Let’s keep it simple this year: these are, simply, the best books I read in 2022 out of all those I read. As is my tradition, I narrow the list to about 10 or so. I often add a separate list of excellent books I read by some of my writer friends, but I decided doing so stresses me out, as I have lots of awesome writer friends, and I know I could (should??) easily spend ALL my time reading their books…yet I don’t, which probably makes me, what, a bad art friend?? So, you’ll see some special categories at the end, but I’ll keep the praise for my friends’ books private this year.
In a secret order known only to me (well, in chronological order of when I read these books):
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy: Short and brilliant. The intensity of my reading experience was aided by reading this in the deep winter, and shortly after suffering a horrific bout of Covid. My introduction to this edition talked about how Tolstoy wanted to pare things away at this point of his writing life, and this book burrows down to perhaps the core of what it means to be human, living a life while knowing we will one day die. Given the title, there’s no surprise here, yet the ending revelation took my breath away. Here’s where I note that I also wrote this in my casual book journal: “Oh, and all the deep stuff with perfect descriptions and funny moments and observations.”
No Diving Allowed by Louise Marberg: I was lucky enough to be asked to write a blurb for Louise’s current book of stories, You Have Reached Your Destination, and once I read those, I raced to read these. Great dialogue, sharp endings (like, razor-wire sharp!), humor, and complicated people in complicated settings. As a fan of linked stories, I admired the linkage here: swimming pools! See, kids, if you’re a good enough writer, you truly can get away with anything!
*The Sum of Trifles by Julia Ridley Smith: A memoir in essays about the “stuff” we accumulate in our lives, what it adds up to, what it means, how we wrestle with its history. The author’s parents were antique dealers who died within a fairly short time span, leaving the author to tackle a house full of THINGS and a family full of complications. *I recommended this book to others at least 1000 times and bought some copies to give away, so I’m calling this my most recommended book of 2022.
Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close: Sometimes you want a charming, funny book set in your beloved Chicago! Smart and sparkly, the sort of book that cheers you up instantly (especially if you root for the Cubs). I read avidly and happily, pretty much without stopping or worrying about the plot or trying to examine writerly tricks. I saw the author speak at the Gaithersburg Book Fair, paired with one of my favorite “smart & sparkly” authors, Katherine Heiny, so I had to give Jennifer Close a chance, and how happy I am that I did.
The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash: This is a bit of a cheat, since I spent a Converse low-res MFA residency with this author (which may make us “friends”??), but because, like me, she also grew up in Iowa, I’m stretching my “no friends on the list” rule because I admired and enjoyed this quirky book so much and because Iowans have to stick together. It’s set in small-town Iowa and has one of the sneakiest, snarkiest, saddest, voicey-est first person POV narrators I’ve ever encountered. Masterfully done! Beyond the Iowa setting, I loved all the musical theatre jokes—and the humor in general. Warning: by the end, I was homesick for a pork tenderloin the size of my head.
Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea: A collection of essays that will make your brain fire along new synapses! Verve, sass, and an exploration/celebration of queer culture I confess to not knowing enough about: music, feminist festival controversy, a well-known San Francisco lesbian gang, and more. I bought this book at the AWP writing conference bookfair, sort of as a random purchase to support a press I wanted to support, and the person who took my credit card said, “Oh, I just LOVE Michelle Tea.” Me too!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Is it really fair when a list includes TWO works by Tolstoy? This was a reread, and I was curious to see if the book would maintain its space on my “Best Books” bookshelf. YES. Yes, there are some slower sections, yes, Tolstoy was a terrible husband/person IRL. But the scope of this book is so massive and so specific to this segment of Russian culture—while also being universal to today, and, likely the years to come. The reader experiences society, religion, economy, class struggles—and all the complicated emotions that make humans human. Some of the scenes I found especially memorable were the peasants scything, the bees at the end, and Anna’s horrific breakdown. A book that left me feeling the awe of witnessing true artistic achievement.
Jackie & Me by Louis Bayard: A novel set in 50s DC about Jack Kennedy’s courtship of Jackie…if “courtship” is the right word for dumping her on ice and expecting your dear, gay friend to entertain her until you’re ready to settle down. I loved the old-timey DC details (Garfinckel’s!) and the Nick Carraway, outsider POV. What is the cost of giving up one’s own authentic life? What does a “great man” deserve from us? Plus, sorry, but I’ll probably always be a little bit of a sucker for the Kennedys.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: I once read half of this novel and then set it aside. But now, having read all of it, I’m not sure why/how I stopped reading before. One of the classic “campus novels”—poor, ambitious junior professor Jim is just not getting any breaks, and—surprise—he’s surrounded by nitwits and saboteurs. This book is HILARIOUS, with perhaps the single funniest scene I’ve read in my entire life, coming at the end, on a glacially slooooow, super-suspenseful bus ride. This book is dated, so one does have to—ahem—overlook some pretty crummy stuff. I managed to do so, but I understand that some may choose otherwise.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: Another reread, for a book club. Same reaction as when I read this way back when: WOW. At least half of the blurbs on the back of my edition call this a “perfect novel” and about half of the writers commenting on the FB post I wrote about the book also called it a “perfect novel” and by the time my book club meeting was over, a majority show of hands also agreed it’s a “perfect novel.” Make what you will of all that. 😊 The use of the unreliable, first person narrator is perfection; using the trope of the English butler is smart, offering important and nuanced commentary about money and class; and the depiction of a man coming to a certain point in his life and being forced to question everything is a heartbreaker.
Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan by Darryl Pinckney: If you’re read my list before, you know that one of my favorite genres is the Venn diagram where NYC and writers meet, especially if there’s a well-defined historical time period and/or a literary clique and/or a young person discovering themselves. Here we’ve got the perfect bullseye, with this impressionistic memoir of a young (black) (gay) man getting a vast (and enviable!) literary education from writer/critic Elizabeth Hardwick (ex-wife of poet Robert Lowell), who starts in the 70s as his teacher and ends as a beloved friend in the 80s. This loose (but brainy) writing style maybe is not for everyone, but I fell into it and eventually it didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize the name of every famous writer/publication/downtown personality mentioned: I let the whole thing sweep over me and simply wished I were there.
Here are two collections of short stories that I loved. Because I’ve decided to excuse myself from having to read EVERY story in a collection, I feel funny adding them to my larger list because technically I didn’t finish these books entirely. (Why are there so many stupid rules here? Who runs this enterprise?)
We Were Angry by Jennifer S. Davis
Proof of Me by Erica Plouffe Lazure
Lest you think I don’t read poetry, here are a few collections I loved this year. (Yes, I can LOVE a book of poems despite not reading every single poem in it! Yes, I know this is an act of chaotic evil! Yes, these are poets I know IRL that deserve attention!)
89% by Sarah Cooper
Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn
Reparations Now! by Ashley M. Jones
Finally, here are some books I wrote blurbs for, so look for these books in 2023:
Our Sister Who Will Not Die by Rebecca Bernard (stories) (already out!)
The Company of Strangers by Jen Michalski (stories)
Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir by Sarah Conover (CNF)
Bookish People by Susan Coll (novel) (already out!)
Bone Country by Linda Nemec Foster (prose poems)
Cheers, and here’s to another happy year of reading in 2023!