Chaos reigned this year. Russia invaded Ukraine, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, Elon Musk remade Twitter in his erratic image, mass shooters continued to terrorize the United States, civil rights protests swept Iran, Queen Elizabeth died, Bolsanaro got the boot in Brazil, boards were buttered, crypto crumbled, and overall, every single week felt like the entire chorus to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Perhaps because of all this tumult, turmoil, and general mayhem, I gravitated toward complicated, thorny stories this year—strange, slippery, often unsettling fictions, and nuanced, searching non-fiction. This is an idiosyncratic, deeply incomplete, and totally subjective list, the result of one person’s avid but disorganized reading schedule. But these are the novels, short stories, and non-fiction books that stood out for me in 2022. Here’s hoping it helps you find your next great read.
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The School for Good Mothers
by Jessamine Chan
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Jessamine Chan’s debut novel is not a domestic manual on keeping house, nor is it the sort of slog that might make tidying look like an appealing alternative. Yet as I read it over the course of one snowy evening, I repeatedly put it down to complete household tasks normally ignored until morning. Dishes gleamed. Pillows got fluffed. Every last sock met its match. The School for Good Mothers follows a single mom, Frida Liu, as she’s forced into a re-education center filled with robot children after making a parenting mistake. Frida does everything within her power to get her daughter back, but her behavior is constantly interpreted in the least generous ways possible. This book is a horror story so potent it will fill even the most diligent parent with an itchy impulse to panic-clean, straighten up, and act like someone’s watching. It’s inventive, gripping, and wholly devastating.
Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf
A sequel of sorts to her surprise-blockbuster novel Station Eleven and its follow-up The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility is a discursive tale looped directly atop its predecessors, cutting them up and rearranging the pieces into a trippy, wistful story. If Mandel were a musician, it would be an album made from sampling earlier songs. The past isn’t just prologue—it’s the present and future, too, as the plot hopscotches across centuries, following a time-traveler named Gaspardy who’s trying to figure out whether the universe is a simulation. Although Sea of Tranquility is set largely in the future and adorned with sci-fi flourishes, it raises old questions about how we can make meaning. It’s a beautiful book.
by David Musgrave
Courtesy of Europa Editions
A novice police officer assigned to watch over a refugee group tries to figure out whether the refugees have been framed for terrorism—and where the real killers are lurking. Technically, this is an accurate description of the plot of David Musgrave’s Lambda. Sounds like a pretty straightforward potboiler, right? But from its first page, Lambda is up to something weirder and more unwieldy, ditching a linear narrative and setting the story in an alternate-universe Britain where you can get in trouble with the cops for damaging a talking toothbrush. Meanwhile, the police test out an AI system that will both accuse someone of a crime and go ahead and assassinate them. It may sound like a Philip K. Dick pastiche, but Musgrave’s debut is more ambitious than the tropes it borrows, arranging them into original, arresting literary sci-fi.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us
by Rachel Aviv
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
When Rachel Aviv was six years old, she stopped eating. Shortly after, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Her doctors were baffled. They’d never seen a child so young develop the eating disorder, yet there she was. While Aviv made a full, relatively speedy recovery, she developed a lifelong interest in the borderlands between sickness and health. In Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us, Aviv wonders whether she ever truly had anorexia at all, or whether the episode was perhaps too hastily pathologized. By examining her own experience as well as four other people with unusual mental health issues, Aviv argues against any one grand unifying theory of the mind. Strangers to Ourselves is a look into this vacuum of understanding—about what happens when there’s no easily digestible story to explain what’s happening inside your head, and when Freud and pharmaceuticals and everything else fails. It doesn’t offer easy answers, but provokes fascinating questions.
The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism
by Adrienne Buller
Courtesy of Manchester University Press
How much is a whale worth? It seems like a self-evidently ridiculous question, borderline obscene—whales are majestic creatures whose worth transcends the human impulse to quantify, obviously! Yet it is one that has been seriously considered by economists in an effort to convince governments and corporations to value wildlife. In The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, Adrienne Buller dissects the asinine logic of “green” capitalist thinking. The book takes a bracing look at how corporate interests are using the superficial trappings of climate activism to reinforce their own power. As one might imagine, it’s not the most uplifting read in the world. Buller sees market-based corporate “green” initiatives as distracting at best—and, at worst, actively destructive. But it’s a galvanizing, tough book, one that asks us to not accept a simulacrum of improvement for the real thing.
Best Young Woman Job Book
by Emma Healey
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Who suspected a Canadian poet would write the best account of life in the gig economy? Emma Healey’s funny, rueful memoir documents her peripatetic employment history, including stints at an SEO farm operated out of a middle-aged man’s bedroom and a remarkably unsexy time technical writing at one of the world’s largest porn companies. Healey’s forthright treatment of the central role money plays in a creative life is enormously refreshing. Instead of hand-waving the financial details that have made her career possible, she molds into her art the work she had to do in order to do the work she wanted. It’s a neat trick. Best Young Woman Job Book has only been released in Canada thus far; here’s hoping it finds the wider audience it deserves.
