- Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
One of my favorite reads this year was Claire Dederer’s searching book, part memoir and part piece of cultural criticism. She examines our post Me Too society, but looks more deeply at the question of “can you separate the art from the artist?”, instead interrogating what it means to live in an age where we are overwhelmed by biography.
Dederer is the first writer I have encountered who has managed to get to the heart of the tension that lies at the heart of the question: “can you separate the art from the artist?” For her, what fans are grappling with is that something is lost either way. Dederer looks at the struggle as not just a philosophical or moral query for society to decide, but an intimate and personal one. She says that “what I’ve been through as a woman and the fact that I want to experience the freedom and beauty and grandeur and strangeness of great art—this is at the heart of the matter.” It is by far the most moving point anout how to enjoy art by terrible people I have seen. In Monsters, she explores that tension, and the place that art and its makers hold in our lives beautifully.
- How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler
Another 2023 nonfiction read, though starkly different in content, is Sabrina Imbler How Far the Light Reaches: My Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Imbler is both a committed scientist and deeply imaginative writer, their prose is matched only by their knowledge of marine animals and biology. I’m in How Far the Light Reaches, Imbler profiles ten different sea animals, each of which lives in harsh or remote environments. But in doing so, as the title implies, Imbler also reflects on different pieces of their own life: queerness, their ancestry, coming of age and their experience as a queer scientist of Asian descent in a white, male dominated field.
Imbler exquisitely weaves together memoir with ocean science, and in doing so not only imparts upon the reader their own reverence for strange oceanic creatures, but also draws parallels between how sea life survives and adapts to how communities and marginalized identities survive and adapt.
- Someone Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Moving on to fiction, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s profoundly lovely and wacky short story collection about love was so good that I read it twice over the course of two months. Bob-Waksberg is best known for being the showrunner for “Bojack Horseman”, which I admittedly have not seen, but seems to be widely acclaimed.
The book featured 18 short stories, which range from two strangers who lock eyes on the subway and proceed to stay on for years in hopes that they will talk to each other to a group of superheroes whose powers only exist when they get drunk. The stories are surreal and dark at points, but Bob-Waksberg manages to balance both emotional vulnerability and absurdism to create a series of striking stories about all the different kinds of love.
- Dog Songs
In Dog Songs, Mary Oliver pays a touching tribute to the dogs she has had over the course of her life. It is a deeply earnest poetry collection (sometimes, overly sentimental, especially when she takes the voice of the dog). Still, there is a truly wonderful sweetness to the poems, and makes for a nice rainy day read.
- A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance
A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance is an acclaimed essay collection from poet and writer Hanif Abdurraqib from 2019. A Little Devil in America is in constant conversation: Abdurraqib addresses the reader and himself, the resulting effect is that of having a conversation with your most intelligent and emotionally attune friend.
A Little Devil in America chronicles the ways in which American culture is deeply indebted to Black artists and creatives. He does not provide a comprehensive history of this subject, and says that to do so is impossible. Rather, Abdurraqib discusses the artists that he personally feels grateful for, and using deeply moving and lyrical language, informs the reader of the way that those artists have shaped his life. The passages which detail his struggle with depression and his mental health are particularly arresting, so much so that the last page brought me to tears.
- Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones is one of the only horror books that I have ever enjoyed reading, and that is a testament to the way that Graham Jones is able to completely grab the reader’s attention with flawed characters that the reader is able to engage with dealing with an unsettling and captivating plot.
The book revolves around four friends who are part of the Blackfeet tribe of Montana. After killing a pregnant elk on land reserved for tribal elders, the four men are haunted by what occurs that night for a decade to come. The premise of an elk haunting is admittedly somewhat off putting, but the Jones is an incredible storyteller that is able to create striking imagery, moving between violent horror and supernatural horror to tell a story of tradition, identity, and guilt that will stay with you for a long time after the story resolves.