California Review of Books – 10 Best Books of 2023

The following list was decided after much consultation between California Review of Books co-editors David Starkey and Brian Tanguay and the journals’ most frequent reviewers, Walter Cummins and George Yatchisin. As always when creating year-end lists, we could have easily generated another outstanding Top 10, but we believe a reader who dives into these particular volumes will be richly and variously rewarded. The books are presented in alphabetical order by author’s last name.

Blue Skies by T.C. Boyle (Liveright)

Even the grimmest climate change novels usually contain a glimmer of humor, and books like Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible contain passages that are downright fun, despite all the tragedy. Nevertheless, T. C. Boyle is onto something different in his new novel, Blue Skies. It’s a comedy, for sure, but in Northrop Frye’s sense of the “Society of the Old” in conflict with the “Society of Youth.” Old people, of course, are responsible for the looming catastrophes of climate change which appear, in bold, in each chapter, but the youth of Blue Skies are none too wonderful themselves. (Read David Starkey’s full review here.)

The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant, and the Nature of Reality by William Egginton (Pantheon)

The link of the three principals in this book–a philosopher, a physicist, and a writer–is itself an impressive insight. But Egginton’s ability to explain the complexities and ramifications of their ideas is even more significant. He demonstrates that the conclusions of one field are not self-contained. Rather, for a thinker like Egginton, their interconnections demonstrate the importance of transcending the limitations of a singular focus. The more we discover relationships, the deeper our understanding of larger questions. (Read Walter Cummins’s full review here.)

Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond (Crown)

In Poverty, by America, Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Evicted, returns with an examination of why poverty endures in the richest nation on earth. What Bryan Stevenson (author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative) is to racial inequality in the criminal justice system in America, Desmond is to poverty, and readers may find Desmond’s conclusions both counterintuitive and unsettling. Ultimately, the largest public subsidies are not given to poor people trying to pull themselves out of poverty, but instead go to well-off families to insure that they remain that way. (Read Brian Tanguay’s full review here.)

A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them by Timothy Egan (Viking)

“Democracy was a fragile thing, stable and steady until it was broken and trampled,” Timothy Egan writes towards the end of A Fever in the Heartland, summarizing the aftermath of the corruption and cruelty instigated by D. C. “Steve” Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s. Stephenson was “a man who didn’t care about shattering every convention, and then found new ways to vandalize the contract that allowed free people to govern themselves.” The similarity to the reign of Donald Trump is unmistakable, and as our Republic enters 2024, there may be no more relevant book than this one. (Read David Starkey’s full review here.)

After the Funeral and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley (Knopf)

Although Tessa Hadley writes both novels and stories, her stories offer the fullness and depth of character and complexity of relationships of the longer works. The stories usually explore a rich situation rather than a single dramatic issue, with Hadley exploring the links between past and present in the worlds she creates. Rather than conclude with a typical singular insight, she often ends with the perception of a seemingly secondary character in a manner that enriches the understanding of all that has taken place for the central characters. Hadley’s unique approach renews the potential of the story form. (Read David Starkey’s full review here.)

The Wonder Paradox: Embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the Poetry of Our Lives by Jennifer Michael Hecht (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

In a year marked by brutality (Israel and Hamas, Russia and Ukraine); stupidity (Trump is still, somehow, a thing); and an edging into global calamity (average global temperatures were more than 2 degrees Celsius above a pre-industrial benchmark two weeks ago), we deeply need to lean into hope. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Wonder Paradox centers on ritual, and how coming together through one makes us more human and humane. Hecht brilliantly argues that poetry draws forth the gods of our best nature, and in the process pens a hymn we can all sing to a greater glory. (Read George Yatshisin’s full review here.)

The Asking: New and Selected Poems by Jane Hirshfield (Knopf)

Like Charles Wright, Jane Hirshfield in some ways keeps writing variations of the same poem, over and over, book after book, year after year. And like Wright, she benefits enormously from the fact that the poem she keeps writing is so damned good. The work of both poets is deeply spiritual, but Hirshfield, a Buddhist, tends to focus inward, on the insights that can be gained from meditating on a limited group of objects or moments. Like Zen koans, her poems’ “meanings” often aren’t obvious, although there is clearly something to be learned from each of them. Take “A Day Is Vast,” from 2011’s Come, Thief: “A day is vast. / Until noon. / Then it’s over. // Yesterday’s pondwater / braided still in my wet hair. // I don’t know what time is. // You can’t ever find it. / But you can lose it.” Over the course of a large, career-spanning collection like this one, these little poems accrete like a coral into a reef that is magical and magnificent. (Read David Starkey’s coverage of poetry books published in 2023 here.)

The Tyranny of the Minority: How American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Crown)

The latest collaboration between Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is equal parts civics tutorial, history lesson, comparative analysis, warning and remedy. A work of remarkable clarity, Tyranny of the Minority: How American Democracy Reached the  Breaking Point is required reading for those concerned about the state of American democracy or anyone who wonders why and how our politics became so dysfunctional and partisan. Social movements make change possible by transforming ideas into tangible public policy and law: such a movement hasn’t coalesced, yet, which is one reason this book is so important and vital. (Read Brian Tanguay’s full review here.)

The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Bloomsbury)

Like other types of fundamentalism, market fundamentalism bows beneath the weight of its many contradictions. The assumption that business can do no wrong and government no right has contributed to making the United States fabulously wealthy for the few and destructively unequal for many. The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway is a brilliant blend of copious research and compelling writing that explains how the ideology of market fundamentalism came to dominate the American economic imagination. Creating the myth of the market as free, benevolent, fair, just, and infallible required nearly a century of concerted effort, money, propaganda and ceaseless proselytizing. (Read Brian Tanguay’s full review here.)

Why We Love Baseball by Joe Posnanski (Dutton)

So full of exuberant joy that the book’s title is a lie, Joe Posnanski’s Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments sneaks in a total of 108. But don’t say the book bursts at the seams, as 108 is also the number of stitches on one side of a baseball. JoePos, as he’s known by those who cherish his writing abilities as a prolific columnist and author of books like The Baseball 100 and The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, is such a high-caliber story-teller that he never fails to bring something new to old chestnuts. Will a ball conk off Jose Canseco’s head for a homer? Will Willie Mays make an unforgettable World Series catch? Will JoePos find a fascinating, different way to tell stories both familiar and unfamiliar? Yes, yes, most definitely yes. (Read George Yatchisin’s full review here.)