The 60 books I read this year, in order of how much I appreciated them

December 10, 2023

(If you’re reading this on email, you should probably click the link to read the web version, because it goes pretty long. It’s a good skim! Promise!)

At the start of this year, I made a conscious decision to use my brain differently. The enshittification of social media , my sputtering attempts to write a novel that’s been bouncing around my mind for a year or two, and my growing fear of social, cultural, and general personal calcification, prompted me to aim for reading 50-60 books in 2023.

In recent years, I’d read 10-20 books, depending on how into a video game I got, whether my spouse and I dedicated time to multiple TV shows, or how long I spent on relaxation vacations. The key is that I enjoy reading! It’s not that books and magazines are inherently “better” media than, say, podcasts, or video games, or whatever, but that I hadn’t been doing as much of what I like in favor of doing things that either simply made time go by (Twitter) or were things I felt like I “should” do out of some unexamined anxiety about obsolescence ( lmao smh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

From January 2023 through November 2023, I read 60 books. At a rough average of six hours per book, you can call that about 360 hours, for a nice round number. Where did that time come from? Some of it was shifted from TV and movies. In 2022, I read 14 books and watched 22 seasons of TV shows and 37 movies and one-off TV productions (comedy specials, etc) that were new to me (so I’m not counting “The Simpsons”, “Bluey”, etc). Back of the envelope, that’s about 180 hours of TV and 75 hours of movies.

I haven’t stopped watching TV and movies. This year, through November, I count 16 TV seasons and 26 movies and one-off productions new to me, or about 145 hours of TV and 60 hours of movies. It’s a drop off, but not much. I’ve also played more video games this year (primarily College Hoops 2K8 on XBox 360, plus a good amount of “Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball”, “Super Mario World”, and “Super Mario Kart” on the Analogue Super Nt).

The rest of my time has probably shifted from various social media browsing — I still sometimes tap through Facebook and Instagram, and very occasionally Tik Tok — and writing a weekly email newsletter. And that’s about it. I still work, exercise, cook, listen to podcasts, pound away at the novel, spend time with my spouse and child, and so on. But instead of scrolling through Twitter or laboring over 1,000-word essays about pop culture, politics, and sports, I read books.

As for whether my brain has changed... I think so? I know I sleep better now that I tend to read at bedtime instead of looking at a screen, but also, I feel as if my temporal senses are broader, that where I used to have a strong bias toward immediacy and brevity, I now more often think in terms of longer narrative arcs. Or I could just be telling myself that.

Either way, I’ve enjoyed plowing through so many books, and while I’ll probably make adjustments in the future, unequivocally, this change has been good for me. Below, I’ve ranked all the books I’ve read this calendar year, least-appreciated to most-appreciated, including the one book I started and abandoned partway through (not included in the 60), and added comment about each of them. As with TV, there’s no point in reading bad books because there are too many good ones to ever get through. Thus, if you’re looking for a recommendation, I can recommend every one of these, depending on your interests, except the abandoned one, which you may still enjoy despite my utter distaste for it. Vaya con Dios.


*The Spy Who Came In From the Cold - John LeCarre (book abandoned) - I felt nothing reading this, which is bad. As soon as it became a chore, which was about 30 pages in, I moved on.

*Hella Town: Oakland's History of Development and Disruption - Mitchell Schwartzer - This was not at all what I expected from the blurbs, but that’s probably my bad. The subject matter is fascinating: A history of Oakland through the prism of urban planning. It’s a shame the text is incredibly dry, descending into academic jargon in many spots.

*This Census-Taker - China Miéville - It’s short, which was good. This is the only Miéville book I’ve read, and I understand it’s VERY different from his other work, but this was inscrutable and felt like it contained a cipher that I had no interest in pursuing.

*The Tao of the Backup Catcher - Tim Brown and Erik Kratz - An exceptionally sentimental telling of the career of MLB backup catcher Erik Kratz, from childhood through retirement. The best parts are the tiny details, such as why some catchers seem to keep getting new contracts as backups while others, who were once starters in the big leagues, never do (lesson: don’t be a dick). It’s necessary to have a high tolerance for Field of Dreams-ese, since about 70% of the book is written in the same tone as James Earl Jones waxing rhapsodic about the romance of baseball.

*Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks - Chris Herring - Lacks the insight of better non-fiction, but enjoyable nonetheless for the nostalgic hits of “remember when.” Also: John Starks.

*Best American Food Writing 2022 - Sohla Al-Waylly (editor) - As with all such anthologies, it’s hit or miss with individual pieces.

*Grief is the Thing With Feathers - Max Porter - This very short work of mixed prose and verse about a man dealing with the death of his wife is at turns funny, eye-rolling, tenderly detailed, and as nuanced as a cinderblock. For what it’s worth, I’m 99% sure I’m missing a whole bunch of meaning because I’m unfamiliar with the oeuvre of the poet Ted Hughes.

*Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - I get what it’s going for, but this fantasy about a parallel realm that takes the form of a labyrinth doesn’t quite stick the landing, as I was left thinking, “Oh, so that’s what this is? Sure.”

*Postcards from the Edge - Carrie Fisher - I’d heard about this roman á clef long ago, and Fisher was renowned for her movie script punch-ups. Maybe you had to be there in the 1980s because everything about this screams “time capsule of mid-80s Los Angeles”, which I’m not going to evaluate because I was a toddler at the time. A few light guffaws here and there, but I’m also not deeply invested in Hollywood culture so perhaps the satire didn’t really hit for me.

*Digging Stars - Novuyo Rosa Tshuma - A young female astronomer immigrates to the U.S. from Zimbabwe for an elite college program, but throughout her time wrestles with grief over the death of her father about a decade before. For sure, Tshuma has constructed a fascinating premise, but her plotting and characters feel haphazard at times. For example, I think it mostly goes uncommented-upon by other characters that the protagonist goes to her first college class in the U.S. and it so happens that among the dozen or so students there is a young man who she knew for a brief period in her childhood. Moreover, several characters’ speeches “explaining America” to the protagonist read like particularly intense college newspaper op-eds, which makes sense for who’s giving them, but the protagonist’s responses usually amount to, “Whoa, that’s weird. Why do they think I don’t know any American TV shows?” That is, I could see a host of political and cultural conflicts set into motion and they just… didn’t pay off.

*We Run the Tides - Vendela Vida - Taking place largely in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, Vida has a way of keeping the story moving, but I was underwhelmed by the stakes, which felt undercooked. I was exceptionally moved by Bo Burnham’s film, “Eighth Grade,” which I thought was an incredible snapshot of a girl feeling continually devastated by desolation, isolation, and self-doubt. While there are hints of a similar story here, it simply doesn’t play that way.

*Everything Sad is Untrue: (A True Story) - Daniel Nayeri - I felt the inverse from “We Run the Tides,” in that the stakes were extremely clear in Nayeri’s young adult novel about an Iranian boy becoming a refugee and settling in Oklahoma (which he has said is mostly autobiographical), but the attempt to affect a heightened tone just gets in the way of the story, which stands well enough on its own.

*White Noise - Don DeLillo - Another one that maybe hit different in the 80s. I’ve read and watched plenty of satires and critiques of American consumer culture and academia and middle-aged ennui, and while this one might’ve been a popular breakthrough for many of these ideas, they’re now well-worn ideas, at least in my media consumption.

*The Ghost Network - Catie Disabato - A super-weird mystery involving a Gaga-esque pop star that intertwines with what was apparently a real group of avant-garde artists and intellectuals. It relies a bit much on a vibe of “don’t you wonder what’s next?” instead of clearly articulating the scenario and the stakes so that I wanted to know what came next, but there was still plenty to keep me reading. Also, it uses a framing device of a fictional journalist telling this story (multiple books I read this year did so!), but this one differentiated itself by having that fictional journalist explicitly building upon the work of another fictional journalist’s info. Layers and layers, man.

*Harmless Like You - Rowan Hisayo Buchanan - Throughout this book, I was taken by Buchanan’s ability to express interiority with a skill few other novelists can — in my estimation, it’s a lot closer in style and achievement to “Normal People” (Rooney) or “The Idiot” (Batuman) than, say, “We Run the Tides.” The main romantic relationship at the center does not ring true for me, however, and feels as if plot concerns overrode the characterization.

