Thursday, December 28, 2023

Favorite Books 2023

 Pile of old books ~ Education Photos on Creative Market


Another year, another list of books with the notes to remind me what each was about.  I would like to be able to summarize with the brevity and clarity of The New Yorker or Washington Post but I'm not that good; I just record my initial thoughts and let it go at that.  I do edit the selected summaries slightly when I post these year end favorites but that's mainly to slim down ones that ramble because I included more detail than really necessary.  

This year's list is heavy on non-fiction.  Most of my fiction selections, while generally entertaining, did not capture my attention that way non-fiction did in 2023.  Here's what stands out at year's end.





 One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder, Brian Doyle (2019)


Collection of essays published by friends and associates following Bryan Doyle’s death in 2017 at age 61. Doyle writes expansively and lyrically about most everything, from the wonder of hummingbirds and their rapidly beating hearts to the joys of using basketball skills of his youth to play a raucously chaotic nerf game with his young children. Nothing is too insignificant for extended examination that can easily and quite logically wander well beyond its starting point to offer insights on life, love, friendship, parenthood, nature and myriad other topics. Each essay stands alone. Together they reveal a talented, thoughtful writer who is well worth further reading.


Catching the Light, Joy Harjo (2022)


Part memoir, part reflection on her Native American heritage and part meditation on the role of poetry in her life, former US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo describes the many influences that took her from life on the Rez to the nation’s highest honor as a poet. The style is prose but presented in 50 short pieces the work has the lyrical feel of poetry and traces the many influences—personal, spiritual and natural—that informed and directed her life . At times hard-edged and gritty and other times expansive and hopeful, Harjo traces her unlikely journey with an energy that does indeed catch the light.


What If 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Monroe (2022)

 The subtitle pretty much says it all. People submit entirely ridiculous questions and Randall Monroe explains the science that would apply to the situation. Usually, the result is something either catastrophic or simply personally dangerous. It‘s all very serious (or at least as serious as the answer to an absurd hypothetical question can be). The seriousness is also leavened by Monroe’s stick figure drawings that further convey some of the absurdity involved. The science is real, even if the question is entirely preposterous so What If 2 requires some careful but fascinating reading.


American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, Adam Hochschild (2022)


Very readable account of the repression and violence unleashed in the US by America’s entry into what was then known as The Great War. A nation that was already hostile to organized labor, immigrants, socialists and Black Americans ramped up its hostility with legal and extra legal attacks against anyone who spoke out against the war or was even suspected of lacking appropriate enthusiasm for the effort. Racist president Woodrow Wilson had almost nothing to say about violence inflicted on these groups and supported repressive laws like the Espionage Act of 1917 (still on the books) which was used almost exclusively to suppress speech and not against spies. Following the end of hostilities, Hochschild shows how the victor’s peace imposed on Germany planted the seeds for WW2 barely two decades hence. At the same time, the US continued the repression and violence against Blacks, immigrants and socialists until the early 1920s.


The Wounded World: W.E.B. Du Bois and the First World War, Chad L. Williams (2023)


Although this book focuses on W.E.B. Du Bois’s attempt to write the history of Black Americans in WW1, The Wounded World provides an excellent overview the author’s work and times. By 1914, Du Bois was an established thought leader and advocate for Black Americans. As Americans debated entering the war, Du Bois argued for Black support and participation in the war with the expectation that their service would offer a path toward racial justice. The racism he encountered in pursuing that participation and the experience of Black GIs and officers in service and as veterans disillusioned him.

DuBois amassed a wealth of information, documents and first-hand observation to chronicle the service and heroism of Black soldiers, officer and enlisted, along with the discrimination they faced at the hands of the US Army. What began as a simple history continued to grow as Du Bois saw the events of 1914-1918 as part of a broad sweep of history that had systematically taken advantage of persons of color in the US and around the world. The expanded scope, along with the lack of funding for research and verification, Du Bois’s other work and the march of events overtook the effort which was never published.

The Wounded World fills that gap. It documents Black American’s WW1 service while recognizing a towering American intellectual, fully engaged in the issues of his time and the evolution of his thought.


A Brutal Reckoning: Andrew Jackson, the Creek Indians, and the Epic War for the American South, Peter Cozzens (2023)


Peter Cozzens presents a thorough history of the American expansion into the deep South in the years following the Revolutionary War and its impact on the indigenous peoples of that region. Although the subtitle leads with Andrew Jackson, the general does not appear until Part Three which is preceded by a history of the Creeks and the split within that nation about accommodating or resisting the ongoing pressures of American influences and settlement. By the time Andrew Jackson appears on the scene traditionalist Creeks, known as Red Sticks, are at war with their more assimilated brethren who, along with other indigenous tribes such as the Cherokee, are willing to side with the Americans. Jackson’s influence is key in that not only shared the settlers hostility to hostile indigenous inhabitant occupants of the region but he also he forged an actual fighting force from a combination of regular army troops, militia volunteers and Native American allies. Cozzens lays out the history of the various contending forces and lays out a logical progression of influences among what would otherwise be a bewildering cast of Creek leaders, prophets other influencers. Overall, an excellent, readable history that presents a full spectrum of background and detail of a war that is barely a footnote, if that, in American history.


