The Best Books I Read in 2023

December 30, 2023
Brooklyn, New York
That time I borrowed 6 books at once from the library @_@

Somehow, I read 76 books this year. I read on planes, beaches, mountains, in bed, on the subway, in waiting rooms. I liked most of them, and there were only a few I didn’t finish. I’m getting better at dropping books that make me feel like I’m wading through mud without it being some sort of personal failure. I bought some, and I borrowed many from the Greenpoint Public library. When I was in primary school, I was the Head Library Assistant, and spent most of my days putting books back on the shelf and reading. I think I read 300 books that year. As a kid growing up with limited access to money, the library was a place of refuge for me. I think I used books as a way to connect with the world beyond what I felt was my own limited one, and now, at 30, with an entirely new relationship with the library on the other side of the world, it feels really special. I’ve become an annoying library evangelist this year because I think EVERYONE should have a library card. You can literally download books at home from the library system straight into your Kindle, and I can reserve almost any title I’m interested in. The only downside is that my eyes are bigger than the actual time I have to read, so I end up panic-reading four books at once when they all seem to be released from my holds section at the exact same time. 

Anyway, out of all the books I read this year, there were 15 or so that stood out—books that stayed with me, taught me things, changed how I saw love and life and identity, kept me up at night or had me reading while walking (something I would not recommend on the streets of New York).

This felt like a heavy and hard year, and reading gave me such a sweet place to rest. It helped me better articulate my own feelings, and it constantly reminds me of our connected experience as tiny beings moving around our private little worlds that can feel so overwhelming and isolating. I would say that this list is the books I enjoyed the most, but there were a whole bunch of books I read that helped me refine my perspective on politics or anti-capitalism, so I want to mention those below as well, if that’s something you’re interested in. 

  • Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò - About identity polities and the inequality of power 
  • On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson - Essays about freedom to/from in four realms: art, sex, drugs and climate echange
  • Who is Wellness For?: An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind by Fariha Roisin - Part memoir of trauma, part interrogation of the colonialized wellness industry.
  • Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell - An examination of the politics of time and and our relationship to it.
  • Health Communism by Beatrice Adler-Bolton - A short book about how we are basically extractive targets of profit for the health industry as it is, and argues for a future of health that is based on a collective commitment to each other
  • The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks - Basically about how we socialize men to be unemotional robots and how that affects women and our relationships. 
  • They Call it Love: The Politics of Emotional Life by Alva Gotby - An examination of the politics of emotional support and love that is generally not compensated and expected of people in the margins.

  Stay True by Hua Hsu - A memoir about the precious and pivotal period in your teenage years when you first turn to art as a way to understand yourself, and the friends you make in that time. One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, it’s about Hua’s friendship with Ken in 90’s California at Berkeley, who then is murdered in a carjacking, and his grief thereafter. It’s a story about Asian identity, but not obviously so — being Taiwanese-American is woven into the backdrop of the main story, which is a moving portrait of grief, friendship, coming of age and art. I saw so much of my own experience growing up and being a cultural snob in my small suburban home in Sydney and my own furious attempts at creating my “identity” through the things I consumed that made me feel countercultural to my family. Made me want to remember every single little special detail about the people in my life to remember them by.

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien - This one was recommended to me by my friend Shirley. It’s about a woman who returns home to Cabramatta (a Vietnamese-dominant south-western suburb of Sydney) after her younger brother is killed at a graduation dinner. With no real answers, she takes it upon herself to investigate his murder which then takes you through a series of POVs that range from her family to community members connected to the murder scene. I loved this because I am going to STAN any author coming out of Western Sydney (where I’m from), and I though it was super inventive to wrap an immigration/trauma story into the genre of murder-mystery.

  Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy - I’d only read The Road about ten years ago, and had no idea what I was walking into with this one. It’s a historical novel based on a 14 year old kid who joins a gang of outlaws on a killing rampage of Native Americans around the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s. There’s a lot of scalping, grotesque characters, incredible passages of some of the best writing I’ve ever read, a lot of meandering descriptions about landscape and weather punctuated by more scalping. It’s brutal and beautiful, and the characters are so vivid, it’s hard to believe they’re works of fiction. I read the last chapter of this book in a daze and its exploration of the complication of good vs evil stayed with me for a long time. I think I remember feeling so stunned and shaken by this that I felt physically ill. 

Motherhood by Sheila Heti - One of the only pieces of writing that has ever mirrored the spiraling questions chasing each other in my head (and in the heads of a lot of other women I know) on the decision of motherhood. It’s like reading a mind eat itself in real time arguing for both sides. Lots of questions on the relationship of art making and identity to the role of motherhood. This quote from the book killed me:

“How far beyond your mother do you hope to get? You are not going to be a different woman entirely, so just be a slightly altered version of her, and relax. You don't have to have all of what she had. Why not live something else instead? Live the pattern which is the repeating, which was your mother and her mother before her, live it a little bit differently this time. A life is just a proposition you ask by living it "Could a life be lived like this too?" Then your life will end. So let the soul that passed down from your mothers try out this new life in you. There is no living your life forever. It's just once - a trial of a life. Then it will end. So give the soul that passed down from your mothers a chance to try out life in you. As a custodian for the soul passed down through your mothers, you might make it a little easier this time around. Treat it nicely because it's had a hard time. This is the first time in generations it can rest. Or decide with true liberty what it will do. So why not treat it with real tenderness? It has been through so much already, why not let it rest?”

