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My Favorite Reads of 2022
Happy Friday, readers!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the time for Best of the Year book lists! While most professional outlets focus on titles published in 2022, I much prefer to pick my favorite reads of the year regardless of publication date.
Below you’ll find five non-fiction and five(ish) fiction picks from my 2022 reading.
And, of course, I want to know your favorite read of the year!
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
In Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest masterpiece, he delves into the now-infamous Sackler family, who played an outsized role in America’s opioid crisis. I have very clear memories of listening to this one, narrated by PRK himself, while walking the snowy, icy streets of my neighborhood way back in January.
Why it stands out this year: PRK’s narrative prowess is second to none. He’s a master reporter, uncovering details that nobody else can get; he’s a master writer, crafting non-fiction, journalistic prose as few other writers can do; he’s a master storyteller, knowing exactly which details to include and which to skip in order to land the most powerful punch. Not only is it well-written, but also tells a crucially important story of 21st century America.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
I read this in February, which is when I always try to give particular attention to Black history, both in fiction and non-fiction. Wilkerson’s book is on numerous Best History Books of All-Time lists, so it was high time I gave it a shot myself.
Why it stands out this year: Wilkerson writes with uncommonly readable elegance. For a long work of history (it’s 543 pages), I had no trouble finishing it in a couple weeks of dedicated reading. Though the scope of her work is grand, she narrows in on three unforgettable characters. Her writing and the story she tells is luminous, eye-opening, and absolutely everything that American history should be.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Ah, the vacation read. What a delight! I wasn’t planning on reading this one over spring break, but I left my “entertainment” bag at home and had to make an emergency run to Target. I came home with Erik Larson’s latest and loved every page.
Why it stands out this year: History authors, even the best of ‘em, tend to stick to a format of long chapters and dense paragraphs. There’s a right way to write history. In this book, Larson flips that formula on its head, utilizing short, punchy chapters (sometimes only a sentence or three long!) and a ton of dialogue. It was more like reading a blend of memoir and current events than a 500-page history. Outstanding.
The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova
During the nine years I worked at Art of Manliness I read piles of psychology books. So in the last year I’ve taken a bit of a break, with just a couple notable exceptions — including The Biggest Bluff. Konnikova’s firsthand account of learning to play and then master poker was exceptional.
Why it stands out this year: Though I didn’t give The Biggest Bluff 5 stars, I’ve thought about it a lot since reading it in May. Two things, in particular, stood out — both related to the infinite varieties of human nature that have so entranced me this year. First, I loved seeing Maria’s journey from complete beginner to true master. It was really inspiring, to say the least. Second, rather than taking an analytics-based approach, Konnikova really zeroed in on the value of understanding human motivations and decisions. Utterly fascinating.
Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency by Andy Greenberg
Why it stands out this year: I just reviewed this one last week, so I won’t go on and on. I loved this book simply because I learned a lot (I’ve long been meaning to read something about crypto) and was dang entertained along the way. True crime is a genre I really enjoy when it’s well done and especially when it’s combined with the tech world. Andy Greenberg knocked it outta the park and I’m already excited to read his previous book, Sandworm.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
My wife Jane read this one first and insisted I read it. She has a good track record when it comes to that particular tactic (see 2021 favorite This Is How It Always Is) so I was happy to oblige.
Why it stands out this year: I’ve read quite a few LGBT+ memoirs and non-fic, but hardly any fiction with gay protagonists. Yale Tishman is as complete a character as I’ve ever encountered in any novel. He was complex, easy to cheer for, aggravating at times, and someone I almost can’t believe is a product of Makkai’s imagination. She also opened my eyes to the AIDs pandemic in a way that my schooling completely skipped over. I was in awe of this story for all of its 450 pages.
In the midst of my chronological reading of Stephen King, I re-read The Stand this year, which was just as memorable and even more energetic than I remembered. I also recently finished Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, which lived up to my lofty expectations and then some. Both of ‘em fulfilled my deep love for the apocalypse genre.
Why they stand out this year: The Stand absolutely holds up. It’s epic (even to the point of being a bit of a caricature), it’s easy to root for the good folks, and it’s 1,200 pages go by amazingly fast. It’s as entertaining as it gets. Wanderers is almost as epic in scope and added a couple original, surprising twists to the apocalyptic pandemic niche. The former clearly influenced the latter, but there’s enough differentiation that both are well worth your time and attention.
Still Life by Louise Penny
What a wonderful discovery Louise Penny and her Detective Gamache series has been for me this year! My bingeing led me to writing about my Penny origin story for a Gamache-focused newsletter called Notes from Three Pines. It all started with Still Life — which was another recommendation from Jane. Nailed it.
Why it stands out this year: I always enjoy a classic murder mystery and Penny is a step above the rest. She injects a unique sense of humanity into the series, as well as frequent meditations on art and poetry that you don’t find elsewhere in the genre. Each installment is truly surprising and makes for a lovely reading experience. Essential reading for fans of mysteries. (Give it a few books if you aren’t sucked right away.)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Here’s a fun fact about Betty Smith’s classic that I love sharing: Almost immediately after being published in 1943, it was turned into an Armed Services Edition, which was just a small paperback shipped to soldiers overseas. Of the 1,300 different titles the U.S. government printed, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was among the most popular and most requested, reminding soldiers of the daily travails and delights of home.
Why it stands out this year: I especially loved how uplifting this reading experience was. So much modern literature is just a downer, but through the character of Francie Nolan, Betty Smith captures and conveys a contagious sense of optimism and youthfulness, even in the midst of a hardscrabble upbringing. I flipped the final page and felt inspired to go take on life. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an all-time great and I enjoyed it so much that I added it to the 2023 Big Read lineup.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
I read this one a few months back but haven’t written about it yet since our book club just chatted about it on Sunday. (I like to wait until after our discussions to share book club picks with ya’ll.) It had somewhat mixed reviews among our group, but those who enjoyed it — myself include — really enjoyed it. In fact, it won our club’s poll for best book of ‘22.
Why it stands out this year: I’ve enjoyed Zevin’s previous work, but Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is an incredible leap for her both in story complexity and character depth. She successfully experiments with different writing styles, which is incredibly hard to pull off. And everything about the characters’ relationships felt so real. I rooted for them, I was annoyed by them, I eagerly wanted to know what happened next in their story — much like how all of our real-life relationships play out. I’ve read plenty of modern fiction in the last decade, and this one is utterly unique; I haven’t encountered anything quite like it before. Sam and Sadie are going to stay with me a long time.
Finally, here’s a few other titles that I have to mention, which just missed the cut (links go to my review of it):
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris
American Carnage by Tim Alberta (Amazon link; I haven’t reviewed this one yet)
That’s all for this week! Thanks so much for the time and inbox space. I deeply appreciate it.