I read far too many books this year, upwards of 100 from start to finish, and many more that I dipped into, all piled around the living room and my bedroom and even on my bed, like stuffed animals to once-again soothe the despair of being burnt-out and extravagant.
I read some I loved; some that were utterly spellbinding; some I hated; some I found revolting; some I fought through because I knew there was something there, and was rewarded; some I fought through and thought were idiotic and anemic; and many I felt fairly meh, okay now what, about.
In our correspondence before we were together, my spouse mentioned a lecture he’d seen that was about (roughly paraphrased because uncharacteristically I can’t find the email) you can look at books and culture as: (1) what you love that you love, (2) what you hate that you love, (3) what you love that you hate, and (4) what you hate that you hate. Something like that, or maybe my memory has utterly warped that.
I couldn’t write about all the books I read—it would take me several years to do all these books justice or to get to why I reacted the way I did to those particular words in those orders,—but here are my personal recommendations, my pleasures, what I loved I loved this year, what I didn't want to let go of, as I joined the burning of a Yule Log on winter solstice:
*For the reader who loves profound literature about mortality:
Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers.
*For the reader looking for an insightful book about pregnancy, mothers, mother-daughter relationships, and motherhood:
Elizabeth McCracken’s The Hero of This Book,
Julie Phillips’s The Baby on the Fire Escape
Jessica Grose, Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American
Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra
(Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers fits into this taxonomy, too)
*For the reader who loves lively language and who is intrigued by the way folkloric, mystical, and other narratives influence female consciousness and experience within social systems:
Melissa Chadburn’s A Tiny Upward Shove,
Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch
*For the reader who loves exquisite female interiority, intensity, loneliness, and unusual lyric beauty:
Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night
Abigail Nguyen Rosewood, Constellations of Eve
*For the reader who loves intellectually and emotionally challenging reads about the phenomenology of art, branding, commodification and sprawling novels:
Mark de Silva’s The Logos.
*For the reader who loves a blend of the heady and emotional in thinking about art and mortality (there seems to be a trend here, sorry):
Lisa Hsiao’s Activities of Daily Living
*For the reader who loves novels that are unique, enchanting, and polyphonic:
Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch
*For the reader looking for books that feature friendship, both dark and sunny relationships:
Alice Elliot Dark’s Fellowship Point
Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose,
Kamila Shamsie’s The Best of Friends,
Devi Laskar’s Circa.
*For the reader who appreciates play and experimentation in fiction:
Claire-Louise Bennett’s Checkout 19,
Percival Everett’s Dr. No, Ali Smith’s Companion Piece.
*For the reader who eschews emotionality in fiction, but adores the lightly odd, graphically rendered:
Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel Acting Class
*For the reader who likes clean sentences and horse racing:
Kathryn Scanlan’s Kick the Latch.
*For the reader who appreciates the risky, sui generis work of literature, dark around the edges:
Namwali Serpell’s The Furrows,
Cristina Rivera Garza’s New and Selected Stories,
Gayl Jones’s The Birdcatcher
Tanaïs’s In Sensorium
Giada Scodellaro’s Some of Them Will Carry Me
Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob
*For the reader who loves Literature with a capital “L” and its capacity for make you feel strange and opened up and slowed down in a way that social media cannot:
Jon Fosse’s A New Name (Septology)
(Many others on this year-end list!)
*For the reader who loves gorgeous, cleanly told group biographies and German Romanticism, or and curious to see the connections between German Romanticism and our sense of self as different from the collective today:
Andrea Wulf’s Magnificent Rebels
*For the reader of speculative, philosophically profound, slightly off-kilter work embedded with smart social commentary, whether implicitly or explicitly rendered:
Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao,
Akil Kumarasamy’s Meet Us By the Roaring Sea,
Ling Ma’s Bliss Montage (surrealist more than spec)
*For the reader looking for an intimate and immersive and beautiful and perfect memoir that features friendship between men, music, and grief:
Hua Hsu’s Stay True
,*For the reader who loves more traditionally designed short stories (but, because you are getting my own recommendations, and it’s become work for me to finish the old-fashioned reads anymore, many of these are still very imaginative and invested in language):
Manuel Munoz’s The Consequences,
Gish Jen’s Thank You Mr. Nixon,
David Means’s Two Nurses, Smoking,
Banana Yoshimoto’s Dead End Memories
Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You,
Meron Hadero’s A Down Home Meal for these Difficult Times,
Jean Chen Ho’s Fiona and Jane
*For the reader of rich historical or social fiction that is a terrific read:
Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait,
Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead,
Marianne Wiggins’s The Properties of Thirst.
