While I’ve certainly had some high points and some pretty interesting things happen last year, I’ve begun looking at it overall like this: did I keep my promises, honor my commitments, and do everything I said I would do in 2023?
This is a good question to ask myself because I wasn’t always very responsible or good at that. But yes, I definitely was. I kept my word, I delivered on all of my commitments, and not only was no one left hanging, and nothing was half-assed– I think I went magnificently above and beyond everything that was asked of me. I consider that a wildly successful year. Maybe that’s super cringe and corny and Pollyanna. I don’t care. It’s important to me to be someone that people can count on and trust and be glad they did. And I was, to the very best of my ability.
But I also liked a bunch of things, bought a bunch of things, made some recipes, and read some books. if you are interested in any or all of that, below is a roundup of all of my favorites from 2023. Be sure to share some of your 2023 favorites and highlights in the comments, as well!
Some of my favorite books this year …
✹ In Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang, our unnamed narrator (which becomes a more and more interesting choice the further into the story we delve into) is a former musician of formidable talent who has abandoned her passion for the piano after her beloved parents are in a terrible accident. The story opens as she is struggling in NYC, living in a cruddy basement apartment with crappy roommates, barely eking out a living, let alone earning enough money to pay for her parent’s rehab facility. She is then offered the opportunity to work at Holistik, a boutique selling wildly coveted, expensive–and perhaps experimental– products and services to beauty, age, and wellness-obsessed celebrities. The story is a beautiful meditation on grief, family, and beauty itself. And while it skewers the cult of beauty in a surreal and, I might even say satirical way –it also feels utterly, gorgeously sincere. The writing is lyrical, but it doesn’t veer purple. And the story is at turns beautiful, horribly grotesque, and very sad. If you like the imaginative strangeness of Mona Awad’s books, the crusty, bodily grossness of Otessa Moshfegh, or if you enjoyed the weirdness and WTFery of A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan, then you may dig this one. Magical realism, alternate reality, speculative fiction? I don’t know what you call these stories, but if you gravitate toward books like this, Natural Beauty will be a favorite.
✹ Maeve Fly by CJ Leede: Oh my god. Imagine a love letter to Los Angeles, written by a savage, sociopathic Weetzie Bat; a Takashi Miike film inspired by a series of Lana del Rey songs; a main character who is a Disney Princess channeling Patrick Bateman. Imagine there is also a reference to “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” in these pages. You guys–the perfect book really does exist.
✹ Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura: Middle-schooler Kokoro is shy and struggling and has not been to class in quite some time. Her classmates are bullying her, and what begins as anxiety and fear about going back to school becomes a phobia about even leaving the house at all. Her parents are frustrated and are seeking out alternative schooling options, but for the time being, they allow Kokoro to stay home while they work during the day. One afternoon, a portal appears in her bedroom mirror, and she enters to find herself in a castle …where six other kids her age have apparently found their way as well. They learn they have some interesting things in common and were summoned for a reason, but they only piece it all together over the course of getting to know each other and becoming friends. I loved this magical, heartwarming story, and guess what! It’s a movie, too!
✹ Mary: An Awakening of Terror by Nat Cassidy was a title that had been languishing in my TBR pile for a year or so. Turns out that middle-aged, menopausal Mary is probably my all-time favorite character and I am sorry I waited so long to get to it! Hot flashes are one thing, but grotesque hallucinations, losing time, and homicidal urges? Mary’s pretty sure something’s not quite right but of course, her doctor just pooh-poohs her concerns. I know I haven’t said much but don’t want to say anything else and risk having said too much! This book is gross and fun and you might think “What business does a man have writing about a middle-aged woman?” I thought that, too. Make sure you read the Afterword.
✹ Children of Paradise by Camila Grudova: I guess didn’t write a proper review for this one, but there’s not much to tell, plot-wise. A young woman begins working at a historical cinema and becomes part of the insular little group that works there. I think this weird, crusty little slice-of-life story was my very favorite of 2023. A recommendation from my best bean Sonya, who has three incredible short stories (one here, one here, and one here) published this year. Actually, forget everything I said above. Sonya’s stuff is by far and away my favorite.
