Here they are!
My favorite books released in 2022 - in alphabetical order.
“‘First thing you have to remember,’ Granny Catherine hold her granddaughter, Yejide, close on her lap, ‘is that there was a time before time,’...Yejide squirm on her granny lap. Nothing she love more than this full-cupboard feeling: the sweet smell of tobacco, the even rhythm of the rocking chair, the green hills and her granny face brimming with story.”
When We Were Birds was one of the first 2022 releases that I read, and it remains one of my favorites.
Yejide is a St. Bernard woman living on the outskirts of Port Angeles in Trinidad, reckoning with the history of her family and the reality that, when her mother dies, she will become responsible for accompanying the souls of the dead into the afterlife.
Yejide’s fate circles around Darwin, a young Rastafarian man who has moved to the city to make money for his family and find his absent father. He starts work as a gravedigger in the huge cemetery in Port Angeles.
This book felt so magical - not just because there is folklore inherent in the story, but the storytelling itself allowed me to lose myself in its pages. It’s special to be transported by language and characters into a place you’ve never been. Ayanna Lloyd Banwo has deep respect for her characters and for the act of storytelling and her love for both can be felt from the very first line.
I’m so thankful for storytellers.
“I always offered my Volvo. First, it seemed like the cool, generous thing to do. Second, it ensured that everyone had to listen to my music. Nobody could cook, yet we were always piling into my station wagon for aspirational trips to the grocery store on College Avenue, the one that took about six songs to get to. We crossed the Bay Bridge simply to get ice cream, justifying a whole new mixtape. There was a twenty-four-hour Kmart down 880 that we discovered one night on the way back from giving someone a lift to the airport - the ultimate gesture of friendship. A half-hour drive just to buy notepads or underwear in the dead of night, and it was absolutely worth it. Occasionally, a stray, scratchy pop tune would catch someone’s attention. What’s this? I’d heard these songs hundreds of times before. But to listen to them with people: it was what I’d been waiting for.”
I mean, need I say more.
Reading Stay True was one of those remarkable experiences where you read something and it so perfectly defines, encapsulates, celebrates something that you didn’t realize you were missing words for. It is an incandescent look at the friendships that shape us during the times in our life that feel the most urgent, the most searching, the most important, as if the world will end unless you spend one more night doing exactly the same thing you did the night before. Time stretches into something indescribable; it crawls and flies.
Hua Hsu’s memoir is a stunning portrait of a friendship that grows with an unlikely person and is destroyed by a senseless act of violence.
This book transported me and made me feel so grateful for life and the people in it.
“I am in a bar in Brooklyn listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether or not my life is worth living. Jay is to my left and Colin to my right. Colin, an ethical philosopher trained in my same doctoral program, argues a vision for a better society, one where a body like mine would not exist. The men debate this theory, speaking through me. This is common, both the argument and the way I’m forgotten in it.”
Chloé Cooper Jones has sacral agenesis, a rare congenital condition that makes it necessary for her to calculate the level of pain any situation will cause her. Her pain has, to a certain extent, controlled her identity. She is an ethical philosopher and professor, creating a world inside of her mind to which she can retreat in times of pain and societal discrimination.
Then, she quite unexpectedly becomes a mother and conversations like the one with Colin and Jay turn catalyzing.
Instead of convincing herself that she won’t enjoy the things that cause her pain, she chooses to go, to do, to embrace easy beauty in a more external way - ice cream at sunset in Rome after a day at the sculpture garden, a Beyoncé concert in Milan, journalistic writing jobs about tennis.
Easy Beauty is one of the best, most interesting, most compelling memoirs I've read in a long time. Chloé Cooper Jones writes with immense and accessible philosophical knowledge, and with even bigger humor and heart as she parses the ways that she has been excluded, discounted, and invisible in spaces that have been denied to her.
This is a life-changing book about identity that is both assigned by society and self-imposed, and the power that it holds over each of us.
