My friend and fellow word nerd Sarah Orman likes to do an annual roundup of the books she reads, so I told her I’d try to take a stab at it this year myself. But first, a short story about rediscovering reading:
I learned how to read as a pre-schooler and from that point books defined my young life. There was never a time during my childhood when I wasn’t obsessively reading something or the other. Books – mostly fiction – were my constant companions.
This habit lasted well into adulthood, but the early 2000s saw two unrelated changes that successfully doused the fires of my literary passion with cold water. First, social media kicked off in a big way in the early aughts, and I took to it like a duck to water. Being extremely online began eating away at my book reading almost immediately. Then, in 2003, I had a set of twins. They were super cute, but they took up every moment of every day for quite a few years. By the time they were old enough to make their own snacks I’d completely stopped reading.
Once the kids were in middle school I would occasionally pick up a book, but it was almost always non-fiction – usually self-help or something I needed to read for work. I would still occasionally try to read fiction, but to no avail. I’d start a new a book and lose interest after only a chapter or two. Eventually I just gave up and decided that I had ‘lost it’. I was no longer a reader.
Fast forward to the very end of 2022. I was at the peak of my midlife crisis, teetering on the edge of sanity, battling depression and stuck in a career that was draining the life out of me. My husband and I took a vacation to Canada to visit family over Christmas. While I was in Montreal I wandered into a dusty used bookshop and picked up three books on a whim: De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf.
Over the next few days, whilst vacationing, I devoured these books and as I did, I could actually feel something switch inside me. A long, lost memory of reading for pleasure rekindled. In the space of a week I rediscovered a vital piece of myself that I thought was gone forever. When I got home from my trip a week later, I began reading from a pile of books that I’d been accumulating in the hopes that I’d ‘find the time to read someday’.
As 2023 dawned, I gave myself permission to read whatever struck my fancy this year. I read several books by David Sedaris, some beloved classics, a couple celebrity memoirs, and a few fun books that served no purpose besides amusement. I started keeping track, and I’m happy to report that I’ve read more books in 2023 than I have in the last fifteen years combined.
Perhaps the most exciting development in all of this is that I’ve started writing fiction again. Something I haven’t tried in two decades. I even completed the first draft of a debut novel. It’s like some dormant seed sprouted inside me and is flourishing in the most surprising and exciting ways. I couldn’t be more thrilled about this development. I’m back, baby – and it feels so good!
Anyway, here is a list of the best books I read in 2023. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
“Constipation was one of the things she hated most in the world, on par with despicable men who commit domestic violence and narrow-minded religious fundamentalists.”
People seem divided on Murakami. His stories don’t always feel “right” to western audiences because we’re used to certain fictional tropes and have expectations for how stories are told based on our own cultural framing. I’ve read a couple other books by him and honestly, they were ok. But this book? This book blew me away. My personal reaction is based on how much of this story feels like it was taken from my own life, so I’m not sure there’s any way for me to be objective about it. There were times when I was reading it felt like it had been written specifically for me. 1Q84 is magical realism at it’s finest. Disorienting, often poetic, and unpredictable; I couldn’t stop. It stayed with me for weeks after I was finished. I’ll probably read it again next year. And maybe every year after that.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
“There is no such thing as a good influence. Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such thing as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.”
Everyone talks about how great this book is, and I’m here to confirm that The Picture of Dorian Gray lives up to the hype. It’s the story of a young man who has seemingly found the key to eternal life and beauty. The book involves intrigue, hilarity and scrumptious dialogue that is infinitely quotable. Oscar Wilde was a goddamn genius – a rebel, a heretic, and a storyteller with deep insight about our human flaws and frailties, which he nails with incredible precision in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a short book so I got through it quickly, but I went back and re-read some of the passages because the writing is just that good. So much so that it feels completely relevant more than a hundred and thirty years after it was published. Also, this lush, sensual and flirtatious book has the distinction of being the one that made me decide I need to write fiction again.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
“Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to unbuild walls.“
Would you like to become an anarcho-socialist? Then read this book. It contains a most compelling vision for a world in which people govern themselves. It then goes on to contrast this world with another where capitalism is celebrated. The writing is powerful, the story provocative. Even if you don’t think you like science fiction, you should read this book because at the end of the day, it’s about how humans choose to live together. It’s also got some heart-stoppingly inspiring passages that will make you think deeply about your own commitments.
