Books Read in 2023

(yes, this is an extremely late post. it’s been an, um, eventful winter for me)

Apparently I read 37 (!) books last year 😳 That’s a little less than 2022 (45), but still nearly one a week. Goodness.

Anyway, if you’re looking to pick up something new, I thought I’d list them all out, grouped roughly by vibe and in order read.

Books to Get You Through a Breakup

Because yeah, it’s hard.

  • No Bad Parts by Richard Schwartz: One of the first books recommended by my therapist. I was skeptical going in, but I’ve found its techniques to be incredibly helpful over the last year.
  • Conscious Uncoupling by Katherine Woodward Thomas: Veers awfully close to the cult of achievement (“If you do your divorce just right, you’ll get a gold star!”), but still a useful set of tools for how to limit the damage when your life blows up.
  • The Sh!t No One Tells You About Divorce by Dawn Dais: Exactly the kind of cathartic, laugh-out-loud guide to the aftermath that I needed, particularly after having read the previous book.
  • The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: An amazing novel, and a good reminder that men are bastards, and some women are, too.

Books to Put You to Sleep

Sometimes you read before bed for a reason.

  • The Great Sea by David Abulafia: I swear, I wanted to like this one. Really! I usually love this kind of big scope history. But ye gods is this one dull. Just…could…not…stay…awake.

Books I Don’t Remember

I think both of these were good? But for the life of me I can’t tell you which one is which, or what I learned. Probably says more about me than the books, though.

  • The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky: I think this is a blow-by-blow tale of how the media in Russia changed from the latter Soviet years to the early years of Putin. If it’s the book I’m thinking of, it’s very much an insider’s view, that made me feel both the hope of the early years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the disillusionment that set in afterward.
  • The Age of Illusions by Andrew J. Bacevich: As Gandalf once said, “I have no memory of this place.”

Books to Radicalize You

In the best way, I mean. A radical for making things better, because you can see how we got to where we are now.

  • Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty: Took me a while to get to this one, and I’m sorry I held off on it for so long. A well-researched, readable account of the long-term (200 years!) trends in modern economies, that explains both how things were so different (and good!) in the years just after World War II, and how things have reverted to the mean (which means worse) since then.
  • Capitalism, Alone by Branko Milanovic: A fascinating thesis about the role of communism in the development of what used to be called the Third World, wrapped in a large work that is completely in thrall to debunked theories of classical economics.
  • The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi: This book, combined with Piketty’s, completely flipped my understanding of the last few hundred years of economic history. Completely demolishes the idea of the “market” as something separate from society, and demonstrates how the pursuit of the impossible dream of a “free market” has resulted in so much destruction and misery.

Books to Catch You Up with The Atlantic

No tea, no shade, but these books are, let’s say, more pop, less substance?

  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed byJon Ronson: I like to believe that Ronson is coming from a good place here, trying to put a human face on public figures that have gone through a very public shaming on social media. Which is a laudable goal! We should all keep in mind that what’s on the other end of the “Post” button is a human being. But I did some digging on his profiles, and he turns out to have left out a lot of the most damning parts. So, definitely a skewed view.
  • Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum: An extremely serious subject, a serious (and good) writer. And yet. A slight book that left little impression on me.

Books to Ruin Your Friend’s Gladiator Viewing Party

Because how are you going to be that jerk if you haven’t done your research?

  • The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham: Incredibly readable account of the six hundred years following the fall of the Western Empire. This was a re-read for me, and it’s even better than I remembered.
  • Mortal Republic by Edward J Watts: Picked this up after hearing Watts on the excellent podcast “Subject to Change.” An excellent account of how the (very much not inevitable) choices of Rome’s elites led to the end of the Republic.
  • Thebes by Paul Cartledge: True, this is about Ancient Greece, not Rome, but bear with me. At least, bear with me long enough to warn you off of this book. It’s readable, it’s written by an expert, but for me it never really gelled into a coherent picture of Theban society.

Books to Fight the Patriarchy

Because patriarchy is a trap, my friends, for all genders.

  • Trojan Horses by Page DuBois: Fantastic explanation of how so many of the ways ancient societies are presented are based on flawed, racist, assumptions.
  • The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega: Accessible and short corrective on some of the many (many!) myths we moderns hold about gender in medieval society.
  • Femina by Janina Ramirez: More medieval history, this time bringing to life the stories of women — warriors, rulers, saints — who shaped the Middle Ages in Europe.

Books to Get Lost In

Sometimes you just need a good story to dive into and not come up for a few days, yeah?

  • Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan: Fantastic world-building, a passionate and ass-kicking heroine, with a story that puts the fate of several heavenly kingdoms on the line. Looking forward to the sequel.
  • How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix: Scarfed this down in a single day’s binge read. Warning: Puppets.
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes: A classic I re-read for a book club. Still hits me right in the feels, but, um, beware the very-60s treatment of its female characters.
  • Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers: Classic Soviet-era sci-fi. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series is basically a re-telling of this book. In my opinion, the original (this one) is better.
  • The Searcher by Tara French: Every novel I read by French leaves me wrung out and gut-punched, in the best way.
  • Middlemarch by George Elliot: This might become a yearly read for me.
  • Station Eternity by Mur Lafferty: The first of a new series by the mighty Mur. It’s a noir murder mystery set on a sentient alien space station, need I say more?
  • The City & The City by China Miéville: Wow. Felt like an allegory for Israel/Palestine, Europe/Africa, and the latter stages of the Cold War, all wrapped in a paranoid thriller where archeology plays a starring role. Not sure anyone but Miéville could pull this off (but he does).

Books to Rediscover Your Inner Hippie

In these days of shifting climates and ecological loss, there’s never been a better time to reconnect with the natural world (so we can save it).

  • The Arbornaut - Meg Lowman: Fascinating recount of a career spent literally in the trees, to explore the top of the forest (an area which is still not fully understood). Made me look up more, past the trunk of the trees around here, to their crowns.
  • Finding the Mother Tree - Suzanne Simard: Another career retrospective from a top-class scientist (who happens to be local to my neck of the woods). I loved the descriptions of her research, and her findings (about how linked up the trees in a forest are, how interdependent) changed the way I see anything that grows.

Books to Help You Understand Others

Because sometimes the only thing you need to stop arguing with someone is to see things from their perspective.

  • The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman: As I move through my fourth decade of life, I find myself interested in learning more about what was happening in the larger world while I was growing up. I was hoping for both a memory boost and a larger viewpoint on the decade. I definitely got the memory boost, but the larger viewpoint was lacking.
  • High Conflict - Amanda Ripley: Got this because I was in a high conflict situation with a co-worker, and hoped it would help with that. Book turned out to be a bit deeper than I expected based on its business-suit packaging; actually shed some light on how society in the US (and other places) has split since 2016, and how such conflicts can become self-sustaining, long past when the initial grievance occurred. Well worth the read.
  • Tribe - Sebastian Junger: I picked this up thinking it would be “just” a look at soldiers and PTSD, but it turned out to be much more. An interesting study in how humans in groups react under extreme stress, from Londoners during the Blitz to trapped miners as well as soldiers returning home after war. One of those I’m going to have to re-read, I think, to fully absorb everything in it.

Books to Pass a Lazy Afternoon With

Curl up with one of these (and a blanket and some tea) on a rainy day.

  • Danubia - Simon Winder: The second of Winder’s three books on middle European history, which I read out of order. Rambling in the best way. I retain almost nothing of the history of the period or the region after reading this, but I was never bored, either, and he doesn’t shy away from the problematic history he has to cover.
  • Germania - Simon Winder: The first book of Winder’s series, and the most apologetic of the bunch. He seems compelled to apologize, both for being bold enough to write a narrative history at all, and then to write about Germany (which his generation, and mine, were raised to see as inherently suspect). Once past the throat-clearing, though, we’re off to the same rambling (but entertaining) stories as the other two books.

Books to Make You Want to Write More

If you need that kind of motivation, that is.

  • The War of Art - Steven Pressfield: If you’ve ever wanted a drill sergeant to yell at you about your writing, this is the book for you. If you get turned off by such gung-ho chest-beating approaches, this is not the motivational book you want.

Books I Couldn’t Fit Anywhere Else

Not everything fits neatly into a category.

  • The Medieval Archer - Jim Bradbury: A bit dry, but still an interesting counter to several myths about archery as represented in popular media. Not least of which is that women weren’t hunters; not enough books print medieval illustrations of women hunting with bows, but this one does!
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe: Okay, so I picked this one up because I read The Devil’s Candy, which is the (fascinating) story of how making the movie version of this went completely off the rails. After reading that take, I watched the movie (which is indeed a hot mess) and decided to read the book. Which I bounced off of, several times, before deciding to force myself to finish it. It’s, um, a very 80s thing, which is both the best and the worst thing I can say about it. I can’t really recommend it, though it was better than the movie, I suppose.
  • How to Astronaut - Terry Virts: Exactly what it says on the tin. Runs through Virts’ recruitment, training, and experiences as an astronaut over the last few decades of space flight. Virts sometimes reads like a high school jock made good (which is a trigger for me personally), but his love for his work and his pride in his part in advancing our understanding of the environment of space shines through.
Ron Toland @mindbat