Friday, December 9, 2022

The Boswellians' Top 5 Books of 2022 - Part One

December. The last month of the year. Holidays. Family. Shopping. Stress. Wouldn't it be nice to just hide out in a quiet corner with a book or five? Of course it would. 

Fortunately, the last month of the year also means year-end favorites lists. And every year, we have every one of the booksellers at Boswell pick their five favorite books from the past 12 months. So over the next couple of weeks, we'll feature roundups of all of the Boswellian's top five picks along with notes on the books and the bookseller's recommendation write-ups. 

So why not pick a bookseller or two, pick some of their picks, and hole up in your favorite cozy reading corner?

Let's start with our proprietor Daniel and his top 5 books of the year. Which is actually a double dose. Five times two. That's right, we give him ten picks. And here they are!

#1 Search by Michelle Huneven. Daniel writes: "Restaurant reviewer Dana Potowski is asked to be on the committee to pick the new minister for her Unitarian Universalist congregation and decides to write a memoir about the experience, but how is she going to do that when she’s agreed to confidentiality? The committee, a varied lot of big personalities, seems to be on the same page regarding generalities, but when it comes to the specifics, conflicts arise, factions take hold, and Dana’s not exactly the only committee member keeping a few secrets.  If you had asked me for a shortlist of compelling plots for a novel, I would not have come up with this one, but I would have been dead wrong, and not just because whenever I describe it to someone, I often get the response: I would read that! Search is a wonderful novel filled with vibrant characters, essential philosophical questions (most notably, what do we want from life?), and a cornucopia of foodie delights."

#2 Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close. Daniel writes: "The Sullivans have run their family restaurant in Oak Park for three generations, but three unexpected occurrences send the family into disarray - the 2016 election, the Cubs World Series victory, and the sudden death of Bud, the family patriarch. Then there are the setbacks that should have been expected, given the ill-chosen life partners of the Sullivan third generation, Gretchen, Jane, and Teddy. The story is centered on them, two sisters and a cousin, with special appearances by Teddy’s younger half-sister Riley, as their lives spin out of control, sending them back to Sullivan’s. But family is not the best place to avoid drama. This first-rate fractured family free-for-all is Chicago-infused and food forward, from sandwich loafs to sliders. So glad I finally read a Jennifer Close novel - I can’t wait to read another!

#3 Lark Ascending by Silas House. You'll see this one again in our top 5's. In fact, you'll see it again below in this very blog! Daniel says: "In the not-too-distant future, fires have ravaged much of the world, and America, like much of the world, has been taken over by extremists. Even the isolated Maine woods have become too dangerous. The only option is for Lark and his family to escape to Ireland, the only country still open to refugees. But during the harrowing voyage, not only does tragedy strike at every turn, but hopes for a peaceful resettlement are dashed. Can Lark, with the help of two newfound companions (one canine) find peace in the legendary settlement of Glendalough? I’m not generally a dystopian reader, but Lark Ascending’s beautiful language and imagery, combined with the emotional heft of the story, drew me in from the first paragraph."

#4 Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt. Another book you'll be seeing again! Daniel says: "If you can say one thing about widowed aquarium cleaner Tova Sullivan, the once-again-jobless Cameron Passmore, and star-aquarium-attraction Marcellus the Octopus, it’s that they’ve all had their share of misfortune. Yes, this is a story of grief, of losses both recent and in the past. But it’s also a story of found family, of hope, and of purpose. Van Pelt infuses all her characters with grace, not just the protagonists but the members of Tova’s Knit-Wit social group, Cameron’s Aunt Jeanne (who raised him after his mom disappeared), and even the elusive developer who Cameron suspects is his father. But the star of the show is probably Marcellus, whose dexterity and wisdom never fails to inspire. Why haven’t I read Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus? And while I’m asking, why haven’t you read Remarkably Bright Creatures?"

