My favorite books released in 2023 - in alphabetical order.
“‘Any final words for us, Melancholia?’ Wright asked.
‘What’s left to say?’ she said, her voice echoing metallic but familiar through her helmet as she addressed the crowd. ‘I’m in the same place I started.’
The crowd cheered wildly.
‘When I got here, I had two Ms on my back. Two murders. When I leave, I’ll still have just two. But I had to kill so many more people than that to get here.’
‘That’s very true. You’ve cleaved through so many,’ Wright said. ‘But any of those stand out to you? So many highlights. And you’ve overcome more than your fair share of doubt. Here on the mountaintop, when you look back down, what are you proudest of?’
‘Proud?’ A metal face turned toward the sky. Her shoulders bounced and she laughed. The crowd followed awkwardly. Chuckling because this was their queen. As the crowd grew raucous with laughter, Melancholia fell silent. Then was a moment where the crowd seemed not to know what to do next.”
I was scared to read Chain-Gang All-Stars. I received an early copy and was immediately over the moon to have more of Nana Kwame Adjei-Benyah’s writing in my hands. (If you haven’t read Friday Black, please please do so. It’s a blazingly alive collection of short stories.) Then, I read what his debut novel was about, I put it on a high shelf, and I tried to forget about it. Too violent, I thought. Too much for me.
I keep the violence of the prison system on a high shelf and try to forget about it, but Chain-Gang All-Stars puts it all front and center. This is blistering satire, with readers cast as the literal audience to a Gladiator-style reality sports show that has replaced football in American society. Adjei-Brenyah imagines a world very similar to our own, where audiences tune in to watch people convicted of violent crimes fight to the death each week. If you survive the Chain-Gang for three years, you’re free, but not before being forced to continually commit the same violence that got you locked up, removed from society, endlessly punished - all for profit.
This is our current criminal justice system with the volume turned up.
Mass incarceration is violent. Punishment as incentive rarely works. Punishment as power is even worse. Sit in your discomfort. I did.
Beyond the violence, Adjei-Brenyah’s prose sparkles and shines in incandescent and imaginative ways. Revel in the humanity, the deep respect Adjei-Brenyah gives every character, no matter how brief their mention. Delight in the humor and world-building that unfurls in what seems like magic.
To me, this is the book of the year. The one everyone should read. Yes, it’s violent. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But it breathes with humanity and it forces readers to confront a broken and violent system that must be changed. This is what great books can do.
“Trudy wears her best green dress for the party. Creases stand up on the shoulders from the coat hanger, and tiny pieces of lint stick to the soft velvet bodice. The dress is, perhaps, too short for a woman her age, hitting her just above her knees. Trudy either doesn’t notice these things or is pretending not to care.
Richard has never paid much attention to his wardrobe. The bottoms of his trousers are usually flecked with mud or crusted over with salt, and it’s not uncommon for his shirts to be half a size too small or too large. He knows nothing about what colors work best with his pale Northern Maine complexion. Yet, much as he despises the starchy blandness of the white coat he wears all day at the clinic, Richard wishes he could wear it to tonight’s party. At least then he could hide behind something familiar, put up a thin layer of protection between himself and the world.
‘Blue or red?’ Richard holds up the shirts to Trudy to inspect.”
When I was a junior in high school, I had the most fantastic English teacher: Mr. Zuiker. He opened up an entire world of new books to me - The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, Catch-22. I didn’t know that books could make me feel this way; upset and frustrated, desperate to understand author intention, in awe, like the world was full of so much possibility. He gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice that I still have on my shelf and told me that I needed to read it; I would love it. He was right.
We also read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I loved it. I thought it was completely magical, all of these “grotesques” peopling this one small town. It felt almost fantastical.
Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I realize that Winesburg is really just like any other town. It takes someone special to look into the lives of ordinary people and find their humanity, their brokenness, their magic.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Shannon Bowring’s debut novel, The Road to Dalton, does just that. I was entranced, from start to finish. This book reminded me why I love books.
The Road to Dalton is an intimate portrait of a small town. The narrative flows masterfully from one character to the next, often finding unhappiness in the town's residents who keep secrets piling up in the corners of their houses. Some of these secrets are too much to bear, while others threaten to crack, beams of true love and happiness shining through for all to see.
Despite the sadness in the narrative that tries to pull you under, the beauty in the small moments is so startling, so calm and peaceful, it will take your breath away.
“I’m here at the Best Western for a week under the pretext of figuring out the ‘desert section’ of my next novel. If I’m honest, I came to escape a feeling - an attempt that’s already going poorly, because unfortunately I’ve brought myself with me, and I see, as the last pink light creeps out to infinity, that I am still the kind of person who makes another person’s coma all about me.”
Death Valley is a brilliant book, full of humor and insight and introspective honesty.
