Our Top Picks and Awards for the 20 Best Books of 2022
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If you ask us, this has been a fantastic year for new books. As we set out to name the Best Books of 2022, we found ourselves ruing the fact that we still haven’t read a huge stack of new novels and nonfiction book releases from this year. Given that, and with the caveat that we are sure we have missed out on some gems, here’s our annual list of top picks and our highly subjective and personal awards for the best books of 2022, including debut novels, new works from favorite novelists, a literary thriller, new essay collections and several illuminating histories.
Best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022
It’s always a challenge to winnow down the list of everything we’ve read in the past 12 months to determine which books make the cut for our annual roundup of the best new novels and nonfiction of the year, and 2022 was no exception.
1. The Displacements by Bruce Holsinger.
We begin our list of the best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022 with a highly topical work of fiction. At once a novel of climate change and the devastating effects it will have on the lives of ordinary individuals – and a family drama about which bonds between parents and children will hold when disaster strikes – The Displacements stayed with us long after we finished reading it.
climate change and more
A Category 6 hurricane – the largest ever recorded – hits Greater Miami, permanently submerging a large swath of the city and its environs. And severing the Larsen-Halls, a blended family of 5, as some members flee to the north. When they lose the patriarch of the household, along with all of their financial resources, they’re reduced to living in a FEMA shelter in Oklahoma that becomes a microcosm of the racial and economic conflicts already present in America.
Opioid addition; financial fraud; unrequited love; and unexpected betrayals – all of them swirl as a wave of refugees from the American South make their way to a tent city the Midwest. In a wicked twist of humor, the races quickly divide themselves in the encampment, with “Crackertown” becoming the domain of the white families. So, what will a “normal” upper middle class family do to survive in such conditions? Can art and music actually save a community in extreme duress? And who can you trust when everything you thought you knew turns out to be wrong?
This is a mournful tale of the catastrophic losses that may await millions of people in the years to come as climate change continues to drive extreme weather events. Yet in the midst of this enormous challenge, the author manages to make us care deeply about a handful of actual people. Who sometimes rise to the occasion in ways that surprise even themselves. And in whose stories we may recognize at least some parts of our own.
2. Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk.
The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature returns with Nights of Plague, a brilliant novel that imagines a previously unknown disease ravaging a fictional island in the Ottoman Empire in 1900 called Mingheria. Half of the island’s population is Muslim, and the other half Greek Christians. Tensions are historically already high between the two – as are the mistrust between local journalists and the government. When a deadly plague arrives, the enmity between these parties boils over with deadly results.
Where did this disease come from? Are the Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj to blame? Or is it the Greek merchant vessels plying the waters of the Mediterranean? Do Western scientific discoveries in treating cholera shed light on how to fight this new plague (which seems to originate in China or India)? Is quarantine the only solution, despite the economic cost and the violations of religious faith that it requires? What is prudent and what is cruel when the choices of one individual can have catastrophic consequences for the entire community?
Does any of this sound familiar?
Reading this novel in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic is startling. Riveting. And highly provocative. The weight of fear and mistrust toward “the Other;” the terrible acts of the past committed by the state; grudges long buried but still closely held; the overconfidence of deeply flawed political and religious leaders. The widely-held suspicion of scientists and their motives. Scapegoating of the weak and the poor. The historical machinations of the Great Powers against the needs and interests of their colonies. The conflicting pull between making a living and following the measures it may take to stay alive. They’re all here.
Reading this brilliantly crafted novel feels like reading a news report from New York City in the year 2020. Given the recent global headlines as 2022 comes to a close, it’s clear that we still have no clear answers to many of these urgent questions. Making this novel a must-read that is pitch-perfect and necessary for this particular moment.
3. Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.
In Skirts, a fashion historian recounts the history of 20th century womenswear, highlighting the influential and transformative styles that changed how women actually dressed. And while you might think that women’s ability to wear pants was the most liberating sartorial change, the author argues that all of the most important and consequential fashion statements for women in this era featured skirts.
4. Off with Her Head: Three Thousand Years of Demonizing Women in Power by Eleanor Herman.
exploring the history of misogyny against women with power from Cleopatra to Kamala Harris. There is a particular kind of rage reserved for women, especially women in power or vying for it. From the ancient world, through the European Renaissance, up to the most recent U.S. elections, the Misogynist’s Handbook, as the author calls it, has been consistently wielded to put uppity women in their place.