*For the smart reader of science writing who loves thinking about history of science, too:
Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Song of the Cell.
*For the reader worried about the state of the country, the role of persuasion in making it better or worse, and groups:
Anand Giridharadas’s The Persuaders,
Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev’s Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of
Tyranny in the 21st Century,
Todd Kashden’s The Art of Insubordination (self-help, mind you).
*For the sensical reader who has an interest in politics and wants to understand the dire history and consequences of gerrymandering, one of the biggest problems facing the United States today:
Nick Seabrook’s One Person, One Vote.
*For the intellectual reader who wants to understand the right of privacy in relation to the catastrophic Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade:
Amy Gadja’s Seek and Hide.
*For the reader who wants to understand personalities whose charisma and power have shaped the world and make connections to present-day leaders:
Ian Kershaw’s Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern
*For the reader who cares about women who are shaping the legal profession, and fighting the good fight, and consequently, shaping the America in which we will live:
Dahlia Lithwick’s Lady Justice.
*For the reader fascinated by the history of acting, and especially method acting, which has had so much influence on culture:
Isaac Butler’s The Method.
*For the reader who better wants to understand neoliberalism and socialism in America (with a real and intelligent, non-click-bait-y window onto the Bay Area’s role in this, as well):
Gary Gerstle’s brilliant The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order.
*For readers who are into animals and sea creatures, and really, who isn’t into both?
Ed Yong’s Immense World,
Sabrina Imbler’s How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in 10 Sea Creatures,
Talia Kolluri’s What We Fed to the Manticore.
*For readers who care about climate change:
Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog & Swamp.
*For readers into pop music history:
Danyel Smith’s beautiful Shine Bright.
*For your big nerds who are fascinated by rules, laws, algorithms etc.:
Lorraine Daston's Rules: A Short History of What We Live By.
*For readers of crime writing, which someone this year pointed out is always also very powerful writing about society: Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel.
*For readers of intelligent, nuanced biography and those interested in J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and surveillance:
Beverly Gage’s G-Man.
*For readers who love to read about reading:
Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night.
(Checkout 19 would also fit this reader).
*For readers interested in women, and the history of how we came to think about that identity in this country:
Lillian Faderman’s tremendous Woman: The American History of an Idea.
*For those interested in a reconfiguration of how the history of America is usually taught—from the Founding Fathers’ role on:
Pekka Hämäläinen’s Indigeneous Continent: The Epic Contest for North
*For the reader of books that are fun, but a little strange and very disturbing, and also insightful about race:
Bethany Morrow’s Cherish Farrah
*For those of us weirdo readers who are interested in books in translation— particularly featuring an uncomfortable, almost cutthroat style of writing, sometimes about violence—that we don’t as often see in American big budget fiction:
Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais
Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone
Hanne Ørstavik’s Te Amo (not violent, but in terms of the emotions it explores,
still very much not the norm within American fiction)
It was a stunning year in reading. Gifting a book is a joy —loved this NYT essay on it. To my family’s dismay as we swim around in books as we eat, as we sleep, as we cook, as we talk, it is nearly the only gift I give.
By the way, I joined some others on KQED Forum for the second time to talk about books for their end-of-year show, too. You can listen to it here. Go buy some books at your local independent bookstore (or, you know, mention them to your library so that they buy them, and get them there.)!
Happy holidays—hope your last weeks of 2022 are filled with serenity!