Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 Books

I joined a book club this year, which has "forced" me to read at least one book a month. That has prodded me into reading more in general. Here are most of the books I have read in 2023, more or less in order, with a few notes:

I Have Some Questions For You - Rebecca Makkai. Literary fiction mystery about a death at a prep school, but also about society's treatment of women. Great writing. Furious, incendiary, nuanced, thought-provoking. Highly recommended, and one of the best books I have read in a long time. My choice for Book of the Year, 2023.

The Vixen - Francine Prose. Literary fiction about a writer in the post-WW2 era. Great writing. Recommended.

Slouching Towards BethlehemJoan Didion. Didion's classic collection of essays about California and America in the 60s. It's Joan Didion. That makes you say YES! or NO!

No One Left To Come Looking For You - Sam Lipsyte. A noir-ish mystery set in New York's underground music scene in the 90s. Kinda funny, scarily accurate. Breezy. Recommended. I have read a few of Lipsyte's other books (The Ask, Hark) which I also liked.

The Terraformers - Annalee Newitz. Science fiction about some terraformers. Not recommended.

The Shards - Bret Easton Ellis. Literary fiction-alized account of Ellis' eventful senior year of high school in the early 80s. Shades of Stephen King. If you have never read any of his other books, this is a good place to start, as it effectively covers all the things he does. If you don't like his work, this will not change your mind about him. I am close to his age, and I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my own lost youth.

Liberation Day - George Saunders. A collection of sci-fi-ish short stories, many of which ran in The New Yorker. If you read The New Yorker, you know this means they are likely depressing, heavy, powerful. Also great writing. Recommended, but it may bum you out. 

The Marvel Universe - Bruce Wagner. Literary fiction. Another of Wagner's scathing, scabrous, acidic takes on Hollywood and contemporary society. I liked it, but I also liked (or at least appreciated) several of his previous books. Definitely not for everyone. I also read Wagner's Dead Stars (2012), which covered similar territory.

The Candy House - Jennifer Egan. Literary fiction about a group of individuals in the near future. A kind of sequel to Egan's breakthrough "A Visit from the Goon Squad". Not as good as "Goon Squad". It was fine. Recommended with reservations.

A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter. Literary fiction from 1967. Full of food, sex, travel, and ennui. Evocative and beautiful. It seems like someone should have made this into a movie.

The Devil’s Playground - Craig Russell. Cinematic mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood. Fun, suspenseful. The sort of book where you want a whole series featuring the protagonist. Recommended. 

Deliver Me From Nowhere - Warren Zanes. Nonfiction about the making of Bruce Springsteen's best album, "Nebraska". A little breathless at times, but if you like the album, worth a read. 

Birnam Wood - Eleanor Catton. Literary fiction about an idealistic environmental group colliding with a billionaire in New Zealand. Starts very slow, ends abruptly. Powerful but also flawed. Recommended with reservations.

Gone to the Wolves - John Wray. Literary fiction/mystery about metalheads in 90s Florida. Recommended (if that sounds good to you).

Sure, I'll Join Your Cult! - Maria Bamford. Bamford's memoir. Funny and sad. If you like her, well worth a read (though you will know much of this already). If you are unfamiliar with her, check out her one of her specials, such as "Weakness is the brand" (Amazon) or "Old Baby" (Netflix).

The Possibilities - Yael Goldstein-Love. Science fiction. A novel about a mother whose child suddenly vanishes, and her journey and discoveries about herself and the world. 

Comedy Sex God - Pete Holmes. Another memoir by another stand-up comedian. Holmes has a somewhat goofy stage persona, but reveals himself to be a deeply spiritual person who has been seeking enlightenment and understanding for much of his life. Like many personal spiritual journey stories, it is by turns inspiring, profound, silly, and sometimes cloying or unrelatable. But his writing made me think about my own life and has led me to revisit some of his favorites, notably the work of Joseph Campbell.

There Is No Antimemetics Division - qntm. Science fiction/horror, set in the SCP Foundation universe. Imaginative and strange. I have been reading some of the SCP stuff for years, and this was an excellent take on some of those ideas.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store - James McBride. An evocative landscape painting of a novel, like looking at one of those big works by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, where you see all these characters in a town with their own stories, lightly connected. Sets a mood and captures a moment rather than focusing on a main character and a story.

Lone Women - Victor LaValle. Historical fiction, set largely in early 20th century Montana. I thought this book was going to be similar to McBride's novel -- an accurate but fictionalized story of personal experience. It was that, but LaValle takes some unexpected and thrilling detours. A bit cartoony at times, but surprising and inventive.

Today Will Be Different - Maria Semple. Comedic literary fiction. Semple has a perspective, style, and attitude that suggests late 20th century New York City. She writes about what people today would call "rich white people problems" with a kind of snark and mostly self-deprecation. While the book initially felt like similar works from "New York-y" authors, Semple pulls it in some interesting and surprising directions.

Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning - Tom Vanderbilt. A non-fiction book that weaves Vanderbilt's efforts and experiences learning new things (music, surfing, jewelry-making, juggling, foreign languages, chess, etc.) with some science and research into human brains and education. Breezy, easy, and a reminder that we should all be learning new things, all the time. 

The Dog of the North - Elizabeth McKenzie. Literary fiction. This book is a story of someone stuck taking care of everyone around them (including older relatives with dementia) while neglecting themselves. Some strange turns, veering close to absurdity. I found it timely, sad, and amusing.

Monica - Daniel Clowes. A graphic novel, in Clowes' distinctive style. Haunting, dark, and disturbing.


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