The year is half over now. We’ve seen the swell of austere literary fiction in February, the first crop of lazy beach novels for summer. There have been big buzzy memoirs published, and cookbooks, and essays. Now, before the overwhelming surge of fall prestige book season, let’s stop and take stock of all the good books the year has brought us so far.
As Vox’s book critic, I take a great bite out of all the books that come out every year. In the first half of the year, these have been my favorites: Brainy sex comedies. Environmentalist cookbooks. Shipwrecks and con artists and monsters and yes, why not have another look at that big buzzy memoir. Here are the 11 best books I’ve read in the first half of 2023.
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
Big Swiss is the wittiest of this year’s novels, and the quirkiest, too. A breakout hit from Jen Beagin that inspired a bidding war for its film rights, Big Swiss concerns Greta, a medical transcriptionist. Greta is obsessed with a woman whose therapy sessions she transcribes, a mystery blonde she has dubbed Big Swiss.
Big Swiss is a married gynecologist talking to a therapist because she’s never had an orgasm. She also survived a brutal assault from a man who’s about to get out of prison, but she’s not there to talk about that: “I’m not one of those trauma people.”
Greta, transfixed, tracks Big Swiss down at the dog park. “You must get this a lot,” Greta says, “but would you mind taking a quick look at this thing on my labia?”
Big Swiss is a romp of a book, a study of trauma that disdains the trauma plot, a sex comedy with deep layers. Beagin’s sentences are so dryly funny they’re ready to snap like crackers, but she never loses sight of the humanity of her odd, lovable characters. Also, there are miniature donkeys.
Read if you dream of: the first season of Killing Eve but with more dogs, less scatological Ottessa Moshfegh, more warm-hearted Elif Batuman.
The Guest by Emma Cline
My teeth gnashed unceasingly while I read The Guest, Emma Cline’s delicious follow-up to her 2016 novel The Girls. I was too tense to do anything but let them.
The Guest is set in the rarified world of the Hamptons, where everything is beautiful or at the very least expensive, and none of it quite belongs to Alex, the titular guest. Alex is a sex worker whose quasi-client, quasi-boyfriend, Simon, has thrown her out of his lavish Hamptons beach house. The problem is, Simon is currently Alex’s only client; at 22, she’s finding the rest of her regulars have started to dry up. She’s in debt, and she needs him. So she decides to make her own way in the Hamptons for a week and then see if Simon softens up toward her. But in the gated communities Simon frequents, it’s not that easy to be a guest.
Alex’s superpower is her ability to make herself fit in nearly anywhere. “That was the point of Alex,” Cline writes, “to offer up no friction whatsoever.” Marshaling her status as a well-dressed and pretty young white woman, she schemes her way into country clubs and house parties — until, inevitably, she pushes her luck too far and gets kicked out.
With flat, understated sentences, Cline keeps us crammed and immobile in the vacant confines of Alex’s mind. In chapter after chapter, Alex first systematically empties herself of any opinions or thoughts of her own in order to become the kind of woman her marks require of her, and then impulsively lashes out and creates friction. Alex is a creature of instinct who never seems to quite understand what she’s doing, but in Cline’s precise, elegant prose, we can see how heavily Alex bears the burden of being a woman with no needs of her own.
Read accompanied by: a Negroni, unsweetened black tea, very dark chocolate.
Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois
Vintage Contemporaries is a thoroughly charming and warm-hearted novel by Slate book critic Dan Kois. It concerns two best friends, both living in the bohemian East Village of 1991, both named Emily. One of them is brash and bold and wants to direct plays; the other is a more conventional follower who wants to write books. Kois follows them over the course of 14 years, tracking their friendship and dreams as they evolve along with New York itself.
I keep wanting to describe Vintage Contemporaries as a love letter and then changing my mind as to whom the love letter is for. For the great domestic novelist Laurie Colwin, whose influence looms large over one Emily’s career. For the East Village of the early 1990s, when artists squatted in abandoned lofts. For editing and dramaturgy as creative artforms in their own rights. For old friends who know us longer than anyone. For all of the above, and more.
