It feels a little fraudulent to write about my favourite reads of 2022, when I forbid myself to read or write about books for six months of the year, while I was working on a creative writing project. Writing about books is one of my greatest pleasures, however I realised that if I could harness that energy and apply it to something else I wished to complete, perhaps I could finish that other project.
I did finish it, so I’m giving myself a break and reopening the blog door, keeping the ‘thoughts on books’ muscle active.
An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire
Though I read less than half the number of books of 2021, I did manage to read 30 books from 13 countries, a third Irish authors, thanks to Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland month in February. I’m looking forward to more Irish reads this year; there were many promising reads published in 2022 that I wasn’t able to get to.
Sadly I missed Women in Translation month in August, though I managed to read six books in translation, two making my top reads of the years.
2023 will definitely be better for translations, since I’ve taken out a Charco Press subscription, giving me the opportunity to read a few Latin American contemporary authors from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.
Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination
As far as genre went, there was a much greater balance between fiction and non-fiction than in previous years, due to having been in the mood to read a lot more non-fiction this year.
And so to the books that left the most significant impression, where I have reviewed them I’ll create a link in the title.
One Outstanding Read
Was there one book that could claim the spot of Outstanding Read of 2022? This wasn’t easy to decide given most of my reading occurred in the beginning of the year, but as I look over the titles, there was one book that I remember being pleasantly surprised by and having that feeling of it not wanting to end, and being laugh out loud funny in places.
It is one of those novels, or perhaps I ought to say she is one of those writer’s whose works I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with, more than just a story, they open your mind to other works, stimulate curiosity and have a particular sensibility that reassures this reader that the novel will endure.
“I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.” – extract from my review
So here it is, my One Outstanding Read of 2022 was :
Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
In no particular order, here are my top 5 fiction and non-fiction reads for 2022.
Top 5 Fiction
Marzhan, mon amour, Katja Oskamp (Germany) translated by Jo Heinrich
– What a joy this Peirene novella was, one of those rare gems of what I perceived as uplifting fiction, until I lent it to a friend who is a nurse, who DNF’d it, making me realise that what can be delightful for one reader can be quite the opposite for another, in this case, someone who had heard too many sad stories from patients, requiring an empathetic barrier, to endure the overwhelm it creates.
Marzhan is a much maligned multi-storied, communist-era, working class quarter in East Berlin, where our protagonist, a writer, leaves her career behind to retrain as a chiropodist, due to the sudden illness of her husband. In each chapter, we meet one of her clients, members of the local community, many who have lived there since its construction 40 years earlier. A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of the housing estates, the connections created between the three women working in the salon and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold. A semi-autobiographical gem.
The Last Resort, Jan Carson (Northern Ireland)
– Another novella, this was another delightful, often hilarious story, with well constructed characterisation. Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, a group gather to place a memorial bench on the cliff top for a departed friend.
Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters, revealing their state of mind and concerns, while exploring complex family dynamics, ageing, immigration, gender politics, the decline of the Church and the legacy of the Troubles. A sense of mystery and suspense, pursued by teenage sleuth Alma, lead to the final scene, the cliff-hanger. A delightful afternoon romp.
I Will Die in a Foreign Land, Kalani Pickhart (US) (Set in Ukraine 2013/14) (Historical Fiction)
– Set in Ukraine in 2014, during the Euromaiden protests, four characters with different backgrounds (two outsiders, two protestors) cross paths, share histories, traverse geography and represent different perspectives in this Revolution of Dignity, the origin of a conflict that endures today.
The narrative is gripping, informative, well researched and had me veering off to look up numerous historical references. Moved by the documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy, Pickhart was struck by the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people against their government and the echo of the past, when the bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery rang for the first time since the Mongols invaded Kyiv in 1240AD.
“Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.”
Nora, A Love Story of Nora Barnacle & James Joyce, Nuala O’Connor (Ireland) (Historical Fiction)
– Absolutely loved it. I was instantly transported into Nora’s world, seeing their life and travels, the many challenges they faced and the unique connection that kept them together throughout. I knew nothing of their lives before picking this up during the One Dublin, One Book initiative in April 2022. Knowing now all the many places they lived and how Europe allowed them to live free of convention, I’m curious to encounter the stories Joyce created while Nora was keeping everything else together for him.
It is incredible that Nuala O’Connor managed to put together such a cohesive story given the actions of Joyce’s formidable grandson/gatekeeper Stephen, who did all he could to prevent access or usage of the family archive, including the destruction of hundreds of letters, until his death in 2020.
In 2023 the One Dublin, One Book read will be The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.
