Monday, December 4, 2023

2023: Best Books (I Read)


Time for my annual list, along with the accompanying list of caveats: these are, simply put, the best books I read over the course of the year. I try to narrow things down to 10ish books, which is awfully hard. I definitely read (and ADORE!) books by my writer friends , but I try to keep those books off this list. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it, that ALL lists are subjective. In my personal definition of “best,” I mean some magical alchemy of this book at this time that hit me this way. The order is chronological, so don’t spend time parsing out why one book is first, another last. Also, I had to eliminated some VERY EXCELLENT books to keep my list tidy, and YES, I feel terrible about doing so.


Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (short stories)

This collection of stories is perhaps my most recommended book of the year, tied with The Disappeared (below). I read a lot of linked story collections this year. I especially love loosely linked stories that feel in conversation with each other vs. stories marching out a plot. These are set on and around a Native community in Maine, and yes, there’s much heartbreak and hardship, but mostly there’s perseverance and depth and compassion. I defy anyone to slide on by that first story without feeling gripped by the throat. Highly accomplished collection, and if you want to feel depressed, I’ll drop in that the author was 31 years old when this book was published.


The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan (nonfiction)

An immersive, well-organized account of the underground women’s collective in Chicago known as “Jane” that provided safe (but illegal) abortions before Roe v. Wade. Maybe not the most elegantly written book, but given the vastness and complexities of the topic, it does an excellent job at ferreting out the group’s historical origins and at helping us understand why these women would risk so much to help other women eliminate an unwanted pregnancy. The tone is very matter-of-fact, which does make for some grim moments.


King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (nonfiction)

I don’t know enough about African history, and this book does an excellent job showing the horrors of colonialism as seen through the Belgians’ exploitive rampage through the Belgian Congo (now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo), in East Africa. Greed, abuse, hearts of utter darkness…and some folks along the way who stood up to try to correct the situation as best they could. Reads like a novel…and if only it were fiction. (Also, given exploitative mining and other abuses continuing in the DRC, if only this were all in the past.)


Deer Season by Erin Flanagan (novel)

This book (and its foreboding cover) called to me from the shelves of the Elliot Bay Book Company while I was in Seattle for AWP. Billed as a “literary mystery,” a teenage girl goes missing and everyone leaps to conclusions about the intellectually disabled farmhand. My Iowa-girl-self loved that the book was set in Nebraska with tiny midwestern details I appreciated. And the sense of place was powerful—close-knit? Or utterly claustrophobic? Alternating POVs worked perfectly which is hard to pull off IMO.


Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker (short stories)

Stories set in Washington, DC…given my most recent book of stories set in DC, how could I not be intrigued? Complex, nuanced, well-observed, these stories show us Black culture in the city, starting with a story that prickled the hair on the back of my neck. The final story was a lovely echo and elegy to DC that made me nostalgic and homesick, though I’ve never known that place or been part of that community. For old-time DC folks, there’s a wonderful novella in which Len Bias plays a role. (IYKYK: no happy ending there.)



Tinkers by Paul Harding (novel)

I believe that books come along at the right time. Of course, I’d heard of this book, the small press book “no one heard of” that won the Pulitzer in 2010, but I hadn’t felt the desire to read it until A) seeing a random tweet talking about how excellent it was; followed by B) finding a nice copy for sale for $2 at the annual used book sale I attend. Wow! A stunner. I’m not always a big fan of densely lyrical books, but I was promptly won over. The “plot” of thinking back over a life makes Tinkers feel more like a poem than a novel—in a good way. I wish I’d been able to read this short novel in a day, as I imagine that would be a richer experience, but alas. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place.” Very aggravating to think of mainstream publishers passing on this masterpiece!



Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin (novel)

I’ve long adored Laurie Colwin’s food writing and her short stories and am among the legions who wish she had lived much, much, much longer than her 48 years. In shuffling around books when arranging my new shelves, I came across Family Happiness, which I couldn’t remember reading. In the mood for a New York-y story (which hers almost inevitably are), I dug in. What a quietly subversive book about a woman who’s expected to be and beloved for being “perfect.” Yet, she’s having an extra-marital affair. Yet, the reader is GLAD she is! Yet, her life is so amazing and she loves her husband! How to write a resolution that will be true to this emotionally complicated set-up? Laurie Colwin is brave. Bonus: lots of food!



