What We Read in 2022
In keeping with Library tradition, we recently asked our staff about the books they enjoyed reading (and listening to) most in 2022. As usual, a rich variety of books was the result—old and new; fiction and nonfiction; children's, young adult, and adult. We hope you find something here that sends you to the stacks (or reaching for the Cloud Library app).
Carolyn Waters, Head Librarian
America: Day by Day by Simone de Beauvoir is the best book I read this year. In 1947, de Beauvoir kept a diary of her first visit to the United States, a cross-country trip by train, bus, and car. I savored every word of this wonderful travelogue cum cultural critique. Her descriptions of the cities and small towns she visits are revelatory; her observations of the differences between Americans and French are insightful and often humorous. This is an intensely personal book in which she expresses her rapture upon seeing the landscape of the southwest; a preference for whiskey and seedy joints; deep comfort at finding friends and a kind of home in New York City (don’t ask about Rochester); and disappointment in the lack of seriousness in the American university students she meets. (Note that the Library has two translations: one from 1953 and a new translation by Carol Cosman, with a foreword by Douglas Brinkley. The latter is the one I read.)
Patrick Rayner, Acquisitions Assistant / Circulation Assistant
Two of the best books I read this year both offered privileged access and tantalizing stories about the inner circles of New York City artists. Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet (ebook also available) kicks off when she discovers cassette tapes containing art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s interviews with Frank O’Hara’s friends that were part of his planned, but never completed, biography of the poet. Her desire to finish this biography is complicated by their relationship: Calhoun is Schjeldahl’s daughter, and still seeks both his fatherly approval and his professional respect. Her project, like her father’s before her, runs into unexpected hurdles. This book is the culmination of both of their efforts though not the biography either set out to write. Instead, it’s a fascinating memoir of a father-daughter pair of writers and their shared obsessions, sprinkled with heretofore untold stories from O’Hara’s friends captured on those tapes.
Even more studded with gossipy bits is Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers (with a little help and a lot of footnotes from New York Times theater critic Jesse Green). While the stories of her growing up as the daughter of Richard Rodgers are fascinating, it’s her own career and relationship with some of Broadway’s biggest talents that are the draw here. Or rather, it’s her candor about these people that’s the draw. Alarmingly outspoken indeed. (Ebook also available)
Cullen Gallagher, Bibliographic Assistant
As an avowed bibliophile, I swooned over two recent mysteries. Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown, the twelfth entry in his lighthearted series about West Village thief/bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr. Being a huge Fredric Brown fan, I was eager to see what happens to Bernie after a night of reading Brown’s What Mad Universe. What ensues is an alternate NYC with no Amazon in sight—or electronic security systems. The result is not only utterly delightful, but poignant; if this is Bernie’s last go-around (and I hope it’s not), it’s a fond farewell to a beloved mystery icon. My other fav was Joseph Goodrich’s The Paris Manuscript, in which Marcel Proust takes a break from Swann’s Way to help an American ex-pat writer solve the murder of a blackmailer. A respected mystery scholar and Edgar-winning playwright, Goodrich balances literary fantasy and noir atmosphere while honoring Golden Age archetypes. I also enjoyed digging into the non-mystery side of W.R. Burnett. If you’ve only read Little Caesar, High Sierra, or The Asphalt Jungle, check out Goodbye to the Past (1934), which tells the life story of a business mogul in reverse, or King Cole (1936), about a ruthless gubernatorial candidate.
Justin Schwartz, Circulation Page
The best book that I read this year was Severance by Ling Ma. I’m a few years late to this 2018 release, but they say better late than never with good reason. This novel tells the story of the apocalyptic spread of Shen Fever (a fictitious disease with eerie similarities to Covid-19) through the experiences of survivor Candace Chen in two separate timelines. One following her life before the fever hit, living in New York City and working in the Bible division of a large publishing company, and the other after the pandemic, as she and a small group of survivors try to gather resources and avoid those who have been infected. For me, this book fell right into the sweet spot of featuring sci-fi themes while still feeling grounded in the real world, and I enjoyed the subtle yet witty jabs at consumerism. I was gripped from start to finish.