#5 Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe. Daniel says: "While I have a subscription to The New Yorker, I don’t read every long-form article. In fact, I consider it a triumph if I can get through the cartoons, Talk of the Town, at least one review, and at least one article.  But even when I did read some of the pieces collected in Rogues, I found it fascinating to revisit them as part of a collection. Rogues, particularly if you exclude the closing profile of Anthony Bourdain, reads as a collection of true crime short stories, being that they have the vibrancy of the best fiction. I love the way traditional crime subjects like drug cartels and arms dealers are mixed with the corporate misdeeds of unscrupulous hedge fund managers, look-the-other-way bankers, and unrepentant television producers, leading me to wonder if we should reshelve some of those corporate narrative books that are currently in our business section. Whether you want to read more Patrick Radden Keefe or are just hungering for juicy narrative nonfiction, this should satisfy you 12-fold."

#6 (or 5.1, if you prefer to keep it top-five-only-ish) The Partition by Don Lee. Though not in their top 5's, this did also get recommendations from Chris and Tim. Daniel writes: "In the shockingly never-released-in-paperback Lonesome Lies Before Us, Don Lee wrote the anti-ethnic ethnic novel, where only a plate of food might hint at a character’s brownness. So in an about face, The Partition’s stories are packed with hapa haoles, gen 1.5s, and lots of where-are-you-from inquisitions. I loved the story 'Late in the Day' in which a filmmaker’s labor of love (itself an anti-ethnic ethnic film) is called out for using a biracial actor and instead takes a mercenary job as director of a short vanity film, only to see it picked up by PBS. Another of my favorites is 'UFOs,' where a television reporter takes two lovers, a married White guy and an earnest Korean American doctor who can spot her plastic surgery. Just about every story turns messy, and why should it be otherwise? The way these stories span decades and the tone of melancholy punctuated with humor make The Partition’s stories almost Alice Munro-esque. A worthy bookend to Lee’s first collection, Yellow, and here’s hoping it will be seen as similarly groundbreaking."

#7 (or 5.2, you get the idea) Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe. Daniel writes: "Four girls are growing up fast in a Chicago housing project, trying to keep it together while their literal homes are being destroyed. At the center of the story is Fe Fe, who sees the pull of the streets take her friends. Just a warning - there are moments of violence, addiction, and abuse. But the writing! Just read that Double Dutch Scene on page 37. And those girls - it’s hard not to fall in love with Fe Fe. Highly recommended!"

#8 The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music by Tom Breihan. Daniel says: "I am completely obsessed with Tom Breihan’s ‘Number Ones’ column in Stereogum. He’s been telling the story behind every Billboard chart-topper since the list started in 1958, and what started as capsule summaries have now turned into essays that almost always have something interesting to say about pop music and popular culture in general. But was this enough to make a book? You bet it was! Breihan looks at 20 particularly influential songs and the artists that created them and offers original-to-this-book essays that dig even deeper than his column. I’m sure there will be arguments about who made the cut, who was left out, and when it came to some of the artists, whether this was their move-the-needle #1, or was it another cut? And there’s always the problem of those groundbreakers, like Bob Dylan, who never got higher than #2 on the singles chart. The key here is that it doesn’t matter if you know the songs or not, especially now that you can listen to just about anything almost instantly. No less than enthralling!"

#9 Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro. Daniel writes: "Two families who live across the street from each other in suburban Connecticut are bound together by one tragedy, a fatal car accident involving the Wilf family, and one miracle, in which Ben Wilf facilitates the birth of Alice Shenkman’s child. The story careens back and forth across time, as the strands of connection deepen and spread. I love books like this, from Simon Van Booy’s The Illusion of Separateness to Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, and the fact that I’m referencing novels from nine and twelve years ago calls attention to how rarely I find books that capture this feeling of awe that I found in Signal Fires. It was clear from reading Inheritance that Shapiro is adept at capturing life’s reversals; I’m so glad to see that this special skill is equally on display in this beautiful and delicate novel."