“A series of tornadoes tore eastward on May 2, 1929, touching down at locations all the way from Oklahoma to Maryland. The worst occurred in Rye Cove Virginia…The Shaw family lived a hundred miles from Rye Cove, and well outside the storm’s path. They experienced no impact. Jim Shaw learned of the tornado and the carnage days after it occurred, from a neighbor, who had listened to extensive coverage on the radio. Jim didn’t discuss it with his wife nor any of his children. He carried and considered it silently as he went about his work that day, reinforcing the hog pen, training his filly for the harness and dressing an infection near her eye.”
The Shaw family - Jim, his wife, and seven children - are not extraordinary; they are not visited by fantastical destruction and catastrophe. Chorus is their story. Spanning from 1903 to 1959, the book doesn't move linearly but instead jumps from memory to memory, both concealing and revealing key moments in the family's history.
Good things happen and bad things happen. They treat each other well and they don't. Their story is profound in its quiet moments; joy and pain sneak up on them in equal measure and they make it through to the other side.
Rebecca Kauffman beautifully delves into the intimate moments of each individual while constructing the life of a whole family. Chorus is masterful storytelling.
“He never goes into the forest, because he’s afraid of bears and cougars, but now it holds a strange appeal. He’ll step in a hundred paces, he decides, no more. Counting off a hundred paces might calm him - counting has always calmed him - and if he walks straight for the full hundred then surely he can’t get lost. Getting lost is death, he can see that. No, this whole place is death. No, that’s unfair - this place isn’t death, this place is indifference. This place is utterly neutral on the question of whether he lives or dies; it doesn’t care about his last name or where he went to school; it hasn’t even noticed him.”
I enjoyed Station Eleven, but I didn’t love it. Unpopular opinion, I know. As I read that book, I found myself wanting more - wanting something different - but it was hard to articulate what exactly that was.
It turns out, it was Sea of Tranquility.
Emily St. John Mandel is a formidable writer of quiet moments, and Sea of Tranquility showcases that glimmering talent in sentence after lovely, economical sentence.
The book is set in both the past and future, on Earth and the Moon. Her characters are distinctive and precise; her world-building is clean and transportive. The pandemic looms large and is felt as an authentic heartbeat throughout, pacing the narrative, but not overshadowing the individual responses to the life-altering circumstances her characters face.
I loved every minute of this book.
“QUESTION: Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?
If I was a white girl with a shaved head, they probably wouldn’t have cared. But because I was an Egyptian girl with a shaved head, they wouldn’t let me forget it. Everything was fine at JFK. Even when four hundred Egyptians funneled into a Boeing 777 destined for Cairo, no one noticed me. For twelve hours our heads nodded, lolled against one another as we dozed and dreamed, and there was no telling in the canned gloom who was who. Then the lights came on and we landed.”
I just finished If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English and I am obsessed. It’s a dizzying whirlwind of a narrative about an Egyptian American woman who decides to move to Cairo after she graduates from college. Her parents grew up and lived in Cairo, but she was born in the United States. When she arrives, she meets a few new friends at a nearby restaurant and one day, a man from a very small town outside of the city comes in. They start a relationship.
The first two parts of the book are split into small sections that open with questions. The man and the woman take turns narrating each of these sections, creating a veritable he said/she said of a relationship.
Then, in part three, everything flips on its head. It’s so surprising and brilliant that I can’t possibly tell you all that much about it. You just have to read the book.
Noor Naga’s debut is the most innovative I’ve read all year. It has a lot to say about the fetishization of home, especially when that “home” is a place you’ve never been before.
“The pool is located deep underground, in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured, and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, anhedonia, the usual aboveground afflictions. Others of us are employed at the college nearby and prefer to take our lunch breaks down below, in the waters, far away from the harsh glares of our colleagues and screens. Some of us are here to escape, if only for an hour, our disappointing marriage on land. Many of us live in the neighborhood and simply love to swim. One of us - Alice, a retired lab technician now in the early stages of dementia - comes here because she always has. And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Her stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. ‘Up there,’ she says, ‘I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.’”
