With 2023 in the rearview, it’s time for one of my favorite traditions at The Masters Review! Let’s look back together at all the great writing our readers enjoyed over the past year. And if you haven’t heard it from us yet: Happy new year!
This was a transitional year for me in a lot of ways: new job, new city, new priorities in my reading. Instead of focusing mostly on new novels and collections, I looked back at books that were meaningful to me before grad school, back when I was still finding my footing, learning my tastes and aesthetic preferences. That’s not to say I didn’t read anything new (or new to me)—no recent novel has captivated as completely and as quickly as The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins, as I wrote in my review in August—only to emphasize that I spent time looking back with intention. Some notable novels in my reading included History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, and A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick (which I must have read five or ten times in high school but not once since), but the standout for me was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. DeWitt’s novel was loaned to me by a writing professor in undergrad who called it the best novel he’d read in years. It stood out to me then and now as one of my favorite novels ever. Episodic, darkly humorous, deeply emotional, it is everything that I aspire to, and always fall short of, in my own writing.
I read 86 books in 2023 (down from a solid 100 in 2022) along with countless essays and short stories. Among the best things I read was The Best American Short Stories 2022 and my favorite story out of that collection was “A Ravishing Sun” by Leslie Blanco. It was, to me, a perfect story. There’s a plot, for sure, and a lot of high emotions that are terrifically understated.
This year I got to pay back a lot of the support I got for my debut novel which came out last year and that meant doing events with other authors. I had the great pleasure of reading excellent debuts by Shannon Bowring’s (The Road to Dalton) and Cliff Travers (The Stones of Riverton) as well as Aaron Hamburger’s Hotel Cuba, Laurie Lico Albanese’s Hester, and Melanie Brooks’ A Hard Silence.
But my two favorite reads of 2023 have to go to Nathan Hill’s Wellness and Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. They’re both big, encompassing books and both play with the idea of what technology means in our lives, but they’re both about so much more. They’re about love and friendship and what it means to pursue what you really want. I laughed out loud with one and cried hard with the other and loved them both equally.
This year, I added a huge stack of craft books to my shelves, and I was picky about the fiction books I read in between working, writing, and editing. Of those I did get to read, I particularly loved Dan Chaon’s psychological thriller Ill Will. Books about Satanic panic will always pique my interest, but this one turned out to be far more than a disturbing romp through the 80s. Every chapter used experimental structures, timelines, and page layouts to create a reading experience that was as unsettling as the story itself. Its twists and ambiguities kept me hooked until the last page, and since finishing it, I’ve been inspired to explore bold choices in my own writing to keep my readers on their toes.
The year was a little slow in terms of reading. For the most part of it I was busy writing and editing over and over again my first book. In the same spirit I read more works that aligned with my writing genre and topics, that is, conflict in South Asia. I read Rohini Mohan’s The Season of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, Sunjoy Hazarika’s Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast; and Alex Haley’s Roots. All of them were in themselves works of great importance which brought to light things hitherto unknown to the world. I was deeply impressed by Haley’s book, which despite being such a big book held my attention cover-to-cover. The way he exposes the plot slowly, pulling in the readers to join the protagonist’s journey is marvelous.
On the lighter side, I read a ton of Manga (Japenese Comics) and eventually ventured into Japanese fiction. The two works that I liked a lot were Seishi Yokomizo’s The Honjin Murders, and Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country.
I read three books in 2023: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese, Babel by R F Kuang, and Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Of these, my favorite was the last. Flaubert’s descriptions are scintillating; and he unveils the quirks of human nature with great perception. Underlying this perceptiveness is an excellent sense of humor. As an example of his gift for description, I would like to quote a passage from the beginning of the ninth chapter of Madame Bovary, about a cigar case that the Bovarys find on the road, while returning from a ball at the home of a Marquis. Emma Bovary keeps it hidden in a cupboard, and pulls it out everyday to look at it. She wonders if it could belong to a Viscount whom she had met at the ball. To quote from Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s translation: “It had been embroidered on some rosewood frame, a pretty little thing, hidden from all eyes, that had occupied many hours, and over which had fallen the soft curls of the pensive worker. A breath of love had passed over the stitches on the canvas; each prick of the needle had fixed there a hope or a memory, and all those interwoven threads of silk were but the continuity of the same silent passion.”
