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The 10 Best Books of 2023

Thu, 12/28/2023 - 18:59

“Wellness” by Nathan Hill
Funny, rollicking, and, at times, unwieldy, Hill's second novel veers all over the place and yet still manages to hold together. It follows Elizabeth and Jack, two artsy college students who meet in Chicago's 1990s art scene. Twenty years later they are navigating suburban life — money, parenting, and abandoned dreams. Hill perfectly captures the zeitgeist of contemporary adult life, including financial meltdowns and diet fads. 

Even funnier and wiser than his blockbuster first novel, "The Nix." An author two-for-two out of the gate. (Knopf, $30)

“The Guest” by Emma Cline
An East End novel that doesn't succumb to satire or trivialization. Alex, the novel's aimless protagonist, is a part-time call girl, has a taste for drugs, and is a bit of a kleptomaniac. She meets a well-to-do older man in a bar and ends up at his house on Long Island for a few weeks, enjoying the perks of the gilded life — until she (inevitably) screws up and is sent packing. Alex goes into survival mode, floating from one Hamptons home to another. 

With her razor-sharp prose style and social eye, Cline's fiction mostly resembles that of Joan Didion and her disaffected heroines from the 1970s. (Random House, $28)

“My Name Is Barbra” by Barbra Streisand
So you thought Babs would pen some breezy little memoir you could rip through in an afternoon under a beach umbrella? No, that wouldn't be Streisand. Instead, at nearly a thousand pages, we have the "War and Peace" of autobiographies. It's too long — even devotees might want to dip in at 100-page intervals. But then she lived so vividly and was so creatively omnivorous it almost justifies the length: There was the fatherless Brooklyn childhood, the Greenwich Village cabaret scene, Broadway, a major recording career, and various love affairs. Oh, and there was a Hollywood career too, of course — acting, directing, and producing. 

Don't worry, there's plenty of dish: Redford, Brando, J.F.K. Her life, and this memoir, is like a map of 20th-century American entertainment. (Viking, $47) 

“The Fraud” by Zadie Smith 
Recently Smith wrote an essay titled "On Killing Charles Dickens," in which she explores her wish to rid herself of the great 19th-century writer's influence, which she has felt in her novels since her smash debut, "White Teeth." We should all have such problems. Smith's wit and gift for characterizations are singularly Dickensian, and so is "The Fraud" — a novel based on a real 19th-century British trial about a man who claimed to be heir to a fortune. 

It's a set piece that allows Smith to explore multiple levels of English society, including class distinction, slavery, and the church. There's even a cameo from the man himself, Charles Dickens. (Penguin Press, $29)

“Chain Gang All-Stars” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
A finalist for the 2023 National Book Award. The author's penchant for exhibiting outrageous hyperbole that somehow perfectly reflects our present dystopia will remind many readers of George Saunders. In "Chain Gang," jailed prisoners fight to the death for their freedom — all to finance a failing, overzealous penal system. The action plays out like Roman gladiators mixed with "Monday Night Football," allowing the novel to address mass incarceration, racism, and collapsing corporate culture all at once. 

At its best, the prose shimmers with Adjei-Brenyah's almost poetic descriptions of violence. (Pantheon, $27)

“The Wager” by David Grann
Grann's previous book was "Killers of the Flower Moon," so you know you're in the hands of a writer who understands how to spin gripping narratives from historical facts. This time he turns his eye toward the history of the Wager, a British ship launched in 1740 on a secret mission to capture a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. Soon the Wager wrecks on a desolate patch of Patagonia, and it's not until two years later that an emaciated band of sailors washes up on the coast of Brazil, telling a tale of heroic survival. One problem: Months later, another dilapidated ship lands in Chile, also bearing survivors of the Wager — which they claim was the victim of an illegal mutiny.

Grann's book is an adventure story turned court drama, coming soon to a theater near you. (Doubleday, $30) 

“Elon Musk” by Walter Isaacson 
The achievements are piling up. First there was PayPal, then Tesla, SpaceX, Starlink, Neuralink, and now an A.I. company called xAI. You may not like Elon Musk, but he's basically inventing the 21st century, so we better know what we're dealing with. Isaacson, who has written about geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, among others, digs into Musk's childhood, uncovering a troubled relationship with a cruel, demanding father. 

That explains a lot, actually — for instance, why the word "brutal" keeps coming up when fellow employees are asked about Elon. He's not easy on himself, either, reportedly sleeping by the production line for weeks in the early days of Tesla. He's a weird dude, for sure: ill-mannered, reckless with his opinions, and fraught with paradox. Isaacson tries to get to the bottom of him, and we should too. (Simon & Schuster, $35) 

“My Effin’ Life” by Geddy Lee   
If you're like me, you listened to the rock band Rush quite a lot when you were 14, though not much since then. Still, Lee's memoir is pretty effin' good. Of course, Geddy — the band's bassist and lead singer — was always something of an overachiever. He's hardly what you'd call a "looker," with a singing voice one critic described as sounding like "a guinea pig with an amphetamine habit," but Rush nevertheless became one of music's biggest acts in the early 1980s. 

The memoir displays all the familiar rock band tropes: the early days of sleeping in a station wagon, the druggy period, the tricky interpersonal dynamics, etc. But the gravitas comes from Lee's detailed account of his parents surviving the Nazi concentration camps of World War II — a harrowing and unexpected interlude that lifts this book above the run-of-the-mill rock memoir. (Harper, $40) 
“Going Infinite” by Michael Lewis
Do great journalists sense stories before they happen? Sometimes, apparently, yes. Take the example of Michael Lewis ("Moneyball," "The Big Short"): When the FTX exchange imploded last year, it was discovered that Lewis just happened to have been hanging out for six months with the company's C.E.O., Sam Bankman-Fried. He was called cryptocurrency's Gatsby, though he hardly looked it, with his unkempt hair and rumpled clothes. Still, there were the grand romantic gestures: the astonishing money expenditures and celebrity hobnobbing. 

You come away from "Going Infinite" decrying Bankman-Fried's reckless hubris, but admiring, if begrudgingly, the verve and outsized ambition. (W.W. Norton, $30)

“The Diaries of Franz Kafka”  
The famous diaries that have been pored over by scholars and fans of Kafka since they were first published over 50 years ago, now unexpurgated. Ross Benjamin's new approach as translator leaves in the whole mess; all the false starts and divagations buffed out of the original publication are here intact, allowing a better glimpse of one of the most intriguing, and confounding, artists in literary history. 

You won't find any direct keys to the mysteries of his great, ambiguous stories — the allegory of "The Metamorphosis," or the terrifying and inexplicable ending of "The Trial." Instead we have drafts of stories, personal letters, documented dreams, aphorisms, and epiphanies. It's a clutter, but also the most comprehensive portrait yet of the mind that both presaged and, in a sense, created the 20th century. (Schocken, $45) 

 Kurt Wenzel's novels include "Lit Life" and "Gotham Tragic." He lives in Springs.

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