Most best-of lists from 2023 have some kind of theme – favorite books or movies or hiking trails or something – but this doesn’t. It’s just a list of things that I did / read / discovered / used in 2023 that I thought were great. These things aren’t even all from 2023, some of them are older and I’m late to discover them.
Most historical romances take you back to a single time period, but this one kind of does two: an American Civil War soldier falls asleep from a Sleeping Beauty-style curse in 1865 and wakes up in 1965. The setup is very fairy-tale-like – things just happen without much logic or explanation – but the main part of the story is not written like a fairy tale, it’s just a good romance that takes the premise seriously. It’s really interesting to see the sort of culture shock Russell (the Civil War soldier) experiences as he tries to get used to 1960s university life. I felt like the contrast between the two time periods helped me understand both better, and it also adds an interesting layer to the romance: it’s harder for Russell and Caleb to figure out if they want the same things from their relationship because they’re coming from different cultural ideals of friendship vs. romance.
This book has “romance” in the subtitle, but I think it’s meant in a more 18th century sense of the word. I would describe it as a coming of age novel with a romantic plotline. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as a romance – the love interest was such a minor character that I never got very emotionally invested in the relationship – but what’s really interesting about the book is that the author has made a valiant and largely successful attempt to write the book in an 18th century writing style. The vocabulary, syntax, narration, and even plot structure are clearly drawn from literature of the time. If you look at the amazon reviews, you can see that a good chunk of readers really hate this, but I thought it made for a fascinating reading experience. I think the author’s idea here is that (for obvious reasons) English literature from this time period doesn’t really have queer representation, but (also obviously) queer people did exist in 1770s England, so he’s trying to fill that gap with a book that a queer person from the time period might have written if they could. I thought it was really interesting, and a good contrast to the many “historical” romances that aren’t really interested in reproducing the time period at anything beyond a superficial level.
The book that made me cry so hard I couldn’t see through my tears and I had to take a break
This is book 7 of the series, so obviously don’t start here, but Tasmakat was probably my favorite book of 2023. It was definitely the one that made me feel the most feelings! I really love this series. After so many books, I feel like I know the world and the characters so well that I should be able to just go visit them. Neumeier is writing more books in this world, but she’s said that Tasmakat will be the last book with Ryo as the point of view character, and it definitely felt final. Without saying anything about the plot, the emotional climax of this book just absolutely overwhelmed me. I trust Neumeier more than pretty much any other author I can think of to provide a satisfying ending no matter how bad things seem, but I was still sobbing so hard I had to get up and walk around the house a little to calm down. (The ending of the book was excellent and not at all sad, but I just love these characters so much and things were very intense for a while!)
Ok, so this is a very niche book recommendation, in that I think most people I know would not be interested in this book, but I have been going through a hockey romance phase and this book just completely embodies everything about this subgenre that has taken over my brain. Two hockey players beat each other up and then fall in love. One of them has alcoholism/addiction issues. It’s actually an incredibly sweet and romantic book.
I absolutely loved this show. It’s a slow-paced slice of life show about friendship, community, and how rural areas can modernize without losing their traditions. It has a prominent romance plotline, but there’s enough other stuff going on that I’m not sure it’s A Romance (although, maybe?).
The main character, Xu Hongdou, is hit hard by her best friend’s death, and decides to quit her job and take a sort of extended vacation/sabbatical in a rural town to reassess what she wants in life. She makes friends, tries new things, helps people, and falls in love. There’s a variety of plot threads about all the various people in the village, some silly, some serious. Even when the show takes on more serious issues, it’s comforting and optimistic about human nature. (Except for the first episode, which is tonally different from the rest of the show because it’s about the best friend dying. The show really starts in the second episode.)
I really, really loved the romance in this show. I think it’s one of the most real-feeling relationships I’ve ever seen on tv or film. Xu Hongdou and Xie Zhiyao start as slightly flirty strangers, then slowly become good friends and fall in love. The slow pace of the show means there’s plenty of time to show us exactly what they like about each other and why they’re good together. They have real conversations about the important things in their lives, and turn to each other for advice and help. When they do argue, it doesn’t feel contrived or dramatic only for the sake of drama. By the end of the show, I felt like they were two of my closest friends and I really wanted to give a speech at their wedding.