*The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo - Taylor Jenkins Reid - So long as you go in expecting a cotton candy book, one that dissolves as soon as you taste it, it’s fun. Don’t think too hard about the “twist,” which, unfortunately, is kind of botched. Otherwise, there’s an interesting story here about celebrity and parasocial relationships that, in a meta way, hits the reader over the head to remind them that we don’t actually know the celebrities at the center of the story while at the same time drawing us in to a similar relationship.

*Tracks - Louise Erdrich - While reading, I did not realize this was part of a tetralogy addressing Native people in South Dakota across long stretches of American history. There’s plenty to take away from reading even if, like me, you haven’t read the other books in the cycle. Long stretches transported me not just to a different place and time, but a different way of thinking, which can be alienating if not handled as deftly as Erdrich does.

*Jazz - Toni Morrison - Previously, when pressed to choose a “favorite book” (there is no such thing, because “favorite book” is so dependent on context of time, place, present mood, et cetera), I have said it’s Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye”. I love that book and the heart-rending story it tells in large part because Morrison demands the reader work hard, pay attention, and think carefully about the text without coming across as obtuse or needlessly arch, and in smaller part because I first read it as part of my most fulfilling college literature class. “Jazz” is also incredibly challenging, but I think it doesn’t reach the heights of “The Bluest Eye”, “Beloved”, or “Sula” because ultimately the form takes on too much burden of meaning in relation to the actual story being told. Jazz improvisation can be thrilling and mind-melting, but it can also be a meandering mess. “Jazz” is no mess, but I was left wondering if I was meant to admire that the multi-vortex of notes fit together, possibly at the expense of a more focused story.

*Shining City - Tom Rosenstiel - I loved the procedural aspects of this story about a political fixer called in to get a difficult judge confirmed to the Supreme Court interwoven with scenes of a killer going after a series of targets, and how it all ties together. Unfortunately, the author, who was a longtime D.C. political journalist before writing this novel (before the Trump presidential campaign, for what it’s worth), seems to have developed D.C. centrist brain and treats political differences as matters of perception, shrugging off any notion that political differences mean something substantial.

*Landscape With Invisible Hand - M.T. Anderson - There’s a recent movie version I haven’t seen, and I can tell how this story about a pair of teenagers performing a relationship for an audience of aliens could make for a fascinating screen drama. As with the best young adult fiction I’ve read, this one may be simpler with its language than literary fiction, but it sure doesn’t shy away from emotional complexity, confronting economic inequality and the cruel indifference those with means inflict on those without. If anything, I think it could have been at least half again as long to really flesh out the relationships and implications of the premise.

*The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney - I don’t give up on many books because I tend to pick up ones that come highly recommended by somebody. In this case, it was an NPR list of the best books from 2016. That said, until I was about 60 pages in, I did consider whether I should give up on this tragicomic novel about four adult siblings losing their minds over an inheritance due to come their way when the youngest of them turns 40 years old. The characters are all pretty much insufferable, and Sweeney’s descriptions of 2000s New York City and the online publishing world of that time and place come off as alternately too on the nose or cardboard stand-ins that I guess the reader is supposed to recognize amidst sprinkled references to actual entities such as Gawker. However! Despite all this, Sweeney also relentlessly drives forward with a plot that feels like a particularly juicy piece of gossip. Thus, in the end, similar to “Crazy Rich Asians”, I was constantly rolling my eyes at characterizations and oddly underexplained motivations, but still totally willing to stick with it in order to see what foolishness these dumbasses would attempt next.

*The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt - A funny western about a pair of brothers on a quest, one who thinks he’s pretty smart and one who wishes he was as smart as his brother. I got some “True Grit” vibes, but with more of an ironic spin than Portis gave his iconic western.

*The Time Has Come - Will Leitch - Leitch does a far better job than Rosenstiel addressing political differences in this book about people from many different walks of life who find themselves together in a specific time and place. Because I follow Leitch’s writing in many different places, including his weekly newsletter, I sussed out precisely where this was going, but I’m guessing it would be more surprising for many of you less familiar with his work. I happen to think he’s come up with a statement that doesn’t match my experience of political and cultural difference across the U.S., but it’s a lively story about a deeply-conceived community that, my disagreement about where it ends up aside, is a thoughtful thriller.

