What We Read, Watched, and Listened to in 2023
As we do each year, we asked our staff to recommend the books, shows, podcasts, and other content they enjoyed this year and they did not disappoint.
Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, Senior Research Associate
One of my favorite books of the year was The Art Thief by Michael Finkel, which follows a prolific art thief as he covets and steals hundreds of paintings and objects from museums across Europe in broad daylight. I found myself equally wanting him to get away with it and to get caught, and ultimately just wanted to know what happened to him and his enormous art “collection.” On the podcast front, I have been loving The Big Dig, a thorough account of the massive infrastructure project that reshaped Boston. Great narrator, great archival recordings, and great storytelling that follows all the political twists and turns along the way.
Kerry Donahue, Director of Communications
My resolution this year was to read more, and I enjoyed quite a few great books. One of the best was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which tells the story of half-sisters in eighteenth-century Ghana, one of whom is sold into slavery, the other married to a British slave-owner. Each chapter follows the next generation of the women’s descendants and 300 years of history are told through their divergent journeys. I also enjoyed The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (recommended to me by my tween) and listened to some terrific memoirs as audiobooks (many read by their authors, which always make them more fun) including excellent ones by Michelle Zauner, Judith Heumann, Dave Grohl, Minnie Driver, and Willie Nelson. On the non-fiction front, I thoroughly enjoyed Writing for Busy Readers: Communicate More Effectively in the Real World by Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink (their AI tool for tightening your emails is a game-changer) and Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar. Finally, I spent hours bingeing the podcast 5-4, where three lawyers explain “how much the Supreme Court sucks” by examining landmark cases and why they believe the Court got the decisions wrong.
Riordan Frost, Senior Research Analyst
After a change in my household composition this year (demographer-speak for having a baby), my reading focus shifted to kid’s books, and I will happily recommend a few. My favorites are You Are Light, which has a beautiful everything-is-connected message, Grab Your Pillow, Armadillo, which introduces a bunch of fun ways to say goodnight, and Klyde the Kraken Wants a Friend, about an earnest kraken who makes new friends after learning how to respect boundaries. After bedtime, I really enjoyed watching Netflix’s new animated movie Nimona and HBO’s queer comedy Our Flag Means Death. Finally, I rediscovered my love for Frostpunk, a video game where you manage a small city in an unforgiving apocalyptic winter and must balance hope and discontent while keeping everyone housed, fed, and warm—urgent issues that real-life policymakers would do well to prioritize.
Chris Herbert, Managing Director
Two of my favorite books from the past year related to my day job dealt with homelessness—but from very different perspectives. I first read Tracy Kidder’s latest book, Rough Sleepers, about the work of Dr. Jim O’Connell and his colleagues at Boston Health Care for the Homeless serving people living on the streets of Boston. Centered not only on the life story of Dr. O’Connell but also one of his patients, Tony, who is as charismatic as he is troubled, the book powerfully humanizes people experiencing homelessness and helps you see people you pass on the street with new eyes and a new heart. But while Kidder tells compelling individual stories he does not address the broader market forces that have contributed to a surge in homelessness, nor does he offer prescriptions for how to respond. For that reason I was drawn to Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern’s Homelessness Is a Housing Problem as a valuable companion to Kidder’s book. Their focus is specifically on the macro factors that are at the root of our homelessness challenges, deftly marshalling facts and figures to make a strong case that high rents and low vacancy rates are the strongest markers for areas with the most significant rates of homelessness. The book is also notable for the detailed case they make for more robust supports for subsidized housing, including estimates for how much public funds would be needed and how they could feasibly be raised. Meanwhile, for pleasure reading, two of my favorite books from the past year were Demon Copperhead, with Barbara Kingsolver telling the story of the opioid crisis through richly conceived characters in rural Virginia, and The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, with James McBride weaving an intricate and enthralling mystery centered on intertwined Jewish and Black communities in a Pennsylvania neighborhood in the 1920s. Finally, I have to give a shout out to the television series The Bear, which tells the story of a Chicago restaurant’s transformation from fast food roast beef spot to aspiring Michelin star restaurant with a cast of amazing characters going through their own equally astounding metamorphosis. Can’t wait for season three!
Alexander Hermann, Research Associate
This year, I made a commitment to read at least ten pages per day from a book in order to recover my daily reading habit that fell off dramatically during the pandemic. As a result, I read more this year for fun than I have in a long time. My favorite book of the year was Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s classic novel which more than lived up to the hype and immediately shot up into my personal pantheon of books. I also really enjoyed Hild by Nicola Griffith as well as Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. In the housing space, I second Chris’s suggestion of Homelessness Is a Housing Problem, which stands out as thoroughly researched, accessible, and tremendously important, especially given the substantial increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness earlier this year as recently reported by HUD. Most of my podcast preferences are probably too inane—or too embarrassing—to share, but I’ve begun listening to Odd Lots this year, a Bloomberg podcast hosted by Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway, which features interesting and informative discussions on housing and the economy more broadly.
