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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

Top Ten Best Reads of 2023

Of the 50 books I read this year, here are my favorites.



Another year, another list. Despite reading fewer books this year than I have in each the past three years, nonetheless 2023 was still one for the books. This year, I read approximately 50 books, a number reflecting the fact that 2023 was an eventful year for me. A new job, new apartment, new friends, new school year, new experiences and new memories–all inevitably impacted my reading. However, that being the case, the wide majority of books I did end up reading, many of which were very long, consistently astounded me, and even though the year-end total was smaller than it has been in recent past, the task in choosing my favorite titles was nonetheless a difficult one, very difficult as it tends and is likely always to be. 

 

Regarding list that follows, I realized it is the case that for each title I had originally written a rather wordy review. Now, at the end of the year, the novels that remain most salient in my memory, the ones that had the greatest impact, that entailed the most visceral, magnificent experiences, similarly entailed, when I first read them, the longest reviews of all: an interesting though unsurprising recognition: about the novels I loved the most, I wrote the most; the novels I loved the most inspired the most; from the novels I loved the most poured the most words, came the most thoughts, followed the most impressions, emerged the most emotions–as only the greatest novels are wont to inspire.

 

As I’ve written in the past and will continue to write in the future, the ranking order of these listed titles matters little. As avid readers surely know, weighing one great read against another welcomes certain peril, a readerly risk liable to strike, stifle, or stain the wondrous memory of the read’s first experience. So, with that caveat, here are my favorites of 2023. 

 

 

 

10. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

(May Read)

Last year, Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood inaugurated my Top Ten Reads of the 2022 list, and fittingly, her second and final novel The Violent Bear It Away inaugurates this year’s. Published in 1960, the novel unfolds a somber narrative woven around themes of family, destiny, and the timeless sacred rite central to Catholicism: baptism. The story is set in the American South during the first half of the twentieth century, initiated by the demise of Mason Tarwater, the great-uncle of fourteen-year-old Francis Tarwater. This event marks the commencement of Francis's journey, compelled by his great-uncle's prophecy that he, chosen by the Lord, is destined to ascend as a prophet of God, spreading the message of Christ. However, Francis's destiny takes an unexpected turn when his secular schoolteacher Uncle Rayber gains custody of him. Rayber, a father to his own son Bishop, endeavors to dismantle Francis's religious upbringing imposed by Mason–a formidable challenge he soon discovers. Despite Rayber's persistent attempts to connect with Francis, the young boy consistently rebuffs him, fomenting frustration and fanning the fire of his fury. Francis's singular goal is to baptize young Bishop, a prospect vehemently opposed by Rayber, and as Francis undertakes him aim, tensions escalate, relationships wilt, morals strain, and the result is, as I wrote in my first review, “a grand meditation on fate, faith, and the inevitability of belief, in turn exemplifying the Southern Gothic tradition in all its heartache, violence, and grotesquerie.

Since reading The Violent Bear It Away, and before it, last year, Wise Blood, I have yet to encounter a novel in whose words, so meticulously chosen, there slowly sparks flames of meaning, stirring and flickering across the pages, before blazing, exploding by the fiery finale. It was the case with Wise Blood, about which I wrote, in last year’s top ten: “what stays with me the most...is the way in which certain words, phrases, and descriptions seem to acquire multiple meanings as the story progresses, cumulatively amassing nuances and connotations imparted by varied usages, so that by the final pages of the novel, the sentences are literally exploding with meaning.” It is a feat which Flannery O’Connor achieves even more so in Violent, her words, phrases, and descriptions, as well as images, actions, entire scenes, are injected with signs, symbols, shades that tilt at something else, many of which I explore in my original review. And because words point to other words, inextricably woven and increasingly growing as the story unfolds, by the novel’s end, it feels like having read not one but a multitude of novels: the reader has fallen into a web of intertextual possibility at the center of which sits the story of Francis Tarwater and his Uncle Rayber. O’Connor was like a literary spider, spinning her web with words for silk and constructing in their design scenes of Biblical stories, scenes of the American South, scenes of spirituality, pain, and skirted redemption. Violence veers through Violent, coursing through the characters, their relations, and the words and the Word which they wield as weapons. From the tension between the deeply human and the deeply spiritual the novel carves its meaning, becoming in part a parable in prose and a work whose legacy is sure to last the test of time. Along with Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature, and a work to revisit, reread, and rethink for the many years to come.

