We’re a little late with this one, but year-end posts are still fair game anytime before February (right?). This was a great year of reading for both of us – we both went overboard on Honorable Mentions and still had trouble choosing! Here are the best books we read in 2022:
Vladimir – Julia May Jonas
“When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell they also loved me.” So begins Julia May Jonas’ unforgettably voicey debut novel, which opens with a flash-forward the titular Vladimir passed out and tied to a chair. The narrator is a respected professor whose philandering husband has been accused of sexual misconduct, but she’s no jilted wife–they have an open marriage, and she was always aware of these affairs, which she views as “normal for the time.” In the fallout, she questions her complicity and becomes dangerously obsessed with fellow professor Vladimir (yes, it’s a Nabokov reference). It’s a subversive take on the #MeToo novel–witty, irreverent, and ultimately feminist, even when the narrator isn’t.
My Body – Emily Ratajkowski
In this book of essays, Emily Ratajowski thoughtfully untangles her complex relationship with her body, which has afforded her wealth and fame but has also been objectified and commodified for as long as she can remember. My Body got some flack for being “myopic,” especially since EmRata is in such a privileged position in society, but she’s remarkably self-aware and clear-eyed about her own contradictions and self-deceptions. If you’re looking for intersectional feminist scholarship, you’ll be disappointed, but if you’re looking for a well-written, emotionally honest memoir about the strangeness of self-objectification, then you should read My Body.
The Piano Teacher – Elfriede Jelinek
The Piano Teacher, the best-known novel by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, is not for the faint of heart. It follows a sexually repressed piano teacher who is living with her overbearing mother and spends her free time going to peep shows and “accidentally” hurting strangers in public. She then enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with her student, with disastrous results. The Piano Teacher was published in the early 80s, but thanks to the recent onslaught of transgressive novels about female sexuality and rage, it feels intensely contemporary.
Nightcrawling – Leila Mottley
Nightcrawling is based on harrowing true events–a teen who was blackmailed into sex work by corrupt police officers–but it never descends into misery porn. Instead, it’s a richly detailed love letter to Oakland, where the author grew up, a fierce rebuke of society’s structural inequality, and most of all a showcase for Leila Mottley’s distinctive voice. She was Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate in 2018, and her prose reads like poetry in the best way, with surprising metaphors, vivid imagery, and an unsentimental lyricism. Even when the story occasionally threatens to tip into melodrama, the language always feels exciting and new.
The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void – Jackie Wang
I don’t read much poetry these days, but how could anyone resist that title? This collection, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, is based on a series of dreams, which yes, sounds insufferable. But unlike your friend who’s recounting a dream about going to the grocery store, these dreams are wild, surreal, apocalyptic, and often funny. Wang’s writing is also socially engaged–rather than just treating dreams as insights into her individual subconscious, she treats them as windows into a collective subconscious. And with her accompanying drawings, the whole reading experience feels like living inside someone else’s mind. Like Bhanu Kapil said in her review, “Is this what it feels like to be a person?”
Poor Things – Alasdair Gray
Where has this book been all my life? I had never heard of Poor Things until recently, but when I read the bonkers premise–a lonely man reanimates a dead woman with the brain of her unborn daughter–I immediately knew I would love it. Like a Frankenstein, this book is many things at once: a feminist screed, a satire of social inequality in Britain, a send-up of Victorian novel tropes, and a metafiction that constantly calls its own narrative into question. Also, it’s hilarious. The fact that Yorgos Lanthimos, one of my favorite directors, will be adapting it into a film next year is just icing on the cake.
I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane: Another amazing title, and a uniquely acerbic memoir by an ahead-of-her-time queer feminist teenager in 1902 Montana.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews: Women Talking is a fictionalization of the aftermath of a series of horrific rapes in a Bolivian Mennonite community, which, similar to The Handmaid’s Tale, has a male narrator because the women cannot read or write. A fascinating, intelligent exploration of the ways in which language gives us power to control our own narratives.
White on White by Aysegül Savas: This weird little novel about art and disintegration is light on plot, but every sentence is like a gem–sharp and beautiful.
