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New York Times Staffers on the Best Books They Read in 2023



Between our 100 Notable Books and 10 Best Books lists, we at The New York Times Book Review have had enough to say about the year in books. (And our readers had a lot to say about both of those lists!) So, to end 2023, we reached out to a few people across our newsroom to find out what books — new and old — they most enjoyed reading this year.

I usually prefer fiction, but Beverly Gage’s G-MAN: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century was a revelation. It takes you beyond J. Edgar Hoover to explore the historical and cultural forces that both shaped and bedeviled him.

Hard to believe it now, but for decades Hoover was one of the most admired men in America. He created the modern F.B.I. and much of what we recognize today as modern policing. He was also a shrewd student of bureaucratic power and a crafty practitioner of the early art of public relations, encouraging America’s worshipful view of law enforcement.

But this book uses the sweep of 20th-century American history — from the early anarchist era to the civil rights movement — to show how Hoover’s prejudices and obsessions ultimately undid him.

It is ambitious, detailed and absolutely riveting. And as much as it is a story about Hoover, it is also about the creation of an expansive and at times intrusive federal government, and the growth of Washington, D.C., from a sleepy segregationist town to the modern federal city of today.

As I read it, I kept thinking of another unelected power player, Robert Moses, who outlasted and outmaneuvered politicians for roughly the same half century. Like Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker,” Gage’s book is really a study of power — how it is accumulated, how it is used and abused, and, inevitably, how it fades.

I strive to know nothing about a book before reading it. (My home library, amassed from others’ discarded reading material, reflects strangers’ preferences; I rarely buy books.) In theory, this forced ignorance thwarts my artistic prejudices. Occasionally, it leads to funny surprises, such as the sudden realization that I am hundreds of pages into a historical novel about Madame Tussaud. Mostly, it leads to time wasted on books I could have predicted I would dislike, had I permitted myself to do so.

This year, I enjoyed William Saroyan’s THE HUMAN COMEDY. Upon finishing, I looked it up — and was mortified to discover that intelligent people have been excoriating this novel since 1943, calling it insultingly gentle, sentimental, cloying; the saintly characters are defined with a sledgehammer’s exactitude; Mickey Rooney starred in the movie. My God. I thought this book was dizzyingly sad, crookedly woven of the lurid, abrasive fabric of nightmare and the helpless, despairing stuff of Zoloft prescriptions. The dedication, in which the author apologizes to his mother for being unable to write the story in the language she speaks (Armenian), made me cry. Am I OK? Five stars.

I’m going to have to go with SMALL MERCIES, Dennis Lehane’s thriller about a chain-smoking South Boston mom who stares down the Irish don who runs the neighborhood, a barely disguised Whitey Bulger. Lehane captures, better than any writer I’ve come across, the reservoir of hatred that built up toward Bulger — Marty Butler, Lehane calls him — who shoveled drugs and violence into the city he claimed to be protecting.

Hollywood just can’t stay away from Bulger; his story has been told again and again, always with a little whiff of admiration. Lehane’s heroine, Mary Pat Fennessy, cuts through that sentimental haze like paint-stripper in the book’s opening scene, when a Butler goon rings her doorbell and begins issuing orders. He has misread Mary Pat, who has already lost a son to heroin and is watching as her 17-year-old daughter is drawn into the mob’s orbit. But we know who she is. We watch as her defiance flares into an inferno, and a drama of wish fulfillment for a bruised, battered city.

I so dreaded finishing Colson Whitehead’s HARLEM SHUFFLE that I carried the novel around with me like a security blanket, willing myself to read it more slowly because I did not want to part with Ray Carney, the furniture salesman who is the main protagonist. Nor did I want to cease time-traveling to Harlem of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And I certainly did not want to stop meeting Whitehead’s characters, rendered so completely in such spare language.

This is a crime novel but it is much more. It is a morality tale that examines the interplay between the respectable world and the underworld. It is a family saga in parts and a buddy comedy in others. And yes, it has some heart-thumpingly suspenseful heists.

The overarching questions are whether Carney is good or bad or both, whether he will keep his doting wife and his two children safe, and whether he will help his cousin Freddy. You don’t find out until the end, which will almost certainly come too soon.

Despite its somewhat formidable length, I read Andrew Meier’s MORGENTHAU: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty in just a handful of sittings. More often than not (some of the detail was a bit excessive), it was a riveting portrait about power dynamics in Washington and in New York City.

In New York, the last name Morgenthau is most closely associated with Robert, who seemed determined to be carried out of the Manhattan district attorney’s office before eventually retiring in 2009 at the age of 90. Less known are the roles that his father, Henry Jr., played in helping focus the U.S. government under Franklin D. Roosevelt on aiding Jews during the Holocaust, or that his grandfather, Henry Sr., played in calling attention to the annihilation of Armenians earlier in the century.

People seeking clarity on the world that shaped another president, Donald J. Trump, will be interested in details about the transactional friendship between him and Robert Morgenthau.

