What a strange year it’s been. So much loss, frankly. My beloved Bailey, and my anam-cara, Sr. Rita, and our dear friend, Paul, and Sr. Mary Ann, and even our great 100+-year-old tree, called by a friend, “The Sentinal of the Neighborhood,” and the world, which is full of losses and violence and fear, and a bit of hope, too, I pray.
Changes for me as well. A few health things have now, thankfully, become part of the past (at least for the moment, for I have no illusions about aging), and a decision not to actively seek publication any longer. Decisions that liberate, sadden, envigorate, and clarify.
Throughout it all I do as I have always done: I read. What have I read this year? Books good and bad and mediocre. I don’t believe in trashing books — why waste the energy — but I love spreading the word about great books, and am delighted to share my favorites of year. In reverse order of reading (not by ranking, they’re all great):
PROPHET SONG by Paul Lynch.
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE 2023SHORTLISTED FOR THE AN POST IRISH BOOK AWARDS 2023
Oof. This one just floored me. Haunted me. So timely. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police on her step. They have arrived to interrogate her husband, a trade unionist.
Ireland is falling apart, caught in the grip of a government turning towards tyranny. As the life she knows and the ones she loves disappear before her eyes, Eilish must contend with the dystopian logic of her new, unraveling country. How far will she go to save her family? And what—or who—is she willing to leave behind?
Exhilarating, terrifying, and surprisingly intimate, Prophet Song offers a shocking vision of a country at war and a deeply human portrait of a mother’s fight to hold her family together.
A DUTY TO THE DEAD by Charles Todd.
The first in a series, and I’m looking forward to the rest! What fun. I do love a well-written mystery, especially of the historical variety.
A Duty to the Dead introduces readers to an unforgettable new protagonist in an exceptional new series: Bess Crawford, a courageous World War I nurse and determined investigator. Once again the New York Times bestselling author brilliantly evokes post-Great War Europe, casting an indomitable heroine into a simmering cauldron of village secrets, family intrigues, and murder.
England, 1916. Independent-minded Bess Crawford’s upbringing was far different from that of the usual upper-middle class British gentlewoman. Growing up in India, she learned the importance of responsibility, honor, and duty from her officer father. At the outbreak of World War I, Bess volunteered for the nursing corps, serving from the battlefields of France to the doomed hospital ship Britannic.
On one voyage, Bess grows fond of the young, gravely wounded Lieutenant Arthur Graham. Something rests heavily on his conscience, and to give him a bit of peace as he dies, she promises to deliver a message to his brother. It is some months before she can carry out this duty, and when she’s next in England, she herself is recovering from a wound.
When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother’s last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance, either. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.
THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride.
I’ve been a McBride fan every since his memoir, THE COLOR OF WATER. This is a lovely book. So full of life and kindness and hope.
In 1972, when workers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were digging the foundations for a new development, the last thing they expected to find was a skeleton at the bottom of a well. Who the skeleton was and how it got there were two of the long-held secrets kept by the residents of Chicken Hill, the dilapidated neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side and shared ambitions and sorrows. Chicken Hill was where Moshe and Chona Ludlow lived when Moshe integrated his theater and where Chona ran the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, it was Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, who worked together to keep the boy safe.
As these characters’ stories overlap and deepen, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive. When the truth is finally revealed about what happened on Chicken Hill and the part the town’s white establishment played in it, McBride shows us that even in dark times, it is love and community—heaven and earth—that sustain us.
TRUST by Herman Diaz
Who gets to tell a story? Whose version will be believed? This is a complicated novel with layered meanings, exploring power and gender and capitalism. I loved it. I’m not sure it will be to everyone’s taste, but then what book is?
Even through the roar and effervescence of the 1920s, everyone in New York has heard of Benjamin and Helen Rask. He is a legendary Wall Street tycoon; she is the daughter of eccentric aristocrats. Together, they have risen to the very top of a world of seemingly endless wealth—all as a decade of excess and speculation draws to an end. But at what cost have they acquired their immense fortune? This is the mystery at the center of Bonds, a successful 1937 novel that all of New York seems to have read. Yet there are other versions of this tale of privilege and deceit.
Hernan Diaz’s TRUST elegantly puts these competing narratives into conversation with one another—and in tension with the perspective of one woman bent on disentangling fact from fiction. The result is a novel that spans over a century and becomes more exhilarating with each new revelation.