 

 

 

9. Ohio by Stephen Markley

(February Read)

American novelist Sherwood Anderson, whose famed 1919 Winesburg, Ohio paints a tableau of American isolation through the interconnected lives of two dozen Ohioans, once wrote, “There is something that broods over our Mid-American landscapes that can save us all if we will but give ourselves.” In his 2018 debut novel Ohio, Stephen Markley seems to subvert Anderson's words with his own Winesburgian tale thrust into the modern era, a series of interconnected stories whose satirical surface belies its sinister depths. The narrative unfolds across a single summer night in 2013, intricately weaving the destinies of four individuals who, a decade post-graduation, find themselves drawn back to their roots in New Canaan, Ohio. The initial segment focuses on Bill Ashcraft, a former high school basketball star turned politically engaged activist, now grappling with addiction and financial struggles. Tasked with transporting an illicit package from Nola to New Canaan for an old friend, Bill’s journey is turned sideways when he’s forced to navigate an unexpected twist in his life. The story then shifts to Stacey Moore, a literature Ph.D. student and avid reader, reluctantly returning to her hometown due to the mysterious disappearance of her former lover, Lisa Han. Dan Eaton, a war veteran haunted by the heartbreak of his past relationship with Hailey Kowalczyk, comes into focus next as he reconnects with a former high school flame. Tina Ross, entangled with her abusive ex-boyfriend, the erstwhile football star, takes center stage in the fourth and final part, setting the stage for the novel's riveting climax. As these characters traverse the landscape of their Rust Belt hometown, their paths intersect, diverge, and entwine, gradually revealing the town's dark secrets in a denouement that eleven months later I’m still thinking about.

            Ohio is the youngest title on this list, merely five years old, and its author, Stephen Markley, is a name that henceforth I’ll always attribute to his year–the year that I discovered a contemporary master. In January, Stephen Markley’s sophomore novel The Deluge was released, a 900-page sprawler that The New York Times named a notable book and which Stephen King called “a modern classic.” Eager to get introduced to this new name taking the literary world by storm, I took the plunge with his first, Ohio, a novel that remains indelibly etched in my mind. A bit over half the length of his second, this novel captures in searing, specific detail, the frenzy of passing ships, the web of wondrous coincidences, and the ties that tether hometown inhabitant together regardless of their attempts to escape. I remember falling into this novel from the first page, then being swept up in its sweeping sections that send the reader spiraling through the pages, catapulting across incredible detail and experiencing not only the characters in all their strange, uncanny glory, but also experiencing what they’re experiencing through their eyes, perceptions tinged by time and distance, shaded with the fallibility of memory. It's a novel that, like the work of Franzen, Updike, Roth, and Bellow, gets as close to real life as anything besides real life can actually get; in other words, it is realism at its powerful best. But what I remember most of this novel, beyond its beautiful, exhaustive meticulousness, is the tone of the narration, which shifts between sections, mirroring the specific characters standing aft the spotlight. Each character carried a different in the writing, imbued with a wit, style, and impressive knowledge that cast each part in its own shade, hewed its own hue, in turn leaving a lasting impression on the reader which would carry into the next part. And by the end, what the reader receives is a grand tapestry woven by the frilly threads which remain in their mind, and the picture it paints is a sinister one. I concluded my original review with, “this novel was uncomfortably real and immaculately done, and I could not put it down. Markley is certainly a name to watch going forward, and now I cannot wait to get my hands on The Deluge.” Well as I write this, a paperback The Deluge sits on my bookshelf, awaiting a read in the new year.  

 

 

 

8. When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut

(November Read)

            Of all the titles on this list, When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut was the novel I read the quickest: not even the course of three days, so enthralled was I in this history-fiction blend detailing the interweaving and strange lives of several scientists who helped engineer, for good and for bad, the world in which we live today. Labatut’s third book, published in 2020, delves into the unsettling repercussion of scientific discovery on the world. The novel commences its five sections first diving into the origins of cyanide and exploring the pivotal role played by chemist Fritz Haber, whose contributions to chemistry entail both lifesaving and catastrophic consequences. Transitioning from chemistry to physics, the second section explores the poignant life of physicist Karl Schwarzchild whose groundbreaking solutions to Einstein’s equations of general relativity shook the foundations of science. Three focuses on the mathematical inquiries of Shinichi Mochizuki and Alexander Grothendieck, whose pursuits pushed them to the brink of insanity, much like the scientists in the fourth section: Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. The novel, spanning nearly 200 pages, ends in an epilogue that redirects the narrative spotlight from history to the future, “propelling this masterful novel into a powerful place of prescience.”