David Luberoff, Deputy Director
This year, I read three of Robert Caro’s four books on The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which detail the forces that shaped the 36th US president, the ways he amassed political power, and how he used that power in both beneficial and nefarious ways (often at the same time). I started this journey after watching Turn Every Page, a documentary about Caro and his longtime editor, the late Robert Gottlieb. Inspired, I decided to re-read the Johnson books, which have come out about every ten years since the early 1980s. In those books, I’ve found compelling history that often includes both surprisingly timely discussions of key issues (like civil rights) and frequently raises difficult questions about whether (and when) “the ends can justify the means.” Next year, I’ll be reading even more Caro, especially because the 99 Percent Invisible podcast just started a year-long virtual book group focused on The Power Broker, Caro’s classic book about Robert Moses.
Magda Maaoui, Postdoctoral Researcher
Building houses, and understanding what makes a house a home, were key elements in two books I particularly enjoyed this year. The Massachusetts classic House, by Tracy Kidder, is an ode to construction, team work, and permanent negotiation. Yes, it’s technically about a single-family house, but perhaps someone should write House II, only this time it’s about an ADU. I also picked up the book Chez soi, by French-Egyptian essayist Mona Chollet. It’s a feminist historical account of the act of moving into a house. It unpacks the bundle of associated symbols, financial consequences, and threads of both emancipation and sacrifice a house means for women. 2023 was also packed with a great range of novels about the universal power of love. One favorite was Klara and the Sun: Kazuo Ishiguro will make you cry as you follow the nascent friendship between a robot toy and a little girl. If I had to recommend one podcast, Fiasco’s third season on the Boston busing crisis is incredibly informative and powerful (brought to you by the creator of Slow Burn). Finally, as someone who’s constantly weaving together different data forms to tell a story about the built environment, I like a good podcast or documentary on the creative process. Song Exploder and The Beatles: Get Back are just that, in 20-minute increments or in the format of an 8-hour docuseries, explaining all the layers, epiphanies, and rewrites that make a good song or a good album. Speaking of documentaries, a last favorite rec would be Fire of Love, which follows the careers of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. This one’s a tearjerker about the lengths to which dedicated researchers can go to produce good work.
Etta Madete, Graduate Assistant
For me, this year has been about digging deeper into global housing and real estate systems and how they connect with the urban fabric, primarily through classic texts written in journalistic styles. I particularly enjoyed reading the Broken Cities: Inside the Global Housing Crisis by Deborah Potts, and Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities by Alain Bertaud. Since my recent move to the US, I also re-read the classic Janes Jacobs book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It gave me new insights into the book as I walked through the cities being described for the first time. For TV, I have enjoyed rewatching House, which I recommend for anyone looking for a quizzical medical drama with a strange, but brilliant lead.
Carlos Martín, Project Director, Remodeling Futures
Completely unbeknownst to us (but likely not coincidental), many of my colleagues’ selections mirrored mine this year. I recently recommended Magda’s suggestion of House by Tracy Kidder on a remodeling podcast and David’s 99 Percent Invisible on a podcast this last week alone. To this list, I’ll only add shoutouts to a few climate podcasts, like Climate One, Volts, and RFF’s Resources Radio as well as KQED’s shift to focus on climate in its SOLD OUT podcast about housing. For the best TV (with lots of housing subtext), see the iconic Reservation Dogs in its last season and Beef in its first. Both give new meaning to what home means from new voices.
Samara Scheckler, Research Associate
To think more about older adults’ experience in our changing climate, I picked up The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration, in which Jake Bittle carefully examines climate related displacement. These observations and real-world stories told with a journalistic voice paired well with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a speculative fiction account of global climate change and the imagined eyewitnesses who experience our world just a few decades further into this slow-moving disaster. Both in Bittle’s real world accounts and Robinson’s imagined world, there is great potential for infrastructure to increase sustainability. In The Swimmers, infrastructure also creates community, as Julie Otsuka playfully envisions the public pool as a hub of activity for older adults. Deb Chachra dives deep into this topic of infrastructure, meticulously examining the many complex, interrelated systems that make our lives luxurious (light, energy, water, communications, and roads connected directly to our homes) in How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems that Shape our World. She makes a strong case for investments that are scaled, local, and resilient. And speaking of resilience, in Care Work: Dreaming of Disability Justice, activist and artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes a series of essays that consider both the informal care webs and the public investments in accessible spaces and paid assistance that are needed to achieve disability justice – a term, in my read, akin to antiracism, in which inclusivity is an active process.
Sophia Wedeen, Research Analyst
Although my 2023 reading list was short, the books I read stuck with me. The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America is a captivating study of rural poverty. The authors dive deep into the histories of three of the poorest places in America to examine how patterns of exploitation have created enduring disadvantages. My favorite novel of the year was The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz. The book takes place in a distant future where humanity has long surpassed its climate woes, although a new system of interstellar colonization and geoengineering replicates many of the problems of our present. This book is a bit zany and will entertain anyone eager to read about flying moose and plate tectonics, but also embraces a pretty optimistic vision of future urbanism. This year I also watched a truly unreasonable amount of TV. Among my favorites were Doctor Who, Our Flag Means Death, and Cunk on Earth, perfect for any fans of unconventional and lighthearted storytelling.