it’s fitting that a new anthology of media appearances of his work is presented with as much humility and love as he displayed in his songs. Editor Holly Gleason’s new anthology, Prine on Prine: Interviews and Encounters with John Prine, is a tender delight and the first book in the Musicians in Their Own Words series overseen by someone who knew the subject very well. Gleason highlights Prine’s underappreciated musical range and her friendship and professional relationship with Prine. In such a position, Gleason is unusually fitting to be the curator behind such a collection, and she gratefully uses her knowledge of the music and the man to present an unusually strong portrait of an artist and their work.

The “interviews and encounters” in Prine on Prine reveal John Prine’s care for others and his self-deprecation and nonchalance about his accomplished career. – Josh Friedberg

See also “Self-Deprecating Non-Chalance: Prine on Prine“.

Prophet by Sin Blaché and Helen Macdonald
(Grove Atlantic)

Apparently, when Helen Macdonald, best known for her woundingly lovely meditation on death and nature H is for Hawk, was asked what her next book would be, she said, “I’m going to write a gay sci-fi romance novel.” Turns out, that wasn’t a joke. Macdonald, who apparently has a sideline in Star Wars fanfic, teamed up with writer and musician Sin Blaché to crank out Prophet, which turns out to be one of the year’s more inspired surprises. In the goofily-premised adventure, a mismatched pair of savants—Adam, a dead-eyed Special Ops agent with a deeply buried romantic side, and Sunil, a trouble-seeking addiction-prone hedonist with a shining-like knack for spotting lies—are tasked with getting to the bottom of mysterious substance Prophet, which zombifies people through the power of manifested nostalgia (roadside diners, Rubik’s Cubes, CDs; each of them deadly). Many Derrida-referencing papers could be written on the book’s ending.

Prophet’s real joy comes in the crackling Adam-Sunil dialogue, which ranges from spit-take-funny to gasp-inducing honesty. This is military-grade weird fiction of the highest sort. – Chris Barsanti

Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair by Tom Lucas
(Beating Winward Press)

What do authors H.P. Lovecraft and Edward Stratemeyer have in common? Until recently, one could rightly and safely answer “Very little”. But now, one must add “Tom Lucas”. With Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair, Lucas fuses elements of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos into a Stratemeyer world. Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair is as funny as clever. Fans of Lovecraft and his artistic progeny will likely laugh out loud at parts, but you don’t have to be a hardcore Lovecraft fan or expert to get the joke(s). Readers who grew up with Nancy Drew and/or The Hardy Boys, even tangentially, will also find the laughs frequent and deep. This pitch-perfect comedic mash-up becomes a textbook example of how to play with both form and content without getting lost in the self-reflexive postmodern labyrinth of chasing one’s tail and never catching it.

The closing chapter (chapter 13, of course) pulls Research Randy and the Mystery of Grandma’s Half-Eaten Pie of Despair into the sublime realm. I’d hesitate to call it the perfect finish, except it is in every way. – Ben Urish

See also “A Questionable Quartet: Tom Lucas, Research Randy, H.P. Lovecraft, and Edward Stratemeyer“.

Sink: A Memoir by Joseph Earl Thomas
(Grand Central Publishing)

Sink: A Memoir by award-winning writer Joseph Earl Thomas is an unusual coming-of-age tale. Thomas is not concerned with portraying the people in his life with rose-tinted glasses or as irredeemable villains. They are human beings, fucked-up, but human beings, nonetheless. Other writers might assuage the negative and write a sanguine ending; Thomas does not. Indeed, Sink is filled with pessimism specific to modern American life. However, levity and warmth can be found throughout. Thomas utilizes short, intermittent chapters as palette cleansers for the emotionally drained reader to rest from their voyeuristic foray into the protagonist’s hard-knock life.

Sink is more than an ethnographic memoir. It’s a harrowing glimpse into an omnipresent but often unseen Americana. – Luis Aguasvivas

See also “Sink: A Memoir Shuns Respectability Politics“.

The Sisters Dietl by Vojtěch Mašek

Reading Vojtěch Mašek’s diabolical and superb The Sisters Dietl is like consuming a many-layered pastry laced with something hallucinogenic. Zoomed in, the confection is grotesque archeology, exposing layers of sweetness and goo. Peer through the washes of vibrant color to glimpse pages of newsprint in the original Czech. Frequently about knitting or cooking, these banal domestic instructions and recipes create an ironic and jarring undertone to the noir detective narration above. Character interactions are paced out into moments, gestures, and closeups in a distinctly cinematic way. Mašek’s combination of collage, printmaking, painting, and drawing is more akin to artist books than comics history as such.

With The Sisters Dietl, Mašek’ has created one of the most inventive, original, and unusual comics I have read in over a decade of studying the medium. – Martha Kuhlman

See also “Fragments of a Diabolical Dream: Vojtěch Mašek’s The Sisters Dietl“.

Stewdio: The Naphic Grovel ARTrilogy of Chuck D by Chuck D

Starting with Public Enemy in the 1980s, Chuck D has been a major voice on social and political issues, and for Black Americans, especially. He has cut through a world of institutionalized racism, gaslighting, and a litany of other ongoing challenges and has long provided sanity, strength, and direction when things could otherwise seem overwhelming. From around the start of COVID-19 in early 2000 to late 2022, Chuck D drew his way through those immensely challenging years. STEWdio: The Naphic Grovel ARTrilogy of Chuck D is three volumes of 100+ one-page drawings. Each drawing is not only art but serves as part diary, part time capsule, and part activism. Chuck D’s style can be described as neo-expressionistic, with images and text often intertwined like Jean-Michael Basquiat’s art. The lines can be lively and kinetic, and sometimes frenetic.