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century
by Olga Ravn
Courtesy of New Directions Publishing
Although Olga Ravn’s The Employees came out in 2020 in its original Danish, an English translation by Martin Aitken was published in the United States in 2022 … so I’m counting it, because this was the most entrancing reading experience I had all year. Ravn’s hypnotic, elliptical storytelling about a journey to an alien land gone wrong reminded me of Jeff van der Meer’s Annihilation. (Heavy on foreboding, borderline-sinister atmosphere, light on exposition.) The Employees is divided into short statements given by anonymous workers on the Six Thousand Ship, a space shuttle on a vague corporate mission staffed by a mix of humans and humanoids. These transcribed statements are numbered, some running for pages, others stopping after a few sentences. After collecting a variety of objects on a distant planet called New Discovery, these workers find themselves increasingly at odds as they begin to obsess over said objects, which do not speak but can emit noises, smells, and vibrations. As the human workers pine for home, the humanoid workers increasingly pine to be more than what they’ve been programmed to be.
by Bora Chung
Courtesy of Algonquin Books
Look, I’m not going to lie. Cursed Bunny is the most relentlessly disgusting collection of short stories I’ve ever read. And I read a lot of Chuck Palahniuk in college. Korean writer Bora Chung’s first English publication (translated by Anton Hur) opens with a tale about a woman who gets confronted by a creature made of her poop and assorted viscera, insisting it’s her child. She attempts to destroy said toilet creature; success is elusive. In another story, a downtrodden farmer stumbles upon a fox who bleeds gold, and exploits this unexpected source of wealth until he’s both rich and disconcertingly comfortable with evils ranging from incest to cannibalism. Anyone with low tolerance for the gross and gory should avoid Cursed Bunny at all costs. But if you want a spooky set of stories that will crawl under your skin and burrow into your marrow and stay there forever, Chung’s collection is a freaky, unforgettable outing. There’s a folkloric quality to this collection, like these are urban legends that have finally been put to paper.
Tremors in the Blood
by Amit Katwala
Courtesy of Crooked Lane Books
This rollicking true-crime tale about the invention and near-immediate corruption of the polygraph machine is so good—fast-paced and elegant and fun—I simply had to include it on my year-end list. (And yes, Amit works at WIRED. But this list is already on the record as a completely subjective exercise anyway, so why would I ban my colleague’s work?) Tremors in the Blood is part courtroom thriller, part popular history, and always remarkably engaging. It follows ambitious Berkeley, California, police chief August Vollmer as he first encourages his intellectual employee John Larson to create the polygraph—and then as he ignores Larson’s concerns that the machine is getting adopted recklessly. Instead, Vollmer champions Larson’s slick-talking co-inventor, Leonarde Keeler, as he makes sure police departments across the country start using the machine. Anyone waiting for David Grann’s next book to come out would be wise to pick up Tremors in the Blood.
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
by Dan Saladino
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In a food rut, relying on the same dinner staples again and again? BBC journalist Dan Saladino’s alternately delightful and melancholic Eating to Extinction is exactly the kind of reading material that’ll make someone try a new meal. The book makes a persuasive, passionate argument for increased biodiversity through a series of briskly narrated case studies from across the world, from Australia’s nearly-lost tuber murnong to the fermented mutton aged in huts on the Faroe Islands. Eating to Extinction is a travelogue infused with reverence for the sheer variety of foods found on this planet that is somehow never precious or cloying. Instead, it simply feels urgent.
by Percival Everett
Courtesy of Graywolf Press
Did the world need another James Bond spoof? I always assumed the answer was “no,” at least following the release of the final Austin Powers movie. But the prolific, exuberantly original novelist Percival Everett changed my mind with Dr. No, a jaunty, idea-stuffed caper. The book follows a mathematics professor named Wala Kitu, who uses a tie as a belt and spends his days obsessing over the concept of nothing and feeding his one-legged dog. Wala’s world is upended when he meets a self-styled “supervillain” billionaire named John Sil, who plots to destroy the world by harnessing the power of nothingness. (This requires burglarizing Fort Knox, as Sill suspects the Army keeps a box full of nothing in its safe.) An heir to Kurt Vonnegut, Everett infuses his work with a contagious sense of playfulness, one that makes the act of reading hundreds of pages about nothing into a treat rather than a chore. Dr. No is an unequivocal “yes.”
How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
by Sabrina Imbler
Courtesy of Little Brown
I think I first became a fan of Sabrina Imbler when I read their science writing in The New York Times, in particular a story about eels with the world’s greatest headline. I was thrilled when they moved to Defector, my favorite sports blog. So when I picked up their debut essay collection How Far the Light Reaches, I expected lively prose about marine biology, maybe with a few puns thrown in. Instead, I got lively prose about marine biology mixed with an intimate, thoughtful, emotionally affecting memoir. In How Far the Light Reaches, Imbler examines their own personal history, drawing connections between their struggles to adapt to and grow beyond life in California’s suburbs with the stories of creatures they love.