Read if you like: Laurie Colwin, semi-ironic viewings of Beaches, Veselka pierogies.
White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link
Have you ever spent a long afternoon in an art museum and walked out afterward to find that the world looks different than it did when you walked in; different, and more beautiful? As though the museum has trained your eye to find beauty more efficiently. Reading Kelly Link is like that: When you close the book, the world you return to is stranger and, yes, more beautiful than the one you left behind.
White Cat, Black Dog is a collection of slantwise fairy tales reimagined as short stories. Link gives you “Hansel and Gretel” with vampires and spaceships; “Tam Lin” at an English estate house; “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” on the Upper West Side. Her retellings are thoroughly modern, but she’s able to preserve the strange, shivery emotional core of the originals so that all of them take place in a world regimented by rules that no one will ever quite explain to you.
Read alongside: Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.
The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z by Tamar Adler
In 2012, Tamar Adler published An Everlasting Meal, a sort of updated take on the M.F.K. Fisher classic How to Cook a Wolf that focused on solving the environmental problem of food waste by using up all your waste ingredients. The end of every meal, Adler argued in her mannered-in-a-good-way prose, should form the beginning of the next: last night’s roast chicken and vegetables should become the bones and the peels that make today’s stock; the stock can enrich the grain bowl that tomorrow will become fried rice.
This year, Adler has published The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, the how-to guide that fleshes out the theory of her last book. It takes the form of a vast index of ingredients you might have left over from some other purpose, and all the ways Adler suggests you might salvage them for a new use. You already know that overripe bananas can become banana bread, but Adler is here to tell you that green bananas can become curry or tostones, and banana peels can be dry-fried into thoran.
Adler’s prose is elegant and delighted at the same time, delighted with food and thrift and her own ingenuity. She can tell you what to do with almost anything, but most compelling are her suggestions for junk food: to simmer leftover french fries with cream and garlic and mash them; to put your leftover chips and onion dip into an omelet. This is a book that fights for environmentalism with hedonism.
Read if you: keep meaning to figure out how to compost, are a fan of M.F.K. Fisher, always optimistically buy too many greens.
All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley
After Patrick Bringley lost his older brother in 2008, he decided to take the most straightforward job he could think of in the most beautiful place he knew. He left his job at the New Yorker’s events department and spent the next 10 years as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
All the Beauty in the World is Bringley’s memoir of his time at the Met. It chronicles the secrets he learned there, how it taught him to look at art, and how the beauty of art helped to heal his broken heart. It’s a book for everyone who has ever wanted, like Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, to run away to your favorite museum and never look back.
Read while: choosing the museum where you would most like to Frankenweiler.
Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma by Claire Dederer
Since the explosive just-post-Weinstein days of 2017, much ink has been spilled over the problem of separating art from artist. Little of it, though, has been particularly helpful. In Monsters, critic Claire Dederer dwells provocatively in the ambiguities of the problem: You love the art and can’t unlove it. You also can’t stop thinking about the horrible things the artist did. So then now what?
Dederer starts from the ground floor, with the definitions. What does she mean by monster? What does she mean by we? What does she mean by genius? She traces the rise of the idea of the artistic genius and the remarkable liberties we grant them, and she puzzles through the problem of how audiences respond as, again and again, our geniuses misbehave. Required reading if you’ve ever felt ambivalent about watching Annie Hall.
Read equipped with: the annotation implement of your choice for scribbling notes (I myself am a mechanical pencil girl).
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
David Grann is the rare nonfiction writer whose tightly paced and rigorously documented history books are anticipated as though they were Stephen King novels. His 2018 book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and adapted into a Martin Scorsese movie. His latest book, The Wager, is about a doomed 18th-century naval voyage spurred on by hubris and ending in violent disaster. If it doesn’t read quite like it’s ready to be a Scorsese flick, that’s because there’s so much there that I want it to get adapted into a prestige TV miniseries instead.
