The Reading Life: 2022

December 31, 2022 | No Comments

Another year of muddling through despite cancelled travel plans and brushes with the plague. We’ve been and remain much luckier than most given the war in the Ukraine, the UK’s economic collapse, and the struggle of many to simply keep warm. Books (along with the garden) continue to be an essential balm. Travel plans to California were thwarted by Covid but we made it to Corsica, which gave me the opportunity to discover the brilliant Dorthy Carrington (Granite Island). I didn’t manage a writing retreat this year so I’m crankier than usual, but hope to try again next year.

I see I’ve read mostly women again (66%), not a deliberate bias, chaps, honestly. I discovered interesting new voices (Katherine May, Weike Wang, Audrey Magee, Selby Wynn Schwartz) while continuing to enjoy songs from old favourites (Smith, Comyns, Mantel, Welsh, Solnit, etc). I also took pleasure in blootering William Burroughs Naked Lunch into the long grass. Its contents didn’t offend, I just found it juvenile and boring…

I’m rereading Dorothy L. Sayers, only to revisit the romance of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, frankly. I could have skipped Five Red Herrings as Vane’s not in it, and its obsession with train timetables drove me demented, though I can recommend it as an effective soporific. I’m currently in the thick of Gaudy Night, my favourite, but it will fall under next year’s tally. 

It would be an exaggeration to say I was disappointed in the fiction because I made the mistake of returning to some writers too soon. Despite the high quality (Pat Barker, Elizabeth Strout), some read like more of the same. I suspect some writers, through their own compulsion or with encouragement from agents and editors, are in danger of dipping into one well too many times.

The books that caught and held my attention sit in a specific hybrid sweet spot: the grey area encompassing (magical) fiction and (literary, erudite, almost academic) nonfiction. A Ghost in the Throat, Ní Ghríofa’s “female text” combines the hallucinatory early months in the life of a new mother with her attempt to research the biography and work of an eighteenth century poet. Selby Wynn Schwartz, meanwhile, step-stones through history in After Sappho, with her “capsule speculative biographies” of one glorious artistic feminist to another, sharing names both familiar and deliciously unfamiliar. 

My top ten this year are highlighted below in red, and those with an asterisk are recommended, and after much to-ing and fro-ing I decided to choose one top book from both fiction and nonfiction.

Ferrante’s extraordinary The Lost Daughter, one of the best depictions of complex ambivalence surrounding motherhood, just held off Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking, a family saga in pared down prose, Louise Welsh’s long-awaited follow up to Glasgow Noir The Cutting Room, and popular best-seller Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

In nonfiction, Super-Infinite had stiff competition from Solnit’s lovely Orwell’s Roses, Hilary Mantel’s concise autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost (and I still have to stop myself from bubbling every time I remember she has gone from us), and James Birch’s touching, gossipy Bacon in Moscow. But Rundell (who is already a favourite of my daughters through her terrific tween books) is rising in my estimation toward my dangerous, embarrassing ‘Ali Smith level’ of idolatry. I hear her being interviewed on the radio and even her voice is divine. God help her if I ever meet her in person, I’ll turn into a puddle. It is obvious from the articulate, passionate joy in her sentences that she loves her subject matter, loves history, loves stories, loves life in all its heartbreaking complexity. We have another genius in our midst, my friends, who makes picking up a book feel like an adventure. Who knew I’d find myself enraptured by revisiting that smutty old poet I giggled over in my high school years? 

Fiction

  • The Women of Troy by Pat barker *
  • A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman
  • The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
  • Oh William by Elizabeth Strout
  • Lily by Rose Tremain
  • Joan is Okay by Weike Wang *
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante *
  • The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore
  • Mrs. March by Virginia Feito
  • The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid
  • Snow by John Banville
  • On the Edge by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Dancing Backwards by Sally Vickers
  • Being Polite to Hitler by Robb Forman Dew
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
  • Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
  • The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns *
  • A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Molina
  • Restoration by Rose Tremain
  • Have His Carcase by Dorthy L. Sayers
  • Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner *
  • Family and Friends by Anita Brookner
  • The Book Collector by Alice Thompson
  • Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Blood and Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
  • The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee *
  • Companion Pieces by Ali Smith *
  • The Promise by Damon Galgut
  • Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison
  • Doctor Copernicus by John Banville
  • Kepler by John Banville
  • Berg by Ann Quin
  • The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
  • A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns
  • Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
  • Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor
  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
  • The Second Cut by Louise Welsh *
  • No Mean City by A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long
  • Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Still Life by Zoe Wicomb
  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
  • Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason *
  • Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
  • Hex by Jenni Fagan
  • The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
  • Tombland by C. J. Sansom
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn
  • Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
  • How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
  • Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • Gallant by V. E. Schwab
  • The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch
  • A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
  • The South by Colm Toibin
  • Unexplained Laughter by Alice Thomas Ellis
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
  • Edge of the Grave by Robbie Morrison
  • A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Perry
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • Pierre et Jean by Guy Maupassant
  • The Man of Feeling by Javier Marías

The Hybrid Sweet-Spot

  • After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz * 
  • A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa * 
  • Shire by Ali Smith *

Nonfiction

  • Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence by Dr. Gavin Francis
  • Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit *
  • Written in Bone by Sue Black
  • Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Sklott *
  • Illness as a Metaphor and Aids and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag *
  • The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May *
  • Granite Island: A Portrait of Corsica by Dorothy Carrington *
  • Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth
  • Kreuger’s Men by Lawrence Malkin
  • Aurochs and Auks: Essays on Mortality and Extinction by John Burnside
  • Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel *
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Wintering by Katherine May *
  • Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
  • Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski
  • In the Garden: Essays on Nature and Gardening by Daunt Books
  • Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne by Katherine Rundell *
  • Patchwork: A Life Among Clothes by Claire Wilcox *
  • Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing
  • Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie
  • Derek Jarman’s Garden with photographs by Edward Soley
  • Bacon in Moscow by James Birch *
  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell
  • Collector’s Daughter: The Untold Burrell Story by Sue M. O. Stephen
  • Borges and Me by Jay Parini *
  • Drama Queen; One Autistic Woman and a Life of Unhelpful Labels by Sara Gibbs

Poetry / Plays

  • Pandemonium by Armando Iannucci *
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage
  • A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
  • Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare
  • Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 by Lucille Clifton
  • Twelfth Night by Shakespeare

The Book I Gave Up On

  • Naked Lunch by William Burroughs