everything I read in 2023 + some thoughts on them!
I reached my goal of reading fifty books this year! Here’s a list, with my favorites in bold. Scroll down to read a lil review of each!
for reviews on all the books, head to @emandchlobooks on instagram!
Cyclettes by Tree Abraham
Thoughts of Sorts by Georges Perec
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
Body Work by Melissa Febos
Slowness by Milan Kundera
The Address Book by Deirdre Mask
Novelist as Vocation by Haruki Murakami
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami
Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami
The Impossible Arises by Chris Mortensen
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
Beach Read by Emily Henry
Stay True by Hua Hsu
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Girlhood by Melissa Febos
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Constructing A Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
Transit by Rachel Cusk
Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors
Book Lovers by Emily Henry
On Browsing by Jason Guriel
Cult Classic by Sloane Crosley
The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Racism as Zoological Witchcraft by Aph Ko
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Good Prose by Tracy Kidder
Yellowface by R.P. Kuang
Bluets (again) by Maggie Nelson
There are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli
Night Sky With Exit Wounds (again) by Ocean Vuong
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
City of Glass by Paul Auster
On Freedom by Maggie Nelson
Intimations by Zadie Smith
Flatland by Edwin Abbott
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld
The Coming Bad Days by Sarah Bernstein
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Happy Hour by Marlowe Grenados
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Going Home by Raja Shehadeh
Cyclettes // Tree Abraham
This… kind of blew my mind. I annotated the shit out of this and posted some of my favorite parts here. This book is written as a numbered series of cascading observations, both written and visual, relating to the word/concept of “bicycle,” from everything from bike anatomy to relationships to more metaphysical thoughts. It’s the kind of book that you can feel changing your brain as you read. Like with the idea of “bike dancing.” Or the idea of riding a bike as an end in itself, not just a destination-dependent activity (I realized that we should be participating in more activities that are ends in themselves, not just the transportation to some imagined end and – this is important – turning destination-oriented activities into their own ends). Or the idea of life as a series of power and recovery phases, like the strokes of pedaling a bike. And, in a more general sense, the ability to write a book that is more than just words, more than just visuals, but a dance between both – words cascading down visually; visuals forming words; words and visuals tied together and pushing one another back and forth. Abraham is an art director, and this book made me realize that this is exactly the sort of work I want to be making.
Thoughts of Sorts // Georges Perec
Perec was a French novelist/philosopher/thinking person. I’ve been absolutely obsessed with his style of writing & thinking ever since I read Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books a few years ago. He loves the mundane, the banal, and he loves taking inventory of the things around him. The philosophy that emerges from this is comical and honest and very distinct, and it’s made me appreciate my own environment in a new way. This particular book was a collection of essays. In one essay, Perec goes into the physical and ergonomic act of reading, both as an act of the body and as a circumstance of the environment he’s in… you can read a city, he says. In another, he enumerates every object on his desk. It’s a beautiful sort of philosophy built on the raw materials of life and on our daily encounters.
Body Work // Melissa Febos
This was recommended to me by my literature professor because I liked The Argonauts so much. And wow. This memoir approaches the task of writing about the body, but it’s just as much about living in a body – specifically, in a female body, with all the trauma that can come along with this. Right off the bat she addresses the fact that, in academic settings particularly, writing about personal experiences with the body is seen as “navel gazing,” as non-intellectual, and as just another story in a roomful of stories. They’re also seen as niche, whereas male writing is seen as intellectual and universal. Most of all – and she says this in the book – this is about “undoing the narratives we’ve been taught about ourselves.” Which is to say, this book definitely helped me undo some narratives, and it has pushed my personal thinking and relationship with my own body forward in a big way.
Novelist as a Vocation // Haruki Murakami
Murakami rarely misses, but his memoirs are always my favorite. This was just as much a reflection on living as it was on novel-writing. Murakami talks about his own journey as a novelist, his life practices (like running! And jotting small noticings down!), his thoughts on translation and character and just existing. This was, I believe, my tenth (?) murakami, and it’s entered my top three. If you can get your hands on a murakami memoir please please do.