            Prescience, “pre-science,” seems an apt word to describe this novel, as Labatut’s work explores the before and after of science, in all its bizarre intricacies and grave implications. A recent read for me, I remember in lucid detail just how propelling this short novel was, like a lightning bolt shocking in its fury, pummeling in its power, and illuminating in its grand revelation of the dark side of humanity in its endless investigation into the questions of the universe–questions it seems, may have been best left unanswered. Labatut throws his historian eye on the interconnections between the silent architects of the last century, the scientists whose tireless efforts unraveled the secrets of chemistry, abstract mathematics, and quantum mechanics, ushering forth technological and scientific innovations whose repercussions have left their permanent mark on the modern age. But this foreboding aspect was but a fraction of this short novel. Where the novel finds its achievement is in the biographies of the men to whom these innovations are attributed–the bizarre, heartbreaking, mind-fracturing lives of the scientists themselves. Like Sebald, Labatut sews history with fiction to amplify the idiosyncrasies, personalities, and minds that defined these men, and the events of their lives which in turn fomented their inescapable descents into madness. The result is a conjuring of sorts: powerful portraits of some of the brightest intellects, whose endeavors, like Icarus to the sun, drove these men to the edge of oblivion, forced them to peer over and see for themselves the devastation implied in their investigations. In that regard, the novel, like a canary in the coal mine, carries a warning of impending catastrophe, one augured by past catastrophes, past descents into madness, past regrets. And the convergence of such signals, the novel throws onto a grand scale, impelling the reader to consider what may be in store given man’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge. And the magnificence of the novel stems from how its enjoyability, its total and utter thrill in its experience betrays the danger that lurks beneath its tales. Ultimately, it’s a harrowing novel but one which everyone should read, and one that I could not put down.

 

 

 

7. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

(April Read)

            Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections took second place on my list of last year’s reads, a novel that sparked my eagerness to read all of Franzen’s work. So, it’s only fitting that Franzen makes another appearance at the end of the year, an April read I’m fated never to forget. Freedom, Franzen’s 2010 fourth novel, unfolds the tragicomic tale of the Berglund family–midwestern couple Patty and Walter, their children Jessica and Joey, and Richard Katz, an enduring friend of Patty and Walter’s from their college days. The story, spanning the latter half of the 20th century, follows the Berglund journey through the complexities of modern life, excavating the repercussions of the choices propelling them into the twenty-first century. Patty, once a resilient college basketball star with ambitious dreams, encounters Walter, a shy intellectual, via their mutual friend Richard, an edgy, coarse aspiring musician. None could foresee how this trio of friends would remain connected for decades, navigating the realms of marriage, homeownership, parenthood, schools, new jobs, pesky neighbors, and the escalating political and environmental landscape. Cast against a backdrop marked by growing concerns about the climate, economic destabilization, and war, the characters grapple not only with external challenges but also with the discontent, despair, and ennui that accompany all sides of adulthood. Long-lost misconnections, "what if" scenarios, and missed opportunities cast heavy shadows on their lives, and as each character struggles to reconcile past, present, and future, grappling with the life that "could have been," the novel paints a poignant portrait of an American family in the modern era—a tale “as hilarious as it is heartrending.

            Freedom is truly seared into my mind. I remember reading it everywhere–in my bedroom, on my train commute to work, during my lunch break, and late into the nights, lingering on the words which would, by the end, entail a reading experience unlike most I’ve ever had. Following in the footsteps of my first Franzen read, Freedom not only carried the tone, acerbic wit, long grandiose sentences, impeccable detail, and outrageous hilarity that I’d love in The Corrections, but in its characters bloomed a striking and at times unsettling familiarity. As I wrote in my original review, “in so many characters I could see people I’ve known, friends I’ve had over the course of my life, as well as events, decisions, emotions that I’ve personally experienced, making the novel all the more powerful and poignant for me. Certain sections would send me spiraling into contemplation, remembrance, confrontation, doubtless an inevitability augmented by Franzen’s enthralling prose.” However, at the time, the force of my own singular experience with the novel prevented me from seeing just how universal my experience was likely to be. It’s a novel about mistakes in all their wide variety: small and large, warranted and unwarranted, avoidable and unavoidable. And as “to err is human,” surely such a novel, that explores mistake-making so meticulously, is liable to resonate with all readers. Thus is the wondrous revelation imparted by a great work of literature: the unity in the singular and universal experiences. That this revelation took place long after I’d finished the novel serves a testament to its time-spanning strength, its lasting impression, and intimacy impelled into my own memory. Freedom greatly affected me, and beyond that, it was absolutely hilarious. There’s one scene that remains completely vivid in my mind even all these months later; one that involves the character Joey, an engagement ring, and a bathroom; a scene that nearly sent me falling from my seat when I read it. Such is the spectrum of emotions which this wondrous invokes: it really is as hilarious as it is heartrending.