The British warship the Wager sails out of London in 1740 under the absurdly named War of Jenkins’ Ear. It was a clash of colonial forces, with Spain and England grappling for control of the New World. The Wager’s mission was to make its way south, down across the hellish and near-impassible Cape Horn below the southernmost tip of South America, and then back up north to the coast of Chile. There it would capture a Spanish galleon loaded with gold.
Instead, the crew of the Wager develops scurvy and typhus. The ship founders and sinks off the coast of Patagonia. Survivors languish on a desert island, starving and freezing. One of them finds and adopts a dog; the other sailors eat it.
At the heart of the book is a great clash of wills. The striving and aristocratic Captain Cheap wants the crew to press on to Chile after their mission. The charismatic gunner John Bulkeley wants to return home to England. They vie against each other for control of the remaining crew, well beyond the point at which their struggle turns bloody.
One of Grann’s great strengths is his ability to toggle between narrative scales. He knows the engine of the story is the fight between the personalities of Cheap and Bulkeley, and drawing from their diaries and letters, he presents each character to the reader as a fully rendered human being. He also never lets us forget that the whole disaster was sparked by imperial greed, and that the colonial striving of Britain and Spain would lead to many more disasters like it.
Read accompanied by: dark red wine and a good basket of well-salted French fries.
My Hijacking: A Personal History of Forgetting and Remembering by Martha Hodes
In 1970, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked a group of commercial airplanes flying in and out of Israel. They landed the planes in the Jordan desert on a makeshift runway of sand and held their hostages there, confined to the planes, for a week. Martha Hodes was one of the hostages. She was 12 years old at the time.
Today, Hodes is a historian at NYU. Some years ago, she writes, she realized that she had very little memory of the experience of being hijacked. She must have been afraid and sad at the time, but when she thought of the hijacking, she felt as though it had happened to someone else. The emotion was long-buried, so that all that remained of the experience was that every time she walked into an airport, she was struck with the urge to cry.
In the richly emotional and elegantly constructed My Hijacking, Hodes puts her historian’s training to use to reconstruct the events of the hijacking. She aims to get a greater sense of what she lived through 50 years ago, and see if by doing so, she can reconnect to all the emotions her childhood self tamped down. With novel-like pacing and incredible psychological complexity, My Hijacking is an unflinching search for all the bad feelings we’d prefer not to look at.
Read alongside: Yezid Sayigh’s Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993
NPR host Elise Hu moved to South Korea in 2015 to establish a new bureau for NPR. For Hu, American born and of Chinese descent, the culture shock was massive: the shining modernity of Seoul, the technology — and the beauty culture.
K-beauty is a massive international industry, with South Korea third in the world behind the US and France as an exporter of cosmetics and skin care. It has by far the most plastic surgeons per capita of any country in the world. Gift certificates for plastic surgery are a common post-graduation gift.
Korean beauty ideals are rigid, but Hu is careful not to demonize those who spend their money and time trying to meet them: it is, she points out, a wholly rational economic decision in a culture where most job applications require headshots. Instead, Hu tracks the social, political, and economic results of a beauty industry big enough to reshape a country. Her ability to lay out a highly rigid and codified standard of beauty in a different culture defamiliarizes our own enough to make its outlines and paradoxes plain.
Read if you dream of: someone finally sitting you down and explaining exactly how Instagram Face became a thing.
Spare by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex
Spare is a book that defies killjoy distinctions like “good” and “bad,” “petty” and “open-minded.” Prince Harry suffers, he settles scores, he walks you through the process of applying his mother’s lip balm to his arctic-wind-chapped penis. One-third of this book is a gripping account of how the power of the monarchy warps and deforms family dynamics; one-third is juicy gossip about tripping on mushrooms with Courteney Cox; and the final third is unmodulated oversharing that goes well beyond the limits of what anyone ever wanted to know about Prince Harry. The combination is weird, at times off-putting, and undeniably fascinating. It’s not like any memoir you’ve ever read before.
Read equipped with: a list of the people who have wronged you and a red Sharpie so you can plot your revenge like Harry.