Like all years, 2022 was a good year for reading. I found myself drawn both to books that addressed our current dilemmas in some way and books that provided an immersive escape. I hope you’ll find some good options in this list, which begins with fiction and moves on to nonfiction.
Assembly by Natasha Brown
This is one of the few books I’ve bought because of its gorgeous cover. A brief, insightful novel about a Black woman in London sleepwalking through her life as she strives to achieve what is expected of her by her parents, her wealthy, white boyfriend, her demanding corporate employer. But who is she, and what does she want? The unsettling answer is revealed in layers.
Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
Rollicking novel about the family of John Wilkes Booth, focusing on his parents and 9 siblings—abolitionists all. The book reimagines not so much the assassin as the family dynamics and the social and political upheaval that gave rise to his moment.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
In this century-hopping tale, two women—an archivist in the present day, and the ghost of a reformed pickpocket from the past—work their way toward one another and toward the truth about a mysterious murder and disappearance that has shadowed the history of a great house to which they are both irresistibly drawn.
Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon
Liselle said she would buy the flowers herself. Well, not exactly, but she is planning a dinner party, à la Mrs. Dalloway. Unlike Clarissa Dalloway, Liselle is a Black woman from a working class background who propelled herself into a world of largely white privilege through college at Bryn Mawr, her job, and her marriage to a childish white man. He just ran a losing campaign for the state legislature, and the FBI is investigating him for campaign corruption, which Liselle has known for weeks but can’t bring herself to tell him. Her mother is convinced he is headed for jail and that Liselle should head for divorce court. And through it all, Liselle can’t stop thinking about her first and most intense love, Selena. All of these plot lines race toward a collision at Liselle’s dinner party.
A Double Life by Flynn Berry
I loved Berry’s Northern Spy so much that I’ve read all her other novels. They lack the political overlay that made that book so compelling, but she really knows how to create suspense. In this novel, a doctor in London cannot help probing into the traumatic, secret past that she tried to leave behind by changing her name and identity. She was a young child when her father murdered her mother and then vanished, with the help, she thinks, of his long-time friends. She’s been looking for him ever since—for vengeance? Closure? In the hope that he was innocent? She’s not sure, even as she creeps inexorably closer to finding him.
Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark
My friend Kristin Ohlson recommended this book, or I might have overlooked a wonderful novel about two wealthy women in their 80s, lifelong friends and Quakers from Philadelphia. They must decide how to preserve or pass on a large parcel of beautiful land in Maine, a nature sanctuary that has been in their families for generations and now, to their horror, is ripe for development.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Teddy Todd was a young RAF aviator who was killed when his plane was shot down during WWII and whose family never recovered—but that was in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life. In this novel, we explore Teddy’s long life, from his childhood among eccentric women through his war years, which never entirely leave him, to his own marriage and disappointing child rearing, to his redemptive relationship with his grandchildren, through to his final moments. Atkinson fully flexes her powers as a novelist, creating a broad and fulfilling vision that delves into the lives of numerous characters and sweeps readers along to the startling final pages. You don’t need to have read her previous work to enjoy this one.
Intimacies by Katie Kitamura
In this moody, somber novel, we follow an unnamed young woman—well-traveled, rootless, and multi-lingual—as she translates for a charismatic African man being tried for war crimes in the international court at The Hague. But this is by no means a courtroom drama; the narrator/translator’s unease in the legal sessions is matched by her sense of dislocation in the world and in her relationships, as she searches for a working definition of “home” and finds herself animated by a mysterious neighborhood crime that seems, at first, to have nothing to do with her.
Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn
Fun fiction about four women in their 60s – professional assassins for an organization formed to hunt Nazis and later other evil people – who are enjoying their employer-paid retirement cruise when they discover that their employer is now trying to kill them. Do not mess with older women, especially those with lethal skills.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
Sly, witty novel about a scientist in 1950s America whose passion for chemistry is blocked at every turn by sexism and male brutality. She goes on to host a cooking show in a sleepy afternoon time slot on the local public station, which turns into a blockbuster success as she demonstrates for her women viewers the scientific basis of cooking and the courage of saying yes to their own aspirations.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoree Fanonne Jefferson
I adored this long, rich, and rewarding novel about a place, Chicasetta, Georgia, and the families that lived there over the centuries, from the first Native American residents to the Black and white —and often mixed—families who populated the town from the slavery era through the Civil Rights Movement to the present day. Somehow the book manages to be both epic and intimate in scale; you will get to know and love Ailey Pearl Garfield and her entire upper-class Black family, who expect her to become a doctor like her father but must settle for her pursuing a Ph.D. in history and taking the reader along for the exhilarating and memorable journey through the generations.
