some books i loved in 2023 that might also interest you

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire

Okay, maybe “love” isn’t exactly the right word for this one. Caroline Elkins is a fucking badass whose archival research helped secure reparations for 5,228 Kenyan Kikiyu people who survived British gulags during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau movement. It’s quite the story:

When Elkins’s book came out, her findings – partly based on the testimony of Kikuyu survivors – were widely dismissed as, at best, exaggerations by a generation of historians wedded to stubborn ideas of Britain’s “enlightened” and “benign empire”. Her history was dramatically vindicated, however, when an unknown cache of 240,000 top secret colonial files, removed from Nairobi at the time of Kenyan independence in 1963, were disclosed on the eve of the 2011 trial. The files had been stored in a high security foreign office depository at Hanslope Park, near Northampton. At the time of that high court victory, Elkins noted that she had for years put on hold a wider inquiry into the methods of British colonial governance in the years after the second world war, in order to substantiate the survivors’ case, research that would now be illuminated by the fact that the secret document store also held “lost” records from 37 other former colonies. She was both vindicated and outraged by the discovery: “After all these years of being roasted over the coals, they’ve been sitting on the evidence? Are you frickin’ kidding me? This almost destroyed my career.”

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins review – the brutal truth about Britain’s past

It’s taken me most of a year to get through the audiobook version, not only because it’s 31 hours long but because it’s heavy, heavy work. It draws connections between stories I know well, like British lies and cruelty during the Troubles in Ireland; stories I know less well but that have become hideously topical, like British cynicism and racism during Mandatory Palestine; and stories that to my shame I barely know at all, like British duplicity and violence in the Malayan Emergency. It describes, in painful detail, the contents of those “lost” records, including suppressed evidence of multiple extrajudicial murders by British officers.

And it’s my legacy. My grandfather is somewhere in these pages, in Mandatory Papua New Guinea after the war, with his wife and their children, my aunt and uncle and father. Not, I hope, committing the most egregious crimes, but certainly acting as a tool of Empire.

Despite all this, this book deserves its place as the most important thing I read in 2023. It may join Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity on the short list of books I think about almost every day.


On a much cheerier note, the amazing Helen MacDonald of H is for Hawk spent the early part of the pandemic (how is this a cheerier note, Rachel) collaborating with Sin Blache on this irresistable book. As I said to my secret coven, imagine late Douglas Adams and mid-career William Gibson writing a scaldingly hot queer love story together. Get it in your eyes posthaste.

Ghosts of the Tsunami and San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History

Feels like cheating to include Beth Winegarner’s exquisitely researched investigation into the graveyards on which the City was built, given that I read it in draft and am thanked in the acknowledgments, but it would be equally dishonest to leave this one out. It’s even better than her Sacred Sonoma, and was written for the same reason: to try to understand and navigate the spiritual geography of place, its holy places and corpse roads. Parry’s book is an effort to do the same for the devastated landscape of the 2011 Japan earthquake.

My archaeology professor Alexander Cambitoglou impressed on me that we measure civilizations by how they dispose of their dead. Hit middle age and you realize every house is haunted; you realize that you yourself are a haunted house. We channel the voices of our dead for our children, because we knew and loved them when they were alive. Just as safety regulations are written in blood, institutional memory is a set of ghost stories, and that’s if you are very, very lucky.

(I forgot my best story about Beth’s book: she wound up her launch events with a Halloween reading at the Neptune Society’s beautiful Columbarium in the Richmond. I’d never been and it was atmospheric enough even before the quite strong tremor that rattled the stained glass windows and interrupted Beth making a very cogent and spooky point. Memento mori much?)

System Collapse

The latest Murderbot would be a shoo-in for the list even if it had not come out on the birthday shared by my younger kid and the Guide Dog puppy I’m currently raising. The younger kid was equally thrilled, having fallen for this series as hard as I did, with the delightful result that we can use deep cuts to communicate, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra-style, about our neurodivergence and misanthropy. Beloved author Martha Wells is responding well to cancer treatment; long may it be so.

Honorable mentions (because otherwise this post is getting too long)

The Animators and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – charming and engaging litfic about love and creativity

The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy – I texted my friend Danny, who had recommended it, to say Why don’t I heed your recommendations all the time? To which he responded You should! Another that reminds me of The Dawn of Everything

When We Cease to Understand the World – this year’s Vita Nostra, an entirely unexpected and mind-bending delight

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.