*Death Comes for the Archbishop - Willa Cather - This story is slow. And it goes almost nowhere. Almost nothing “happens.” And that’s kind of the point, because it follows a French priest assigned to a massive territory in 1800s New Mexico. While not Cather’s best work (more from her further down the list), it still feels like an exceptionally modern meditation on faith and commitment. And if you want to read through a queer relationship-focused lens, there’s a lot to chew on, too.

*Tinkers - Paul Harding - The 2010 Pulitzer winner is a very short book about loss, suffering, and joy, mainly from the perspective of a man in his dying days recalling his childhood. It’s a big swing in a dense, intricately constructed package — not unlike a mechanical clock, one of the book’s key symbols. That said, I also felt it was just that: mechanical, clicking forward, ticking point to point.

*The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty - Vendela Vida - Unlike the other Vida book I read, this one is not freighted by mis-calibrated stakes, and so the narrator’s predicament proceeds apace, with the reader discovering something every page, and later revelations landing with a satisfying sense of completion.

*Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder - Evelyn Waugh - I’m no Waugh-head (Waugh-ian?), so going in, I didn’t know Catholicism would be a whole thing in this novel, but there it is, mixed together with the saga of the narrator’s homosexual acquaintance, Sebastian, whom I’ve seen referred to (correctly) as a manic pixie dream boy.

*The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler - I love that the protagonist, detective Philip Marlowe, is just so over all this shit, and yet he keeps trying. The plot is super messy. Last year, I read Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, and in that one, it’s extra clear who is doing what and when, and what the detective is thinking (to a suffocating degree), but in the Chandler books I’ve read, I appreciate that things are confusing, lack order, and may not even come to a resolution. But the mood is unmistakable. Marlowe’s L.A. is rotten and everyone he meets is unhappy, yet he won’t give in to the rot, even as he recognizes he’s just one guy that a few people regard as a pain in the ass.

*The Appeal - Janice Hallett - Another mystery, this one has the added twist that it is told entirely in the form of emails, text messages, and transcripts, with a framing device that a lawyer has challenged two colleagues to see what he sees. So, in reading about an English amateur theater troupe, a child diagnosed with cancer, an accompanying fundraising effort, and, eventually, a death, there are multiple layers of inference to work through. Some of it is incredibly English, and it was unhelpful that my edition Americanized certain elements (I was particularly peeved that someone though U.S. readers need monetary amounts to be in dollars rather than pounds), which made things a touch more challenging. But as a pure mystery box that doesn’t aspire to provide insight into the human condition so much as give the reader a participatory wild ride, it’s a satisfying exercise.

*Our Missing Hearts - Celeste Ng - The world of this novel is a slight variation on our own, and the horror arises from how, with only a few tweaks, ours could be a dystopia with state-sanctioned family separations. The politics of this story shares a through-line with Ng’s best-known book, “Little Fires Everywhere,” in that white Americans do not want to understand they are oppressing the vulnerable, but where that book was simultaneously crystal clear about its characters and refused to hold the reader’s hand and guide them to an understanding of what was so wrong about certain characters’ behavior, “Our Missing Hearts” dispenses with nuance and embraces straightforward advocacy. In my judgment, this is neither a strength nor a weakness in itself, but ends up making it a story less interesting for someone like me, who is already inclined to agree with the novel’s politics. There isn’t as much for me to discover.

*Poverty, By America - Matthew Desmond - Desmond’s book, “Evicted,” changed my life. In all seriousness, go read it if you haven’t already. In that book, Desmond sets out to show the dire state of American housing policy, especially as it is applied to the vulnerable, and once you read it, I guarantee you will never think of housing and how governments handle housing policy the same way again. In that book, and this one, Desmond writes in a stark prose that reflects his project of having the reader face what he is showing them directly, without embellishment. A difference in this slim volume is that Desmond is much more prescriptivist this time around, calling for a national reckoning by having the comfortable and well-to-do confront how their actions cause and perpetuate poverty. It’s a valuable exercise, and eye-opening, but I suspect that Desmond’s approach will fail to persuade very many, mainly because he’s proposing a total reimagining of American consumer culture.