5. Gordon Parks: Segregation Story by Gordon Parks, edited by Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.
In the summer of 1956, Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to Alabama to document the daily realities of African Americans living under Jim Crow laws in the rural South. The resulting color photographs are among Parks’ most powerful images. After the photographs were first published, the bulk of Parks’ assignment was thought to be lost. Five years after Parks’ death, the Gordon Parks Foundation found more than 200 color transparencies belonging to the series. Since then, new photographs have been uncovered, lending depth to an important chapter in Parks’ career-long endeavor to use the camera as a weapon for social change.
It is well known that the Civil Rights Movement really didn’t capture the public’s attention until people around the world saw with their own eyes the lived experience of Black Americans in the South. The shocking violence, the hateful rhetoric, the attacks on the innocent. The video footage deservedly gets a great deal of the credit for this awakening to the realities of racism in America and the cruelties of Jim Crow. But before Selma, before Montgomery, before the Freedom Riders, there was this body of work. A poignant and unforgettable series of images about life – especially the life of a child – growing up Black in the rural South.
Looking at these images will make you feel many things very deeply, if your experience is like ours. Sorrow. Anger. Admiration. And perhaps a renewed sense of purpose. And a deeper commitment to continuing the work this brilliant artist played such an important role in – to doing our part to advance the quest for racial justice and equal opportunity for every American.
6. When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo.
One of the best debut novels we read all year in 2022 was when When We Were Birds, a lush and evocative feminist love story set on the island of Trinidad. Yejide is the daughter of a long line of female mystics and healers, and the designed heir who must help the souls of the community find peace as they transition from life to death. But her complicated relationship with her mother has left her heartbroken, full of doubt, and searching for a way out of this heavy legacy.
Darwin is a young devout Rastafarian who arrives in the capital city looking for work and is dismayed to learn that the only available job is as a grave digger. Because of the tenets of his faith, he has never been to a funeral or even seen a dead body. And he knows that such a job will break his mother’s heart, no matter how much money it enables him to send back home to her. In a dramatic move, he overcomes his aversion and accepts the job, soon becoming a member of the small band of workers at the site.
Yejide and Darwin are fated to meet at the cemetery where Darwin works and where Yejide’s family has long had a plot. And when they do, their spellbinding connection leads both of them to the acceptance and healing they have longed for.
This is a beautiful work of magical realism and the rare love story in which the woman’s point of view is treated with respect and equal weight. The dramatic climax on All Hallows Eve makes this the perfect romance to read on Halloween night.
7. the last white man by mosid hamid.
“One morning, a man wakes up to find himself transformed. Overnight, Anders’s skin has turned dark, and the reflection in the mirror seems a stranger to him. At first he shares his secret only with Oona, an old friend turned new lover. Soon, reports of similar events begin to surface. Across the land, people are awakening in new incarnations, uncertain how their neighbors, friends, and family will greet them.”
8. Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky.
The author of Very Nice returns with a new novel about a woman in extremis. Allison arrives on the East Coast after fleeing an abusive boyfriend in LA only to run headlong into a Category 3 hurricane that destroys her new home in North Carolina. Out of resources and with shattered glass in her hair, she returns home to New Jersey. A hookup with “a strange cameraman” lands her on the operating table of her ex. Which leads her to wonder: Does she really love the brain surgeon who saved her, or is she just using him for his swimming pool?
New York Magazine notes that Hurricane Girl “reaches deep into the wells of millennial discontent to reveal how confronting the past might provide an indecisive 30-something with her clearest path forward.”
9. Trust by Hernan Diaz.
In his second novel, Trust, the acclaimed author turns his eye to Manhattan during the Roaring 20’s and the Great Depression. Benjamin and Helen Rask have risen to the height of wealth, though rumors circulate about the circumstances of their fortune. A story within a story, the Rask mystery is the center of a successful 1938 novel, but the account everyone in New York seems to know isn’t the only version of their story.
10. Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone.
Two Nights in Lisbon is the latest from one of our favorite authors of smart, twisty espionage novels. Ariel Pryce has accompanied her new husband to Lisbon, but when she awakens on the morning of his important business meeting, he has vanished without a trace. The local police are no help, so she contacts the U.S. Embassy, and in turn the ambassador alerts the local CIA. A ransom phone call sets in motion a frantic rescue mission that reaches into the top echelons of the American government.
We love a smart thriller as much as anyone, and we love this one in particular because of how the author uncannily channels the inner thoughts of a woman with a dark and complicated past. No spoilers here, but this is a well-plotted page-turner with a social conscience and a wicked sense of humor.
11. Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange.
As inveterate shoppers, we couldn’t resist one of the entries on our list of the best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022. ‘Cause it’s about the mall!
“The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” the design critic Alexandra Lange writes in Meet Me by the Fountain, her new history of this hallowed retail institution. The publisher notes that she “chronicles postwar architects’ and merchants’ invention of the mall, and lays bare its inherent contradictions. Malls are environments of both freedom and exclusion–of consumerism, but also of community.”
