The 23 and Me

A rundown of the two-dozen-ish best books I read this year.

The 23 and Me

Of the 49 books I’ve read so far in 2023 (with almost two weeks to go, I’d like to reach 52!), many were outstanding, some were pleasantly entertaining, and a few were disappointing.

This year saw the publication of a rich trove of adoptee-authored books, marking what I hope will be an industry trend of authentic narratives about adoption from those who are most qualified to write about it.

Below are the 23 books that represent the best of what I read this year, starting with those by adoptees, listed in the order I read them.

Books by, for, and about Adoptees:

A collection of micro-essays by Karen Pickell, An Adoptee Lexicon explores the fraught vocabulary around adoption, setting the record straight on what the words used to describe adoption really mean to the adoptee.

Incorporating hangul, Korean culture, personal history, and sly adoptee references, the poems in Bo Schwabacher’s Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs are intensely vulnerable but told with the diamantine wisdom of a survivor.

Shannon Gibney’s unclassifiable (is it a memoir? autofiction? a novel?) The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be: A Speculative Memoir of Transracial Adoption perfectly captures the ghost lives and parallel universes that define the adoptee experience.

Sun Yung Shin’s masterful poetry collection, The Wet Hex, weaves a shimmering, complicated web of myths, origin stories, and haunted folktales.

In 79 brief chapters, CE Shue’s debut, Bridge of Knots, is a many-faceted wonder that defies easy classification, making leaping connections among themes of family, nature, urban life, and more.

A scorching novel of basketball, race, and media, Matthew Salesses’ The Sense of Wonder portrays the politics and economics of professional sports, and the heavy mantle of being the only Asian American star in the NBA.

The graphic novel Made in Korea, written by Korean adoptee Jeremy Holt (with art by George Schall and lettering by Adam Wollett), isn’t about adoption literally but very much metaphorically, as a white couple become the proud owners of a “proxy” AI robot who, unbeknownst to them, has been programmed with human emotions.

In Sarah Audsley’s heart-stopping debut poetry collection, Landlock X, the evocation of Vermont is so real you can smell and feel it, of growing up Asian in a white world so recognizable you can cry over it, and of being adopted so vivid you feel seen, understood, and validated.

Eloquently depicting the complexities of grief as experienced through the lens of transracial adoption, Nicole Chung’s second memoir, A Living Remedy, explores the many ways capitalism shortened her parents’ lives, aggravated suffering, and kept the family apart during their time of greatest need.

After many years as an adoptee advocate, Angela Tucker has written “You Should Be Grateful”: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption, a debut that’s part memoir, part adoption primer, part case studies, and all a valuable resource for anyone interested in adoption.

In two ruthlessly honest memoirs, The Gathering Place: An Adoptee’s Story and A Fire Is Coming, Emma Stevens poignantly relates her long journey to making herself whole.

Susan Kiyo Ito’s compelling, revelatory memoir, I Would Meet You Anywhere, reveals the rugged, emotional journey of finding her birth mother and the even more difficult terrain of maintaining a relationship with her.

Authored by adoptee Sara Easterly, birth/first mother Kelsey Vander Vliet Ranyard, and adoptive mother Lori Holden, Adoption Unfiltered: Revelations from Adoptees, Birthparents, Adoptive Parents, and Allies is a groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind resource that listens to the many sides of adoption while making the adoptee the subject of the conversation.

When We Become Ours: A YA Adoptee Anthology, edited by Shannon Gibney and Nicole Chung, is a compilation of 15 short stories that illustrate the complexities and commonalities of growing up adopted.

Other Recommended Reading:

The linked short stories of How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu show a dystopian future where glints of the best of humanity shine through during the worst of times.

The novel Skull Water by Heinz Insu Fenkl follows Insu, the son of a Korean woman and a German American sergeant in the U.S. Army, through many adventures as he comes of age among the military camps of South Korea.

Journalist Roxanna Asgarian reports a damning indictment of the systemic problems besetting the American child-welfare system in We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America.

Hawon Jung’s comprehensive history, Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea’s Feminist Movement and What It Means for Women’s Rights Worldwide, shows the progress feminists have made in an entrenched patriarchal society, and the long road still ahead.

Incorporating photos, an uncle’s poems, and correspondence, Grace Talusan’s memoir, The Body Papers, recreates a story fragmented by trauma and memory.

Though R.F. Kuang’s satirical novel Yellowface reads more like YA than literary fiction, it is a delightful skewering of the publishing industry, writers, white privilege, and the current cultural moment.

The first of a quartet, This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated by Max Lane, follows the early years of a brilliant Javanese student as he navigates life under Dutch colonial rule.

A cross-cultural pollination of Black America and South Korea, Gary Jackson’s collection of poems, Origin Story, tells of the ineluctability of family inheritance and the value of oral history.

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, as well as a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, and a columnist for the Independent.

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