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  • Louis Arata

The Top Ten Books (I've Read) of 2023

We’re well into 2024, and only now am I getting around to posting my favorite books of 2023. It seems rather fitting that I’m behind schedule, given that everything about my 2023 reading season was on a slow track.

 

I spent my time revisiting some favorite plays (1776, Twelve Angry Men) and discovering new ones (Slave Play, All My Sons). I delved into classic and contemporary horror (The Haunting of Hill House, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Don’t Fear the Reaper). I dabbled in poetry (Dylan Thomas), UFO’s, and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

 

One monumental book (The Bible) occupied 9 months of my time. While I read other books along with it, the majority of my attention was focused on the good book.

 

Along with my Top Ten and Honorable Mentions, I’ve included two new categories: Most Significant and Guilty Pleasure.

 

In alphabetical order by author, here are my top ten books:

 

The Top Ten:

 


Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Ryunsoke Akutagawa

 

I love novels because there is elbow room to explore mighty themes. That is, until I come across a writer who excels at short stories. This collection of Ryunsoke Akutagawa’s work ranges from historic, tragic, comic, and a bit of memoir. His two most famous stories, “Rashōmon” and “In A Bamboo Grove” are the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashōmon. The final section of the book includes personal essays which share some of Akutagawa’s own story; these are all the more poignant, given that the author committed suicide at 35.

 

 


No Crying in Baseball, Erin Carlson

 

I enjoy a good behind-the-scenes look at movies. Erin Carlson’s book follows the making of A League of Their Own, the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Not surprisingly, there are backstage dramas (i.e., Madonna didn’t always play well with others, and Tom Hanks was looking to recover from several movie flops). What makes this book better than most is that Carlson explores the significance of Penny Marshall’s career – such as, Marshall’s Big was the first film directed by a woman to gross over $100 million. Marshall, who is primarily known for Laverne and Shirley, proves to be somewhat eccentric and risk-taking as a director, but Carlson points out that male directors are often eccentric, and no one makes note of it. This book deepens my appreciation for one of my favorite films.

 

 


All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

 

I wasn’t two pages into Doerr’s novel before I was in awe of his writing (and a wee bit envious). Beautifully crafted sentences, an engaging storyline. I was swept right along. The novel follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind girl seeking refuge from WWII, and Werner, a bright German boy who is conscripted into the Nazi army. Their stories eventually converge, at least in a tangential sense; Doerr wanted to write about the “abundance of miracles” which may appear in the middle of a war. This may be one of the best novels I have ever read.

 

On a side note, my mother-in-law often recommended books to me. A Man Called Ove and A Gentleman in Moscow were the first two. She got comically impatient that I hadn’t yet read All the Light We Cannot See. At the start of every phone call and holiday visit, she asked me, “Have you read it yet?” I regret that I waited too long. She passed away in 2022, and now I won’t have the opportunity to discuss it with her. Gail, thanks for the recommendations. That’s three books now that will always remind me of you.

 



Don’t Fear the Reaper, Stephen Graham Jones

 

This novel follows Jade Daniel’s return to her hometown of Proofrock, ID, after the disastrous and horrifying events of My Heart is a Chainsaw. Stephen Graham Jones is composing a love letter to 1970-90’s horror films. He throws everything into the mix: slasher, ghost story, revenge tale. While the first book in the series is thrilling, Reaper hits the ground running and never lets up.

 

 



Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris

 

Theatre can challenge the status quo like nothing else, and Harris’s play is a bold examination of the perpetuating legacy of slavery and racism. Three couples undergo Antebellum Sexual Performance therapy, in which they role-play different scenarios between slave owners and enslaved people. At times, the play is satiric; throughout, it is gut-wrenching. Given how deeply affected I was by reading the play, I can only imagine how powerful it would be to see a live performance. One of the best plays I have ever read.

 


Right by My Side, David Haynes

 

My library has a bookcase dedicated to classics: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Mixed in with these recognizable titles are lesser-known works which need to be discovered (or rediscovered), such as Haynes’ novel. Young Marshall Field Finney is disgusted by his parents’ perpetual drama. After his mother unexpectedly walks out, Marshall watches his heavy-drinking father soothe himself with affair after affair. Plus, Marshall’s best friend is too busy with his new girlfriend, while his other friend is caught up in a political protest. Nothing makes sense – especially when his mother starts writing him letters to explain why she left. Haynes delves deep into Marshall’s life and doesn’t shy away from examining the often conflicting and confusing emotions of growing up. When I finished reading the novel, I wanted to read it again right away.

 

 


Fairy Tale, Stephen King

 

King knows how to craft heroes and villains. But something has been happening in his more recent novels. There is a kindness and vulnerability to his main characters, which makes them all the more heroic. In Fairy Tale, Charlie Reade (17 years old) comes to the aid of his elderly neighbor, who has been injured. Mr Bowditch is a crotchety recluse with a sweet, aging German Shepherd, Radar. Soon, Charlie learns that Mr Bowditch guards a portal in his backyard which leads to Empis, another world. Bad things are happening there, and Charlie (and Radar) get pulled into a war to rescue the kingdom from Flight Killer and Gogmagog. Stephen King, of course, is adept at crafting magical realms, but what is more magical is his Charlie Reade. It takes a special talent to create a believable character who is courageous in their humanity.

