“The Best Book I Read in 2023”

  • December 27, 2023

A rundown of our contributors' eclectic faves from the past year!

“The Best Book I Read in 2023”

Honoring a single title from a year’s worth of reading is virtually impossible for serious bookworms — and sadistic, judging by some of our contributors’ private laments — but we made them do it anyway…

Chain-Gang All-Stars: A Novel by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Pantheon). “If Adjei-Brenyah’s short-story collection, Friday Black, was searing, then his debut novel puts us on a spit and roasts us. His particular brilliance is in taking a current bleak reality, tweaking it up a few believable notches, and presenting it back to us as a mirror on the horror we wreak upon each other — and he does it all without losing sight of our humanity.” ~Jenny Yacovissi

Larry McMurtry: A Life by Tracy Daugherty (St. Martin’s Press). “This book tells the story completely of why McMurtry stands alone as the greatest Texas writer ever. For the many Texans who love his work, we needed Daugherty’s bio to tell the whole story of his amazing life.” ~Talmage Boston

What We Fed to the Manticore: Stories by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri (Tin House). “Writing from the perspective of animals could easily have veered into overly twee territory, but Kolluri pulled it off with stories that were soulful and tender, sad and gentle, and not afraid to add some happy endings into the mix. Stories I particularly enjoyed include ‘The Good Donkey’ and ‘May God Forever Bless the Rhino Keepers,’ and ‘A Level of Tolerance’ was an interesting experiment in looping time.” ~Tara Campbell

G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century by Beverly Gage (Viking). “This is a thoroughly researched, dispassionate, and fair account of one of the most important people of the 20th century. As we contemplate the loss of democracy in the near future, it is helpful to remember how tenuous our hold on decency has always been.” ~John P. Loonam

The Morning Star: A Novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Penguin Books). “I loved reading this book, which is, among other things, a 688-page exploration of consciousness and subjectivity. The story has a fascinating speculative bent and dips into notions of a ‘nether-life.’ Its length and scope — especially the long essay that’s embedded in the text — make me think the novel is a Valentine to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.” ~Dorothy Reno

The Bee Sting: A Novel by Paul Murray (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “When I finished this expansive novel, I wanted to buy Paul Murray a pint of Guinness and embrace him as a brother while tears gently rolled down my cheek. Then, after finishing our warm embrace and my pint, I wanted to smash my glass over his head for his sense of an ending. (That unforgettable ending left questions, but none larger than, ‘How did this book not win the Booker Prize this year?’).” ~Drew Gallagher

The Book of Goose: A Novel by Yiyun Li (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “Fabienne and Agnes, two rural girls living in postwar France, play a game that takes on a life of its own. Fabienne, an almost feral master manipulator, makes up gruesome stories which the more presentable Agnes writes down, and the stories eventually catapult Agnes to fame. The death of Fabienne in far-off Saint Remy opens this extraordinary tale, but Agnes’ move to Paris, her literary acclaim, finishing school, and eventual marriage and move to America are nothing compared to Fabienne’s hold on her inner life.” ~Amanda Holmes Duffy

The Personal Librarian: A Novel by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray (Berkley Books). “Belle da Costa Greene, a Black American who passes for white, is hired by J.P. Morgan to be his assistant and to manage his enormous collection of books and manuscripts.” ~David Bruce Smith

The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions by Jonathan Rosen (Penguin Press). “A great history/memoir about mental health, the author’s best friend (a polymath and violent schizophrenic), and the changes of our mental-health laws.” ~Paul D. Pearlstein

Weyward: A Novel by Emilia Hart (St. Martin’s Press). “Three strong women and a compellingly braided narrative unspooling across centuries will always hold my attention!” ~Mariko Hewer

Frank: Sonnets by Diane Seuss (Graywolf Press). “This lyric memoir sent an electric current through my thinking about language and poetry in the way Raymond Carver’s works once changed for me what stories could be — ugly, gritty, dangerously alive.” ~Caroline Bock  

Antigone by Sophocles. “In the play, a government edict forbids a sister to bury her brother with a religious funeral, a doctrinaire public official perseveres, and people die. Religious faith and duty versus legal obligations — 2,700 years after Sophocles, the issue hasn’t gone away. Recently, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, went to jail (briefly) because she felt her personal religious duty forbade her from issuing official marriage licenses to gay couples.” ~Steve Case

Your Lonely Nights Are Over by Adam Sass (Viking Books for Young Readers). “It was my favorite book this year because it was scary, a blazing-fast read, and silly while remaining thrilling. A YA novel written with broad adult appeal. I can’t recommend it more!” ~Nick Havey

Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond (Crown). “If you’re interested in social justice and want facts and details to back up your belief in the inequities in society, then this is a must-read. Desmond goes into great detail describing how American society has grown more unjust, more unequal, and more unfair. It’s easy to become despondent, but know that, as the James Baldwin quote goes, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’” ~Chris Rutledge

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson (Vintage). This complete book of the incomplete remnants of Sappho’s ancient poetry offers the best of what transformative reading can give us: an invitation to travel into the past, a blaze to immolate the idea that we can reconnect with that past, and a haunting echo that assures us of our common humanity, no matter what.” ~Carrie Callaghan

Following Jesus in a Warming World: A Christian Call to Climate Action by Kyle Meyaard-Schaap (IVP). “This speaks to evangelical Christians in their language: It shows them how standing up against climate change is consistent with biblical teachings. Considering the size of the evangelical community that largely rejects climate-change policy, this book may do more to protect the planet than perhaps any other book in recent years. Following Jesus filled me with rare senses of hope — for evangelicals and for Earth.” ~Christopher Lancette

World Piece: A Pie Baker’s Global Quest for Peace, Love, and Understanding by Beth M. Howard (Margretta Press). “This heartfelt and beautifully written book was the tastiest read for me in 2023. Not surprisingly, it’s all about travel, pie, and peace — some of my favorite things. Pie makes things better at every stop on her round-the-world journey, and Howard makes a well-baked case that ‘We are all slices of the same pie.’” ~Randy Cepuch

Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox by Caroline E. Janney (University of North Carolina Press). “This book unfolds the messy birth narrative of the Lost Cause that laid the groundwork for the defiant resilience of rebellion in the years that followed. As Faulker once said, ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past.’” ~John R. Wennersten

The Covenant of Water: A Novel by Abraham Verghese (Grove Press). “I chose this because I became totally immersed in the characters and their world. I was sad when it ended.” ~Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me By Ada Calhoun (Grove Press). “Using the tapes she found in storage, Calhoun tries to finish her famous father’s failed attempt at completing a biography of Frank O’Hara. This book is a master class in what a memoir can do. Calhoun narrated the audiobook version; it also uses the recordings, which make it an utter delight.” ~Gretchen Lida

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf). “My favorite of the year because of its unpredictability and total avoidance of cliché. Original is too ordinary a word to describe this by turns bleak, philosophical, and laugh-out-loud-funny novel. A missing plane-crash victim, a possible conspiracy, and a young woman who has long dialogues with her hallucinations meld into a devilishly intriguing plot.” ~C.B. Santore

The Spy Coast: A Thriller by Tess Gerritsen (Thomas & Mercer). “This first book in a new series is fast-paced and suspenseful. It features retired CIA operative Maggie Bird, who has settled into a quiet, if lonely, life in Maine — until someone tries to kill her.” ~Kristina Wright 

Waiting to Be Arrested at Night: A Uyghur Poet’s Memoir of China’s Genocide by Tahir Hamut Izgil; translated by Joshua L. Freeman (Penguin Press). “This memoir was the most moving book I read this year. It’s both a raw look into the Chinese government’s surveillance and mass internment of the Uyghur minority and an intimate story of Izgil and his family’s escape to America. If you’re like me and are drawn to novels and nonfiction about life behind the Iron Curtain, or graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, you’ll enjoy this book.” ~Samantha Neugebauer

The Silence in the Garden: A Novel by William Trevor (Viking). “This upstairs/downstairs story of gentry and servants in an Irish country house on the eve of WWI ticks along quiet as a pocket watch — at first. But there’s a family secret, dangerous as an unexploded bomb in a quiet garden. Think Lord of the Flies, The Turn of the Screw, psychological drama.” ~Ellen Prentiss Campbell

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance by Jeremy Eichler (Knopf). “This is a brilliant examination of the role of music in collective memory, focusing on music composed immediately before, during, and after the Holocaust. Eichler is a lyrical and poetic writer, and even more so, a capacious intellect. His ability to weave together history, religion, the arts, and the role of culture is breathtaking and eye-opening.” ~Martha Anne Toll

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store: A Novel by James McBride (Riverhead Books). “This 1930s-era tale of a hardscrabble neighborhood of Blacks and immigrant Jews is a beautiful, richly atmospheric novel that’s by turns funny, moody, tragic, and uplifting. It celebrates the humane aspects of love and community, while starkly and heart-wrenchingly delineating the hateful impulses rampant in the larger world that would erase them.” ~Bob Duffy

The Transit of Venus: A Novel by Shirley Hazzard (Viking). “This epic novel brings together so much. Imagine being in a chilly bedroom and then slipping into a clean, warm bed with the softest and most warming comforter. The pleasure of your sleep is only created by the contrast of your circumstances. The Transit of Venus is the literary equivalent of that — a novel that shows how love lasts even as people don’t and, through its sheer brilliance, asks the reader to luxuriate in the pains, choices, and absurdities of each of our lives.” ~Carr Harkrader

