Does a top reads list really need an introduction? We’re all just here for the books.
Presented in the order that I read them, my favorite reads from 2022 (not necessarily published in 2022 because I prefer finding books off the beaten path).
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans
Last winter, I had the urge to learn more about Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer behind The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, two of the best-known ballets, so instead of seeking a book about just Tchaikovsky, I signed out this history of ballet from the library. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It offered an education not only in the history and evolution of the art form, but also in European and Russian history. Some of the chapter transitions lacked creativity and the author ended the book in a dismal place, basically saying that “ballet is dying” despite spending much of the book talking about how the art form has reinvented itself through wars and revolutions, but overall the book was interesting and well-done.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This book had been on my list ever since seeing the French film by the same name, one of my favorite movies still. Written by a Jewish novelist in France during the Nazi occupation, the book was never fully finished — Irene Nemirovsky was arrested and shipped to Auschwitz where she died. The last portion of this book contains letters her husband wrote to various officials trying to learn where she was and get her released, to no avail.
The book itself is set during the Nazi occupation and follows various characters as they flee cities or make do in small towns as the Nazis move in. Vivid prose and complex reality richly woven in a fictionalized literary portrait of the historical moment the author found herself in.
The Heroine with 1,001 Faces by Maria Tatar
This talkback to Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey takes a close look at the perhaps-not-as-obvious journeys of women in mythology, fairy tales, and even modern films and literature. I was fascinated by the idea that fairy tales or “old wive’s tales” were originally meant to warn and equip young women of what to do when marriages go bad. I also appreciated Tatar’s critique of more recent films and books where female heroes look more like their male counterparts, enacting violence and vengeance, and how in many cases such stories are written, directed, and produced by men.
One egregious error: at a certain point in the book, Tatar says Wonder Woman was the first female superhero in the Marvel universe. She wasn’t — she’s a DC hero. I wrote in the library book to correct this.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days by Rebecca Donner
An American married to a German cousin of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mildred Harnack is likely not a familiar name. Executed for treason by the Nazis, she was an active force in the German resistance against Hitler — a resistance the Allies didn’t believe even existed. This book tells her story, chronicling her romance with Arvid Harnack whom she met in college in Wisconsin, her move to Germany where she pursued her literature PhD at the University of Berlin, and how she and Arvid started the Circle, their secret resistance group.
All of this alongside the metamorphoses of Germany as the Nazi party took over and Hitler began a systemic strategy to destroy Jewish people and conquer Europe. (I’ve never read such a clear, detailed walk-through of the rise of the Nazi regime that also showed how long things were happening before the rest of Europe, not to mention the U.S., took action.)
The book could have used some more developmental editing (chapters are very short and needlessly broken up into even shorter sections), but I highly recommend this anyway.
The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers
Originally published in 1941, this book is Dorothy Sayers’ exploration of God as Creator and Trinity via the metaphor of the artist. I’m definitely going to read this again, because I’m sure I only grasped half of what she said this first time around, but I really enjoyed this work. As an artist, and especially as a writer, I related to how she described the creative process (which she breaks down in trinitarian terms).
Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness by Elizabeth D. Samet
In the American imagination, World War II was the war we entered for righteous reasons and to righteous ends. In about every war since then, we’ve tried to tie our valiant, violent efforts to some higher ideal, and laud our soldiers as magnificent heroes. But the reality is: war is fraught. It’s a lot of bad that can result in good, but in no way guarantees it. And even World War II, our country was never entirely on the same page about. Isolationists who wanted America to stay out of Europe’s affairs were a significant part of the American populace — we didn’t join the fight until Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor made clear we weren’t safe just because we were oceans away.
This book is a close analysis of the attitudes Americans held toward WWII at the time, as well as the ways we’ve mythologized that war and the generation that fought it — in an attempt, perhaps, to avoid the discomfort that is mixed-bag reality. The author, a professor at West Point, explores film and literature contemporary to the war, along with what’s been made since. She also holds up the similar revisionist understanding of the Civil War that in some senses undergirds this mythologizing. This book is a masterclass in American myth that peels back layers of imagineering to stare at the brutal reality we’ve been dressing up this whole time.
Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, edited by Alcuin Blamires
If you’ve ever wondered what people (especially men) thought about women and their place in the world in medieval times, this book is the anthology you’re looking for. It gathers a host of texts from the time period, all debating women’s worth, character, etc. — arguments that unfortunately still continue in not-so-hidden corners of the internet.
Unearthing the Secret Garden by Marta McDowell
A behind-the-scenes look at the life and gardens of Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of The Secret Garden, this book is pure delight. Filled with photos of Burnett and her gardens and illustrations from various editions of her novels, the book chronicles Burnett’s own garden biography, with particular attention paid to her Yorkshire manor and Plandome Park on Long Island. Some of Burnett’s gardening essays are also reprinted within this book, including a charming account of her friendship with a robin in her walled garden.
Woman: The American History of an Idea by Lillian Faderman
This tome was my morning reading for a couple months. Faderman traces the history of women in America alongside American conceptions of womanhood. Overall, this book is an excellent read. I took copious notes and will likely reference it again. For example, she did a great job of telling how the women’s rights movement was born out of the abolition movement when women were relegated to the sidelines at a major abolitionist conference.
However, Faderman also frames “woman” as a cultural idea, and ends the book by looking at the current waters of gender ideology and asking (with no answer), “Is this the end of woman?” After page upon page of showing how women throughout American history have bucked narrow notions of womanhood, Faderman makes the same blunder as those who promoted things like “the cult of true womanhood” — mistaking the idea of womanhood for the reality of women. We’re not going away anytime soon.
A Place in the World: Finding the Meaning of Home by Frances Mayes
Filled with literary sketches of the various places the author has called home, this book is rich with delightful descriptions of Italy and the American South. I bought this book in the Minneapolis airport on the way home from my 30th birthday trip and immediately started reading (only to be interrupted by a Frances Mayes fan sitting nearby who asked to take a picture of the cover). Over the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of home and what it means to lay down roots. This book spoke somewhat to those questions — but also was just a beautiful read. I’m going to seek out more of Mayes’ work because her writing is lovely.
My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’Homme
A beautiful, evocative memoir of Julia Child’s love affair with France and French food. The book details how she fell into French cooking, the development of her first (coauthored) cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent forays and experimentations with television cooking. Along with being beautifully written, the book is sprinkled with stunning photos taken by Julia’s husband.
My roommate and I got on a Julia Child kick this fall, partly because I read this book and partly because we love the movie Julie & Julia (the Julia portions of the movie are based on this memoir). Child worked with a master ghostwriter — the sentences are soooo good. And this book also got me a free dessert: When I was in Minneapolis for my 30th birthday trip, I got a nice dinner by myself and holed up in a booth with this book (and the best blackened salmon and pierogies I’ve ever had). When I got my bill, the waitress informed me that dessert was on the house because her boss told her, “We like readers here.”
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Somehow, I made it three decades on this planet, always in a Christian household, without ever reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Not anymore. A thrifted copy made it home with me at some point in the last year or so, and this fall, I started reading it.
What I appreciate about Mere Christianity is its emphasis on the ecumenical — what all sects of Christianity agree on — and the posture Lewis encourages his readers to hold on, for example, specific explanations of how atonement works: this might be useful to you or it might not be; if it’s not useful, just move on.
He also has a great way of explaining moral and theological concepts through allegory (shouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering Narnia). This book is not a heady theological text, but an accessible primer on the essential elements of Christian faith and doctrine.
The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura
My favorite narrative history from 2022.
The Doctors Blackwell tells the story of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, two British-born sisters who moved to America with their family in the early 1800s. Elizabeth decided to become a doctor, as a way to pave the way for more women to do so, and successfully became the first woman to earn an MD in the U.S. Emily followed suit, but had to take a slightly different approach because after Elizabeth, universities started instituting official policies to bar women from entry.
The duo went on to establish a hospital in NYC (which they had to be strategic about so people wouldn’t think they were abortionists, like a previous so-called “woman doctor”) and later a medical school for women, to provide a rigorous education to aspiring women who were refused admission by the best men’s colleges only due to their sex.
Fascinating lives, written with incredible detail and texture. I’d love to see this turned into a limited series on Netflix or another platform. Highly, highly recommend.