It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that you can’t read every book that comes out in a given year, so it’s a misnomer to call a year-end list “Best Books.” So I prefer to use “Favorite Reads.” These are the 11 books by women I liked the best of the 48 books I read in 2022 (some written by men, of course). There were at least another 48 books I wanted to read, many of which received great acclaim. Who knows how many of them would have made this list? I might have had to make this list my Top 22 of ’22 or something similar. (See below for a list of the 2022 books I didn’t get around to reading, but which I plan to read this year.)
Listed in the order in which I read them
The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
The Sentence is both a love letter to books, bookstores, and readers and a chronicle of a year like no other. Set in a small independent bookstore (like the one Erdrich owns) in Minneapolis, it runs from All Souls Day in November 2019 to ASD in 2020. Tookie, who has recently been released from prison, is happy to land a job as a bookseller, but soon discovers the store is haunted by the ghost of its most annoying customer, Flora. The Covid pandemic arrives in March 2020, followed by the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter protests, all set against a high-stakes presidential election campaign. Erdrich manages to keep the personal and sociopolitical elements in balance and ends on a hopeful note.
The Five Wounds – Kirstin Valdez Quade
The Five Wounds follows the Padilla family of Las Penas, New Mexico over the course of a year. Amadeo is a feckless 33-year-old living with his mother Yolanda; he’s unemployed and spends his days watching TV and drinking beer. It’s Holy Week and Amadeo has been given the role of Jesus in the Good Friday procession performed by the local Catholic men’s group. It’s the leader’s hope that this will put Amadeo on the right path after many years of self-destructive living. To everyone’s surprise, he is fervently committed to this chance at a rebirth and is preparing in the best method acting style. But then his estranged 15-year-old daughter Angel shows up at Yolanda’s house, pregnant. She hopes Yolanda, the family’s heart and soul, will take her in and help her with the baby. And maybe she’ll be able to develop a relationship with her father, who has maintained a hands-off approach to parenthood. Valdez Quade has a gift for bringing these flawed but very human characters to life. They misunderstand each other, nurse grudges, marinate in their low self-esteem, and seem to have little to no luck. But Angel’s presence is the catalyst for a series of events that manage, ever so tenuously, to pull things together.
Peach Blossom Spring – Melissa Fu
Peach Blossom Spring, Melissa Fu’s confident and accomplished debut, is the story of four generations of one family over 60 years. When Japan invades China in 1938, Meilin and her four-year-old son, Dao Renshu, flee their home in central China. Her husband is missing in action and presumed dead. She and Renshu end up in Taiwan, where the Chinese Nationalists have migrated with the hope of returning to mainland China after the Communists are defeated. The first half of Peach Blossom Spring is an alternately harrowing and heartwarming depiction of refugee life. The second half of the book is the story of Renshu, now renamed Henry Dao, as he attends graduate school in Chicago in the 1960s and builds a life in the United States, eventually obtaining a desirable job as a physicist at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. But he is preoccupied by thorny questions. How can he take care of his mother like a good Chinese son if he can’t arrange her immigration to the U.S.? Who can he trust among the many Chinese scientists, whose loyalties are split between the Communists and Nationalists? Melissa Fu weaves these concerns into a nearly seamless tapestry of lives shaped by war and immigration. Peach Blossom Spring is a satisfying novel that begins as a riveting story of war and refugee life and then shifts to a domestic drama that explores immigration, culture, and heritage.
You can support this newsletter by ordering books through my shop on Bookshop.org. https://bookshop.org/shop/openbook
Olga Dies Dreaming – Xochitl Gonzalez
Olga Dies Dreaming is another impressive debut. Set in 2017, it follows Olga, a wedding planner for wealthy New Yorkers, and her brother, Pedro, a local politician, as they negotiate their complicated lives. Their mother, Blanca, abandoned them for radical politics, leaving them to be raised by their grandmother, but their personal ambition and success has allowed them to bury family secrets. When Hurricane Maria brings devastation to Puerto Rico, Blanca reenters the picture. This is a smart, funny, and crisply written examination of the American Dream and what it means to be caught between two cultures. Olga Dies Dreaming is also a much-needed primer on the history and current effects of American colonialism in Puerto Rico. I’m looking forward to Gonzalez’s next book.
French Braid – Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler has been publishing her bittersweet character studies of families since the late 1970s. Like Erdrich, she has carved out a niche with her distinctive depictions of a specific community (Baltimore). While I wouldn’t rank French Braid with Tyler’s best books, it was the comfort book I needed in early spring. It’s an involving story of the Garrett family, whose members can’t quite seem to understand each other. Set over six decades from 1959-2020, it shifts perspective among the characters, giving us insight into this eccentric, yet all too recognizable, family. As always, Tyler captures the little things people say and do so well that you’ll think she’s been eavesdropping on your family. The characters are frustrating and occasionally less than likeable – just like most families — but they remain (mostly) sympathetic.