Our unnamed protagonist is a woman anticipating deep and intense grief. Her father is in the ICU after a horrible accident and her husband is chronically ill. In desperate need of a bit of time away after having spent the last decade of her life caretaking for her husband, and, more recently haunting the hospital visiting her father and trying to convince herself that she loves him and he loves her, she heads to the desert for a few days away.
Next, she stumbles into a giant cactus.
This was my frist experience with Melissa Broder. I’ve always heard that her books are strange and good, but Death Valley so far exceeded my expectations of both strangeness and goodness. The protagonist’s fears of both loss and her response to loss are so sharp, so raw. Broder plays with reality in such a creative and joyful way, crawling her way through the desert much like we so often plod and trudge our way through grief.
Death Valley astutely points out that in the midst of intense grief and pain, hilarity often makes itself known. These contradictions keep us moving forward, savoring light and water after the depths and the darkness.
Someday you just may find yourself inside of a giant cactus, talking to your father as a child, soothing his pain as much as your own.
American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion edited by Zeke Caligiuri, Fong Lee, B. Batchelor, C. Fausto Cabrera, Will Anderson, Warren Bronson, David Janisch, Kennedy Amenya Gisege, Mark “Red” Altenhofen, Ronald L. Greer II, Jeff Young, Lavon Johnson
American Precariat is an essay collection unlike anything I've ever read. It's full of voices and stories from the margins: incarcerated people, trans people, refugees, debt-ridden people, and socioeconomically depressed people. Each essay is richly complex and distinct. Edited by a group of incarcerated, award-winning writers who generously let readers into their editorial conversations about each essay, there are sections explaining why each essay is included, how the essays made them feel, how they relate, or don't, to their own experiences of being excluded from society.
It's a chorus of voices that fosters an incredible sense of respect and community, an American Portrait of what can happen when we listen to each other, value each other, and amplify the voices of people trying to survive in a society that has rejected them.
To give you a sense of the process by which this book was created, and to simply encourage you to pick it up for yourself and for everyone you know, I’m going to share a lengthy excerpt from “A Note on Conversations” by Jennifer Bowen:
“This collection was compiled and edited by writers who have devoted their lives to the written word for over a decade, and whose prison sentences range from twelve years to life. These artists, despite their talent and devotion, rank among the most precarious of America’s citizens. They do not have the right to vote. The state, to which they are legal property, takes a portion of their earnings, which average fifty cents an hour. It is not up to these artists what they eat or even when they do so. And so, as you might expect, while they created this book about the precariat, their conversations about instability rang with insight. I know this because I sat in the room with them for every single meeting, per DOC policy.
“This project spans three years, many facility transfers, constant lockdowns, segregation, and a global pandemic. Every editor involved had Covid twice; one was hospitalized. One was badly injured on the yard…one of the three facilities granted me physical access, and the editors the ability to gather. Those are the editors you see in conversation through this book: Chris, Will, Kennedy, Warren, and David. Zeke, who wrote the foreword, was released just before the recording started but after years spent building this book and the arts community…
“Space to talk about change, solidarity, suffering, and beauty, with community and among friends, is rare anywhere, including prison, and yet it’s one of the only things in fractured times that keep us whole, and helps us heal. Our conscious goal was never to dissect the essays, but to share what grew in one shared space after reading the authors’ words, and by extension, maybe what grows from all art. We hope our talks - edited for length and clarity - stimulate your own conversations, joining minds and voices rarely heard from the inside, with you, wherever you are.”
“I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know…You must understand: that word, terrorist, is too simple for the history we have lived - too simple for me, too simple even for this man. How could one word be enough? But I am going to say it anyway, because it is the language you know…We begin with this word. But I promise that you will come to see that it cannot contain everything that has happened. Someday the story will begin with the word civilian, the word home. And while I am no longer the version of myself who met with terrorists every day, I also want you to understand that when I was that woman, when two terrorists encountered each other in my world, what they said first was simply hello. Like any two people you might know or love.”
Language slips. It hides. It allows and restricts. Citizens become refugees. Terrorists are freedom fighters. Terms are defined by the winners.
Words matter. So do people.
Brotherless Night absolutely blew me away. It’s a heartbreaking story of civil war in Sri Lanka. Moments of stunning beauty in the midst of brutality, of unexpected connections and unending selflessness kept me turning pages despite the deep sadness that pervades the narrative.
Here’s the truth. In light of the brutality that we’re witnessing in Gaza, the murder of thousands and thousands of Palestinians - women, children, men, doctors, journalists, poets, soccer coaches, baristas, booksellers - humans, how do I talk about a book in which a country and its people are torn apart?
Because we’re talking about language when we use the words enemy and terrorist and militant and, and, and - but we’re also talking about people. People who would go home to their families if their homes were still in one piece or if their families were still alive or if they hadn’t been evacuated - another convenient word, another slippage.