Did you know that Sufjan Stevens released an album in October 2023 and it’s probably his best album ever? Sufjan has been my favorite musician for something like 18 years. I love his music in a way where I actually don’t even really want to talk about it with other people because it feels too personal.
I’m not usually a big marshmallow person – I’ll eat them if they’re there, but I don’t think I’ve ever sought them out as a snack – but these were several times better than I thought a marshmallow could possibly be. So soft, amazing flavor, just a hint of crispy sugar bits in the dulce de leche swirl part. I tried one, then ate two more, and then immediately signed up for a marshmallow of the month subscription.
If you find yourself in the San Diego area, you should go to An’s Hatmakers or An’s Dry Cleaning for some incredibly good gelato that’s also completely gluten free (including the cones). The dark chocolate they had when I was there was so good that I went back three times in one week.
I admire Wendy Xu a lot as an artist and storyteller, and she’s also got some great brushes on her Ko-Fi shop. This particular set has a couple marker brushes that were just exactly what I was looking for. I had been tweaking other brushes for ages and struggling and hating everything I was making, and then I got this brush set from Wendy and all of a sudden everything was so much easier.
I saw this painting at the San Diego Museum of Art (another good thing to do if you’re in San Diego) as part of a very interesting exhibit on color in Korean art and it completely made my day.
When I’m at an art museum, I’m usually walking around like 😐 (serious art appreciation face), but when I walked into the room and saw Standing on the Hollyhock Field, I just felt this huge, completely involuntary smile come over my face and I honestly nearly laughed out loud with joy. This painting is enormous, and the colors are so bright that they made my eyes vibrate (in a good way). I immediately felt surrounded and immersed and warmed by the flowers, and absolutely delighted by the feeling that the artist was really going for it and making exactly what she wanted to make. It was several minutes before I even remembered there were other paintings in the room. I hope I’m able to see more of Hong Jiyoon’s work in person some day. The pictures on her website and instagram are better than my cell phone photos above, but they still don’t fully capture the energy and intensity I felt in person.
Do you need a new special interest?
Try the Voynich Manuscript!
The Voynich manuscript is a codex from medieval Europe that looks a lot like the scientific books of the era, except that no one can figure out what it says. A rare book seller named Wilfrid Voynich acquired it in 1912 and it’s been gaining fame ever since as people try to figure out who wrote it and why. There have been many attempts to decode the book, and a lot of interesting debate on whether the writing is some kind of private code/cipher or if it’s actually nonsense.
If you’re looking to get into the Voynich manuscript, here are some good places to start:
The Voynich Manuscript, Ed. Raymond Clemens: This book contains high quality reproductions of every page of the real Voynich Manuscript (including fold outs), and several very interesting essays on what we know and don’t know about the manuscript. If you’re not ready to spend $50 on this book, see if you can get it from your library.
Online scans of the Voynich Manuscript at the Yale University Library
René Zandbergen’s extremely comprehensive website, Voynich.nu
These two very interesting papers (1, 2) by Daniel Gaskell and Claire Bowern
A couple months ago, I googled the address of an interesting building I happened to walk past and found this blog, which is exactly what it sounds like. It updates almost every day (sometimes more than once a day!) with a photo and a brief history of an interesting building from somewhere in New England. The blogger takes good photos, has good taste in buildings, and tags posts really thoroughly, so you can easily find examples of any style or time period or location.
I can’t believe I forgot about going to the beach
Did you know it’s really nice to just go to the beach and watch the ocean for a while? Maybe stand in some waves if it’s warm enough? I didn’t go to the beach enough in 2022, but I had a couple good beach trips during 2023 and it was wonderful.
That seems like enough things! If you have any favorite things you discovered or enjoyed in 2023 that you really want to tell someone about, leave a comment!