Well, my lovely readers, we’ve managed to make it to the end of another year, and while all signs point to 2023 not likely to be existentially any easier, making it to the new year is always to be commended. I had intentions of doing an entry on the satirist Lucian this week, but I haven’t finished the volume I was reading for it, so it’ll have to wait a week or two.
But in the interest of having another offering to our lord and savior Content before we formally say goodbye to 2022, I thought I’d do a quick and dirty list post for all of you about my favorite books I read this past year. With two days to go, it looks like I’m going end this year with 169 books read (170 if I can get through the Lucian in the next 48 hours…). This is right in line with my general average over the last eleven years when I’ve been formally tracking my yearly reading on Goodreads. But despite what some of you might assume (especially if you friend me on Goodreads—feel free—and see how low my average ratings tend to be), I’m not a total snob and that number represents a fairly wide range of topics and genres. By necessity for my own writing, I read a lot of scholarly books, but I also love poetry, plays, and graphic novels. And for the purposes of this post, this year’s “best of” for me is actually a good cross-section of the whole, which is a nice bonus. Interestingly enough, some of the books I’m going to highlight aren’t even my most highly-rated ones for the year. While most are five stars (on Goodreads’ rating scale of 1-5 stars), a few are four star ones—because some of them I feel deserve recognition for what they accomplished, even if the result didn’t change my literary life. Also unsurprisingly, a couple of these you’ll no doubt recognize if you’ve been following along on the blog all year…
But as a quick aside before we dive in, I should clarify that these are my favorite books that I read this year, not necessarily ones published this year. I make a serious effort every year to read at least some contemporarily released books, but as my tastes are often archaic (or are newly-published academic books that no one else I know is reading, for obvious reasons), it’s never as many as I hope for. That said, I can proudly attest that a couple of the books below actually came out this year, so I’m not completely beyond the pale. But before I get to my Top Ten, let’s look some honorable mentions:
Kaikeyi (Vaishnavi Patel)— This one is a book that actually came out this year, and while it wasn’t my favorite novel of the year, it was pretty darn good and I’m excited to have both seen it published and read it. This is Vaishnavi Patel’s first full-length novel and it made me excited to see what she’ll write in the future. Kaikeyi is a historio-fantasy reimagining of the Ramayana from the one perspective I’ve never seen told before—that of Kaikeyi, Rama’s “evil” stepmother, the one who gets him banished from Ayodhya. Patel manages the pull off the arguably impossible by making Kaikeyi a sympathetic heroine while not completely villainizing Rama in the process. If you enjoyed my discussion about Chandrabati’s Bengali Ramayana retelling from summer 2021, you’ll definitely enjoy Kaikeyi.
The Ghost Map (Steven Johnson)— One of the detriments of reading a lot of nonfiction geared toward specialists is that I’ve been nearly ruined for “popular nonfiction.” I generally find pop history too dumbed down for me to be informative—not to mention that because the genre sells well, everyone thinks they can write it and as a result, some of the prose style is just dreadful. Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map manages to be both extremely informative while still being interesting and well-written. The book is the story of John Snow (no, not that one…), the English doctor who was one of the first physicians to discover the true transmission properties of cholera and of the last great London outbreak of the disease in 1854. Johnson goes through the science as well as the history, but in a way that is both clear yet never condescending to his layperson audience. I wish more mass market nonfiction was like this one.
Okay, now for the real contenders:
Best of 2022
10) The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (Jane C. Webb Loudon)— Going back to things we talked about in January, I couldn’t leave The Mummy! off any Best-of list for this year because even though it wasn’t perhaps the best written book I read, I had so much fun reading it (that’ll be a theme with this list). Any book that’s essentially a steampunk Elizabethan comedy mashed with an Austonian social horror story is worth far more than its paltry posthumous reputation suggests. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies wishes it was half as inventive as The Mummy! is; and if you liked Frankenstein, but wished it was goofier like Young Frankenstein, than this one’s for you.
