Back in January, I decided to read in a different way this year. I would cast a wide net for the books I want to read, but choose with care the ones I actually read. Even though I read about the same number of books as I did last year, there were fewer duds. The consequence for me was in picking my five favorite books: it was so hard! There was nearly a sixth book in my top five, but I didn’t feel strong enough about it to break my own rules.
I also had a few standout works that didn’t meet the loose criteria I have for this list. I read two fantastic poetry books this year. Clara Olivo’s The Whisper, The Storm, and The Light In Between was a satisfying, moving, and personal collection (disclosure: she’s also a friend!). Ebo Barton’s Insubordinante is another chapbook that had me yelling in support and frustration throughout. Pick up both of them!
5. Devil House by John Darnielle
Devil House is a book that centers a true crime author named Gage Chandler. He moves to Milpitas, California, in an unassuming old house in the shadow of a freeway. Though he plays it cool when buying the house, he’s there to research the murders that took place there in the 1980s. Rumors abound about the cult that squatted in the diner-turned-adult-video-store-turned-house. The book weaves this story along with one about the teens involved in the killings. A third story about the first set of murders that Gage researched tells us more about him and how he operates.
I thought this was a horror novel based on its name and cover, but it’s not (not exactly). Instead, there’s a creeping loneliness and dread that looms throughout the book. This is the only blog I’ve ever run where I haven’t been overt about my love for The Mountain Goats. The Mountain Goats is an “indie” band led by songwriter and author John Darnielle. I’ve listened to his music for 20+ years now. Darnielle loves hiding monsters in his stories and his songs; this book features quite a few.
4. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
There isn’t a book I read this year that felt more of the moment than this one. The main character doesn’t have a name but they are Very Online. It’s a book of vignettes—memeworthy clips of a life told in a paragraph or two before moving on to a new part of the story. The narrator (unnamed) is enjoying her newfound celebrity status on “the portal”. The book started out breezy as the narrator enjoys the spoils of being funny online. Midway through the story, though, her sister suffers a complication during her pregnancy. Doctors diagnose the growing fetus with Proteus syndrome. The narrator shifts to this new devastating reality.
No One Is Talking About This really caught me by surprise. I laughed out loud at many of the fictionalized versions of real-life events. Lockwood captured how our reality can be equal parts vapid and heartbreaking. This was a beguiling book I loved a lot.
[January 3 update: it recently came to my attention that the author, Patricia Lockwood, is also the parent of Miette, one of my favorite internet cats (top 5 internet cats list when?)]
3. Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger by Lama Rod Owens
This is a collection of interviews, essays, and meditative practices. Lama Rod Owens is a Black and queer Buddhist teacher and spiritual leader. His teachings come from the perspective of a queer Black man. Among many topics, he touches on activism, compassion, anger, and the emotions that many Black people have suppressed to survive. People in predominately white institutions often perceive me and my actions as angry. Sometimes I am angry, sometimes I’m seen that way despite my intentions. As Lama Rod writes, “our anger is actually helping us to look at things that feel really off. I’m not angry for the hell of it.”
I first found Lama Rod Owens in the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar. A reader told him they felt uncomfortable at a Buddhist retreat where they were the only person of color. He inquired about the person’s safety in a space where they felt violence. They had to practice dharma like other students while also surviving in a space that was hostile to them. I felt a similar way about my own meditation practice; Lama Rod’s answer helped me in my own struggle.
I’ve felt a gentle gravity pulling me towards Buddhism over the past few years. It’s the religion of my achchi’s family; she converted to Catholicism when she got married. I’ve started searching past the colonialism in my own history to imagine what might have come before. I’ve maintained a (loose, haphazard) meditation practice for the past few years. This book is helping me find my place in a religion that I felt was lost to me. I know I’ll be coming back to it in the new year.
2. How to Become Self-Employed in Seattle, Jenny Macleod
I haven’t written about this enough in 2022: I launched my own business this year! This combination guidebook and reference library is how I managed to do that in the margins of my full-time job. The book teaches you all you need to start a business, from having an idea to getting your first customer.
I’m so glad I found this (very specific) book when I did. I never thought I’d be a business owner. Even after I decided to strike out on my own, I had no idea where or how to begin. This was a solid, informative guide that walked me through all the steps (and a few I didn’t know I needed). It helped me take the plunge into self-employment feeling confident and ready. I haven’t looked back!
Note: This book is a few years old now. I didn’t find any information that’s gone out of date since covid, but it’s not available at many of the local bookstores the author names. Still, you might be able to find this cheaper on websites I won’t link to.
1. Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang and translated by Ken Liu
In the year 2096, the human colony on Mars sparks a war of independence from Earth. The resulting war and tentative ceasefire lead to two very different planets. Earth is familiar: decadent and wasteful, where people pursue profit at all costs. Mars is defiant in its difference: its people want for nothing and value contributions to society above all. 100 years after the war began, a group of teenagers return to Mars from Earth, where they lived for the past 5 years. This cultural exchange could spark a lasting peace or renew a planetary war. Luo Ying is a Martian dancer and member of the delegation to Earth. Ignacio is a Terran filmmaker coming to Mars to document the group’s return home.
This book exemplifies what I love about science fiction. Science fiction stories often examine present-day ideas through the magnifying glass of time. Vagabonds had my mind spinning about the possibility of these future worlds. The “action” set pieces of many sci-fi stories aren’t front and center here. Instead, Jingfang mixes her narrative tension with questions about art, careers, and what a society values. I loved the existential and philosophical questions the book and its characters raised throughout. This is a book about belonging and difference. It had me thinking about utopia, values, and how easy it is to carry with us the dangers lurking in our past. I wrote down so many quotes from this book, but here’s one out of context. “The more someone excelled in the old world, the more unwilling they were to start afresh in the new. They had put so much of their life into the outdated mode of expression that they could not abandon it. No one liked to abandon themselves.” This book resonated with me this year in so many ways.
I’m trying not to rush into 2023 as another year winds down. I think back to how much has happened in the past year and how even more has happened in the last 3-5. In Love and Rage, Lama Rod Owens writes about how we must meet the moment we find ourselves in.
“We’re made for these times. I really believe that we are intentionally born into this very moment, this very time, because we were ready for this. We just have to trust ourselves; we need to trust the love, we need to trust the ancestors. As long as you keep one foot out, suffering is going to compound and compound. You have to let go of that. It scares the shit out of me as well. People are depending on you.”
Looking back over 2022, the year brought with it some of the lowest and most challenging points of my life. But there were also so many days full of joy, laughter, breakthroughs, and even contentment. Those days vastly outnumber the bleak ones. I’ll keep that in mind as I greet the new year. We are ready for this!