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It feels as though I spent all of 2022 reading accounts of the Trump administration, and in a sense I did, although I’m not complaining. Those books have the lurid appeal of memoirs from, say, the court of Nero, combined with an always fascinating illustration of the many, many ways people come up with to lie to themselves. But I do need something now and then to remind me of how glorious books can be. And Colleen Hoover (whose novels I also spent much of 2022 reading) doesn’t really cut it.
Here are the 10 books I most enjoyed reading this year, the ones filled with truth and beauty and genuine laughter in spite of—and sometimes because of—the sorry state of the world. Even the sad ones provided a balm for the spirit.
[You can also read Slate books editor Dan Kois’ top 10 list here.]
Agnès, who narrates this fierce, prickly, and invigoratingly original novel, is the daughter of French peasants living in a backwater village in the 1950s. Her best friend, Fabienne, a master at tending hogs and chickens, is the same. Their friendship—consuming, self-contained, and more than a little feral—is all Agnès really wants from life. She’d gladly follow the ingenious and merciless Fabienne wherever she leads. What Fabienne wants, oddly enough, is to write a book, one that matter-of-factly bares the reality of rural life; it’s essentially a list of dead children and how they got that way. The book, published under Agnès’ name, causes a sensation. A controlling British woman arranges for Agnès to be educated at an upper-class boarding school across the channel, and Fabienne sends her friend off with orders to find out about the world beyond their village. This peculiar but suspenseful story line has an ironic fairy-tale quality—Agnès is the goose girl exiled to live as a princess, a reversal of the old folktale—but it is Agnès’ funny, unvarnished assessment of the self-interested adults around her that makes the novel, as well as the unsoothable longing of its conclusion.
A sequel of sorts to Egan’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning bestseller A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Candy House has a similar structure. Each chapter is told from a different perspective selected from a group of interconnected characters, creating a prismatic view of how technology stealthily supplants real-life experience. The fictional tech in question allows people to upload their memories to a collective data bank, provided they agree to share them with everyone else. This reservoir of human experience, the Hansel-and-Gretel candy house of the title, has its benefits, but it also forces Egan’s characters to revise their own understanding of their pasts in ways both revelatory and painful. Nestled into this big concept are the small crises of individual lives: a former boy wonder desperate for his next brainstorm, a teenage girl agonizing over her social status, a recovering drug addict whose attempted suicide provides another man with the chance to heal an old wound. The effect is even more dazzling than in Goon Squad, a tribute to fiction’s power to access truths that mere information could never convey. (Read the review.)
Sheer wonder feels hard to come by these days, but Ed Yong’s paean to the hidden dimensions of animals’ umwelt—the world as perceived by their particular sensory abilities—delivers it on nearly every page. How do seabirds locate pockets of food in the vast and (to us at least seemingly featureless ocean? To them, that flat expanse is a landscape of varied smells, peaking where krill eat plankton and release a chemical indicating that dinner is served. There are birds that see colors no other creature can, crickets who can detect the passage of a single photon, seals who can follow a trail of minute disturbances in the water, and insects that steer by the earth’s magnetic field. An Immense World is, above all, a call to adventure for the imagination. Rather than constantly comparing animal senses with our own (dogs are better at smelling than we are, while we beat them in vision, etc.), we must, Yong urges, recognize their profoundly different experience of their environment—and recognize how precious such experiences are. Every time we lose a species, a whole world is lost with it. (Read the review.)
A team of misfits working on a remote island reserve discover an emergent octopus culture and language. The team includes a Vietnamese marine biologist whose deepest relationship is with an AI “boyfriend,” an android so convincing that an outraged public demanded that no other ever be built, and a security officer who uses a janky translation device because “I don’t always want to have a conversation. In fact, I almost never want to have a conversation.” Nayler’s elegant near-future thriller asks: Why do human beings—so uncomfortable with genuine interaction with one another—so desperately want to connect with another conscious species? Unsurprisingly, the main message the octopuses wish to communicate with humanity is “Go away!” Within its pacy plot, this novel explores difficult questions and unsolvable paradoxes about our place in the world and our responsibility to each other. (Read the review.)
