I read many stunning books these past 12 months, but the ones that made this end-of-year list uniquely stand out. I’m typically heavy on literary novels in my reading life, but in 2022 I intentionally widened my focus to include more nonfiction, which is why there’s an even split of three novels and three nonfiction books. Each is unusual for how the story is told, whether it’s a narrator or author with a fascinating take on life or a forceful style of writing. All of the books were published this year except for two. As I increased my nonfiction reading, I also increased reading books gathering dust on my TBR table. I’ve noted their pub dates.
Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan: The first is a forgotten novel, published and acclaimed in 1937, fallen out of print, and thankfully revived by Boiler House Press in their Recovered Book Series. It came to my attention thanks to Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books Page, where “forgotten books are remembered.” (I highly recommend a visit.) The plot follows a young couple’s relationship in London, vividly portraying English life between New Year’s Eve 1919 and the funeral of King George V in 1936, as they court, marry, work, and socialize. What’s especially fascinating is how author Gertrude Trevelyan blends real-life news headlines into the narrative. As Robert and Katherine make their life choices and the headlines publish and broadcast advancing world events, Trevelyan evocatively dramatizes the universal truth that with progress comes a price. Her talent alone makes this a standout, but there’s also Robert’s intuition amidst his wife’s follies. He’s a memorable literary character.
Come to This Court & Cry: How the Holocaust Ends by Linda Kinstler: There’s a haunting quality about this account, set for the most part in Latvia, of the author’s paternal grandfather Boris Kinstler. No one in the family accurately can determine what happened to him. It’s known he served in a WWII killing unit under another Latvian, Herberts Cukurs, and possibly served as a double agent for the Soviet KGB. Cukurs became a target of Mossad agents after the war — he was assassinated by them in Uruguay in 1965. While author Linda Kinstler chases and dissects Boris and Cukurs’s lives, she also illustrates history’s vulnerability when people want to deny and revise it. In this 21st Century, Latvia’s prosecutor general began re-investigating Cukurs’s war history — eye witnesses long dead — with the possibility of clearing the Latvian’s name. Much of it had to do with petitions of Cukurs’s descendants. Kinstler’s investigative intelligence, her personal perspective, and dogged questioning as she explores “what justice means” (as she tells us in the prologue) captured me in one of those ways that forever stays with you.
The Village Idiot by Steve Stern: If you don’t recognize the name Chaim Soutine, you’ll likely recognize his paintings, especially the pastry chef with the big ears. Soutine arrived in Paris in the early 20th century where he lived in poverty until discovery by an American collector skyrocketed him to fame. This is a novel, a fictional imagining of this strange artist who had extraordinary talent. It’s written with a removed narrative voice that deeply respects and comprehends the Jewish Soutine’s genius and religious guilt. What makes it a standout for me is how the author immerses us into what might have been Soutine’s interior life, a peering into his soul as Soutine peered into the soul of his subjects. Chaim Soutine left no written record of his life, according to the book’s acknowledgements. Author Steve Stern packs his exceptional imagining with vivid drama and controversy, but what alone rivets is this one person’s world opened up for us that, for the famous, otherwise goes unseen and unfelt.
Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg: This is a collection of essays that functions as a memoir, capturing author Mark Spragg’s coming-of-age on the oldest dude ranch in Wyoming — Holm Lodge — located on the Shoshone National Forest. There his family built a life in the 1960s. Spragg writes passionately and reverently about the harsh landscape, the unpredictable weather, and the one-of-a-kind personalities of the ranch horses. He writes with humor, love, insight, and philosophical wisdom about working alongside the hired hands, his responsibilities with the tourists, and his youthful mistakes. I loved this book as one loves an irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s because of the way the author drops us into a time that happened for him long ago as if it were yesterday. This is nostalgic writing at its very best. (Published in 1999.)
Lioness by Mark Powell: I’ve spoken about this novel many times on our show, WOSU All Sides Weekend Books. It kept coming up because once I mentioned it, there was a snowball effect of others reading it and wanting to talk about it. The premise is ecoterrorism, about a bomb going off at a water-bottling plant in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Chris Bright, a mountain hermit with a long history of activism, is arrested at the scene. Unaccounted for is Mara Wood, but her estranged husband David cannot quite believe she is dead. The bombing is the event that launches the plot, but the heart of the story is David’s compelling narrative voice that rethinks his courtship and marriage with Mara, his wife’s connection to Chris Bright, and the why of such violence. It’s seductive storytelling, where the page disappears and you enter the world of the voice as if it is your world, like a song that takes away time. It’s hard to put down. So were many other novels this year; however, they didn’t have this narrative voice.
Ganbare! Workshops on Dying by Katarzyna Boni: I wish the publisher had given a different subtitle to this book. Its content isn’t “workshops” as you may think of them, which could put off readers. That said, I get the choice. The book is about the March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northeastern Japan. It recounts how the survivors and those left behind grieved and rebuilt their lives — and it reveals how this happens in a culture that believes the living take care of the dead and the dead take care of the living. The author’s thorough considerations and compassion take us down a fascinating rabbit hole of deep, intimate understanding of an event that otherwise became a short-lived news report for the rest of the world. The Fukushima nuclear crisis especially unfolds with astonishing perspective. Little did we know. Everything about this book makes it a standout, from how it’s organized to its culturally rich details, from its oral histories to its detailed facts. You just have to read it. (Published in 2021)