Turtleneck Round-Up Season: 10 Books I'm Still Thinking About, 2022 Edition
And what's on my library hold list for 2023
I can’t believe that Turtleneck Season has been around long enough that this is already my second (!!) annual reading round-up edition. The round-up road is well-trodden; this month, you’ll find lists of 2022’s notable books, stand-out movies, albums, and podcasts in nearly every mainstream publication. This week Spotify released its eagerly anticipated syntheses of our individual listening habits from the last twelve months, allowing us to share this strangely alluring data on Instagram and reveal tour most listened to artists and tracks.
Of all the seasonal trends pushed upon us by the mainstream media, I find the cultural retrospectives of year-end to be among the least offensive. In fact, I kind of love this tradition. I can’t quibble with taking stock of all the art that has been released into the world in the last year and discovering critics’ picks that I may have missed the first time around—Cannes award-winners that are now streaming, books now available in paperback. And the round-up can come in handy throughout the year! When I need a new podcast or TV show during the year, it’s not uncommon for me to consult Vulture or the Times critics’ picks from the previous year before I scroll aimlessly. Consuming culture manages to exist apart from our broader culture of consumption; spending money on a book or a movie makes one feel like a patron of the arts rather than a mere slave to capitalism. Next to a list of Cyber Monday deals and Wirecutter picks, a list of notable books feels almost holy.
Of course relying on critics’ picks can mean that I’m consenting to having my cultural diet is chosen for me—chosen for me by the same media outlets who have incentives to promote the books and other cultural objects that are often accompanied by sizeable marketing budgets. But what is the alternative, now that wandering Blockbuster and flipping channels is not an option—the algorithm? In stark contrast to the algorithm, I find that, more often than not, critics’ picks help me find cultural objects that I wouldn’t otherwise choose for myself.
Unlike other media outlets’ lists, this is not a list of the “best” books of 2022. Best in what way? As I’ve written in the past, I have difficulty assigning quantitative value to books, which can serve so many different purposes. For instance, I read a lot of beautiful and page-turning fiction this year including a number of debut novels and short story collections. I couldn’t put them down at the time, but they haven’t all stuck with me. Even a binary “recommend/don’t recommend” method of rating is imperfect, since a recommendation is inherently dependent on the recipient of the recommendation. Nor is this list limited to books published in 2022. Though most of the below are recent publications, I tend to oscillate between reading new releases and things that have been sitting on my shelf or reading list for a long time.
So, without further ado, I present a list of books I read in the last year that have lingered with me in some way—books that moved me so deeply I can still conjure the way they made me feel, books that made me think about something in a new way, and books I couldn’t stop talking about and made other people read.
Books That Deeply Moved Me
Lost and Found by Kathryn Schultz (memoir) (2022) - Perhaps the only book on this list that I would recommend to just about anybody. An award-winning journalist, Schultz tells two stories that in real life occupied the same period of time— the story of falling in love with the woman who would become her wife and the story of her father’s dying and death. More than a memoir, this meditation on grief and love captures the holding-of-opposites that is central to the human experience, without trying too hard to do so. I screen-shotted and sent multiple passages to my best friend as potential contenders for readings at my wedding.
The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (fiction) (2021) - Like the novel that introduced me to Ozeki’s uniquely Buddhist-infused West Coast-set heartful fiction, A Tale for the Time Being, her most recent novel features an achingly lonely adolescent protagonist trying not to burden adults with their pain. Where in A Tale for the Time Being, there was bullying, in The Book of Form and Emptiness, there is grief and mental illness. After his father dies, Benny hears voices, including the voice of a Book that starts to narrate his own life. A riveting and moving portrayal of mental illness, The Book of Form and Emptiness is both heartbreaking and whimsical. Ozeki, who is a practicing Buddhist priest, is a worthy custodian of Benny’s story and guides the reader through Benny’s rich internal world and the at times harsh contemporary urban landscape (and its one refuge, the public library) with an unusual degree of spiritual depth.
The Believer: Encounters with the Beginning, the End, and Our Place in the Middle by Sarah Krasnostein (nonfiction) (2022) - I discovered Sarah Krasnostein via Sarah Sentilles, author of last year’s top pick Stranger Care, after Sentilles shared that she would be interviewing Krasnostein about a new book at a virtual event hosted by the Strand. Inclined to be interested in any critical mind with whom Sentilles was willing to have a public conversation (especially a self-described lawyer and writer), I signed up. I ended up ordering The Believer from my local bookstore halfway through the event. An exploration of death, dying, the paranormal, UFOs, and religious belief through a compendium of vignettes and interviews? Yes, please. Krasnostein’s “characters,” whom she follows for months, are all true believers in some way or another. Though the ostensible subject of Krasnostein’s study are the phenomena that mankind can never truly know or understand, what follows is a beautiful earthly portrait of the human spirit. But also gripping stories of ghosts and UFOs, which my inner child can’t get enough of.
Books That Illuminated A Blind Spot
The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang (nonfiction/memoir) (2021) - It’s hard to place Kang’s slim volume, which blends memoir, reportage, and cultural criticism, into a genre. While most easily summed up as an exploration of the “Asian-American” experience in the U.S., the New York Times-turned-New Yorker writer’s latest book is more of a deconstruction of the term “Asian American,” and the way in which Americans with Asian ancestry are treated as a monolith, and their uncertain and complicated foothold in a country that thinks of race in terms of White or Black. The subject of dinner table discussions for over a week in my household (Ben read it first, then handed it to me), this book illuminated the historical complexities of our sordid immigration laws, the Reddit forums inhabited by Asian male incels, and the reality of living with the fear that your grandparent will be stabbed walking down the street. An essential read.