Sheila Heti, Motherhood

    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - I read this back to back with Beloved by Toni Morrison on a beach vacation to the Mexican coast. I had to cleanse my palate afterwards with The Guest List by Lucy Foley because they felt way too intense to be reading in the sunshine in a thong bikini at a resort (if you’re doing that, I’m jealous and I recommend The Guest List, The Seven Husabnds of Evelyn Hugo and The Guest by Emma Cline). This one is pretty slim, it’s a dystopian novel about a future where books are banned and are burned by “firemen”, the protagonist being one himself, who starts to questions why he does what he does. 

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang - I DEVOURED this satirical take on the publishing industry, not only because it was so fun to read but because of the subtext and autobiographical details that matched with the author’s IRL life. It’s about a white woman who steals her Asian friend’s manuscript when she dies, and publishes it as her own. The premise itself is fucking bonkers, and it has received criticism because the author appears to have modeled the deceased Asian author in the book on her own career, and re-packaged the criticism she got herself on previous books as in-book plot details. Wild! So fun to read but a bit of a let down in ending. 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - Recommended to me by Ash! I love me some magical realism, and this one is full of it. You follow Piranesi, who lives in a weird labyrinth-style decrepit open-aired structure with endless halls and vestibules periodically flooded by the ocean. It is so so beautiful and reads like one of those dreams you try to explain to your boyfriend but no matter how hard you try you just sound like you’re having a stroke.  Fun fact, the namesake, Piranesi, is Italian architect and painter Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who is famous for his insanely elaborate etchings of fictional prisons.

   Shuggie Bain AND Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart - My friend Seamus recommended this to me by saying they got insomnia from how sad it was. I think I did too, because I found myself reading it late at night for hours, being unable to sleep, then having my therapist raise an eyebrow at me the next morning when she asked me what I was reading when I kept telling her I just don’t know why I can’t sleep

Douglas Stewart has an incredible way of creating vivid portraits of a specific moment in time I have no idea about - working class Scotland in the 80’s. These books are devastating, and both center queer young male characters at the edge of understanding who they are in a violent and senseless world of poverty, homophobia and alcoholism. I loved these characters and although I had to put it down at times because of how devastated I was, I never wanted it to end. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison - OK yes wow. A Pulitzer Prize winner and something I took far too long to get stuck into. It’s about Sethe, a woman who was born a slave and escaped, and the farm where so much violence happened and which haunts her. There’s an angry baby ghost, and a really unflinching and devastating story of slavery, its consequences and the loss and pain it wreaks onto people and their families for their whole lives. Another book I had to take a lot of breaks from, incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad.  

    Doppelgänger by Naomi Klein - I would strongly recommend diving straight into every book Naomi Klein has ever written if you haven’t. I’ve been a massive fan for a while now, and her writing never fails to teach me a new way to see the hidden structures within capital that dominate our world. This one is a weird mix between a memoir/interrogation of a doppelgänger she kind of has - Naomi Wolf, who is a 90’s ex-feminist icon turned into a right wing conspiracy theorist. Klein describes having her DMs blow up with people who confuse the two of them, both Jewish women speaking about corporate structure in very different ways. She uses this as a launchpad to examine the shadowy culture that exists alongside the one that liberals inhabit - the one which use the same language that liberals do, but in reverse. It’s so interesting and such a book of the times with what’s going on with Israel/Palestine. She also released an excerpt from the book about Israel/Palestine and doppelgänger shadow culture which you can download here

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts - Love me some Alan Watts, this is great philosophy book basically about why the feeling of being separated from everything else is an illusion, and we’re really just bits and pieces of the same universe. Really big thinking and questions on ego and the myths that are sold to us. Had a really great impact on me, one of those books that make you walk around for a few days and everything looks a little different until silly little things bum you out again.

    My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing by Carl Phillips - Short collection of essays about writing! This was the year that I dived back into writing formally, something I’ve always loved but let fall to the wayside for most of my adult life. This would be a great gift for any writer in your life. Really beautiful, helpful, comforting and lovely to read. 

The Boy and the Dog by Seishū Hase, Alison Watts (Translator) - What a sweet little book! It’s about a dog (Tamon) who is on a massive journey to return to its home after a tsunami, and on its way stops at the sides of various characters, each of which occupy a single chapter. You get a window into the lives of all these people, way stations for the dog on its way home, and how the dog creates small ripples in these peoples lives before he moves on. It made me think about what our pets do for us, how they mirror our humanity and desires and needs, and the strange inclination we have as human beings to domesticate and live with actual animals in our homes. Have you ever thought of this while high? It freaks me out sometimes that I literally cohabitate with an animal that cannot communicate with me beyond grunting.

    Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy, and Connection by Mimi Zhu - I’ve been a fan of Mimi’s writing and work for a while now. Mimi reflects on her own journey of healing as the survivor of intimate partner violence, simultaneously rooting that story in explorations on healing and its role in transformative justice, abolition and undoing the colonial cycles of violence. Focuses on the emotional stages of stitching back your soul together after trauma, a beautiful and raw book for those in their healing era. 

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti - After Motherhood I ran to devour Sheila Heti’s other work, and this one was so strange. You’re basically following a woman who joins her dead father in another world, which I think is being lost on a leaf? It’s incredibly meandering and metaphysical, and very loose on plot and heavy on abstract ruminations about life and beauty and death. It wrecked me. I have a feeling it’s probably super polarizing.