 

 

 

6. Native Son by Richard Wright

(February Read)

            Eminent literary critic and scholar Arnold Rampersad, in his introduction to the novel, writes that “Native Son was Richard Wright’s urgent call in 1940 to America to awaken from its self-induced slumber about the reality of race relations in the nation,” relations which, Wright insisted, posed an enormous danger that would inevitably decimate the country “if its dimensions and devious complexity were not recognized.” But while Rampersad further writes that “Native Son was intended to be America’s guide in confronting this danger,” to me, “guide” seems too weak a word. Native Son is more like the lit fuse at the end of an explosive, the sparking fire dancing on the igniter cord, the flame on the fulminator’s fiber, running rapidly toward revelatory detonation. Set in 1930’s Chicago, the novel follows Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old Black youth residing with his mother and two younger siblings in a cramped, impoverished apartment in the Black Belt. Plighted by dejection and desperation, Bigger flirts with a life of crime before securing employment as a chauffeur for the affluent Dalton family who lives in the suburbs. Mr. Dalton, a philanthropist and real estate magnate, lives with his blind wife Mrs. Dalton and their politically active and unpredictable daughter Mary. On the very night of his hiring, Bigger is tasked with driving Mary to the downtown university, but the plans take a dark turn. Mary's lover Jan becomes involved, alcohol flows freely, and the night of debauchery culminates in Mary's accidental death—with Bigger as the unwitting perpetrator. Shock gives way to fear, then spirals into paranoia, prompting Bigger to orchestrate a series of schemes to cover his tracks, unwittingly entangling himself further in a web of trouble. As Bigger attempts to flee, chaos ensues, and the familiar world he once knew crumbles. The aspirations he sought to attain are replaced by a harsh reality, wherein he exists as a condemned man facing the impending death penalty.

I think American critic Clyde Taylor summed it up well when he wrote that “Native Son disrupted the accommodation to racism through polite conventions in American social discourse, and thereby hastened the national confrontation with itself on issues of race and society that occurred in following decades.” Taylor’s words drive me to consider it much more than just a “guide”; this novel is a disrupter of the status quo, a work which impels its reader to reconsider all that constitutes the system, the conventions, the traditions which define the “norm” to which we all abide. It is to say that Native Son, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, contained and still contains a power to move the masses. Indeed, it is a novel of fear, of flight, and of fate, as the titles of the three sections express; but it is a novel that through its chilling portrait of a crime, its unforgiving consequences, and the enduring ripples which emanate forth it, expounds a vision of America that reveals a violence many refuse to accept, let alone confront. I wrote in my original review, “Violence is not simply sewn into the story, violence is the story, and with all its frightening, cringe-inducing, sorrowful, graphic, grotesque details, it reflects what many refuse to acknowledge, that violence is not simply sewn into the fabric of our nation, violence is the fabric of our nation.” This sentiment has stuck with me these many months after having first read it. And I remember how I wished I had read it for a class at school, where I could have benefited from the deep, discursive discussions that chisel and carve not simply at the intricacies buried in the text, but also those buried in the history of our nation, whose effects still pervade and influence modern society. This novel floored me when I read it; it pulled me, coaxingly, lightheartedly, then seized my throat in its unrelenting grip, and strung me through an adrenaline-fueled picaresque, before pummeling me into the final section where the power of words truly takes over, and the devastating denouement of the novel impels its final force. It is a must-read for all Americans and anyone else eager for a seminal work of American literature.