When Women Kill by Alia Trabucco Zeran, translated by Sophie Hughes (nonfiction) (2022) - From one of my favorite Spanish-language translators and favorite independent publishers, Coffee House Press, When Women Kill is as memorable for its form as it is for its subject. A surprisingly thin volume—each quartet contains the story of a different 20th century homicide committed by a Chilean woman—Zeran brings a feminist lens to each story, situating the crimes in their historical and cultural context. Zeran asks questions heretofore unasked by the popular coverage of these murders—what motivated these women to kill?—and explores the lack of permission for deviance from traditional feminine roles in Chilean society. Despite Zeran’s academic lens, When Women Kill is surprisingly legible—a more serious version of the “You’re Wrong About” podcast.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (fiction) (2012) - I can’t remember what motivated me to pick up The Round House from the library shelf during my trip to browse for honeymoon reading. Perhaps I confused it with The Night Watchman, Erdrich’s most recent novel; more likely, it had been one of those novels that I had been meaning to read for years. Like much of Erdrich’s oeuvre, The Round House sheds light on contemporary Native American life—in this case, life on an Ojibwe reservation in the upper plains in the 80s. Reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird, the protagonist is the son of a tribal judge who takes justice into his own hands after his mother is raped. For lovers of true crime or mysteries, The Round House is a plot-driven page-turner—the gruesome crime, its destructive aftermath on the family, and Joe’s determination to find out who raped his mother are what propel the novel forward. But Erdrich is a masterful writer who can do much more than unravel a mystery. The brilliance of her well-woven plot rests in its graceful illumination of the jurisdictional issues all too common in cases involving violence against tribal women, and the way that it prods at the question of what constitutes justice. At the same time, Erdrich’s depiction of rez life is as bleak as it is beautiful. My favorite character in the novel was perhaps the food—nearly every scene involves the rapacious appetites of Joe and his teenager friends and their constant efforts to score food on the rez. Only the most gifted writer could make me so identify with a hungry teenage boy that I could find my mouth watering at the mention of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, hamburger meat on top of fry bread, and commodity cheese.
Books About Marriage and Children That I Talked About In Therapy
Coventry by Rachel Cusk (essays) (2019) - There should be a word for women of a certain age who are fans of Rachel Cusk in the way that Swifties are fans of Taylor Swift. I just can’t get enough of her cool and crisp intelligence! A Sally Rooney character come to life! Coventry contains a range of essays—some critical, some personal. My favorites veered toward the more intimate comprising the first third of the collection—her essays about being a child, having children, and home life. Making Home, in which Cusk identifies the need for two sets of consciousness— “two sets of minutes and hours” to be one’s own housewife in order to create the conditions ideal for writing—allowed me to make the connection between physical space and intellectual space that has been central to helping me figure out how to fit writing into my life.
Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage (Heather Havrilesky aka “Ask Polly”) (memoir) (2022) - You can read my previous essay inspired by this marriage memoir by one of my favorite agony aunts here. Foreverland offers a charmingly candid—and rare—portrait of a solid marriage, and what it means like to live life alongside another person with unparalleled intimacy. Havrilesky is funny and warm and adoring—you never doubt for a second that she loves her husband, even as she rolls her eyes and describes him as a “snoring heap of meat.” (This particular remark drove the hosts of the View to express outrage. How dare a wife disparage her husband publicly, seems to be the critique.) Less an instruction manual than a rare glimpse behind the curtain, Foreverland feels like being Big Brother in one of your best friend’s marriages and hearing what they talk about and how much they have sex.
Campus Novels That I Couldn’t Stop Recommending
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas - We love a New England college campus novel (even if Vladimir seems to be set at Skidmore, Jonas’s alma mater in upstate New York). We love a sexy novel that all the smart girls are reading. An English professor’s husband—a professor at the same liberal arts college—is #MeTooed. Meanwhile a hunky new professor joins the department. What do we do with our desires?? With the title obviously a callback to Nabokov, one can’t help but think of Lolita while racing through this thriller slightly appalled. Read it on the subway, read it on the beach, read it in bed on a business trip.
The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family by Joshua Cohen (fiction) (2021) - You don’t have to take my word for it! I will brag for a second that I bought this book for Hanukkah for my father-in-law last year before it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2022. Hilarious, incisive, and practically a novella. For fans of Philip Roth, though you don’t have to be a Roth stan to appreciate this fictionalized account of Bibi Netanyahu’s father’s sojourn to the States to interview for a professorship at a prestigious university in the Northeast and the questions it asks about the precarious position inhabited by Jewish-Americans.
I’ll leave you with these ten recommendations, though these offer a far from complete picture of everything that I enjoyed reading in the last year. (This list completely glosses over my rediscovery of the short story collection, which I’ve found makes the perfect before-bed reading.) As a bonus, here’s a list of some of what I can’t wait to get my hands on in 2023 - the books currently on my library hold list.
George Saunders - Liberation Day (short stories)
Sofia Samatar - The White Mosque (nonfiction)
Sam Knight - The Premonitions Bureau (nonfiction)
Emi Yagi - Diary of a Void (fiction)
Morgan Talty - Night of the living Rez (short stories)
Natasha Brown - Assembly (fiction)
Ling Ma - Bliss Montage (short stories)
Monica Ali - Love Marriage (fiction)
Charlotte Van den Broeck - Bold Ventures: Thirteen Tales of Architectural Tragedy (nonfiction)
I’d love to hear from you what books have lingered with you in the past year, and what you have been recommending. Comment below to share with the Turtleneck Season community!
Great list!! I bought the Ozeki a while back (my first of hers was My Year of Meats and I’ve re-read it several times) but I’ve been intimidated to start it because of its heft - I’m going to make it the first book I read in 2022. I also just requested The Loneliest Americans from the library!