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The Year in Reading: 157 Titles Later, a Bibliophile Recommends Her Favourites
It was a contemplative spring and a giddy summer, but then a case of reader’s block was broken by – what else? – a book about reading / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 16th, 2022
At this time of year, everyone from publishers and bookstores to the Toronto Public Library takes stock of what grabbed readers, what didn’t, and what it all means. So do I, as sort of personal post mortem before tackling the year’s new TBR (to be read) list. My memory for titles falters, so I use the Notes app to record every book I start and/or finish; considered in retrospect, it charts the vagaries of my state of mind and moods throughout the year. (It’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a journal.)
I didn’t write about all the books I read this year (157 to date), but I’ve loved sharing the best of them with Zed: The Zoomer Book Club throughout the year. For the holiday season, once again I’ve put together a few themed book lists as gift ideas – perfect to give or, for the voracious readers among us, to get.
Looking at my year in reading, I can tell that spring was contemplative (literary fiction, social history) and my summer leisure reading got giddy, gravitating to commercial fiction and nature reading. By peak autumn book season, I hit a brick wall and my focus skidded to a halt. (Luckily I read most of the big juicy fall books over the summer.) I’m not the only book lover to struggle with jags of reader’s block, and after a fruitless month without reading, I turned to – surprise! – a book for the answers. You Are What You Read by New York humanities professor Robert DiYanni is basically a handbook to being a better reader. I make no reading resolutions, but do closely and strategically curate my TBR pile from a wide array of sources (a time-consuming but rewarding practice), and had been leaning heavily into emotionally demanding reads. DiYanni’s practical guide to the reading life lifted me out of a slump by prompting me to cast further afield than I would have by following my own instincts and taste.
Recommended Reading: Books for the Bookish
Once I surfaced from drafting the season’s many Zed Books holiday gift lists, for example, the moody Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles by Alex Harvey gave my reading battery the much-needed jump start. The balladeer’s 1973 debut album Closing Time is one of my all-time top tens, and I was fascinated by how Waits was shaped by his time in the City of Angels, soaking up the cultural influences of the Beats and haunting the city’s gritty locales. What I needed was whimsy, and I found it next in flapper Zelda Fitzgerald. The Jazz Age icon – famously, the wife of the Great American Novelist F. Scott – who struggled with mental illness, began making painted paper dolls in the 1920s when their daughter was six. She continued the craft throughout her life as a way of diarizing; in the disarmingly lovely new book The Paper Dolls of Zelda Fitzgerald, her granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, collects his uniquely autobiographical artistic output for the first time.
The other category that always lures me back into reading mode is bygone forgotten books, which I usually hear about from book bloggers (sorry, #BookTok). There’s something appealing about the absence of marketable authors, since most are long dead, so a book’s revival and success depends on the ultimate word-of-mouth: enthusiastic endorsements by voracious readers. The rise of publishing rediscovered books and authors is a phenomenon I wrote about last week, and knowing this was my sweet spot, a friend presented me with a new copy of bygone Canadian writer Sara Jeannette Duncan’s A Daughter of Today for my birthday. I heartily recommend it, along with Mary Fitt’s unusual 1936 thriller Three Sisters Flew Home.
Recommended Reading: Hidden Gems: The Best Rediscovered Books of 2022
Another reliably engrossing sub-genre centres on the Tinseltown magic of classic Hollywood, like Nghi Vo’s dazzling Siren Queen, a reimagining of early star Anna May Wong’s life. Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents excavates lesser-known Hollywood political history through a fictionalized community of artistic exiles and émigrés who take refuge in Hollywood from the fascism advancing in Europe in the 1940s. The delightful historical throwback Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe imagines director Billy Wilder making his final movie in order to ponder the death of the old studio system, while Edward J. Delaney’s The Acrobat is an odd, thinly veiled novelization of the life of Cary Grant.
Recommended Reading: Hollywood Moments
Following a lecture series I did on the cultural history of fashion, I was asked for relevant reading suggestions. The two books I most recommend are fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s Skirts — an entertaining survey of 20th-century hemlines and their significance – and Worn by Sofi Thanhauser, a sweeping look at clothing through the global social history of key garment materials such as wool and cotton. Everybody gets dressed in the morning, but not everyone thinks about what their clothing choices signal, so I would add What Artists Wear by the British art curator Charlie Porter. To Porter, Laurie Anderson’s tailored suits are part of the critique of power and control in her music and performances, and he explores the deeper meaning of sartorial uniforms adopted by other artists like Nicole Eisenman and Joseph Beuys.