Sara Holliday, Head of Events
Meet Malcolm McLaren: the dead celeb with whom I would most like to eat lunch (once). In the year 2000 he staged a Hamburg art installation inviting visitors to play his life like a casino, unapologetically embracing his roles as anarchic artist, anti-fashion fashion impresario, ‘Diaghilev of punk,’ oddball pop musician, and seductive, subversive force of chaos. That’s a microcosm of his life and of this definitive book, a sprint through 20th-century culture full of unexpected cameos and discoveries. Deeply researched and readable, Paul Gorman’s The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren presents a weirdly inspiring portrait of this complicated, frustrating, fascinating figure—balancing McLaren’s reputation as a self-serving con man with his irrepressible curiosity, enthusiasm, and inexhaustible creative energy.
This year I also caught up with Be My Baby, the memoir by Ronnie Spector (with Vince Waldron)—one of the most sublime pop vocalists of the 20th century, who we lost in 2022. It’s not, perhaps, a great work of literature, but a unique look at New York roots and the creation of classic records, alongside the story of a woman who refused to let others define her.
James Addona, Head of Development
Morgan Talty’s debut collection of stories, Night of the Living Rez (ebook also available), is an unforgettable portrayal of family in an indigenous community. At turns haunting and hilarious, Night at the Living Rez offers richly-drawn characters and profound insights into the lasting personal and cultural impact of deeply rooted inequities. Other recommendations from our collection that I enjoyed this year: Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, in which two friends retire to a country estate to pursue their agrarian, aesthetic, and educational whims to tragicomic effect; Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet; the (unfortunately) always timely A Short History of Financial Euphoria by John Kenneth Galbraith; and in the “we have that here?” category, Robert Motherwell: with Selections from the Artist’s Writings, the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition held at MoMA in 1965 edited by Frank O’Hara.
Kirsten Carleton, Assistant Circulation Supervisor/ILL Coordinator
I’m a sucker for cold war espionage stories, so it’s no surprise that I fell for Our American Friend (ebook also available) Library member Anna Pitoniak marries the spy genre with a nuanced portrait of two women: one a president’s wife whose public image hides a scandalous past, the other a journalist she unexpectedly recruits to reveal it. Though First Lady Lara and her husband are inspired by Melania and Donald Trump in a setting that mirrors our own approaching cold war revival, in Pitoniak’s hands the characters become distinctly themselves. So too is reporter Sofie, who struggles to reconcile her personal politics and journalistic detachment with her increasing sympathy for Lara. The layers of mystery—Who is Lara really? What is her game now? How has it brought Sofie to her current hideout in Croatia? And why did Lara pick her to begin with?—match the depth of characterization, coming together in a read that’s as thoughtful as it is thrilling.
Susan Vincent Molinaro, Children's and Young Adult Librarian
This past spring, I caught up to N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, which won our own NYC Book Award in 2021. And then this fall, I was ready to consume the sequel, The World We Make. Both are fun dips into science-fiction thoroughly fueled by disgruntlement with the state of our world but also hope for the future, as evidenced by the titles.
My favorite children’s and YA reads from 2022 were comics, which is appropriate when our inaugural Young Cartoonists Awards is on the horizon. In Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan, four guys (Vaughan, Chiang, Fletcher, and Wilson) tell the story of four pre-teen girls (Erin, KJ, Mac, and Tiffany) in the 1980s who stumble into other dimensions while delivering newspapers in the pre-dawn hours. Originally published in single issues over the past six years, this tome collects them all together. Before or after reading it, you might also enjoy the Netflix series inspired by the comics that came out last summer. When I saw the title of Elise Gravel’s latest book, Killer Underwear Invasion, I knew without a doubt it would be fun. But it’s also informative because this graphic non-fiction title explains how to identify ‘fake news’ and learn how not to be swayed by it.