At once an immersive story and a brilliant literary puzzle, TRUST engages the reader in a quest for the truth while confronting the deceptions that often live at the heart of personal relationships, the reality-warping force of capital, and the ease with which power can manipulate facts.
DOPPELGANGER by Naoimi Klein.
I can’t think of a book written in recent years that deserves close reading more than this one. KLEIN’s scholarship, as well as her depth and breadth of interest, are astonishing. She makes us think, reflect, reframe, reconsider. She demands our attention with every sentence. This book should be in the hands of every single person concerned about the future. And if you want insight on the horrors happening in Gaza and Israel right now… start reading.
What if you woke up one morning and found you’d acquired another self—a double who was almost you and yet not you at all? What if that double shared many of your preoccupations but, in a twisted, upside-down way, furthered the very causes you’d devoted your life to fighting against?
Not long ago, the celebrated activist and public intellectual Naomi Klein had just such an experience—she was confronted with a doppelganger whose views she found abhorrent but whose name and public persona were sufficiently similar to her own that many people got confused about who was who. Destabilized, she lost her bearings, until she began to understand the experience as one manifestation of a strangeness many of us have come to know but struggle to AI-generated text is blurring the line between genuine and spurious communication; New Age wellness entrepreneurs turned anti-vaxxers are scrambling familiar political allegiances of left and right; and liberal democracies are teetering on the edge of absurdist authoritarianism, even as the oceans rise. Under such conditions, reality itself seems to have become unmoored. Is there a cure for our moment of collective vertigo?
Naomi Klein is one of our most trenchant and influential social critics, an essential analyst of what branding, austerity, and climate profiteering have done to our societies and souls. Here she turns her gaze inward to our psychic landscapes, and outward to the possibilities for building hope amid intersecting economic, medical, and political crises. With the assistance of Sigmund Freud, Jordan Peele, Alfred Hitchcock, and bell hooks, among other accomplices, Klein uses wry humor and a keen sense of the ridiculous to face the strange doubles that haunt us—and that have come to feel as intimate and proximate as a warped reflection in the mirror.
Combining comic memoir with chilling reportage and cobweb-clearing analysis, Klein seeks to smash that mirror and chart a path beyond despair. Doppelganger What do we neglect as we polish and perfect our digital reflections? Is it possible to dispose of our doubles and overcome the pathologies of a culture of multiplication? Can we create a politics of collective care and undertake a true reckoning with historical crimes? The result is a revelatory treatment of the way many of us think and feel now—and an intellectual adventure story for our times.
THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade
From an award-winning storyteller comes a very good debut novel about a New Mexican family’s year of love and sacrifice.
It’s Holy Week in the small town of Las Penas, New Mexico, and thirty-three-year-old unemployed Amadeo Padilla has been given the part of Jesus in the Good Friday procession. He is preparing feverishly for this role when his fifteen-year-old daughter Angel shows up pregnant on his doorstep and disrupts his plans for personal redemption. With weeks to go until her due date, tough, ebullient Angel has fled her mother’s house, setting her life on a startling new path.
Vivid, tender, funny, and beautifully rendered, The Five Wounds spans the baby’s first year as five generations of the Padilla family converge: Amadeo’s mother, Yolanda, reeling from a recent discovery; Angel’s mother, Marissa, whom Angel isn’t speaking to; and disapproving Tíve, Yolanda’s uncle and keeper of the family’s history. Each brings expectations that Amadeo, who often solves his problems with a beer in his hand, doesn’t think he can live up to.
The Five Wounds is a miraculous debut novel from a writer whose stories have been hailed as “legitimate masterpieces” (The New York Times). Kirstin Valdez Quade conjures characters that will linger long after the final page, bringing to life their struggles to parent children they may not be equipped to save.
“Masterly…Quade has created a world bristling with compassion and humanity. The characters and the challenges they face are wholly realized and moving; their journeys span a wide spectrum of emotion and it is impossible not to root for [them].” —Alexandra Chang, New York Times Book Review
HER NAME WAS MARGARET, DEATH ON THE STREETS by Denise Davy
This is an amazing book, albeit heartbreaking. There is nothing sentimental about Davy’s writing and the writing is all the more powerful for that. It’s one of the books I feel we, as humans who care deeply about other people, are compelled, obligated to read, for in doing so we bear witness to a life others might not and that witnessing has power. It can change the world. To identify with Margaret, and also with those who tried to help her and those who failed, puts us in the circle of humanity. It matters.
