I’m such a slow reader. (And you should see me texting; my kid acted like I was torturing her when she witnessed me one-finger plucking at my phone screen.) Every year I try to read 2 books a month. (Aim high!) In 2022 I read the exact same number of books that I did in 2021: 27, or 1 every 13.5 days. Pitiful, I know, but enough to draw a top ten list from. Here are the best books I read in 2022:
1. The Night the Lights Went Out: A Memoir of Life After Brain Damage, Drew Magary. I actually own this book because I checked it out of the library and took it in a backpack somewhere; my lovely wife Jen finished almost all of a smoothie and stuck it in the backpack. When we got home, the whole book was purple from the smoothie leftovers. “Why would you put it in with the book?!?” I asked. She said, “I thought the lid was secure.” So I had to reimburse the library for the book, and I got to keep it. Good thing I liked it! Magary tells the harrowing story of how, one night out singing karaoke with co-workers, something happens that leaves him hospitalized; not only does he describe his recovery from a traumatic brain injury, but he also goes back to try to piece together the mystery of what happened to him. (It’s Rashomon-like; no one witnessed his fall but many people were present that night.) What might surprise you is that this is a very funny book, and Magary is able to find the humor in even the darkest moments of his life.
2. Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson. “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Frankie Budge, settled into her adult life, receives a call from a reporter asking if those words mean anything to her. For years, Budge has hidden the truth behind her role in causing a mass panic in her small hometown of Coalfield, Tennessee, that spread around the world. This funny and introspective novel toggles between present-day Frankie and her 1996 self, an awkward teen who makes a connection with a new boy in her town one summer, and how what they created sent them down different paths.
3. This Time Tomorrow, Emma Straub. I’m not a fan of time-travel stories. And yet here I am, recommending Straub’s “what if we can go back” novel. About to celebrate her 40th birthday, Alice wakes up in her childhood home, on her 16th birthday, in 1996. Startled by how different her life has turned out from what she imagined when she was young, Alice seeks to “fix” things in hopes of ending up in a different place at age 40. It asks the question, “What would you change if you could go back?” It’s also an examination of the father-daughter bond, and a heartbreaker in exploring how far we would go to get our parents back to who we need them to be for us.
4. Mika in Real Life, Emiko Jean. There’s a theme in these last three books: grown-up characters confronting their teenage years and asking if they are who they thought they could become when they were young. In this romantic novel, thirtysomething Mika, her life a shambles, receives an out-of-the-blue call from Penny, the girl she gave up for adoption while in college. Attempting to impress Penny, Mika embellishes her work and relationship situations. When Penny decides to visit with her adoptive father, Thomas, Mika has to choose which part of her to expose to them. This novel explores cultural challenges with adoption, dreams gone haywire, and what it means to truly face our own inadequacies.
5. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, Kevin Birmingham. Reading Joyce’s Ulysses was a rite of passage and a long, hard slog for college English majors like me. Some passages are pure poetry; some are like deciphering hieroglyphics; and the most controversial parts, the ones addressed in this book, are, let’s face it, raunchy. Joyce and his publishers spent decades trying to get his book published in various countries, it was banned in the UK, the United States, and most of Europe for obscenity. This book opens up the legal proceedings, the unlikely patrons on both sides of the Atlantic to supported Joyce financially (and illegally printed and distributed his book), and the ramifications of the landmark 1933 federal obscenity trial. Ultimately, Joyce’s backers argued, if we censor a book because someone, somewhere, of some young age, might be offended by it, then the only things that would ever get published would be G-rated. Also enlightening were the letters between Joyce and his wife/muse, Nora Barnacle, although they were even raunchier than what got his book banned!
6. Architects of An American Landscape, Hugh Howard. The subtitle of this dual biography is “Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces.” Whew! Was Howard paid by the word for that title? This book delves into the friendship and collaboration between Olmsted, regarded as the world’s first and foremost landscape designer (New York’s Central Park, the Biltmore Estate, many other naturescapes throughout the world) and Richardson, the most influential architect of his time who has largely been forgotten, even though his influence endures. They could not have been more different: Olmstead was thin, reserved, and lived to be 81, while Richardson was obese, had a lust for life and celebrating it, and died at age 47. Howard proposes that, in a way, the greatness of Olmsted can only be viewed as an outcome of his working with Richardson.
7. Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama, Bob Odenkirk. You might know Odenkirk for his role as Saul Goodman from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” It surprises many to know that his long career before those dark dramas was all comedic. Hence the book’s title, which is one of my youngest child’s favorites; if she hears the word “comedy,” she yells out, “comedy comedy comedy drama!” Odenkirk writes of his tough upbringing in the Chicago area and his difficult relationship with his dad, his friendship with the legendary Second City founder Del Close, and his baffled bemusement at becoming better known for serious roles than for his turns as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” and writing and acting on “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show with Bob and David.”
8. The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, Ron and Clint Howard. The Howard brothers alternate chapters in this story of their childhoods and diverging paths into adulthood, Ron as the award-winning director and Clint as a character actor (who appears in all of Ron’s films). “The boys” in the title refers to what their mother called not just the brothers but also their father Rance, himself an actor of varying success. Ron and Clint aren’t afraid to address their own shortcomings (including Clint’s struggles with drugs and alcohol and living in his more successful brother’s shadow). On the heels of their father passing away, Ron and Clint wrote what amounts to a love letter to their parents and a way to tell them that all of their sacrifices for their children were worthwhile.
9. Slow Horses, Mick Herron. Herron’s Slough House novels are now a TV series on Apple TV+, taking its title from this first book in the series. “Slow horses” are what disgraced MI5 spies are referred to, as they are sent to work out of Slough House and attempt to rehabilitate their careers under the command of Jackson Lamb. River Cartwright, whose career got derailed before it even began by a botched training session, sees an opportunity to change his image when a terrorist cell threatens to air a kidnapped man’s beheading on live television. But all is not what it seems, and Slough House might be hiding secrets of its own. A true page turner and also full of humor.
10. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, Mark Kurlansky. I came across this history book when someone on a podcast mentioned it in discussing the famed New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary, and that when Europeans first arrived in America, the waters of the rivers surrounding Manhattan were so thick with sea life that you could reach your hand in the water and pull out fish after fish. I had to read this book. The oysters alone drove commerce in New York; from the seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, New York’s oysters fed the world and drove the development of both the riverside slums and the Gilded Age mansions of Manhattan. The oysters’ filtration system kept the water in the harbor clean until the oyster beds’ eventual, inevitable overfishing and collapse. A cautionary tale for sure.
Books that just missed the top ten: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play, Nick Offerman; Into the Rip, Damien Cave; Mean Baby, Selma Blair; You Can’t Be Serious, Kal Penn.