Amsterdam // Ian McEwan
I actually have no idea how I came across this book. It showed up on my desk a few months ago. I must have picked it up from the free books shelf after work one day without processing it…? Sounds like something I would do, but really, no clue. Anyways, I’ve been eyeing it suspiciously for a few months now, and one crisp January day I was just like, yeah, today’s the day. I read it in one sitting, kind of in a trance, on the couch by the window in my living room with my roommate’s cat sitting on top of me. I liked how “amsterdam” was all lowercase. This book falls into one of the subgenres I constantly find myself reading for some reason of idiotic middle-aged white man in artistic/literary career does stupid thing. And wow, is he stupid. While one of the two main characters falls in love with his own music-composing career at the expense of the entire world around him, the other – a newspaper editor – makes a series of stupid mistakes that puts him on the shit list of a third non-self-aware man who holds political office. Spoiler: two of them die at the end.
Hear the Wind Sing // Haruki Murakami
Wow wow wow, this was his first book EVER and I loved it. I loved seeing his style in this; it’s changed since this first book, but the central voice remains the same – that kind of witty, casual, somewhat surly tone. Murakami reads fast and smooth and this was especially true in this early work. As far as the plot – if only we could all be the male characters in Murakami’s novels! They are so simultaneously caught in their heads and carefree; they have nicknames like “the Rat”; blunt and clever phrases come popping out of their mouths.
Pinball, 1973 // Haruki Murakami
Usually the womanizing tendencies of Murakami’s male characters don’t blot out all the good things about his writing, but it was a bit overwhelming in this book, enough that I kind of gulped this book down without devoting a whole lot of brain space or time to it. It was good enough to finish but not good enough to metabolize and incorporate into myself. As a result, I even now don’t have an amazing memory of it, other than it involved men fulfilling their sexual fantasies, pinball machines, and, somehow, men fulfilling their sexual fantasies with pinball machines.
The Impossible Arises // Chris Mortense
I picked this book up off a shelf in the design library. It’s essentially a history of “impossible figures” – think MC Escher-style work, mind-bending architectural drawings where, for instance, flat walkways somehow gain height and stairs are bent in impossible directions. Mortensen actually argues that Oscar Reutersvärd started the Impossible Figures artistic movement, and the book documents this and its influence on Escher’s work and other artists. This is an area I came into this book knowing nothing about and so I found it pretty technical at points, but I really enjoyed learning about it.
The City We Became // N.K. Jemisin
I read this book on the flight from Portland to Sydney. It was a longer book than I’ve read in a while, physically thick, which reminded me of my fantasy-book-obsessed days back in elementary and middle school where reading was just as much a forearm workout as a brain activity. I don’t know the last time I’ve read fantasy, but I could feel how different it felt on my brain. I think of my book stamina as universal to all genres, but I could feel my mind wandering, searching for something it could not grasp onto. Lol this is not real! I heard my memoir- and nonfiction-acclimated brain whining. None of this would actually happen in real life why are you reading this?? About halfway through I found my footing, which meant relinquishing my need for footing, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Reading this made me realize: 1) I should be reading more fantasy, because it makes me uncomfortable, 2) books in general should be the end itself, and not a means to an end (shoutout to my devotion to nonfiction), and 3) fantasy and fiction in general actually have a lot more power than I give them credit for, and I want to explore this concept more.
Stay True // Hua Hsu
Book three out of five of my trip to Australia. Memoirs are my favorite genre, and this cemented that. This was a forget-everything-exists-and-read book for me; I finished it in about two sittings. The memoir tells the story of the unlikely friendship between Hsu and Ken, who is murdered in a carjacking. It’s a sad story, but also a beautiful one, told through a series of memories and through the lens of music and culture. Memory is a powerful thing, and the way Hsu navigates and builds and story through his own was simply beautiful.
Outline // Rachel Cusk
This book quickly took its place as my favorite book of the year. My father actually found it on a shelf in a bookstore in an Australian town. “This looks like something you would like,” he said, and passed it to me, alongside its sequel. I honestly should just appoint my dad as my full-time book stylist; after all, he knows me better than anyone, and probably better than I know myself, so it makes sense that he’d be the best person to pick out my books.