Randi Levy, Head of the Children’s Library
When I read “for work” as the Head of the Children’s Library, I alternate between children’s and young adult books published recently and not-so-recently. A novel from each of these categories stands out this year. Gregory Maguire’s 2022 gorgeously illustrated Cress Watercress (also available as an audiobook) is a witty and whimsical tale of an adventurous rabbit growing up and finding a home among the many and varied neighbors in her family’s new woodland neighborhood. I read Benjamin Alire Sàenz’s 2012 Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe via the excellent audiobook, read by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is the multiple award-winning and beautifully rendered story of friendship and love between two teens on the cusp of becoming men in a world that challenges their right to be who they are.
Marialuisa Monda, Events Assistant
Whenever the “what is the best book you read this year” question comes up, it is difficult for me as I consider myself a dragon regarding books. However, if I must choose, this year I fell in love with Treasury of Magical Tales From Around The World by Donna Jo Napoli (with Illustrations by Christina Balit). It is a stunning collection—just look at it—of the magic and the extraordinary, of age-old adventures, true love, and many other themes that would delight anyone. Many of these stories are familiar but with twists or new adaptations that tickled me pink. After reading (and re-reading) the Library’s copy, it is clear that I must buy one for myself.
Diane Srebnick, Development Assistant
The high point of my reading this past year was Meredith Hall’s 2020 novel Beneficence. I found it so deeply moving that it’s difficult to write about objectively. The story is told in spare, but evocative prose. Two young people, Doris and Tup, living in Maine in the 1930s, meet and fall in love. They take over his family’s almost derelict farm and make a go of it, attaining their dream of sharing it with a family of their own. Doris says, “young as we were we knew we were blessed.” Then a tragedy happens, something commonly referred to as “unthinkable” and their lives are destroyed. This is not the sort of novel where love conquers all, at least in any easily recognizable way. It’s more about what people do when forced to realize that what they thought of as love is nowhere near enough. When you finish the book you may want to know more about the author. Her 2007 memoir, Without a Map is devastating.
Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
I read several fine, satisfying books in 2022, but David Stacton’s 1961 novel Judges of the Secret Court is the one that sits atop the heap. Built around the Lincoln assassination, Stacton skillfully weaves several aspects of the crime into a brilliant, melancholy novel that will stay with you long after you have read it. Without feeling at all cluttered, in 250 pages Judges… chronicles complex, cataclysmic aftershocks of the assassination, featuring Booth’s co-conspirators, his family, his pursuers, and powerful political figures—most notably the ambitious secretary of war Edwin Stanton. Stacton writes with an economical, propulsive prose, and his characters—particularly vain, blustery, amoral John Wilkes Booth and his tormented brother Edwin—are vivid, compelling, and heartbreaking.
Discovering the discomforting fiction of James Purdy was a pleasure—perhaps pleasure is the wrong word, but I am glad I did. His 1957 book of short stories (and a novella), Color of Darkness, is a dark and darkly humorous thing, filled with incisive portraits of social outcasts, their disappointments and deceits, and the twisted relationships among friends and family that they inhabit. The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner (1972), a sympathetic and moving portrait of an alienated teenager in Flint, MI, was another welcome discovery. In the nonfiction realm I very much enjoyed Aaron Sachs’s Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times (2022). Sachs employs an agile touch that allows him to move back and forth across the decades separating these writers’ lives, revealing the connections between them and their work, and the troubled times in which they lived.
Katie Fricas, Events/Circulation Assistant
Cookie Mueller only spent 40 years on this celestial plane, but she left us with a lifetime of gleefully raucous writing. A new collection of her work, expanded from an earlier edition put out by semiotext(e), called Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, is billed on the cover as "collected stories," but I'd be willing to bet at least a good handful of details from each are rooted in truth. Cookie had a famously fun life: she was a star in numerous John Waters film, was photographed by Nan Goldin, attended parties for Basquiat, hitchhiked, designed clothes, and got tattooed before it was widely accepted as cool. A NYC luminary in the 1980s, this collection includes her complete advice column "Ask Dr. Mueller," from the East Village Eye, and a number of pieces of journalism. My favorite is the one where she visits the long-gone Coney Island wax museum, but there's something for every wild child in this book. Ten out of ten, would read again!