No One is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood
This is the one novel I’ve read that truly captures what it’s like to live on the internet—but then it veers, halfway through, into an examination of what it means to live in the world, and to love. It’s extremely funny, as you’d expect from the woman who wrote the funniest piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read, the immortal Updike takedown “Malfunctioning Sex Robot”. But it’s also beautiful, as you’d expect from a poet who is, according to people who know poetry better than me, very accomplished.
A Life’s Work – Rachel Cusk
This is the only book I’ve read that captured what it felt like to become a mother. Rachel Cusk’s 2001 memoir lucidly distils the feeling of your past self observing with bewilderment as a struggling new mother takes over the daily tasks of your life, and also observing the psychosis of everyone else who acts as if your past self isn’t still there, aching for recognition. In the year 2022 it was commonplace to talk about motherhood sucks, with only the tiniest frisson of the old taboo; in 2001, when this book was written, it was transgressive as hell. But even now it’s revelatory. Rachel Cusk has the gift of observing and describing what is happening to her with the kind of defamiliarization that brings the truth of a familiar experience home. And she is fucking hilarious. Bitterly, brilliantly, keenly so.
I have observed several times an expression of polite, horrified surprise on the faces of new mothers, as if they had just opened an inappropriate Christmas present: clearly they were unprepared.
Woman Running in the Mountains – Yuko Tsushima
Another entry for the moms-keepin’-it-real genre, this one an autobiographical novel by a Japanese single mother. A young woman who used to run freely in the mountains becomes a mother, and lives with her abusive parents while struggling to make enough money to pay for a daycare, and to find a daycare and job whose hours actually coincide. As hard as Takiko works to take care of herself and her baby, there’s a giving-no-fucks vibe that this book achieves that’s rare even in this genre. In my favorite scene, Takiko uses a baby carrier to go to a cafe and drink a ridiculous number of whiskey cocktails, getting progressively drunker, feeling no real angst about whether she should or should not be getting publicly drunk while babywearing. I recommended this in September, saying, “Anyone who’s familiar with what it’s like to be a working parent right now will feel their heart squeeze at the day-to-day details of Takiko’s precarious existence.”
Checkout 19 – Claire Louise Bennett
When I was a kid, I remember being so loath to put my book down that I tried to tie my shoes with one hand. The protagonist of Claire Louise Bennett’s beautiful coming-of-age novel loves to read even more than that, perhaps more than any other fictional character has ever loved to read. My favorite passage is when she describes the different feelings she has while reading the page on the left side versus the right side of a spread. I have the exact same feelings, but never put them into words. It was such a delight to read them here. I recommended this in May for its “ferociously urgent prose.”
Kindred – Octavia Butler
Every so often a work of fiction has a metaphor so well suited to the ideas it’s intended to wrestle with that it becomes almost instantly inseparable from those ideas in your mind. After reading Kindred for the first time, I will never think the same way about the painful fact that white enslavers were often (biologically) the family of the people they so cruelly enslaved. Octavia Butler’s novel is heart-thrummingly exciting, and deeply empathetic and intelligent. But what I find so brilliant about it is how perfectly constructed it is, as its time-traveling protagonist Dana becomes enmeshed in trying to save a person who should have been her enemy but on whom her existence depends, her white slave-owning ancestor Rufus.
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsay Drager: A slim, inventive volume exploring the nature of fairy tales by riffing on Hansel and Gretel — a delightful, lyrical little gem.
Luster by Raven Leilani: Leilani’s unforgettable prose style and her unapologetically flawed heroine combine to make this a powerful, memorable book. [Yes!! –Janes]
A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan: This made Janes’ top five last year; it’s formally daring, careening from what seems like a slightly-too-on-the-nose kids-these-days-social-media satire into a completely different, totally surprising genre.
Oldladyvoice by Elisa Victoria: I recommended this in March with the question, “What if Ottessa Moshfegh wrote a book about a nine-year-old?”
Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern: An early Victorian novel about a single woman making a living as a journalist, complete with a startlingly contemporary story of how she negotiated her salary upwards in defiance of a sexist newspaper editor who wanted to underpay her? Yes please!
Either/Or – Elif Batuman: What Rachel Cusk’s defamiliarizing, deadpan humor did for motherhood in A Life’s Work, Elif Batuman’s hilarious Harvard-set roman a clef does for the sex life of college girls (at least, bookish, sheltered, awkward ones). I recommended this in September for “the delight of reading a shrewd woman’s responses to supposedly great books.”