 

 

 

5. The Rings of Saturn Trilogy by W.G. Sebald

(July Reads)

Not an official trilogy per se but a closely related sequence of three “meandering novels,” as I’ve taken to calling them, German writer W.G. Sebald’s trio Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn deserve their rank on this list as one work, a singular group of novels that spurn easy definition and defy all category. Vertigo introduces readers to Sebald’s unique blend of history, travelogue, and narrative fiction, through which themes of memory, time, life and death weaves their wondrous threads. In Vertigo, Sebald sets forth our nameless protagonist on his travels over the European continent and into its history, offering in four fluctuating sections the details of his journey through the Alps to his hometown in Germany and biographical portraits of the writers Stendhal and Franz Kafka, weaving fact and fiction to paint the connections between life and literature. In The Emigrants, our nameless narrator charts his perilous peregrinations into the past, focusing on four emigrants who were forced to flee their homes during WWII. In four interlinking sections, Sebald sends the reader stumbling down decades of dark history, exploring love and pain and heartache and the attachment which one feels to their home, a connection uprooted by forces beyond their control. It’s a theme carried and expanded upon in Sebald’s third installment, the final and most famous of the three, The Rings of Saturn, which sees our nameless hero ambling up the Suffolk coast along the North Sea. As his feet maintain his wandering, so too does mind wander: from historical anecdotes to tales of scientific discovery to erudite explorations on the environment, art, and people including Thomas Browne, Joseph Conrad, and Michael Hamburger, to list a few. The result is, as I describe in my original review, “the tertiary installment of Sebald’s ‘meandering novels,’ his longest and most ambitious, and one of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and strikingly unique novels I’ve ever read.”

These three books possess no parallel; they reside in a space all their own, a Sebaldian space of spectrality and specific distinction. They are books that elude definition, skirt category, and spurn easy description; books which persist more as relics of the mind than of literary imagination, and yet such an imagination is but a small requisite in undertaking a feat which Sebald has so masterfully achieved with these three books. In July, I read these three books over the course of three weeks, unable to put them down, unable to direct my thoughts away from them, unable to remove myself from the discursive musings, elegant prose, and complex characters inside their pages. Over those three weeks, I got to relive and reexperience the wonder, the magic, the emotion to which I was first introduced years ago with Austerlitz, Sebald’s last novel. He’s a writer of unparalleled ability, whose distinctive literary style and innovative approach to narrative sustain his reputation as a worldly master of letters. His unique prose style, characterized by long, meandering sentences, makes for a hypnotically engaging reading experience, wherein one simply floats, drifts, meanders through lines that flow like fluid. Sebald incorporates photographs into his work, each novel containing many black-and-white pictures of people, places, and things, which lends credence to the narrative, in turn blurring the lines between fact and fiction. And Sebald uses such a dynamic to delve into themes of memory, trauma, history, excavating the impact of events on individuals and societies to offer a nuanced and hauntological perspective on the lasting effects of collective and personal memories. Yet, Sebald injects his seamless history-fiction hybrid with a level of erudition that consistently astounds; each “meandering,” whether on history, art, people, etc., is magnificent in and of itself, and as I read, never failed to send me running to my computer to inquiry more about a Sebald-inspired fascination. But what I remember most from having read these three books, aside from falling through the pages and delighting in every moment of it, was the certain cinematic quality captured in his writing: his vivid descriptions and atmospheric settings create a lucid, visual, and immersive experience, one that is truly singular. Gaining that experience this year was an absolute highlight, and it is so easy to see how and why WG Sebald has remained so highly regarded. And now that I’ve read all of his “fictional” works, I can’t wait to undertake rereading them and discovering all the bounty that I’ve yet to plumb in a first read.

 

 

 

4. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

(March Read)

It’s a novel whose history limns its legacy as much as its content, whose legacy remains as lasting as its story, and whose story remains a timeless tale of love, lust, and life’s fulfillment. English author D.H. Lawrence’s final novel was first published privately in Italy in 1928. The unexpurgated version widely known today was not published until 1960, following a landmark obscenity trial in the United Kingdom. The trial resulted in the lifting of the ban on the novel, making it available to a wider readership and thus inspiring the acclaim which it still possesses today. The novel follows Constance “Connie” Reid, a beautiful young woman who marries wealthy aristocrat Sir Clifford Chatterley, with whom she lives on his massive estate in the English countryside. Not long after their wedding, Chatterley is sent to the battlefront of WWI and returns wounded—paralyzed from the waist down. Connie, finding herself trapped in a marriage marred by her husband’s affliction, soon grows discontent, despondent, feeling emotionally and sexually unfulfilled. But soon Connie meets Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper who, with his dog, lives in a small cabin at the edge of the Chatterley estate and manages the grounds. Suddenly, the flame in her breast leaps back to life, as the two enter into a secret affair, one of extreme passion and carnal desire. But as their coital connections bloom into a conflagration of entangled emotions, so too does their secret grow larger than they can contain. As I write in my original review, “Eventually, the walls of the clandestine world which Connie and Oliver had tried to build come crumbling down in a devastating denouement, which seems still to resound through the annals of twentieth century literature.”

