Some books I read in 2023

Yeah, I kept reading books, to the surprise of no one. Here were some standouts for me (I read a lot of good books this year and had trouble whittling down the list to a manageable number!):

Peace by Gene Wolfe: Like wandering through a dream. Non-linear and haunted by ghosts (or maybe a single ghost?). I started the year off with this one and it’s stuck with me. One of those books I might’ve turned back to page 1 and started rereading if I hadn’t had so many other books I wanted to read.

Luda by Grant Morrison: There’s something in this to offend just about everyone! It’s about an aging drag queen in a fictional Glasgow. It’s a whodunnit, a love story, and something that doesn’t fit into any kind of genre. There’s minimalist writing and then there’s this one, which turns maximalist up to 11. 

Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom: When someone tells me that a book is their favorite book (or the one they’ve been most influenced by) I’ll go out of my way to read it too. A former coworker of mine recommended this one and I tried to track it down. It took me a while and I managed to get a copy through interlibrary loan (ILL is rad, yall! pretty magical) There’s a lot to chew on in this one, but the key takeaway for me is that psychotherapy often miss the mark because it focuses on symptoms rather than the key underlying issues beneath them, such as, death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. Yeah, it’s a heavy book! I’m glad I read it.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut: A book of short stories about real people, mostly physicists. Through a kind of fictional nonfiction, Labatut attempts (and succeeds, I think) to explore the terror and loneliness that the people in this book must have felt when thinking new thoughts about the world for the first time. For example, Heisenberg coming to grips with the uncertainty principle. I’ve never read another book like it (except for his newest, The MANIAC). 

The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez: The story in this book is through a revolving matryoshka doll of stories: an immigrant family recounting the myths and fables of their homeland; an epic saga of two heroes defeating a god/emperor; the final point of view moments of nearly every character  mentioned in the book, no matter how minor; and some other things I’ve probably forgotten. Frankly, this book should’ve been an unreadable mess, but somehow Jimenez pulls the strings tightly enough together for it all to make sense. A lovely and unusual book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion: Didion writes with harrowing clarity about the madness of grief in the year after her husband dies. As someone who often tries to solve his problems through writing, this was a tough read. Didion deeply questions the value of the act of writing in the face of the death of a loved one. I was humbled by her candor and the depths of her self-reflection, though.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree: A half-orc opens a coffee shop and makes friends along the way. Sweet and light and short. A pick-me-up in novel form.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers: A story about artificial intelligence and language. Really good stuff. A nice alternative way to thinking about this stuff than so much of the foofaraw being thrown around about “AI” these days.

V. by Thomas Pynchon: It’s the last of Pynchon’s books I hadn’t read. At times, baffling and confusing. At others, ineffable and profound. Still others, just the ultimate silliness. There’s a little something of everything in the best of Pynchon’s books, and I’d rank this one with the best. I’d never recommend a Pynchon novel (too much work, I think) but there’s nothing else like it.

Unnatural Ends by Christopher Huang: A solid whodunnit. There’s novel within a novel here and a murder mystery in both.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: I don’t consider myself a fan of Westerns, but I thought I’d give this one a chance. Great book! Very very long. Also, just brutally sad at times.

What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama: A librarian helps a bunch of people turn their lives around through the power of books and reading. Very sweet and how could I resist!

The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera: A “chosen one” say no thanks! to all that and then moves to a city where he joins a support group of other ex-chosen-ones. A vibrant and creative fantasy about the weight of family and history.

On Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

For most of this book, I was slow rolling cattle, meandering north to Montana. There was always more to graze over the next rise, along the next stretch of plain, another watering place just farther on. Still, the slow turn of pages rambled on, one after another. Long stretches of not much, just rambling inconsequential chat and cattle, punctuated by brief, intense moments of violence and death.

What is a good life? If it’s a life examined, then all the cowboys here fail the test. Again and again and again these men are faced with a chance to have a real connection, to make something good. Again and again and again, they turn away from that. There’s a reason all these men seek out relentless tasks, a near infinite sequence of inconsequential things, until their death arrives.

Don’t pity these men, though. Their stomping, rampaging, thoughtless lives cause harm to all the women and children around them, who make do and carry on as best they can in spite of it all.

These men are not without their charms, however, and it’s easy to see why this book is beloved. Although, on reading it, it’s tough to see how a person would romanticize this time period.

Books that stuck with me from 2022

Some books I liked that I read in 2022:

Shady Characters: the Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston: A book that’s tailor-made for my interests. Still, Keith Houston took a topic that might’ve been quite dull and turned it into something lively, interesting, and chockablock full of fascinating historical tidbits.

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata: Reads like a novel, but it’s the recounting of the last Go match of Honinbo Shūsai. No understanding of the game of Go needed. A window into a different time and place. Deeply thought-provoking.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson: A rollicking ride from start to finish. I know Neal Stephenson’s not for everyone (he can really go a bit overboard with the technical detail and digressions) but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Stayed up way too late reading it a couple of nights.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño: The story of a Catholic priest’s collaboration and deliberate ignorance of the violent excesses of Pinochet’s coup and government. Extremely well-written (or well-translated, I should say).

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman: A detailed and astonishing recounting of the lead up to WW1 and its first month. If you like history, Tuchman is at the top of her game here. (I also heartily recommend her history of Europe’s 14th century: A Distant Mirror.)

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough: For me, this extremely even-handed history of 1960s and 70s USA helped to demystify a period of time that I have long felt pretty ignorant of. 

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman: The protagonist reminds me a bit of the thief character in Ladyhawke. Clever and fun, this book is fun romp through an original fantasy world. A perfect travel read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turon: A 17th century whodunnit on a ship at sea! This one kept me guessing the whole time. If you like whodunnits, definitely check this one out.

The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald: A nameless character walks around the English countryside and ruminates on things that he sees and his own life. Deeply satisfying. There’s some amazing writing here.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens: This is so good. Like swimming in an ocean of words. I did not expect a detective of kindness. (For another detective of kindness, see Benoit Blanc in Knives Out and the Glass Onion.) Not my favorite Dickens novel, but I really really liked it.

Aspects by John M. Ford: An unfinished novel by an exceptional writer. There’s some interpersonal nuance captured in this book that I don’t often see.

Babel: or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by RF Kuang: Basically, if the Harry Potter books were written by someone exceptionally well-read and interested in exploring the way that something like magic would reshape and contort a country and the world and the people in it.