Recently, as one does, I purchased some bedtime reading after watching a movie trailer. Ridley Scott had a new movie coming out about Napoleon and I realized that, somehow, despite many years of schooling, I had never learned much about one of the pivotal leaders of the modern era. Well, it turns out there are lots of Napoleon biographies. Several thousand, in fact, according to NAPOLEON: A Life, by the British historian Andrew Roberts, which is the one I ended up getting.

I write mostly about politics but I read mostly history and biography. I like books that tell me something about how the world I’m living in came to look the way it does now. Roberts, a vivid and penetrating writer, shows how many ideas that underpin modern life — meritocracy, property rights and religious tolerance among them — “were championed, consolidated and geographically extended by Napoleon,” leaving a legacy that shaped Europe long after his relatively brief reign.

The audiobook edition of the latest novel by John Irving, THE LAST CHAIRLIFT, is 32 hours and 47 minutes long. I listened to it entirely in my car, over the course of a few months of hard driving.

The listening was transportive, as some find meditation to be. It felt akin to being in one of those seminars devoted to human potential, or a church found in a dream. I did not love the novel, but instead the experience of listening to it, sporadically, for long periods: this rambling ghost story, this long love story, this goodbye.

There’s lots of classic Irving amid the rumination — skiing, wrestling, mute comedy, sex, secrets, violence. Also, characters I grew attached to, watched age and come to death. I drove with them alongside me: the little snowshoer; the bleeder; the old ski patroller; the pantomimist; the trail groomer; the diaper man. All my friends.

We traveled together, up and down the trails of Bromley Mountain, in Vermont, across Exeter, in New Hampshire, through the halls of the Hotel Jerome, in Aspen, Colo., even as in real life I motored along the interstate alone, obeying traffic rules by rote. The ride seemed as if it might go on forever.

When Sinead O’Connor died last summer, I found myself weirdly, unaccountably devastated. I read every interview I could find; I pored over each obituary; I watched old video clips. But it was her memoir, REMEMBERINGS, that helped me understand the loss in a different way. It reminded me how much she had shaped my ideas about what true artists should be: defiant and unapologetic and brave.

I was a kid in the ’90s, when “selling out” was seen as the ultimate betrayal. So much of that was just fashion, but Sinead embodied what it meant not to sell out, and she suffered for it.

On that now-infamous appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” when she ripped up a photo of the pope to protest abuse in the Catholic church, she wrote: “Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer. I just had stuff to get off my chest.”

“Rememberings” is a glimpse into a singular life, but it isn’t only that. It also captures a playful and hilarious side of her that I don’t feel like I ever knew enough about. After I finished the book, a friend sent me a video of a joyful Sinead performing “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at an outdoor concert. She’s smiling, barefoot and dressed in leather. The sun comes out in the end.

An older woman recalls her days as an earnest Irish Catholic newlywed, fresh from Yonkers, in the Saigon of 1963, where her attorney husband is on loan to Navy intelligence. So begins Alice McDermott’s latest novel, ABSOLUTION.

I will admit to feeling at home with the outer borough/Long Island settings of McDermott’s first eight novels, each a master class in the literary disentangling of the human knot. I will also admit to fearing that in choosing Saigon, the author might have missed her exit.

So much for backseat driving. McDermott knows exactly where she is going, her perfect words conveying the self-delusion, self-interest and self-righteousness behind the tragedy that was, that is, the Vietnam War. I sweated the Conradian heat, smelled the smoldering joss sticks, heard the grinding wheels of approaching catastrophe — and understood the longings, frustrations and complicated intentions of women relegated to the role of “helpmeet.”

Graham Greene looked past these women in his prophetic “The Quiet American.” Now, through the artistry of the ever-attuned McDermott, they are seen, and heard.

When Yonatan, my local bookseller in Jerusalem, loves a book, he usually stocks two or three copies. One day this summer, I found 10 copies of the same book stacked on his display table. It was Lion Feuchtwanger’s THE OPPERMANS, translated by James Cleugh and newly revised by Joshua Cohen. Yonatan must have really loved it. If I left without a copy, would he take offense?

I’m glad I bought one. “The Oppermanns” is a perceptive and pacy historical novel about Germany’s drift into dictatorship in 1932-33, told through the eyes of a bourgeois Jewish family. Written soon after Hitler took power, it is an almost contemporaneous account of what it feels like to live in a society that loiters just short of fascism — and then marches headlong into it. In the process, the eponymous Oppermanns wrestle with a still familiar question: How do you know when your world has crossed a Rubicon?

I lugged THE COVENANT OF WATER — a 724-page, two-pound hardcover — around on my summer travels, but it was worth it. Abraham Verghese’s luscious tale of three generations of a South Indian family fighting a strange curse is brilliant storytelling.

Set between 1900 and 1977 along the beautiful waterways of Kerala, “Covenant” is filled with great tragedy, tender love stories, humor and humanity. I was transfixed by the emergency surgeries and the harrowing childbirths — details that Verghese, who is himself a physician, knows so well. And while there are so many characters that I needed a list to keep them all straight, I found it impossible to forget the strong women who are the moral center of the story — the matriarch, Big Ammachi, and her granddaughter, Mariamma, who becomes a doctor in the India of the 1970s and brings the story to a stunning end.