The Wise Women – Gina Sorell
Wendy Wise has been a popular advice columnist for four decades. But her daughters, Barb and Clementine, have opposing views about the value of her advice—to readers and especially to them. Sorell’s second novel follows the three Wise women as each undergoes a challenging transition. While it may sound like The Wise Women is a sobering read about the struggles of modern life, it’s a fast-paced, sweet, and often funny story. Sorell brings these complex women to life with heart, wit, and m into their difficult circumstances. The Wise Women also has a lot on its mind: secrets, lies, and misunderstandings in relationships; gentrification in Brooklyn; the price we’re willing to pay to chase our dreams; the sacrifices parents make for their children; the challenges of getting older; the power of social media influencers; and more. It’s also a love letter to New York City, especially Brooklyn.
True Biz – Sara Novic
True Biz by Sara Novic is a coming-of-age story set in a residential school for the deaf in rural Ohio. Novic, who is deaf, has written a compelling story with three main characters you will care about. Charlie, the daughter of hearing parents, was given a cochlear implant as a child and never learned ASL, but the CI has never worked as hoped and she’s trying to adjust to going to school for the first time with other deaf students – all of whom know ASL. Austin comes from a family that is well known in the deaf community and is something of a big man on campus. The schoolmistress, February, is a hearing child of deaf parents who is trying to keep the underfunded school open while navigating a complicated marriage. True Biz entertained me while educating me about a community that is dealing with issues coming from all sides. The book is highlighted by informative illustrations of sign language, deaf cultural content, and explanations of various issues and challenges facing deaf children and their parents. (I also recommend Novic’s first novel, Girl at War.)
Still Life – Sarah Winman
Still Life was the most purely enjoyable read of the year, a joy from start to finish. It’s a love letter to friendship, found families, art, food, and Italy. It’s populated by a cast of characters you will come to love and view as your own found family. Our guides are Ulysses Temper, a young English soldier, and Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian, who meet while Evelyn is trying to salvage paintings in Italy in the last year of WWII. Their friendship reverberates through the years as Ulysses returns home to his East End London neighborhood and The Stoat and Parot (sic) pub. An unexpected inheritance sends Ulysses back to Italy and changes the course of his life, and that of others as well. The narrative moves back and forth in time, shifting between the two protagonists, until we have a full picture of their lives and their search for happiness. Still Life celebrates the joy of living despite all the obstacles, heartbreak, miscommunication, and broken dreams. Winman’s fluid prose has just the right sensitive touch for this large-hearted, compassionate story. You will laugh and cry and you won’t want to leave these characters behind when you close the book.
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies – Tsering Yangzom Lama
We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is a capacious novel that sweeps over continents, decades, and generations to depict one family’s escape from Tibet after China’s invasion in the 1950s to a refugee camp in Nepal, then eventually to Canada. The various sections are told from the perspectives of Lhamo, who was a child when she fled across the Himalayas; her younger sister, Tenkyi, the smart, promising one; her daughter, Dolma, a Tibetan Studies scholar in Toronto; and her heart’s love, Samphel, who disappears and reappears in her life like a passing breeze. Lama’s prose is muscular and piercing, her observations of the realities of exile unflinching, her characters textured and compelling. Ultimately, the question Lama asks through this novel is what will the world do about this injustice, about the plight of displaced Tibetans?
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – Gabrielle Zevin
T3 is one of the rare novels that accurately depicts long-term platonic love. Sadie and Sam met in the mid-1980s as Los Angeles teenagers who shared a love of early video games. They lose track of one another in high school but reconnect when they’re both attending colleges in Boston. Suffice to say, they are brilliant, creative, and socially complicated people. They decide to create their own video game, assisted by Sam’s roommate Marx. T3 follows this trio for the next 25 years as they make a name for themselves in the burgeoning video game world and eventually start their own company back in LA. Zevin does a terrific job depicting the complex motivations behind their actions, which lead to an unpredictable ebb and flow in their personal and work relationships. Along with Still Life, T3 was the most enjoyable read of 2022.
Demon Copperhead – Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver has been one of my favorite authors since the mid-90s, and Demon Copperhead is one of her best novels. She is in full command of her powers in this retelling of Dickens’ David Copperfield set in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia (Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky and returned several years ago after a long spell in Tucson). Demon is the nickname of Damon, the son of a young addict living in a trailer. Suffice to say, the course of his life is as rocky as his home territory, complicated by the opioid crisis that has destroyed countless lives, families, and communities in the region (and beyond). Demon is one of Kingsolver’s greatest creations, with a voice you’ll never forget. He has a heart of gold, a dark sense of humor, and insight into the many and varied people he encounters. Demon Copperhead is a long book but a fast read. And if it leads readers to David Copperfield, that’s just a bonus. I also recommend Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks (1996) for a similar tale told by a neglected teenager.
Acclaimed books I didn’t get around to reading but hope to read this year:
Babel – R.F. Kuang
Black Cake – Charmaine Wilkerson
The Candy House – Jennifer Egan
The Colony – Audrey Magee
Fellowship Point – Alice Elliott Dark
Glory – NoViolet Bulawayo
Horse – Geraldine Brooks
Lucy by the Sea – Elizabeth Strout
The Marriage Portrait – Maggie O’Farrell
Nightcrawling – Leila Mottley
Our Missing Hearts – Celeste Ng
The Rabbit Hutch – Tess Gunty
The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
Take My Hand – Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Vladimir – Julia May Jonas