Last year I wrote a list of The Best Books I Read in 2021. I also shared my aspiration to move away from using Goodreads to track and share my reading but unfortunately the network effect made that difficult … so here’s My Goodreads Year in Books. Without further ado:
Maddy’s 10 “Best Reads” of 2022 (again, in no particular order):
1. Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.
Did you even write a “Best Books of 2022” list if you didn’t include “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”?! I’m unabashedly hopping on the bandwagon.
Because the book has been on so many lists and had plenty of reviews written about it, I won’t bother adding any commentary and instead just add (yet another) plug for you to read it!
2. Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence.
Last year’s list included The Night Watchman along with a note that I “hadn’t read any Louise Erdrich before and now I’ve added all of her other books to my “want to read” list.” I stayed true to my word and read more of her work in 2022, including her latest novel The Sentence. Her prose is consistently beautiful and I love the complexity of the characters she writes.
A favorite passage, so beautiful in its simplicity, from The Sentence:
“Now I live as a person with a regular life. A job with regular hours after which I come home to a regular husband. Even a regular little house, but with a big irregular beautiful blows yard. I live the way a person does who has ceased to dread each day’s ration of time. I live what can be called a normal life only if you’ve always expected to live such a way. If you think you have the right. Work. Love. Food. A bedroom sheltered by a pine tree. Sex and wine. Knowing what I know of my tribe’s history, remembering what I can bear to remember of my own, I can only call the life I live now a life of heaven.”
3. Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers.
File under: impeccable craft.
I started drafting a longer post about the way she opens the book with a beautiful, resonant depiction of the “swimmers,” and how much I identified with how she describes them:
“The pool is their sanctuary, their refuge, the one place on earth they can go to escape from their pain, for it is only down below, in the waters, that their symptoms begin to abate. The moment I see that painted black line I feel fine.”
I imagined myself writing something similar about the squash court, how its red lines and glass walls were a haven for me especially during my most difficult times in college.
The remainder of the book is exquisite and heartbreaking; I finished the book feeling heavy but grateful for artists who have the ability to move you in such powerful ways.
4. Jana Casale’s How to Fall Out of Love Madly.
I’m not quite sure why I loved this book so much given it was classified in many reviews as “a book for those who love Sally Rooney.” (While I do like Sally Rooney’s books I’m not obsessed with them in the way many of my peers seem to be).
Actually, similar to Sally Rooney’s books, I found the plot less than memorable and the characters ranging from slightly to very annoying. But – and here’s where I found myself both frustrated and captivated – I saw a lot of myself in the three thirtysomething women who are its main characters. To be fair, that’s probably how a lot of women my age feel about Rooney’s characters in Conversations with Friends and Normal People, but I thought Casale evoked the same feelings of being “seen” in my experiences of womanhood, self-worth, confidence, etc. in a less grating way.
A few passages that gave me said feelings:
“The unexamined life is not worth living, she thought and tried to place where the saying was from. A self-help book she’d read in college? For about seven months of her sophomore year she’d gone on a huge self-help-book kick at the advice of a friend who told her it “changed my life.” Joy felt like her life needed changing even though she wasn’t sure how. She read all kinds of books and even started a bullet journal, which lasted three bullets: Hopes: Dreams: Making It Happen. She had a few lines for “Hopes” and a few lines for “Dreams” but on “Making It Happen” she felt stuck. The only thing that came to mind was “be lucky,” and that thought, as soon as she thought it, ruined every single self-help book she tried to read after that. Whenever she’d take luck out of the equation, there was nothing left.”
“I care about my body because I really feel like it means something about who I am as a person. I know it shouldn’t and that it actually doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t feel it.”
“That’s what a person does. We make excuses for other people. We invent reasons why something is off or odd or wrong. We give people a latitude of empathy that sometimes is warranted and sometimes isn’t. That’s what a person does. Or at least that’s what a woman does.”
“In college she’d had a lit professor who said, “Cleaning was women’s work because women’s work becomes undone.” That statement was something she’d held on to and thought of anytime she cleaned or cooked or streaked makeup across her face. The thought of women having this endless undoing to uphold, it felt very true and it felt very powerful. Maybe it was meant to be the opposite, an examination of how women were tasked with labor that was, in many ways, thankless, but to Joy the recognition of that thanklessness was what felt powerful. Yes, we’re strong enough to do work that goes on forever, she’d think.”
5. Elif Bautman’s Either/Or.
Either/Or was basically the exact same book as The Idiot and therefore I ate it up. The dry humor is everything. It’s the sort of book where I find myself wanting to read a passage that made me laugh out loud or say to myself “THAT IS LITERALLY ME” to Thomas, but he’d just sit there with a blank expression on his face not understanding any of it.
A few such examples (I have ~20 written down in my journal but will spare my readers):
“Anyway, how could therapy even work on me, when I was so far from sharing Svetlana’s therapist-like belief that people should be healthy and well-adjusted, that they should go to bed at the same time every night, even if they were reading or having an interesting conversation, or that it was great and life-affirming to go hiking with some guy, or to get married? Of course therapy worked for someone who believed those things.”
“That, too, had always made me laugh, though there was an underlying assumption that was somehow troubling: that the disorder you experienced in your childhood was somehow to your credit, or capitalizable upon in later life—even though, or precisely because, it was a discredit to your mother. So your credit and your mother’s credit were somehow at odds.”
