Favorite Reads of 2023

Favorite Reads of 2023

I read 65 books in 2023– probably more if I counted all the books I read with the kids, all the books I picked up and didn’t finish, and I probably missed one or two because I’m not good at keeping track.

Favorite Fiction:

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Such a beautifully told story and I think it might just be his best– after Remains of the Day. I also read Remains of the Day this year, but didn’t count it because it was a re-read. I went on an Ishiguro kick this year because I set myself the goal to read more novels by Nobel Prize winners.

I was glad I didn’t know much about Never Let Me Go, other than it was a dystopian novel. It’s a book that I very much enjoyed the process of reading as the characters and plot unfolded very gradually. The mood is not grim dark like so many dystopian novels and I think that’s one of the things that pushes it to the top of the heap: the narrator manages to be hopeful and the story feels very light, even when there is every reason to despair. It’s a really beautiful meditation on education, love, and what it means to be human.

I also read Klara and the Sun, Artist of the Floating World, When We Were Orphans, and A Pale View of Hills this year, but Never Let Me Go stood out as my favorite.

2. The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge, really beautiful story about a woman who inherits a house in a country village from a cousin she only met once in childhood. Faith and community and healing from trauma and lovely relationships. And while it’s definitely a book that touches the heart, it manages to avoid being sentimental. It’s the sort of book I highlighted and even copied out quote from. And I don’t do that very often. And some lovely references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets woven though it. This is a book I will definitely re-read.

3. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, a young girl and her father in colonial era Quebec. Really beautiful moments of faith, stories about life on the frontier and in Paris. It’s amazing to me how perceptively Cather writes about Catholic themes for a non-Catholic author.

4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, post apocalyptic fiction about monks whose charism is book smuggling (after the atomic war, when people turned against the educated class and burned books and literate people). This was a re-read, done along with the Close Reads podcast, and man it’s even better than I remembered it being.

5. A History of the Island by Eugene Vodolazkin, an epistolary novel told in the form of a medieval monastic chronicle, about a fictional island off the coast of Russia. It traces the history from the medieval period until the modern day. Much of it is political satire. The island has a pair of hereditary rulers who magically seem untouched by time and live from the middle ages to the present day; but they are overthrown and displaced by a series of increasingly ridiculous totalitarian rulers. There is a civil war and they are invaded by the mainland and exploited. And yet the rulers, Parfeny and Ksenia, live on is ordinary citizens but also as a sort of undying heart of their people. The monastic chronicle is annotated by Parfeny and Ksenia, creating a meta textual story. There’s a lot of humor in the modern era when a famous French director is making a biopic about them– though with many wild inaccuracies. Parfeny and Ksenia have a Josephite marriage and are clearly very holy people and their story exists in tension with the political satire. The novel meditates deeply on the nature of history– as Vodolazkin is wont to do in his novels.

This was not my favorite Vodolazkin. I prefer Laurus and The Aviator and Brisbane. And yet there is something transcendent in it that rises above the satire. He’s fast becoming one of my favorite novelists.

6. The Wild Orchid and the Burning Bush by Sigrid Undset, a two-part novel set in early 20th century Norway about a young man, Paul, who is raised by divorced freethinking (i.e. non-Christian) mother. In his adulthood he converts and becomes Catholic, but he’s haunted by the poor choices he made in his youth: a pre-marital affair he had when he was young, followed by marrying a foolish woman who he doesn’t respect and doesn’t really love. I really appreciate his struggle to live his newfound faith in the light of his family’s indifference and especially the mess he had previously made of his life. In parts it reminds me very much of Kristen Lavransdatter. There’s a beautiful story of conversion and faith and modernization in a country where faith is definitely not popular.

7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie, a fictionalized account of the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s when the Republic of Biafra tried to declare independence. Some fairly graphic violence and sex, but overall a beautiful story. I learned a lot about a bit of history I knew next to nothing about. Adichie is a powerful novelist.

