By Carole Reedy
The incomparable Maria Callas said once of an opera, “An opera … becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I have left the opera house.”
I would use the same words to describe the way I feel about the books I read this year – each is unique in style, structure, and content. All of them enrapture and engage, while giving us food for thought long after we’ve finished reading. They are lush and contain all we hope for in a reading experience.
To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara
After turning the last page of this book in March, I knew it would be my top read of 2022. As with her earlier masterpiece, A Little Life (2015), Yanagihara dissects and analyzes while elaborating on the world she creates for the reader.
Yanagihara’s newest story is divided into three parts set a century apart. The first part starts in 19th century New York City, but not the New York we think we know. Yanagihara has designed a new entity out of the territories of the US following the Civil War. As a result, life is very different.
A century later, we are taken to Hawaii, and then a century after that to a new dimension. Although this is a lengthy book, you won’t need a list of characters or a family tree before you begin. As the flow and tension of the writing consumes you, the characters become evident in their placement in history.
Great Circle: A Novel, by Maggie Shipstead
I heard about this book through my book grapevine, which includes readers of all ages and backgrounds. Published in 2021, here’s a book that is widely admired and loved. And little wonder. The two stories at the center, one present day and the other 50 years earlier, are centered around strong women characters.
The current-day heroine is an actress, the counter heroine an airplane pilot. Their lives parallel in many ways, and the juxtaposition makes for a compelling, enjoyable, and even educational read.
The Marriage Portrait: A Novel, by Maggie O’Farrell
This historical novel arrives with great anticipation on the coattails of O’Farrell’s beautifully rendered Hamnet (2020) and it is a worthy successor. In The Marriage Portrait we live and empathize with the 16-year-old Lucrezia de Medici who lives her life in the lush Italian Renaissance world with all its conventions and excesses.
O’Farrell’s novel is said to have been inspired by the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess,” just as the author’s previous novel was based on the life of Shakespeare and his play Hamlet. O’Farrell relies on poetic justice to weave the intricacies of this story and period with a flair and sensitivity rarely found in historical novels.
Lessons: A Novel, by Ian McEwan
For me, this is McEwen’s magnum opus. In his lifetime’s worth of novels he has blessed us with a constellation of style, length, and personages. This surprisingly lengthy (449 pages) novel simply follows the story of a man across all the upheavals of time and history.
Through the characters we experience decades of disruption and tragedies brought about by war and man’s flaws. It is beautifully rendered and said to be quasi-autobiographic.
Young Mungo, by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain, the young boy in the novel of the same name (2020), was the creation of Douglas Stuart based on his own life. There are few writers who can so adeptly transport us to an alien world and also break our hearts. In this book, Stuart generates an empathy rarely experienced by readers. I felt it a privilege to be taken into Shuggie’s sphere and life in 20th century Scotland.
This second novel is equally worthy. Here the teenage Mungo suffers the trials of poverty and being different in a society struggling with religious conflict. Once again, Stuart’s lyricism captures the essence of this world and brings it clearly into our hearts and minds.
Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott
While awaiting the world to return to normal as the calendar changed from 2021 to 2022, I read this novel by an author I didn’t know, but I knew immediately it would be on this list at the end of the year.
We book enthusiasts love to read about books, publishing, and even the whirlwind author tours. While telling this story, the author takes us on a double journey, with the writer/protagonist performing the tasks expected of his publisher, but also tackling the ghosts of his past.
Watt deservingly won the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction for this most engaging novel.
Babysitter: A Novel, by Joyce Carol Oates
This is the Joyce Carol Oates I love, a novel reminiscent of her 70s masterpieces. It is frightening in its spot-on depiction of a rich suburban housewife and her emotionally charged, rash decisions. Every fiber in your body wants to shout “Don’t do that!”
A supporting sub story tells of another suburban nightmare: the threat of a serial killer in the midst of a closed, pristine community. As always, Oates tightly knits the daily chaos of our modern world into a compelling story, a talent she’s mastered over the years.
Oates has been writing for more than 50 years and has produced more than 100 written works, from short stories and essays to many of our favorite novels. Her early novels – Them (1969), A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968) – and a couple of decades later, We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and Blonde (2000) have assured her a prominent place in the history of American literature.
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Alan Hochschild
Published in 1998, this is the sole nonfiction book to make my list. To me, it reads like a novel in its detailed plot and character development.
The story is told through main characters who are involved in the corruption and dismantling of the Congo by imperialist Europeans in the late 19th century. It is probably one of the most disturbing books I have read, depicting the greed and divisiveness of white men in their attempts to protect the status quo and their white empires. King Leopold II of Belgium desired exceedingly to head an empire, and the jealousy he feels toward his counterparts and cousins in other European countries who had their own empires leads him to take over the Congo, depleting the area of its valued ivory and rubber, making the rich even richer and the poor dead.
Alan Hochschild also has described the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War in his recent well-regarded book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (2017). He depicts the Americans who traveled to Spain to participate as freedom fighters against the dictator Franco. Both books are fine examples of how fact and history can entertain as well as educate.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
This author’s name seemed to come out of nowhere, and now you see it everywhere. Justifiably, the waitlist is lengthy at the Chicago Public Library to obtain any of her novels, including her book of short stories, Homesick for Another World (2017). Moshfegh’s attraction is her style, which I would describe as “patient.” In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published in 2018, as in her novels Death in Her Hands (2020) and Eileen: A Novel (2015), the protagonist’s dilemma is resolved only after a careful and thorough rendering of the situation.
This book isn’t quite as easy-going as the title suggests, and the approach is even more complicated. What appears simple is complex, as the writer takes us slowly through each step of the protagonist’s recovery.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a name to remember. She’s an American of Croatian and Persian descent. I am sure we will see more of her work in the future.
Trust, by Hernan Diaz
As I wrote this entry, I coincidentally received the news that Trust had won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction for 2022 (Kirkus is a commercial book review service that covers an enormous range and number of books).
Trust comprises four manuscripts, in varying states of completion, that explore the capacity of money “to bend and align reality.” There is a novel-within-a-novel about a Wall Street tycoon who benefited from the 1929 stock market crash and his wife, who ended up mentally ill in a Swiss sanitarium; the partial memoir of a second Wall Street tycoon; scraps of some diaries by the wife of this second tycoon; and a long memoir by the ostensible ghost writer of the second tycoon’s memoir. Kirkus recognition is often heavy on plot, short on praise, and never gushes. Here’s what they say about Trust:
“The novel overall feels complex but never convoluted, focused throughout on the dissatisfactions of wealth and the suppression of information for the sake of keeping up appearances. No one document tells the whole story, but the collection of palimpsests makes for a thrilling experience and a testament to the power and danger of the truth—or a version of it—when it’s set down in print. A clever and affecting high-concept novel of high finance.”
The four-part novel is clever but not manipulative. And it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Now, on to another year and the anticipation of new books. What joy!