*Squeeze Play - Jane Leavy - A sort of romcom focusing on a woman reporter who writes about the local pro baseball team, this is brimming with messy charm that even overwhelmed my cringe when the protagonist breaks the deepest taboo of American sportswriting. It’s full of big dumb galoots who are rewarded for being big dumb galoots well into adulthood, including, to a degree, our heroine.

*The Survivalists - Kashana Cauley - Aretha, a Black lawyer in New York, becomes involved with a man who runs a coffee business out of his apartment, which he shares with two other people who, at first glance, may not appear to have much in common with each other. But Aretha soon discovers they have huge stockpiles of guns and protein bars, plus an underground bunker. Aretha finds herself more and more entwined in their world, with unexpected results.

*The Seamstress of Sardinia - Bianca Pitzorno - The obvious comparison for this Italian coming-of-age story is to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and, look, very few, if any, books are going to reach those heights. Pitzorno doesn’t get there. But this is still a wonderful story about an orphaned girl growing into her independence as a seamstress, and how she is able to cross class boundaries and observe her full community through her work.

*The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers - I was dumbfounded upon learning McCullers was 23 when this was published. But even without grading on a curve given her age, there is so much in this novel that I’m sure it would reward rereading and rereading and rereading. It resists easy summarization, but, essentially, in a small Southern mill town in the 1930s, several characters go about their days, with a throughline that they are all hurting very badly. If you’re just riding the book’s wave, following the plot, you might find it interesting, but you have to dive under and confront the roiling subtext in order to see — and this is absolutely not a spoiler — there is no evidence things will turn triumphant for our main characters.

*I'm a Fan - Sheena Patel - An extremely economical book about obsession, both in person and conducted via social media. It reads like an extended stream-of-conscious internal monologue, and if I recall correctly, there is not a single instance of quoted dialogue in the whole thing, heightening the internal monologue effect. The multiple instances when the protagonist turns to political diatribe could have taken this off the rails, but I think it works because, again, this is an obsessive person, and those sections feel like pressure releases, allowing her to direct her energy elsewhere before she, inevitably, returns to “the man I want to be with” and “the woman I am obsessed with”.

*All the Sinners Bleed - S.A. Cosby - In a small Virginia county, after a school shooting in which a popular high school teacher was killed by one of his former students, the county’s first Black sheriff investigates and uncovers direct evidence the teacher was involved in multiple instances of torturing and murdering children with an accomplice who remains at large. As a police-investigation thriller, it’s top notch. The racism directed toward the sheriff rings true to my experiences living in North Carolina, and though some of those instances are overexplained, it’s never distracting, which is fantastic for such a propulsive story.

*Now Is Not the Time to Panic - Kevin Wilson - Cultural memes et cetera went viral in the 90s, just in different ways. Wilson’s novel revolves around a fictional example of such a viral hit, set in 1996, and touches on questions about art and the responsibility of artists, but the core of the story is young love, and the dizzying rollercoaster of feeling that kind of attraction for someone else at that age, when just waking up in the morning and thinking about the day can feel dizzying with potential. Furthermore, I think it is pretty spot-on about how, as adults, those relationships may not hold the same kind of sway over our feelings, but they still matter to who we’ve become.

*Sourdough - Robin Sloan - A San Francisco tech employee learns to bake bread using a starter left to her by a couple of men forced to return to their mysterious faraway homeland. A sendup of tech culture, foodie culture, and more, this could easily have gone off the rails as a too-absurd sequence of magical events, but instead is a modern fairy tale that ably addresses cultural appropriation, assimilation, vocation, and the downsides of tech industry mindset.

*The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion - In this case, it’s worth separating the stylist from the thinker. As a stylist, I now understand why Didion grabs hold of so many readers and, in turn, they want to stay in her grip. This memoir about grief following her husband’s sudden death, compounded by her daughter’s severe health problems, has a literary quality that seems to shrink the gap between the author’s feelings and the reader’s mind, which is probably what has inspired a host of people to call the book “honest” when what they really mean is it rings true to their experiences with grief. Of course, a truism about grief is that everyone experiences it differently, and so while I was drawn in by her descriptions of being in denial and a general haze after her husband’s death, it was from the remove of someone whose experiences with grief have been wildly different. As for what Didion actually has to say about grief and loss, again, the literary qualities of the book appear to bring us inside her head, but the flip side of that is they also make Didion appear deeply un-self-aware and someone who had spent so much time living in a literati-elite bubble that she fails to acknowledge — not even implicitly, let alone explicitly — that her experience is colored by her wealth and privilege. The incessant name-dropping is one thing, but it was around the point when Didion secures a private paramedic-staffed flight for her daughter to be transported from one medical center in Los Angeles to another in New York that I gave up hoping for that kind of acknowledgment, which allowed me to continue and take from the book what I could.