8. Kindred by Octavia Butler, I’ve never read any Butler before, but I kept finding her on lists as a groundbreaking writer, one of the the first African American science fiction writers, also one of the first female science fiction writers. Kindred was a small but beautiful novel about a black woman from the 1970s in a mixed race marriage who finds herself involuntarily traveling back in time to meet her ancestors, some of whom are slaves and some of whom are slaveholders. The format is very much based on first person slave narratives– Butler’s genius is giving the slave narrative to a 20th century woman. The time travel is never explained, but feels a bit like magical realism– it functions as a really interesting device for exploring questions of race and humanity. As one would expect, there’s a lot of brutality and trauma that she encounters. And the character herself has to confront her assumptions about race, complicity, power and powerlessness, relationships. Hauntingly, everyone assumes she’s the victim of domestic violence when she reappears in her proper time with the wounds and marks of her trauma on her body. It’s a deeply human novel and doesn’t feel like it’s making political points but exploring the human heart in conflict with itself, as Faulkner says. I had no idea what to expect when I picked it up and I was deeply moved as I read. It’s a book that will linger for a long time.

9. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St John Mandel, another time travel novel, follows multiple characters in different periods of time, at first it feels rather disjointed, but it all comes together brilliantly at the end. Most definitely a novel written during the pandemic, that explores the theme of pandemic. There are some lovely meta bits about a novelist who is famous of having written a pandemic novel who is on demand by the media to talk about that as the pandemic rages– clearly self-referential references to Mandel’s previous novel Station Eleven.

10. The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner. Four novellas that explore the author’s family stories, overheard when he was a child. Set in a rural English village, each story has a child protagonist and they are loosely connected by some recurring images and themes and bits of repeating names and words and phrases, the stuff of a strong family culture that lasts for generations. Delightfully lyrical. Very simple and rich with a deep sense of what it’s like to be rooted in a place for generations.

11. Foster by Claire Keegan, a beautiful novella about a girl from a large Irish family who is sent to live with childless relations when her mother is about to give birth to a new sibling. It’s a very sweet but also bittersweet. She makes a deep connection with the foster parents; but her relations with her own parents are somewhat strained. No one in her family quite understands her and they rather neglect her, not cruelly, but she’s the quiet child nobody pays attention to. She blooms under the love of the relations and it seems almost a tragedy that she has to return home at the end of the story. I listened to it as an audiobook and loved the Irish narrator.

(Also, see the film, The Quiet Girl, based on the book. A case where it’s hard to say which one is better, the book or the movie. Both are absolutely gorgeous. It’s beautifully understated, mostly in Irish with subtitles, a little bit of English and that gave the film an air of mystery and a depth.)

My non-fiction choice for the year:

Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering.

It’s a beautiful meditation on art and suffering. His musings focus on Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence, but also on his experience on 9/11. He lived near Ground Zero and he was trapped on the subway for hours, not knowing if his family were ok. His insights into trauma and art’s healing power are amazing. There’s a lot about Japanese art, he’s a painter. And he dives deeply into the theology of suffering.

I underlined as I read, and almost every page has something underlined on it. Almost too much, I don’t even know how to begin sharing quotes. I read it this summer and am still processing.

Runner up for best non-fiction: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester. A history of the volcano, of the region where the volcano is located, of colonialism. Touching on the sciences of biology, geology and of plate tectonics. Read this one aloud with Sophie and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best books of poetry:

1. Lies by Doireann Ni Ghriofa, absolutely stunning poems in Irish translated into English by the author. Themes of motherhood and modern life. She just blows me away. (You might remember that her memoir, A Ghost in the Throat was one of my favorite books of last year.) I also read her two volumes of English-language poetry Clasp and To Star the Dark . I read them so closely together, that I can’t quite remember which poems were in each. But they’re all so good. Add her to my list of favorite poets.

Here she is reciting one of my favorite poems, “At Half Eleven in the Mutton Lane Inn, I am Fire, Slaughter, Dead Starlings” :

Here is “Brightening”, a poem about the burning of a great house:
And here is an interview and clips of her reading selections from two of her poems:

2. Winter Morning Walks and The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser. The first was originally a series of postcards written to a friend and fellow poet. They’re absolutely lovely gems of poems that capture a moment, an insight, with the clarity of a haiku. The second is a series of poems based on reminiscences of the big Blizzard of 1888, haunting voices that remind me of scenes from Laura Ingall’s Wilder’s The Long Winter.

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