Some of my favorite perfumes this year …
✹ Lvnea’s PÊCHE OBSCÈNE is a glorious fragrance, but what I mean is glorious in the way that something monstrous and magnificent stalks the dead zone of night, by stealth and in the dark. This is peach, irradiated and ashen and grown over with moss and broken bird’s nests and salted against curses, curls of ferric iron to both ward away and contain within. A peach more lore and legend than it ever had life, a peach whose shadow looms uneasily far beyond its ruined flesh. Juices corrupt with the grave dirt of vetiver and patchouli and oozing with osmanthus’ strange leathery/jammy incense, Peche Obscene is an undead lich of a peach, and it is absolutely, terrifyingly, bewitching in the way that all delicious forbidden things are.
✹ Corfu Kumquat from Aedes de Venustas: In a small Greek village built on the slopes of the island’s highest mountain is a quietly atmospheric little ghost town with only two or three permanent inhabitants. One of them is a kumquat that never fully ripened, too sour and pithy for marmalade and liqueurs, too small and strange to be of much practical use. Perhaps it was overlooked. Perhaps it forged its own little path in life. It’s now the local guide for the village, steering tourists hither and yon along cobblestone roads, sharing historical anecdotes and eerie legends, and finally depositing them at the gift shop once the excursion has concluded. As the crowd disperses, it reaches into its pocket for a cigarette and lights up in the cool shade of an ancient stone cottage, exhaling smoke through its citrus peel pores, whirling and curling in satisfying vaporous salt-air swirls, while catching glimpses of the sun glinting on the sea through the undulating mountains.
✹ Noire Encens from Mad et Len POV: you are a brooding pencil, prone to bouts of melancholia, that only scribbles at midnight and has only ever been used to draft architectural sketches of gargoyle-adorned gothic cathedrals and crumbling medieval monasteries and Baudelairian poetry and you listen to a lot of Cold Cave and Chelsea Wolfe. This one is discontinued, but you can still get samples here.
✹ Tomie from Black Phonix Alchemy Lab: Tomie crawls beneath your skin, a slithery jasmine-amber-flecked marzipan cotton candy ghost musk of a scent, but not a fresh, hot carnival cone of the stuff–rather, the soft, sticky filaments of floss caught in your uniquely self-scented hair at the end of the night. And maybe a bewitched and bothered someone is bizarrely compelled to snip a few of those sweet, tangled tendrils while you’re sleeping because they’re an absolute psychopath, and maybe when you wake up in the morning the scissors are gripped in your own hands, the sultry tresses are tucked into your own little etched sandalwood box, and maybe, perhaps, the psychopath is you. Utterly obsessed with yourself.
✹ Green Spell from Eris Parfums: This perfume is as if a celestial being of 100% chlorophyll descended from the heavens, its wings a crushing flutter of many leaves, broad and flat, delicate and curled, waxen, rubbery, pliant, radiating every variation of veridian. In a voice like seeping moss, like eroding rock, like insect wings disintegrating into the earth, it whispers to you, “Like, be not afraid, or whatever.” It’s the endless trailing succulent stem of a bittersweet pennywort patch through the soil until you reach a darkly massive gnashing malachite rootball nightmare. You awake with emerald scratchings on your palm and jade lashings of fern in your teeth.
✹ Estate Carnation from Solstice Scents: A deeply gothic glamour amber, a musky murky chypre-adjacent fragrance that smells simultaneously like the figure in the white nightdress running from the manor house with the lone candle lit in the window at midnight and the surprise succubus that this figure is secretly possessed by–it’s all the iconic tropes of Avon Satanic Romance novel, and it’s perfect.
Favorite music and movies…
✹ I listened endlessly to the harrowing dreamy southern gothic bleakness of Ethel Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter, and also a lot of the drowning disembodied coldwave of Molchat Dolma (another Sonya rec, probably from ages ago, but I am slow) and the chilly melancholic The Strings soundtrack. was finally released (the movie came out in 2020 or so!) I also listened to Chelsea Wolfe’s hauntingly atmospheric “Dusk” single approximately seventy gazillion times.