            I ended my original review by exclaiming how “I lived inside this novel for over a week and struggled to climb out and back into the real world once I’d finished. And I confess, even as I write this, part of me simply wants to pick it up and dive back into its beautiful, powerful refuge.” Nine months later and I can safely say that that statement remains as true today as when I first wrote it. Ah the memories of Chatterley! It’s seriously one of my favorite novels, one which I will continue to read over and over again throughout my life, if only to exist alongside the characters who feel so real to me; to experience what they experience, all their emotional ups and down, the pain and heartache, the love and joy, the unbridled passion and unrelenting physical force—all elements which persist vividly in my memory today. I remember specific scenes, specific images, specific lines, specific words. I remember the countryside, the village, the Chatterley mansion, and Mellor’s stony cottage. I remember the fields, the river, and the clouds, whose description recurs over and over in different iterations, in different metaphors. I remember the conversations which the novel inspires: how it unravels the invisible threads that define and divide aristocracy and the working class, natives and foreigners, men and women. And I remember, more than anything, the imploring invocation at the heart of the novel: “that one cannot live on ideas alone; that true fulfillment in life is found in the relationships with others, both intellectual and physical.” Anais Nin thought Chatterley was Lawrence’s finest work, writing, “Artistically it is his best novel” and calling it “Our only complete modern love story.” It’s difficult to disagree with Nin, especially as her remarks allude to what I think is one of the most magnificent aspects of the novel, and surely about Lawrence’s work as a whole: his unwavering ability to capture the nuances and details that mark the complexity of human relationships, psychologically, physically, and socially. Calling it a “complete modern love story,” Nin calls to mind the conundrums that complicate the conventions of marriage, of class, of war and its effects on love. That alone is an incredible feat, but Lawrence propels his achievement in prose that soars far from the page, impelling the reader to throb, thirst, and writhe with his words. Love and longing are lifted by his lyrical prose, elevated to a level of divinity, of sublimity, of a secular sanctity with the power to move and coax and completely absorb. Chatterley is a novel that will always stay with me, lingering in both my head and my heart, an astonishing work of literature.

 

 

  

3. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

(September Read)

I know I included it in my original review, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it again: critic Michael Hofmann’s wondrous description of this novel: “Under the Volcano eats light like a black hole. It is a work of such gravity and connectedness and spectroscopic richness that it is more world than product. It is absolute mass, agglomeration of consciousness and experience and terrific personal grace. It has planetary swagger; it is a planet dancing.” Set in Quauhnahuac, a small Mexican town nestled neatly between two looming volcanoes, the novel spans the course of a single day, Dia de Los Muertos, in the year 1938. Centerstage stands Geoffrey Firmin, a former British consul who, at 30 years old, grapples with the complexities of his past and present against the backdrop of political and personal turmoil, specifically the dissolution of his marriage due to his unrelenting alcoholism. Yvonne is witness to Geoffrey’s self-destruction; she lingers at the precipice of love and loss, praying that he can find the motivation to turn his life around. Geoffrey’s half-brother, Hugh Firmin, is also present, having arrived on a journalistic assignment, to track the political unrest wracking the country, but who inevitably gets caught up in the melodrama unfolding between Geoffrey and Yvonne, as all three make their way from city to city, from bar to next bar, from bottle to next bottle, their various excursions slowly working to drive a wedge in their individual relations, worsening a day weighted with the ghosts of the dead, both old and new.

