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18 Notable Books from My 2022 Reading

As I went back through the ninety or so books I read in the past twelve months, it was a challenge to decide which titles should be labelled the “best” of the year. I kept changing my mind until I finally settled on these eighteen as the most outstanding and memorable books of the last year’s reading. Seven of titles are novels, two are mysteries, two are volumes of poetry, one is a volume of photographs with text, and the remainder are various genres of non-fiction. Six of the titles were published for the first time in 2022, another five were from 2019 through 2021, with the remainder having been published as far back as 1959. For the second year in a row, Percival Everett has two books on my list. If you want to see everything that I read throughout 2022, you’ll find that list here underneath the tab for Old Reading Logs. I keep a running commentary on every book I read in my current annual Reading Log, which you can find as a pull-down menu elsewhere at the top of this page. And just for the record, I made ineligible for this list any of the books that I reread as part of my 15 Books Project; they’re getting enough attention on their own. So here are my notable books from this year’s reading, alphabetically by author.

Sara Baume. Handiwork. Dublin: Tramp Press, 2020. Baume, a writer with a growing reputation for her fiction, has a personal craft obsession: carving small birds out of plaster, at the rate of a bird a day. In Handiwork, she blends separate narrative threads about her craft habits, bird-watching, stories of bird migration, and bits of memoir about her husband and her father into a spiraling meditation on obsession and what it means to work with your hands. As she ponders the way in which migration patterns are passed on through generations of birds, she observes her father and herself, wondering what has similarly been passed from father to daughter—especially after his death. Nothing about this book feels superficial to me. Baume explores craft, craftsmanship, and craftsmen deeply and personally.

Last spring, after I had carved 100 plaster objects, a single day devoted to each one, I started to carve them in a slightly different style—a slightly sharper, odder, style—and after a while it became clear that the first hundred were inadequate; that the price of getting a single object right was 100 discarded objects and 100 days, an entire winter.

Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. After a move and then a sudden divorce, Bell found herself the owner of an apartment in one of the few 19th century buildings in Berlin that survived the devastation of World War II. Curious about the building’s history, she began to research it. Before long, she found herself expanding her purview to research the adjacent canal, then the neighborhood, and then the city itself. Throughout the book Bell keeps her building—and the family who built it and had lived in it for nearly a century—as the focal point. Along the way, she tells many fascinating stories about Berlin, and she has a knack for making history’s complications seem understandable. For example, she lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning, and she gives the best summary I’ve read yet of what went wrong during Germany’s “re-unification.” Every city should have a book like this.

Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. I was taken by Dover’s daring first novel, which is narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins. According to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a florilegia is “a collection of choice extracts from literature; an anthology. . . a book describing choice flowers.” But this didn’t prepare me for what the narrator of Florilegia threw at me. Within the first few pages, she had referenced bear-baiting, the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace, Derek Jarman, AIDS, something called the Paper Museum, Windsor Castle, David Bowie, and well more than a dozen other famous names and obscure subjects, not to mention a mini-history of the poppy plant. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, for this narrator, bring her back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs, mostly by Anna Atkins and the author. I wrote longer review of this book here.

Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. I’ve become a rabid follower of Everett in recent years. This is a funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the complex plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a lucky stock purchase in the company that becomes CNN, which makes him an early partner of Ted Turner. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike before becoming wise. The eventual payback is simply delicious.

Percival Everett. Suder. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1999. This is Everett’s first book from 1983, re-released sixteen years later. Although it seemed to start a bit slow, toggling between baseball and jazz, it turns out to be a doozy, complete with an elephant, a hijacked young girl, some liberated cash, and a man who has decided he wants to fly. Suder is a fairly brave first novel and sets a theme that Everett will return to frequently, that of a man who slowly decides he must come to the rescue of someone in trouble.

Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2022. A delicious novel about the esoteric world of art history and the period known as the Northern Renaissance. “Saint Sebastian’s Abyss” is one of only three paintings that survive by the (fictional) painter Count Hugo Beckenbauer (1512- ?), a man who spent most of his abbreviated adult life in Berlin drinking and “purchasing sex from both women and young boys” before succumbing to syphilis. Two highly competitive art historians have built their careers on this tiny gem of a painting—an unnamed American who serves as the narrator and Schmidt, an Austrian. The two have a long and friendly professional rivalry until the narrator one day says a “horrible thing” that angers Schmidt and leads to a rupture that will end their friendship until Schmidt, on his deathbed, reconsiders. Haber has crafted a novel about beauty and spite worthy of the master, Thomas Bernhard. I wrote a longer review here.

Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. During the worst of the Covid pandemic, Josipovici assigned himself to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-arranged entries move from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid (usually the British government’s botched handling thereof). If he were a regular diarist, Josipovici could have easily be this era’s Samuel Pepys.

William Melvin Kelley. A Different Drummer. NY: Anchor Books, 1959. [I read the 2019 eBook edition.] This is Kelley’s stunning debut novel, written when he was 24. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he was a student of John Hawkes at Harvard. There is something fearless about Kelley’s writing in A Different Drummer. One day, a young Black Southerner named Tucker Caliban burns his house, shoots his farm animals, salts his fields, and heads North. In doing so, he starts a movement that causes the state’s entire Black population to also emigrate Northward. A rich and complex novel told from the perspective of a rotating cast of characters, most of which are the white residents of Caliban’s tiny community, this is a rich satire salted with bits of endearing tenderness, much like what we are seeing now in the novels of Percival Everett.