Towards Another Summer, Janet Frame (NZ) (Literary Fiction)
– What a treat this was, one of Janet Frame’s early novels written in the 1960’s when she was living in London, one she was too self conscious to allow to be published, so it came out posthumously in 2007. Written long before any of her autobiographical work, it clearly was inspired by much of her own experience as a writer more confident and astute with her words on the page than social graces.
In the novel, a young NZ author living in a studio in London, is invited to spend a weekend with a journalist and his family, something she looks forward to until beset by anxiety and awkwardness. Her visit is interspersed with reminiscences of her homeland, of a realisation of her homesickness and desire to return. She imagines herself a migratory bird, a kind of shape-shifting ability that helps her to be present, absent, to cope with the situation and informs her writing.
“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”
Top 5 Non-Fiction
All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks (US)
– What a joy it was to discover the voice and beautifully evolved mind of bell hooks in these pages.
Her perspective is heart lead, her definition of love leaves behind conditioned perceptions of romance and desire and the traditional roles of carer, nurturer, provider – and suggests that it might be ‘the will to do for oneself or another that which enables us to grow and evolve spiritually’ love becomes a verb not a noun.
It is a way of looking at this least discussed human emotion and activity that fosters hope and encouragement, in an era where we have been long suffering the effects of lovelessness under a societal system of domination.
The Passenger – Ireland (Essays, Art, Investigative Journalism)
– This collection of essays, art and information about contemporary Ireland is an underrated gem! Europa Editions noticed my prolific reading around Ireland after I read Sara Baume’s wonderful A Line Made By Walking and mentioned that she was one of the contributors to this stunning collection.
I planned to read a couple of essays each day, but it was so interesting, I kept reading until I finished it. Brilliant!
Across 11 essays, the collection explores the life and times of modern Ireland, with contributions from Catherine Dunne and Caelinn Hogan – discussing the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and a culture of silence in The Mass is Ended; William Atkins writes a fascinating essay on the Boglands; Manchan Magnan shares how the contraction of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the Irish language in An Ocean of Wisdom; Sara Baume writes of Talismans and Colum McCann of nostalgia in Everything That Falls Must Also Rise.
The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland Mark Devenport, writes about a region hanging in the balance, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; while Lyra McKee’s gut-wrenching essay Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies investigates the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.
“Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.”
And more, a brilliant essay on citizen assemblies, another on Irish music, rugby and a less enchanting one that explores locations in The Game of Thrones.
What My Bones Know, A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, Stefanie Foo (US) (Memoir)
– This was a gripping memoir I couldn’t put down. I read it for reference purposes, interested in the solutions she finds for healing complex PTSD. It is well researched, while each section contributes to the arc of a comprehensive and compelling narrative.
Stefanie Foo had a dream job as an award-winning radio producer at This American Life and was in a loving relationship. But behind her office door, she was having panic attacks and sobbing at her desk every morning. After years of questioning what was wrong with herself, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD – a condition that occurs when trauma happens continuously, over the course of years.
She becomes the subject of her own research, her journalist skills aiding her to interview those responsible for various discoveries and healing modalities, gaining insights into the effect and management of her condition, eventually reclaiming agency over it.
“Every cell in my body is filled with the code of generations of trauma, of death, of birth, of migration, of history that I cannot understand. . . . I want to have words for what my bones know.”
Ancestor Trouble, A Reckoning & A Reconciliation, Maud Newton (US) (Memoir/Genealogy)
– This was a fascinating read and exploration, at the intersection between family history and genetics; the author sets out to explore the nurture versus nature question with the aid of DNA genetic reports and stories both documented about and passed down through her family. Some of those stories and people she was estranged from create a concern/fear about what she might inherit.
Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics pondering her father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family. A captivating and highly informative read.
My Father’s Daughter, Hanna Azieb Pool (UK/Eritrea) (Adoptee Memoir)
– A memoir of the Eritrean-British journalist, Hannah Azieb-Pool, who returns to Eritrea at the age of 30 to meet her family for the first time. In her twenties, Azieb-Pool is given a letter that unravels everything she knows about her life. Adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea, brought to the UK, it was believed she had no surviving relatives. When she discovers the truth in a letter from her brother – that her birth father is alive and her Eritrean family are desperate to meet her, she is confronted with a decision and an opportunity, to experience her culture origins and meet her family for the first time.
It’s a story of uncovering the truth, of making connections, a kind of healing or reconciliation. Ultimately what has been lost can never be found. It’s like she was able to view an image of who she might have been and the life she may have had, and while viewing it was cathartic, it is indeed an illusion, a life imagined, one never possible to live.
* * * * * *
Have you read any of these books? Anything here tempt you for reading in 2023?
Happy Reading All!