Anyways. I told myself each book on this list gets a paragraph, but I think this book is an exception. I can’t really describe the experience of reading this book other than it reminded me why I believe in language and in writing and in conversations in general. My brain sat quietly and comfortably the entire time I was reading it. Cusk’s writing feels sort of old in that it’s very raw and dialogue-based; the book is “a book in ten conversations.” The narrator is a woman who is, in a lot of senses, acted on by the people around her; they use her as a vessel into which to pour their own thoughts and life experiences and musings and insecurities. The book consists mostly of other characters talking to her and at her. There are few paragraph breaks; like conversations, it just runs on. In the titular scene, a woman tells the narrator how she feels she has been reduced to an “outline,” composed not of her own substance but of the outline those around her have given her.
I can’t talk about this book without talking about the font, either. I’ve never read a book in this font. It’s airy, but with contrast and some obvious questioning of selfhood. It dips and curves between a solid sense of self and a wavering invisibility. This is probably my design brain reading into it, but I can’t help but think that the font mimics the narrator herself – meaning poured into her, imposed upon her, by the ideas around her; her own form and sense of body and self constantly flickering, always two things at once, always occupying two different worlds.
I could go on about this book, and writing this makes me realize that I probably should, but maybe not here. This one might get its own longer review :)
Before the Coffee Gets Cold // Toshikazu Kawaguchi
This is one of those books that is always featured in the aesthetic book-stacks-in-perfect-lighting-on-bedsheets photos I have recently found populating my Instagram Explore page. I read half of this on the plane home from Sydney and the other half two weeks later on the treadmill at the gym (treadmill reading is my new favorite pastime). Though I feel like some aspects of this were lost in the translation to English, I felt like I liked the concept of this book better than the book itself. It didn’t have as much gravity as I expected, but again, this cold very easily be a translation & cultural thing. Either way, it challenged me to just read to enjoy reading, and for this reason I appreciated it. It was also so damn wholesome. People time-traveling to see their loved ones that have to return before the coffee gets cold? An alley coffee shop that defies the rules of time? Ugh, what can get better than that?
Constructing a Nervous System // Margo Jefferson
This was absolutely beautiful. the words flow on top of and around each other like water. jefferson deconstructs and reconstructs herself through her personal history and through a cultural history. you could feel her background as a critic in it, as well as her poetic tendencies. i learned so much.
Checkout 19 // Claire-Louise Bennett
I’ll be honest, I really really wanted to like this book. I’ve been eyeing it for a while now and its premise sounded so appealing (a girl’s reflection on her life framed through the lens of books and writing). Stream-of-conscious writing is pretty hit or miss for me. either it is mind-blowing and topples me sideways or I find myself bored and skimming words, and this was the latter. I know critics love this book, which is part of why I wanted so desperately to love it, but the writing felt just a bit self-indulgent, not super loving of the reader. There were a few pages, however, that I bookmarked; a few passages in particular were really profound and beautiful.
Bluets // Maggie Nelson
It’s essentially part-memoir, part philosophy, part thought process relating to the color blue. She explores ideas around femininity and sexuality and love and vision and being a human. Maggie Nelson’s writing is so lyrical and raw and If I could underline everything in this book I would. I read this in a day and it was the most incredible experience.
Cleopatra and Frankenstein // Coco Mellors
This was such a joy to read and exactly the kind of read I needed. It’s the story of a (doomed) marriage, set mainly in New York and full of creative people and glittery, cinematic scenes and super rich dialogue and merging plot lines. It’s super art-directed. It felt like I was reading a movie. Absolutely recommend
On Browsing // Jason Guriel
This was a little book about the lost art of browsing. Guriel argues that we have lost ourselves to scrolling — an activity just of the thumb that is passive and unhealthy — whereas browsing, the search method of the past, is an active, intentional way of moving through the world — it involves your body moving through space and leads you to find unexpected things. He recounts various bookstores and record stores to demonstrate his point. So much food for thought. I ended up gifting this book to my dad and we had so many fun conversations about it!
