My 2023 Reading Round-Up

Lots of listening, lots of enjoying.

My 2023 Reading Round-Up

I built a boat this year. (I mean, last year.) Took a class at our local boatbuilding school (as one does) using a kit they designed and fabricated. At the end of five-and-a-half days, I brought my boat home.

It was structurally complete but not finished: “Finished” requires two coats of epoxy inside and out, three coats of varnish inside (two glossy, one matte), and primer, plus two coats of marine-grade paint outside. It’s been a rude introduction to — now they tell me — the old boatbuilder’s motto: Building a boat is 95 percent sanding.

Fine. I’ve got a saying, too: Audiobooks, baby!

As I’ve noted here before, the rote tasks of daily life took on an almost magical quality once I had my personal audiobook epiphany and books began to vanish from my TBR stack. Vacuuming? Sure. Laundry? You bet. Endless hours of block and orbital sanding? Bring. It. On.

Though the boat arrived late in the year, its appearance in my backyard is responsible for a steep uptick in my audiobook consumption, as well as for bumping up my reading totals overall. Of the 69 books I experienced this year, fully 70 percent were in audio form. I’m expecting 2024 numbers to be even higher; I’ve got a lot of sanding to do.

Herewith, some thoughts on my 2023 reading, in whatever form it took:

Matched Pairs: As I recently discussed in the Independent, I read two anthologies at the same time that seemed meant to go together. That same synchrony sparked with two memoirs I read back-to-back, Ivy Lodge by Linda Murphy Marshall and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. Each uses a house as the organizing principle around which the book is constructed, and each describes relationships of excruciating emotional and psychological abuse — Marshall at the hands of her parents, and Machado at the hands of her partner. The damage is deep, long-lasting, and — perhaps most painful — invisible to the outside world.

“Classics”: I read or re-read a number of mid-20th-century books, including The Master and Margarita, The Haunting of Hill House, In Cold Blood, and Blood Meridian. (I understand that I’m not Cormac McCarthy’s demographic, but my notes say, “brutal, bloody, a random lurching from one pointless atrocity to the next. Man is an amoral monster — got it. Lots of spitting.”) No surprise that it was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — read by the author, no less — that captured me in a way it couldn’t have when I read it in my late high-school years. It is fearsome and unblinking and scares people who deny the existence and lasting trauma of racism — hence its continuous presence on lists of most-banned books.

Most Books from a Single Author: I went all in on Anne Enright when I realized I’d never read her. Runner-up: Colson Whitehead.

Books in a Series: For some reason, I started in the middle of Linnea Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf saga, with The Sea Queen, rather than The Half-Drowned King (be sure to read Carrie Callaghan’s reviews linked here), so now I need to go back before going forward. (Audiobook bonus: Someone else tells you how to pronounce all those ancient Nordic names.) I also took in the first two of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I truly enjoyed. But I decided not to continue, knowing that nothing would be resolved for three more hefty books, and lots of people would die badly.

Not the Book I Wanted It To Be: Heather Cox Richardson’s Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America. Since I feel that’s a faulty standard for a book critic to apply, I’ll take this as my own failing.

Best Re-Read: Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents, which I re-read in order to interview him at last spring’s Gaithersburg Book Festival (madly fangirling the entire time).

Friends’ Books: Being an author often means many friends and acquaintances are authors, too, which is both a joy and sometimes awkward when you can’t get to their books right away. Three that I finally caught up to were Margaret Rodenberg’s debut novel, Finding Napoleon (see Colleen Kennedy’s review), which I read while I was in France, taking in some of the title character’s old stomping grounds; David O. Stewart’s The New Land, the first book in his Overstreet Saga, based on his family history (see Peggy Kurkowski’s review of the second book, The Burning Land, which is on my 2024 reading list); and Martha Anne Toll’s ethereal debut, Three Muses. An author I met virtually this year through Chloe Yelena Miller and Shasta Grant’s Brown Bag Lit, Tracy Cross, introduced me to the first book in her Conjure series, Rootwork, and now I’m looking forward to the second, A Gathering of Weapons, due out this year.

The 2023 books by friends that made it squarely onto my informal “Favorites of the Year” list include Angie Kim’s Happiness Falls, which I almost finished in a single sitting (see Bob Duffy’s review and its spot on “Our 51 Favorite Books of 2023” list); Cheryl A. Head’s Time’s Undoing, which I both read and listened to — and was captivated both ways; and Mary Kay Zuravleff’s American Ending, with which I ended the year. It’s her best yet. (Read Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s review here.)

More Favorites of the Year: Besides those above, I would add: Chain-Gang All-Stars, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (my pick for “The Best Book I Read in 2023”); The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel; If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery; Tom Lake, Ann Patchett; Actress, Anne Enright; All the Sinners Bleed, S.A. Cosby (his best to date); and The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, Ross King (one of only a handful of nonfiction works I read this year, and which I enjoyed even more for getting to hang out with the author — who’d come from Oxford to meet with our tour group — as we studied some of that artwork at the Musee d’Orsay).

And Last: The book I finished as the clock struck midnight on 123123 was The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride, which was number one on LitHub’s round-up of the most-reviewed books of the year and Bob Duffy’s pick for the best book he read in 2023.

I hope our lists, and all the books we share this year, bring you a 2024 filled with the joy of reading. Happy New Year!

The full list of books I read (* = books I reviewed):

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery*
Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption by Rafia Zakaria
Time’s Undoing by Cheryl A. Head
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson*
Independence Square by Martin Cruz Smith
White Noise by Don DeLillo
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery by Adam Gopnik*
The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane*
The World: A Family History by Simon Sebag Montefiore*
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn
Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
The Hunger by Alma Katsu
Miss del Río by Bárbara Mujica
Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra* (reviewed in 2022)
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry
Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead*
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
The Bone Cay by Eliza Nellums
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Pandemic, Inc.: Chasing the Capitalists and Thieves Who Got Rich While We Got Sick by J. David McSwane
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung; translated by Anton Hur
Happiness Falls by Angie Kim
Hotel Cuba by Aaron Hamburger
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett*
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Hunt by Kelly J. Ford*
A Practical Guide to Levitation by Jose Eduardo Agualusa; translated by Daniel Hahn
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Wren, the Wren by Anne Enright*
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Actress by Anne Enright
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King
The Green Road by Anne Enright
Three Muses by Martha Anne Toll
Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America by Heather Cox Richardson
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
Finding Napoleon by Margaret Rodenberg
Adventures in Bodily Autonomy: Exploring Reproductive Rights in Fantasy, Science Fiction, & Horror, edited by Raven Belasco*
Already Gone: 40 Stories of Running Away, edited by Hannah Grieco*
Absolution by Alice McDermott
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Ivy Lodge by Linda Murphy Marshall
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Rootwork by Tracy Cross
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (read by the author)
The New Land by David O. Stewart
The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker
American Ending by Mary Kay Zuravleff
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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