My 2022 in Books
Updated: Jan 7
I’ve been looking at the list of my favorite books I read in 2022, trying to see what these very different books have in common, and it occurs to me that they all feature protagonists who find themselves living through life-altering circumstances that demand they find new ways forward. There is no going back. This is probably true of any good story told, but the characters, real and imagined, of the books featured here also have an effect on their times that goes beyond their immediate circle. They exist at turning points in history and culture and do the unexpected, the unconventional, and they act in powerful ways. They deal frankly with loss and exile, and in doing so, have a lot to say about what it means to belong to the people and places of our lives.
These are all modern titles. In fact, with the exception of Save Me the Plums, they were all published this year. So, maybe it’s no wonder that they have the foregoing in common. As we face the crises of our own times, wrestle with what we’ve lost, and try to forge our way forward, the women and men of these stories are beacons of character—the capital C kind—who show grit and courage and compassion in the face of the forces, societal and personal, that would like to convince us that those are outdated modes of being.
Three of my five favorites also center around food, and they were not the only food-centered books I read this year, which maybe speaks to my own need for nourishment in these times. If your nourishment needs lean more towards the spiritual, I’d also recommend a beautiful little book called God is Here by Rabbi Toba Spitzer that invites us to consider how our common descriptions of God are actually metaphors rather than strict definitions, and that by widening our pool of metaphors, we can gain fuller access to feeling the actual presence of the divine.
At the end of the day, picking my favorite books is admittedly something of an arbitrary process. It has as much to do with the timing of having read the book, and what it says to me at that particular moment in my life, as it does with how well-written, structured, plotted, etc. the story is. There are many worthy books on my list beyond my five favorites, and I encourage you to browse the full list and see what stands out to you.
You can see all forty-two books I read this year or link directly to the following five books.
All the links will take you to my Bookshop.org affiliate store, where I earn a small commission for recommending books.
As always, happy reading!
If you’ve read Ruth Reichl before, you’ll be familiar with the ways in which she not only makes food and food culture come to life but also manages to have gained a kind of deep wisdom from food that she imparts to the reader. Her memoir of running Gourmet magazine, and its ultimate demise, is no exception. This is a tale of a woman in a position of leadership who unabashedly did things her way and revolutionized America’s food culture in the process. Under her leadership, Gourmet published articles that forced Americans to think not just about taste and tradition, but about sustainability and innovation. The magazine regained its panache and introduced the celebrity chef into the American zeitgeist, altering food culture in a way not seen since Julia Child. Save Me the Plums is an emotional ride full of wit, wisdom, and flavor.
After reading Save Me the Plums, I was hungry for more food-related reading and found this lovely book in a google search for “food fiction.” The story of Joan and Imogen’s friendship is told mostly through letters as Joan is a young food writer in Los Angeles who writes a fan letter to the older Imogen and includes a bit of saffron and a recipe for mussels. Joan is loosely based on the author’s friend Barbara Hanson, a pioneering food writer in Los Angeles who wrote about local ethnic cuisine before Jonathan Gold was even born. The story is one of food and friendship, of love and discovery, of boldness and courage. I laughed, I cried, and I read it in one sitting.
If you’ve heard this described as a “pandemic book,” you can let go of your preconceived notions right now. Yes, there’s a pandemic, and the vision of a post-pandemic existence that St. John Mandel describes could only have been written after living through the past three years, but it’s not really about that. In fact, this is a time travel book, and the pandemic is really more of a literary device than a story driver. The story is really about a man of not much consequence, who recognizes this in himself and volunteers for a dangerous mission, thereby becoming someone of consequence. It’s a beautiful meditation on the nature of time and consequence. I don’t want to ruin it for you. Just read it.
I had been anticipating this book since I heard Reyna Grande mention that she was working on a love story that took place during the Mexican-American war on a Zoom panel in 2020. I was not disappointed. Grande’s prose flows seamlessly over the pages to make the places and characters come alive. The book tells the true story of the St. Patrick’s Battalion of the Mexican Army, a group made up of mostly Irish soldiers who defected from the US Army as a result of severe abuse by the American soldiers. The leader of the St. Patrick’s, John Riley, falls in love with a young Mexican widow who serves the army as a healer. The story is told from both of their perspectives and Grande’s ability to inhabit both of their voices so fully that you can feel the shape of the Irish brogue and the Mexican accent in your own mouth as you read is a feat unto itself. While the love story helps drive the narrative and give the reader hope, this book is as much about war, politics, corruption, identity and xenophobia as it is about two people who find solace in each other’s company in the midst of great tragedy.
If you haven’t already read this book, you’ve definitely seen it on a “Best of” list somewhere. I tried to get it from the library over the summer and I was 186th on the waiting list. I decided to buy it, and I’m glad I did because it’s one I’ll go back to. The quick-witted and smart tone of the book belies the aching loneliness of its protagonist as she navigates her way through the male-dominated world of chemistry, trying to be taken seriously and constantly overlooked until she becomes the unlikely star of a cooking show that does more than teach early 1960s women how to cook. It teaches them to take control of their lives.