2023 book recommendations – Part I

by Maria on December 13, 2023

It’s time for my annual-ish reading round-up. Record-keeping has many benefits, chief amongst them, counter-intuitive insights. This year’s book diary has revealed that in a year I’d have said was pretty so-so, it turns out the number of books I really loved was unexpectedly high, about three times that of the previous two years. The number of books I read was pretty consistent, on average a book a week. In these increasingly short-form times, that starts to seem like a lot, but it’s average or slightly below average for bookish types. And I still outread fiction to nonfiction by about 8:1.

In 2022, rather shamefully, I read no non-English language book, and only six in translation, and no complete poetry collection. This year wasn’t much better. The only poetry collection I read beginning to end was Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, and that’s largely because I read them aloud to our second dog, Molly, who seems to enjoy it. I read no books in Irish (though some poetry and a few short stories), but did manage Balzac’s Père Goriot in French. (In an act of completism or perhaps just insecurity, I then also read it in English and listened to a French audiobook. I enjoyed it a lot, perhaps especially as it’s so interesting and freeing to experience the much roomier concept of what a modern novel is, in the hands of one of that form’s creators.)

I read five short story collections, up from three the previous year, though I also read many online and in magazines like the New Yorker, Stinging Fly, etc. In this tardis-like form I’m especially glad to be a science fiction reader, as to SF writers the short story is both a native form – and not a poor relation – and there’s such ambition for what can be jammed in, often in rich and subtle world-building that conjures a singular structure of feeling which would put most literary fiction writers to shame. I’ve been thinking a lot about short stories this year, and managed to have two published. One’s a weird, long, slopping over the sides of the form monologue from an alternative future (Burning Men, which I mentioned here a while ago). The other is an MFA-realist, story in a scene, ‘let me convey to you the characters’ emotional truths in their physical gestures and minimalist dialogue’ sort of piece called Holy Saturday. I love that as an SF reader I’m more or less legally required to think of short stories as wilder, more information-dense, and both tighter and baggier than strict anglo-realism allows, but I’m still figuring out how to write things that don’t careen wildly from one extreme to the other, and essentially feel like they’ve been written by two different humans. I’m working on one that tries to straddle realism and … non, but it’s landing somewhere that might be Kelly Link, but only if she was predictable and unfunny.

Anyway, all this segue-ing to say, of the collections I read this year, these stand out: George Saunders’ new collection, Liberation Day, though it felt I was just laying down a first reading, and Wendy Erskine’s second collection, Dance Move. Dance Move’s stories are longer and feel somehow less determined (or perhaps structured, or teleological) than her first collection. There’s more room in them, and more open-ended questions. I’ll be honest, I don’t typically love the ‘short story that ends without resolution, at a moment of minor crisis or instant of uncertain revelation’. I find those mannered, a taste people are supposed to want to cultivate to attain a status-conscious, hierarchically engendered literary refinement, a bit like how professional fashion people always wear black. But these stories, looser though they are in terms of destination, are not that. Wendy’s stories end less dispositively than they used to, or at least that’s my impression. But they’re always curious and compassionate, not with-holding, and you feel the people in them have come to a genuine point of not knowing themselves any more but perhaps being about to find out something new. Basically I’m saying I would follow her into battle.

The other collection I wish to press virtually into your hands is the quite honestly awe-inspiring Ten Planets by Mexican writer Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman. If I say the words ‘Ted’ and ‘Chiang’ to you, will that sufficiently conjure someone writing both into and out of the speculative genres, along with a sense of one utterly sui generis? Some of this collection’s short stories could fit nicely into an SF annual collection edited by, say, Gardner Dozois (may he RIP; already I miss his bumper ‘best ofs’.); for example, “House Taken Over”, about an AI-controlled house that insists ever more strongly on its family being quiet and nice 24/7. Others come by way of Kafka or Borges, such as the very short opening story about a man seemingly left behind on Earth, unable to remember anything, including the meaning of notes he may have left himself to explain what’s happening. One is about an obituarist in a world where people use invisibility devices, and navigate discretely around each other in public places, just as the people in China Mièville’s ‘The City and the City’ did. A thread runs through some of humans leaving Earth in a hurry and, perhaps, being separated as they flee through space. One is about a devastatingly lonely man on an alien planet, where people communicate telepathically and feel very differently. The man learns from them that one of his kind may also be there, and sets out to find them. The conclusion is startling and unexpectedly joyous. I cannot recommend Herrera strongly enough. He’s that extraordinary self-creation, a writer whose antecedents you can trace – from Melville to Philip K. Dick to Calvino to perhaps some Central European, mid-century tragi-comic sensibility, and I’m sure a range of Spanish writing I simply don’t know – but who is so completely and inimitably himself that there are genuinely moments when you gasp at the unexpected, the audacious.

Well, I was going to write more about other books, and hope I may resume again, but short stories seem to have gobbled up my self-imposed word-count for now. I will also just mention that Thomas Morris’s collection, Open Up, has a touching opening story about a boy, his dad and a football match, and a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly shapeless one about the emotional devastation left behind by the profligate excess of seahorse paternity. Very sweet and very funny.



J-D 12.13.23 at 11:32 pm

In this tardis-like form I’m especially glad to be a science fiction reader, as to SF writers the short story is both a native form – and not a poor relation …

To me it is intriguing that there is some commercial market for short stories, even outside science fiction, even if only as a poor relation of the novel, whereas as far as I can tell there is no commercial market at all for short plays or short films.


Lambert 12.14.23 at 4:14 am

Maria: I would love to see Part 2 of this list so I can have double the wonderful references! Best regards.


CJColucci 12.14.23 at 8:52 pm

Our dog is getting on in years, so as soon as I unpack whatever moving box I put it in, I’ll read Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs to her.


Doug 12.14.23 at 9:42 pm

Congratulations on the publications!

I thought I had only read one collection of short stories this year, but that’s because it was so, so good and overshadowed the other two (which, to be fair, are more linked short bits than straight-up collections). We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter S. Beagle. One towering classic within the genre — and from 50+ years ago at that — and a spotty publication history mean that it’s all to easy to overlook how terrific the rest of his work is. (Or at least what I’ve read; if he’s got a stinker or two I haven’t found them.) For this collection, I guess it’s important now to note that it predates not talking about Bruno by more than a decade. Try the first story, “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel,” and see if you aren’t astonished.

Ted Chiang’s work is hit or miss for me, but that Herrera collection sounds really interesting! Your description reminds me of Jo Walton’s highest praise: “I can’t think of anything else like it.”

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