            It’s one of the only novels that I read this year (one of the only novels that I’ve ever read) that made me both laugh at various parts and weep at various parts; that made me shudder and ache and be filled with awe at what I was reading. Few novels that I’ve ever encountered contain a power of the magnitude found in Lowry’s Under the Volcano. This novel absolutely floored me. In my original review, I wrote about the infinities contained in each chapter, on each page even, and how these atomized instances, which offer the reader a glimpse into worlds that extend far beyond the 450 pages of book, work together to create a mosaic whose depths mirror its detail, whose dimensions far surpass its surface. Lowry stretches the course of a single day and shines a microscope onto the seconds that span its length, the quiet intervals where rumination and reality cease to be divided, where interiority and exteriority are united in one narration, one voice, one perception—moments when the novel itself comes alive. But that life, woven with the interior workings of each character’s mind, comprises a tale of heartache and grief. Hofmann is right: the novel eats light like a black hole, a sentiment that served as inspiration for my abyssal analogy in my original review. “It pushes readers to the edge and forces them to look down into an abyss of despair, desperation, inevitable destruction, like overlooking the mouth of a volcano, and keeps them there, never allowing even a short step back from the black hole.” Readers are forced to the edge because the characters are too, each forced to their own specific edge and pushed over it, sending them plummeting down their descent, free falling toward fear, forlornness, and fatality. It is a testament to Lowry’s characterization and ability to render the complexities of these characters in writing that burns with such extraordinary emotion. And yet, what I remember most, aside from passages, particularly Yvonne’s, which wracked me, were the sections that pulverized narrative convention, obliterated traditional storytelling, and exploded any and all expectations. Lowry’s narrative experimentation elevates this novel into a realm of its own, a masterpiece of modernism published in 1947. As the novel spurns surface reading, its treasure trove of allusions, symbols, and images widening the breadth of its mastery, so the novel spurns forgetting: the characters, the events, the places, the thoughts, the memories, and the emotions which bind them all together. These are elements that fuse to the foreground of the reader’s mind, penetrating, percolating, permeating one’s memory and remaining salient weeks, months after reading. It is certainly one of my favorite novels of all time and one that I will continue to read over and over and over again.  

 

 

 

2. Moby Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville

(January Read)

            It’s become somewhat of a tradition: to begin the new year with a classic novel, a work whose rich legacy has remained resolute, standing the test of time. And this year I picked one that I knew from the first few pages, would absolutely make my end-of-the-year list, as its singularity, elegance, and sheer mastery, I knew, would be damn near impossible to top. Set in the first half of the 19th century and starting in the New Bedford, Massachusetts, the novel follows a young man named Ishmael, our narrator/protagonist, who, discontented with his mundane work life, embarks on a quest for adventure by joining a whaling voyage. At an inn prior to his departure, he encounters Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal from Polynesia, and despite initial apprehensions, soon friendship blooms between them. The duo secures a place on the Pequod, a sailing vessel commandeered by the formidable Captain Ahab, and housing around thirty seasoned sailors. Ahab, marked by mysterious behavior and a severe demeanor, sets sail from the New England coast in pursuit of the elusive White Whale, known as 'Moby Dick.' This massive, albino sperm whale had clashed with Ahab years ago, resulting in the loss of his leg, now replaced by an ivory prosthesis. As the Pequod sails across the Atlantic, circumnavigating Africa and venturing further into the Pacific, the crew engages in whaling activities, encountering other ships with diverse origins and destinations. Amidst these maritime exploits, Ahab's relentless obsession with the White Whale propels him toward madness, dragging his crew towards an inevitable catastrophe. What ensues is, as I wrote in my initial review, “the quintessential sea expedition, a story of man upon the vast, open expanse, in whose rushing waters flow a slew of metaphors, allegories, and fantastic scenes, all of which surge forth, at the end, into an enormous eddy of epiphanic edification.”

            How to even begin about this novel? A novel whose characters, whose scenes, whose prose have etched their own permanent places in my psyche; remained salient and real over the passing months since I set voyage into the vastness, the wonder, the magnitude of Moby Dick? How does one describe a novel that stands alone, a novel that is truly unlike any other? A novel that continues to inspire awe in the humble reader and wonder in the seasoned? Whose wells of wealth will never wane? I went into Moby Dick knowing that I was sure to enjoy it; however, the extent to which I would enjoy remained the point of intrigue at the outset, especially as readership seems divided on the book: either people love it, praising it as a literary masterpiece; or people hate it, citing its tedium, convolution, and length. I figured I’d wind up in the first camp, certain to fall into the novel like diving into the water. What I couldn’t foresee was simply how the waters would seize me, pull me, push me, propel me into a place I didn’t know was possible to create with a novel. I believed Moby Dick would contain a world greater than fit the surface of the story; I knew it would be about more than just a seafaring journey. What I didn’t know was just the scope of the text that extended beyond only the story: how far Melville stretches the narrative, the information, the very text itself, both in its most magnificent aspects and its smallest and most subtle. As the greatest novels tend to do, Moby Dick pushes the limits of what a novel can contain, in both directions, toward the infinite and the infinitesimal. I mention it in my original review, but the pun “Noah Webster’s Ark” is truly a fitting description which captures a certain trident of the novel’s most magnificent aspects. Firstly, the “ark” is a perfect metaphor referring to the plot of the novel, the surface level seafaring voyage that maintains the novel’s story. However, “ark,” alone carries religious connotation, only amplified with the name “Noah,” and so, the phrase harkens the religious undercurrents that run beneath the text, swimming through the pages behind the words. But including the surname “Webster” throws the phrase into a different light; it’s an allusion to the 18th century lexicographer whose name is synonymous to dictionary. “Noah Webster’s Ark” contains not animals, but words; and Moby Dick is a work that resides high on the list of novels with the greatest number of different words. A novel about an ark of sorts is literally an ark of sorts. And the trident of magnitude which that pun invokes is still only a fraction of the novel; there is truly a treasure trove of subtextual interpretations, allegories, and lexical Easter eggs to keep the thirsty reader busy for years. But more so, the novel is genuinely enjoyable, always unpredictable, and the characters memorable. Moby Dick is a feat of American letters the likes of which no other novel has nor is likely ever to compare. I truly cannot wait to reread this one over and over in the years to come.

