At the end of each year, I do a write-up reflecting on my personal favorite books I read in the past year. (See my full “My Year in Books: 2022” list on Goodreads.)
As I have done the past few years, I’m picking my top 12 personal favorite reads from 2022. My goal was 40 books, but I managed to read 42 books total this year. (However, my total page count was about as much as my total of 45 last year because I read some longer books this year.) Though it is always difficult for me to rank favorite books, these are 12 that stuck out the most to me this year.
12. A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul. It’s a little alarming how little we know about migratory birds and how the study of the phenomenon is only starting to get its wings (pun intended). This fascinating read by ornithologist Scott Weidensaul explores the science behind bird migration. Weidensaul’s account walks (flies?) through various species’ extraordinary migratory patterns and feats. A huge focus of the book is how we humans have impacted the environment through climate change and destruction of bird habitats and the chain reaction of ill effects it has on birds and our planet—and what we can do to prevent further destruction of both.
11. How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur. From the creator of the hit TV show, The Good Place, this is a layman’s look at ethics. Ethics is often a capital letters Big and Intimidating topic for most of us (I for one doubt I’ll ever pick up a book by Kant), but with the same wit and humor he used in his television shows, Schur lays out the different theories of famous philosophies like deontology, utilitarianism, existentialism, ubuntu, and more, with an easy-to-read and often funny approach. It’s like an “intro to Ethics” class with a cool, funny professor that explores why much of life is not just “bad” or “good”—but fully in the grey zone.
10. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik & Rebecca Murphy. The covid-19 pandemic brought the diabolical nature of viruses all too freshly to the forefront of our collective consciousness in recent years—but perhaps there is no more diabolical virus in all of human history than that of rabies. With an almost 100% kill rate until the creation of the rabies vaccine, rabies is a menace that was poorly understood for centuries. Wasik and Murphy take a multifaceted look at rabies throughout history and the cultural tropes and ideas that have arisen around the disease. I just found this book plain fascinating!
9. These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett. This is a collection of essays Ann Patchett, owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote during lockdown of the 2020 covid-19 pandemic. There is nothing earth-shattering about what Patchett has to say in her essays, but it feels like a conversation with great observations and insights on life and our time here. She gets the heart of the matter on what it means to be an introvert, how to cope with difficulty, and the matter of our choices, among many other things. Overall a book that felt like a pleasant companion.
8. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay. Kay is raw and honest and often darkly funny in his diary entries as a junior doctor in a British OB-GYN unit of a hospital. He doesn’t hold back from wince-worthy scenes nor from the truth of the personal and professional struggles and sacrifices training to be a doctor for the NHS. This is a fast but impressionable account of that time in his life. Kay delivers a gem (pun intended).
7. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. What happens when Western medicine clashes with cultural beliefs and practices with very different views of sickness and healing? That’s the riveting story of an epileptic child named Lia, her parents—Hmong refugees from Laos—and her doctors, as told by Anne Fadiman. It’s a story of miscommunication and misunderstanding and how differing beliefs in body and soul and science affect intimate family decisions. I couldn’t put it down.
6. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen. Centered in Denmark, this novel is an epic, multigenerational story that takes place across time and around the globe through many historical events. It’s fiction, but it reads like it could be about a real town. Carsten weaves a wonderful story about fathers and sons, their families, and the sea that too often claims the lives of those who try to master it. A great novel.
5. The Cider House Rules by John Irving. This is the tale of Homer Wells, an orphan at St. Cloud’s orphanage, who is never adopted, but trains under the tutelage of Dr. Wilbur Larch as an obstetrician. One of the central themes of the book is abortion and how society treats the poor and disenfranchised. This sets up a clash between Dr. Larch and Homer, who come to view it differently. The book felt especially relevant to me in the past year with the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. (Many may remember the movie rendition with Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, and Charlize Theron.) Irving is a master of prose. A classic.
4. Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation by Hannah Gadsby. Gadsby is a gifted comedian. (Spoiler alert) Nanette, if you’ve seen it, is her famously “not funny/funny” comedy special (on Netflix), which flips comedy expectations on their head, as she speaks out against the homophobia and traumas she’s experienced as a queer person from Tasmania, Australia. This book outlines her life experiences and the pieces that help her build her career and the central themes of her show, Nanette. Gadsby is a gifted writer and communicator, and she uses her story to speak out against the hate and bigotry that people like her face.
3. Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu. This is a powerful memoir about friendship and processing tragedy. Hua Hsu recounts the events leading up to meeting and befriending his college-mate, Ken, who Hua believes is pretty much opposite of him in every way. Nevertheless, they still become friends. But everything changes when Ken is suddenly unexpectedly murdered in a random carjacking. Hsu paints a vivid portrait of common human experiences of trying to fit in versus being part of counterculture; to making friends as a young person; to the moment all that is changed in a flash; and how to go on when tragedy seems random and unexplainable.
2. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. Delve into the incredible world of one of the least studied kingdoms of organisms: fungi. We’ve barely scratched the surface in our study of fungi and their interconnectedness to the plant and animal kingdoms and beyond. These organisms are perhaps even more critical life systems than we ever realized, and Sheldrake expounds on the many different ways that may be true. This book questions our concepts of individuality and what it means to be intelligent. You won’t think about life in the same way again after reading this exploration of fungi. Thoroughly engrossing.
1. How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith. The legacy of slavery is the legacy of America; it is part and parcel of our history as a nation. Smith explores the painful history of slavery in America by traveling to places—focusing particularly on monuments and landmarks—around the country (and some outside) that are directly involved or heavily tied to our nation’s terrible legacy. He uses his deep research to reflect on the memory of the lives lost to the evils of slavery and writes a sobering narrative why we can’t forget that history, how we may reframe misconceptions or gaps in knowledge we’ve had, and how this legacy lives on in the fabric of the U.S. to this day. This one will make you think. A profound book.
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- Whole series I read or started this year:
- The most challenging: The Dark Star Trilogy by Marlon James. Though it has been described as an “African Game of Thrones,” the story was quite original; I’ve never read anything quite like it. The characters were rich, distinct, and three-dimensional and the fantasy world-building was exceptional. It might have been too much for me to process, though. Maybe I didn’t read it at the right time or at the right pace. I feel prudish for saying this, but I thought the sex and violence was gratuitous to the point of being distracting, which, I concede, James may have been doing on purpose, but it was just too much for my taste. I will probably read book 3 when it is published, to finish out the series, but I’m not sure I’ll remember much of these two by then—so much happens in both!
- The worst (would not pick up again): This is sort of a tie between A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1). Hawke can act and write (his actual prose isn’t bad), but I’m not sure he can write interesting or original stories that don’t feel contrived from his life. It doesn’t really help with the image of “self-obsessed Hollywood actor,” whether he really is one or not. As for the first Percy Jackson book, I was surprised how badly it was written for something that has become so popular. I know kids may have a much higher tolerance for books like this with fast-paced action, but the characters were flat and uninteresting and the plot felt like a series of forced events. I’m not sold on the whole Greek gods fathering and mothering half-blood humans either.
- The funniest: How to Be Perfect by Michael Schur or This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay. Schur might be the funniest Ethics teacher ever. I mean, someone involved with the making of The Office, The Good Place, and Parks and Rec? How can you go wrong? Adam Kay’s comedy is more of a dark comedy; witty and acerbic.
- The weirdest: The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams or Southern Reach series by Jeff VanderMeer. These two books (or book and series) are not alike at all, and I enjoyed both of these for the most part, they were just a bit strange in content. They definitely got my gears turning, but I’m not sure I got a satisfying “click” from finishing either one. That’s why I call them weird.
- Books by actors: For some reason, I read 3 books by actors this year: Tom Hanks (Uncommon Type: Some Stories), Ethan Hawke (A Bright Ray of Darkness), and Matthew McConaughey (Greenlights). (Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type was the best of the bunch.)
- Honorable mentions (ones I could have put in my top 12 but didn’t):
- Celebrities for Jesus: How Platforms, Personas, and Profits are Hurting the Church by Katelyn Beaty. A scathing account of how celebrity pastors and personas in the church and Christian publishing world are failing the church.
- Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. Mandel writes such quiet sci-fi that it almost doesn’t feel like sci-fi. If you’ve read her other work, you know this one gets pretty “meta,” as one of her previous books, Station Eleven, was about a global pandemic that came out before the covid-19 pandemic. Sea of Tranquility is a look at a fictional author who lives on the moon who writes a book about a pandemic that practically predicts a pandemic.
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. I knew nothing of Michelle Zauner or her band Japanese Breakfast, but you don’t need to to love her memoir about losing her mother.
- A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough. What can I say? It’s David-freaking-Attenborough. The man is a legend, and we do well to heed his warnings in this open-letter of a book about the dangers of climate change. But he offers hope, not despair.
- Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks. Of all 3 books by actors I read this year, I enjoyed Hanks’s short stories the most. They were light, unexpected, and well-written. (If you listen to the audiobook version, Hanks narrates it himself—all the better!) Apparently, Hanks collects typewriters, and one appears in each of the stories, hence the title.
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What were some of your favorite books that you read this year? What should I read in 2023? I’d love to hear your recommendations.