Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Favorite books of 2023

It’s New Year’s Day as I write this. Although it’s really just an ordinary day, following yesterday in a continuous line of 24-hour periods of time, it always feels special to me, as though new beginnings and better behaviors are ahead of me.

If I were making a list of New Year’s Resolutions, which I’m not, I would put this one on the list: to read lots of good books in 2024. But I don’t need a resolution because I already know I’ll follow through. If 2023 is any indication, 2024 will be a good reading year.

My annual list of favorites follows. It doesn’t cover all the books read in 2023, just the ones I’d recommend above others. A good number of these are the ones chosen by my book club whose meetings I look forward to every month. We always read good books which we choose ourselves once a year through a hilarious process of recommendations and decision-by-consensus. Having a good book club helps in making good choices. Plus, it’s tremendous fun.

With apologies for the length of the list, here it is:


Colleen Oakley, The Invisible Husband of Frick Island (2021): Unusual and creative plot that kept me guessing until the end. It’s the story of a young widow who pretends her husband is still alive and the islanders who go along with it. 

Louise Penny, A World of Curiosities (2022): I always look for the latest Penny mystery. This one is about a notorious serial-killer, loose from prison and on a quest to kill Inspector Gamache. Gamache figures it out before we do, of course, and barely escapes with his life.

Abi Dare, The Girl with the Louding Voice (2020): The author is Nigerian and writes of a 14-year-old girl from a rural town who runs away to escape an arranged marriage and ends up in Lagos. The story is written from the perspective of the girl who speaks Nigerian English, and her language is one of the best features of the book. A powerful story of women in Africa and the importance of education. Loved this book. 

Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman (2020): Pulitzer prize winner. I love anything by Erdrich, a Native American writer. This story is based on Erdrich’s grandfather and the work he did against the Congressional resolution to abrogate treaties made with American Indians. Insightful on both NA history and intercultural relations. Powerful.

Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass (2009): Tyler is another favorite author. This novel deals with an old man who is “downsized” from his teaching job, forced into an unwilling retirement, and has a strange romance with a quirky young woman, throwing his daughters into a chaos of emotions, mostly frustration and anger. Insightful on the struggles of aging and hopeful at the same time.

Charles Williams, Descent into Hell (1937): This was a re-reading of my favorite of Williams’ theological thrillers. The story of people so ego-obsessed they find themselves damned. But also a story of conversion and substitutionary love whereby one person literally bears the burden of another. This was transformative for me the first time I read it and continues to influence my thinking and my ministry.

Marie Benedict, The Only Woman in the Room (2019): Revealing and surprising novel based on the life of iconic actress Heddy Lamar. I had no idea (nor did her contemporaries) she was such a brilliant scientist and so influential behind the scenes of World War 2. 


Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter (2005): This is definitely one of the best books I read during the year. It’s based on the true story of a young Mexican woman, Teresita Urrea, who had unusual mystical gifts of healing and became a living saint and an inspiration to indigenous peoples during the Mexican revolution of the early 1900s. Urrea writes beautifully and this book is riveting.

Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan, Mad Honey (2022): About the murder of a young man and told alternately by his mother and his girl-friend who is accused of the murder. It addresses difficult themes: spouse abuse, child abuse, and, especially, the struggles of transgender people. Presents a compassionate view.

Shelby Van Pelt, Remarkably Bright Creatures (2022): Loved it! About the relationship between an octopus (in an aquarium) and the cleaning lady who admires him. The octopus is intelligent (“remarkably bright”), good at solving conundrums and at escaping his tank every night to forage for better food, etc. It’s a story of friendship, loyalty, and self-giving love. A modern fairy-tale actually.  

Ann Patchett, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992): Story of a disgruntled young wife who finds herself pregnant and escapes to a rural Catholic home in Kentucky for unwed mothers (even though she is married). She plans to give her baby up for adoption but falls in love with her infant daughter and ends up staying long-term in the home. The plot develops as she deals with her past and learns to accept who she is becoming. I like everything Ann Patchett writes.

Ann Garvin, There’s No Coming Back from This (2023): A clever and quirky story of a single mother about to be imprisoned by the IRS for back taxes. She flees across the US to Hollywood and a job in the costume department of Universal Studios. Her unspoken candor and unglamorous ways clash with the movie-making culture and make for fascinating, sometimes hilarious, reading.


Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea (2015): Incredible memoir of the author’s life in North Korea and her complicated escape.

Prince Harry, Spare (2023): Fascinating to hear Harry’s side of his controversial decision, made with his wife Meghan, to retire from the duties of royalty and move to North America. Good insider view of the challenges of life among the British royalty.

Emily Pennington, Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks (2023): Memoir of the author’s cross-country trip in a decked-out van, while she works through a romantic break-up and searches for her identity. All this is against the backdrop of America’s spectacular national parks; the author describes each one, with some of its history. 


Daniel Bowman Jr., On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith & the Gifts of Neurodiversity. (2021): Insightful essays by the author who didn’t realize he was autistic until becoming an adult.

Louise Aronson, Elderhood: Refining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life (2019): One of the most important books I read this year. The author is a geriatrician and advocate for change in the way society views aging and treats the elderly. Especially insightful when it comes to the “health industry.”

Eli Saslow, Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist (2018): Pulitzer Prize winner. Biography of Dereck Black, a man indoctrinated in white nationalism since childhood. Gives a scary picture of the lives, beliefs, and passions of this extreme branch of North American conservatism. Shows Black’s slow process of coming to doubt the tenets of the movement and backing away. Insightful and hopeful. An important book today.


Andrea Cohen, Everything (2021): A delight discovery, Cohen majors in short poems that give surprise takes on cultural cliches.

Carl Phillips, My Trade is Mystery (2022): Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, this book is a collection of essays on poetry. I found it inspiring and insightful. I also bought his prize-winning book of poems, Then the War, but I couldn’t get into it. I guess I need to read it several times and see if it connects with my spirit. Or not.

Ed Higgins, Near Truth Only (2022): I’m delighted with this collection of poems from my good friend, who is also a good poet. His images and insights often surprise me.

I read lots of other poets, mostly collections that I consider keepers, even in this stage of downsizing: ee cummings, Robert Siegel, Theodore Roethke, Luci Shaw, Mary Oliver, and many others.

I’d love to hear about your favorite books in 2023. I’m sure I’d find many to add to my to-read list. Happy reading!

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