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From ‘The King’ to Zadie Smith

Imagine a holiday party attended only by books. Give them little arms and legs if it helps. That’s the way to think about the best books of the year. You invited a bunch of books to your Christmas celebration that you couldn’t get out of your mind, and there were so many of them that it was crowded and noisy. Some guests are wild and drunk off their asses; some are formal; some are thick and popular. A few guests corner you and insist that you love them; They chew up more time than you want. You look past them, scanning the room.

You notice themes. You realize that our future is tightly tied to our past, and everyone is entangled in our tense present. You see a lot of Chicago guests; It’s been one of the best years for local writers in a while. You see a lot of good books about climate change. You see history and 2023 coming together in a heated conversation that never ends.

Anyway, this is what I see.

And when I threw everyone out at the end of the night, there were 10 books left. Actually 12; Unable to help myself, I asked for three seemingly adjacent titles to remain. I’d like to hold back a little longer, but this is the after-party and soon the sun will rise in 2024.

So, in no particular order, here are the best of 2023:

Without crafting an overtly epic recipe for America circa 2023, Lacey, a former Southern transplant who recently left her home in Chicago, bottles the real political and cultural histories of the 20th century, then blurs them with fictional pasts and re-imagines a country still struggling to survive. Crawl through their contradictions and hostilities. “X” is a fictional multi-A lotThe disciplined artist who worked with Tom Waits and Christopher Walken, hung out with Annie Leibovitz, and imitated Cindy Sherman and Bowie. A year after his death, his wife, a writer, begins writing the definitive biography of the famous spouse. Other than basic details like real names and places of birth, he is not easily found in a country that split into three states after World War II: one liberal, one religious, one libertarian. Lacey’s author offers a history, footnoting existing authors and articles that are not yet ambitious; As ambitious as it sounds, this story blends effortlessly with hard, fragile truths about people and countries: Some things, we read, are “too complex to remain still.” within a narrative.”

A new Zadie Smith novel is an event for the same reason that her literary influences — particularly Martin Amis, who died in May — made headlines in another era: They took our temperatures for a few hundred pages. So what should we understand from a historical novel written by Smith? The same. It’s not an overt nod to 2023 or the infamous scams among us. It doesn’t have to. Inspired by a case that stunned London in the 19th century, it tells the story of an Australian butcher who claimed to be the heir to a fortune, who was shown to constantly lie, but won admirers for his sheer shamelessness, despite the improbability of his claim. . The butcher is defended by a man prone to “whining, grumbling, cursing, preaching” and is obsessively pursued by a servant (Smith’s main character) who is moved by the testimony of a former slave. There’s money, there’s sex, there’s the Catholic Church, there’s hypocrisy. Charles Dickens goes for a walk. Miss Touchet, the cleaning lady, is a marvel of the past that informs the present: she does not believe the butcher’s story, but as an intelligent writer herself, her talents will be wasted in a culture that cannot tolerate an intelligent female writer. She knows a great story when she hears it.

Using the violence and racism of 1970s school busing protests in Boston as a thoughtful backdrop for his latest crime novel, Lehane — best known for New England-set mysteries like “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island” — returns to his wild form. . Her heroine, Mary Pat, is a somewhat hardened Frances McDormand, a familiar Southern archetype at first glance; proud, tribal, defensive and thoughtfully racist. But then his daughter disappears, a black teenager dies, and with harrowing speed and an unrelenting look at claustrophobic neighborhood enclaves, Lehane explores the moral decay (and exploitation) of unexamined lives built on a mirage of assumptions.

Have you ever felt so uneasy about a novel that when you picked it up from the last page, your world reached a different point? Adjei-Brenyah is one of our best young short story writers. He submitted his first novel It was as exciting as questioning the same emotions. Set in a dystopian America where mass incarcerated people fight for parole in televised gladiator rings (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment), the film follows two superstar “Links” – Loretta and Hamara – who face the end of their relationship on and off camera. Someone who is about to be released does not want to leave quietly while the other Links are in severe limbo. Adjei-Brenyah jumps from the prisoners to the protesters to the corporations that privatized the entire show and, tellingly, to the reader: Exciting battles put you in a ringside seat, and it’s hard to sit on your hands.