I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War against Reconstruction, Kidada E. Williams (2023)


A graphic refutation of the conventional wisdom that has held for much of the past century and a half that Reconstruction—policies intended to change the economic and social structures in the South to ensure the civil and political rights of newly-emancipated enslaved persons—failed. In this telling, Reconstruction did not fail, it was attacked and subverted by an organized resistance using violence and intimidation against any Black person who sought to exercise their political and economic rights. Based on the first-person accounts recorded in hearings and investigations conducted during Reconstruction and the accounts of survivors recorded by the WPA, I Saw Death Coming recounts the many ways Blacks and their white supporters were physically attacked, murdered, driven from from their homes and dispossessed. Author Williams demonstrates that many Blacks had achieved significant economic success and independence following emancipation only to be robbed of their gains by unreconstructed Confederates intent on preserving the social structures and customs that privileged them prior to the Civil War. The opponents of emancipation were aided in this effort by the indifference/hostility of the rest of the nation that either wanted to move on from the war or did not support Black civil rights. A powerful book that shows how how resistant the United States was toward Black emancipation, a problem that has persisted to the present.


Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon, Melissa L. Sevigny (2023)


In 1938 when few people had traveled the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, botany professor Elzada Clover and graduate student Lois Jotter became the first non-indigenous women to accomplish this feat. Their trip came about as a result of Professor Clover’s interest in the plant life of the American southwest and the opportunity to map one of the few places left to explore. The Colorado River in that era was considered too dangerous for women who were dismissed as wholly unable to contribute to the effort needed for a successful trip. Clover managed to conspire with Norm Nevills, an experienced boatman who wanted to but had not yet taken on the Colorado through the Canyon. Melissa Sevigny provides a dramatic and detailed account of the trip. Her descriptions of running major rapids are chilling as are the many difficult portages and environmental challenges along the way. In addition, she provides backstory information about the challenges women faced in academia at the time and much history of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon before, during and since Clover and Jotter’s historic trip. Brave the Wild River is a well-written and engaging tale of determination and perseverance.





Demon Copperhead, Barbara Kingsolver (2022)


Barbara Kingsolver chronicles life on the margins in Appalachia through the eyes of Damon Fields, aka Demon Copperhead, the son of a drug impaired mother and already deceased father. The story begins with his difficult birth and follows Demon’s experiences as a ward of the state after his mother also dies (from an overdose), as he struggles to find his place in a small but difficult world. Along the way Demon finds himself exploited by foster caregivers and constantly looking for a place to simply be a kid in an environment that is stacked against him. Even when he finds something like that place, he falls into addiction and a downward spiral that threatens to kill him. Demon’s life is difficult but not without hope. Along with all of the challenges, Demon finds a few people and friends that help him deal with those challenges.


Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty (2022)


Short stories depicting the hard life on the the Penobscot Reservation in Maine. The stories follow narrator David’s family and friends over the years after he finds a jar that contains an old curse. Drugs, separation, youthful violence are all part of the story. So, too, is the endurance and perseverance of the characters. No matter what happens—and by the final story, told years later, the worse has come to pass—the family lurches on. 


Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus (2022)


Elizabeth Zott is a chemist at a research laboratory in the mid 1950s. Dismissed from the PhD program she was pursuing after reporting an attempted rape by her dissertation advisor, Elizabeth holds a relatively junior position and is the only professional level woman at the institute when she encounters Calvin Evans a brilliant chemist and the star employee of the institute. Despite an awkward introduction and their respective unstable and dysfunctional family histories, the two become lovers and intellectual partners, a relationship that engenders much gossip and hostility from other staff. Elizabeth is Calvin’s equal and entirely unwilling to accept the era’s limitations on and attitudes about women. When Calvin is killed in a freak accident and Elizabeth learns that she is pregnant, she is fired. Giving birth to a daughter and staring at unemployment entices Elizabeth to accept an offer to return to work at the institute. When she discovers that pay is less than before and her boss is using her so that he can publish her work as his own she resigns. A chance encounter with the single father parent of her daughter’s kindergarten classmate leads to an offer to host an afternoon cooking program on a local television station, a role that Elizabeth fills a with her unique perspective as a woman and a chemist. Lessons in Chemistry is a good story. Elizabeth is a likable, determined character and is accompanied by a believable cast of supporting characters.


Night Watch, Jayne Anne Phillips (2023)


Night Watch is set in the hills of West Virginia during and after the Civil War. The narrative opens in 1874 as a man seemingly abandons wife and child at the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Even as the reader is introduced to the event and characters, that initial impression is quickly dispelled as the story unfolds. The story shifts between 1864, when a medicine woman/midwife and two of her enslaver’s illicit children have escaped and found refuge from the war and slavery in Virginia’s anti-secessionist counties, and the events leading to the asylum ten years later. The bifurcated structure gradually adds the detail to the story, illustrating the main characters’ endurance and the risks, violence and loss that were a constant threat during those post-war years. The story is well-told and, once the reader gets oriented to the characters and time line, eminently engaging.