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10 Notable Books of 2023

You have to start with Claire Keegan. Small Things Like These was a revelation; Foster is the kind of book that gets passed around at Christmas like marzipan. Buy several: everyone will want one. Keegan writes with the care of the great ones (William Trevor, Raymond Carver), but has a cleaver and isn't afraid to use it. If you take away only one thing from this list: read her.

Life and Fate is not a recent book. Putin banned it because it tells the truth about Russia's longing for Ukraine (and has some very funny things to say about Stalin). It is a war book in the way that Zola's The Debacle or Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma is a war book: the siege of Stalingrad may be the setting, but the focus is always and only on the characters. And what characters they are: the physicist who rejoices in having one more week of potato rations than his colleague, the woman in the boxcar who sees her fate in terms of fluid dynamics. I think Life and Fate is the best war book of this past century.

Is it really worth it? So many pages of subordinate clauses? There is a period at the end of the book, when the subplot finally catches up with the main plot, but the rest is a free form Rorschach blot of a woman in central Ohio losing her grip. It's Happy Days on a high wire. Full disclosure: the main character is my demographic (I know about 12 of these people all living near ravines in Clintonville) so after a while it begins to sound like a very long dinner party with old friends who can't take it any more. A book to be endured, though often side-splittingly funny.

If you want to read one book that explains why Donald Trump's nomination in 2024 is inevitable (the general election is another thing), this book from 2010 will tell you all you need to know. No work I have read about the United States makes as much sense of the present. Going back to the moments of European first contact with the North American continent, Woodard builds an argument for not one nation but eleven, all fighting over the same set of resources. Some build enlightened relations with the existing peoples (the communities in French-speaking Maine are thoroughly woke from the beginning), and some emphatically do not. Woodard can pinpoint the genealogy of every county, and voting patterns on cultural issues (access to abortion, same-sex marriage) validate his assumptions. Trump emerges as an Appalachian hero in the Andrew Jackson mold; the nation is predictably in tatters.

Wisconsin was once reliably part of the Midwest; it is now dangerously close to Appalachian country. (In Ohio, you can buy a trailer hitch with "2024" on it, above which there is a metal skull wearing a toupee.) Aldo Leopold is another prophet: where Woodard predicts the increasing disunification of the 50 states, Leopold foretells its environmental collapse. His ecstatic reveries of canoe trips in the 1920s read like science fiction today - where could you spend three days on a river and not see any evidence of another living soul? My son was reading this in Vietnam - it turns out to be a basic text in Natural Resources Management - and it takes you back to a time of American hope and possibility.

Another blessed escape, this time from our Australian correspondent. Like Martin Amis, Peter Carey left his homeland for the New World, and has no illusions about his new adopted country. But Carey has the intellectual curiosity to ask why America became the locus of national idealism, and sets his book in the years after Napoleon's fall. A disenfranchised French noble (Olivier) and his English servant (Parrot) find their way to Connecticut, where Olivier falls in love and Parrot learns to draw. Olivier's observations are taken from De Tocqueville; when he warns of the dangers of a democratic mob led by a manipulative monster the book turns ominous and the pages darken.

War, prophecy, nervous breakdown: was there even one glimmer of hope in the year's reading? Trust Kate Atkinson to provide it, in a book left in our Little Book Library and gratefully devoured. These are slight stories, artfully connected, and each one doesn't take more than 30 minutes to read. One of them, "Spellbound," has a trick ending that will leave you gasping. Without giving anything away, imagine that you are the author of The Traditional Fairy Tale in the Context of a Subversive Female Hegemony and you find a book of fairy tales in the attic...

Speaking of attics, this wicked little treat is set in a Victorian gingerbread house in a college town somewhere in Ohio (the town is unnamed, but a Columbus Clippers cap features prominently in the denouement). Our killers are standard-order liberals, both retired professors from the local college. One of their two cars is a green Subaru with a fading Obama sticker on the rear bumper. Stephen King's genius is to make one of them a professor of creative writing, who corrects a student's poetry and makes it worse. That's how you know she's a stone-cold killer.

A long spy novel with a limited focus: one of three women is responsible for a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland many years ago. Tomas Nevinson, a very British spy with a very Spanish name, has to work out which one it is before they attack again. It is the casket problem from The Merchant of Venice (and Marias knows this - his other book to make this list, Thus Bad Begins, takes its title from Hamlet). The solution, as in all good spy novels, is far less important than the shadowing.

That's nine - and since the other notable book I read this year was Faulkner's Sanctuary, a work that is such absolute rubbish that it should make the reading and study of Faulkner permanently illegal in all fifty states, I must reach out to our good friends at Amazon prime for a tenth text, also in the spy field. If you aren't watching Road to a Million: 007 you aren't watching TV...

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