Recommended reading: Good Tidings: 13 Coffee Table Books for Gift Giving
In moments of reading block I’ve found myself drawn to narrative non-fiction structured in discrete morsels, a format that suits a fractured attention span, like historian Kate Summerscale’s The Book of Phobias & Manias, an abecedary of 99 obsessions and fears, from ablutophobia (washing) and monophobia (solitude) to zoophobia (animals). Likewise, I loved dipping in and out of This Sleeve Should be Illegal: & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick. Ekphrasis—“the poetic evocation of a painting by a poet sufficiently impressed by a picture to want to write about it”— may come back into vogue thanks to this lush anthology. Edited by Canadian-raised New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik, he invites dozens of creatives, like Bill T. Jones, Andre Aciman, Bryan Ferry, Jonathan Lethem and Lydia Davis, as well as a few unexpected boldface names (Victoria Beckham! weighing in on Vermeer’s “Officer and Laughing Girl”) to share their short appreciative texts on a favourite piece in the Frick’s hallowed collection.
Recommended Reading: Take Their Word For It: 14 Starry Memoirs for the Celeb-Obsessed
More than ever, and as the bestseller lists attest, readers were drawn to spine-tingling procedurals, mystery and crime fiction. In an effort to understand why these literary genres exert such a gravitational pull, I consulted David Lehman’s The Mysterious Romance of Murder, which examines our fascination with detection and noir stories on the page and screen, but is ultimately more of a celebration of our collective preoccupation with the dark side of human nature than a thesis for why it exists. I fared better with Nicola Stow, who introduced me to citizens who are solving true crimes (like those looking into the 2012 Montreal homicide that inspired the Netflix series Don’t F**k with Cats) in The Real-Life Murder Clubs. I’ve never been enough of a joiner for a book club, but a sleuth club? Tempting! Similarly, Vanity Fair contributor Joe Pompeo’s Blood & Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double-Murder That Hooked America on True Crime revisits the Hall-Mills murder — a sordid case that has captivated crime reporters and writers for a century – and turns up insight along the way.
Recommended Reading: High Society
Like many who catapulted Killers of a Certain Age and its lethal coastal-grandmother assassins onto the bestsellers list, I chortled my way through Deanna Raybourn’s comic thriller. To those who enjoyed it, I’m also recommending The Lunar Housewife by Caroline Woods, an intrigue about espionage set in the world of 1950s New York literary magazines that similarly probes the contours of female ambition. Its novel-within-a-novel alternating chapter structure also recalls Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
My favourite suspense novels of the year in some way spoke to the present cultural moment, like Brendan Slocumb’s The Violin Conspiracy, a gripping tale about a talented Black classical musician and a priceless musical instrument, and The Opportunist, the first psychological thriller by Canada’s own Elyse Friedman that I’ve described as “if Succession were Canadian,” while The Cut fashion editor Amina Akhtar’s sly and thought-provoking Kismet skewers the whiteness of the self-care industry. They’re rueful dark and brainy satires.
I also continue to hook friends on Chris Pavone, who began his career the other side of the desk as a copy editor at Doubleday (when the editor at the end of the hall was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) and eventually edited the likes of John Grisham and Pat Conroy. According to the author, the premise of his latest twister Two Nights in Lisbon (about a newlywed who wakes up to find her new husband missing) was sparked in part by the infamous 2016 footage of Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assault as a sort of hobby. The footage, you’ll recall, was received by a largely indifferent America, which went on to elect him president. Pavone’s set-up explores how society enables predators and limits justice for victims in a truly fresh and unexpected corkscrew plot – to say any more would spoil the extremely clever fun. It would pair well with She Said, the movie about the New York Times investigative reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandals.
When all else fails, I read cookbooks like they’re novels and novels like they’re cookbooks, as any Laurie Colwin devotee will understand. The best ones this year were delectable windows into heritage, like Eric Kim’s Korean American (featured in this Zed Books listicle), the diversity of Puerto Rican food and cultural identity arrayed in Diasporican (bonus: author Illyanna Maisonet’s @eatgordaeat Instagram posts are mouthwatering) and the fascinating commonalities and intersections of African diaspora cooking and Yiddish foodways explored by chef and James Beard-winning food writer Michael Twitty in his latest, Koshersoul. Among the most poignant and uplifting books of 2022 was The Year of Miracles, English poet and cookery writer Ella Risbridger’s follow-up to her surprise hit Midnight Chicken, about grieving and the renewal of joy through friendship and cooking.
Recommended Reading: Science and Nature
Acclaimed Cape Breton author Kate Beaton’s quietly devastating graphic memoir Ducks, about her time working in the Alberta oil sands, has also resonated. The depiction of ecological and biological devastation (particularly of nearby First Nations physical health) by industry has stuck with me.
It dovetails beautifully with An Immense World by Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. The natural history book, underpinned by philosopher Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, is on many top 10 lists, and Yong has written not only one of the most popular science books of the year, but one of the books of the year. That attests to Yong’s ingenuity in combining engaging field research and reporting from laboratories with activating our sense of wonder as he explores how living beings perceive the world. Hopefully the book’s popularity speaks to a growing curiosity about experiences beyond our own and, flowing from that, a spike in empathy.
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