The Maid by Nita Prose
Delightful novel about a young woman who excels at her job as a maid at a high-end hotel, using her cleaning skills to return rooms to “a state of perfection.” She is also a very literal person, unable to comprehend facial expressions, social cues, or figurative language. This makes her a perfect target, and when she enters a hotel room to clean it and finds the guest dead, she becomes the prime suspect in his murder. Told in the first person, the novel presents an interesting take on a narrator who is both truthful and unreliable; as readers, we understand much more than she does about the events she describes.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
A compelling novel about the women of a small fishing village in Norway in the 1600s. A sudden storm kills almost all the men, who are out fishing. As the grieving women struggle to survive, a new governor is sent to oversee the village, a man who is fiercely devout and an avid witch-killer. Soon numerous village women are accused of witchcraft for, among other things, taking to the sea to fish—a male prerogative—so that they don’t all starve. Some are burned at the stake. As the villagers are forced to take sides against neighbors they’ve known all their lives, two women—a lifelong resident and the new governor’s wife—find themselves powerfully and dangerously drawn together.
Mercy Street: A Novel by Jennifer Haigh
Jennifer Haigh’s novels often provide an insider’s view of fraught situations. This story brings us deep into the world of an abortion clinic in Boston, where the main character counsels women who bring all the desperation, anger, confusion, and determination of their multi-layered lives into the decision of whether and how to end their pregnancies. Meanwhile, another main character is outside the clinic, protesting and harassing the women who are sullying their holy purpose in the world. Far from polemical, this is a good old-fashioned novel with rich and witty dialogue, a plot that moves and twists in satisfying ways, and multiple well-rounded characters.
O Beautiful by Yung Yun
A former model, painfully trying to remake herself as a journalist, travels to North Dakota to write an in-depth article about the oil boom. The opportunity to write for a New Yorker-type magazine well above the level of any previous assignment has been gifted to her by her former professor/lover. But when she reaches North Dakota, where she grew up as the lone Asian child in sight, she doesn’t recognize the hectic, violent land of drill sites and man camps, powered by exploitation and corruption. She uncovers a world humming with the deals and schemes that everyone talks about, and haunted by the disappearances of Native women that no one mentions, ever.
Oh William by Elizabeth Strout
A lovely reflection on aging and the half-life of love, as a widowed woman accompanies her ex-husband on a journey of discovery and redefinition.
Outlawed by Anna North
A galloping Western tale in which the American west in the late 1800s is gripped by a patriarchal religion that worships fecundity and childless women are in serious danger of being punished as witches. One such woman, Ada, must flee for her life even as she desperately tries to identify the scientific rather than satanic basis for “barrenness.” She escapes to a notorious gang of criminals who turn out to be a community of lesbians and nonbinary people using their skills (including bank robbing) to create a life outside the crushing conformity of their god-soaked society.
The Promise by Damon Galgut
A young white girl in Apartheid-era South Africa overhears her father promise his dying wife that he will give to Salome, the Black woman who has worked for the family for decades, ownership of the ramshackle house in which she lives. The girl’s mother dies, Apartheid collapses, the girl slowly grows up, and still her insistence that her father and later her brother must honor that broken promise alienates her from the family and from her nation’s history.
Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine
White-knuckled thriller about a woman who tries to escape Appalachia, where she’s lived her entire life, in the beginning of an endless winter caused by climate change. Wil has an unusual ability to grow plants and a hard-earned knowledge that nature and men can be dangerous. She’s also in love with her best friend, a woman who loves only God. When spring fails to arrive for the second year in a row, Wil hitches her tiny trailer home to a truck to drive to California and find her mother, who has run off with her abusive boyfriend. Along the way she picks up strangers who become a family of a sort, as they make their way through the severe weather and the convulsions of a dying society.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
The novel, about a Minneapolis bookstore haunted by one of its customers, is perhaps the best evocation I’ve seen of the dread of Covid’s early days, and the only one I’ve read of how George Floyd’s murder affected the city’s Native population. Weave in a striking cast of largely Indigenous characters, a central couple bonded by laughter and a painful history, and a narrative suffused by the love of books, and you’ve got a great read. As a bonus, there’s even a list of the main character’s favorite books. In real life, Louise Erdrich does own a bookstore in Minneapolis, and she appears in cameo in the novel, including a scene of a reading at Politics and Prose bookstore that Janet and I attended just before everything closed down.
Silverview by John Le Carré
I haven’t read any of John Le Carré’s spy novels, so thought I’d try this stand-alone novel. Turns out, it’s a novel about spies, and about the extent and legacy of espionage in contemporary British life. The main character is a young man who leaves the world of finance in London and moves to a village to open a bookstore, despite the fact that he’s always felt insecure about his limited education. There he meets a charismatic older man who opens the world of classic literature to him and asks only one odd but seemingly harmless favor.
Sleep Well My Lady by Kwei Quartey
A mystery featuring the quietly thoughtful and observant detective Emma Djan. I found the murder mystery less interesting than the glimpses of Ghanian life and perspectives the novel provided.
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
Spare, beautiful novel about a man in 1980s Ireland who discovers the systematic abuse his town’s powerful Catholic nuns heap on the young, unmarried women entrusted to their care, and then must decide what he—father of five girls and the son of an unmarried mother—is willing to do about it.
Three Muses by Martha Anne Toll
Beautifully written, deep, and wise book written by my friend Martha Toll. In this novel, she recreates New York in the 1960s and gives life to two complex and believable characters who are inexorably drawn together—a lead ballet dancer whose life is her art, and a psychiatrist who as a child lost his entire family in a Nazi concentration camp but survived because he sang for the kommandant. Martha weaves together seemingly disparate elements—dance, music, the Holocaust, psychoanalysis, love, grief, gendered power dynamics—to create a whole that is powerful but carries its authority lightly.
The Verifiers by Jane Pek
A fun yet suspenseful novel about a young lesbian, a constant disappointment to her Chinese immigrant family, who goes to work for a secretive company that clients hire to verify whether matches made on online dating sites are in fact who they claim to be. I enjoyed the book and learned quite a bit about online dating and surveillance.
Widowland by C.J. Carey
Germany won WWII and now governs Great Britain. They have built on England’s existing class structure to codify and divide women into castes that determine what work they do, where they can live, how they can dress, even how many calories they can consume each day. The most despised and deprived category is widows, who must live in designated neighborhoods. Rose, however, is lucky. She’s young, of the highest caste, dating a high-ranking German, and tasked with an important job in the cultural ministry: editing England’s classic literature written by women so that the novels impart the correct lessons. Then someone starts painting revolutionary messages—quotes from banned women writers—on walls, and Rose is sent to Widowland to find out who is responsible. She learns much more than the German authorities ever anticipated.
The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings
Jo Thomas lives in a U.S. very similar to our present-day one. But in her world, witchcraft is believed to be real, women’s lives are thus highly regulated and controlled, and witches are still burned. Jo is 28—just two years younger than the compulsory marriage age for women—when she and her father finally decide to declare her mother dead, since she vanished when Jo was 14. In order to gain her inheritance, Jo must take on a task specified in her mother’s will, and the journey changes everything she understands about her life, her mother, and her future. I particularly enjoyed the easy, joking relationship between Jo, who is biracial and bisexual, and her lesbian best friend, and admired the way the author overlaid the detailed rubric of a reactionary anti-witchcraft society across our own more familiar one.
1989 by Val McDermid
A thriller about a Scottish lesbian investigative reporter, now turned editor, who must deal with the emotional toll of writing about all the upheavals of the era, including the AIDS crisis, the Lockerbie tragedy, and the Cold War, among others. To make matters worse, the world of journalism has crumbled, forcing her and everyone else to work for Rupert Murdoch-type moguls who care nothing about journalism and or journalistic ethics. When her widely despised boss is murdered, she is called upon to use her investigative skills to find out who did it and why.
Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted by Suleika Jaouad
As a young woman, the author was diagnosed—after years of misdiagnoses and dismissal from doctors—with a form of leukemia. In this moving memoir she discusses what it’s like to be young in the land of the sick, the physical and emotional turbulence of her treatments, her support systems and how illness can create and fracture relationships. During her treatment she wrote columns for the New York Times about the experience. Once in remission, she faced her fears in part by learning to drive so she could take herself on a solo cross-country journey to meet people who had read her columns and corresponded with her over the years. As I write this, Jaouad is again in the news: she recently joined her husband, the musician Jon Batiste, who played at a White House state dinner for the president of France. Sadly, she is again in treatment for leukemia.
Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History by Lea Ypi
Remarkable memoir by a woman, now a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics, who grew up in socialist Albania and as a teenager lived through its transition to democracy through the “shock therapy” of World Bank and Milton Friedman austerity measures to a faltering, punishing market economy. Wonderful portraits of her parents and grandmother, and of the neighbors and schoolmates who comprised a community that would be atomized by political and economic upheaval. A good accompaniment to Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich.
Gentrifier: A Memoir by Anne Elizabeth Moore
Moore, a white woman, gets a free house in a Bangladeshi neighborhood of Detroit, thanks to an organization that matches writers with ownerless houses from the city’s stock of vacant homes. With a sharp wit and an even sharper analysis, Moore chronicles her time trying to make a home in Detroit while wrestling with the political and ethical conundrums with of gentrification and race—specifically, whiteness. It is little surprise when the house turns out to be not exactly free. However, she is horrified to discover that it is not exactly ownerless either, having been seized by the city from a Black woman.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale
In 1938, a woman living with her family in a London suburb told a newspaper reporter that her house was haunted. Numerous scientists and psychics came to investigate, and most observed bizarre occurrences, such as household objects flying through the air. One of the primary investigators was a Jewish man with a scientific mind who wanted to prove psychic phenomena were real. The hauntings suffered—or were they created?—by Alma Fielding and others described in the book are intriguing enough, but Summerscale ties them to the social and political environment of the time: a recent, devastating world war with a new one looming, rising antisemitism, women’s constricted roles and freedoms, and a society-wide longing to believe humans can connect with the dead.
In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom
When the novelist Amy Bloom and her husband learn that he has Alzheimer’s, in his mid-60s, he decides that he wants to kill himself now while he’s still himself, rather than waiting for the disease to rob him of memory, speech, discernment, identity. Because he has already lost significant cognitive functioning, he needs her help. They cannot find anywhere in the US that will help him facilitate a painless, dignified death years before Alzheimer’s itself would become terminal, so they go through the arduous process of applying for and finally going to an organization in Switzerland, called Dignitas, that will do so. The book is poignant, excruciating at moments, and also funny at times with Bloom’s trademark mordant wit.
Letters from Brenda: Two Suitcases. 75 Lost Letters. One Mother by Emma Kennedy
I stumbled onto this book by accident and listened to it as an audiobook narrated, in part, by the author, who in England is a well-known writer and actor. It’s an affecting and surprisingly funny book about the author’s family, particularly her mother, Brenda, the captivating star of the family’s exhausting drama. Brenda was brilliant, charming, charismatic, and loving. But to the intimate audience of her daughter, husband, and sister, she was also a volatile, raging monster, gripped by mental illness that no one in her thrall could find the courage or energy to force her to treat. After her death, Emma explores her mother’s life and demons through her own memories¬ and those of others who loved Brenda, and through a trove of letters Brenda wrote to her daughter. I enjoyed Kennedy’s sharp wit, her description of her own struggles to find the right professional path for herself and to realize that she was a lesbian, and her casual name-dropping, such as the fact that she shared a group house with Nicola Walker.
