Five books I loved in 2023
My top five books this year include two memoirs and three novels.
As 2023 comes to close, I’ve been reflecting, like I’m sure many of you have, on what moved me this year. Reading is a key part of inspiration for me. What I discovered in my reflections was that I didn’t read a ton of books in 2023. Between stepping up my writing (thank you for encouraging me!) and a summer course of chemo (which wasn’t conducive to reading for me—I was soothed more by video), reading was not as much of a priority for me as it has been in previous years. Even then, I still spent a fair number of hours with a book/Kindle in my hands.
These are the books that stood out to me. If you decide to read them, I hope you enjoy them, too. They appear here in no particular order, primarily because I couldn’t decide.
My Top Five
Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome
This memoir by Brian Broome who grew up in Ohio and then moved to Pittsburg offers a rare look into the life of a Black gay man. The writing is powerful and beautiful. His observations of a young boy on a city bus, which he uses to frame each chapter, demonstrate his yearning to free himself and, by extension, all of us all from toxic masculinity. In one particularly stunning chapter, Broome describes the pressure on him to be good at basketball because after all, he’s a tall Black man, so why wouldn’t he be? In this book, Broome shows a side of life that is rarely discussed even in the LGBTQ+ community. Well worth a read.
The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson
Full disclaimer, I know the author of this book from our mutual connection to James River Writers, a local Richmond writers community. Last year, I read Yellow Wife, her stunning historical fictional account about Lumpkin’s slave jail in the city in which I live, Richmond, VA. I had already read Kristen Green’s, The Devil's Half Acre: The Untold Story of How One Woman Liberated the South's Most Notorious Slave Jail, an historical nonfiction account of Mary Lumpkin, so I was anxious to read this fictional iteration. I loved Johnson’s depiction of this challenging local history with national and international reverberations. She brought the characters to life in a way nonfiction can’t do.
I will admit that I put off reading The House of Eve because I didn’t think I’d connect with the subject matter, which focuses on the lives of heterosexual Black women in the 1950s. However, Johnson’s writing is compelling, her storytelling is powerful, and the depth at which she delves into difficult subjects is superb. I’m glad I didn’t pass it up.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert’s, The Signature of All Things is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I’m always excited when I run across a new title by her. Again, I didn’t know if I could connect with the story, which is based in the 1940s theater world of New York City, but I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. Her characters are rich and deep, and although I think she could have cut down some of the sexual exploits and the length of the book overall, I love her descriptions of backstage life, costume design, especially in a wartime economy, and the sexual revolution long before the 1960s. I will often judge a book by how much it stays with me, and I know I’ll never go to New York again without looking for the characters in this book. I’m sure they’re out there somewhere!
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
I will admit that I am often intrigued by dystopian novels and films, especially those that are close to today’s reality. Our Missing Hearts fills that bill. I don’t love this latest book by Ng as much as her earlier novel, Little Fires Everywhere. At the same time, I found the premise intriguing, and I loved that one of the characters is a (subversive) librarian. I also appreciated her inclusion of a creative protest action, especially because acts of disruption like the one Ng describes will be essential for us to survive what potentially might befall us in the coming year.
Normal Family: On Truth Love, and How I Met my 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton
A memoir about a lesbian family in the 1980s spurred my interest, and I was not disappointed. I’m fully aware of the struggle lesbians faced if they wanted to have children in this time. Although sperm banks became a viable option for lesbians by the late 1980s, many were denied access prior to this time. If you wanted to have a baby, you had to do it the traditional way, through self-insemination at home, or through a non-medical women’s health clinic. Bilton’s mother finds a donor and a sperm bank that would inseminate her after obtaining a verbal promise from the donor that this would be a one-time only thing. A DNA test decades later showed that Bilton has at least thirty-five siblings. Upon further investigation, she suspects there might be hundreds, maybe even thousands more.
This memoir focuses on the unconventional relationship between her mom and her mom’s donor, Bilton’s father, but it also delves into addiction, mental illness, poverty, and life in California at the turn of the 21st century. I was fascinated by the story, especially because DNA plays a part of my story (watch for my new serialized memoir, If You Only Knew, coming in early 2024). I would recommend this to any memoir lovers, especially lesbians who lived this struggle.
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A few other notable books
I’m not planning on mentioning all the books I read this year, but even though they weren’t favorites, these four have stuck with me for some reason or another. You might find them interesting.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Yes, the old classic. I listened to the audio book on my long trip this fall and was glad to revisit it. I didn’t remember much about it and was reminded of its scary parallels to today’s book banning culture. Bradbury’s afterward is both disturbing and challenging. It’s definitely worth a re-visit in these times.
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
I know many people (including my brother) who loved this book. Not surprisingly, the writing by Barbara Kingsolver—another of my favorite authors—is phenomenal. I highlighted passage after passage of superb uses of metaphor, sensory details, and powerful scenes. Growing up in a football family, I understand football culture; twenty years working in chemical dependency treatment, I know about drug abuse; growing up in the foothills of the Ozarks; I’ve seen poverty; and now living in Virginia, I have a sense of Southwest Virginia culture, but all that being said, I didn’t connect with the characters or the plot of this book. Maybe it was too dark, and I wasn’t in the mood. I don’t know why, but I didn’t love it. If you did, that’s great. I know I’m an outlier here. If you decide to read it, or you’ve already read it, let me know in the Comments what you loved about it.
This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Speaking of book banning, I read this because it is one of the top books being banned in today’s book-banning hysteria, and I can understand why. The book’s own description calls it a “candid, funny, and uncensored exploration of sexuality.” If you’re a young gay or questioning male, or a MTF trans person, this book might be valuable—it has some good advice about being yourself as a person is navigating coming out. It’s much too campy and raw for me though. If that’s not your style, you might not like it, either. It also didn’t appeal to me because lesbians and other sexualities and gender identities are not included from any place of depth. Book bans notwithstanding, it wouldn’t be a book I’d give to a young person to read.
Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro wrote one of my favorite memoirs, Inheritance, so she’s another author I watch. I was excited to find this new novel about family secrets—right up my alley. I didn’t love Signal Fires, though. I can see how some readers thought it was moving, touching, and beautiful. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t put it on my favorites list. It just didn’t do it for me.
What books did you love in 2023? What did you think of the books I listed here? What’s on your list for 2024? Inquiring minds want to know!
I hope your new year is filled with love, hope, and inspiration. Thanks so much for being such a supportive audience for my writing in 2023. You can’t imagine what that has meant to me. In my next newsletter, I’ll share my writing plans for 2024. I’ll look forward to journeying into the new year with you.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!