In 2022 I kept a private journal of everything I read—about 55 books. As a writer, it’s my job to support other writers. It’s not my job to act as critic. I get mad when crap books get all the attention. I get despondent when great books are ignored. But publicly, I only ever say positive things. In a world where everyone has an opinion, and most of those opinions are employed as marketing tools rather than honest criticism, I keep the negative stuff to myself.
Still, as part of my job as a novelist, I need a place to distill and analyze my honest reactions. So, the journal.
Some things I learned from keeping this journal –
I prefer genre because it more often seeks to answer big questions. I give far more latitude to a book with world-building in the aftermath of peak oil than I do to a book about a lonely lady who inherits a dog from her former lover/professor. It turns out I still don’t care about your dog.* Also, did you know that Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale has cat murder? Please stop writing to me about the dog in Good Neighbors. At least I don’t murder the dog!
It’s very hard to find a perfect book. They’re incredibly rare. Sometimes the premise is great, or the characters, or the pace, but the ending doesn’t stick. Sometimes the characters feel totally real, but what happens to them doesn’t. I tried this year to learn from the good stuff, and from the false steps, too. My list of favorites are all fantastic books that everyone should read. But I have included my honest reactions to them, so not everything I say about them is positive.
My favorites of the year:
1) THE CANDY HOUSE by Jennifer Egan – If this book hadn’t been written by Egan, I think people would have gone bananas for it. But they wanted another GOON SQUAD. CANDY HOUSE is smart and challenging and even in single sentences, conveys great heart and compassion. It’s about the fracture of modern life; narcissism and alienation. Any chapter could have been a novel in itself, but Egan’s too ambitious for that. It’s worth a second read. And then go back and read INVISIBLE CIRCUS while you’re at it.
2) THE PALLBEARER’S CLUB by Paul Tremblay – Tremblay suffers from Egan disease. He’s so good that people don’t notice he’s good. They’ve become numbed to it. He ends his books correctly, keeps them tight, and they’re always about more than the subject. PBC is particularly ambitious, deserving a second read. It’s got notes of Nabakov in there.
3) THEY’RE GOING TO LOVE YOU by Meg Howrey – It’s literary but it’s about something! Our main here learns of her father’s illness and flies home to NY to see him before he dies. Through flashback, we learn what happened to rend their relationship. The backdrop is the world of ballet. It’s about love and acceptance despite and because of our flaws. The writing is beautiful.
4) HOUSE OF PAIN by Patrick Keefe—I’ve read all Keefe’s books, and this one’s his best. Perfect pacing, which is hard to do with nonfiction. It also felt very personal, as I know people impacted by the Sackler family’s policies. “Dopesick” makes a great companion. Danny Strong’s screenplay comes pretty close to perfect.
5) “Annunciation” by Lauren Groff, New Yorker Magazine, 2022. Groff is a master, even her mundane stories magnetic because they’re so utterly believable. I wasn’t into MATRIX, but the stories, oh, boy, can she write a story.
6) HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi – set in Africa and the US, this is an incredibly ambitious story about two daughters separated by the slave trade in the 1700s, and the journey toward reunification over the nine generations that follow. Very worth reading. The ending feels forced, and I’d have liked more character consistency, but these are quibbles.
7) BUILD A HOUSE WITH MY BODY by Violet Kuppersmith – likewise ambitious story of generations in Vietnam. It’s got a nice horror vibe. It goes on a bit long, and to the point where I begin to forget what’s happening, but the mood and writing are incredibly strong.
8) EINSTEIN’S MONSTERS by Martin Amis – this dude pisses me off because he makes my best of list every year. He’s too weird and good. I was haunted this year by “Insight at Flame Lake” in which a schizophrenic keeps a lonely diary. Amis can get trapped up his own butt sometimes, but when he goes for the heart, he’s very powerful.
9) THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier—The nice thing about having kids is that I get to re-read the classics. This one’s still perfect. Timeless. It benefits from being set in an all boys’ school. I like that I can’t accuse it of sexism because there aren’t any women. Read this book. Don’t sell the chocolate. Or sell the chocolate. I don’t know!
10) PET SEMETARY by Stephen King – another reread with the kids, along with Dead Zone, and both blew me away. I sometimes find that King meanders now, telling side stories that distract, but these two, lengthy novels are exactly right. The former is about the frustrations of fatherhood, and the dark side of wish fulfillment. But it’s also a critique of that wish and of fatherhood’s legacy—an anti-Updike. The latter is the best encapsulation of 70s turbulence I’ve read. We’ve got protesters and monsters and Jesus freaks and poor John Smith, caught in the middle. It’s a lesson on how to write about the world right now. King’s easy to ignore. And then you read him. His depiction of women in these novels feels more convenient to plot than to character.
11) KILLING MR. GRIFFIN by Lois Duncan – I liked it better this time than the first time I read it. Duncan describes hated English teacher Mr. Griffin as a man whose faults are also his charms. Someone who is hard to love, but loved by his pregnant wife nonetheless. The kids who get together in this story to kidnap and punish Griffin are drawn with equally fine strokes, making this story utterly believable and surprisingly heart breaking. Maybe Duncan’s best?
12) THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood – Another re-read. Dystopia in which the country becomes a theocracy. Our main is a breeding slave, forced to carry children for the wealthy, and we learn through flashback that she once had a family that has been stolen from her. The world building is fantastic and like all Atwood, I can tell she had fun writing it, which makes reading it fun. I never felt close to the narrator, perhaps because she is so resigned to herself. The world happens to her. But it’s a fascinating world.
13) THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig – this book annoyed me the whole time, and yet I read it in two sittings. I hate bestsellers and pseudo-smart crap. I think the multi-verse is some nonsense a bunch of Hollywood hacks invented to harvest $ from people too terrified to admit that we’ve got one reality and that’s it, friends—we screw it up and it’s all the big black. That said, it’s smart and fascinating. It also sticks the landing. This isn’t easy. Finally, it’s charming and kind. Well done, Matt Haig. You beat me. I love that.
Some others that have stuck in my head:
THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu
DEPARTMENT OF SPECULATION by Erika Swyler
THEM by Jon Ronson
NIGHTBITCH by Rachel Yoder
SELF PORTRAIT WITH NOTHING by Aimee Pokwatka
CONFESSION by Kanae Minato
PROVINCES OF NIGHT by William Gay
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE by Betty Friedan
KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro
SAPIENS, by Yuval Noah Harari
TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin
*Generally, I don’t care. Specifically, of course I do. Especially if it’s a fat chihuahua named Steve.