The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos by Judy Batalion
I’ve read a lot of Holocaust books. But almost everything in this fascinating, ground-level account was new to me. The book reveals the stories of young Jewish women who took incredible risks during the Holocaust, such as posing as Aryans to infiltrate Nazi strongholds and terrorizing Nazi troops with homemade weapons. Many were political activists who belonged to socialist youth groups; some were new to activism. But even though they were starving, grieving the loss of so many relatives and friends, facing imminent torture and death, impossibly overmatched by the Nazis, rejected by local partisan militias who didn’t want Jews, these Jewish women fought back valiantly and creatively. Only a few survived to share their memories. The author examines how stories of Jewish resistance and entire swaths of women’s history were purposely suppressed and erased. Revelatory.
Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz
Much-lauded memoir and literary consideration about the year in which the author lost her father and met her wife.
Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory by Sarah Polley
Sarah Polley was a famous Canadian child actor who grew up to be a screenwriter, filmmaker, and activist. Her book is not so much a memoir as a series of thoughtful essays about pivotal events in her life. These range from being a child required to conduct dangerous and exhausting work on movie and TV sets because so many adults’ incomes depended on it, to having her own three children, including a high-risk pregnancy, to dealing with the years-long impact of a concussion, to making an excruciating decision about a #MeToo experience. Through it all, Polley wrestles with the power and fallibility of family and memory.
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean
An entertaining and informative exploration of the 20th century intellectuals and writers Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm. Each in her own way breaks through the suffocating sexism of the literary hierarchy and surpasses them in original thought and writing; many spend their professional lives as “the only woman in the room.” The book overlooks the groundbreaking Black intellectuals of the time; Zora Neale Hurston gets a cameo, while Toni Morrison, Lorraine Hansberry, and bell hooks don’t receive a mention (or it’s so brief I’ve forgotten it). But for the most part, it’s the white-dominated New York literary scene that Dean sketches out, replete with pithy overviews of the women’s careers and plenty of insider gossip.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry
Probably the best book I read in 2022. (The National Book Award people agreed.) The author, a Black woman from Alabama who now teaches at Princeton, takes us on a road trip through the Southern states—including Washington, DC—and talks about their social and political history, the literature and culture they gave rise to, the friends she knows there, the experiences she encounters there. Reading this eye-opening book is like traveling America with your most thoughtful, erudite, best-read friend, if she happened to also be an exquisite writer.
Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks
Brooks was a Georgetown law professor in her 40s when she decided she wanted to join the Washington, DC police force part-time. Despite the mystification of her husband and friends and the ferocious opposition of her mother, the formidable activist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich, Brooks went through the training and became certified as a police officer. Brooks, a white woman, was assigned to patrol in one of DC’s poorest neighborhoods, which is almost entirely Black. What she learned is not particularly surprising. Cops are trained to assume everyone they meet wants to kill them, and to behave accordingly; there was no discussion whatsoever of how to avoid brutality, how poverty is connected to crime, or any context that might help new police officers understand their responsibilities to the people they serve. On patrol, she learned that the one thing police can do—arrest people—almost never helped anyone, including the victims they were trying to protect. Brooks’ insider-outsider status brings an interesting perspective to these vexing issues.
There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century by Fiona Hill
Interesting mix of memoir and policy prescription by the Russia expert and former National Security Council senior director who testified at Trump’s first impeachment. She does a wonderful job of telling her own story and that of others with similar experiences. She grew up in deep poverty in the formerly industrial but, in her childhood, jobless northeast of England. Her journey past the almost inescapable barriers of “class, place, accent, and gender” to higher education and high-level public service was extremely improbable. Hill’s analysis of similarities among the U.S., the U.K., and Russia in terms of the failures of what she calls the “infrastructure of opportunity” was intriguing. But I found her failure to recognize how profoundly racism fuels America’s lack of opportunity to be a serious deficiency. Even so, the book was well worth reading, if only for the fascinating backstory of a public servant we all heard testify.
The White Darkness by David Grann
A chronicle of how an obsessive man named Harry Worsley came to make a solo trek across the Antarctic. I have a strange love of books about cold places, and I appreciate Grann’s writing, but this book felt thin to me.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lauren Oyler
A behind-the-scenes view of the Obama administration from the young woman who served in roles that included White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Administration. The book is intended to provide guidance for young people starting their first professional jobs, but I enjoyed it despite being far from its target audience.
Coming Up Next
What are you looking forward to reading in 2023? What older books—classics or from just a few years ago—should I make sure to read?