At age 18, Margaret Jacobson was admitted to the Ontario Hospital. Years later, she died homeless and alone in the city. With meticulous research and deep compassion Davy has pieced together Margaret’s story – from promising student to patient, to homeless woman, to an unmarked grave – and asks us to look hard at the system that buried her there.
DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS by Julie Schumacher
I’m not generally a fan of epistolary novels, but this one had me laughing out loud. Someone said it ‘puts the pissed back in epistolary.’ Ha! Perfect.
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms. Enjoy.
FIRE WEATHER by John Vaillant
I feel about this book in a similar way as I do to PROPHET SONG.
This astonishing, and beautifully written, book is to non-fiction what Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD is to fiction.
In May 2016, Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada’s oil industry and America’s biggest foreign supplier, was overrun by wildfire. The multi-billion-dollar disaster melted vehicles, turned entire neighborhoods into firebombs, and drove 88,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon. Through the lens of this apocalyptic conflagration—the wildfire equivalent of Hurricane Katrina—John Vaillant warns that this was not a unique event but a shocking preview of what we must prepare for in a hotter, more flammable world.
Fire has been a partner in our evolution for millennia, shaping culture, civilization, and, very likely, our brains. Fire has enabled us to cook our food, defend and heat our homes, and power the machines that drive our titanic economy. Yet this volatile energy source has always threatened to elude our control, and in our new age of intensifying climate change, we are seeing its destructive power unleashed in previously unimaginable ways.
With masterly prose and a cinematic eye, Vaillant takes us on a riveting journey through the intertwined histories of North America’s oil industry and the birth of climate science, to the unprecedented devastation that modern forest fires wreak, and into lives forever changed by these disasters. His urgent work is a book for—and from—our new century of fire, which has only just begun.
DEMON COPPERHEAD by Barbara Kingsolver
I wasn’t sure when I started this novel. I was afraid it wouldn’t have much new to offer to the genre of trauma/addiction literature, but I was surprised. I found it moving, if grim. I think Kingsolver as done a terrific job here.
Demon Copperhead is set in the mountains of southern Appalachia. It’s the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.
Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH by Sigrid Nunez
Like Paul Lynch, Nunez is becoming one of my favorite authors. This is quite simply an amazing book. In this slim volume, Nunez gives the reader more to think about than most nooks of twice the length.
The New York Times– bestselling, National Book Award – winning author of The Friend brings her singular voice to a story about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship
A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.
In What Are You Going Through , Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.
SMALL COUNTRY by Gael Faye
An international sensation and prize-winning bestseller in France, an evocative coming-of-age story of a young boy, a lost childhood and a shattered homeland.
Burundi, 1992. For ten-year-old Gabriel, life in the comfortable expatriate neighborhood of Bujumbura with his French father, Rwandan mother, and little sister, Ana, is something close to paradise. These are happy, carefree days spent sneaking cigarettes and stealing mangoes, as he and his mischievous gang of friends transform their tiny cul-de-sac into their kingdom.
But dark clouds are gathering over this small country – and their peaceful idyll will soon shatter when Burundi, and neighboring Rwanda, are brutally hit by war and genocide.
Small Country describes an end of innocence as seen through the eyes of a young child caught in the maelstrom of history. A luminous novel of extraordinary power, it is a stirring tribute not only to a dark chapter in Africa’s past, but to the bright days that preceded it.
FAITH HOPE AND CARNAGE by Nick Cave
Okay, perhaps I skipped over a wee bit of the music talk, but this one makes the list because few people on the planet speak more eloquently and more poignantly about grief and loss than Nick Cave. As I felt I was entering my own apprenticeship with grief this year, Cave has become something of a guide for me, both through this book, and his frequently-enlightening and inspiring blog, “The Red Hand File.
A BOOK OF THE YEAR, ROLLING STONE, NPR, PITCHFORK, THE TIMES (LONDON), TELEGRAPH“An astoundingly intimate book-length conversation on art and grief spanning the duration of the pandemic years . . . As with Cave’s music, you might flinch, but you will feel alive.”― Pitchfork Faith, Hope and Carnage is a book about Nick Cave’s inner life.
Created from more than forty hours of intimate conversations with the journalist Seán O’Hagan, this is a profoundly thoughtful exploration, in Cave’s own words, of what really drives his life and creativity. The book examines questions of belief, art, music, freedom, grief, and love. It draws candidly on Cave’s life, from his early childhood to the present day, his loves, his work ethic, and his dramatic transformation in recent years. Faith, Hope and Carnage offers ladders of hope and inspiration from a true visionary.
