My Top Ten Books of 2023
A note about affiliate links: I use Amazon affiliate links for book recommendations since I know most people purchase books using Amazon. You will not be charged extra for using my links, but if you make a purchase via these links I will receive a small commission. That being said, if you have a local bookstore that carries these titles, I highly encourage you to shop there instead!
Nancy Milford's life of Edna St. Vincent Millay is lengthy, but so engaging I found myself zipping through it effortlessly in a short time. I’ve been fascinated with Millay’s poetry since high school and was ready for what I knew would be something of a sad read. This intimate look into the lives and correspondence of the Millay family did not disappoint and I definitely cried once or twice throughout Milford’s chronicle of their sufferings, joys, and heartbreaking mistakes. If you're looking for a role model, Millay probably isn't it. But if you're looking to learn about the life and times of arguably the most prominent American female poet in the first half of the 20th century, you're in the right place. (Also: those good ol' days were CRAZY, am I right?)
Swedish author Jonas Jonasson's international bestseller is as zany, outlandish, and bizarrely humorous as its title seems to promise it will be. Its off-the-wall story of a centenarian nursing-home escapee is arranged in parallel with riveting satire that rollicks through the hush-hush and often brutal geo-political intrigues of the 20th century. While there is certainly a touch of black comedy to this book, I wouldn’t say it’s quite on the level of, say, Waititi’s Jo Jo Rabbit or the grim 2017 film The Death of Stalin.
Whether or not you're familiar with the literary classic that inspired its characters and plot from start to finish (Charles Dickens' David Copperfield), you're sure to find Barbara Kingsolver's huge 2022 novel about foster care and the opioid epidemic in Appalachia hard to put down. Demon Copperhead is a feat of storytelling—crowded with troubling happenings and yet somehow not unbearable to read.
4. In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet's Portable Workshop (Steve Kowit)
I worked through Steve Kowit's practical poetry handbook slowly over many months in 2022 and 2023 and I recommend it heartily to anyone looking for guidance as they begin writing poetry or work to make their writing better. If you’re planning on taking one of my poetry workshops this year, this book also makes a wonderful companion text to keep you inspired for our weekly writing assignments.
5. Some Tame Gazelle (Barbara Pym)
Barbara Pym was one of my great finds for 2023, and Some Tame Gazelle is my favorite of hers so far. With a compassion often well-cloaked under a hood of wry humor, Pym in this comedy of manners champions the single women of 1950s Britain and exposes the indignities and social slights that often made their lives lonely and their work thankless. If you want to learn more about Barbara Pym's life and times, Paula Byrne's The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym is quite a good biography.
I know people who LOATHE Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure for the ruthless sadness of it, but I'm not ashamed to admit: I love it so hard. I think the story is ruthless because for so many people on our planet, life is ruthless. And Hardy holds those lives up to the light and asks us for what is not hard to give: compassion. And maybe even the will to change.
The more I learn about women’s history and feminist theory, the more I’m troubled by the widespread loss of this history and knowledge in the decades following the women’s movement of the 1970s. I passionately believe that being uninformed about this history is bad for women and for all of us. But how might someone with limited spare time at their disposal manage to parse through these heaps of material—that often exist in conflict—and select from among them in an informed way? Alix Kates Schulman and Honor Moore’s anthology is here to help. Women’s Liberation! is a magnificent collection of pivotal feminist works from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and it succeeds in honoring the wide body of writing that emerged in this time without detracting from the authors’ differences of perspective and conviction. If you want to know about the women's movement but don't know where to start, start here. A hearty five stars.
I can't believe how late in the game I properly discovered the funny and fabulous Katherine Mansfield. A New Zealand writer and critic of the modernist movement, Mansfield's promising literary career was cut short when she died of tuberculosis at only 34. However, she did manage to produce 75 short stories before her death in 1923. I'm very much taken with this compassionate collection.
I picked up this volume of Lucille Clifton's collected poems at the amazing Harriet's Bookshop in Philly and finally getting around to it in earnest in June and July was one of the highlights of my summer. The fact that the poems were selected and compiled by Aracelis Girmay, a long-time favorite poet of mine in her own right, was just one more thing to love about this tender but fierce presentation of Clifton's work. A solid five stars.
This was the year I finally wrapped up a monthslong reading of Kristin Kobes DuMez' biographical history of the ground-breaking but largely forgotten Christian feminist Katharine Bushnell, and although I realize my background in Victorian literature and thought has made this book especially meaningful to me, I do so wish the important context it provides for the complex development of feminism in the 20th century was more widely-known. A fascinating and relevant read.
BONUS BEST READS:
Leaf by Niggle (J.R.R. Tolkien)
Cloud Cuckoo Land (Anthony Doerr)
Daytripper (Fabio Moon)
Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography (Margaret Foster)
Morning in the Burned House (Margaret Atwood)
A Sight For Sore Eyes (Ruth Rendell)
The Death of Ivan Ilych (Leo Tolstoy)