My Top Ten Books of 2022
After several years of somewhat meager reading lists—due to frequent moves and the sheer volume and intensity of work involved in trying to pay my bills with painting—bookworm me is back! I made it through about 90 books in 2022, thanks in large part to the newish Audible plan that gives subscribers access to a pretty substantial curriculum of included titles. I’m an auditory learner, which means I retain and comprehend things much better when I listen to them instead of reading them, and ready access to loads of audiobooks makes it possible for me to work through books while I’m busy at my easel without putting additional strain on my eyes. It’s a win-win that has revitalized my reading life even in the midst of what has certainly been my most prolific painting year yet.
If you think you might be an auditory learner too, you may be interested to know that since 2020, Audible has a cheaper plan available (right now it’s $7.95 per month) that doesn’t give you a free credit every month but does give you access to the Audible catalog. Try it out here.
As the year draws to a close, I’m looking back over these twelve months to make a few notes about the books that have moved, challenged, charmed, or delighted me the most in 2022. After I made the list, I realized all but one of the books I included were authored by women, and that made me happy. I adore a great many books by male writers, but I’ve spent most of my life reading primarily those books, and so it has been an enriching change to deliberately seek out more female-authored titles this year. Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Books of 2022 in no particular order:
I’ve been wanting to give Iris Murdoch a go for a little while now, and when I saw this one on the shelf at a wonderful bookstore in my favorite Atlantic Coast town, I thought what better place to start? There’s a heck of a lot going on in this book about an entitled playwright who retires to live in seclusion by the sea but instead finds himself pursued by the raw and human consequences of his self-absorption and cultivated artificiality. This book inspired me to paint a set of moody gouache seascapes, and I can already tell it belongs to that category of book that goes on making itself felt in reverberating echoes for some time.
The notion that men are somehow “hardwired” towards violence, emotional immaturity, and an exploitative sexuality of dominance and possession is drilled into both boys and girls in a thousand thousand subtle ways starting in earliest childhood, and I cannot think of a popular teaching that has had more devastating consequences for the many communities I’ve belonged to. In “The Will To Change,” bell hooks sets about unpacking this bitter mythology of male dominance from a posture of hope that is unflinchingly honest but believes in better for men and for the women and children who love them. My husband and I read it together and it sparked important conversations about crucial issues related to our experiences and performances of gender.
For me, 2022 was punctuated by periods of great emotional frailty, and I was often just not up to reading anything that might activate grief. I tried my first Agatha Christie novel at the very beginning of the year, and found her detective fiction a welcome respite from real-world drama. It is certainly genre fiction, and can be gratingly formulaic at times, but the good ones are really quite good, and even the mediocre ones helped me get out of my head and allowed my mind to work on solving less personal problems. Of the 46 Agatha Christie titles I listened to this year, the one I find sticking with me is this especially-memorable Miss Marple mystery that is somehow chilling and tender all at once.
The lives and writings of the Brontë sisters have been a special passion of mine since I visited their childhood home in Haworth in 2020. While I do enjoy their books—especially Charlotte’s Villette and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—I’m even more interested in these three young Victorian women as people, and in tracing and exploring their experiences as women writers in a world that wasn’t necessarily excited about making room for women writers. I’m interested in the very different ways the three sisters chose to make peace with the gender-based inequities that had major impacts on their lives, and I’m intrigued by what their habits and correspondence can tell us about the Victorians’ much closer relationship with death. This year I finished working through the last of the sisters’ novels, and also enjoyed studying their lives in Juliet Gardiner’s beautiful compilation of their letters, diaries, and other writings. I think Gardiner’s books pairs well with Deborah Lutz’s simply fabulous book The Brontë Cabinet, which I listened to on Audible last year.
For me this was the most exquisite piece of fiction I read in 2022, and it had me crying buckets. Technically it is another Agatha Christie novel (Mary Westmacott was an alias of Christie’s), but I think it is entirely fair to class it on its own since Christie used the Westmacott name to write books distinct in flavor, theme, and tone from her more famous mystery novels. Unfinished Portrait is a semi-autobiographical account that closely parallels events from Agatha Christie's own life, and it is written with a loving attention to detail and with that realism that gives luster to memory. Like so many books written by women over the past couple of centuries, this one raises issues that have been central to the experience of womanhood throughout recorded history: socially-imposed legal and financial dependence on men; sexual double standards and the normalization of male infidelity; and love: the insatiable hunger for it, the confusion about it, the inability to get it on equal terms. A beautiful, sad, beautiful book.