Ausma Zehanat Khan. Blackwater Falls. NY: Minotaur Books, 2022. In a foothills suburb of Denver, Afghani-American Detective Inaya Rahman pairs up with a Latina Detective to try to solve the murder of a Syrian refugee teenage girl. Although I think Khan stretches credulity a bit in order to demonstrate how racism works in America, I applaud her effort, and I enjoyed this fast-paced police procedural quite a bit. It’s apparently the start of a series and I look forward to more of Khan’s books in the future. Khan lets us look at America from the perspective of several immigrant police officers and their families, and it’s a very different mirror than the one most of us use every morning.

[Tom Lecky.] Peter Ward, ed. The Archive of Bernard Taylor. Hastings-on-Hudson: Understory Books, 2021. Can a spoof be beautiful and serious? At first, this appears to be a stunningly handsome book of formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. The photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, which are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries that are hauntingly suggestive of hidden meanings. There are also some historic, vintage photographs and old maps reproduced, as well as finely-worded texts printed opposite many of the photographs. All of the contemporary photographs, we are told, were made by a Bernard Taylor and were purchased as a lot for all of $40 after his death by a Peter Ward, another resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. But the unsigned Publisher’s Afterword plants some doubts about the existence of these two characters and refers to this book as the “facsimile of a phantom.” A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet informs us that the texts opposite the photographs are actually quotations excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as William Carlos Williams and Werner Heisenberg. The truth is that this book is the work of Tom Lecky, photographer and bookseller, who has decided to give his own smart photographs over to a fictional character, all the better to. . . to accomplish what? My guess is that it was just much more fun to do it this way.

Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that there were times I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic or its predecessor, The Quaker. I’m a bit in awe of the writing and pacing, the great characters, and the fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most mystery writers about plunging you, the reader, in way over your head and letting the context bubble up slowly, just before you drown.

Tiya Miles. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. NY: Random House, 2021. This entire book is predicated on fewer than sixty words that a woman embroidered onto a cotton bag in 1920, words that identified the simple cotton sack as the gift her great grandmother gave to her grandmother when the two were being separated and the nine-year old daughter was being sold at a slave auction in South Carolina. Using those few words as a base, Miles conducted extensive research and employed the imagination of numerous scholars and artists to recreate Ashley’s world as a slave in Charleston and the likely life for the generations of African Americans that followed her. At times it feels like an astonishing achievement conjured out of a pittance, but Miles’ book demonstrates how one line of African Americans went from slavery to the Black middle class in Philadelphia in a handful of generations.

Stephen Mitchelmore. This Space of Writing. Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2015. Forty-four essays drawn from Mitchelmore’s invaluable blog This Space, where he has written about literature since 2000. Mitchelmore writes at a level unparalleled, in my opinion, and is one of the most acute thinkers about which books and writers really deserve our fullest attention and why. He has made me a much better reader.

Claudia Piñeiro. Elena Knows. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2021. Translated from the 2007 Spanish original by Frances Riddle. Elena is positive that her granddaughter Rita would never have committed suicide, but the police won’t believe her. And so Elena is on a mission to find the one woman in Buenos Aires she believes will help her prove that her granddaughter must have been murdered. But Elena has Parkinson’s and it takes every bit of strength and courage that she has (plus a few pills) simply to cross town to knock on the door of a woman she hasn’t seen in twenty years, but on whose shoulders she has pinned all of her hopes. I can’t say any more without revealing the plot, but the denouement is not only unexpected but brilliant. The writing is compelling and Elena is a character I will never forget. This is my book of the year.

The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimeters off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. But she thinks this, and even though her brain orders the movement, her right foot doesn’t move. It does not lift up. It does not move forward through the air. It does not lower back down. It’s so simple. But it doesn’t do it. So Elena sits and waits.

Emeric Pressburger. The Glass Pearls. London: Faber, 2022. (Originally published by Heinemann, 1966.) Karl Braun, a German emigre who works as a piano tuner and lives in a bedsit in Pimlico, always seems nervous about something. Before too long we find out why. He is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding, a surgeon who brutally experimented on concentration camp prisoners. A few of his fellow Nazis want him to join them in Argentina, but to do so he has to make his way to Zurich to withdraw money from a numbered checking account he created at the end of the war. Pressburger is more famous for the films he made with Michael Powell, but The Glass Pearls is a terrific example of sixties noir writing applied to something other than a classic crime story. Braun’s fears make him his own worst enemy in his race against time.

Richard Siken. Crush. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. After selecting Siken as the winner of the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets, Louise Glück wrote in the Foreword to this book of devastating and devastatingly beautiful poems, “this is a book about panic. . . The book is all high beams: reeling, savage, headlong, insatiable.” There are lines in here that take me to emotional places I’ve never felt from literature before, where love is dark, fearful, clinging, passionate, and much more, all wrapped up into one muddled sensation. I’m a huge fan of his 2015 book War of the Foxes, too.

Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake
and dress them in warm clothes again.
How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running
until they forget that they are horses.

From “Scheherazade”

Enrique Vila-Matas. The Illogic of Kassel. NY: New Directions, 2014. I re-read this largely because I thought I might go in September to see Documenta 15, that massive exhibition that is put on every five years in Kassel, Germany, but in the end I opted not to. Vila-Matas was a writer-in-residence at Documenta 13, which apparently meant he sat for a few days in a Chinese restaurant in Kassel and scribbled in a notebook and made himself available to anyone who might want to talk with him. As Vila-Matas interacts with some of the artworks and performance pieces he saw in Kassel, he writes articulately and intelligently about his personal experiences and responses. In the end, he feels that “some of the works at Documenta . . . helped me rethink my writing.” A book that is surprisingly rich with ideas and artistic interconnections. Vila-Matas recently wrote another excellent essay about contemporary art for the catalog Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art (#20 in my list of books read in 2022).

Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. very glad I stumbled on your WordPress site! Lots of things to discover…

    December 28, 2022

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