In a time when droves of pandemic deaths, lockdowns, mass shootings, MAGA and BLM fractures, and a world overheating by the day all became normalized, STEWdio serves a similar function to Chuck D’s other work. These could certainly be years one might try to forget about, but looking back can be helpful and even healing, and this is an immensely entertaining and artistic way to do that. Stewdio is a welcome new facet to a storied career. It is undoubtedly a must-have for serious fans of Chuck D and Public Enemy, and it can also be strongly recommended for anyone who wants to see interesting artwork from this period and through some fresh and unique eyes. – James A. Cobsy

See also: “Chuck D Adds Talented Visual Artist to His Resume with Stewdio“.

Summer of Hamn: Hollowpointlessness Aiding Mass Nihilism by Chuck D

The acronym in the title is spelled out in the subtitle, and the cover and images of guns and a mound of spent shells suggest graphic novel Summer of Hamn will be solely focused on gun violence, though that isn’t the case. As Chuck D asserts early on, along with welcome items from his music and personal lives, these drawings are about the “Disunited State of America.” While guns are clearly a very direct problem in American society, they have a deeper role in reinforcing a nation’s divisions. His BFA in graphic design shows in these drawings, which are consistently well done throughout, each two 5 x 8 pages, and largely black-and-white but also with color. Chuck’s style is neo-expressionistic, often marrying images and text that is usually short rhymes, and it echoes famed graffiti artist Jean-Michael Basquiat. His lines are kinetic, making every drawing feel immediate and alive.

Summer of Hamn is a must for any serious Public Enemy fan, but it is also excellent and insightful art and a time capsule for America. – James A. Cosby

See also “Chuck D’s Graphic Novel Summer of Hamn Zeros in on “Hatriots” and More“.

Window Eyes by Philip Jason
(Unsolicited Press)

The depth and complexity of Philip Jason’s Window Eyes become fully apparent when we step back and think about the many stories he has folded into one, the laminated, exponential layers of storytelling created by his frame structure and secondary narrator. In the outermost layer of Window Eyes, we are reading a novel about a man telling us about his friend’s book. Go in one layer, and we are reading that re-telling. In still a third layer, the unnamed protagonist of Kellan’s book tells his golem the story of the hero Window Eyes, who has vanished and is being forever sought by Glassman, who loves her.

The way these stories nest inside one another, so connected in content yet separate in the characters’ consciousness, represents one of the fundamental aspects of raw, recent grief: the seeming impossibility, the nearly unbearable reality of being forever separated from a person who was part of yourself, and who was right beside you only a short time ago. With its focus on tellings, retellings, recreation, and the act of seeing Philip Jason’s Window Eyes takes poignant notice of the all-encompassing perspectives we create with the people we love. – Jennifer Vega

See also “Grief and Creation in Philip Jason’s Window Eyes

The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War by Chad L. Williams
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In his comprehensive work, The Wounded World, award-winning historian Chad L. Williams follows the course of W. E. B. Du Bois’ work on his non-fictional story of Black soldiers in the Great War. Du Bois left a manuscript of almost 1,000 pages unfinished at the time of his death 40 years after beginning the work. As Williams charts the evolution of The Black Man and the Wounded World, the title Du Bois eventually settled on, he deftly weaves in the story of Du Bois the activist, historian, and social scientist, as he engaged in the challenges facing Blacks at home and around the world in the four decades following the end of WWI.

Initially hopeful that the War would be an opportunity for Black Americans to make gains at home after serving their country abroad, Du Bois eventually determined that WWII not only did nothing to change the lot of the world’s Black population but also made American white supremacism a globally accepted world view. – Michael Curtis Nelson

See also “W. E. B. Du Boi’s Unfinished WWII History Speaks Volumes About America“.

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
(William Morrow)

In Alice Troughton’s film The Lesson (2023), a famous author purrs in self-loving wickedness to his adoring crowd that “average writers attempt originality, the great writers steal”; the unspoken joke being that he himself is stealing the line from T.S. Eliot. In R. F. Kuang’s pitch-perfect story of identity and ownership, Yellowface, very average writer June Hayward decides that when her great writer frenemy Athena Liu chokes to death and leaves behind a mostly unfinished manuscript nobody knows about, well, the best way to achieve greatness is to do some borrowing. If being a great author from another’s text means tweaking the work to expand the white characters and changing her last name to the maybe-Asian-sounding Juniper Song, she figures it’s worth it.

Kuang is best known at this point for the thumpingly unsubtle alternate-history, Babel. The far superior Yellowface turns sharply-observed literary satire into a fast-paced page-turner less through the Hitchcockian turns that close in on June’s deception than the protagonist’s increasingly detached sense of moral justification. Kuang delicately parses the hot-button issues she conjures up (you name it: cancel culture, affirmative action, cultural appropriation) without taking a simplistic 140-character stance. Yellowface’s depiction of self-glorifying social justice warrior outrage and internecine publishing skirmishes fought on Twitter and Goodreads is so of the moment it feels as though it just happened yesterday. – Chris Barsanti

See also “Translation As a Tool of Power: An Interview with Novelist R.F. Kuan“.