Glad you loved Olga. She is marvellous. I recommend Flights, too, but The Books of Jacob is serious hard work…
OMG, Claire this was such a pleasure to read! You have a way with words that just draws me in…does not reveal too much about the books…but just enough! Bravo, the fruits of a creative writing project have paid off! Please, keep me reading MORE of you blog posts in 2023! Everyone of these books I can put in my TBR… especially the ones relating to Ireland! I’m creating a new “page” on my blog: CLAIRE’S RECOMMENDATIONS! I’ll list the books and refer any reader to your blogpost! Wonderful review, thanks so much!
Awww thank you Nancy, I’m a little rusty in my book chat, but thank you for the support and for squeezing out of me my intentions for January, I might even create a post and just not worry about whether it happens or not. Today’s list is today’s mood. 🤣
There’s some excellent Irish fiction and essays out there, as well as some of the older works, I’ve been reading quite a few Brian Moore novels, an Irish writer in exile, he’s in a genre of his own, I’d suggest.
I have the latest Sara Baume novel Seven Steeples and also Trespasses by Louise Kennedy which has received much acclaim.
Happy Reading and thanks for the encouragement Nancy! 🥳
What ever book you share….the mood selection….would be wonderful! Just love anything you can tell me about!
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Drive your Plow was a book that I started at the wrong time – on holiday. I didn’t finish it then, but you are not the only person to suggest I am missing out. I’ll go back to it. I’ll look out for the Frame, the Nuala O’Connor, the Katja Oskamp… oh, actually all of them, probably! I don’t have aa wish list so much as a TBR list, which is so long it would be invidious to pick anything out.
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And here I was thinking it might not be worth sharing my top reads this year, but then when I revisited the gems, I just had to. So thank you Margaret for your interest, I hope some of these cross your path!
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Working on it!
Olga is the best
You have great book collection
Thank you Lebogang, do you have some favourite reads from 2022?
Did you really not read books for six months Claire? Ouch! But congratulations on finishing your project. No surprise I know, but I love your outstanding book pick, and though I didn’t blog about it, was really impressed with Kalani Pickhart’s book too. It took me a little while to settle in to it, but was drawn in, as you say it is a gripping book. Maybe because I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Claire Keegan, ‘The Passenger’ really appeals.
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Wonderful post, Claire! All the books look fascinating! I want to read the Olga Tokarczuk and the Eritrean book. Thanks for sharing 🙂 Happy New Year and Happy reading!
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It’s really lovely to see a new post from you, Claire! I’ve missed your gorgeous writing about books over the past six months, so it’s great to hear about some of the highlights of your reading year. Like you, I loved Drive Your Plow when I read it. Janina is such a terrific character – smart, idiosyncratic and highly relatable. Olga T covers so many *big* topics in that novel – and yet, as you say, she does so in a highly accessible way. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too!
I’m also hoping to read more Irish writers this year, both north and south of the border. The Irish literary scene since to be buzzing at the moment, and long may it continue!
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I’ve yet to read Olga’s Bones; I tried The Books of Jacob, and after 500 pages, threw in the towel. Happy reading in 2023.
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Oh that’s tough Alison, BoJ asks a lot in terms of length and I’m not sure I could go there for now (not being in that desert island), are you able to identify what put you off continuing?
So impressed with that almost 50/50 split between nonfiction and fiction! Have you written about that creative writing 6-month non-blogging stint and I missed it?
What a lovely list and a great nonfiction/fiction split. And I’ve just ordered a copy of My Fathers’ Daughter, which I’d managed not to notice existed before! Hope you have a lovely 2023 of reading!
I agree with your top choice!!!!! Read it in 2021 and loved it with all my heart. I will read it again. THANK YOU!
Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Why did I have a feeling that your top choice would be Tokarczuk? I did think it would be The Books of Jacob so you got me there 🙂
I only read Flights by Tokarczuk and have been eyeing The Books of Jacob since its translation came out, but I’m not sure if I can commit to it at the moment. After reading your post, I am tempted to read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, though. You do have a wonderful selection here–I am also adding My Father’s Daughter and Nora, A Love Story to my TBR list. Thank you.
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Well guessed! Like you, I’m not sure I can commit to the Book of Jacob, nut one day I will I’m sure. I think Flights might be a little different to Drive Your Plow, but I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did. It has certainly stayed with me and I very much remember the pure delight of discovering how daring it was. Such a great protagonist and beautifully written, with lots of interesting and educational references to look up.
My Father’s Daughter is a wonderful read, I only wish I’d reviewed it! And the same with Nora, she is a wonderful character and what a life they had. I had no idea about their lives before reading this wonderful novel.
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