The year is wrapping up and I’m thrilled to get to share my best books of 2022 with all of you. Like my list last year, I am using my podcast, The Stacks, as my guide for compiling this list. I’ve repurposed a handful of the questions I ask my guests each week on the show and am answering them with my favorite (and in some cases least favorite) books of 2022. I was also lucky enough to interview many of the authors mentioned below, so where applicable I have left you links to check out those conversations in addition to the books.
TWO BOOKS I LOVED
I will start here and say this until I’m blue in the face: South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation is the best thing I’ve read in this year. It is one of the best things I’ve read in the last five years. This book is the real deal. It won The National Book Award for nonfiction, so I’m not saying anything new, but it must be said this book is legit. South to America is a meditation on The American South and the ways it has shaped The United States as a whole. What makes it special is Imani Perry. No other writer could have conceived of this book, let alone woven so many seemingly disparate threads together to create an immersive and resonant depiction of the region. It is not an easy read per se—Perry is a tremendous writer and she challenges her reader with her sentences in the best of ways. Go into this book with an open and curious mind; Perry will take care of the rest.
If you told me one of the best books of the year was going to be about a group of swimmers who discover a crack in the bottom of their pool, there is exactly zero percent chance I would’ve believed you, and yet…The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is an outstanding novel. It has a big twist that I refuse to spoil, but just know there is so much heart in this slim book. The sentences in The Swimmers are so dang good. The book is perfectly crafted depiction of the randomness of life, both the good and the bad.
ONE BOOK I HATE
I read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin because of the hype. I kept seeing people say it was the best book of the year and that it made them feel things—I even saw it compared to A Little Life, a book I enjoyed (though I also think is deeply flawed) that left me with an emotional hangover for at least a few weeks. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow did not live up to the hype; it didn’t even get close. I found the book to be manipulative and a bit boring. Zevin was playing at depth, but never quite got there. There is a mega-plot event that is so on the nose that I was repulsed by the obvious choice. It’s a book about friendship, but the friendship isn’t developed enough to sustain the book; cue the manipulation. So, yeah, I didn’t like this book at all. Let me also say, the fact that it’s a novel about video games (a thing I know nothing about) didn’t detract from this novel—the story at the heart of it did.
LAST GREAT BOOK SOMEONE RECOMMENDED TO ME
My friends know me so well, that when I ask about what I should read they always send me au courant nonfiction recommendations, and The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll when Inequality and Disease Collide is certainly that. The book is about systems that make certain people more likely to contract and spread viruses, and is told through the lens of HIV and COVID. Thrasher doesn’t go into the science of the illnesses, but rather the social and political constructs that increase the likelihood that marginalized groups of people (Black, queer, disabled, etc.) will get sick, have their lives radically altered, and/or die from these diseases. The book is smart and covers a lot of ground. And now, I’m recommending it to everyone I know.
BOOK I LOVE TO RECOMMEND
Black women and pop music, need I say more? Danyel Smith is one of the most important figures in music journalism. She has been a part of almost every major pop music moment of the last 30+ years, has met every star in the business, and so many (though not all) of her incredible stories are in her book Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop. The book is a biography of many famous Black pop musicians tied together with Smith’s own story. She draws parallels between her life and the lives of the icons we know and love, like Whitney, Aretha, Janet and more. It is a fun ride with a lot of tidbits and stories you’ve likely never heard. Plus, this playlist is a must-listen as you read; it has every single song mentioned in the book and was put together by a member of The Stacks Pack as part of The Stacks Book Club read of Shine Bright from earlier this year.
WHAT AM I CURRENTLY READING?
Recommending a book I haven’t finished is extremely not my thing, however I’m doing that now with The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. It is the story of a woman who is sent to a rehabilitation center for mothers who have neglected and/or abused their children. While I’m not sure the book will stay strong to the end, this speculative fiction novel has captured my imagination in a way that no other novel has so far this year. I just know this book would be perfect for a book club situation as there is so much to talk about. This book tackles issues of policing and institutions of care in an interesting and thought-provoking way. I have no doubt that I’ll be contemplating this book for a while (once I finish it).
BEST BOOK ABOUT WHERE I’M FROM
There is something so exciting about seeing your hometown in a book, even when the book is about the corruption and abuse that is found there. In Leila Mottley’s debut Nightcrawling I fell in love with her depiction of a city I know and love, Oakland, Califonia. She touched on little subtleties of my hometown that resonated so deeply in me. This book is about a police sexual abuse scandal, but it also about a city that I love so much, and a young girl fighting her way through this world.
BOOK THAT MADE ME LAUGH
Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James is a memoir about a quirky Black girl at an elite New England boarding school. I found myself laughing at the absurdity of James’ high school experience. I also found myself laughing to keep from crying, because racism is a hell of a drug and the folks at her school were high AF. This book is full of the kinds of stories that are too absurd for fiction, and yet somehow they’re true. James’ dry humor and attention to detail make for the perfect tour guide through a world I had never really considered before.
