In a year of book bans, Maureen Corrigan's top 10 affirm the joy of reading widely
If you were to judge a year solely by its books, you'd have to say 2023 was outstanding; but, in a different sense, book banning efforts have also been outstanding this year. This year's 10 best books list is an affirmation of the pleasures of reading widely and freely:
How to Say Babylon: A Memoir by Safiya Sinclair
In her charged memoir, How to Say Babylon, Safiya Sinclair evokes her childhood in Jamaica and charts her gradual revolt against her strict Rastafarian upbringing. Sinclair's father, a celebrated reggae musician, dictated his daughters' diet, education and appearance: dreadlocks, no jewelry and figure obliterating clothing. The pull of poetry along with Sinclair's own innate resolve not to become a subordinate wife — someone, as she says, "Ordinary and unselfed," — carried her into a wider world. Find Sinclair's Fresh Air interview here.
Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma by Claire Dederer
Monsters, by Claire Dederer, is cultural criticism at its most incisive and wry. In this slim book, Dederer, who started out as a film critic, dives into the vexed issue of whether art created by men (and some women) who've done "monstrous" things can still be considered great. Should geniuses like Picasso, Dederer asks, get a "hall pass" for their behavior? Read my full review here.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
David Grann's latest work of narrative nonfiction, The Wager, is part Robinson Crusoe, part Lord of the Flies. The Wager tells the gripping tale of a British ship of that name that broke apart off the coast of Patagonia in 1741. "As the waves thumped the ship, ... ," Grann writes of the ship's final death blow, "it lunged forward and struck more rocks. The rudder shattered and an anchor weighing more than two tons crashed through the ship's hull, leaving a gaping hole in the Wager." Some of the stranded sailors patched together a rickety vessel and sailed 2,500 miles to Brazil. But, then, a second group of sailors from The Wager miraculously surfaced and the official survival story became much more complicated. Find Grann's Fresh Air interview here.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home: A Novel by Lorrie Moore
Just the title of Lorrie Moore's latest novel tells you how singular and strange her vision is. I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home intertwines a Civil War story with a contemporary tale in which a man takes the body of his deceased beloved on a road trip. Moore, here, movingly literalizes the desire to have some more time with a loved one who's died. Read my full review here.
Up With the Sun by Thomas Mallon
Up With the Sun, by Thomas Mallon, is a novel about showbiz strivers in mid-to-late 20th-century America. It zeroes in on the "aggressively ingratiating" real-life actor Dick Kallman, who, for a time, was a protégé of Lucille Ball's. Kallman was murdered by robbers in his Manhattan home in 1980 — a townhouse that doubled as a showroom for his antiques business grandly called: "Possessions of Prominence." Mallon, whose novel, Fellow Travelers, about closeted gay men during the McCarthy era is now a miniseries, is one of our most evocative and drollest novelists. Read my full review here, and find Mallon's Fresh Air interview here.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride, is mostly set in the historically Black and immigrant Jewish neighborhood of Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pa., in 1925. When the state decides to institutionalize a 12-year-old Black boy — who's been branded, "deaf and dumb" — a group of characters violate boundaries of color and class to save him. If you think that premise sounds sentimental, you haven't read McBride, who contains the chaos of the world in his sentences. Read my full review here.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey
Talk about contained chaos: Catherine Lacey's novel, Biography of X, is the story of a widow during what she calls the "boneless days" of her grief, trying to piece together the truth about her wife, an artist who called herself "X." Lacey's edgy and unexpectedly moving novel is filled with photographs, footnotes and guest appearances by real-life figures, like Patti Smithand the New York School poet Frank O'Hara. Read my full review here.
This Other Eden by Paul Harding
Paul Harding's This Other Eden is inspired by true events on Malaga Island, Maine, which was once home to an interracial fishing community. After government officials under the sway of the pseudoscience of eugenics inspected the island in 1911, Malaga's 47 residents, including children, were forcibly removed, some of them rehoused in institutions for the "feeble-minded." In 2010, the state of Maine offered an official apology for the incident. Harding's novel about this horror is infused with dynamism, bravado and melancholy. Read my full review here.
Absolution by Alice McDermott
Absolution, by Alice McDermott, tells the story of Tricia, a shy newlywed in 1963, who arrives in Vietnam with her husband, an engineer "on loan" to Navy Intelligence. There, she meets Charlene, a strawberry blonde dynamo, who conscripts Tricia into her army of do-gooders. McDermott, one of our most nuanced novelists, suggests parallels between the women's insistent charity and the growing American military intervention in Vietnam. Decades later, Tricia will look back on that time and recall that: "the cocoon in which American dependents dwelled was still polished to a high shine by our sense of ourselves and our great, good nation." Read my full review here.
Blackouts by Justin Torres
Justin Torres' Blackouts won this year's National Book Award for Fiction. At its center is an extended deathbed conversation between two gay men about sex, family ostracism, Puerto Rican identity and the films they love, like Kiss of the Spider Woman (an inspiration for this novel). Torres' title, Blackouts, refers to the blacking out of pre-Stonewall accounts of queer lives, what the younger of the two characters here describes as stories of "something grand: a subversive, variant culture; an inheritance." Read my full review here.
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