✹ I watched very few movies because of all the reading I was trying to do, but in October, I recall seeing Evil Dead Rise, which was genuinely freaky as hell. And also Images, which was definitely not new, but rather a hazy 70s-era gem–strange and surreal and utter perfection. Also, the Deadloch series on Amazon Prime, following a string of murders in a small, extremely weird Tasmanian town, described by its creators as “Broadchurch but make it funny.”
Favorite social media…
✹ Booktubers Reading Wryly and Jen Campbell where I get tons of book recommendations and wonderful reviews brimming with nuance and insight. And this Azerbaijani couple, just going about their daily business of gardening and cooking on their country life blog. There are chickens and rabbits and flowers and bumblebees and breads and meat buns, and it’s just a gloriously peaceful thing to watch. The Wolf In Lace on TikTok, whose dark fashion finds will grow your wardrobe and break your band account’s spirit. Joyceful Tingles, whose ASMR videos are a batshit delight. Two other Instagram accounts that purely just make me happy are the silly little illustrations of clunky picnic and the acerbic whimsy that is existential crisis cakes, baking the sentiments of bittersweet human experience into neon-frosted dreams.
Stuff and things:
✹ The Clio Cushion I hate to wear makeup, and it is the only foundation-type thing I will ever wear again. As a matter of fact, the only thing I order from Sephora anymore is a vitamin C serum. Tell me what you swear by, so I can quit them for good!
✹ The Huskin Bee tea, is a mix of black and puer teas with crystallized ginger and apple pieces from Old Growth Alchemy that we enjoy for our afternoon tea break.
✹ These oversized amber wine glasses from Viski
✹ Lauren Rad’s lovely sock patterns (I knit at least 10 of them in 2023!)
✹ Tinctures and balms from Banefolk
✹ Le Bon Shop boyfriend socks (these are a forever favorite, I mention them every year)
✹ These Japanese bath salts are also an every year, every time favorite and that has not changed.
✹ Weird Liza’s Colorama coloring books for turning your anxiety into art
✹ This French press looks very nice and keeps your coffee hot for a long time. This is NOT cheap, but even Yvan (who really balked at the price) admits it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made.
✹ This soda water and vinegar drink is SO GOOD, and it’s a cheat because I found it on December 31, 2023… but does it count if I wished I’d found it sooner?
✹ This Totoro airpod case sparks joy
✹ This little soy sauce dispenser
✹ Pretty picture frames from Simon’s Shop. These are inexpensive and really pretty.
✹ This colorful braided area rug which really tied the whole parlor together
✹ Vintage Asta cookware I was influenced by this cozy coffee account on TikTok that has a certain pan in every video, and it took me a while to find out what they were called, but I eventually found them and I cook with them literally every day now.
✹ A pretty new quilt for the bed
✹ Hinoki-scented nail and cuticle oil
✹ The Luxelift pullover bra from Knix really helped with some body dysmorphia that I didn’t even know I was carrying around with me. It looks like they updated it and are calling it the Revolution bra now.
✹ I don’t think I purchased a lot of new jewelry this year, but I continue to love my rings from Flannery Grace Good, my necklaces from Bloodmilk, my earrings from Alexis Berger, and I really love this Forget Me Not pendant from Seance.
✹ There was also not a lot of new art other than a stunning piece from Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos, some antique pieces from Roses and Rue, AND a new treasure from Handsome Devil Puppets which we have been conspiring on since 2020 and is arriving to me TODAY!!!
✹ Turtlenecks, I would cover every part of my body with a turtleneck onesie if I could, but the logistics for peeing in that getup are pretty dicey, and I have a tiny bladder, so it’s never gonna be a viable option. I prefer to show as little skin as possible–not for prudish reasons, but rather, I guess as I’ve gotten older, I have reached the conclusion that my body is absolutely no one’s business.
You ever hear people say things like, “Why do you wear such shapeless dresses? You should show off your figure!” Fuck that. I don’t owe my body to anybody, in figure-flattering clothes or otherwise. And fuck “flattering,” too. Life’s short. Be comfortable. I’ll wear my turtlenecked potato sacks, and you can keep your mouth shut because what I wear and how I wear it and what my body looks like under my clothes is none of your goddamn business.