I love V.V. Ganeshananthan’s book. I love her writing. I love her characters. I love her storytelling. I also love that she immediately calls into question the language that we use to talk about humans and conflict and terror and trauma. I think everyone should read this book.
It is my fervent hope that the more we read the more we know that words, and people, matter.
“‘I never thought I wanted children,’ I say to the therapist.
‘Why is that?’...
I tap my finger against the leather of the couch. ‘Did you hear? That guy they shot in the parking lot of the grocery store yesterday, the one getting into his car or something, he died this morning in the hospital.’
Her cheeks are flushed and pinker than I remember in her photo online. Her dark chest is large, and the buttons across it strain with each inhale as she waits.
‘I hurt people with my selfishness,’ I say.
I laugh. ‘It’s still pretty early in our relationship, let’s pace ourselves.’
‘Ah, silly me.’ She smiles, tapping her forehead with her fingertips. ‘All that “the truth will set you free” bullship can’t be rushed.’
I make a Neanderthal sound, somewhere between a grunt and a laugh, grinning. How dare she build rapport with me? Sneaky little therapist.
The truth is, the moment I first saw you dance wild with arms darting, hair flopping in your laughing face, I knew I wanted a clone of that uninhibited joy to grow inside me. I had decided against having children years ago, right after the abortion. This was before I knew you, but then after I knew you, I started to change my mind. Yes. I could be a mother, and at that moment in the bathroom, I was sure. Yes, I’d changed my mind. Could my malfunctioning body and the reality of this American nightmare change it back?”
Blue Hour is one of those books that haunts you.
It’s a disorienting book. It moves through time the way that thought does - quickly and without much warning. Readers fully inhabit the flowing thoughts of an unnamed narrator, a biracial woman living in America.
Navigating ambivalent feelings about motherhood in a society that doesn’t blink at the police shootings of Black boys and men, including a young Black boy in her photography class, and after multiple pregnancy losses, she cannot fathom the concept of becoming a mother.
It hurts to live in this book. Tiffany Clarke Harrison's novel is so stunning, so visceral, so challenging to read as the murders of Black boys are repeatedly in the headlines. Soaked in grief and rage, the narrator must navigate another pregnancy. It is not until she is finally surrounded by other Black mothers that a bit of light shines in.
At this point in writing this list, I’m realizing that I haven’t chosen many books that don’t feel heavy. This book may be the heaviest. I can only tell you why I read it and why I’m including it. I’m a cis-gendered white woman with a loving partner and two healthy children. I’ve experienced no pregnancy loss, no trauma at the hands of law enforcement, and little premature death, in general. If the closest I come to feeling those things is in the pages of a book, that feels like a privilege. And it feels important, because people walk around experiencing these things everyday, often silently. No one should feel invisible in their pain and fear. I want to see people, to listen to them, even in their silences. This is the power that books have, and the reason that I don’t avoid heavy books in my personal reading life.
Approaching Blue Hour with caution is likely a good idea, especially if you’ve experienced any of the loss that the narrator has, but if you do pick it up, I hope you’ll stop in to talk about it. Because the other power of books - beyond living in the minds of others for a while - is that we can meet up, face-to-face, and experience them together.
“My name’s June. I’m a New City Substitute Teacher when they need me. What else is there? My lease is up tomorrow and quietly I still owe October rent I can no longer afford and I’m feeling like a failure, but worse things have happened. My two roommates, my godbrother, and I are shooting dice in the dining room. What else? Winter’s approaching. It’s almost bubble-jacket-and-long-johns season. The idea of roaming New City homeless is not something I’m looking forward to. I pick up the dice and roll. A win would be nice.”
Reading Wings of Red feels a bit like electricity flowing and crackling through your body - not that I really know what that feels like, or if crackling is actually the right word to describe such an experience.
James W. Jennings' debut novel follows June Papers, an MFA graduate and felon who works as a substitute teacher and, at the start of the book, finds himself unhoused. The book chronicles his day-to-day, working and showering at school when he can, wandering the streets, sometimes sleeping on friends’ couches or the subway. It moves about a mile a minute and stretches on interminably through long nights.
This book is so inventive, moving along almost like a journal does. Sometimes we’re with June for days at a time, and then time seems to jump forward as if he just hasn’t had the time or energy or motivation to write down what’s been going on.
It’s so smart and manages to be quite funny while telling a story of houselessness that we do not often hear: a highly educated and employed person is unable to afford the cost of housing and finds himself outside of the margins of society.
This book snuck up on me. As the book went on, I found myself unable to put it down, so invested in June’s everyday and in the lives of his students, friends, and family. It’s a kind-hearted and generous book with a lot of style and flow. I loved it.
“The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun’s leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire’s rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields. Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother’s shoulder. On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree’s roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a snake, clumsily hewn.”