I don’t often read a book and think “Oh, that will win all the awards this year,” but with The Swimmers, I absolutely did. I was shocked when this book didn’t make the shortlist for every big award. It’s a slim novel in the best way, with an incredible economy of words and an experimental narrative style.
Our narrators are a secret society of swimmers, retreating from aboveground to the comforting world of an underground pool. Then, a crack appears on the floor of the pool.
As a reader, this book was a challenge in all the best ways. I was sucked into the water-logged quality of the writing immediately, lulled into the routines of our narrators. Then, everything shifts in such a disorienting and brilliant way. The crack could be anything, especially in our current world when collective spaces have become dangerous and community harder and harder to find, but the way that Otsuka navigates this shift from the communal to the personal is really breathtaking.
I've been thinking about it ever since.
“A french quadrille is a dance of four couples. At certain moments all dancers take the same steps. Other times they pivot and turn against each other. They twist and curtsy in and out of unison. Music tailored to this set dance signals when to be still and when to glide. See how they separate and come back together? Train your eyes on one duo. See how they initiate and how they follow? You’ll get lost if you try to look everywhere at once. You have to pay attention somewhere to understand the dance.”
Imani Perry’s project is a large and challenging one. As a native Alabaman, she travels back into the South, trying to experience it anew, with fresh eyes trained on the history of the place and its effects on the present. She travels through Appalachia, to Louisville and Washington, D.C., through the Carolinas and Georgia and Florida and New Orleans. Everywhere she goes, she talks with people, visits historical sites, reflects on the deep scars of enslavement and inequality.
Like the french quadrille, South to America can be a disorienting journey. It meanders. Perry allows herself detours along untraveled byways and into well-worn cities turned tourist attractions. She speaks with everyone she meets and works hard to get to the heart of their perspective. Her writing is instructive and generous, lyrical and transportative.
This incredible book is a dance. Listen to the music. Allow yourself to be carried away.
“We waited for a long while. Mom stayed quiet, and with no talk or toy men to occupy myself with, I tried to remember the move to our new home, which was not some faraway memory and was only a day back. But because of the fever, I remembered only fragments. Miles of highway, miles of pine trees. I remembered riding in the front seat of our white Toyota as I burned up. Mom had held her long Winston 100 up to the cracked car window, and at eighty miles per hour the passing air sucked the smoke out. ‘We left Paige,’ I kept saying. ‘We left her, Mumma.’ Mom took her eyes off the road and looked over at me. She held her hand to my sweaty forehead. ‘You poor thing,’ she said. Mom had driven fast. Real fast, and she watched me most of the time during the drive, as if I had been her road the whole way to our new home.” - from “In a Jar”
In Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty explores all the different ways the past informs the present. In this collection of beautifully interconnected stories, David, a Penebscot boy living on a reservation in Maine, grows into a man dealing with trauma and addiction.
Lives are made of moments, and the short story is the perfect form for exploring how each small moment makes a complex, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful life.
Talty's writing is more than impressive; his characters live and breath on his pages. This book is a celebration of life and language.
“I spotted mom white-knuckling the wheel of her Toyota Prius toward the curb. The car was new: Mom had finally broken her lifelong boycott against the Japanese colonizers because, she explained, the mileage was unbeatable, and anyway, we had to let go of that ancestral shit sooner or later.”
I'm still thinking about Which Side Are You On, Ryan Lee Wong's debut novel.
Reed is a twenty-one year old Asian American man fed up with the deeply racist systems and increasingly dangerous racial discrimination that leaves Black men dead at the hands of police. He decides to drop out of his Ivy League school in order to devote more time to activism and this book goes home with him to tell his parents, activists themselves when they were younger.
What follows is a funny, deeply complex, and very tender story about a family.
How do you dismantle a system that is hellbent on keeping power in the hands of people intent on oppressing those around them - especially when you still have to live within that system? How do you find joy and rest when doing so feels extravagant and unethical?
This is a vital look at the realities of fighting systems of power and the love of a family who wants to fight with you and care for you all at the same time.
