My Wrap-Up and Favorite Reads of 2023
This year was a great one for reading, a year that included books in print, on Kindle, and audio. Wanting to up my yearly reading, the trio of formats seemed the most efficient means. I can catch up on classics I’ve missed and rewind a year or two to books I missed. Audiobooks have made catching up, and keeping up, a bit easier, so does Kindle. I love it when being stuck in line at the post office means I can dip back into a current read. Here’s a wrap-up of my Favorite Reads of 2023.
Table of Contents
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Award-winning novel has long been on my list, and after reading his memoir, Joseph Anton in print, and Victory City on audio, I vowed to read all of Rushdie in 2024. In his memoir, Rushdie describes the convergence of identity, history, and narrative that gave birth to MIdnight’s Children, an account so intriguing it made the novel an instant must-read. On its release, Midnight’s Children was so influential that the postcolonial novel was thereafter divided into pre-and-post-Rushdie, and called “a watershed in the post-independence development of the Indian English novel.”
The novel centers on Saleem Sinai, born at the precise moment of the fall of British Colonial India and its partition. Part history, part fantasy, the story is told by the adult Saleem, a narrator whose asides, cultural references, colloquialisms, and exhaustive knowledge of history and literature inform his personal history as a changeling and the chaotic and violent Partition of 1947.
From his birth at the moment of Partition, to being swapped from a fate of poverty to one of wealth (“Children are the vessels into which adults pour their poison”) , the young Saleem, as a result of his timely birth, has the gift of unified thought with all those born at the hour of Partition, a gift that enables him to exert his own power over fate. The novel, Rushdie’s second , is true to his style, maximalist and meta:
I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred.
The audiobook, read by Lyndam Gregory, can be found here.
Istanbul: Memories of a City, by Orhan Pamuk
This 2003 memoir (published in English in 2005 by Faber & Faber) from the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and essay writer Orhan Pamuk, is a jewel box of remembrances of Ottoman history, art, biography, and personal mythology. Written in linked essays, Istanbul is a mosaic of obsession, a portrait of the city where Pamuk was born into wealth, came of age, and where he still resides. Central to the writer’s experience of place is hüzün, which roughly translates from Turkish as a collective melancholy.
For Pamuk, that melancholy applies not only to the Istanbullus, but to the city itself—one that resides in the 19th-century wood houses, the city’s crumbling walls and ruins, the frequent fires that historically purge its neighborhoods, in the water and light of the Bosphorus, the strait that divides the city across the European and Asian continents, and in the streets themselves:
I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early…of the covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speaking to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives; of the empty boathouses of the old Bosphorus villas…of the broken seesaws in empty parks….of the cold reading rooms of libraries; of the street photographers…
The shadow that was cast on Turkey by the fall of the Empire, and Istanbul’s division, both geographic and cultural, between east and west are only the most obvious sources of hüzün. Pamuk’s reflections on his own character are wonderfully odd and often dark, and this makes Istanbul an unforgettable memoir, one that goes against its own grain by shedding light on one writer’s melancholy and self-doubt.
The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett
This short (120 pages), but shimmering 2008 fantasy novella by British novelist Alan Bennett is a pleasure awaiting all readers.
It’s the speculative story of what happens when Queen Elizabeth unexpectedly encounters a bookmobile on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Intrigued by the titles, and partly influenced by a kitchen assistant, Norman—a young man from the royal kitchens who’s an avid reader himself—Her Majesty embarks on a reading binge, choosing books not for history as she’s always done, but solely for pleasure. Her discovery of writers that range from Alice Munro, Philip Roth, and Jane Austen to the classics, exerts a subversive effect on the palace, and the Queen’s reign, and points to the power of books to expand our thinking, and our reality.
The Twenty-Ninth Year: Poems by Hala Alyan
Published in 2019, The Twenty-Ninth Year is the fourth book of poetry from award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan, author of Salt Houses. “Twenty-nine is a year of transformation and upheaval,” the author writes, and the poems collected here mine the change that comes with dislocation, separation, and suffering caused by the alienation from one’s homeland. “The worst ghosts are the ones that don’t come back,” she writes, and loss permeates much of these poems. I love the way Alyan deploys language, as though weighing and measuring each word of its maximum power. There is irony too, a tone she modulates with a fine ear:
The officer at JFK scans me. My body, ghost white, flickering on his screen.
Pretty boy. Blue eyes.
Takes my fingerprint and winks.
Cheer up. You’re home.
There’s a romance here as well, in the speaker who is rebellious but also vulnerable:
My mother taught me how to dance in an empty room,
heels clattering on the tacky linoleum floor. My mother taught me.
I’ll cry four coats of mascara off. I’ll dress the trees with plastic bags.
Come winter, come Lent, I’ll cock myself like a gun.
Author Gabino Iglesias wrote, “Reaching the age of 29 is seen as a milestone in both Islamic and Western traditions because both cultures assign value to entering a new decade of life,” and the poetry here conveys that import with every word.
Hala Alyan reads the audiobook, which can be found here.
Night of the Living Rez, by Morgan Talty
Morgan Talty’s 2022 debut story collection, called “riveting” in this Litstack review, was a page-turner from beginning to end. Night of the Living Rez, which has gone on to win numerous awards, including the Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, and many others, was for me one of the outstanding linked story collections that have appeared over the last year—a genre of which I could easily compile another best of year list.
The collection’s twelve stories take on a family history that centers on the Penobscot Indian Nation reservation (where Talty was raised), along with coming of age, family rifts, substance addiction, zombies of course, and intergenerational trauma in a physical setting that becomes its own character.. There’s also an existential dread, one that’s tempered by a youthful brashness and irony. “I wonder if How’d we get here? is the wrong question. Maybe the right question is How do we get out of here? Maybe that’s the only question that matters.”
The Hero of this Book, by Elizabeth McCracken
As I wrote in a recent Litstack Rec, McCracken’s book is a textual house of mirrors, existing somewhere between a novel, a memoir, and a book on writing craft. The hybridity makes it something else entirely ,a book in which stories move from one reality to the next, where some things are known and others not, where storytelling is both performed and reflected upon. In a way not unlike Pamuk’s Istanbul, McCracken’s book, which she describes as a novel, both narrativizes and speculates upon personal history—though the analyses is really beside the point, and falls away when reading this shimmering book, with its intimate voice, humor, insight, and wisdom.
The author narrates the audiobook, which can be found here.
Other LitStack Resources
Be sure and head over to other articles written by Lauren Alwan.
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