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Ho Ho Ho: John’s Top Ten Book List 2023

Orion picking his favorite book of the year

Dear Friends around the World:

For the ninth consecutive year, I’m thrilled to be publishing my Top Ten Book list.  I’m on track to once again read 50 books in 2023, so narrowing it down to the ten best has once again been a challenge. 

As we did for the first time last year, we’re releasing the 2023 list in time to aid in your last-minute holiday shopping.  Fun (but scientifically unverified) Fact: There is no better gift than a well-chosen book. To help with shopping, at the end I’ve also listed the ten books that I’ve most gifted in the last decade. 

Happy holidays, and hope the break from work also provides a lot of reading time!

Top Ten Reads of 2023

Trust, Hernan Diaz

Following on his stunning debut novel In the Distance (a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction), Diaz has once again written an unconventional novel that demands close attention from the reader, but said efforts are richly rewarded.  Trust which did win the Pulitzer, focuses on a John B. Rockefeller type of protagonist, but tells his story from four different angles. While one of the four mini-books was a bit long in the teeth and could have used some tough love editing, the book still flew by.

I was quite annoyed when the Ai Weiwei’s memoir was banned in Hong Kong by the increasingly censorious local government, so when I picked up this memoir shortly after my return to America the book’s clarion call for artistic freedom was strongly re-enforced. Ai Weiwei is arguably China’s most famous living artist, having followed in the steps of his father, the artist Ai Qing.  Ai Qing was branded a “rightist intellectual” [whatever that means] by Mao himself, with father and son being sent into internal exile for several years in the poverty-ridden countryside. This memoir is a beautiful tribute to the bond between father and son, a harsh critique of totalitarian governments and the Cultural Revolution, a meditation on the duty of the artist, and a middle finger (literally) to those who seek to curtail our rights to speak out for what we believe.

Liberation Day, George Saunders

I have never read a book by George Saunders and not added it to my annual Top Ten list. With apologies for being so predictable, this year the streak continues!  Liberation Day should only continue Saunder’s reputation as being, in the words of the Booker Prize podcast, the greatest living writer of short stories. The bizarre and often-amusing worlds he creates can require a bit of mental focus (set the phone to airplane mode), but it’s always worth the effort.  If you’ve ever been blown away by a Saunders book, then don’t hesitate to pick this one up.  If you’d like to start, buy this book plus PastoraliaYou’ll thank me later. 

Among the Missing, Dan Chaon

This collection of shorts, set mostly in the Midwestern United States has everything that makes for page-turning literature – the love and occasional rivalry between siblings, the decline of family bonds, the stark difference between happy and unhappy childhoods, and more than your average number of missing person cases. Chaon writes tightly, and in the mode of my idol Saunders rarely uses more words than necessary. You can consume these stories like potato chips and be sad when the bag is empty.

The Dutch House, Anne Patchett

If my annual Top Ten list was a greatest hits album, Patchett would join Saunders.  Well, flare up those Bic lighters and shout and stomp for this brilliant novel. The story of two siblings whose idyllic life living in a seemingly perfect home is shattered by three events: their mother runs off to India to help Mother Teresa tend to the poor; an evil stepmother moves in to replace her; and their father proves too henpecked and/or wimpy to protect his children. Told over several decades of sibling love, this book moves at a quick pace.  I started it on the runway in Paris and upon landing in Los Angeles I had to stop 30 pages from the end just to properly savor all I had read. Also highly recommended is her new essay collection These Precious Days (kudos to Amy’s mother Jan for this one).

The Mirage Factory, Gary Krist

The sub-title of his epic work of non-fiction says it all – Illusion, Imagination and the Invention of Los Angeles.  There are so many reasons LA should not have become a city:  lack of a natural harbor, no fresh water supply and being cut off from the world by deserts and mountains are but three. And yet somehow it became the second most populated city in America and the center of numerous industries ranging from aerospace to entertainment to electric cars.  Our friend Kevin Oreck’s recommendations never miss, and any student of history and/or urban planning will devour this book (even though the bits on religious charlatans did get a bit old). 

Kindred, Octavia Butler

It's 1976 in Los Angeles.  Our protagonist Dana has plans for a low-key celebration of her 26th birthday, when she suddenly and unwittingly transported back to 19th Century antebellum Maryland. There is seemingly a purpose in this time travel – the neer-do-well son of a plantation owner is in danger and only Dana can save him – and she does.  But her “reward” is to now be living the life of a slave. She briefly experiences these horrors, and throughout this compelling novel she is yanked back and forth between her preferred world of being an independent woman in 20th Century LA and the terror of living life in a place where “there was no shame in raping a black woman, but there could be shame in loving one.”  This all sounds quite heavy, and while for sure it is that’s not an excuse to avoid this brilliantly-imagined classic.

Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi

If “Well-known Novels from Oman” was a Jeopardy category, you’d never get to the $500 question. Rarer still are novels written by the nation’s women. Celestial Bodies is, believe it or not, the first novel ever written by an Omani woman to be published in English, and it’s also the first novel written in Arabic to win the Booker International Prize. In the village of al-Awafi, the gravitational forces of a traditional, patriarchal and slave-owning society are being challenged by rapid change and modernization. We learn this through the lives of three sisters -- Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who refuse all offer of matrimony while awaiting the return of a man she loves who has emigrated to Canada (and who seems much less committed to their eventual reunion). In short, tightly scripted chapters, numerous characters voices and stories are brought to life by the immensely talented Alharthi. This was a book I could not wait to pick up every night before bedtime.

It’s 20 years from today, and in Moscow a man known as Patient Number One is spiraling into severe mental decline. The rural dacha of Russia’s former leader is crowded with cooks, drivers, staffers and gardeners who mostly seem eager to profit off of Putin’s decline (both political and psychological). But by Vladimir’s side most every waking hour is a dedicated male nurse whose eyes, voice and idealistic world view create a tableau that the reader inhabits through every page of this fast-moving novel. It’s rare to find speculative fiction that intersects with modern politics and world events, and Honig pulls this off admirably.

High Sierra:  A Love Story, Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson is amongst the most famous living writers of science fiction, but in this work he dares to move to a new playing field. High Sierra recounts dozens of stories, adventures (and mis-adventures) from his 50-year love affair with one of the world’s most under-rated mountain ranges.  He skillfully weaves in stories of lifelong friendships with fellow hikers, the history of California’s environmental movement, interesting digressions of geology and an awe of Nature that is consistently life-affirming.  Anyone who reads this will want to lace up their boots, grab their poles and head out to the High Sierra immediately.

Holiday Bonus – The Ten Books I’ve Most Frequently Recommended and/or Gifted

Looking for additional ideas for others or for yourself?  Here is the stack-ranked list of the ten books I have most gifted over the last decade.

10.  Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick

9.  Red Notice, Bill Browder

8.  The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes

7.  The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, Stephan Zweig:

6.  The Spy and the Traitor, Ben Macintyre

5.  The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

4.  Pereira Maintains, Antonio Tabucchi

3.  Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders

2.  One Clear Ice Cold Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century, Roland Schimmelfennig

1. Any Human Heart, William Boyd

For more recommendations, visit my past book lists here.

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