Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:
Also a Poet: Frank O'Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun
Also a Poet is a moving account of Ada Calhoun's attempt to connect with her elusive father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, by trying to complete his abandoned biography of the beloved New York poet, Frank O'Hara. Calhoun recalls how, one day, in the basement of the East Village apartment house where her parents lived for decades, she stumbled upon a treasure trove of cassette tapes from the 1970s; interviews that her father conducted with O'Hara's painter friends and fellow poets. Ultimately, the book Calhoun writes isn't an O'Hara biography either: It's a genre-defying memoir and work of criticism, as well as a love letter to O'Hara's poetry and to the city that inspired it.
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Renowned critic Margo Jefferson's book, Constructing a Nervous System, is also a virtuoso fusion of different forms: memoir, quick riffs and cultural criticism. As one of the few prominent African American female critics of her generation, Jefferson tells us she was "always calculating — not always well — how to achieve; succeed as a symbol, and a self." The pieces collected here range from a sharp consideration of the significance of Ella Fitzgerald's sweat during her television performances to the challenges Jefferson herself faced in teaching Willa Cather's work — along with its racist passages — to her majority white college students. Jefferson writes: "I wanted them to feel chagrined ... And I wanted them to be disappointed ..." That last response is one I'm certain Jefferson's own readers will not experience.
Interview: Margo Jefferson's new memoir is like a kaleidoscope into someone's life
The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris
The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacey Schiff
Stacy Schiff's biography of Samuel Adams is a thrilling, timely account of how the American Revolution happened: how the colonists were radicalized and came to think of themselves, not as Bostonians or Virginians, but as "Americans." It also tells the story of how Samuel Adams, the so-called "forgotten Founder," played an essential role in that transformation through countless conversations, clandestine meetings and newspaper essays written under 30-some pseudonyms.
Review: Author reminds Americans that Samuel Adams was a revolutionary before he was a beer
Signal Fires: A Novel by Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro's profound new novel jumps around in time to piece together the story of three teenagers, a car accident, two families and what persists even after neighborhoods change, people grow old, relationships fray and collective memories fade. The "signal fires" of Shapiro's title are the stars in the ancient night sky as seen through a lonely boy's computerized astronomy device. The boy shares his device with our protagonist, an elderly doctor, who's strangely comforted by the vastness: "The stars, rather than appearing distant and implacable, seemed to be signal fires in the dark, mysterious fellow travelers lighting a path ... "
Interview: Dani Shapiro on her new novel 'Signal Fires'
If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery
Foster by Claire Keegan
Survival, of sorts, is also the subject of Claire Keegan's matchless novella, Foster, in which a young girl in the Ireland of the early 1980s is palmed off by her parents for a summer with relatives she doesn't know. None of the adults explains much: the girl's father takes his leave of her by curtly saying, "try not to fall into the fire, you." Keegan, who's a writer who revels in emotional tension, has a sharp ear for mundane meanness; but she has an even keener appreciation for the complications of kindness.
Review: With 'Foster,' Claire Keegan asks that readers look outward
Review: Small in scope, Claire Keegan's 'Foster' packs an emotional wallop
Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Lucy by the Sea: A Novel by Elizabeth Strout
I was reluctant to put Elizabeth Strout's latest novel Lucy by the Sea on this best of the year list. After all, her novel Oh William! was on last year's list. But it's no use to hold out against Strout, she's too good. Lucy by the Sea transports Strout's familiar heroine, Lucy Barton, out of New York City and into a ramshackle house in Maine with her ex-husband, William. The two shelter in place there during the worst months of pandemic, months Lucy recalls as having about them "a feeling of diffuse grief" and "mutedness." Strout's spare sentences and her simple pacing constitute her own idiosyncratic take on Hemingway's famous "iceberg theory," in which a depth of meaning and emotion lurks beneath the surface of the words on the page.
Review: 'Lucy By The Sea' succeeds at capturing disruptions, anxieties of pandemic