The 7 Best Books I Read in 2022
Our last-minute Books on GIFt guide includes novels and nonfiction, and independent bookstores and publishers where you can buy them.
Donna and I hope you all are having a great holiday season, and that you’re finding some time to rest and recharge ahead of the new year. We just returned from Anguilla, where we planted ourselves on the beach for a week, so we’re a bit late with our annual gift guide. We each read two books (you’ll see them in 2023), and it was a wonderful and restorative trip. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift for a friend or loved one, or yourself, here are our favorite fiction and nonfiction books we reviewed this past year. You likely can find them at your local bookstore, but we also included some independent shops and publishers where you can order them. Here’s the list:
John Elizabeth Stintzi’s novel has a lot going on in it. A volcano emerges from the Central Park reservoir in summer 2016. As it grows over several weeks to engulf Manhattan, we meet an array of characters. An 8-year-old Mexican boy is transported back in time to the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; he speaks the indigenous language perfectly, assisted by a spectral presence. A trans man has two selves who talk on the phone; one lives in Hilo, Hawaii, the other in New York. A woman falls asleep every night and wakes up inside another person’s body; her ex-girlfriend is one of them. A Mongolian herdsman undergoes a spectacular metamorphosis after a bee sting. A pair of researchers in Japan study myths and legends about a wrathful fire-being that may, in fact, be real and causing the Manhattan mountain. While this novel might not be for every reader, it’s fascinating, ambitious and energetic, and a feat of story construction. So many balls are in the air, but Stintzi juggles them beautifully. Their writing is crisp, quick and clear, and their imagination is extraordinary.
Deesha Philyaw’s short-story collection features several female protagonists with churchly connections and secrets. Among them: A girl watches her mother make peach cobbler for secret visits from a philandering preacher; a pair of strangers have assignations in the parking lot outside the hospice where each has a parent who is dying; a woman writes to a half-sister after the death of their wayward father; and a teenager grapples with trauma, her great-grandmother’s house rules and the cigarette breath of her girlfriend’s much older boyfriend. Each story puts you into an intimate space, whether it’s inside a car where bodies entangle or inside the head of a character struggling with guilt, shame, rage, identity or longing. As Kirkus put it, ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies’ is ‘tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful, these stories will sneak inside you and take root.’ Each story in this collection is distinct and powerful, and Philyaw’s writing is sharp, direct and beautiful.
A Hello Kitty lunchbox washes ashore on a remote island north of Vancouver where it is found by Ruth, a writer who lives there. She opens it to find a copy of Marcel Proust’s ‘À la recherche du temps perdu,’ some letters, a notebook and a watch. Further examination of Proust’s novel reveals all the original pages have been replaced by the diary of a teenage girl living in Tokyo named Nao. Ruth’s quest to understand Nao puts her on a path to a deeper understanding of herself, making this novel a clear-eyed, thoughtful and inspiring tale of empathy. ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ tackles some of life’s toughest questions and circumstances with crisp writing that zips. It is an enjoyable and enriching book.
Kalani Pickart’s novel ‘I Will Die in a Foreign Land’ won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award in 2022. It opens in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2014, where protests and violence in the city’s Independence Square are the backdrop for a story that follows several characters. They include a doctor from the United States who fled a failed marriage following the death of her young son to treat wounded people in St. Michael’s Monastery; a former KGB agent with a secret (actually, several secrets); a former mining engineer who seeks love and purpose amid the conflict; and an activist whose bisexuality and relationships with journalists (male and female) puts her at risk. Their lives intersect in unexpected ways. This is the kind of novel where in order to explain it, I’d need to tell you the whole thing and ruin it. So I won’t do that. But I will say ‘I Will Die in a Foreign Land’ carries substantial emotional weight and is sharply written. I flew through the book. It also helped me to understand better the context behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war. It’s a novel that’s as unique as it is of the moment.
‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt is a modern classic where in the novel’s first sentence we learn someone named Bunny has been murdered, and that the narrator is in on it. That narrator, Richard, is looking back on the killing, which occurred while he attended Hampden College in Vermont. Richard is originally from California, but he moves to New England to escape an unhappy upbringing and to make a fresh start. He struggles to fit in until he encounters a tight band of outsiders—Henry, Francis, Camilla and Charles (who are twins), and ‘Bunny.’ Richard learns they are the sole members of Hampden’s exclusive and obscure Ancient Greek program. He applies to transfer into the program, and gets drawn deeper into their orbit. He learns his new friends have more going on than an interest in translating esoterica in a dead language. Each of them has a dark secret, involving sex, sexuality, wealth, death, lawbreaking and excessive drinking, among other things. ‘The Secret History’ is a fascinating exploration of how we struggle to fit in as we come of age, and the questionable lengths we will go to be accepted by peers. It also probes the intersection of the invincibility of youth and the callousness of privilege. The novel moves at a brisk pace, kept me on my toes and made me think.
I love the New York Knicks almost as much as I love books. ‘Blood in the Garden’ is deeply reported, and contains fascinating details and insights about the decade of Knicks basketball that changed the NBA and defined Knicks fandom ever since. Herring’s reporting resurfaced many memories from when I first fell in love with basketball and became a Knicks fan decades ago. I could go on and on about moments in Herring’s book, from Pat Reilly’s intensity to Xavier McDaniel’s shower antics, and from Greg Anthony’s scrap with the Phoenix Suns to Patrick Ewing missing that finger roll against the Indiana Pacers. People deride the ’90s Knicks for playing a brutal style of basketball. But to me those Knicks symbolize something important about New York. This is a tough town, where we get knocked down and our dreams crushed. These Knicks know that struggle. They never won a championship, but no matter how many times they lost to Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller, they always put in the work to come back. Just like New Yorkers have done again and again. Even if you’re not a Knicks fan, anyone who loves basketball should read this book.
MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner Hanif Abdurraqib’s most recent collection of essays was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2021 and won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Nonfiction in 2022. ‘A Little Devil in America’ is composed of essays and poetic interludes that often zoom in on a specific person, moment, detail or emotion to tell a larger story about race, history or love, sometimes all three, and more, all within the theme of Black performance. An early essay about human connections forged on the dance floor links dance marathons of the 1920s to Don Cornelius and the famous Soul Train Line. Another essay focuses on Josephine Baker and her fascinating life as a dancer and French Resistance spy to discuss how one can feel at home in a country or city amid racism, violence and gentrification. ‘A Little Devil in America’ is a brilliant, powerful and wonderful book. Abdurraqib’s writing is beautiful, quickly paced, and packed with facts and anecdotes. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Subscribe to Books on GIF for free!
Before you go:
Looking for more? Here are some ideas from past BoG gift guides:
From 2021: The highlights include 'If on a winter's night a traveler' by Italo Calvino, 'The Hearing Trumpet' by Leonora Carrington, ‘The Transit of Venus’ by Shirley Hazzard, ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman, 'The Passion According to G.H.' by Clarice Lispector, ‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor, ‘The Sea, the Sea’ by Iris Murdoch and 'Interior Chinatown' by Charles Yu. Read the full guide here.
From 2020: The highlights include ‘The Book of X’ by Sarah Rose Etter, ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo, ‘Family Lexicon’ by Natalia Ginzburg, ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen, ‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry and ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk. Read the full guide here.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,