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Book Review:
Dee's Best Reads List for 2023

I read many outstanding non- fiction books in 2023, but not much outstanding fiction published in 2023. That said, I have yet to read much-praised novels by James McBride (The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store), and Daniel Mason (North Woods) and many more. I read several good novels -- e.g., Girlfriend on Mars -- but the only outstanding novel published in 2023  I've read was The Bee Sting by the Irish novelist, Paul Murray.  Here are the lists:



The Bee Sting by, Paul Murray. Murray made his reputation as a comic novelist, including "Skippy Dies" and  "The Mark and the Void.," I have heard The Bee Sting described as a "tragi-comic" novel,  when a better description would be a family horror story. This is not a laugh-out-loud novel, but it is propulsive in a painful way. Murray's novel is about an an economically well off family in Ireland which falls on hard times during the Great Recession of 2008-09, and never recovers. The family of four gradually comes apart at the seams, and each family member, including an adorable young school age boy and one of the most obnoxious older adolescents in recent fiction,  become ever more involved in their private worlds delineated at length from first person perspectives. This is a long novel, too long by at least 100 pages; nevertheless, all the detail comes together in a devastating ending. Karma with an iron fist works itself out in "The Bee Sting", a title that is at once a lie, a mask, an omen and a euphemism for fate. For the parents, Dickie and Imelda, their past is as ever present as an unwanted guest in the home, while for their son, P.J., it's  unfathomable how he can be both loved and virtually invisible to parents and sister engrossed in their private worlds.  As the story darkens, Murray's prose becomes more surgical, absent the anesthesia.  


Liberation Day, by George Sanders. Jo and I read and listened to this 2022 novel this year. The audio version is extremely well done, the only audio book I've heard which was better than reading the book. Liberation Day is a book of stories, some of the best of which are about AI/human hybrids and their exploitation in a future dystopian world. The stories are funny, eye opening and occasionally heart breaking. George Saunders is one of the few living writers in any genre who deserve the label of genius. For anyone seeking to imagine a future world with AI robots, AI hybrid-humans, genetically engineered humans and mere humans determined to remain masters of their new technology, Liberation Day is a delight.  


A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. I was lucky enough to discover this 1993 novel in the local library. I had never heard of either Seth or this novel but now think one of the best novels I've read in my entire life. The novel is War and Peace long, i.e.,1,453 pages. It's set in Southern India around 1950, post the British exit from India and post Partition.  Seth follows four families, some members of which are politically connected, as their lives become enmeshed through courtship and marriage.  Seth has written a vast and complex account of Indian social mores around family and marriage, of Indian politics, sectarian violence, and the aspirations of young privileged and less privileged young people in a country coming to grips with its new freedoms. Seth is sometimes compared to Dickens, but I have never read a Dickens novel I think as highly of as A Suitable Boy


The Fire Season: A True Story From A Hotter World, by John Vaillant, is a harrowing account of the 2016 Ft. McMurray Canadian wild fire that led to a last minute evacuation of almost 100,000 people, destroyed most of Ft. McMurray, the hub of Canada's oil industry, and burned for 15 months, damaging a huge area of forests in Northern Canada.  Vaillant has also included an informative history and analysis of Canada's oil industry and of climate change writ large. A terrible wild fire that destroyed an urban oil center might be viewed as an Old Testament warning regarding the future of climate change, much like the 500 year floods that occurred in Houston a decade ago. However, as in Texas, it appears the residents of Ft. McMurray adamantly refused to consider this perspective. As the fire approached Ft. McMurray, civic leaders assured residents that all would be well until the last possible moment for escape. One message of  "The Fire Season" is similar to the theme of "The Bee Sting" :karma is implacable and sometimes looks much like judgment day. 


Master Slave Husband Wife, by Ilyon Woo is an enthralling story of escape from slavery by a married couple, Ellen and William Craft, in 1848. The Crafts escaped from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia and then Boston, through a daring impersonation of a young wealthy disabled gentleman ( Ellen Craft's disguise) and her personal slave, her husband, William. Escapes from slavery in the deep South to Northern states were extremely rare, due to distance, slave patrols and the vigilance of Southern communities and of border communities such as Baltimore, Maryland. The early chapters describing their four day journey by train and boat has novelistic intensity. Once the Crafts arrive in Boston, Woo delves into the politics of slavery from 1848-60. The Crafts meet luminaries of the abolitionist movement, including Fredrick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown.  Woo describes a civic rebellion in Boston over provisions of the fugitive slave act, a refusal to enforce a law widely regarded as morally abhorrent. The Crafts were a remarkable couple whose characters remains opaque in Woo's story. The Crafts led a long life of notable achievement with many twists and turns. 