I expect this is not the last of Flaubert’s brilliance that I will encounter, as it is my aim in the new year to read more of his oeuvre.
2023 was the first year that I consciously curated a selection of books to read, with the intention of learning from them and being inspired in my own work. To this end, I’ve read a lot of nonfiction! My final book of the year—and by far the most impactful—was Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir,In The Dream House. Machado tells a compelling and urgent story of abuse in her relationship, and she does so in a way that challenges the very genre of memoir. Her use of form and point of view mirrors the experience of abuse and trauma, creating a mesmerizing dance between the way the story is being told and the story itself. It is a masterpiece of writing and storytelling, and opened my eyes to the various ways in which form and structure can allow for a deeper exploration of the human experience. I also enjoyed reading Annabel Abbs’s Windswept: Walking The Paths of Trailblazing Women, which blends the author’s own experiences of walking alone as a woman with the trailblazers that came before her: Georgia O’Keefe, Nan Shepherd, Simone de Beauvoir and others. As an avid hiker, this combination of nature and adventure narrative with a feminist lens was a fast and fascinating read. Finally, given the state of our world with its myriad divisions, wars and chaos, I could not recommend more The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi. Now, more than ever, we need the inspiration to imagine and believe in a different world.
2023 was the first full year of my MFA program, so I put serious points on the board in both the quality and quantity of titles. I read some, like Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov and The Overstory by Richard Powers, for craft analysis, and others, like No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon for personal reading, but every book offered some insight in furthering my own writing.
As primarily a short story writer, I re-read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and it bowled me over again, but Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty and Company by Shannon Sanders were two exceptional new collections. Both authors linked their stories in different ways to highlight the connected communities and characters to great effect, and I will assuredly return to both.
Choosing my favorite anything is a personal Achilles heel. It’s either I don’t want the definitive constraints, or I just can’t make up my mind, likely the latter, but looking back on my 2023 list, it’s hard to top Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones for pure literary power.
I usually read about a book a week because it makes me happy, but 2023 was a bit too wild for me, at least when it came to novels. It made me appreciate shorter pieces like Martha McPhee’s memoir excerpt in Vogue about growing up on a “utopian” farm in Lambertville, NJ during the 70s. As you probably guessed, no, the experience was not that utopian for her. The 70s? New Jersey? Farm? No. It doesn’t help that the adults in the situation were largely absent as parents because they were too distracted by drugs and polyamory. Far from a great childhood, but it makes for entertaining reading. I also gained a new appreciation for Mary Gaitskill. Remember Secretary starring Maggie Gyllenhall? That was based on the novella, This Is Pleasure in The New Yorker. Rather than dive into the kink, I went for the bizarre real life experience of confusion and euphoria that can only come out of a night of dancing and questionable judgment in the essay The Night of the Happy Bodies. Think Vladimir with just the fun parts before things go wrong. One thing that remained consistent for me in 2023 was I read my favorite novel of the year, Shark Heart: A Love Story by Emily Habeck in a tent. Wren is barely a year into her happy marriage when she realizes that her husband is literally turning into a great white shark. Along with coping with cleaning the smell of raw fish off her hands constantly, she finds herself trying to grieve him throughout his transformation and after. It’s fantasy, romance, and an insightful take on the sad reality that some relationships are intense, but temporary.
I’m not often brought to books by movies, but a rewatch of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (a manic, colorful romp through a night of drinking and missed connections) led me not to the book it’s based on, but another one by the same author: Fox Tales by Tomihiko Morimi, translated by Winifred Bird. This collection of four linked stories revolves around a curio shop in Kyoto and the lure of its odd objects and heirlooms, with threads of Japanese folklore permeating each contemporary tale and mysterious characters lurking in dark streets. It reads like a series of subdued yet uncanny hauntings or near-hauntings, creepy without being overtly bleak, more so mesmerizing and utterly hard to put down. Also in the vein of finding joy in unpretentious, fast reads last year, I stumbled upon A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers, which challenges everything I thought I knew about a book needing to have high stakes to succeed. Envisioning an idyllic future world, it follows a narrator starting over again as a tea monk, venturing off the beaten path into the wild, and the curious robot they meet there. It made me want to listen for crickets on ordinary nights and appreciate the rush of camping outside in the rain.