As you can tell, I feel pretty strongly about this. But also, I love turtlenecks because I wear my wear up a lot and my neck gets cold. I like these thin ones from J. Crew for layering and I have a few obnoxious floral prints from brands like Scotch & Soda. They’re all sold out for now, but I just saw this one from another brand, and I think it’s calling to me…
Recipes and such…
✹ Soup for breakfast: I am a savory breakfast person through and through. Whatever you’re going to try and tempt me with–french toast, pancakes, waffles, cold cereal, yogurt and fruit, smoothies with the works–it’s all a hard pass for me. I don’t have a sweet tooth in general, but in the mornings, the thought of something sweet makes me want to barf. My perfect breakfast would be a lightly toasted (but ideally fresh and just warm, not toasted) everything bagel with scallion cream cheese, lox, capers, onions, tomatoes, all that stuff. My second favorite breakfast would be inspired by traditional Japanese breakfasts: a piece of grilled fish, a rolled omelet, a bowl of soup, some rice, and various pickles and assorted veggies.
Using the latter as a jumping point, I paired it down to just the soup portion, and over the course of the year, I have fine-tuned how I make it. Water and soup stock powder, lots of veggies, a protein, and maybe a starch. I really like zucchini, cabbage, bok choi, Japanese eggplant, and enoki mushrooms, but often, I’ll just toss in whatever I have lying around. If I have it in the fridge, fresh corn is extra lovely! For protein, I’ve added shrimp, mini scallops, tofu, or marinated pork belly, or if I have them in the freezer, these little wontons are particularly nice in the broth. Sometimes, I’ll throw in a few chewy rice cake tubules, or maybe serve a bit of rice and pickles on the side if I have extra time, but most of the time, we just slurp our soup at our desks when we start the work day.
I should note that the above is my summer recipe, but when the weather gets colder, I like my soup spicier. All the extras are the same, but I will include whatever kind of kimchi I have on hand, along with the water and hon dashi, when I get the pot of soup started.
✹ Pasta or gnocchi with a creamy gochujang sauce, you can find variations on this recipe everywhere, but I like it with spicy Italian sausage, lots of garlic and lacinato kale
✹ I’ve been making this kani salad a lot lately! One recipe calls for adding tobiko or masago as well as furikake, and it adds a good texture. I serve it over rice with pickles and soup on a summer morning. Speaking of pickles, we ate so much of this Filipino cucumber salad this year
✹ Early last fall, I made this French apple cake, and as someone who doesn’t really even like cake all that much, I’ll tell you what. This is the best cake I have ever eaten.
✹ I remembered to make cardamom buns for Christmas this year, and they turned out so beautifully. I know they are regularly thought of as a Swedish teatime treat, but I think it makes such a lovely offering for a winter holiday breakfast or brunch.
Stuff that is not things…
✹ The idea of doing the bare minimum when you don’t want to do anything at all. Sometimes, you just have one of those days where you wake up and think, “I don’t wanna!” The air feels heavy, your bones creak like haunted floorboards, and even the thought of brushing your teeth seems monumental. It’s on these days that “the bare minimum” whispers like a really benign and actually pretty wise devil on your shoulder.
Yes, it’s a phrase often frowned upon and seen as synonymous with apathy or laziness. But I think critics miss the crucial point: the minimum means putting forth the least amount of action and energy necessary to get the desired output (or something very close to it.) It’s not about doing nothing, it’s about doing just enough. Don’t want to work on your story or write that essay? Write a sentence and walk away. Don’t want to exercise? Pace around the house for 5-10 minutes. Don’t want to cook dinner? This is one that makes me feel particularly guilty, even though it’s just me and Yvan. Bagged salad mix and frozen chicken tenders, then. For housework, take care of whatever is bothering you that you can actually see. If you can’t see it, it can wait (unless it’s a gas leak or something, but obviously, you’re the best judge of what’s happening in your home.) If it’s work-work, do the things that can’t wait until tomorrow. Do just enough to keep the wheels turning, the bills paid, the body fueled. Enough to not crumble, to maintain a sliver of forward momentum.
It’s a pragmatic choice prioritizing self-preservation, and on days like these, that’s as good as it gets–and that is totally fine.
✹ Doing things for future-Sarah. This is going to sound so corny and annoying and maybe like advice that your parents would give you. But there are probably readers amongst you who are young enough to be my children, so I guess I should just lean into it. Also, this will sort of sound somewhat the opposite of what I just wrote in the above bullet about doing as little as you can get away with doing. But hear me out.
