Learning out Loud in Milwaukee, WI

Books of 2023

I read some great books again last year, and now that we’re a solid six weeks into the new one I figured it was about time I stopped tinkering and published this post including some authors I got to know last year and some who were brand new to me. I also did not engage at all in Goodreads and I feel pretty OK about that given the current controversy over review bombing. But even that aside, I mostly found that the user generated reviews weren’t very complete or thoughtful. Often they were outright flawed. They rarely provoked in me a new way of thinking about a book I’d read.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

After reading Kindred last year, I checked Sower out from the library among the first books I read this year. I liked it quite a lot despite it scaring the daylights out of me. It’s a truly prescient work that more than holds up under contemporary scrutiny. I have Parable of the Talents up first this year. It’s extremely fortunate to have these great works from Butler, and a selfish tragedy that she died before she could write more.

Buy Parable of the Sower online or at your local bookstore.

The Round House, Louise Erdrich

This is the first book I ever read by Erdrich and it didn’t win the awards and accolades it did for nothing. Anyway, The Round House was a fantastic read and I hope future generations of Minnesotans grow up knowing Louise Erdrich among state’s best authors. I finished The Sentence (2021) in January and aim to read even more. Erdrich’s perspective as a Native Minnesotan brings a refreshing change to the ideas of setting and settling, in the Midwest.

The Round House is a rare book that had me rooting for the protagonist to do the wrong thing while worrying, even dreaming, how he would ever survive living with the consequences if he did. I still think about these character as if they are real people, wondering what their lives are like and what they’re thinking about in 2023.

Buy The Round House online or at your local bookstore.

Tenth of December, George Saunders

Another famous author I’d never read before, and another good book to start on. Like most of Saunders’s books, this is a collection of short stories that typically thrust the reader directly into the action. It’s impressive that he makes this work as well as he does. The “Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Escape from Spiderhead” were especially interesting works of science fiction, and the closing story was as touching as it was haunting. (I do wish Netflix’s adaptation, Spiderhead, was as compelling as the source text.)

I also started Sauders’s Pastoralia, but decided to finish it another time.

Buy Tenth of December online or at your local bookstore.

Time is a Mother, Ocean Vuong

I haven’t read all of these poems yet, and I’m not sure when I will. I return to this book in between others to break up the pattern and focus on more fleeting observations of our present and the extent to which we’re prepared to encounter it.

I love how poetry makes me feel. I’m not the best interpreter of it, but I love the fleeting moment when it hits me and I instantly feel the weight of a line or verse before it passes me by in favor of the next one. The feeling of completeness at its conclusion. Vuong is excellent at this.

Buy Time is a Mother online or at your local bookstore.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka

This was certainly the most challenging book I read this year, and I dare say it may have been the best. The premise is simple enough, the main character is dead and has seven days (moons) to figure out how he wants to spend the rest of eternity. The path to get there is not so simple. Bureaucracy gets in his way, but so does his former life as a photographer and fixer for various figures in the first decade of Sri Lanka’s civil war. I’m still wrapping my head around some of the details in this book. The author had a way of allowing the reader to get completely lost without losing my interest, and he absolutely nailed the ending.

Karunatilaka won the Booker Prize for this one, so if my ambiguous summary and enthusiastic endorsement doesn’t do it, trust the 2022 Booker panel.

Buy the Seven Moons of Maali Almeida online or from your local bookstore.

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel

This was a fun book. An easy read. The Glass Hotel was nowhere near as dark as Station Eleven but it’s just as comprehensive of a puzzle plot.

The brother and sister main characters, Paul and Vincent, are brought together through extreme circumstances and then similarly extreme events split them apart. Paul is accused of spray painting Why don’t you swallow broken glass on a picture window in the hotel lobby where they work. Vincent decides to flee her circumstances with a hotel regular, Jonathan Alkaitis who, unbeknownst to her, runs a massive Ponzi scheme.

I loved the adventure of this book and greatly admire the research Mandel put into crafting the circumstances of Alkaitis’s Ponzi scheme, and especially his victims.

Buy The Glass Hotel online or from your local bookstore.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

This book is a fantastic set of short stories, the title novella centered around a woman who works for a government office called the Institute of Public History. The institute is responsible for issuing corrections when history is misrepresented in public: art, plaques, news, etc. Her job is to determine whether a correction to a correction is needed, and unwinds a complicated, multi-generational story of how white supremacy occupies the mind and culture of a place.

“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” was another stand out story in this collection.

Buy The Office of Historical Corrections online or from your local bookstore.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Two identical twin sisters, Black with light skin grew up in a town so small it is on no maps. They left together to start new lives until one of them vanished as if into thin air. Years later, their lives slowly reconverge. Or do they? This thrilling adventure explores concepts like passing, family, and generational wealth and trauma as a demonstration of the power and mechanics of 20th century racism.

Brit Bennett kept me on the edge of my seat through this whole book. I was constantly rooting for the two sisters to reunite, while also remaining nervous about what would happen if they ever did. By the end, I intentionally read slower just to avoid finishing the book.

Buy The Vanishing Half online or from your local bookstore.

On reading itself

It would not surprise me if somebody challenged every single one of these books under one of the many broad and capricious new laws set in motion in the last few years. Every book banning is a tragedy. This current iteration is especially tragic in part because so few people — “60 percent of all challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 adults“— have such tremendous power in some places.

The strawman atop of which these bans are premised is incredibly fragile: There is no value to a book if it contains any sexual content, even, or especially, if that sexual content is central to the plot. That argument goes about as far as it is deep. It is sure great for whipping people up into a frenzy, though. I guess the people making it have singular, positive, and consensual experiences with sex and, despite the evidence to the contrary, assume everybody else does too.

The idea that young minds can’t handle sex, violence, and especially sexual violence, or that they’ll be corrupted by it, or that they’ll somehow only discover it as a result of reading one of these books is preposterous. Literature has a way of inviting the reader to discover. I’ve thought of them as opportunities for empathy in the past, too, for books that are outside of the communities, experiences, or cultures to which you have ready access. For a book like The Round House, that might lead to you discovering that native women are disproportionately victimized by sexual violence, or the complexities native people face when seeking justice through the normal channels, and the byzantine systems we expect native people to participate in just to live on the land we stole from them. Or, maybe you are or know a victim and don’t know what to do with your feelings, feel like you are not OK, or feel isolated by your experience and need validation that your experience is normal, manageable, and how to move on. The power of good books is how they empower readers to derive broad meaning out of specific circumstances.

Why any adult would deny that is beyond me, except that certain kinds of people think the world is modeled after them, their taste, and maybe what they think best resembles their god. In the end, these people are about having and wielding power to exterminate diversity, nothing else. So while I was glad to learn that these people have about a 50% success rate, I’m still dismayed by the narcissistic power of a few people with too much free time.