The best books of 2023, according to Slate’s book critic. | #daitngscams | #lovescams | #datingscams | #love | #relationships | #scams | #pof | | #dating

This year I wanted to read books that did what only books can: provide me with a portrayal of the world as rich and complex as the world itself. That meant nonfiction that fires on multiple cylinders (storytelling, memoir, cultural history) and fiction that embraces the truth that, as Zadie Smith so aptly puts it in The Fraud, “a person is a bottomless thing.”

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By Yepoka Yeebo. Bloomsbury.

Everyone loves a good con-man story, and John Ackah Blay-Miezah’s is one of the most audacious. From the 1970s until his death in 1992, this Ghanaian charmer swindled hundreds of millions of dollars from marks in his homeland and in America—including such luminaries as a former U.S. attorney general—by claiming to have access to a fortune hidden away by Ghana’s late president, if only he could collect enough cash up front to retrieve it. Journalist Yeebo dishes out plenty of rakish details, from Blay-Miezah’s fondness for posh hotels and tailored suits to his penchant for faking heart attacks when a scam started to go south. But Anansi’s Gold is also an in-depth account of the challenges of postcolonial African life, in which corruption and Western rapacity square off against a handful of sincere reformers, while rascals like Blay-Miezah capitalize on the perception of Africa as ripe for exploitation. Never has there been a better or more entertaining illustration of the old adage that you can’t con an honest man.

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By Jonathan Rosen. Penguin Press.

This combination of memoir, biography, and cultural history resembles Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the story of a friendship that opens a window onto a particular time and place. Rosen and his childhood friend Michael Laudor grew up in New Rochelle, New York, in the 1960s and ’70s, the sons of Jewish intellectuals who were expected to soar on the power of their exceptional brains. Laudor was the star, extraordinarily gifted at everything (except the one art—writing—to which they both aspired). He graduated from Yale Law School and came out as schizophrenic, landing a million-dollar book and movie contract. Three years later, in the grip of paranoid delusions, Lauder stabbed his pregnant fiancée to death. Rosen relates his rocky history with Laudor against a backdrop of changing cultural conceptions of mental illness, ideas Rosen brushed against while making his way through the Ivy League and grad school in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book’s title quotes Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but Rosen also touches on cults, anti-psychiatric theories of schizophrenia as a form of protest, deinstitutionalization, and the antipsychotic drugs that ultimately failed his friend. The result is a masterful interweaving of intimate memoir and sweeping history.

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By Eleanor Catton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

An American tech billionaire building a bolthole in New Zealand offers to invest in a guerrilla gardening group that specializes in surreptitiously planting and harvesting organic produce on other people’s neglected real estate. This cunningly constructed, beautifully paced novel has a little bit of everything: a thrillerish plot that kicks in whenever the predatory Robert Lemoine appears, complicated romantic entanglements among the young lefties in the collective that gives the novel its title, and lashings of keen social satire targeting everyone: libertarian tycoons, complacent boomers, sanctimonious social justice warriors. A perfect balance of fun and substance, Birnam Wood is everything a contemporary novel should be. Read the review in Slate.

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By Naomi Klein. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

For years, Klein, a writer and prominent critic of corporate power, had a nagging dilemma: People kept getting her mixed up with Naomi Wolf, who started out writing feminist books on the beauty industry, then meandered into the wilderness of conspiracy theory. A silly problem, sure, but it got worse during the coronavirus pandemic, as Wolf got even kookier, and everyone, including Klein, spent a lot more time online, where the confusion flourished. From this minor irritant, Klein spins out a masterful assessment of how the internet has fostered misinformation, from the errors of overstretched attention spans to the way social media prompts people to publicize their most half-baked thoughts and suspicions. She’s acutely aware that her position is a bit ridiculous—the author of a book titled No Logo, even Klein found herself obliged to defend her personal brand—and at the same time recognizes that her doppelganger’s crackpottery is emblematic of our time and therefore worth scrutinizing. Klein never loses either her sense of humor or her well-honed sense of the larger implications of her quandary.

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In 2016 a massive wildfire that would eventually be nicknamed “the Beast” kindled outside the small, remote city of Fort McMurray, tucked in the vast wilderness of Canada’s boreal forest. Dry conditions brought about by climate change made the vast woodlands a tinderbox, and eventually the conflagration became so huge that it generated its own volatile weather system in an area that produces 40 percent of America’s oil imports. Fort McMurray went up like a box of matches, to the sound of exploding tires and backyard grills; 88,000 people were evacuated. Well-told stories of titanic natural (or, rather, seminatural) disasters are always exciting, but Vaillant writes so vividly that he can make subjects like the mining of bituminous sand—a process involving three-story-tall trucks and producing vast, Mordor-like wastelands—fascinating. Alberta may seem far away, but the 2016 fire was the precursor of the megafires that darkened skies and dirtied the air across the North American continent this summer, making Fire Weather a timely warning of more smoke to come.