“All I wanted was to be unconscious—to be asleep—to experience that moment of freedom in the morning, right when you woke up. I always felt it was my fault for not managing to prolong it. But even in the moment when I was steeling myself to prolong it, I had already forgotten what it was that I was trying to ward off…”
6. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Let me start by saying: I cannot believe I hadn’t read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings until this year.
For someone who considers themselves “well-read” (and maybe, given this data point, I shouldn’t) I was ashamed to never have read Maya Angelou’s most well-known work. It was one of those situations where, at some point (maybe after high school?) I felt like my “chance” had passed and that, if I read it now, I’d also have to implicitly acknowledge the fact that I’d never read it.
Luckily my book club decided to read it (shout-out to book club!) and I got to experience it for the first time at the ripe old age of 29. I’ll spare everyone a long book review (I’m sure my book club was like “shut up Maddy” when I kept talking at our meeting) and instead focus on one particular thought/question I kept coming back to.
The book opens with a Forward by Oprah in which she writes:
“Maya Angelou lived what she wrote. She understood that sharing her truth connected her to the greater human truths—of longing, abandonment, security, hope, wonder, prejudice, mystery, and, finally, self-discovery: the realization of who you really are and the liberation that love brings.”
(I highlighted this passage in my book with an excited note: “that’s exactly the reason I write!!!!!” But then I laughed at myself because that implied that I would have the ability to convey these human truths as well as Maya Angelou, which … no.)
Oprah continues by saying, “We are more alike than we are unalike.”
I’ve struggled with this sentiment – of human truths being universal – when I read books that probably aren’t written for me. Toni Morrison, as an example, has explicitly said that she “doesn’t write for everyone” and so, when I read her work, feel conflicted when I discover an experience or truth in her work that resonates with me. I didn’t mean for my Top Books post to get so vulnerable, but I do ask myself this question a lot. Am I allowed to take something from this even though it wasn’t meant for me? Am I understanding it in the right way, or just taking what I want from it and leaving the rest? Should I be trying to extract meaning for myself, to understand it through my own lens, or should I simply appreciate it as a work of art?
Another example: when I read Ibram X. Kendi’s’ How To Be An Anti-Racist, I found myself resonating with so many of his sentiments about love and family despite our experiences and situations being vastly different. And then I would feel guilty, because the book was about racial injustice and how we/I can work to create a more just society (which were obviously my big takeaways), but I found myself hanging on to the passages where he so beautifully wrote about his experiences of fatherhood.
But isn’t there something to be said for being able to relate to the experiences of someone entirely different from you, because it serves as a reminder that all fundamental human truths are the same? That we are all tied together by these experiences of “longing, abandonment, security, hope, wonder, prejudice, mystery, and … self-discovery”? That we all are operating under the influence of these emotions and truths and are more alike than different (and therefore why we should treat one another as such)?
I don’t know. I would love to talk to someone about this.
7. Lily King’s Five Tuesdays in Winter.
I was talking to a friend last week about how I’ve started reading more short stories and essay collections in the past year, and that shift was definitely inspired in part by Five Tuesdays in Winter.
Lily King’s Writers and Lovers and Euphoria were some of my favorite books from the past few years, and she topped my list again with these short stories. One element that stood out to me throughout the collection was the narrator’s reflections on writing and the complex emotion and self-doubt that come with being a writer. I have to assume a lot of it is informed by her personal experience and I loved the voice she gave to it (“I have never understood why a person who is not a genius bothers with art. What’s the point? You’ll never have the satisfaction of having created something indispensable. You’ve got your little scenes, your pretty images, but that desperate exhilaration of blowing past all the fixed boundaries of art, of life—that will forever elude you.”)
8. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
My only commentary: I need Yaa Gyasi to write more books. I’m like one of those obsessed Rihanna or Frank Ocean fans who complains they haven’t released any new music in 10 years. Everything she writes is gold. Where are your new books!??!?! I NEED MORE!!!!!!!!!!!
9. Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days.
Another book that reinforced my year of reading more essays. I wrote a post inspired by one of the essays in particular, but each of them were special.
She starts the collection with thoughts on essays that I deeply appreciated (especially in my moments of existential crisis):
“What was the point of starting if I wasn’t going to be around to finish? … But [the essays] reminded me that I was still a writer when I wasn’t writing a novel. That was how I found my loophole: death has no interest in essays … Death always thinks of us eventually. The trick is to find the joy in the interim, and make good use of the days we have.”
“I started writing more essays. I went back and looked at other pieces I’d written in the past few years. Most of them I ignored, but those that were strongest I took apart and wrote again. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to go back to something that’s a couple of years old, see the flaws in the fullness of time, and then have the chance to make corrections and polish it up—or in some cases, throw the whole thing out and write a better version. That’s something I never get to do with novels.”
10. Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.
When I started going through all the books I’d read in 2022 to come up with my top 10 for this list, the first nine were easy. But my list stopped there – I had read a lot of “4 out of 5 stars” books but I couldn’t think of any way to distinguish them or justify their move to the 10th spot. Luckily, on December 23, my library hold for Bess Kalb’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me came through and I found my 10th book. It was funny and moving (I cried at the end) and, similar to my sentiments about The Swimmers, I am grateful there are writers who can so beautifully explore the complexities of death, life, grief, and love.
I like the idea of ending this post on the above note of gratitude for all writers and artists. Thank you for helping me make sense of life and, in many ways, keeping me alive.
Just to say, I read Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow yesterday at your recommendation and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read—thank you!
This makes me so happy!