Ok, so you know those times you’re staring at a mountain of dishes in the sink after dinner in the evening? And you want to read or watch Netflix or literally anything else instead of cleaning that up? Just do the dishes. Tackle it and get it done and over with. Future-you at 6 am in the morning will thank you for it when you walk into a clean kitchen and don’t have to face a sinkful of nasty, crusty lasagna pans and salad bowls when you’d rather be getting coffee started. I don’t know of any other examples that resonate as strongly as the dishes, but whatever the thing is that’s worse to face in the morning? Look out for future-you and do that thing now. This is something I have resisted for years, and what it took was looking at future-me as a completely separate person from present-me and pondering on how I will go out of my way to make other people’s lives easier, but not my own. But if future-me is actually “other” from me, well, that’s another person, and so it’s second nature for me to want to make that other person’s life less complicated than it has to be. Which is wild because that’s a complicated way of coming to what should be a foregone conclusion.
✹ Realizing that I love reading. Not books. I mean, yes, of course– I love books! But I love what they represent, the stories and knowledge and promises they hold. The physical medium of books themselves…? Maybe not so much. I mean, I can appreciate their beauty and their solid heft in the hand, absolutely, but I do not feel the need to HAVE them. Last year, with the exception of some nonfiction, poetry, and titles that a few friends wrote, I purchased fewer books than any year in recent memory. Out of the 220 books I read, less than 20 were physical copies–most of them were digital copies from the library or digital ARCs from Netgalley. Realizing this, I am now beginning to downsize my own collection. If it is on my shelf and the possibility that it will be reread is very low (which, if I am being honest, is most, if not all, of the fiction on my shelves) then I am either going to donate it somewhere or sell it on Pango. I’ve already got a little shop set up! (Pssst…there’s a current 10% discount running!) I think I’d rather save my shelf space for reference material and art books. And knick-knacks, probably.
✹ Getting back into dream journaling For many years, I used to wake every morning and hunch over my pages, scribbling images and impressions of dreams from the night before fast-fast-fast before they’d fly out of my head. Somewhere in 2021, in the midst of house-moving chaos, I just…stopped. But I recently began immersing myself in the pages of Naomi Sangreal’s Little Hidden Doors: A Guided Journal For Deep Dreamers, and it’s really inspired me to get back into it! My dreams run from the mundane (back on the line at Checkers making hamburgers at rush hour and wondering why they haven’t paid me in 25 years) to the ridiculous (last night Matt Berry whispered the word “tumescent” in my ear) and I like to remember and linger on all of it!
…and slightly related to the above in terms of journaling: I have tons of lovely blank journals that just feel too pretty to write in, especially if I am not using them for something special and splendid and perfect. But that’s silly and I want to fill those blank pages, so one by one I have been using them as “idea journals.” Once a day, I open a page and write down an idea. It could be some passing impressions of a perfume, a particularly good line of dialogue from a movie that struck a chord with me, or menu ideas for Sunday dinner. Whatever! Could be messy or magical or mundane or massively ridiculous. No pressure or polishing. Just a few scribbles a day.
✹ Rediscovering poetry Poetry is another thing I’d kind of just given up on. I mean, on one hand, I’d never truly “give up” on poetry! Gosh! But on the other, I’ve been pretty unimpressed with the handful of collections I’d read in recent years, and was feeling ambivalent about the offerings of contemporary poets. Until I started taking notice of the poetic things and snippets of poetry that people tend to repost and reshare on social media. I don’t mean the Rupi Kaur-type stuff; that’s not really my bag, and I don’t want to be mean about it, so that’s all I will say. But more like, well, how many times have you seen Laura Gilpin’s breathtakingly heart-breaking two-headed calf poem reshared? Or quiet hitching, stifled sob of Wondrous by Sarah Freligh? Or definitely not as weepy as the other two, this one by Nanao Sakaki? I thought to myself that if I love these poems by these three particular poets so much, wouldn’t it make sense to read the collections that they came from and perhaps some of their other works? It did make sense, and it definitely rekindled my enthusiasm!
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