Cult Classic // Sloane Crosley
This is one of those books that you buy simply because how cool the cover looks. But wow I loved this. I skipped several obligations to read this book, which is not good but also UGH it felt so good to be in this deep with a book. I LOVED this. The writing style is like butter. Her voice is so strong and she lets you instantly into her world. The book is a comic thriller rom com vibe about memory and relationships and different kinds of people; the main character keeps running into her exes in the same area, and the plot unfolds from there. And there’s a cult. This totally consumed me for the last few days, and I’m going to miss the feeling of reading it.
The Black Unicorn // Audre Lorde
I have picked this book up from time to time over the past months to look at a poem or two, but one night in April I knew somewhere deep, deep inside of me that I needed to be absolutely filled with her poems – and so I read this poetry book from cover to cover in a sitting. I did it slowly – reading some poems twice or even three times, and letting the words hang like droplets before moving on. I don’t know if this is how you’re supposed to read a poetry book. I suspect not. But it revived me in a way few books have done before. It felt like I was undergoing some sort of transfiguration; I could practically feel my brain rearranging itself as I read. Lorde writes with a vigor and a rhythm that seems not only to reflect the world but to create the world itself. Reading it was a deeply personal experience, which is why I’m not going to list my favorite poems here, but let me just say — everyone should read this.
Racism as Zoological Witchcraft // Aph Ko
This is possibly my favorite activism book ever. Talks about multidimensional approaches to anti-oppression activism, the issues with current social justice movements, and the interconnected of all issues of oppression and activism. Highly recommend. I read this back in 2020 with The Raven Corps book club and again with them this year — an essential reread.
The Argonauts // Maggie Nelson
This is the second time I’ve read this this year (last time was in December) and I still think it’s my favorite book. It’s described as “autotheory”; it’s part philosophy/theory and part memoir. It’s written in a similar way to Nelson’s Bluets (another favorite for me), with short passages that seem to revert and converse with one another. In this book Nelson thinks through issues of identity and love and desire and inhabiting a body. So beautiful
Good Prose // Tracy Kidder
This book was co-written by Kidder and his editor, and talked a lot about the relationship between writing and editing as well as how to approach memoir, narrative, essay and other aspects or genres of writing. I’ve read Tracy Kidder’s Soul of A New Machine and this book talked a fair amount about the process of writing that. Super interesting and eye opening read.
Yellowface // R.P. Kuang
This was a novel that dealt with issues of cultural appropriation, originality, identity and the literary/publishing world. I couldn’t put it down. It was fast-paced and entertaining and would absolutely recommend.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow // Gabrielle Zevin
Read this on the plane to Sweden and wow wow wow… have never read such a big book in one sitting or been so completely engaged. It’s the story of a creative partnership — of the relationships and trauma and life stuff that goes into creating art. The two main characters are video game designers, and we track them and their collaborative art from adolescence through early adulthood.
On Freedom // Maggie Nelson
I found this book sitting all alone in the Helsinki airport bookstore and wow. I already loved Maggie Nelson but this made me love her even more. It is written as a deeply reflective, self-aware & very theory-based exploration of the concepts of freedom in the realms of art, sexuality, drugs and climate. There were a lot of paragraphs and sentences that completely changed how I see things.
Intimations // Zadie Smith
I was maybe a bit late to reading this, but this is a profound and personal collection of essays on various small pieces of the pandemic and race relations. I got so much out of this — it was DENSE with really powerful thoughts. Some of my favorites were on the nature of writing and reading and sharing thoughts and language, on privilege and difference, on approaches to life and to occupying time.
Postcolonial Love Poem // Natalie Díaz
I had a long break from books bc of school but picked this one up that I had started actually last June. It is beautiful. The poems feel like breathing. And, because it describes the indigenous struggle, it seemed very connected, to me, to Palestine; it spoke to connection to the land, the wounds inflicted my colonialism, the centering of the body.
Going Home // Raja Shehadeh
In this book we get to see Palestine through Shehadeh’s eyes, as he takes a walk through Ramallah, his home city, and remembers how it once was, before the occupation and after. We see the beautiful and the everyday and the people and the pain as well. One lasting visual from this book is the number or plant and garden descriptions, and the descriptions of the once-overflowing-with-nature hills turned into occupied and settled land. I felt like I was there.