*Bastard Out of Carolina - Dorothy Allison - A girl named Bone struggles to survive in 1950s Greenville, South Carolina. Not only was she born to an unwed mother at a time and place when there was much more significant social stigma attached to that, but her mother later marries a man who sexually abuses Bone. Without giving away how the book ends, just know that resolution is not necessarily redemption, that which does not kill us absolutely can ruin our lives, and there is inordinate power in knowing when to give a fuck and when not to.

*Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food - Ann Hood - This has recipes, and I guess it is about food and cooking, but those are merely avenues to talk about life and love, the core concern of this essay collection. Hood’s stories may appear slight and lighthearted at first, but gradually you realize just how much she has shared, and in sum it paints a complex and nuanced picture of a woman and her family who persevere.

*Tom Lake - Ann Patchett - During the pandemic lockdown, a woman and her husband are joined by their three adult daughters on their cherry farm, where the daughters implore her to once again tell the story of how she became an actress and, while acting in summer stock in a small Michigan town, fell in love with a man who would later become a movie star. This framing device invites re-reading in order to experience the story similarly to how the daughters do, but even on first read, I understood that telling this story is, for the woman, part ritual and part process of discovery, as the telling, itself, requires reflection on her family and which details mean what to each of them.

*Nothing to See Here - Kevin Wilson - I have a soft spot for stories with protagonists who consider themselves a fuckup. In this one, the fuckup, Lillian, is a young woman whose life is going nowhere fast when she gets a call from an old boarding school roommate, now the wife of a political figure with a rising national profile. She needs a “governess” for her step-children, one she can trust, because these 10-year-old twins become pillars of fire when they are agitated — as in they burst into flames until they calm down, putting out the fire, but leaving them physically unharmed. Lillian has no experience caring for children, let alone ones with extreme needs, but it’s readily apparent that the step-mother wants someone she can keep in check, for fear that the twins become a liability to her husband’s career. The whole thing is compulsively readable.

*The Final Revival of Opal & Nev - Dawnie Walton - On one level, this is an amazing accomplishment: A totally fictional oral history of a rock duo that, in execution, feels completely organic and lived-in. On other levels, it’s a fiery examination of the bounds of transgressive popular music and the shapes of white allyship when Black artists push boundaries.

*The Vaster Wilds - Lauren Groff - In what would become the American east, a woman escapes a colonial encampment and sets out to find a new home. While clearly conveying the woman’s terror and desperation, the novel also lampoons the notion that America was untamed wilderness when Europeans arrived with perfectly timed asides illustrating how certain encounters and elements of the land are frightening to the woman while also being perfectly ordinary, or even mundane, to the Native American residents she sees and the many people nearby she does not.

*My Ántonia - Willa Cather - Among the many great accomplishments of this novel, Cather uses Jim Burden’s narration to illustrate the long arc of Ántonia’s growth and development. She is a full, complex character as a child, a teenager, and then a grown woman with many multiple children. Never mind the striking illustrations of life in an unforgiving foreign land, which 1800s Nebraska was for so many of Cather’s characters.

*The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen - An intense tragicomedy told from the point of view of a spy sent to infiltrate the South Vietnamese military, only part of the story takes place in Vietnam — a good chunk is about life in the U.S., where the narrator spends much of his youth and where he joins a refugee community in California. Through every twist, turn, and discovery described by this unreliable narrator, we’re led to feel his furious helplessness in the face of forces committed to wiping out their enemies or else die trying.

*Catch-22 - Joseph Heller - Where “The Sympathizer” leans more into the tragic side of tragicomedy, “Catch-22” goes for the morbid comedy a little harder in its war story. Death after death after death is met by characters’ absurd reactions because they have all gone mad from the repetitive trauma and bureaucratic indifference and incompetence that governs them.

