Once again, it’s time for my annual departure from the nerdy world of securities law and corporate governance to discuss my favorite 10 books of 2022 – five each of fiction and non-fiction. For those unfamiliar with what follows, the books are those I read in 2022, not necessarily those that were published last year. Also, they are reported in the order in which I read them rather than in order of preference. So here goes….
Severance, by Ling Ma
I am not big fan of what used to be called science fiction and is now, more appropriately, called speculative fiction. However, I read this book early in 2022 on the basis of a recommendation, and I was dazzled. Written in 2018, it is about a plague very similar to what we experienced in 2020. Aside from the author’s prescience – which is pretty remarkable in itself – I loved her crisp writing style, the characters she creates, and her wry approach to catastrophe and the odd emotions and behaviors it brings out in people.
Yonder, by Jabari Yasim
While the plot is completely different, this book about slavery reminded me of The Sweetness of Water, which was one of my favorites of 2021. The writing is beautiful and the story is ineffably sad, upsetting, and uplifting.
A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell
Ms. Russell is noted for, among other things, The Sparrow, a work of science – I mean, speculative – fiction that was quite good. This book is a completely different work, about the plight of Jews who fled to Italy after it withdrew from WWII, thinking it would be a safe haven, only to have to deal with Hitler’s invasion and the perils it posed. I’m pretty much a sucker for books about WWII, but this is a good one.
Joan, by Katherine Chen
Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and this was one of my favorite books of 2022. It has been criticized because the author has a lot of stuff about the heroine – Joan of Arc – that is almost certainly not true, most particularly her masculine qualities, but she writes so well and it is so believable that I couldn’t have cared less. Besides, it’s fiction!
The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell
Not as good as Ms. Farrell’s earlier work, Hamnet, but that was extraordinary, while this is just very good. The author has a gift for making the past real in so many ways – the feel of fabrics, the scent of perfume, etc. Unlike Hamnet, which was so bittersweet, this one is dark and menacing. But very good indeed.
Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes
If you’re not familiar with Natalie Haynes, you should be – unless you’re allergic to mythology and great fun. (She’s a classicist who apparently started out as a stand-up comedian and hasn’t lost her touch for humor.) This book tells the tales of several ancient female characters with a feminist touch that is fascinating and funny. I highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by the author.
The Pope at War, by David Kertzer
Mr. Kertzer, a professor at Brown, has written quite a few books about the Vatican and its occupants, most of them quite critical. This one is about the actions (and inactions) of Pope Pius XII during WWII, and turns out to be a rather scathing indictment of how the church reacted to the Nazis.
Berlin Diary, by William L. Shirer
Shirer — the author of the magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich — was a reporter for CBS in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. The diary is just that – bits and pieces of various lengths from the diary he kept. It is gripping and profoundly upsetting, both as history and as a cautionary tale for our era. I read this one a long time ago but decided to re-read it last year; if anything, it was more powerful this time around.
The Escape Artist, by Jonathan Freedland
As noted above, I’m a sucker for almost anything about WWII. Consequently, I thought I knew a great deal about Auschwitz and other concentration camps. I was wrong. This book is about the first of a very small number of Jews who escaped from Auschwitz and how he tried to alert the world about what was happening there. The book is profoundly upsetting – for example, the descriptions of daily life at the camp are more detailed and horrific than much of what I’ve read on the topic – and frustrating, as his pleas to address the extermination of Jews and others fall on deaf or uninterested ears. But it’s very well written and needs to be read.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir
I went to London in July 2022 and was, again, reminded about how fascinating English history is. While the book is not strictly a biography of Henry VIII, it serves that purpose as it tells the story of his loves, lusts, dalliances, and more, and conveys a great sense of what England and the monarchy were in those days.