None of these wonderful, unexpected novels should work. Even by the fantastical standards of surrealism (Kennedy), adventure (Kraus) and horror (LaValle). Yet they sing—like intoxicating karaoke performances so exhilarating that you sit up straighter with each heartfelt moment. Kennedy, once a young-adult novelist from Chicago, tells the story of a resourceful young man beset by his surroundings in a Midwestern town. conscious hurricanes; dream logic turns into an epic based on a simple story of leaving home. Arguably the best new horror writer in decades, LaValle focuses on Adelaide Henry, a lone black farmer in 1915 Montana who settles on free land promised by the government; His cargo and safety are barely preserved in the mysterious steam trunk he drags behind him. Kraus, an Evanston resident and a fixture on Chicago’s lit scene. writes about a diver He is still struggling with the death of his father when he was trapped inside a 60-ton whale. Each succeeds wildly by arguing that the genre (especially metaphor, analogy, and illogical) has become the only true journalism in a world that now means so little.

If ever there was a book to be thrown across a room, picked up, read on (then tossed out, taken back, repeated), this is it. Someone had to write this best book ever On the wonderful art of evil people. Dederer, a Seattle-based memoirist, resists being a pious moral calculator — could I still watch “Annie Hall” if I watched two films by silenced directors as atonement? He’s not letting anyone off the hook, least of all himself. Instead, it grapples with real-life contradictions and out-of-loud contradictions, ticking between the expected (Polanski, Picasso) and the less expected (Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis) with intelligence, grace and nuance rare in this cultural thorny thicket. polemics. How can you maintain who you are when the artists who shaped you are now haunting you? The victory here is not in the step-by-step how-to – Dederer is too smart to go there – but in the gray areas where most of us live.

If the sad, seemingly dogged stories of Venezuelans who have recently settled in Chicago and elsewhere have taken on a predictably impersonal, monolithic tone, here’s a little miracle of context: Ramón, a Venezuelan journalist now living in Los Angeles, tracks down the economic crisis progress. the political and moral decay of a country falling little by little and suddenly into authoritarianism. He does this in clearly articulated prose, tracing the story of his own family. This is less a story of migration than a window into what it means daily to live in a place where supermarkets have emptied, power grids have collapsed, and aging parents are left behind and become distant voices in the world for their transplanted children. telephone. (Thanks also to Sauganash author and activist Alejandra Oliva. “Rivermouth: A History of Faith, Language and Migration” (This sheds intriguing light on a seemingly boring, rarely discussed corner of the conversation: filling out application forms.)

From time to time I read the writings of the Lakeview-based biographer. monumental history Martin Luther King Jr. was the first game changer in decades. portrait of the civil rights activist, it’s as if you’re experiencing key moments in American history in almost real time. His assassination, in particular, has the pulse of a thriller. (No wonder Steven Spielberg bought the screen rights to the book for Chris Rock to direct as a feature film.) Eig spoke to everyone still alive who knew the man, drawing on FBI reports and revealing unpublished accounts, and convinced readers that his King’s “king” He warned that it might happen. It offends some people.” But that’s only because Eig’s instant classic gives us a theatrical King, a depressed King, a lascivious King, a thoughtful King, a devoted King; like most historical figures we celebrate in stamps, statues or statues. It seems to be distantly related to Eid.

In a year filled with major news about the fragile environment — Gary J. Bass’s “Bathysphere Book,” John Vaillant’s “Fire Weather,” Jake Bittle’s “The Great Displacement” — longtime magazine writer Lipsky says climate disasters the cultural, technological and political roots of why it is as routinely ignored as ever. Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg), best known as the journalist whose travels with David Foster Wallace turned into the movie “The End of the Tour,” chews up too much and ambitiously goes back as far as inventors (Tesla, Edison). created an industry. He then conveys, through character sketches and turning points, a history that reframes why the challenge of explaining climate science to the public eventually devolved into malevolent campaigns by charlatans and self-interested interests who benefit from doing nothing. He writes in an entertaining, not-at-all bone-crushing snap: He wants this story to be as gripping and approachable as a Netflix binge. He argues that our future depends on it.

What appears to be a 600-page clearinghouse of the Harvard professor and New Yorker staffer’s writings from the past decade—a period during which he has become our best source of historical context—gives power to a generalist’s illuminating profile of a country and its concerns. Along with changing views on the Second Amendment, we also get a surprising snapshot of copyright infringement (as seen in the cases involving Barbie and Bratz dolls). There are virtually no problems—distorted facts, sexual predators, police brutality, Supreme Court appointments, disruptive technology—Lepore offers a fascinating framework that reveals a long-term continuity between past and present, not “sometime” felt like a time,” he argues. This list is in no particular order, but this is the best book I’ve read all year.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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