*Zone One - Colson Whitehead - Before he won two Pulitzers for fiction, Whitehead wrote a thrilling and captivating zombie apocalypse novel. Yes, there are plenty of roller coaster action sequences, but they are in service of supporting the thematic thrusts: showing the fragility of our social order; how much of our lives are determined by norms, conventions, and trust; and how death, for some people, is merely an attitude.

*The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood - Jane Leavy - I’m too young to have really experienced the Mantle hero-worship, but having read “The Mick” and, especially, “My Favorite Summer 1956,” I was well-acquainted with the Mantle myth-making. Leavy’s book draws a picture of Mantle as a deeply damaged person — the physical meshing with the mental and interpersonal — who wasn’t given permission or space to grow up because of his immense talent. Virtually every person in his orbit so idolized him that they formed deeply unhealthy relationships, or, in the case of Joe Dimaggio (who comes off as a uniquely horrible asshole), they were so threatened by him they homed in on hurting him. The magic of this book is that Leavy clearly holds Mantle, himself, accountable while at the same time damning the people who used him for their own gain and did nothing to help him even though they all should have known better.

*Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson - I was rolling along, knowing this is a classic YA title, sensing it was going to veer into something fairly heavy because there were indications in the text — and also why else would this book be so beloved? — but I was absolutely not prepared for the gut punch it delivered. The ending, after said gut punch, is remarkable for its straightforward depiction of an ending that nobody wants, but nonetheless stirs hope and grace.

*Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri - Until I cracked it open, I’d somehow missed that this is a collection of stories and not a novel, but no matter, because every story is connected by the experiences of Indian characters, many of them negotiating their Indian-ness and/or American-ness. Each one is a banger, but I especially loved “This Blessed House,” which shows a newly-married couple’s struggles to learn who the other is and therefore who they are, themselves, within their new union, and on top of that what that means for how they present to the world as a couple.

*A Visit From the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan - I was all in as soon as I sussed out that Egan’s interlocking narratives, which constantly foreshadow and allude to each other, are about the inexorable march of time and how the people we know right now, no matter how important they are to us, have lives vastly more varied and unknowable than we can imagine. I wasn’t paying much attention to book media/criticism when this won the fiction Pulitzer in 2011, so I’m only discovering well after reading that there was apparently a lot of attention given to some of the more formal elements, including a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, and one that is clearly a satire of the David Foster Wallace-style let-you-know-I’m-self-aware magazine profile. For what it’s worth, these are not gimmicks: there are good reasons the PowerPoint presentation is in that form, and the DFW thing is not a takedown of DFW, himself (at least not directly), but of the people who use that style in order to signal they are important and observant and careful thinkers and write prestige-worthy profiles and mask that they are actually empty and cruel and boring.

*The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder - David Grann - Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” was one of my favorite books last year, so I was stoked to read his take on an 18th century British man-of-war that wrecked off the coast of Patagonia. While I’m in no position to judge Grann’s scholarship, the dramatic story he tells is incredibly accessible, and he succinctly conveys just how complicated life aboard such a ship must have been. However, he truly shines in explaining the stakes for each major figure at various points in the saga; at all times, I felt I understood what each person was trying to accomplish and why.

*The Dutch House - Ann Patchett - Another novel-length modern fairy tale, this one comes complete with a paradise ruined by a wicked stepmother. As told by the narrator, Danny, one of the children in the family joined by said stepmother, the story is a straightforward tale of stolen inheritance and clawing back what is rightfully his and his sister’s... at least until he starts questioning whether things actually happened the way he remembers.

*Birnam Wood - Eleanor Catton - A group of ecological activists in New Zealand partner with an American billionaire on a farming project in a remote part of the country near a national park. It’s a riveting plot, with dramatic set pieces alongside flailing amateurs trying to outthink each other and the billionaire who knows much more than they do. But what’s most intriguing is that while the billionaire is, indeed, a clear villain from the start, the other main characters are ridiculous and, perhaps, disgusting, too. I kept going, driven through page after page, because the plot is irresistible, but also because, even while these eco-warriors are wholly correct about how it ought to be humanity’s collective responsibility to do something drastic about preserving our planet’s livability, their hypocrisy, unearned self-righteousness, and petty selfishness makes them all too human.

*Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland - Patrick Radden Keefe - I remember being aware of the Good Friday agreement back in 1998 (draw your own conclusions from that about what kind of high school frosh I was), but wasn’t really up on why the agreement had been reached or what the Troubles were in the first place. I attribute it to classic American myopia about anything outside our borders. A conflict of that length and with that many people involved necessarily resists simple explanation, and Keefe’s book doesn’t purport to “fully explain” the Troubles — as if any single book could — but through exceptionally deft storytelling, Keefe left me with a conception of a struggle between people with acute and pressing political concerns, who made choices and sacrifices of enormous consequence, all within a nation with relatively tight and overlapping social circles that may be difficult for lifelong Americans to understand.

*All the Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy - I loved reading “No Country for Old Men” much more than “The Road”, and have only haltingly tried starting “Blood Meridian”, but intend to come back to it someday mainly because of the experience reading “All the Pretty Horses”. Set about 1949 in Texas and various parts of Mexico, a pair of young men — still teenagers — ride their horses south across the border seeking ranch work. Their adventure illustrates romantic love, brotherly devotion, rugged individualism, and more. But as masterful as McCarthy is at describing his characters’ actions, he’s unmatched when it comes to conveying their interiority through their words and actions. I’ve already mentioned Sally Rooney. She and McCarthy, despite writing about vastly different settings and people, have some stylistic similarities, including generally eschewing punctuation to indicate dialogue, but they’re tied together by their incredible skill at creating clearly understood drama from characters’ interior thoughts and feelings which, when done right, is, to my mind, the most satisfying thing in fiction.

*Idaho - Emily Ruskovich - A woman living on an isolated mountain peak in Idaho struggles with her husband’s tragic family history as he descends into early onset dementia. I think I loved this book so much because its central theme is one that I keep wrestling with in my own (in-progress) fiction efforts: the limitations of memory and my growing awareness of how much is unknowable — even super important elements of my life, my family's lives, and how I fill in the blanks. Formally and textually, the novel challenges the reader to grapple with the plain fact that some things are unknowable, and Ruskovich's prose is dynamite, sentence to sentence.

*Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow - Gabrielle Zevin - A boy and girl, Sam and Sadie, meet and bond over playing Nintendo. Years later, they reconnect and begin an intense collaboration as video game creators. The descriptions of games and game design felt right to me (as a not-intense gamer), but the meat of the story is Sam and Sadie’s relationship, how they each seek approval — from each other and the world — and how they can only reach their greatest creative heights with each other. Exhilarating front to back, I wished there was more at the same time the story reached a perfectly natural ending

I’ll add that one of my favorite critics, FilmCritHulk, had some pointed things to say about this novel based on his more intimate and intense involvement in the gaming world. I've owned a few consoles over the years, but do not consider myself "a gamer" as that term is usually deployed and have been actively turned off by titles over the years that, in theory, were right up my alley (Arkham Asylum, KOTOR) and I find myself returning to Mario Kart and sports games like College Hoops 2K8 (a masterpiece). All that's to say: while I was aware of Gamergate as a thing, it was not a central part of my online interactions until it broke contain out of the "games" world.

So, when FilmCritHulk suggests that the book doesn't get Gamergate precisely correct, on top of certain timeline issues, I missed that. To be clear, I think the main thrust of the book, exploring the nature of creativity and creative partnerships, is incredibly moving and I still think a lot about it, months after reading. BUT Hulk's piece also makes me think about the many baseball novels I've read. When I read a baseball novel in a reality that is ostensibly parallel to ours, but some procedural/"esoteric" details ring false, it takes me out of the story, so I can understand wanting to bail because it no longer feels like this story jives with my reality.

Thus, when it comes to "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow", you might feel it’s trivial that the book's timeline of the indie games boom doesn't quite line up, or that the precise motivations and dynamics of Gamergate seem fuzzy in this telling, but be aware that if that’s your world and your experience and your identity, then it might feel more slight, constructed, and inapplicable to you.

(Photo: "20090414-_MG_9198" by bobbyh_80. Used under CC BY 2.0 DEED license. It's a key location in "All the Pretty Horses".)