Revolutionary Spring: Europe Aflame and the Fight for a New World, by Christopher Clark. This history of the 1848-49 revolutions across most of Europe is an outstanding exploration of the dynamics of political change during the 19th century in Europe.  Cross' account of the relationships among liberalism, more radical social change and nationalism is superb. The revolutions of 1848-49 in most large European cities ( but not London) quickly gave rise to counter-revolutions, as revolutionary movements fragmented and then polarized along class lines (much to Marx's delight), which led to a second round of political turmoil in 1849, only to be brutally crushed by police and security forces. The largest effect of this unprecedented political upheaval was to strengthen nationalist movements across Europe, as nationalism proved to be the only viable unifying force in societies  torn apart by polarization and violence. 


Clark has written a long book with a huge amount of historical detail, but it's main interest (to me) is its exploration of unprecedented political euphoria, followed by fragmentation into warring factions, polarization with accompanying horrific violence and the emergence of national unification movements in the Balkans, Germany and Italy, an emergence of nationalism that ultimately led to W.W.I.  


Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and It's Origins" by Jacob Wright is one of the best books on the Old Testament I've ever read. I cannot praise this book too highly. Wright's perspective is that the Old Testament became sacred scripture because it is an imaginative attempt of a "nation" to come to grips with political defeat and subjugation, rather than military victory. Wright makes clear that the Old Testament is an imagined history, inaccurate in many respects, because it was written to bring together two political communities, Israel (Northern kingdom) and Judah (Southern kingdom) with somewhat different histories, though both had been defeated and destroyed by great empires (first Assyria in the 700s BC and then Babylon in 586 BC). Biblical writers struggled to understand how their peoples could be lifted up by their God, and then destroyed by empires which worshipped others Gods. This imaginative challenge led to sacred scripture, and raised up social values necessary to create and sustain a community of believers during the worst of times. Wright expounds the history of the Old Testament with exemplary clarity while pondering his book's main theme, i.e., how defeat and tribulation can create a great literature, while great empires which have vanished can barely be remembered by a small group of scholars.   


Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hamalainen is an eye-opening account of the struggle for the North America between English, French and Spanish colonists and hundreds of Native American tribes. This is a vast complex story, the outcome of which seems preordained in hindsight, but was a fierce struggle for hundreds of years. Periods of accommodation were followed repeatedly by wars in which colonial empires sought to capitalize on tribal enmities, and tribes played divide and conquer with the English, French and Spanish colonists. 


Hamalainen is at his best in his chapters on the Iroquois, Comanche and Lakota empires which dominated vast areas of the continent for lengthy periods of time.  The idea of the Founding Fathers that Native American peoples could be forcibly moved from the East Coast to west of the Allegheny's, where they would be free of the depredations of colonial settlers could never be realized because settlers crossed every boundary negotiated with tribes, which led to Indian attacks on settlers, followed by military intervention to punish war like Native tribes, and force them further west. This drama took hundreds of years to work itself out, though the British defeat of the French in the 1750s was a decisive turning point. Hamalainen makes a strong case that Native American tribes were a formidable foe for hundreds of years, and highly adaptive to the fortunes of war and accommodation. 


This is a great book, too vast a subject for one reading. It's story is not reducible to simple moralistic categories, though Hamalainen's sympathies are clear throughout. 

Uncertain Ground: Citizenship In An Age of Endless, Invisible War," by Phil Klay

A Stranger in Your own City: Travels in the Middle East's Long War, by Ghaith Abdul- Ahad

I highly recommend these two recently published books about the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Klay served with U.S. forces in Iraq, but not in combat, and for several years was a supporter of the war, until he witnessed the effects on Iraq's society powerfully described by  Abdul-Ahad. The U.S. invasion of Iraq overthrew a brutal dictator, but ultimately unleashed horrific sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia factions ( multiple factions, not two), the Iraqi army, Kurds, the Islamic State, not to mention U.S. forces. Abdul- Ahab took great personal risks in researching his book, including becoming embedded with Shia militias in the fight for Mosul. He documents terrorism, torture and summary execution by all factions, corruption at every level as factions and militias fought for the spoils of war. Iraqi cities were governed by extortionist militias with varying political alliances and conflicts. One of the spoils of war was the opportunity to interrogate, torture and execute enemy prisoners which Abdel-Ahad graphically describes.  American forces come across as militarily powerful, arrogant and clueless. Klay believes that US soldiers were sometimes honorable and self sacrificing, but recognizes that the The U.S. invasion did enormous damage to Iraq. Klay struggles with bitter feelings regarding the U.S., a country that celebrates its military while turning a blind eye to Special Forces operations in 149 countries during the past two decades and to an interminable war in Afghanistan that achieved nothing after the first 18 months.    

-- Dee Wilson

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