Bluets by Maggie Wilson
“Do not, however, make the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. ‘We love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it,’ wrote Goethe, and perhaps he is right. But I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live. I don’t want to yearn for blue things, and God forbid for any ‘blueness.’ Above all, I want to stop missing you.”
My aforementioned friend, Sarah Orman, gave me a copy of this book for my birthday this year. It’s a melancholic immersion into the mind of a writer obsessed with the color blue, steeped in longing for a lover that is no more. Each short section is like a separate chord, complex and beautiful on its own. As you read, you may find yourself setting the book down and closing your eyes so that you can appreciate the gorgeous craftsmanship at work in these short pieces.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
“I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
Everyone’s read Animal Farm, right? I remember reading it in eighth grade, but I couldn’t remember much about the story so I decided to re-read it again this year, and holy shit. This book is a masterpiece. It illustrates the dangers of holding power, and the ease of manipulating those subjected to it. It describes the rise of tyranny and authoritarianism in a whimsical, almost childlike way that is accessible to anyone. It’s the clearest, most digestible depiction I’ve ever read about revolutionaries becoming the very thing they wish to overthrow. If you’ve not read it in a while, pick it up and give it a second pass. You won’t be sorry.
Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
“We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”
This book blew my mind. I won’t tell you why exactly, because you really have to read it to get the full impact. Suffice it to say that the style of Otsuka’s storytelling along with the subject-matter captured my heart. I was fully invested in this book with its story of Japanese brides who have come to America to live and work with their husbands, and the challenges they faced through the internment camps set up by the U.S. government during WWII. The book goes down easy, but it’ll stick with you for a while after you’re done.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
“Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us.”
At one point, I actually gasped aloud reading Orlando. I’d never read it before, nor had I seen any of the film adaptations. In fact, I knew nothing about this book when I started. Boy, oh, boy was I in for a treat. I simply can’t believe this book was written in 1928. It’s a fierce commentary on gender roles combined with magical realism and historical fiction. Utterly entertaining and thoroughly provocative all at the same time.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
“The Girl Scout’s motto is also mine. I fill my life with worthwhile deeds such as — well, never mind what. My duty is —to be useful. I am a friend to male animals. I am cheerful. I am thrifty and I am absolutely filthy in thought, word, and deed.”
Lolita is oft maligned for its subject-matter, and to be fair, a grown man kidnapping an innocent young girl and carrying on an affair that lasted several years (while they lived on the run) is gross as hell. But no one can read Lolita and think that it is about glorifying pedophilia. The story is a look inside the warped, pathetic mind of an unrepentant perp; someone deeply divorced from reality, narcissistic and cruel. The occasional glimpse of self-awareness shows itself, but never long enough for him to be able to question what he’s done in any meaningful way. The horror of his main character’s crimes becomes even more horrifying by the casualness of it. Furthermore, Nabokov is a master. The prose in this book is exquisite and its worth reading just for that alone.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
“There is considerable hypocrisy in conventionalism. Any thinking person is aware of this paradox; but in dealing with conventional people it is advantageous to treat them as though they were not hypocrites. It isn’t a question of faithfulness to your own concepts; it is a matter of compromise so that you can remain an individual without the constant threat of conventional pressures.”
How good a writer do you have to be to write a true crime novel about a case from the 1950s in Kansas with a widely reported outcome and still have it be a page-turner? Truman Capote good, apparently. I couldn’t put it down.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
“My father said that my curiosity was the last obstacle I had to overcome to be a true master harmonizer. If there was one thing my father and I disagreed on, it was that; I believed I could only be great if I were curious enough to seek greatness.”
