The best books I read in 2022 were novels, memoirs, histories. They were funny, biting, and tragic; they dealt with grief, with hunger, with rage. Most importantly, they were all smart and they were all beautiful. Who has time for anything else?
I cannot say with any certainty that the 16 books I’ve listed below were the best books published this year because there are far too many books each year for one person to make such a judgment. But of all the books I’ve read, these were the ones that brought me — personally and as Vox’s book critic — the most joy and taught me the most. I hope that some of them do the same for you.
When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar
When Kausar and her two sisters go to live with their uncle after their father dies, he tells them he’ll take them to live in a zoo. He takes them instead to a filthy apartment whose hallways are lined with caged birds, where they’ll be responsible for cleaning up the bird droppings. They’re not to go out, he tells them, except to go to school, so his wife and children don’t know he’s their guardian.
Half-feral and starved for love, the three sisters raise each other as they grow from childhood to adolescence. Poet and screenwriter Fatimah Asghar makes her prose by turns tender, by turns ferocious as Kausar navigates her isolation, her mounting rage, and her shifting sense of her gender identity, all while struggling to maintain her childhood closeness with her sisters.
“Once upon a time, there were three sisters,” she tells us. “Or brothers maybe. Okay, okay: sister-brothers. Sister mothers.”
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
Rich with Gothic gloom and misanthropic wit, O Caledonia opens with the death of its heroine. Janet, 16 years old, is found dead in her family’s moldering Scottish pile of a house, wearing her mother’s best evening gown. Her parents hastily bury her: she was a blight on their lives, and they plan to forget her. We the readers, however, cannot.
The bulk of the novel is taken up not with Janet’s death but with her lonely, funny life. She’s a prickly and sensitive kid in a family that values pleasant obedience, and her isolated childhood in windswept Caledonia renders her too permanently odd to fit in at her jolly hockey sticks boarding school. “I love the subjunctive,” she remarks to her classmates. “It’s subtle, it makes the meaning different ... I call my cats subjunctives.” Her social death is as inevitable as we already know her literal death to be. Like I Capture the Castle if it had been written by Shirley Jackson, O Caledonia is biting, comic, and endlessly charming.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
Either/Or is Elif Batuman’s witty, provocative follow-up to her 2017 debut novel The Idiot. Like its predecessor, it concerns Selin, a dryly funny and perversely literal-minded Harvard student determined to be a writer. Now in her sophomore year, Selin turns to Kierkegaard’s Either/Or treatise as a guide for how to live her life. Kierkegaard argues that everyone must choose between living an ethical life of marriage and children or an aesthetic life of art and beauty, and Selin longs to be an aesthete.
She’s hampered, though, by the fact that Kierkegaard’s aesthetic life mostly involves being a man seducing and discarding young women. Having been seduced and discarded herself, Selin’s not entirely sure that she wants what Kierkegaard says she should. She only knows that the idea of a conventional life bores her to tears.
Either/Or is a deeply interior novel, and the great pleasure of reading it comes from watching the ebb and crash of Selin’s precise, analytical thought process. Batuman is an expert at defamiliarizing ideas that have become so normal to us we can no longer see them clearly, like how travel guidebooks work or why you’re supposed to pretend to like your friends’ significant others. In her hands, the polite absurdities of everyday life become huge, perplexing, and very funny.
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
Part novel, part short story collection, Jonathan Escoffery’s debut book If I Survive You is an intelligent, prismatic account of a family of Jamaican immigrants. At its heart is the battle between father and son, and the battle of a family to survive America.
Nerdily sensitive young Trelawney is at the center of the first story, told in the second person. He can’t figure out what his group is: he’s unable to fit in with the Black kids or the Caribbean kids at his school, and the Jamaicans he visits consider him American. When his parents split up, he’s stuck with his mother, while his father, Topper, takes Trelawney’s older brother under his wing. Macho and unreflective Topper gets the second story, also told in second person but this time narrated in patois. His story of muscling his way off of Jamaica and into his own business in America makes it clear why he doesn’t much care for Trelawney’s affectations.
Trelawney and Topper’s conflict provides the thematic core of this collection. As Escoffery spirals out to consider the lives of their siblings, wives, and cousins, he returns again and again to this primal, fundamental story: a parent of an old world and a child of a new, and all the ways they fail to understand each other.
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
Julia May Jonas’s debut novel Vladimir is wickedly smart and subversive, a sort of Lolita sent through the looking glass or a Rebecca in reverse. Our unnamed narrator is a middle-aged woman with deep powers of intelligence and self-deception. She tells us frequently that she thinks it’s normal that as she ages she has become more invisible to men, including to her own husband, but her anger and shame at this state of affairs lace her narration like a poison thread. As the novel opens, she is panting with lust over her much younger colleague, Vladimir, whom she has shackled to a chair.
