January 13, 2023

2022 By The Books

Every January I take a look back at the books I read over the last year. In 2022, I found time for 45 books, a high number for me in a year when I was also consistently working on a novel.

In what has become a standard pattern, about two-thirds of what I read was brand new releases, a bunch more were catching up from the previous year, and most of the rest were from the past decade. I'm still enjoying keeping track of what's being published and reading the novels I'm most excited about while other people are discussing them and interviewing the authors. Last year I read a few books from small presses or that were otherwise more obscure, but I didn't make much of a special effort to do that, so like most people, I heard about and read books that were popular (because that's how popularity works). Maybe I'll mix things up some this year, or maybe I won't, but I have no regrets about the excellent variety of books that came my way last year.

In considering my 2022 reads, I identified five reading experiences that were the most memorable. (Follow the links to the monthly reading recaps for more detailed reviews.)

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin (August) is the book I've been recommending most widely. In this emotional story, a childhood friendship becomes a troubled creative partnership that results in groundbreaking video games and a lot of personal strife. I love the characters and their complicated relationships, I ache for what they go through, and I wish I could inhabit the game worlds they design. I still think about this novel often.

TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović (June) strikes just the right balance of fun and serious in this novel set at a residential school for Deaf students. With a mix of point-of-view characters, Nović explores numerous aspects of Deaf culture and politics in the course of a gripping plot. The illustrated lessons in American Sign Language are an excellent bonus to the great story.

BOOTH by Karen Joy Fowler (March) delves into the fascinating history of the family of actors that produced the assassin John Wilkes Booth. Fowler takes the true historical details, imagines rich inner lives for each family member, and masterfully weaves them together. I've long been a fan of Fowler's inventive writing and the understated humor she finds in human behavior, and this novel delivers everything I expect from her work.

→ I reread A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan in preparation for the followup, THE CANDY HOUSE (both in April). On my second visit with the original, I had a far greater appreciation for how the book's chapters, each focused on a different character and with a distinct style, fit together to form a novel. With those threads fresh in my mind, I was able to catch all the connections in the new book, which follows characters at the periphery of the first set of stories. The second book involves several futuristic technologies, and I liked it even better than the first, and even better because of reading both books in quick succession.

SEA OF TRANQUILITY by Emily St. John Mandel (April) is so strange and so connected to Mandel's previous work that I'm hesitant to recommend it to anyone who isn't already a fan, though prior knowledge isn't strictly required. This story includes time travel, pandemics, moon colonies, book tours, and wonderful characters, and I loved every weird page of it. I read it not long after rereading Mandel's previous pandemic novel, STATION ELEVEN (February), not long after watching that book's fantastic TV adaptation during a surge in our real life pandemic, so it was an intense few months of Mandel appreciation for me.

Beyond the books that top my list, many more impressed me. A big factor was generally that they told compelling stories about complicated relationships. I'll briefly highlight those books and their featured dynamics:

ANY OTHER FAMILY by Eleanor Brown (August): Three sets of adults adopt biological siblings and commit to keeping the kids close, and the strain of maintaining one big happy family comes to a head during a shared vacation.

BEST OF FRIENDS by Kamila Shamsie (October): Two friends share an experience at fourteen with repercussions that spool out over the decades to come.

OLGA DIES DREAMING by Xochitl Gonzalez (February): A sister and brother throw themselves into very different careers while dealing with the influence of the mother who left them behind to pursue the cause of Puerto Rican independence.

DETRANSITION, BABY by Torrey Peters (February): A trans woman, a former trans woman who has detransitioned, and his pregnant girlfriend contemplate forming a family together.

EUPHORIA by Lily King (May): Married anthropologists studying tribes in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s meet a colleague, and the three develop a close and volatile friendship.

THE SENTENCE by Louise Erdrich (January): The staff members of a Minneapolis bookstore face down the ghost of a dead customer amid the other horrors of 2020.

CIRCE by Madeline Miller (January): A powerful witch goddess who is drawn to relationships with mortals plays her part in what will become the epic tales of heroes and monsters.

BABEL by R.F. Kuang (December): Four Oxford students in an alternate version of the 1830s become devoted friends while learning to wield the language-magic that keeps England dominant over its colonies.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Mike Errico interviews George Saunders, "who wrestled with songwriting before finding his stride in the short story form": "One of my stated goals was to get the world's attention. And one of the big breakthroughs I had was, I suddenly realized it was okay to freakify your work a little bit in order to get noticed. What I mean by 'freakify' is maybe just 'urge the story in the direction of originality.' So, if you're writing and it sounds a lot like a song by the band you like, that's a problem, maybe. Could you freakify it in some way, to make it not sound like them? Or, ideally, like no one else?"

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