Well, I finally read my first Jesmyn Ward book. To everyone who has been singing her praises for years, you are absolutely correct. Wow. If Let Us Descend is any indication of the quality of the rest of her work, I need to get started reading right now.
Let Us Descend follows Annis, an enslaved woman living in the Carolinas. When she is sold, she is forced to walk to New Orleans where she is then kept in a slave pen until she can be sold again at a slave market. (If you’re curious about Jesmyn Ward’s process and extensive research while writing this book, I’d highly recommend this interview with Traci Thomas on The Stacks.)
Throughout her horrific journey, Annis is accompanied by an ancestral spirit, Aza.
I find myself devolving into plot summary, here, which is not what you’re looking for. You want a review.
I loved this book. It’s incredibly beautiful. The writing is lyrical: it moves like water and warms like the sun. Annis is determined and tortured - yet she keeps bees, and she is sheltered by the water and mud and storms that would also destroy her. The moments that feel like too much, for the characters and the reader, become honeyed as Annis’s connection to nature and ancestral spirits remove her from the terror, if only in her mind. That’s how she stays free.
“But tonight, even after we’ve turned down the music and undimmed the lights and wiped down the counters, TJ doesn’t budge. It’s like [he] doesn’t even recognize me.
For a moment, he’s a blank canvas.
A face entirely devoid of our history.
But he wears this grin I’ve never seen before. His hair tufts out from under his cap, grazing the back of his neck. And he’s always been shorter than me, but his cheeks have grown softer, still full of the baby fat that never went away.
I’m an idiot, but I know this is a truly rare thing: to see someone you’ve known intimately without them seeing you.
It creates an infinitude of possibility.
But then TJ blinks and looks right at me.”
Bryan Washington’s novels are unlike anything I’ve ever read. He has an incredible talent for imagining full humans. His characters live, breathe, hurt, love, desire, eat. They can be brutal and tender from one moment to the next.
He uses dialog like no one I've ever read. It crackles sometimes; it flows sometimes; it fully illuminates and absolutely befuddles. I find myself searching in between the lines of conversation, reading the silences even more than the words. It’s so real.
Every time I read Washington's work, I'm amazed at the complexity of his characters, the degrees in their ability to connect, their willingness to dive headlong into terrible choices. I'm also amazed at the deep care and concern I feel for them. Cam and TJ make an impression, just as Benson and Mike do in Memorial. I find myself thinking about all of them - about Mike’s mom, and TJ’s mom, and Cam’s partner, Kai, and all the other deeply realized characters in Washington’s novels.
To me, that is the mark of an extraordinary author, of exquisite storytelling. Months and years later, I wonder how these characters are doing, what they’ve been up to, if they’re caring for themselves and eating well.
“In the murky broth of yet another heartache, my mother cuts me slices of dragon fruit. I’m home in Jersey and slumped at the kitchen table. My hair is dip dyed in snot, tears, and hot mascara. She hands me a slice, the white interior flecked with black seeds like suspended ants. The slice dangles off her knife, the glinting steel close to my mouth. I eat it off the knife. I’ve always eaten fruit this way, right off the sparks of my mother’s blade. I take it into my throat, still heaving from too much survival mode. The taste is mild, despite the fluorescent hot pink flame. The seeds puncture something I know must come. It slides down my throat like a sweet summer slug.
‘Jane, you have to be strong. I need you to eat more,’ she tells me, cutting another slice.
But I tell her I’m so tired of being strong…I expect her to disagree, to demand strength, to tell me I have no choice. Did she have a choice, staring at the gaping pits my father left behind?
This time, though, she doesn’t fight me. ‘So be weak,’ she says, almost like a threat. Sticky fruit juice encircles her jade bracelet. Fruit flies rouse around us, dizzy stars. ‘But you have to eat more dragon fruit and clear your system.’
She wants me to shit it out. This time, she hands me the knife.”
Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City is the best memoir I read all year. Jane Wong is a masterful storyteller, marrying fierce moments of rage into some of the most achingly beautiful scenes I've read about a daughter and her mother.
I read this book while I had Covid, and I don’t know if that impacted my emotional landscape, but I found myself in tears over and over as Wong viscerally described her fear for her mom, a postal worker, who continued to work during the height of the pandemic. She described her mother’s incredible community of essential workers who cared for each other, brought food to share, and kept together in a time defined by separateness. Those same friends cared for Wong over the phone and with care packages.
Even now, I’m tearing up thinking about the ways we all came together at that time - and the times we didn’t.
She discusses the way that her mother’s experiences with her absent father inform her own ability - or more often, inability - to form and sustain relationships. She tells stories about growing up in a Chinese restaurant that her parents owned and ran in New Jersey. She discusses her art, her writing, her career.
But mostly, Jane Wong tells stories about her mom. This is a love story of the highest order. I loved every single minute.