It is almost time to say farewell to 2023, but we obviously can’t do that before we talk about the best (and worst) books of the year. So I am here to give you my books of the year, with a twist. For the last two years my year end book list has been framed around the questions I ask my guests every week on my podcast, The Stacks. If the author of any of the below books was a guest on The Stacks, I have linked to that episode below for your listening pleasure.
This year I have to give a little warning, this list is mainly nonfiction. Most of you already know I love nonfiction, but in 2023 I was asked to judge a nonfiction book prize, so my reading this year has been almost exclusively nonfiction. So, if you’re reading this thinking, what about the novels? I’ll get back to those in 2024.
TWO BOOKS I LOVE
We Were Once a Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America by Roxanna Asgarian
This book grabbed me from the start and still hasn’t let go. We Were Once a Family is framed around the Hart Family Murders, which became famous when two white moms drove themselves and their six Black children off a cliff in California in 2018. The story garnered much attention, but Asgarian shies away from the salacious and instead brings the children and their birth families to the forefront. She also examines and calls to account the entire system of family separation in Texas (and nationwide). This book is a force, and one that you will not be able to put down, as much as you might want to.
Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe
The book is a series of notes on Blackness, grief, family, culture, and criticism that is beyond any of the words I have just typed. It reads as a journal and also as an outline for Sharpe and how she sees and experiences the world. Sharpe’s observations, critiques, and reflections are such a gift to her reader. The way she centers Black perspectives and experiences relentlessly is empowering and reaffirming. She questions practices and standards that need to be interrogated. She also praises and celebrates beauty, rigor, and Blackness.
ONE BOOK I HATE
Raw Dog: The Naked Truth about Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus
I had extremely high hopes for this book, I even wrote about it as one of my most anticipated books of 2023 in this very column for SheReads.com last year. It was a huge disappointment. The book has very little research and instead is Loftus and her boyfriend (now ex) on a road trip across America trying hot dogs, talking about their gut health, and basically just getting some jokes off. I wanted this book to be cultural criticism around hotdogs and class and gender and race and all that good stuff. Instead it is poop jokes with a touch of research thrown in.
THE LAST GREAT BOOK SOMEONE RECOMMENDED TO ME
Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by Virginia Sole-Smith
When Brittany Luse was on The Stacks she mentioned reading and loving Fat Talk, so I picked it up, and she was 100% right about this book. It is marketed as a parenting book, and it is centered around talking to kids about their bodies, food, and weight, but I think this book is more broad than the genre of “parenting book”. Yes, if you have kids or interact with kids regularly you should read this one, but even if you don’t I think it is incredibly impactful and powerful. Fat Talk is useful in naming the factors that lead to negative body image and explaining how they develop and can be reigned in. This book gave me space to think about anti-fatness more critically and debunk many myths around “health” that have framed how I think about bodies, both my own and other people’s.
BOOK I LOVE TO RECOMMEND
The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight by Andrew Leland
In this memoir, Leland explores his own degenerative eye disease that is causing him to lose his sight, but he also explores other people and organizations in the world of blindness. He talks about blindness, and disability, in a way that invited me in and made me critique my own ableism. He also helped me to understand accommodations and accessibility as a form of justice in a way I never had. I am grateful for Leland, this book, and I can’t stop pressing it into people’s hands.
I like to think of myself as a one-book-pony, but 2023 has changed all of that. I am currently in the middle of six books. Yes, I know that is too many. I am just trying to cram in the last literary morsels of 2023 before moving on to the year ahead. Here is what I am reading now, in no particular order:
Brutalities: A Love Story by Margo Steines
Black Friend: Essays by Ziwe
Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story by Max Marshall
Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food by Chris Van Tulleken
The Woman in Me by Britney Spears
It’s Britney, bitch. Well actually it’s Michelle Williams doing a biopic worthy version of Britney that is top notch audio acting. I thoroughly enjoyed the memoir, and found it captured the perfect balance of hot gos and vulnerability. It was exactly what I wanted and Michelle Williams took it to the next level, there were legit parts I forgot it wasn’t Britney herself.
BOOK THAT MADE ME LAUGH
Congratulations, the Best Is Over!: Essays by R. Eric Thomas
R. Eric Thomas has pulled off a book that made me laugh and also cry a little, too. Congratulations, the Best Is Over! feels like a much needed catch up with an old friend full of jokes and raw observations. Just know that while I did LOL reading this book, the last few chapters had me fully in my feelings.
BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY
A Living Remedy: A Memoir by Nicole Chung
Chung’s memoir about the illnesses and deaths of both her parents over the course a of a few years is extremely moving. I cried multiple times while reading this loving tribute that also examines the reality that the American healthcare system is failing so many of us. It’s a beautifully written book that will tug at your heartstrings weather you are a parent, have a parent, or miss a parent.
BOOK WHERE I LEARNED A LOT
Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond
Matthew Desmond took all the clout he got after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his previous book Evicted, and decided to really tell America about itself. This book is a scathing drag of the US and the country’s enabling of poverty in order to uphold the social order at the expense of those with the lowest economic standing. I learned so much while reading Poverty, by America. I learned about government handouts to the rich and the structures at play that allow one of the richest nations on earth to have so many impoverished residents by design.