9) Lore Olympus (Vol. 1-3) (Rachel Smythe)— As mentioned, I enjoy the occasional graphic novel, but I don’t tend to be much of a strict comics girl (I just didn’t grow up with them). But I’m attracted to interesting art in my pet genres, so it was probably inevitable that I’d end up reading Rachel Smythe’s wildly popular webcomic about the Greek gods at some point. Added to this that her work is mainly focused on the relationship between Persephone and Hades how could I not? (I know everyone else is over them, but I’m a ride or die Brontë goth girl.) But I’m also someone who enjoys the tactile experience of reading graphic works in print as opposed to online, so I had to wait until she got a deal with Del Rey to put out hardback editions. Normally I’m not a huge fan of putting the Olympians in modern settings—hence why I respect Rick Riordan and Neil Gaiman, but Percy Jackson and American Gods are just not for me—but Smythe has her gods in a kind of liminal space that my palate can apparently work with. In the immortal realm, they wear suits and have cell phones, but in the mortal realm they dress traditionally and have only ancient tech, which I think is a clever inversion of the usual trope. And Lore Olympus manages to have emotional stakes while not taking itself too seriously, which is just fun.
8) Crossing the Bridge: Comparative Essays on Medieval European and Heian Japanese Women Writers (Barbara Stevenson and Cynthia Ho)— I made a joke when I stumbled on this in the Internet Archive that I was sorry it was published in 2000, because even in its intended sphere of academia, I might be the only audience for such a treatise beyond its author-editors. This is something I and other writers should keep in mind: be bold and write your insanely niche stuff—it might take twenty years, but your audience will find it. Anyway, as someone deeply in love with medieval European women writers AND obsessed with Heian Japanese women writers, I clapped my hands together with glee (if you’re versed in the lore of The Simpsons, it was a real Nuts & Gum situation). I’m not going to try to sell the rest of you on this one, it’s either your jam or it’s not, but I had to include it here for its sheer specificity and my revelry in it.
7) Walking Gentry Home: A Memoir of My Foremothers in Verse (Alora Young)— Hooray! A last-minute December-read addition to the tiny list of books I got through this year that were actually published this year. Alora Young’s Walking Gentry Home is collection of poems about her ancestors’ histories, but also that of the complexities of the Black experience in her (their) small Tennessee hometown, and her own life so far. Writing a family history in poetry is such a bold and interesting idea that this collection deserves praise for that alone. But Young is also, at such a young age (she’s barely in her twenties), such a talented and distinctive poet with both the rhythm and grace to become an amazing one in the future. Like Vaishnavi Patel, part of my enthusiasm for this collection is not only what it is on its own, but excitement for what she’ll create in the future.
6) Savage Conversations (LeAnne Howe)— Let’s see, we’ve already had a novel, a comic, some nonfiction, poetry… how about a play? LeAnne Howe’s Savage Conversations is a two-person play between Mary Todd Lincoln, confined to a sanatorium by her only living son, Robert, and the “savage Indian” she tells her caretakers haunts her room every night. Howe, a member of the Choctaw Nation herself, uses this bizarrely specific historical delusion of the former First Lady to have a dialogue not only about Mary’s mental illness (or lack thereof), but also with America’s brutal history with its Native population—especially with Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as both the savior of the Union and as the president who presided over the hanging of thirty-eight members of the Dakota Nation, still the largest mass execution in the country’s history. Much like Alora Young, Howe recognizes that we can’t talk about where we’re going unless we’re willing to have honest conversations about where we’ve been. Not for the sake of revenge, or even blame, but for the sake of understanding.
5) The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)— This was honestly the biggest surprise of the year for me. I’ve been putting off reading The Song of Achilles for a literal decade because I couldn’t think of something I wanted to read less than a whole book about my least favorite Iliad character (okay, second-least favorite if you count Paris). Belatedly learning that the narrator was not Achilles, but Patroclus, who I also do not care about, did not help matters. But I read Miller’s Circe and liked it well enough, so I decided I really had to buckle down and read the one everyone has been raving about for years. So I did, but I went in at my most critical, planning to be underwhelmed, as I often am about books everyone else adores. However, dear readers, I was wrong. This was so much better than I was expecting, particularly from a (as far as I know) cis-hetero woman writer depicting a gay male couple. Contrary to all my expectations, Patroclus was a great choice as narrator, and I really felt for him as a character, especially at the beginning as Miller set up his origins. She found a way to not just jettison Briseïs out of a narrative airlock to avoid spoiling the Achilles/Patroclus romance, and I enjoyed her (as far as I can think) original take on the Greek gods (i.e., Thetis), because making the gods creepy and unsettling to mortals makes perfect sense. And she got me to give a flying f*** about Patroclus and Achilles as people, something even Homer mostly failed to do, so I feel like Miller earned her five stars for that if nothing else.
