I read a lot of books in 2023, many of them in audio format on long drives down the coast to Queens or long walks through the Connecticut woods. So I thought – in time for holiday shopping! – that I’d select a top four. It’s hard to choose just a few but –
Here they are — books by Laura Watts, Eleanor Catton, John Vaillant, and Jeffrey Cohen & Julian Yates.
Laura Watts, Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Island Saga (MIT Press, 2018)
I’ve been looking for some time for a way to write about the energy transition that spans multiple modes. I want something that can be informative (because we need to understand how things work), creative (because imagination is an essential resource), and theoretical (because we need to understand systems and histories, not just objects). It’s not easy to find examples of books that hit all these modes – but Energy at the End of the World does them all at a very high level. Based on field work among marine energy projects in Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands, this book’s portrait of the “edge” culture of these islands is technical, speculative, and resonant. The figure of “Electric Nemesis,” who mostly appears to be a sister to the creature animated by Victor Frankenstein but is also the spirit of the Orkneys, becomes a fascinating co-conspirator and inspiration. “The Electric Nemesis,” writes Watts, “can show you the moves” (378). “Write her as fan fiction” she continues, “Write her as argument. Bury her in your garden and see what happens” (379). My current plan is to hook her up to Shakespeare’s The Tempest for my seminar paper for the Shakespeare Association conference next spring.
Eleanor Catton, Birnam Wood (FSG, 2023)
I’m not sure that I knew “eco-thriller” was a commercial sub-genre before I read the publicity around this book, but the category fits. Birnam Wood isn’t quite as richly Macbeth-ish as the other Scottish-play-manipulating novel I read this year, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, but it’s a lot of fun. The Elon-ish super-villain who sidles up to the eco-warrior heroine, the scorned boyfriend who becomes a pretty clumsy if ultimately destructive radical, a series of other figures who retain a capacity to surprise even in the violent conclusion – really, it was a much narrative fun as I had all year. The bleak vision seems appropriate to the tragic overplot, though Catton does not quite find an equivalent to the line of kings that stretches to the crack of doom. Perhaps even tragic history is hard to project forward in our tenuous environmental present?
John Vaillant, Fire Weather (Knopf, 2023)
There are parts of this narrative about a mega-fire in northern Canada in 2016 that read like a narrowly focused adventure story, following a series of characters through a horrific few hours and days. But Vaillant works hard to supplement his local reporting with a wider view of what Stephen Pyne has suggested we call the Pyrocene or Age of Fire. There were times when I wasn’t sure the transitions from adventure narrative to panhistorial and eco-theoretical analysis were perfectly coherent, and in some ways Jeff Goodell’s The Heat Will Kill You First read more smoothly, if equally horrifyingly. But I give Vaillant the nod here because I was impressed by his effort to bring together multiple perspectives, the close narration of a reporter with the wide-angle lens of eco-history. It probably didn’t hurt that smoke from Canadian wildfires made its way down to my home during the summer of 2023, reminding me again that nothing stays away for long.
Jeffrey J. Cohen and Julian Yates, Noah’s Arkive (University of Minnesota P, 2023)
“Love’s not time’s fool,” somebody sez, but I don’t think I had a stranger temporal experience with any book I read in 2023 than with Noah’s Arkive. This book sits right at the center of my academic and personal wheelhouse, teeming with floodwaters & boats & catastrophes & a long complex story of literary transmutations, and the authors are old friends, collaborators, and co-conspirators in ecomaterialist circles. Reading it brought me through multiple times in multiple ways. I’m not sure how many times or in how many places, including Zoomtopia, I had heard one author or the other give a talk from the work-in-progress before I read the final version. All of those times coexisted as I gobbled down the published volume in June. I’m fairly surely that I heard at least a few talks about this project from *before the pandemic*, if you can imagine such a time. Maybe even before Jeffrey Cohen was sentenced to hard Dean-ly labor in the desert, too! I wrote an individual blog-review of this one when I read it in the spring, so I won’t go into too much detail here, except perhaps to say that what lingers half a year later is the wayward spirit of intellectual community and conviviality, the sense of grappling together toward a stranger but perhaps not only more painful world. That’s what we want books to do for us, right?
There were lots of other great ones this year, all suitable for holiday stockings, including Jeff Goodell’s The Heat Will Kill You First, Cormac McCarthy’s final duology The Passenger and Stella Maris (I liked the second novel slightly more than the first, but probably bc I read the first one first), Matt Bell’s Appleseed, Benjamin Labatut’s The Maniac (which was maybe not quite as stunning as last year’s When We Cease to Understand the World, but still pretty great), Maghan O’Gieblyn’s God Human Animal Machine, and Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk. But these are my four for ’23!