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By Zadie Smith. Penguin Press.

Smith’s first foray into historical fiction is told from the point of view of a middle-aged widow who keeps house for her cousin, a terrible, once-famous novelist closely based on a real-life Victorian figure. Eliza Touchet becomes fascinated by a fraud trial that captured the attention of 1860s England. A man claimed to be the heir—previously believed lost at sea—to a fortune and title. The heir’s family insisted he was an impostor. Testifying on the claimant’s behalf was Andrew Bogle, a Jamaican who had been the real heir’s servant. Eliza finds herself in the strange position of disbelieving the claimant but believing in the dignified Bogle. Caught in a whirl of self-contradictory and only partially enlightened conceptions of class, race, gender, and authenticity, Eliza is as confused and flawed as any citizen of the information age. All historical novels are at heart a reflection of the time in which they were written, but for Smith this 19th-century setting proves liberating, a perspective that allows her to ruminate on her favorite subject: the unfathomable nature of human beings and their never-ending ability to surprise. Read the review in Slate.

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By Emma Cline. Random House.

Lean and sinuous, Cline’s novel takes place during a single summer week in the Hamptons. Alex, a 22-year-old party girl and failed model running out of chances, gets invited to a rich boyfriend’s beach house. He breaks up with her after she embarrasses him at a party, and she can’t go back to Manhattan: Her roommates have kicked her out and she stole money from a sinister “friend” who keeps lighting up her cell with unanswered calls. Alex convinces herself she just needs to get through the five days until her boyfriend’s Labor Day party, when she will somehow persuade him to take her back. She embarks on a weirdly Homeric journey through the landscape of a particular vein of American wealth, manipulating, seducing, and impersonating her way into the lives and homes of strangers, cadging meals and beds as she closes in on her improbable goal. Alex’s high-wire act turns The Guest into an irresistible page turner tinged with a pervasive sense of doom.

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By James McBride. Riverhead.

In the same vein as McBride’s beloved 2020 novel Deacon King Kong, this is an ensemble piece, set in the 1930s, in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where a handful of Jewish immigrants remain in what has become a Black neighborhood. Moshe Ludlow and his wife, Chona, disabled by polio, own the eponymous store, a money-loser due to Chona’s kindhearted willingness to extend infinite lines of credit to their neighbors. The backbone of this book’s plot comes from a skeleton found at the bottom of a well and a deaf child hidden away from social services, but as always in McBride’s novels, the joy comes from the teeming subplots and minor characters, all boldly and vividly drawn, from psychics and musicians to shoemakers and juke joint proprietors. It is the story of a neighborhood and a community, rather than an individual or a family, and also a vision of American possibility that still feels miraculously within reach. Read a profile of McBride in Slate.

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By Tan Twan Eng. Bloomsbury.

This melancholy, exquisitely atmospheric novel has the high gloss of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama, which is apropos given that it depicts the genesis of a Somerset Maugham story that became the Bette Davis vehicle The Letter. In 1921 Maugham visited Penang, in British Malay, hobnobbing with colonial society and discreetly harvesting its intrigues and scandals for a short story collection that, he hoped, would hoist him out of a financial crisis. Most of the novel is told from the perspective of the fictional Lesley Hamlyn, Maugham’s hostess and a close friend of a woman on trial for shooting a man who, she claimed, was attempting to rape her. Lesley herself broods over her moribund marriage and silently longs for the days when she aided the cause of Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who helped overturn the Chinese emperor. Theirs is a world of luxury papered over boredom, forbidden love, and oppression, as Maugham—himself closeted and traveling with his male “secretary”—would eventually reveal, to the dismay of Penang society. Out of these characters’ stifled yearnings and rare moments of transcendence, Tan has made a ravishingly romantic novel.

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By Mark O’Connell. Doubleday.

What is a murderer? That is the question Irish writer Mark O’Connell pursues in this absorbing book, as he attempts to connect with one of the most notorious killers in Dublin’s history. In 1982 Malcolm Macarthur, a well-dressed and rather eccentric man about town, murdered two strangers in an ill-conceived attempt to steal a car and a gun in order to rob a bank. How does someone—especially the sort of educated intellectual O’Connell found uncomfortably similar to himself—end up committing such an atrocity? After serving 30 years of a life sentence, Macarthur was released and could be spotted strolling the streets of Dublin or attending literary events. O’Connell carefully engineered a series of encounters with his quarry and eventually persuaded Macarthur to be interviewed, hoping to get past what he calls the “sullen and persistent silence” at the heart of the case. The result is a brilliant examination of not just Macarthur’s crimes but the craving for answers that drives all true crime narratives. Read an interview with O’Connell in Slate.


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