#10 All This Could Be Different by Sarah Thankam Mathews. Daniel writes: "All Sneha really wants when she relocates to Milwaukee is a circle of friends, a special someone, and a steady income, but even those goals turn out to be a harder to achieve in this debut novel. She’s got a few friends and a possible love interest, though most of them are struggling with goals and money, plus both her contractor boss and the flat manager turn out to be, well, two pieces of work. Plus, contract work kind of sucks - you’re in the company (it’s obvious to any Milwaukeean where she works, but it’s never spelled out in the story), but not really of the company, much the way that Sneha must navigate her life in Milwaukee as a queer South Asian woman. There’s almost a chaotic feel to the narrative - will Thom forgive Sneha, will things with Martina work out, can Tig get her commune together, and just how much money is Amit going to spend trying to save a drug-addicted friend? – but to me, that’s just the way things feel during the kind of quarter-life crisis that Sneha is experiencing.  And props for getting the Milwaukee details right circa 2016, considering Mathews never lived here, though she went to school in Madison. Milwaukee is usually used as a no-place-in-particular setting, but here, Mathews plays off oddly Edenic history of socialist mayors that is meaningful to some millennials, even if the contemporary city struggles with prejudice and crime. Even the name-checked restaurants reinforce the narrative – not necessarily fancy, but a little too expensive for the unsteady paychecks of most of this crew, particularly Tig, who generally orders the most expensive thing on the menu. In the end, everything’s going to work out. Right?"

From the Boswellian with the most top 5 picks to the Boswellian with the least. Amie gives us her two favorite books of the year. 

#1 Amie's first pick is Windswept, a middle grade novel from Newbery Honor winner Margi Preus. This gripping fantasy tells the story of a girl who must save the children of her world from being 'windswept' and vanishing in the swirling snow. How about this review, from the hard-to-please Kirkus, which gave Windswept a starred review: "Inspired primarily by the Norwegian fairy tale 'The Three Princesses in the Mountain Blue,' this edgy, somewhat dystopian tale set in a world where race holds no significance masterfully blends European fairy-tale motifs with timely warnings about human greed, waste, and destructiveness while extoling the power of storytelling... An inventive, memorable must-read."

#2 Amie's second pick is The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka, author of  The Buddha in the Attic. Speaking of Kirkus, they must be asking Amie for advice, as The Swimmers was named one of their best books of the year. Vogue agreed with them and put it on their best-of list, too. And here's a glowing Washington Post review, in which Becky Meloan says that Otsuka's novel "starts as a catalogue of spoken and unspoken rules for swimmers at an aquatic center but unfolds into a powerful story of a mother’s dementia and her daughter’s love. If Otsuka doesn’t write another novel for several years, it will be okay. This is one to be savored and reread."

And let's have one more bookseller chime in here. Namely, me, your humble blog editor and events & marketing dude, Chris. I adore these books!

#1 The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty. This one won the National Book Award this year, and all I can say about that is it deserved it and more. Give this book every dang award you can find. PHEW WHATTA BOOK! I can't wait for Gunty's next novel. Here's my write-up for this one, too: "The Rabbit Hutch is wonderful, insane, and brilliant, and I love, love, love it. Rust belt, Indiana. The denizens of a crumbling apartment building are desperate to transcend their crumbling lives; to transcend trauma, forgottenness, and fame, to transcend the emptiness of material circumstances. To transcend the body. This book is ALIVE. The lives within it pop, scream, and bleed off the page."

#2 Lark Ascending by Silas House. As promised, entry #2 for this one. Every time I see someone else pick this book up, I can't help myself and wind up walking over to them just to say "that book is so, so, so beautiful." Here's my write-up: "If, like me, you have a less-than-sunny outlook on the prospect of avoiding simultaneous civil collapse and climate catastrophe in your lifetime, then you may find it counterintuitive when I tell you this novel of a young man running from the aftermath of those very events is the most comforting thing I’ve read all year. A dark book for dark times, Lark Ascending is, all the same, written so beautifully, full of honesty and compassion. In his old age, Lark recalls his harrowing journey to escape an America ruled by fundamentalist and swept by massive fires, sail across a stormy Atlantic, and trek across Ireland to a thin place that may offer sanctuary. House offers something necessary - hope that through all the violence, hatred, death, scarcity, and destruction of the impending collapse, a glimmer of humanity might remain."