4) A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea (William of Tyre)— This is the book that will give you a surreptitious preview of where my mind’s going after I put The Flight of Virtue to bed in January. A contemporary history of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem written by William, archbishop of Tyre (c. 1130-1186 CE), Deeds is better than any account written by a biased, ecclesiastical Christian medieval author about the Frankish Holy Land has any right to be. Tracing the history of the kingdom from its conquest during the First Crusade (1096-1099) through to its pending decline and defeat just after William’s death, the archbishop, with access to the royal archives as chancellor (the prime administrative and diplomatic post of the kingdom), pulls from a large library of European and Arabic Syrian sources to reconstruct his narrative. The most widely-available part of the work is the first third, the part about Geoffrey of Bouillon and the First Crusade, but this year I finally tracked down an English translation of the rest of the text, which I think is much more interesting because it contains the parts that William personally witnessed. He gets a lot of flak for being biased toward the royal house of Jerusalem, but I don’t think his preferences are nearly as pronounced as other writers of the period. And while hardly condoning them, he doesn’t go out of his way to demonize Muslims with the vigor of most clergymen of the time, and his prose is generally more readable than most medieval histories. Plus, you get to vicariously watch William struggle with his sometimes inscrutable source material just like any modern historian, which goes a long way toward humanizing him.
3) Burr (Gore Vidal)— This was another novel I’d been putting off for a while, not because I was dreading it like Achilles, but because I usually try to avoid reading fiction based in the same time period or with the same characters as books I’m in the middle of writing. Just to avoid being influenced by someone else in plagiarism by osmosis, outside of reaching similar conclusions based on the history. So I waited until I had a finished manuscript for Flight of Virtue before I cracked the spine on Vidal’s opus to everyone’s favorite American antihero. But it was worth the wait because I loved Vidal’s Burr as much as my own, in part because he clearly saw the same man in the record that I did—the wry international man of mystery. If my readers this coming year think that I did half as good a job with Burr in his prime as Vidal did with Burr in his decline, I’ll be ecstatic.
2) de Pharsalia (Lucan)— In juxtaposition to Gore Vidal’s Aaron Burr, who I loved because I saw my own Burr in his reflection, as evidenced by my positively gleeful recounting of the poem in June, I loved Lucan’s Julius Caesar because he was so different than my own take. And somewhat like with The Song of Achilles, I had known Lucan was anti-Jules, so I was trepidatious going in. But as I said in my post, Pharsalia is just so much fun that I can’t hate. Caesar makes as excellent a turned-up to eleven Shakespearean villain as he makes a nuanced trickster god—that’s why he’s still a man for all seasons two thousand plus years and counting. Lucan’s still no Virgil or Ovid, but I like him way more than many of the other Silver Age Roman poets, so I’ll go to the mat for him. Plus, he clearly likes my girl Arsinoë more than any of her siblings, which will always win you points with me.
1) Awakening Osiris (Normandi Ellis)—I will confess that for the most part, the ranking within my top ten has been arbitrary. The only ranking I feel strongly about is placing this one as my #1 for the year. Awakening Osiris is another English translation of The Book of Coming (Going) Forth By Day, aka The Egyptian Book of the Dead, but it is wholly unlike any other version of the text I’ve ever read—and for the record, I own two other translations besides this one, let alone all of the different versions I’ve read. But in contrast to the others (Budge’s original, and the Goelet/Faulkner revision, as the most prominent), Normandi Ellis isn’t an Egyptologist—she’s a poet (as well as a minister, clairvoyant, astrologer, and priestess of Isis, according to her author page). Your mileage on any of those spiritual practices might vary, but I can assure you that she has accomplished something no academic or archeologist has done in my eyes, which is make an evocative and readable English translation of the Book of the Dead. Using the strict word-for-word translation of the text as a beginning rather than an ending point, Ellis creates a new poetry from it that is still recognizable as the Book of the Dead, but one that has the deep, living beauty of other ancient religious texts like the Vedas or the Psalms. Unless you really like Egyptian stuff, I never recommend the Book of the Dead to casual readers because it is generally stilted and dry, but I think anyone could enjoy Awakening Osiris. As I said in my (all-too-rare) review on Goodreads, if you read only one version of the Book of the Dead, read this one.