DOG YEARS by Mark Doty
Did you think I’d get through this list without a book about dogs? Ha! Well, this book really affected me.
Why do dogs speak so profoundly to our inner lives? When Mark Doty decides to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner, he finds himself bringing home Beau, a large golden retriever, malnourished and in need of loving care. Beau joins Arden, the black retriever, to complete their family. As Beau bounds back into life, the two dogs become Mark Doty’s intimate companions, his solace, and eventually the very life force that keeps him from abandoning all hope during the darkest days. Their tenacity, loyalty, and love inspire him when all else fails.
Dog Years is a remarkable work: a moving and intimate memoir interwoven with profound reflections on our feelings for animals and the lessons they teach us about life, love, and loss. Mark Doty writes about the heart-wrenching vulnerability of dogs, the positive energy and joy they bring, and the gift they bear us of unconditional love. A book unlike any other, Mark Doty’s surprising meditation is radiantly unsentimental yet profoundly affecting. Beautifully written, Dog Years is a classic in the making.
DOWN CEMETARY ROAD and THE LAST VOICE YOU HEAR, by Mick Herron
Mick Herron is the author of the Slow Horses series, which if you haven’t at least begun to watch means you’re missing out!! Gary Oldman is amazing. Someone said the series is what John Le Carre’s George Smiley would be like if he used the word ‘twat’ frequently. Snort! So funny. Herron is fabulous, and the first two books in his other series do not disappoint!
Down Cemetary Road – CWA Gold Dagger winner Mick Herron’s debut novel introduces Sarah Tucker, whose search for a missing child unravels a murderous conspiracy.
When a house explodes in a quiet Oxford suburb and a girl disappears in the aftermath, Sarah Tucker—a young married woman, bored and unhappy with domestic life—becomes obsessed with finding her. Accustomed to dull chores in a childless household and hosting her husband’s wearisome business clients for dinner, Sarah suddenly finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew as her investigation reveals that people long believed dead are still among the living, while the living are fast joining the dead. What begins in a peaceful neighborhood reaches its climax on a remote, unwelcoming Scottish island as the search puts Sarah in league with a man being hunted down by murderous official forces.
In The Last Voice You Hear, Zoë Boehm doesn’t do death. It’s a rule. Yet here she is—in this new ambitious detective novel from the sure-footed Mick Herron—worried by three of them. Zoë herself has killed a man, and self-defense or not, it cripples her emotions still. She also remembers Wez, a twelve-year-old kid afraid of heights, who tumbled to his death from the top of a tower block; she knew him when he was nine and snatching purses from middle-aged ladies. Then, there’s Caroline Daniels. They’re saying that Caroline’s death was accidental: that she fell off the crowded underground platform and died beneath the wheels of an oncoming train. Nonetheless, Caroline’s employer, Amory Grayling, is disturbed. Caroline, it seems, had recently acquired a lover who remains mysteriously faceless and nameless. So it is that Zoë begins searching for a man whom no one knows by attempting to uncover the secrets locked in the heart of a woman she has never met. Though the questions outnumber Zoë’s answers, she is certain that Caroline did not fall accidentally to death. Nor did Wez, she comes to realize, and soon finds herself dangerously pursuing two murderers, though one of them may find her first.
MIDDLEMARCH by George Elliott
Last but hardly least! In fact, it was the first book I read in 2023. What can I say about a book that is widely recognized as one of the best novels ever written. Well, I’ll say this: I read this book many years ago for the first time and although I thoroughly enjoyed it then, I don’t think I was old enough to understand how profound it was. It’s asks: What does it mean to do good? What does it mean to forgive? To be flawed and human? To live a small life and still try to make a difference in the world, even if neither we nor others may never know we’ve made a difference? Big stuff. And oh, such lovely writing.
By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England’s finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community–tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry–in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader’s sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’.
There you have it. Seventeen books that, in my opinion, are excellent, of the sixty-seven I read this year. It wasn’t my best reading year, in terms of number of books read (230 books read in 2015 was probably the most books I’ve read in a year), but there were some fabulous books. Hope you find something intriguing.
Have a merry Mid-Winter and all the best for the 2024. May there be peace and kindness (and democracy). May we all be forgiven.