BOOK THAT MADE ME ANGRY
American Gun: The True Story of the Ar-15 by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson
Before reading American Gun I already believed deeply in the need for stricter gun laws and the banning of AR-15s and other assault weapons. After reading the book, I understood why previous attempts to do so have been so ineffective, and that pissed me off. In American Gun I read about Vietnam war coverups, NRA PR campaigns, and the cultural obsession with mass shootings that have led the AR-15 to become an American icon. Sickening stuff.
BOOK THAT BRINGS ME JOY
Start Here: Instructions for Becoming a Better Cook by Sohla El-Waylly
I love a cookbook. Every story has a happy ending, food! Start Here is of course full of recipes but it also is full of techniques and explanations around why we do what we do in the kitchen. I not only loved reading the book cover to cover, but at the time of this writing I have cooked six recipes from the book and they’ve all been delicious. Reading, cooking, eating with my loved ones; if that’s not joy, I don’t know what is.
BOOK I AM PROUD TO HAVE READ
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
I’ll be honest I know a lot of this book went over my head, Jesmyn Ward is about 150 degrees smarter than I’ll ever be, so that is to be expected. However, I am proud to have read this great work of historical fiction about American slavery and the slave pens that were the temporary holding places for countless Black people who were traded for hundreds of years in The United States. I am also proud to say that I am reading Jesmyn Ward as she continues to write the world as she sees it, and shape American letters for generations to come.
BOOK I’M EMBARRASSED I STILL HAVEN’T READ
Blackouts by Justin Torres
Everyone is talking about this book, it won The National Book Award for fiction, and I, a supposed “book person” still haven’t read it. Drag me.
BOOK I WISH MORE PEOPLE READ
Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H
I loved this book and haven’t stopped talking about it all year. That being said, I wish I was louder so more people could hear me talk about it. The author, pseudonymously named Lamya H, writes a memoir in essays about being a queer, non-binary, Muslim immigrant to the USA. They use stories from the Quran to explore big ideas like faith, community, justice, and complicity. I loved this book and hope all of you will read it.
A BOOK PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO KNOW I LOVED
Promises of Gold by Jose Olivarez
I loved a poetry collection this year. I know, this is very unlike me, but I did. José Olivarez calls this book a “love letter to the homies” and honestly that is the vibe of my life. Also there is a poem about Cheetos, so maybe this isn’t a surprise at all.
A BOOK ABOUT WHERE I’M FROM
The Heartbreak Years by Minda Honey
So this is a bit of a cheat, I am not from Los Angeles, but I do live here now so it sort of counts. I think even more than this being a book about where I am from, it is a book about a time in my life that feels nostalgic and like home. Honey writes through her early twenties in Los Angeles, dating and trying to find her way as a Black woman. I felt so represented by this book, even if her stories were much wilder than any I had. There was something about Minda Honey and The Heartbreak Years that felt like home.
Homegrown: Timothy McVeigh and the Rise of Right-Wing Extremism by Jeffery Toobin
Toobin was embroiled in scandal when he was caught masturbating during a Zoom meeting at The New Yorker in the early days of the pandemic. Extremely icky stuff. This year he released a book on Timothy McVeigh that was also extremely icky stuff, but for entirely different reasons. The book is an engaging ride through McVeigh’s life, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and his trial. The book is good, Toobin is what makes it problematic.
BOOK I WOULD ASSIGN TO HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
You might think this is not a book for a bunch of teenagers, but I think you’re wrong. Here is why I would teach Chain-Gang All-Stars to my high school class.
- The book is engaging and propulsive. So many books young people are assigned inn school are boring.
- It is contemporary literature, it teaches kids what is possible in books right now.
- It has all the hallmarks of good entertainment: violence, friendship, bad guys, romance, competition.
- The book asks really great questions around justice, punishment, what we are capable of, consumer culture, forgiveness, complicity, racism. I think these topics are the things we need to be engaging with our young people around, not only beautiful metaphor and alliteration.
- This book has beautiful metaphors and alliterations, too.
- There are footnotes throughout where Adjei-Brenyah ties his fictional future with the truth of our current and past relationship with incarceration.
- The book is good, and honestly that should be reason #1.
BOOK I WOULD LIKE TO SEEN TURNED INTO A MOVIE OR TV SHOW
A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy by Nathan Thrall
This is a book about a man whose son was killed in a bus accident in Jerusalem in 2012. The book zooms into the day of the accident, but also pulls back to show the reader the experiences of Palestinians in Israel. Given all that is going on in Israel right now, a book that shows a very personal and specific story of Palestinian life I think would go a long way to humanizing the struggle for freedom that has become so obscured by politics and propaganda.
BOOK I WOULD RECOMMEND TO THE PRESIDENT
When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era by Donovan X. Ramsey
As I read When Crack Was King I kept wondering how Joe Biden would feel about this book. I wondered how he would see himself as an undeniable maker of this history. I wondered if he would have regrets or feel shame for his role in unfair crack cocaine sentencing and the criminalization of millions of Black and brown men and women in this country. I wondered if he would dare pick up this book. Now here we are, the end of the year, and this is the one book I would love to force him to read. It is time for him to sit in the corner and think about what he did.