Williamson, a New York Times reporter, tells a crime story in Sandy Hook, but her book is not an account of the shooting that left 20 first graders and six adults dead in 2012. Rather, the crime she describes is the way that conspiracy theorists and media hucksters—most notably alt-right radio host Alex Jones—concocted a bogus narrative that the murders were faked, and fomented the harassment of families who had already suffered unimaginable loss. She provides portraits of Sandy Hook “truthers,” whose motivations range from sheer craziness to ruthless self-interest to a bizarre form of identity based on distrusting the mainstream media. Interviews with Sandy Hook parents offer a piercing counterpoint, and Williamson’s examination of the role of social media platforms in spreading this and other conspiracy theories remains dismayingly relevant. But at the center of the book is Jones. Williamson’s deep reporting follows him from his origins as an amusing local character on Austin’s public-access TV whose antics won him cameos in Richard Linklater films to being a wealthy purveyor of dietary supplements who shrewdly wraps his paranoid rantings in lengthy infomercials for snake oil. Read this book, and your satisfaction at the recent court rulings against Jones will be multiplied a hundredfold. (Read the review.)
The print version of this book by a Sri Lanka–born Australian novelist comes in two halves, each with its own cover on the reverse of the other, which can be read in either order. Each story portrays an immigrant from an unnamed country enamored by different aspects of Western society, and the unwitting concessions they make to be a part of a society that doesn’t fully value them. One is a lacerating near-future satire narrated by a man who, egged on by his bourgeois striver wife, is determined to become a “real Australian”; his own job is to produce evaluations of potential deportees. The other half, narrated by a woman recalling her time teaching in the south of France in 1980, is saturated by nostalgia for a period when her role models were Simone de Beauvoir and Debbie Harry. Dissonance buzzes under the Montpellier sun, however, in the form of a creepy neighbor, news reports of a serial killer, and the harassment of North African refugees. Ruminative and sly rather than preachy, this novel about complacency and compromise packs a stealthy bite.
Atkinson combines two of her signature modes—historical fiction about the effects of the world wars on Britons, and the sparklingly sardonic ensemble drama of her Jackson Brodie novels—in this highly entertaining tale set in the underworld of 1920s London. A killer stalks the young women who flock to the city seeking fame, fortune, and fun. At the novel’s center is Nellie Coker (based on a real-life nightclub impresario who also inspired a character by Evelyn Waugh), who runs an array of nightspots geared to nearly every taste and mood. There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about Atkinson’s depiction of the often precarious life of those who worked in London’s pleasure industries during that period of peak hedonism—she’s always more interested in scrappers than socialites—but the novel nevertheless captures the giddy atmosphere of a generation trying to dance and drink its way out of the traumas of World War I. (Read the review.)
Portraits of the artist as a young man or woman have a dismaying tendency toward self-importance. (Yes, even the one that coined the expression.) Zevin’s saga of three college students who team up to create and produce video games benefits from choosing an art form that many people refuse to consider an art at all. Sadie is Jewish and Sam and Marx are mixed-race Asian Americans. All of them believe without a doubt that they can make something great together, and their first game, about a child lost in a storm, becomes a big hit. Compromises with the industry, quarrels about the merits of making a sequel, clashes over credit, romantic travails, and family crises follow. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is an irresistibly fresh-faced and unpretentious novel about the glories and agonies of being young, creative, and determined to make a mark on the world.
The way memoirist Krouse tells it, she has such an ordinary face and unremarkable presence that strangers, upon meeting her, have an overwhelming desire to talk about their deepest feelings. This odd talent lands her a gig as a private investigator for an attorney, digging into multiple sexual assaults committed by college football players and covered up by a university. It was a job—persuading skittish women to confide in her—seemingly made for Krouse, but it also stirred up disturbing memories of her own abuse and her monstrously heartless mother’s response when Krouse finally told her about it. This in itself makes for a fascinating story, but the remarkable thing about Tell Me Everything is the reader’s slowly dawning realization that the author is an unreliable narrator, but not about the facts—about herself. She’s neither as average nor as hapless as she thinks she is, and the memoir is not just the story of how Krouse and her boss helped attain justice for the women assaulted by the players. It’s also the story of how she learned to do justice to herself. (Read the review.)
Money, especially large amounts of it, comes swathed in fiction and other lies. Diaz’s brilliant novel of ideas consists of four books, each an account of the life of a Manhattan financier. The first is a forgettable 1930s bestseller that does a Citizen Kane job on a real-life tycoon. Then there’s the testy tycoon’s own version of his life, then the memoir of the young woman, the daughter of an anarchist, he hired to help him write his autobiography. (The fourth version is a surprise I won’t spoil.) The triple meaning of the novel’s title refers both to the mythology surrounding American wealth, the financial instrument by which property is held for someone else, and the credibility a reader perceives in a narrator. All of these trusts are founded on illusions, and every narrator has an agenda that subtly (or not so subtly) shapes how the tale is told. Diaz’s point is witty and sharp, but the experience of reading Trust is no bloodless intellectual exercise. At its heart—as at the heart of all great books—is the mystery of human beings, the truth of who they are, and whether that truth can ever be sufficiently told.