As has been established in previous years, ten is such an arbitrary number when choosing books that have spoken to me, moved me, made me laugh and cry throughout an entire year. Here are eight more of my favorites that were released this year, along with five completely stellar books that I read this year but were published in previous years. Good books are good books.
most surprising book
“Allison Brody bought a beach house.
She was thirty-two years old.
Sick of everybody and everything.
All she wanted to do, more than anything, really was swim.”
I read this book in one day while I was at a family gathering. I didn’t even realize that I hadn’t stopped reading, poring over the pages. With every choice that Allison makes, I found myself thinking, “Oh no, don’t do that.” I couldn’t look away. She is deeply flawed, very human, and I really wanted the best for her - and yet, head trauma can really affect your decision-making abilities.
poetry I loved
from New Theories on Boredom
Once as a kid, I was so bored at my parents’ office that I made a deck of cards.
My brother had a really boring snake who only moved when you dumped a bag of live crickets into its cage.
I wonder what would bore a tortoise.
How bored are dogs? Pretty bored, I think.
I’m kind of interested in people using two stars to mean “I got bored and didn’t finish it.”
I don’t trust books that aren’t a little boring.
It’s almost like there should be different words for “boring because simple” and “boring because complex.”
“Boring because complex” isn’t actually boring, it can just be mistaken for boring, the way a hangover can be mistaken for guilt.
I’m not great with talking about poetry, but I’m trying to get better. This review won’t reflect that as I’m not really sure why I enjoyed Normal Distance so much. It’s smart and funny prose poetry that really resonated with me. It feels like a reflection of early COVID days in a way that felt troublingly nostalgic - distilled cohesive thoughts on some of the moments I just lived through. I really loved it.
gorgeous and thrilling
“Feel what I feel.
Stand with your legs together, toes point forward. Open your hips so the backs of your knees are touching. Slide the heel of one foot in front of the other until it meets the toes. This is fifth position…Fifth is a position to begin things from. Fifth is a frequent point of return. It’s also itself. Movement. Dance., even if it is still.
See what I see.”
They’re Going to Love You is my kind of thriller. Nothing much happens except that Carlisle, upon learning that her father is dying, must traverse the terrain of the last twenty years, searching for and reexamining the pivotal moment of betrayal that ejected her from her father’s New York ballet world with his partner, James. Howrey’s writing is so beautiful, and Carlisle’s search for forgiveness - for both her father and herself - is heartbreaking and hopeful.
whoa, the writing
“Early on a Sunday, after first Mass in Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford toward the coast where my mother’s people come from. It is a hot day, bright, with patches of shade and greenish, sudden light along the road. We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five, and on past the mart in Carnew where the man who won the heifer sold her shortly afterwards. My father throws his had on the passenger seat, winds down the window, and smokes. I shake the plaits out of my hair and life flat on the back seat, looking up through the rear window. In places there’s a bare, blue sky. In places the blue is chalked over with clouds, but mostly it is a heady mixture of sky and trees scratched over by ESB wires across which, every now and then, small, brownish flocks of vanishing birds race.”
Claire Keegan's novella, Foster, is best enjoyed in one sitting. It's a deceptively simple story of a child sent to live in the home of distant family members during one summer in rural Ireland. Not knowing whether she'll return to her home, where she is one of many children who belong to parents working ceaselessly to feed their full table, our protagonist is slow to accept the thoughtful kindness given to her by the Kinsellas, a couple with no children. These characters are defined by lack, by loss. As the summer progresses, the child begins to open herself up to the idea that she is deserving of care and attention. The beautiful and spare prose seems to open up, just as the protagonist does, fully immersing the reader in the story of a child who needs love and a woman who desperately hopes to love again after painful, life-altering loss.
“On a rainy afternoon in midsummer, I walked up the road to visit my parents. I had a question to ask. I came to the door…I punched in the security code: 1-4-9-2. Really, this is the code. Sometimes it’s easier to remember the hard things. The year Columbus ‘discovered’ America clicked the mechanism unlocking the front door and letting me into my family’s home. I’ve often wished I understood the technology well enough to program 1-4-9-1.”