I didn’t read as much poetry this year, focusing more of my energies on painting and less on writing, but of course I managed to squeeze in a Naomi Shihab Nye collection! Nye is a poet for everyone, writing about things that matter to all of us in language we can all understand. Even her mysterious lines don’t feel inaccessible. Anyway, all this to say: do your soul a favor and pick up a Naomi Shihab Nye book today. This one is as good a place to begin as any.
Like many other women I know, I'm still recovering from growing up as a little girl in the '90s and 2000s—an era many feminist media critics now recognize as a sort of wasteland for women's representation in visual media. In our formative years, so many women my age were alienated from our own bodies and our history thanks in large part to opportunistic and unscrupulous media representation and the (often well-intentioned) work of visual storytellers who presented us to ourselves as something less than fully human. With few exceptions, the women I saw on-screen in my teen years were no one I wanted to be. Almost every female public figure I can remember from those times was a hated “evil” woman or an object of ridicule in the circles I inhabited, and women in the films and books I consumed were hardly better. They were so often decorative and rather static. They were more likely to operate within the story as objects than as subjects, and stories were seldom told from their viewpoint. Worst of all: they were, unlike male characters, primarily defined and interpreted in terms of their sex appeal. Their entry into the story was a catalyst for sexual tension, and the threat of sexual violence always hovered about them, raising the stakes and upping the ante. The female characters I saw on-screen in my teen years rarely got to be "just people," but were rather presented and explored primarily as other and opposite counterparts to a male default. In short, women who came of age in the 90s and 2000s have a LOT to unpack, and this is exactly what Allison Yarrow sets out to do in 90s Bitch, illuminating how sexual objectification and misogynistic mass media created a lasting crisis of identity for women and girls, and raising questions about how we can do better for the coming generations.
I got started on Lord Peter Wimsey this year, and have worked through seven of Sayers’ stories about her witty gentleman detective. When I settled down to decide on a favorite, I kept coming back to this tale of murder in a remote Scottish village frequented by painters and sport fishermen. It’s certainly not the favorite Peter Wimsey book among Goodreads reviewers, but as a painter, I found all the shop-talk about pigments and lighting highly engaging, and it is also the one Wimsey book so far that has brought me to tears at the end.
Much of what I hear folks say nowadays regarding The Feminine Mystique is how powerful it was “in its time,” so I was astonished upon reading it to find how relevant major portions of it feel to me in our own time—especially when I apply them to my experiences in the conservative Texas towns where I spent my teen, college, and young adult years not long ago. Certainly some of Friedan’s research is now outdated, she includes a paragraph or two of rather condescending comments about gay men, and she doesn’t even begin to tackle the racialized nuances involved in the question of “woman’s role.” But her central thesis—that women in certain spheres are pushed, to the detriment of themselves and society at large, to find their primary identity and fulfillment in their sexual function—remains so true that reading this book was at times unbearably painful to me. However, Friedan is not a brutal writer, and my main takeaway from this book was her measured and respectful, evidence-based rebuttals of biological determinism, and the new vision she paints for women to live out our full personhood.
This best-known of theologian Howard Thurman’s books is one of the key writings on the subject of liberation theology. Martin Luther King Jr. is famously said to have carried a copy in his pocket throughout the Montgomery bus boycott, and it was my favorite assigned text from a course our Episcopal church offered on the history of race and racism in America. Thurman writes unapologetically about the lived realities of oppressed people groups and of Jesus as a friend to the disinherited, a rescuer whose example and Good News gives unjustly-suffering people the ability to survive indignities without the loss of their humanity, of their souls. Although Thurman is of course writing directly out of the experiences of race-based oppression faced by Black Americans, parts of this book felt like they were written directly to me. 73 years since its first publication, this book is still deeply significant and pertinent for Christians everywhere.