Throughout, Vladimir aches with hunger: for food, for sex, for attention, for respect, for vengeance. It has some of the best food writing I’ve come across this year, with the narrator going on a shopping spree for “dark black kale and designer anchovies and a nineteen-dollar brick of parmesan and olives and seeded crackers and an uncut boule of whole wheat sourdough and goat cheese and salami and raspberries and a flourless chocolate ganache torte.” She can’t get men to treat her as she would like to be treated, but by god, she can put her university professor credit card and good taste to good use.
Lessons by Ian McEwan
Being an Ian McEwan fan can be frustrating. Over the past few decades, McEwan has turned out some extraordinarily fine novels (Atonement, Amsterdam), some perfectly decent ones (Saturday), and some unforgivably dull ones (Machines Like Me). Luckily, Lessons is very good Ian McEwan, in part because it subverts so many Ian McEwan tropes.
At the center of Lessons is Roland, an aimless drifter of a character. When he is a young teen, his sadistic piano teacher initiates a sexual relationship with him. “You’ll spend the rest of your life looking for what you’ve had here,” she warns him. He does, but he can’t quite understand in what capacity he’s doing so.
In another McEwan novel, this affair would be the great calamity of Roland’s life, the moment that molds him indelibly, as Briony sees her life is reshaped by a single night in Atonement. In Lessons, Roland continues on with his life after he escapes his teacher’s clutches. He marries and then is abandoned by his wife to raise their infant alone. He finds love again. He lives through Thatcherism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iraq War, the pandemic. Rarely does he act of his own accord rather than reacting against the world.
Is that, Roland wonders, because of his piano teacher? Or because his wife left him? Did a crisis change his life forever? Or does life simply keep going on and on and on, no matter what happens? In McEwan’s capable hands, these questions become the core of this sprawling, ruminative novel.
The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn
I would have liked to read The Whalebone Theatre for the first time at 15 or so. It’s the kind of book that would be good to grow up on, that would reward endless obsessive teenage rereads, that would develop and stretch with you as you get better and better at reading. Still, I’m glad enough to have made its acquaintance as an adult.
The whalebone theater is literal: Christabel, 12 years old, orphaned and benignly neglected on her family’s Jazz Age country estate, finds a dead whale washed up on the seashore. It is, she pronounces, upon climbing to the top of its head, “a mighty leviathan. I have claimed it!”
Later, under the oversight of a visiting Bohemian artist, Christabel has the whale’s skeleton cleaned and transformed into a theater. Over a period of years, she and her half-sister and her half-sister’s half-brother who is also Christabel’s cousin (these landed gentry genealogies get complicated) put on increasingly ambitious productions of Shakespeare within their whale theater. That is, until they reach adulthood, when they’re swept up into the ever-escalating horrors of World War II.
In its first half, The Whalebone Theatre is all atmosphere, cream teas on the lawn with guest poets and children reciting Ariel’s monologues under cetacean skeletons strewn with fairy lights. In its second half, it reaches for increasingly heightened stakes; this makes the story uneven and at times clumsy, but the climax is deeply moving. Throughout, the beating heart of the novel is vivid, irrepressible Christabel, who longs more than anything to control the world and almost manages to do it when she’s directing a play.
The Furrows by Namwali Serpell
Namwali Serpell’s haunting, elegiac sophomore novel The Furrows has a refrain: “I don’t want to tell you what happened. I want to tell you how it felt.” The “it” is grief, calamity, disaster, life-destroying trauma.
When Cee was 12 years old, her 7-year-old brother Wayne died in her arms. Over and over again, she tells us how it happened: They were swimming and he drowned. They were at a fair and his body was thrown from a carousel. They were crossing the street and he was hit by a car. Time is a record and sometimes the needle skips, Cee explains.
As an adult, Cee has become C, and she is haunted by Wayne. At coffee shops, movie theaters, airports, he will appear, a grown man, happy and healthy, someone to whom C is immediately and viscerally attracted. Then the needle skips, and we see the encounter somewhere else.
That taboo longing informs the second half of this novel, when one of Wayne’s doppelgangers takes over the narration from C to tell us his side of the story. This part of the novel is less viscerally compelling than the first half, but Serpell remains committed to her dreamy, haunted atmosphere, in a narrative that evokes the way grief twists time into a knot and raises more questions than it ever plans to answer.