This is the first in a series but I’ve not yet read the others. That’s ok, though, because Binti stands on it’s own. It’s science fiction that feels real and intimate. The narrator is our protagonist, a young woman who is accepted to an off-planet school where she is the only representative of her people. Okorafor writes the main character as both confident in her own abilities and uncertain about the people and places she finds herself surrounded by during her life-changing interstellar journey. Binti draws you in with sensuous details, and keeps you held under the spell of a main character that is discovering herself at the same time we’re discovering her.
The Rebel by Albert Camus
“From the moment that man believes neither in God nor in immortal life, he becomes ‘responsible for everything alive, for everything that, born of suffering, is condemned to suffer from life.’ It is he, and he alone, who must discover law and order. Then the time of exile begins, the endless search for justification, the aimless nostalgia, ‘the most painful, the most heartbreaking question, that of the heart which asks itself: where can I feel at home?”
Camus saved me this year. In addition to The Rebel, I read The Stranger, The Fall and The Plague – all of which are seemingly simple fictional stories crafted with enormous depth and weight in every word. But it was The Rebel, a nonfiction book about power and agency that brought me the greatest psychic relief of any book I consumed this year. I’ve always been one to distrust authority, yet at the same time, I’ve always shied away from ‘revolutionary’ types (for reasons that have been unclear even to me). Camus shows us how rebellion and revolution differ, and why rebellion is a necessary part of our search for meaning in the world. I came away from this book at peace, because it felt like someone finally understood me.
The Maid by Nita Prose
“It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible. That’s what I’ve learned from being a maid. You can be so important, so crucial to the fabric of things and yet be entirely overlooked.”
I worked as a maid for many years when I was a young so this book immediately piqued my interest. It’s the story of a young woman in her twenties who struggles to fit in socially (it’s not explicitly stated but we can assume she is autistic), but thrives as a hotel maid. That is, until high crime takes place in the hotel and she finds herself entangled with low-life criminals and the wealthy widow of a murdered patron. There are twists and turns, and memorable characters – but most of all, there’s a sweetness to it that made the book a nice refuge for me for a couple weeks.
Carrie by Stephen King
“Pews fell, hymnals flew, and a silver Communion set cruised silently across the vaulted darkness of the nave to crash into the far wall. She prayed and there was no answering. No one was there – or if there was, He/It was cowering from her. God had turned His face away, and why not? This horror was as much His doing as hers.”
Until this year I’d never read a Stephen King book. Then, this fall I read his non-fiction book On Writing, which I found so compelling that I decided I had to read one of his novels immediately after. So I started at the beginning, with Carrie. It’s a fantastic book. I already knew how it would end (thanks to a gazillion cultural references I’ve picked up over the years) but even still, it was delicious. I’m not a fan or horror at all, but I do love magical realism so Carrie works for me. The loathing I had for Carrie’s mother, the rage at her mean girl antagonist, and the protectiveness I felt for Carrie herself kept me invested in this story to the very end. This is some compelling shit.
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
“My point is, there’s always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.”
I’ve said it several times this year, so I’ll say it again: Sea of Tranquility might be a perfect novel. I don’t even want to tell you anything about it because I want you to read it and discover how brilliant it is for yourself. What I will tell you is that it’s very hard to write about time travel without resorting to tired tropes and cheesy outcomes, but Emily St. John Mandel does it. Not a word of this novel is wasted. It carries you through scene after scene, connecting dots you aren’t even aware are being connected until the very end. Read. This. Book.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
“To be a scientist is to learn to live all one’s life with questions that will never be answered, with the knowledge that one was too early or too late, with the anguish of not having been able to guess at the solution that, once presented, seems so obvious that one can only curse oneself for not seeing what one ought to have, if only one had looked in a slightly different direction.”
This book is loosely based on a true story which makes it all the more astounding. It’s a portrait of a man of science who destroys (for the ‘greater good’, natch) the home and habitat of a primitive culture; all while deluding himself about his motives. It’s a story that has played out countless times during the history of colonialism perpetuated by ‘men of enlightenment’ whose desire for greatness lets them justify horrors they unleashed upon native peoples around the world. Like Nabokov’s Humbert, the main character in The People in the Trees is deluded and self-obsessed, allowing himself to do unspeakable things to innocent people and still see himself as the hero in his own story.