TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Maureen Corrigan's list of the 10 best books of 2023 is ready, and she says she only wishes the list could be longer.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: If you were to judge a year solely by its books, you'd have to say 2023 was outstanding. Here's my list of the year's 10 best books. Let's start with nonfiction.
In her charged memoir "How to Say Babylon," Safiya Sinclair summons up her childhood in Jamaica and charts her gradual revolt against her Rastafarian upbringing. To call that upbringing strict would be like calling water wet. Sinclair's father, a celebrated reggae musician, dictated his daughter's 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.
"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?
David Grann, whose 2017 book "Killers Of The Flower Moon" is now a film by Martin Scorsese, wrote a gripping new work of narrative history this year. Part "Robinson Crusoe," part "Lord Of The Flies," "The Wager" tells the tale of a British ship of that name that broke apart off the coast of Patagonia in 1741. 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.
On to fiction. 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.
"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 real-life actor Dick Kallman, who, for a time, was a protege of Lucille Ball's. Mallon, whose novel "Fellow Travelers," about closeted gay men during the McCarthy era, is now a TV miniseries, is one of our most evocative and blessedly, one of our drollest novelists.
"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 neighbors violates 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.
Talk about contained chaos, Catherine Lacey's novel, "The 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. Real-life figures like Patti Smith and the New York school poet Frank O'Hara trespass onto the pages of this edgy and unexpectedly affecting novel.
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 residents were forcibly removed. Harding's novel about this horror is infused with dynamism, bravado and melancholy.
"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.
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.
These books of 2023 are outstanding, but so, too, have been the efforts to ban books this year. Here's to reading widely and freely in the New Year.
MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. You can find all of her year-end recommendations on our website at freshair.npr.org. And to browse more than 380 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, visit Books We Love at npr.org/bestbooks.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, comedian and actor Kenan Thompson. He's best known as the longest-running cast member on the sketch comedy series "Saturday Night Live" and for starring in Nickelodeon shows like "All That" and "Kenan And Kel." His new book, "When I Was Your Age: Life Lessons, Funny Stories & Questionable Parenting Advice From A Professional Clown," takes readers behind the curtain of his life and career with stories he's never shared before. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")
MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show, and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.