The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara
King Rao became immortal by stealing his daughter Athena’s life. He has downloaded his memory into her mind, turning her into an unwitting human Zip drive of sorts. She is his legacy, and her own ideas about what her life might look like are, for King, beside the point.
It’s Athena who narrates King’s story. She takes us from his humble origins as a Dalit coconut farmer in India, to his youth as a young immigrant tech worker in 1970s America, through to his meteoric rise as a tech founder bigger than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined. In the present day of the novel, Athena has to live in the world King made: one where climate change is irreversibly destroying human life; the nation-state is gone; and the world is governed by King’s company, once called Coconut, now so omnipresent as to be known only as the Company. Having run afoul of the Company’s terms of service, Athena is narrating to us from prison. The novel is her confession.
The Immortal King Rao is a dense, ambitious novel that dips in and out of its various timelines with aplomb. At its center is nothing less than the basic question of economics, governments, and families: how to balance the needs of the many against the rights of the one. The answers Vara proffers are anything but easy.
Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang
Everyone seems to have an opinion on Joan, the Chinese American attending physician at the center of Weike Wang’s witty and understated Joan Is Okay. Moreover, all of them are pretty sure she’s not actually okay.
Joan’s brother thinks she should leave her job at a city hospital and start a private practice in the suburbs. Her sister-in-law thinks she should get married and have kids. Her overbearing white neighbor thinks she should engage more with popular culture and make more friends. Only her boss is delighted with her: Joan is, he remarks happily, “a gunner and a new breed of doctor, brilliant and potent, but with no interests outside work and sleep.”
Work and sleep are in fact Joan’s primary interests, a state of affairs with which she sees nothing wrong. When her father dies in Shanghai, she flies out for the funeral on Friday and is back to work on Monday.
Joan is not, of course, okay, but not in the ways the people around her think. When she finally flies off the handle, the results are spectacular.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson
“The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers,” 15-year-old Frankie scribbles on a poster in the empty, smartphone-less summer of 1996. “We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.”
Frankie doesn’t exactly mean anything by the phrase, but she likes the way it sounds. She’s just become friends with new kid in town Zeke, a budding illustrator. Since Frankie is a writer-in-training, Zeke suggests that they “make art,” to Frankie’s amazement, “like art was cookies or microwave popcorn.” She comes up with the sentence, and Zeke makes a surreal illustration. Then they begin to paper the town with copies of the poster they’ve made.
Frankie doesn’t mean for the poster to be sinister; she just wants her work to be everywhere. But as this warmhearted and melancholy novel goes on, the town begins to react with surprising terror to the art that they don’t understand, in ways that will poison the artistic partnership between Frankie and Zeke forever. Now Is Not the Time to Panic is a terrific novel about art, adolescence, and the ways only your best friend can hurt you.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton built her name on drawing quirky little tongue-in-cheek historical cartoons, but her graphic memoir Ducks is something else again: dark, thoughtful, and at times searingly angry.
Beaton spent two years directly after graduating from college working off her student debt in the oil sands of Alberta, where jobs at camp mines were plentiful. The work is boring and sometimes dangerous, and the life is viciously isolating. Beaton is one of a handful of women in a camp full of bored, lonely men, and their harassment of her ranges from mildly annoying to unbearable.
Beaton is a careful observer of her own life. Ducks becomes most impressive for how carefully she contextualizes it: the economic stressors that send her along with her co-workers to the oil sands; the mines’ effect on the natural world and on the Indigenous people who used to live there. When her precisely gridded drawings zoom out to show us the scar of the mines on the vast sweeping landscape, it’s electrifying.
The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler
One of the greatest gifts The Method has to offer you is the opportunity to say, with enormous smugness and pleasure, “Actually, that’s not real Method acting” every time you see a new article about Jared Leto sending his co-stars live rats or what have you. But if it’s not about rats, what is real Method acting? That’s a harder question to answer.
The Method, loosely speaking, is a school of acting premised on the belief that a performer should work from within to create an authentic emotional reaction, rather than relying on showy external techniques. With rigor and precision, Isaac Butler tracks the concept across the 20th century like it’s a criminal constantly changing aliases, from Stanislavski to Strasberg to Adler to Meisner to Brando to Pacino to whatever Jared Leto thinks he’s doing.
The other great gift of The Method is that it is chock full of stories. Butler has a fantastic eye for anecdote, from Stella Adler leading the Group Theatre in a revolt against the tyrannical Strasberg by bursting into socialist songs of solidarity, to Marlon Brando laying an egg during an acting class. (The prompt was to play a chicken during nuclear war.) Richly researched and rigorously argued, The Method is a guide to an American school of acting we understand very little for how much we talk about it.