#3 Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu. Since this book has hit a number of Best Book of the Year lists, including the NYTimes and Washington Post top tens, I feel like it's by 'told ya so' book of the year. The one that I was telling everyone was going to be a hit when I read it earlier this year as a galley. It is so moving, so well written, so just plain good. Here's my official write-up: "This memoir is so many things: a time capsule of 90s America from a West Coast outsider, a dissection of friendship through lenses of philosophy and language theory, a lived account of Asian diaspora in America. It’s road trips, cigarette breaks, mixtapes, and late nights goofing off. It’s the tone of nostalgia from a Smashing Pumpkins song. It’s the core-deep impact a friend can have, and it’s the tragedy of an early, senseless, violent loss. This book tore me completely apart. For anyone who’s ever found a friend who let them find themselves, for anyone who’s ever lost a friend who took a chunk of you with them, this book is going to destroy you then put you back together again, a little wiser and a little more tender."

#4 Inciting Joy: Essays by Ross Gay. I can't remember the last time I had two nonfiction titles in my top 5. Perhaps never. Daniel will argue that it only sort of counts because of how most memoir would have been classified, decades ago, as fiction. But this isn't decades ago, is it? Okay, anyway. Here's my write up for Gay's follow-up to The Book of Delights, which also made my top 5 the year it was released. "Ross Gay has got to be one of the most generous human beings alive, and his essays in this book are beautifully messy, meandering, in-progress things, building onto and into each other as he searches his life for the connective tissue from which joy is made. It’s written the only way it could be while staying an honest exploration of the messy, in-progress thing that is being human. Gay casts a wide net in his search for joy, and the book ends up being about way too much to list, the result of a fierce and roaming intellect that delights in getting down into the nitty-gritty. But, a sample: his essay on masculinity and grief (and football, and fathers, and meditation, and… you get the idea) pretty much rended me completely apart and then, mercifully, rebuilt me again. Here’s a writer at the height of his powers accounting for himself and in turn inviting us join him in this accounting, this search for a gentler, more connected, joyful way to be. I would have finished this book faster except I kept having to take breaks to cry – tears of gratitude, of grief, and yes, most definitely, of joy."

#5 The Coward by Jared McGinnis. Don't really have a funny, quippy thing to say about this one. It's a kind of novel I read a lot of and like a lot - realistic literary fiction that leans hard into funny/sad and is also a bit rude. This is a really good example of that genre. It's not for everyone, but if it's for you, you can't miss with this one. My write up: "The Coward is a spectacular dirtbag bildungsroman. Jarred is paralyzed after a car accident that killed a woman, and he blames himself for her death. In fact, blames himself for a lot of things; classic King Midas in reverse syndrome. Maybe the only person he blames more is his estranged, alcoholic father, under whose roof he’s now stuck living. Alas, Jarred can barely push himself down the block before he’s out of breath, so his tried and true method of running away from his problems is no longer a particularly viable option. Some soul-searching and past-confronting may be in order, as quick wit and anger are only going to carry him so far. Is he destined to spend the rest of his life as a living, breathing (and annoyed) cautionary tale / inspirational token to the able-bodied? How long can he dodge medical bill collectors? Could the barista at the fancy coffee shop actually be interested in him, like, that way? And can he reconcile with his father, finally mourn his mother, and learn not run out on the people who care about him? The Coward will probably not be the book for everybody - the voice is callous, sarcastic, and comes with quite the chip on the shoulder - but if your interest is piqued, I can promise this book will lend your heart some serious warmth by the end."

See you tomorrow with more top 5 picks. Read on, dear readers.

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