 

 

 

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot

(June Read)

            “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” So begins Middlemarch by George Eliot, my favorite read of 2023. In thinking, reminiscing, and struggling to write about this exquisite novel, doubtless a time-enduring classic whose mastery will never cease to dazzle and delight, I’m repeatedly brought back to Emily Dickinson’s famed 1873 quote about the book which she penned in a letter to her bookish cousin: “What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?” Dickinson’s sentiments were likewise my own when after an entire month, I too read the final words of Eliot’s novel and, sitting on the steps of my fire escape, lifted my face toward the sunlight and let the waves of wonderment wash me in their beatific excess. Set in the English provincial town of Middlemarch and spanning the years 1829 to 1832, the novel features a large, diverse cast of characters, with four central figures taking the lead: Dorothea Brooke, our rebellious yet intelligent heroine, who finds herself in a discontented marriage with the erudite but pompous Edward Casaubon; Tertius Lydgate, a young yet arrogant doctor, who, with his vainglorious wife Rosamond, faces certain financial ruin; Fred Vincy, an ambitious but economically challenged young man, struggling with own romantic undertaking; and Nicholas Bulstrode, a banker whose shady past resurfaces and leads to a series of events that cast suspicion on him. The intricate plotlines of these characters intersect across Middlemarch and its surrounding areas, weaving a rich tapestry of human experience and undeniable enduring brilliance.

It was the longest book I read this year, at 853 pages. It took me a month to read, the entirety of June, and during that time, I was consumed, absorbed by this novel, teleported to the town of Middlemarch, a witness to the wild goings-on and tumultuous affairs. I’ve written about it in the past, how certain novels, the greatest ones, deter description, dwelling, and dissection; their magnificence far exceeds what most readers could or would have to write about the work. Such is the case here: Middlemarch is a novel whose magnitude of magnificence obliterates the task at hand: how does one write about glory? I managed to say some things after I first read it, citing three constituent parts that source the novel’s enduring mastery: the scope, the themes, and the narrator. And while I could reiterate the things I’ve already written here, how these parts and the countless more move the novel “past the pantheon of Victorian literature and into a place all its own,” it seems superfluous to do so. I need not reanalyze a work such as this, revoice my interpretation, and synthesize the specifics. The greatest novels move their readers, push them into a place of rumination, reminiscence, remembrance. The experience, in its wondrous singularity, is more than enough. Middlemarch is a novel that I have thought about more than any other work since reading it, whose cast of characters permanently persist in my memory, their mannerisms, appearances, words, and wit. So too do descriptions of the English countryside, unfurling fields of grass gold in the sunlight, hills rolling into the horizon, muddy streets snaking into the city square, the architecture of the churches, the home study and bedroom, books collecting dust on the nightstand. There are moments of exquisite, eye-tearing beauty in this novel, many of them, as well as moments of enervating, eye-tearing anguish that would leave me gasping, shuddering in my seat, not simply pondering but feeling the text as it coursed through my body. There is incredible power in this novel, a strength I fail to discern in any other work. It is a study of provincial life painted in impossible detail, in a realism that encroaches real life and provides a window to the past. During my undergraduate, I had a professor who, I’ll never forget, said that reading Middlemarch was one of the most enjoyable experiences one could have in life, and having read it this year, I can attest that that statement is true: reading Middlemarch was one of the most enjoyable and profoundly moving experiences I have ever had, and it is for that reason that I name it my favorite read of the year.


 

Honorable mentions:

 

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Blood on the Forge by William Attaway

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Drifts by Kate Zambreno

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham

Other Men’s Daughters by Richard Stern

 

 

Rereads:

 

Ice by Anna Kavan

Stoner by John Williams

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth




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