BOOK THAT MADE ME CRY
The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride is a sort of oral history of The Civil Rights movement as told by David Dennis Sr., who lived it, to his son David Dennis Jr., a journalist and our narrator. The book tells the story of Dennis Sr., who from all accounts is sort of the Forrest Gump of The Civil Rights movement. He knows everyone from Medgar Evers to Fannie Lou Hammer, he is on the first bus of the freedom rides, and knew Martin Luther King Jr. This story is a piece of Black history told in such an intimate way that I found myself getting emotional because I longed to know more about David Dennis Sr., and because of all he gave up to carve out possibilities for us.
BOOK THAT MADE ME ANGRY
Reading about the Republican party’s effort to recruit and groom Millenials and Gen Z’ers was one of the most interesting and enraging things I read this year. In her book Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power, Kyle Spencer embeds with three major players in the Right’s campaign to recruit young voters. She exposes the deep pockets and influential players that make it possible, and the organizations that sustain the efforts. This book is a wild ride—if you can stomach it.
BOOK WHERE I FELT LIKE I LEARNED A LOT
When I read The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir I felt like a whole world opened up in front of me. Not just the world of curanderos, but also a world where a memoir could mean so much. In this book I watched Ingrid Rojas Contreras explore magical realism as a way of life. I watched her write a story about her family in Colombia that allowed me in, but never once catered to me. I learned, not in an academic way with facts and figures, but in the way you learn when you know something you’ve experienced has changed you. This book is an adventure, a family story, and a story about magic and death. It is a wild and worthy ride.
BOOK THAT I’M EMBARRASSED I STILL HAVEN’T READ
Every year a book will come along that everyone I know and trust raves about: It will be nominated for awards, it will have a cover that draws me in, and a premise that intrigues me, and even with all of that I will never have found the time to read the book. This year that book is The Town of Babylon by Alejandro Valera. It centers a high school reunion and the drama of return. I don’t know what to say besides “I’m sorry, I will read this book, and I know I’m missing out.”
BOOK I WISH MORE PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT
I am so not a poetry girl and yet one of the best things I read this year was easily Alive at the End of the World by Saeed Jones. This poetry collection is vibrant and hilarious, and so exactly what the year 2022 calls for. Jones melds grief and violence and pop culture into this word stew that is rich and dense and leaves you wanting more and more. I don’t talk a lot about poetry because I often feel like I don’t “get” it, but there was no doubt in my mind with this collection, I got it. It got me.
BOOK THAT I’M PROUD TO HAVE READ
I was very skeptical of this book; it seemed like an attention grab or an opportunity to capitalize on the death of George Floyd. I was so deeply wrong. This book is a feat of journalism and a deep dive into the life of George Floyd. His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa gives so much context to a man that changed America. It also is a look at America itself—the systems that shaped Floyd’s story are interrogated, things like housing, incarceration, education, and yes, even slavery. I am proud to have read the story of a man who changed the world because he was viciously murdered. I am proud to have learned more about him than just his final words. I am also thankful to the authors for giving George Floyd the presidential biography treatment. It is a gift to read and a testament to his legacy.
A BOOK PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO KNOW I LOVED
I’m a California girl, which means I’m a Tupac girl by birth, so when I started reading It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World that Made Him by Justin Tinsley. I was surprised to see how much I liked Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G.. I didn’t think I would care about his story, because I didn’t really rock with his music. However, Tinsley expertly carves out Biggie’s place in American history in addition to showing glimpses of Wallace’s life that complicate his notoriety. It’s a humanizing biography of a great artist that took me by surprise.
BOOK I WOULD ASSIGN IN HIGH SCHOOL
As an adult, I struggle to understand what’s going on with most Supreme Court rulings. If I’d had Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal as a young person, I like to think I would understand more and be able to think more critically about what the decisions mean. This book is funny and invites readers into the world of SCOTUS to understand the manipulation of law and precedent for political gain and in service to white supremacy and the patriarchy. It’s also told from the perspective of a Black man, so it gives perspective about the law that is often overlooked or under appreciated. Allow Me to Retort underscores the racism at the heart of America, and explains how so much of it is by design and not by accident. It also arms the reader with language that can combat some of the most harmful legalese that allows these systems to continue.
BOOK I’D LIKE TO SEE TURNED INTO A MOVIE OR TV SHOW
When I tell you this book has everything you need for blockbuster page-to-screen adaptation, believe me. Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels by Paul Pringle starts with a young woman overdosing in the hotel room of her much older lover who just happens to be a dean at USC, and a journalist getting a tip about it all from the hotel’s front desk manager. That is where this book starts, so yeah, can we get the movie already?
BOOK I’D RECOMMEND TO THE PRESIDENT
I want nothing more than President Biden to take a serious look into prison abolition, and there is no better guide than this one by Mariame Kaba and her co-author Andre J. Ritchie. I know that Joe Biden isn’t going to wave a wand and abolish the police, but I do think No More Police : A Case for Abolition makes the case for pulling back from policing and reinvesting in systems that help and heal rather than harm.