The Disappeared by Andrew Porter (short stories)

What an exquisite collection! Each story was virtually perfect. Infused with longing and existential loss, with cigarettes and wine, with mid-life couples searching for something. That description may speak to a certain similarity, but I found that each story felt separate and unique. As noted above, this was probably one of my two most recommended books of the year.


Barbarians at the Gates: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (nonfiction)

You can’t expect to “know” my new home of Winston-Salem, NC, without understanding the role Reynolds Tobacco and the company’s founder, R.J. Reynolds, played in creating the town. Streets, schools, hospital wings, etc…it feels like everything is named after Reynolds or people who ran the company after the founder died. As I grappled with learning this history, every single person I spoke to told me to read Barbarians at the Gates. The 500+ page-length scared me off initially, but once I picked it up, this book MOVES. It’s about tobacco and Winston-Salem, but mostly it’s about corporate greed and Wall Street and how the financial things that went down in the go-go eighties are still reverberating today. (Only the language changes: today we say, “private equity firm,” not, “corporate raider.”) This town has not forgiven F. Ross Johnson for packing up the company’s headquarters, for setting in motion the leveraged buyout to haul in a bajillion dollars…and I better understand why not now, despite the cash payout many locals and employees got from having to sell their stock in the takeover.



Mama Said by Kristen Gentry (short stories)

Linked stories set in Louisville, Kentucky, about the members of a tangled Black family, about staying vs. going, about loving each other when it feels hard to do so. If you’re trying to write a story with a large cast of characters,  “A Satisfying Meal,” set during two stressful Thanksgivings, will show you how to do it well. Also, how is it possible that a bat swooping through the house is horrifying and perfectly comic?



Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (nonfiction)

Published in 2014, this must be one of the most prescient books around. The author, son of Russian emigrees, settled in London, but moves to Russia for nine years as the country is settling into itself after the break-up of the USSR. Jillionaire oligarchs, pretty blonde models, an elaborate web of corruption and bribery…we think we know about all that. Beyond is a surreal life that mirrors reality television (the author’s a filmmaker, working for state-sponsored networks), where the story is always shaped, forming and reforming, and no one knows what the truth is, or really cares. Reading this was a window into the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism and wealth funneling to a few—in Russia, because that’s where the book takes place. But really, right here and right now.


Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (novel) & Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway by Robin Black (nonfiction)

This was a sublime reading experience! I had never read Mrs. Dalloway (I know, I know). I’ll admit that reading stream-of-consciousness is not necessarily the thing I most wanted to do at the end of a long day, but perseverance was rewarded. This book, “about” a day in 1920s London, in which a woman throws a party and a war veteran dies by suicide, shows that the ordinary can be extraordinary, because this book is really “about” life and loss and mental health and regrets and PTSD and love and thwarted love and London and time and about a million more things. Woolf doesn’t need me to note she’s a master of this complicated POV, even as she makes it look simple. I’ve also read Ulysess (a fact I love wedging into conversation!), and comparing the two is ridiculous…this book is by far the greater achievement IMO. A short time after finishing the novel, I read Robin Black’s nonfiction book, an appreciation of and exploration of Mrs. Dalloway, character and novel. Black writes as a writer, looking closely at craft and authorial choices. Even more importantly, she writes as a reader, bringing in her own experiences through passages of memoir to explore how and why a book, this book, might connect us across time. Juxtaposing these two books was a most excellent way to end a lovely twelve months of reading!

But before I go:

Once a week, I schedule writing by hand in a secluded spot, and I always start my session by reading several poems to align my mind. It’s clarifying to copy down lines and phrases I love in my little notebook. I thought I’d share the books I’ve been dipping into during this past year of writing/reading. I’ve found much inspiration in these pages and am deeply grateful for and in utter admiration of poets.


Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn

The Badass Brontes by Jane Satterfield

Thresh & Hold by Marlanda Dekine

All These Hungers by Rick Mulkey

I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by Taylor Byas

What Light Leaves Hidden by Terry Kennedy


Here’s to continued excellent reading in 2024!




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.