Red Paint is absolutely one of my favorite memoirs of the year. It explores trauma in a way that feels intentional. By that I mean, LaPointe seems intent on healing, and knows that a journey through trauma is required. But her trauma is not glorified, or even centered. She is a beautiful, joyful, interesting writer and I really loved the experience of reading her book.
most delicious and fun
“Good noodles come from the heart. Noodles are about having fun with your food, slurping the long ones and shopping the short ones and smiling as you eat. Good noodles are about the little details, the toppings, the work that’s gone into the broth or sauce. Noodles are a tiny universe on your table.”
I heard Michael & Stephanie Le on Food Friday on WPR as I was driving to pick up my son from school. They were so delightful. They talked about how they had traveled the world learning about all of the different noodle traditions. Perhaps I’m a bit starved for travel these days, but their recipes sounded so transportative that I bought their cookbook for myself.
Gosh, I’m so glad. I love this book so much. Not only has their noodle recipe been the first to help me begin to unlock the beauty that is homemade noodles, but all of their recipes have left me feeling proud of the food that I’ve been able to make for family and friends - not to mention deliciously full.
I haven’t cooked my way through the whole book yet, but highlights so far include: The Double Yolk, an extra rich, extra yolk mezze rigatoni carbonara and Rib Eye with Black Bean Sauce and Crispy Chow Mein to name a few.
insightful and meaningful
“I had been at my happiest at thirty-five. That age was right behind me. An age where I could stare into my daughter’s face all day and bleep and squint and gurgle back at her own gurgles, revel at the makeup of her kneecap, the fac that she had hands. Put as much care into the pureeing of beets as I did into the plotting of a novel; tick off the list of ‘must-haves’ for a car ride with the attention of a surgeon general.
“But when Nina turned two, everything changed. Her needs became vast and existential: no longer did I tower over her disgruntlements wondering, Is she hot? Hungry? Too cold? All of a sudden, she wanted entertainment. She wanted meaning, reason, proof. Nina wanted a form of love that was far beyond the planned care I’d shown up until that point. Look at how I love you because I provide needed to turn into look at how much I love you because I am dropping everything to play, and at thirty-seven, I did not know how to play, because somehow, my ability to be comfortable in joy had left my heart and body.”
This book came to me at just the right time. As a parent of two small kids, it can feel like a real failure when I don’t want to play with my kids - not just because I may not have the energy, but because I often just don’t enjoy it a whole lot, or can think of other things I’d rather do. The Year of the Horses is Courtney Maum’s journey to reclaim her own joy and, consequently, the ability to find similar joy in the everyday. It was a real comfort to me to read another woman’s experiences with motherhood. She’s funny and open and I often felt as if I was talking with a friend while I read her words.
“The staff at Chilcombe say today will be a special day, but Cristabel is finding it dull. There is too much waiting. Too much straightening up. It is not a day that would make a good story. Cristabel likes stories that feature blunderbusses and dogs, not brides and waiting…As she picks up the remains of the snowdrops, she hears the bone crunch of gravel beneath the wheels.”
In her highly immersive debut novel, Joanna Quinn tells the story of three children living in a crumbling manor in the English countryside. They spend their days steeped in the world of their imagination and eventually find a whale washed up on the beach which they turn into a theater where they can stage plays.
The world of The Whalebone Theatre is exquisitely fresh and satisfying. Quinn takes the children and their playacting seriously, with immense respect, while painting the frivolous lives of the adults around them, dangerously out of touch with the realities of a necessarily changing society.
As the Germans invade France and England, Cristabel and Digby go undercover while Flossie joins the Women's Land Army, and Quinn tells a story of the second World War that I've never heard.
This is a special book, tender and unexpected in so many ways.
AND FINALLY -
My favorite books that I read this year that were not released in 2022. And honestly, some of these were actually my favorite books this year (*cough* all of them).
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
Paradise by Toni Morrison
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
I hope you all had a wonderful 2022, full of books that challenged, entertained, and kept you company during dark and cold days. Here's to brand new bookish adventures in 2023! Stay Well & Well Read!