Picks from the staff

The 2023 BSR end-of-the-year recommendations

An adult man and young woman-presenting character outside at a balcony, wearing dark grays and browns, look at each other
'The Last of Us' is one of our recommendations for this year. (Image courtesy of Warner Media Group.)

The last days of 2023 are upon us, and the staff here at BSR is here to give you a few of their picks and recommendations for various movies, TV shows, books, and podcasts that resonated with us throughout the year. Thank you so much to our readers for engaging with and supporting BSR, and thank you to all the artists, performers, creators, movers, and shakers who have made 2023 a special one here in Philadelphia and all its neighboring communities. I hope you find something within our selection that speaks to you, and feel free to leave us your recommendations for the year in the comments.

See you next year, Philly!

From editor-in-chief Alaina Johns

In case there are Jane Austen lovers lurking here, I have three recommendations for Austenites. The first is Longbourne, by Jo Baker. This book reimagines the Bennet sisters in the eyes of their servants, and the travails of Jane and Lizzy take a back seat in this dark, involving, well-crafted story. Next, I recommend The Other Bennet Sister, by Janice Hadlow. Finally, Mary gets her due and turns out to be as compelling a heroine as her older sisters. Finally, don't miss Jane Fairfax by, Joan Aiken. Jane Fairfax's story is a fascinating thread in Emma, and she gets her own book here, which extends and intersects with Hartfield in ways that are as surprising as they are faithful to the original novel.

I also recently enjoyed reading My Life in France, Julia Child's 2006 memoir (written with Alex Prud'homme). It's as if you're eating along with her across all the decades and cuisines of her remarkable career. I loved the insights on her husband Paul, with a lens on US cultural relations with postwar Europe, and Child's chilling remarks on English food had me laughing out loud.

Another top pick that I especially recommend for theater lovers is The House Is on Fire, by Rachel Beanland. This compelling historical fiction follows four very different characters (some based on real records), two white and two Black, in the aftermath of the real-life fire that demolished the town theater in Richmond, Virginia, in 1811, a historic US disaster at the time.

I also recently finished Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang. This dark, funny, twisty novel about cultural appropriation in the publishing industry pulled me right in and left me with lots of questions.

On the nonfiction side, I appreciated Darcy Lockman's All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership. This one is a tough read in many respects, but it feels necessary, and I can't lie: it does kind of validate what I've been thinking to myself for a while as a heterosexual woman: I'm not unmarried, I'm marriage-free—and I'm just as grateful to be child-free, too.

Back on the fiction front, one of my most recent reads is the latest from Lisa See: Lady Tan's Circle of Women. I enjoyed how the story feels mysterious and insular and universal all at the same time, and I learned a lot about Chinese society in the 1400s, especially medical practices with both deep differences and fascinating parallels to modern medicine. It's based on a real-life woman doctor!

From associate editor Kyle V. Hiller

The Last of Us

I think it surprises a lot of people when I tell them that my love for storytelling actually started because of video games first. But coming up in the 1990s, video games weren’t taken very seriously, but we were left with dreadful game-to-movie adaptations like the original Super Mario Bros. Movie with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. Since then, games TV and movies have mostly been cursed, but recently, the curse has been lifting. In January, we got The Last of Us, a new HBO series based on the hit video game series of the same name. Billed with Game of Thrones alums Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal as our lead co-stars, the show is far from an afterthought adaptation. Instead, it dives deeper into character threads and narrative beats that the game didn’t get the chance to explore, opening up to some of the most emotionally impactful stories and scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It’s December now, and I’ve been frequently revisiting the show throughout the year. Imagine, a post-apocalyptic story about a pandemic virus that turned everyone into zombies being my television comfort food. You don’t have to be a fan of the games or games in general to appreciate the writing (and the casting, the sets, the direction, the music—it's just good, go watch the first episode at least).