The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernike (Scribner). “This read grows more riveting (and often, more infuriating) page by page as Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter Zernike tells of the hurdles overcome by eminent molecular biologist Nancy Hopkins as she fought for a career in the labs she loved. The book made me hiss at how she and other women were routinely slighted, rejoice that things are better now, and question how much that’s really true in the sciences. The title comes from the premise that women who succeed in the top rungs of science are ‘exceptions,’ since intelligent women couldn’t possibly be the peers of intelligent men.” ~Salley Shannon

Hot Springs Drive: A Novel by Lindsay Hunter (Roxane Gay Books). “This was such a powerful year in crime fiction, one that captured the fundamental changes in the genre in regards to diversity and scope. I could have picked any number of books, but the one that resonated with me was Hot Springs Drive, Lindsay Hunter’s exploration of sex and despair in suburbia — a topic not necessarily novel, but Hunter finds its urgency with memorable prose and astonishing depth of character. Crime fiction has politely turned the camera away from the bedroom, but Hunter fearlessly shows us how that lens can illuminate. And, along the way, she eviscerates the commentary of the likable female protagonist. Unsubtle and utterly riveting.” ~E.A. Aymar

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy (Harper Perennial) “The language is exquisite. The ideas and insights are compelling. Rereading it served as a reminder that civil servants can be role models and that Andrew Jackson (while not much of a role model himself) was nevertheless on the mark when he stated, ‘One man with courage makes a majority.’” ~Elizabeth McGowan

Hunting Sketches by Anthony Trollope (Legare Street Press). “This 1865 work by the Victorian novelist and avid foxhunter, one of hundreds of books on foxhunting published in England from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, exemplifies a robust genre of satirical but nostalgic hunt writing, a genre culminating in Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928). Even a reader with no interest in field sports, however, will enjoy a leisurely afternoon with Trollope’s Hunting Sketches. Its deft portraits of ‘The Man Who Hunts and Doesn’t Like It,’ ‘The Lady Who Rides to Hounds,’ and ‘The Hunting Parson,’ among others, will appeal to any reader fond of droll and artful Victorian prose, whatever its subject.” ~Charles Caramello

A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan (Viking). “Overlook the metastasizing subtitle and dive into this terrific study of the KKK’s hijacking of Indiana’s public life in the early 1920s. Chilling, impressive, powerful. Egan doesn’t thump the analogy to today’s lunatic Right. You can do that yourself.” ~David O. Stewart

Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature by Dan Sinykin (Columbia University Press). “It would be easy to write a jeremiad about how steady corporatization of the publishing industry has harmed literary output, but Sinykin documents that modern publishers have produced a lot of genius, including writers like Joan Didion, Philip Roth, and David Foster Wallace, while building a broad, middlebrow reading culture as a counterpoint to the 19th century’s leisure-class book audience. Sinykin also points to the rise of autofiction, niche nonprofits, and new technologies as places where narrative creativity may continue to flourish in a consolidating and homogenizing mass culture. It’s full of great lit-life anecdotes and is fun to read, too.” ~Michael Maiello

Child of My Heart: A Novel by Alice McDermott (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). “I picked up Child of My Heart because it sounded like a book I’d have loved when I was young: a novel about a teenage babysitter and the gaggle of children and animals she cares for, set during the summertime in a sleepy beach town. Well, I guess there’s no better guide than your childhood tastes, because this book blew me away with its moving prose, beautifully rendered nostalgia, and a poignant and unforgettable loss at its center. I’ll be spending next year diving into everything else McDermott has to offer.” ~Haley Huchler

Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora (Hogarth). “This is a terrifying and moving memoir of a young boy’s treacherous and illegal migration from El Salvador to the United States. Told in Zamora’s remembered, innocent voice, it brings to light the desperation, tenacity, and need that can compel people to cross borders to find family ties and a better life. The momentum of the journey fills these pages, and I, like Javier, had to finish it no matter how dire things appeared to be.” ~Patricia Ann McNair

The Tree of Life: A Trilogy of Life in the Lodz Ghetto by Chava Rosenfarb (University of Wisconsin Press). “This sprawling story of the 200,000+ Jews and Romani imprisoned by the Nazis in Poland’s second-most-notorious WWII ghetto and subsequently starved, worked to death, or deported to concentration camps is both devastating and life-affirming. Written in Yiddish and translated by the author (a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto) and her daughter, the three novels are testament to humans’ will to survive — and to preserve their dignity — in the face of utter barbarism.” ~Holly Smith

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