Asia looms large this year in my annual “best books” list. Four of my top ten have a connection to Asia.
Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts is the chilling story of a boy’s search for his missing mother in a dystopian America that tramples human rights and demonizes China. In the wake of the Jan. 6 uprising and recent attacks on Asian-Americans, the plot felt unnervingly plausible. It made me think about my own Asian-American family and those who appear “other” to so many Americans.
Jenny Thinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky reminded me how deeply rooted this prejudice is. Set in the American West, it tells the story of Daiyu, a Chinese girl who is kidnapped and then sold into prostitution in San Francisco. She escapes and finds love only to endure a horrific incident based on an actual historical atrocity. The story combines myth and history to speak to our hearts.
The Return of Faraz Ali is set in Pakistan. A police officer is coerced to cover up a young girl’s death in the red light district of Lahore. He refuses to comply and wrestles with pervasive corruption and his own troubled past to find a measure of redemption. Aamina Ahmad’s story is grim but uplifting.
The Immortal King Rao begins in a remote Indian village, then moves to Seattle and the world. King Rao becomes the world’s celebrated tech entrepreneur, more powerful than Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates combined. He appears to save the planet from climate change but unleashes new horrors. Author Vauhini Vara, a former tech reporter, makes us ponder the true cost of progress.
A central character in Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Complicities is also uber-wealthy. In this case it’s a financier resembling Bernie Madoff. The story and title focus on his wife, who may not be as innocent of the crimes as she claims. We learn her back story as she pursues a simpler existence. After her husband is released from prison, he remarries and confronts her anew with the compromises she has made.
Another family unravels in Marrying the Ketchups, Jennifer Close’s saga about an Irish American clan that runs a Chicago restaurant. One sister leaves town to pursue a music career. Another hates her suburban neighborhood. A brother feels unloved at work and in love. They and others stumble, fight and try to make sense of their lives as the country frays around them after Donald Trump’s election.
Family dynamics are also central to The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Triplets born through IVF to a wealthy New York family have little in common. Their father is disengaged. Their mother is desperate. All veer towards separate lives until a fourth sibling intervenes, a younger sister who is more connected to the triplets than anyone realized. The story touches on grief, guilt, privilege and loss. Most of all, it is about the power and mystery of family.
In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tom Perrotta updates the character immortalized by Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election. Now she is middle-aged, still smart, still ambitious, but less successful than she envisioned. She is poised to win a new job for which she is more than qualified, but once again is passed over for someone more likeable. By the time fate finally intervened in Tracy’s favor, I found myself cheering for her.
I also cheered for the author of one of the two nonfiction books on my list, a new neighbor of mine in the Triangle. Frank Bruni, the New York Times columnist, moved here after his eyesight began failing. In The Beauty of Dusk, he describes movingly how the condition changed his life and made him reconsider his remaining years. I read it during my own treatment for prostate cancer, so it resonated deeply.
Finally, the year’s most publicized book was from another New York Times reporter, Maggie Haberman, who began covering Donald Trump long before he won the White House. Confidence Man describes how his New York years shaped his presidency. I was fascinated by its depiction of Manhattan real estate, politics and celebrity. The book’s second half, about his presidency, was more familiar but still compelling.
Several other books could have made my list. Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, Michelle Huneven’s Search, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory, Anne Tyler’s French Braid, Grace Li’s Portrait of a Thief and Grant Ginder’s Let’s Not Do That Again were all splendid. Highly recommended.
I read several good biographies: Max Chafkin on conservative activist Peter Thiel, Mary Childs on investor Bill Gross, Grant Hill on his legendary basketball career and Hollywood writer David Milch on creating television classics.
I also enjoyed four books that chronicled the Trump era in different ways. Two were nonfiction — Why We Did It by Tim Miller and Wildland by Evan Osnos — and the other two were fiction: Anthem by Noah Hawley and The Unfolding by A.M. Homes.
Mysteries? Yes, I snacked on those, too, including the latest from Daniel Silva and John Grisham. Sascha Rothchild’s Blood Sugar and Dervla McTiernan’s The Murder Rule were among my new favorites.
I also loved some 2021 books that I read too late for last year’s list. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout probably would have made my top ten. Arriving Today by Christopher Mims was a timely account of the world’s fragile supply chains.
I’ll close with two older books. I’d never read Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, even though I’ve watched the movie countless times. It was a bit trashy but I couldn’t put it down. Song of Solomon was the first book I read by Toni Morrison, back in my twenties. When I picked it up again a few months ago, I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my awestruck memories. It did, and more. Great literature endures, no matter what year it is.
If you loved some books this year, please leave a comment and share your suggestions with others. Happy reading in 2023!