Questlove Supreme

I’ve fallen off the podcast wagon the last couple of years. But I’ve been trying to giddy up on back and have started listening to Philly legend Questlove’s podcast—all the way from the beginning. The pod invites musicians, performers, producers, DJs, and the like onto the show for conversations that feel like the kind you have with your fun music nerd friends. Questlove is great at extracting nuances in musician’s habits and experiences, connecting the not-so-obvious dots between one song to the other, and bringing out the wildest of stories and anecdotes. It’s interesting, though, because the podcast launched a few months before Covid-19, and I haven’t yet gotten to those episodes yet. It’ll be compelling to see how the tone of the show was impacted in retrospect, and how long it took for it to come out from the daze that was 2020 (and beyond).

From proofreader Zara Waters

Normal Gossip

I could be wrong, but I feel like everyone and their mom is listening to, or has at least heard of, this podcast and it's definitely a part of my weekly rotation. It's such a fun and easy listen on the train into work on Wednesday mornings, and I'm usually the person laughing to myself for the entire hour-long episodes on my commute. For those who don't know, the show is hosted by Philly transplant Kelsey McKinney who discusses reader-submitted gossip with guests. It's so worth the listen.

You Are Your Best Thing, by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown

I bought this book early last year and it sat unread on my bookshelf until just a few months ago. So far, I've really appreciated the ways the essays explore family, self-love, and healing, particularly within the Black community. Some of my favorite essays have been by Jason Reynolds, Irene Reece, and Marc Lamont Hill.

From executive director Neil P. Bardhan

The Crown

I recently finished watching the Netflix series The Crown. I enjoyed watching the culmination of storylines I've been following for, in some ways, several seasons of streaming content, and in other ways, decades. It's a soap opera, as many noted, about an internationally soapy family. This final season, more than others, feels like the writers played fast and loose with some timelines and the presumed contents of some conversations, but the pageantry and visual production value make up for some of this questionable scripting. This last season had me weepy, as it touched on existential pangs from my own life, like fraternal love after the loss of a parent and the United States's invasion of Iraq, but also the politics of dating in the era of texting and the joy of playing the Chemical Brothers loud at house parties. A critic deemed the series a "flawed but fascinating experiment in historical television" and I'll absolutely grant it that.

Murder on Sex Island

Comedian Jo Firestone, whom I mostly know from her appearances on quiz panel show You're the Expert, wrote a murder mystery novel that had me in stitches this fall. The book, which I enjoyed as an audiobook recorded by Firestone, manages to be a satire of reality television and a deliciously laid-out whodunnit. I admire her grit: she self-published the novel and audiobook after numerous rejections by publishers.

Keep Going, by Maggie Smith

In late 2020, I needed to read Maggie Smith's sweet book of encouragement, Keep Going. The title popped up on a store shelf this past week and I needed to see it that day. So, ever since, I've been spending a few minutes a day reading her meditations and considering how they apply to my current situations, particularly as we slalom toward December 31.

From social media manager Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

This year I fell in love with memoir writer Dani Shapiro's podcast, Family Secrets. She is a stellar interviewer and in each episode, a guest shares their unique experience of wisdom and learning from some aspect of what was never spoken about in their immediate or extended family. Most of the guests are also memoir writers and after each episode, I want to read their books to learn more!

One of my favorite books that I learned about on the podcast is The Wreck, by Cassandra Jackson. It is a beautiful and evocative story of a daughter who has so much compassion for her father's enduring pain and anguish from a loss that took place before her birth. I felt like I wanted to give her father (who is no longer living) the biggest hug through the pages. Her memoir is so complex, weaving in her own infertility struggle and examination of racism in the Jim Crow South where her parents grew up.

This year, I returned to reading a lot of poetry! I highly recommend a new volume called God in Her Ruffled Dress, by Lisa Bernstein. The volume is a playful, soulful, feminist imagining of how we experience the sacred. What emerges from these poems is a God whose only limits might be the metaphors we can create for the life force that animates the world.

One more recommendation for anyone who wants to better understand the war in Israel and Gaza in a nuanced, complex way: listen to The Ezra Klein Show, particularly the episode with Rabbi Sharon Brous.

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