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers by Mary Rodgers and Jesse Green
Trust me when I tell you that I do not say this lightly: Shy is an exceptionally juicy showbiz memoir.
Mary Rodgers was the composer of the much-performed-in-high-schools Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress and the author of the much-adapted-into-movies YA novel Freaky Friday. She was also the daughter of Richard Rodgers (as in “and Hammerstein,” the composer of some of Broadway’s most beloved Golden Age musicals) and the best friend of Stephen Sondheim (the composer of some of Broadway’s most beloved non-Golden Age musicals). Her son, Adam Guettel, wrote the music for the widely praised A Light in the Piazza. Rodgers was a fixture in the entertainment world for her entire lifetime and met absolutely everyone who was anyone. She does not hold back on her verdicts.
Rodgers’s plentiful opinions are thoroughly annotated by the chief New York Times theater critic Jesse Green, who compiled the volume out of three years’ worth of interviews with Rodgers. (She died in 2014.) According to Green, when he showed Rodgers a draft of the first chapter, she told him to make it meaner.
I will leave you with Rodgers’s thoughts on psychiatric drugs in midcentury Manhattan:
Marshall [Mary Rodgers’s then-lyricist] was pretty much commuting to Dr. Feelgood’s every morning and shooting up every night. I mean the genuine, original Dr. Feelgood, whose crazy office was down the block from me on East Seventy-Second Street. His shots, which even Jack Kennedy bent over for, were supposedly “miracle tissue regenerators,” and why not? They were a concoction of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, and human placenta. As far as I know they only killed one person: the Kennedy photographer Mark Shaw, whose ex, Pat Suzuki, starred in Flower Drum Song. Another addict was Alan Jay Lerner, who infuriated Daddy when they tried to work together, soon after Ockie’s death, on I Picked a Daisy. When it turned out that Alan was too crazy to work — on the rare occasions he showed up, he had ten Band-Aids on ten fingers because he chewed his cuticles to the point of infection — Daddy dropped the project like the bomb that it was.
The whole book is like that. Perfection. Zero notes. Enjoy.
Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism by Joanna Scutts
Hotbed tells the story of Heterodoxy, a women-only social club that emerged in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1910s and would help to shape America’s rising feminist movement. Hotbed is marked by lacunae: the written materials we know used to exist but don’t seem to anymore, the pieces of information no one ever bothered to write down. We don’t know where Heterodoxy first met, or when, or who was there, or what they talked about.
What we do know is plenty fascinating. Heterodoxy’s members included some of the most prominent feminists of their day: author (and notorious divorcée) Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Marie Hoffendahl Jenney Howe, a Unitarian minister who argued that Jesus was not a man but a nonbinary concept; Inez Millholland, the media-savvy suffragist who led marches on a white horse; Crystal Eastman, who co-founded the ACLU.
They were living in a moment where it seemed possible to imagine being a woman in a new sort of way, not bound down by marriage and motherhood, but getting an education, entering a profession, and advocating for political rights. It was a heady, feverish, fascinating moment in time, and so these fascinating women liked to get together twice a month and talk about it all: their new ideas, their new lives, their heartaches, and their triumphs. Piecing together what’s left of their conversations, historian Joanna Scutts recreates a seminal moment in American feminism.
Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith
Oxfordian Shakespeare professor Emma Smith pays so much careful attention to what we can tell by judging a book’s cover in her fascinating new Portable Magic that I don’t think she would mind my telling you that this book’s cover design screams “gift book.” It’s got a handsome green paper-over-boards binding reminiscent of leather and no dust jacket, so that it looks vaguely 19th century. Pretty gilt scrollwork surrounds the “well, you read a lot, don’t you?” title. All told, it looks like the sort of book someone unwraps on Christmas morning and never actually reads. That’s a shame because this book is much more interesting than its cover design suggests.
Portable Magic is a history of books as physical objects, from the days of the scroll to the days of the Kindle. In precise analytical prose, Smith tracks the way we use book displays to tell the world about ourselves (remember the credibility bookshelf?), how the Allies turned Nazi book burnings into a powerful propaganda tool, and the gruesome history of books bound in human skin. She even has a chapter on the history of the middlebrow gift book and how 19th-century abolitionists put them to use for their cause. Perhaps most impressive is how careful Smith is to avoid the sentimental romanticization of the book as object that book people can be so prone to, while still making a clear argument for the power of the book as a piece of technology.
Portable Magic actually would be a pretty good gift for someone who likes books. But that’s not just because it is about books — it’s because it has something interesting to say about them.