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This was the year that I found myself willing to challenge myself as a reader again, after several years in which all I wanted was comfort food. I got a lot of pleasure out of narratives that confronted me: with my own failures of friendship, with my own discomfort, with new ways of thinking about art. The 10 books I loved the most this year aren’t difficult, exactly—or at least they aren’t all difficult. But they did all operate at the peak of their intelligence, speaking in a multitude of challenging, even alienating voices, and rewarding attentive reading with access to minds entirely unlike my own.
[You can also read Slate book critic Laura Miller’s top 10 list here.]
All This Could Be Different
By Sarah Thankam Mathews. Viking.
The heroine of this debut novel is a queer Indian American twentysomething living alone in Milwaukee, working a despicable corporate job that eats away at what little soul she has left. By turns prickly and yearning, Sneha makes her way through good and bad friends, good and bad lovers, and parents who could never understand her—whom she won’t let understand her. Can community save her, or will she find a way to screw that up too? Nominated for the National Book Award, All This Could Be Different is a fearless portrait of late–Obama era precarity and solidarity, fueled by a narrator who demands our respect and refuses our pity.
Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?
By Séamas O’Reilly. Little, Brown.
A lively family memoir about growing up without a mother in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Séamas and his ten—ten? Ten!—siblings make their way through the ’90s and beyond, supported by a dad who’s quietly unwilling to let the family fall apart. It sounds as if it should be treacly, but O’Reilly’s fiercely committed comic voice undercuts the drama. What a drag it was on Mother’s Day, he notes, with teachers and neighbors “tiptoeing around me like I was a sad little ginger landmine.”
Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta
By James Hannaham. Little, Brown.
This bawdy, angry tour de force is told in the inimitable voice of Carlotta, a trans woman just out of prison after a 20-year stint, back in Brooklyn and looking to transform her life just as she transformed her self. Hannaham’s fearless novel makes a sharp argument about incarceration and poverty in America in a voice that fizzes with attitude and invention. And he nails the ending.
The English Understand Wool
By Helen DeWitt. New Directions Books.
At only 69 pages, this thin, irresistible novelette is a single serving as clear and cold as the glass of Puligny-Montrachet its 17-year-old heroine drinks at lunch. Part of New Directions’ delightful Storybook series, The English Understand Wool is our cruelest satirist’s elegant revenge on the publishing business. Drink deep, and feel the chill down your spine.
A Frog in the Fall
By Linnea Sterte. Peow Studio.
The year’s most beautiful book is also a winsome adventure story and a testament to attentive independent comics publishing. Swedish cartoonist Sterte spins a yarn of a young frog who follows two grizzled toads in search of a tropical island. But winter is coming, plum trees can talk, and what are they going to do about the seaside village of cats? Sliding this gorgeously printed, gorgeously packaged mini-epic out of its slipcover is like pressing play on a Miyazaki movie you dimly remember from childhood. Buy it now, because its publisher is going out of business at the end of the year.
A Half-Built Garden
By Ruthanna Emrys. Tordotcom.
An intimate, cozy sci-fi epic that leaps across solar systems yet remains resolutely focused on the comforts of home. Set in 2083, A Half-Built Garden follows the members of a small Chesapeake Bay watershed collective as they become the point people for humans’ first contact with an alien race. The Ringers, as the aliens are called, have arrived to save Earth from ecological catastrophe; the humans have spent decades undoing the mistakes of the 20th century, and they don’t want to leave. This thoughtful thriller made me think deeply about the future of my planet, and what’s worth saving.
By Andrew Lipstein. FSG.
In January, just months after the saga of the Bad Art Friend took over the internet, this smart and mean little novel was published, giving a delectable twist to the deathless question of who owns a story. Last Resort is autofiction, but it’s not. It’s metafiction, but it’s more. It’s a commercial thriller that asks: What is the purpose of a book like that? I couldn’t stop reading it, and felt absolutely grubby afterwards—what a joy.
By Lynne Tillman. Soft Skull.
Tillman’s memoir of the decade-plus she and her sisters spent caring for their aging mother before her death is so arid and unsentimental that it feels, at first, like the darkest of jokes: an unsparing, uncaring memoir of caregiving. But the cold, hard facts that Tillman sets down—the resentments, the annoyances, the sorrows, and above all the inexorable collapse of personhood we all must eventually undergo—might just read as gratifyingly realistic to those who’ve lived through their own versions of this story. After all, as Tillman writes, “I want to say about this situation: It is impossible to get it completely right.”
Peter Hujar’s Day
By Linda Rosenkrantz. Magic Hour Press.
On a December day in 1974, just a week before I was born, the writer Linda Rosenkrantz sat down with the photographer Peter Hujar in her Lower East Side apartment and asked him to describe everything he remembered about yesterday into her tape recorder. The resulting text, transcribed verbatim, makes up Peter Hujar’s Day, reprinted late last year by Magic Hour Press. The names Hujar catalogues in just one ordinary day—Sontag, Ginsberg, Kupferberg, Lebowitz—combine with his photographer’s eye to create a portrait of a very specific moment in American art and his own place in it. I loved this experiment for its glimpse into a world I’ll never experience, and the way it makes conversation crucial to culture.
There Are No Accidents
By Jessie Singer. Simon & Schuster.
No book I read in 2022 transformed the way I thought about my city, my safety, or the challenges ahead like this vigorously argued chronicle of American negligence. “More people die by accident today than at any time in American history,” Singer writes, and urges readers to consider the cultural, political, and economic decisions that ensure that number just keeps on growing. A model work of journalistic nonfiction powered by reporting, grief, and rage, There Are No Accidents will open your eyes to the connections between so many of the ways it seems our society doesn’t work: the streets, the courts, the hospitals, and more. And it just may banish the word accident from your lexicon forever.