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Tony Gentry

My Favorite Books of 2023

Updated: May 17

It’s Thanksgiving week, so it’s time to list my favorite reads of the past year. And, as usual, please add your own faves in the comments or email a list to me and I’ll add on. Happy reading to all – tag, you’re it!

This year I’ve enjoyed light-weight pop essay books by the likes of Quentin Tarentino (Cinema Speculation) and Bob Dylan (Philosophy of Modern Song), graphic novels (I recommend Kristen Radtke’s moving examination of depression Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness), comics (the “Groundhog Day” effort to save the universe in Marvel’s House of X/Powers of X series was brilliant), art criticism (the late John Berger’s Portraits dazzles) and the usual histories, poems and novels. Here, listed alphabetically by author’s last name are my faves:

Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin – American Prometheus. The authors labored for 22 years on this surprisingly riveting 700-page biography, which, yes, details the remarkable life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, but in doing so also tracks American history across the 20th Century, in science, engineering, war, politics, and social mores. I read it after seeing the movie Oppenheimer, which is based on this book, and recommend them both to anyone interested in better understanding how we got to the precipitous place we’re in.

S. A. Cosby – Razorblade Tears. Cosby is a local writer (Matthews County, VA) of gritty noir thrillers that cannily confront the imbedded racism and other inequities we Virginians live with day to day. Here’s my review of his breakthrough novel.  It’s the only book on this list that I couldn’t put down, finishing it late in the night with a whispered wow. His new one, btw, on The New York Times Top 100 list (on my nightstand, too) is All the Sinners Bleed.

Samuel Delaney – The Motion of Light in Water. Delaney, a science fiction luminary, has written several memoirs. This one is about his early life in Manhattan, growing up in a well-to-do family in Harlem, then scraping by as a young scribe and folk musician on the Lower East Side (he once bumped Dylan from a gig) in the early 1960s. I know these streets from my own years in the East Village, and Delaney’s hard luck tale took me back. Such an engaging raconteur on the page, too, letting it all hang out: crappy jobs, cold water flats, roaches, freeloaders, celebrity encounters, speculative scribbles, troubled love, back alley sex, all the song of a young artist discovering himself by living life as fully as he can.

Phil Klay – Redeployment and Missionaries. For my money, Klay’s the best of the writers who served in our Iraq-Afghanistan debacles. Each of National Book Award winner Redeployment’s short stories nails a searing moment from that twenty-year (and ongoing) saga, as experienced by Americans in combat (and back home afterwards); Missionaries, a novel, tells the tale of American imperialism from the other side, tracking the depravities of Columbian cocaine cartels and our hapless, half-hearted efforts to contain them. In both volumes, Klay lets the stories tell themselves, but his anger at the lies we get told (and roll with) seethes between the lines.

James McBride – Deacon King Kong. I read everything McBride puts out, and he seems to publish a new book every year (have 2023’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store at the top of my Christmas list). This one’s my favorite so far. In a Brooklyn project in the late 1960s a heavy-drinking old man named Sportcoat shoots a drug dealer in front of everybody, and all hell breaks loose, except, not really. McBride steps back to embrace the whole neighborhood with its disparate characters and overlapping histories, masterfully shaping a sort of inside-out detective story that is all about how people – even in hard times – can learn to look after each other.

Cormac McCarthy – The Passenger and Stella Marris.  McCarthy’s been a literary hero of mine since I first read his wonderful Suttree back in the ‘80s, and then everything else he wrote. This novel in two-parts is his most experimental work, intimate, speculative and fractured (read The Passenger first). Upon learning of Cormac’s death back in June, re-read his masterpiece, the dystopian western Blood Meridian. If you haven’t yet, saddle up!

Thomas Pynchon – Gravity’s Rainbow. Every year, I try to tackle a classic doorstopper, and this year, while researching my father’s service in World War II, took another shot at this sprawling road trip across the ravaged phantasmagoria that Europe must have been at war’s end. Like Moby Dick, the tale grows madder page by page, exactly in line with the burgeoning insanity of our tech-mad society that it assays.

Andrew Roberts – The Storm of War. Seems that a lot of retirees dive into wartime histories. This year, writing the book about my father’s WWII service, I read a dozen at least. If you can only read one, recommend this single-volume history of the war, which vividly scans both the view from the generals’ castle HQ’s and from the fox holes.

Alisa Roth – Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness. American prisons have become our largest treatment facilities for the mentally ill (half of the imprisoned have a psychiatric disorder). Roth sketches how we got here, visits the prisons where this “treatment” takes place, and tells the harrowing stories of individuals whose lives have been upended by our failure to more humanely address our mental health crisis; fortunately, she also explores ways out of this quagmire, ways that don’t seem impossible, if only we cared.

R. J. Smith – Chuck Berry: An American Life. Smith’s James Brown biography The One was on my Top Ten list last year, so I jumped on this one as soon as it came out. Like Brown, who invented funk, Berry was the architect of rock’n’roll (always a nod to Little Richard, the music’s heart and soul); Smith, in both cases, shows how these prickly musical avatars rebounded from prison time in their youth to shape a new sound, how they coped with acclaim, how they dreamed beyond the music, and how their indulgences marred their legacies. The later chapters make for tough going, as Berry’s more lurid sexual peccadilloes emerge. What is it about fame and pop music that so warps its most acclaimed geniuses anyway?

Lagniappe – If you get a chance, watch the Little Richard documentary I Am Everything on Max, which convincingly positions him as the true king of rock’n’roll (and the fountain from which so much else that is fun and freeing has sprung); and catch Zero Gravity on Amazon, the inspiring 3-part biography of the legendary composer/jazz saxophonist/great soul Wayne Shorter, who died in March.

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