 



Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence

 

I admit I’m surprised that this made my Top Ten. I knew a little about it, mostly that it was the subject of an obscenity trial when it was first published. I assumed it was a literary bodice-ripper: Lady Constance Chatterley experiences a sexual awakening at the hands of her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. Instead, what I discover is that smart, confident Constance is already sexually liberated. Her relationship with Oliver is both passionate and romantic. Together, they share concerns about class and social issues. As expected, their affair results in tribulations, but there is an element of hope at the end. Overall, an unexpectedly entertaining book.

 

 



Atonement, Ian McEwan

 

McEwan’s novel of a careless mistake is fascinating and heartbreaking. Thirteen-year-old Briony believes that her sister Cecilia is being stalked by Robbie, the housekeeper’s son. What she fails to comprehend is that Cecilia and Robbie are attracted to one another. Briony makes a disastrous accusation against Robbie, and he is arrested for rape. What follows is an examination of how this mistake has far-reaching consequences on all their lives. McEwan’s writing excels at blending his characters’ internal experience with the external world. My only complaint is that a fair portion of the novel centers on Robbie’s experiences in WWII, while Cecilia’s perspective is dropped. I wanted to know more about her life in the aftermath of the incident. The ending, however, is both clever and poignant.

 



Cabin Fever, Tom Montgomery Fate

 

Thoreau’s Walden is one of my favorite books, so when I learned that Cabin Fever is modeled after Thoreau, I had to read it. Montgomery Fate writes of lessons learned while living in a rustic cabin in Michigan. Here are thoughtful examinations of suburbia vs the woods. Solitude vs family. In essence, how nature blends with the modern world. Montgomery Fate’s writing is insightful, tender, and funny. I will come back to this book again and again.

 

 

The Most Significant Book I’ve Read:

 


The Bible, Douay-Rheims edition

 

To be honest, I couldn't bring myself to include this book in the Top Ten, as it deserves a category all its own. Given its historical and religious significance -- not to mention its scope -- it’s impossible to read The Bible like any other book. If you want to read more about my impressions of the Douay-Rheims edition, you can find it here.

 


Guilty Pleasure:


Jaws, Peter Benchley

 

This novel will always be overshadowed by Spielberg’s movie (and with good reason). The movie is a thrilling adventure story with distinctive characters. In the novel, Benchley seems to want the shark to win. Sheriff Brody feels like an outsider in the small town of Amity, whereas his wife, Ellen, mourns the loss of her youth and affluent status. As a result, she ends up initiating an affair with ichthyologist Matt Hooper. Meanwhile, the mayor Larry Vaughn is pressuring the sheriff to keep the beaches open; this isn’t merely to rescue the summer tourism trade but to appease the Mafia, who own most of the real estate in town. What intrigues me about the novel is that the shark represents an undercurrent of menace in a seemingly peaceful resort town. There are secrets everywhere, and they can rise up at any time and tear you to pieces.

 

 

Honorable Mentions:


Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman

 

A sweetly tender coming-of-age story which tells of the romance between Elio (17 years old) and Oliver, a 24-year-old graduate student. The novel explores the attraction, flirtation, ambivalence, and deeper contemplations as Elio discovers what it means to love. The relationship may be fleeting, but it continues to touch each of their lives. Beautiful writing and nuanced insight into the characters make this a special book. As of yet, I have not watched the movie (though I hear it is wonderful) because I don’t want to disrupt the novel’s gentle exploration of youth.

 



Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer

 

What do you do when an artist you like happens to be a horrible person? Claire Dederer examines the careers of Roman Polanski, Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, and others who produce respected works yet also have committed crimes and other moral outrages. What is a fan to do? Do we look at the art and not the artist, or are the two irrevocably intertwined? Overall, a compelling analysis, though the ending left me a bit disappointed.

 



If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe, Jason Pargin

 

The fourth book in the John Dies at the End series (JDate). The first novel will always be my favorite, but I remain impressed by the peculiarly funny and at times horrifying stories that Jason Pargin conjures. This time, Dave, John, and Amy are tracking down a possessed child’s toy which is involved in ritual sacrifices, alternate universes, and the potential apocalypse. As with the others in the series, a very entertaining book.

 


The complete list of books is below:

 

Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Ryūnsoke Akutagawa

Jaws, Peter Benchley

The Damned, Algernon Blackwood

The Peanuts Papers, ed. Andrew Blauner

Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler

The Virgin in the Garden, A.S. Byatt

Free Days with George, Colin Campbell

No Crying in Baseball, Erin Carlson

The Mousetrap and Other Plays, Agatha Christie

How to Train Your Dragon, Cressida Cowell

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, Margaret Craven

Death in a Tenured Position, Amanda Cross

Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, Claire Dederer

All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Bible, Douay-Rheims edition

Flying Saucers: Serious Business, Frank Edwards

Strangest of All, Frank Edwards

Middlemarch, George Eliot

Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot

Werewolves, Nancy Garden

Don’t Fear the Reaper, Stephen Graham Jones

Right by My Side, David Haynes

Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsen

Slave Play, Jeremy O. Harris

MASH, Richard Hooker

Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving

Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

Fairy Tale, Stephen King

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence

Hell House, Richard Matheson

Atonement, Ian McEwan

The Sorceress and the Cygnet, Patricia A. McKillip

All My Sons, Arthur Miller

Cabin Fever, Tom Montgomery Fate

Baseball for Dummies, Joe Morgan

Ursula K. LeGuin: Conversations on Writing, David Naimon

If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe, Jason Pargin

Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Kendall R. Phillips

The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean

Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Dracula, Bram Stoker

1776, Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards

Weep Not, Child, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas

How to Watch a Movie, David Thomson

Sauron Defeated, J.R.R. Tolkien

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

 

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