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Critics discuss their favorite books of 2023


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: With the holidays upon us, you may be hunting for gifts for the book lovers in your life.

To help narrow down the many best books of the year lists, Jeffrey Brown speaks to two "NewsHour" regulars for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: And joining me again this year are two top readers and reviewers, Gilbert Cruz, books editor of The New York Times, and Maureen Corrigan, book critic of NPR's "Fresh Air."

It's nice to see both of you again.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR Book Critic: It's good to be here.

Jeffrey Brown: Maureen, I will start with you. Shall we start with fiction?

Maureen Corrigan: Sure. Why not?

Jeffrey Brown: Give us two of the many that you love.

Maureen Corrigan: It's been a great year, so two is hard.

Alice McDermott's "Absolution." Anybody who's read Alice McDermott knows that she usually writes about my people, Irish Catholics, working-class background, New York.

Jeffrey Brown: You're not biased, are you?

Maureen Corrigan: No, I'm not. No, I'm not.

This time, she takes those characters and puts them in Vietnam in 1963. We have — the main character is a newlywed, a young wife who is pulled into this group of women who are doing charitable works in Vietnam while their husbands are busy doing something else.

And without being heavy-handed, McDermott manages to make a connection between the insistent charity of these women and early American intervention in Vietnam.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, because that's something else turns out to be the Vietnam War.

Maureen Corrigan: Right. Right. You gave it away.

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Maureen Corrigan: The other book that I loved, one of the other books, "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store" by James McBride. I think he's one of our most nuanced, but clear-eyed writers about race.

This is set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, around 1925 in a historically immigrant Jewish neighborhood and African American. And I will stop there. It's amazing.

Jeffrey Brown: Gilbert, you want to give us two fiction, two novels?

Gilbert Cruz, Books Editor, The New York Times: Sure thing.

So one of my favorite books of the year, one of our top books of the year was a book called "The Bee Sting" by Paul Murray. Paul Murray is an Irish author. His book was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year. And it's a family saga. It is a book about four family members who formerly were riding high on the hog, and the 2008 financial crisis is hitting Ireland, it's hitting them and their little town.

And it's a book that sort of digs deep down into their internal lives, their emotional lives. There are sections that go between all of the different characters. And it's a book about sort of the unknowability of people that you love. You can live with someone for a very long time and still not get to know them because you can never truly know a person.

It's funny, it's sad, it's tragic. It's a lot of things, and you really fall in love with all of the characters. So that's my first one.

Jeffrey Brown: OK.

Gilbert Cruz: Second one is called "North Woods," and this is by Daniel Mason.

And it is set over 300 years and rather than focus on any individual character, this plot of land and this house in Western Massachusetts is the main character. It takes you through three centuries, and it gives you all these different characters. And through these characters, Daniel Mason writes through several different genres and several different types of literary styles.

It's constantly surprising and it's just a delight to read. His writing is so beautiful.

Jeffrey Brown: Interesting. All four of these books have a lot of history, as well as the family life to them.

Maureen Corrigan: Yes. Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: How about nonfiction, Maureen?

Maureen Corrigan: Yes, well, here's some more history, "The Wager" by David Grann. He's having such a big year.

Jeffrey Brown: With "Killers of the Flower Moon."

Maureen Corrigan: "Killers of the Flower Moon."

This work of history, narrative history, is about as traditional as you get. It's about a shipwreck, a mutiny, survival on a rocky island. A bunch of British sailors are on a ship called the Wager. That ship goes — breaks apart in a storm in 1741 off the coast of Patagonia. And for a while, they survive on this island, and then a group of the sailors patches together a rickety vessel and sails 2,500 miles to Brazil.

And that's only part of the story. So that's one of them.

And then Safiya Sinclair's memoir, her debut memoir, "How to Say Babylon," I thought was outstanding. It tells that kind of familiar story about breaking out of a repressive childhood context into a wider world. In her case, she grew up in a strict Rastafarian household. She's a lovely writer. She's a poet and her nature descriptions of Jamaica along with everything else are really stunning.

Jeffrey Brown: OK. Gilbert, two nonfiction?

Gilbert Cruz: I have to second Maureen's recommendation. All the books she is talking about are great, but I really love that one.

One I will talk about is "Master Slave Husband Wife" by Ilyon Woo. This is a piece of historical narrative nonfiction. It is about a couple in 1848. They live in Georgia. They are an enslaved couple. And right before Christmas, they decide to make a run for it, to leave Georgia and try to escape to the North.

And the way that they do this is by disguising the wife, Ellen Craft, who is a light-skinned African American, as a wealthy white man. And her husband serves or play-acts her servant. And they make this four-day journey. It's very tense. It's amazingly researched. That's just the first part of the story.

You get a peek into their lives after they make it to the North, the way they got involved in anti-slavery advocacy. It's a historical drama. It's a love story that reads like a novel. It's quite an amazing book.

The second nonfiction book I will talk about is a book called "Fire Weather." This one is set now. This one is set in present time. It is a climate change book, "Fire Weather" by John Vaillant. It's ostensibly about the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, which took place in Canada. Fort McMurray is an oil boomtown.

It is a place that popped up and has made great wealth for people based on extraction of oil from the ground. That extraction has led to climate change, and that climate change has led to a giant wildfire that resulted in the evacuation of almost 100,000 people in 2016. And, again, it's a book that reads like a novel.

It mixes a beat-by-beat account of a wildfire with the history of oil extraction, climate change. It's just masterfully done.

Jeffrey Brown: I want to ask you, just in our short time left here, about whether you're seeing any trends, either in your own reading or in the writing that's coming across your desk.


Maureen Corrigan: Well, as many people have pointed out, we're living in a time that's very much like the '30s.

Our fiction, especially our literary fiction, is very much centered on social issues and social problems. I thought it was interesting, though, this year that some novels that I wouldn't have expected to see social issues crop up in, especially reproductive rights, all of a sudden, those novels veered into an abortion rights plot, which was Megan Abbott's suspense novel "Beware the Woman."

And, also, to a certain extent, Ann Patchett's novel "Tom Lake" had that. So we're very much socially conscious in our art these days.

Jeffrey Brown: Gilbert, what are you seeing?

Gilbert Cruz: There are tons and tons of historical fiction novels out there.

I feel like this genre, if you can call it a genre, just continues to grow and grow. To mention a book that Maureen just mentioned, "Tom Lake," that is one of at least three books set during the pandemic that came out this summer and fall. Michael Cunningham had a book. Sigrid Nunez had a book. I think we will continue to see a book set during the pandemic.

And then there is this — this subgenre that has been around for a while and has ruled sort of part of the bestseller list this year, which is romantasy. We have written about it at The Times. Lots of places have written about it, which is a mix of romance and fantasy. And the author Rebecca Yarros with her books "Fourth Wing" and "Iron Flame" sort of really dominated the bestseller list this year.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, some of the best books of the year.

Gilbert Cruz of The New York Times, Maureen Corrigan of NPR's "Fresh Air," thank you both very much once again.

Maureen Corrigan: Thank you.

Geoff Bennett: And you can check out the full book list on our Web site. That's

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