December: the month when we’re all burdened with holiday planning, winter storms coming, days getting shorter (until— Solstice, hurray!— they’re not getting shorter). With apologies to December fans, it’s not my favorite month. One moment I do look forward to: thinking back through the books I read over the previous twelve months and creating a favorites list. (I’ve done this in 2021 and 2020, too.) I recognize that these lists are silly and flawed (how can you pit a researched nonfiction against, say, a short story collection? and what does “best” mean, anyway?), and yet, I kind of love creating them. There is something so soul-filling about looking back at books you’ve read and remembering how they made you feel. I also thrill at giving book recommendations, and I adore lists, so creating a top-ten of books is something I enjoy and look forward to. Take that, December!
But before the list, a quick update on my writing life.
In my last newsletter, I was about to start “NaNoWriMo”- the November challenge to write 50,000 words (roughly 250 pages) of a novel in a month. Well, I made it! And more impressive (in my biased opinion), my 10 year old son participated, too, and he met his goal of 10,000 words (50 pages). I never attempted, let alone completed, such an ambitious goal at his age, and I couldn’t be prouder.
We both continued with our projects, and we’ve both completed our first drafts. His book, a Harry Potter fan fiction, is ready to be printed and bound (at which point I’ll finally get to read it, hurray!). Mine will face many revisions. If I follow the advice of Matt Bell in his book Refuse to be Done (one of my honorable mentions, below), that means I’ll start from the beginning and rewrite the *entire book* from scratch. Will I follow this method? Stay tuned and I’ll update you in a future newsletter.
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Now, on to the best-of list!
My Favorite Books of 2022
I read 113 books over the past twelve months (Dec ‘21 through Nov ‘22). If that sounds like a lot: yes, it is, but also, roughly half of these were audiobooks, a format I enjoy while walking my dog, washing dishes, walking my dog again, bringing kids to sports practices, and walking my dog a third time. Hence, plenty of time for audiobooks. As for print books, I read every night before bed, so I end up finishing about one a week.
For fun, here’s the StoryGraph image of my 2022 books by genre:
Take the above with a grain of salt. Those two “self help” books? Both were craft books about writing. (Well, I suppose that is self-help, in a sense, although I’m sure their authors would bristle at having their books shelved in that section.)
Enough, you say! Just give me the list.
More Than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez. The story of two women, one who led a double life in the 1980’s, which ultimately resulted in the death of her lover, and the other whose true crime reporting leads her to question the story of the former. I loved the setting (Laredo, Texas) and the way these women’s lives come to intersect and parallel each other’s. A sparkling debut.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. Suspend disbelief (my mom’s take: not all men were this bad!) and dive into 1950’s/60’s era sexism in this fun book about a would-be Chemistry PhD who gets sidelined (for being a woman) and ends up as a TV cooking-show host. This is one of those rare, extremely popular books that (for me) lives up to the hype.
Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliott. This reported nonfiction, which won the 2021 Pulitzer, is a tough read (emotionally draining) about the ways that homelessness, drug addiction and a broken system impact one New York family, and Dasani, the eldest daughter, in particular. A bit slow to start, but if you keep with it, you’ll soon be engrossed.
Still Life by Sarah Winman. This is a book for all the Italophiles out there. It also breaks all the rules of fiction writing (opens with a character we never see again! large chunks of backstory at the end!), but somehow, it works. Set mostly in Florence, from 1944-1970, it features a memorable cast of characters and it’s unlike any book I’ve read before.
Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino. Another book that falls into the “like nothing I’ve read before” category, this novel centers on a woman who is about to get married, but a parakeet (her grandmother reincarnate) tells her not to, and instead, she must find her brother. The language sparkles, and Bertino never makes the obvious choice with respect to plot or character. This book might be best for reading and writing nerds.
Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. Let me not beat myself up for my inability to write a book as stunning as this one at any age, let alone at age 17, when Mottley began it. This novel, set in grittier parts of Oakland and loosely inspired by true events, follows a high school dropout as she figures out how to feed and shelter herself, given a dead father, imprisoned mother, unreliable older brother, and no obvious way to make money. Another tough read (police brutality, prostitution) but with some moments of tenderness and hope.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I’m only ten years late to the party on this one, but WOW, am I glad I finally read it. Miller takes the myth of Achilles and imagines a richly layered story, including his best friend / partner, Patroclus, and his jealous/protective mother Thetis. Miller could probably take any topic and make it lyrical; she’s one of those writers who leave me mouth-agape with how beautifully she writes. Circe is another fantastic read, but I’d give the edge to The Song of Achilles.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett. Patchett has made my top ten list in each of the past three years. She is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Although she’s more famous for her fiction, I prefer her nonfiction— that conversational tone, coupled with stories of friendship and relationships and heartbreak. Her words always feel exactly right. My favorite essays here are “Fathers” and the title essay.
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka. A serial killer has twenty-four hours left before his execution, and the story weaves between that countdown and the stories of the women he killed. While there is a lot to stomach here, especially in the early chapters, it’s worth sticking with it. The tension is masterful, the writing precise, and the themes thought-provoking. This book is nearly flawless.
And the number one book I read this past year is…
Fight Night by Miriam Toews. A book I enjoyed so much I read it twice: once on audio and once in print. Funny, moving, quirky, and well told. Centered on Swiv, a nine year old Jewish-Canadian girl who’s been suspended from school for fighting. Dad is missing and Mom is pregnant and works in theater, so Swiv spends her days at home with her aging grandmother. There is so much to love here, especially the tenderness of female relationships (cue gagging by all the male readers of this newsletter). Fair enough, I don’t know whether men would like this book, but I LOVED it.
Because I can’t let well enough alone, I’m also making an honorable mentions list. These came so close to making my top ten that I hated not to share them.
In no particular order, honorable mentions go to:
A Good Family by A.H. Kim
Refuse to be Done by Matt Bell
Hysterical: A Memoir by Elisa Bassist
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez
Lech by Sara Lippmann
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeze Emeji
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby
And that’s a wrap on 2022! I’m curious, what were the best books you read over the last year? Let me know in the comments!
Great titles all, but wanted to add I just got Olga Dies Dreaming from the library! And yes to Jenny Offill and her weird genius. Here's to more in 2023!
Loved this Jill - have recommended your #1 book to my book club as our next one to read. My two favorite fiction books I read this past year are: Convenience Store Woman and Olive Kitteridge.