12. Either/Or by Elif Bautman.
If you loved The Idiot (and we really did) you’ll be pleased to learn that Either/Or is the sequel to that thoughtful and immersive tale of a Harvard freshman who falls in and out of love. This new novel picks up where that one left off, with Selin now a sophomore at Harvard, trying to untangle all that has happened, and all that could.
This is the rare sequel that actually delivers on the emotional promise of its first installment – a sophomore effort that actually hits the mark. Selin’s thoughts and adventures will take you back to those days when sex was a mystery that demanded to be solved. When an email from an object of desire could make or derail an entire day (or more). When friendships meant everything and could change inexplicably without warning. And when taking risks took courage and moxie and a trip abroad could truly be life-changing. We can’t wait for junior year!
13. Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton.
Who are our ancestors to us, and what can they tell us about ourselves? In the memoir Ancestor Trouble, the author attempts to answer these pressing questions “about family and falsehoods.” She had a grandfather who was shot by one of his 13 wives. And a female ancestor who was accused of being a witch in puritanical New England. And also many more with colorful life stories. But a closer look at her family tree prompted Newton to reckon with darker secrets, too, like her family’s role in slavery and native genocide.
14. Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy by Jamie Raskin.
We have to add a disclosure as we declare this work one of the best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022. We’ve personally known Congressman Jamie Raskin since we were fellow students at Harvard Law School. A groomsman at our wedding, he and his brilliant family have long been friends and role models for us. So it is with both pride and sorrow that we reflect on the heartbreaking story behind his searing new memoir, Unthinkable.
In just 45 days at the start of 2021, Congressman Raskin confronted three events that might have broken other people. The unspeakable loss of his son to suicide. The violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol on January 6. And the impeachment effort to hold the former President accountable for inciting the criminal acts. Heartbreak, anger, admiration and awe – you’ll feel this story deep in your bones and in your heart – and admire the Congressman’s fortitude and courage – long after the last page is turned.
15. Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang.
The author of Chemistry returns with a new novel about a young smart woman in extremis. It can best be described as an anti-rom com, definitely did not meet-cute, young-single-woman-in-the-city story.
Reminiscent of Fleishman Is in Trouble and Goodbye, Vitamin, Joan is Okay follows the titular character, who is an I.C.U. doctor at a New York City hospital in the waning months of 2019. While she genuinely loves her work and spends so many hours at the hospital that H.R. forces her to take a short sabbatical against her will, Joan’s her sister-in-law questions her status as “a real woman,” given that Joan has no children of her own. Her brother spends all of his energy trying to convince her to move out of the city to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she can make more money in private practice. And her doorman is annoyingly persistent in encouraging her to marry the nice single guy who lives across the hall.
Meanwhile, Joan is nearly overwhelmed with grief over the recent death of her father. And by trying to care for her widowed mother, who is both needy, independent, doting and highly critical. A paean to the importance of living on your own terms, this slim volume contains worlds.
16. South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry.
In South to America, the Princeton professor of African American Studies argues that in order to understand American identity, it’s essential to understand life, historically and now, below the Mason Dixon line. One of the best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022, this work won a National Book Award this year, as well.
17. She’s Nice Though by Mia Mercado.
She’s Nice Though is a new collection of essays allows readers inside Mercado’s life as a Midwestern biracial woman. She uses humor to reveal truths about depression, racism, and societal norms while questioning what it means to be nice (“to shrink or apologize or smile out of obligation”), who benefits from it (“nice girls finish eventually”), and how to “differentiate between the performance of niceness and… true good intentions.” If you loved You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey (and we did) this is a perfect summer read to keep the conversation going.
18. Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle by Jody Rosen.
“The bicycle is a vestige of the Victorian era, seemingly at odds with our age of smartphones and ride-sharing apps and driverless cars. Yet we live on a bicycle planet. Across the world, more people travel by bicycle than any other form of transportation.” That’s the jumping-off point for Two Wheels Good, a fascinating look at the history of the bicycle, an everyday object that most of us have never any real thought to.
19. Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
The latest from one of our favorite writers is also one of the best new novels and nonfiction books of the year for 2022. Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow is a multi- layered and inventive novel set in the world of video game development. After years apart, two childhood friends reunite in Cambridge, Mass and set out to create a new game. Their project succeeds beyond their wildest expectations. But as their fame and influence grow, and alliances and relationships morph and change, their friendship is frayed to the breaking point.
This is a fanciful novel about made-up worlds and unlimited second chances, balanced by a heartfelt knowledge of the heavy weight of grief and loss in real life. Whether or not you’re a gamer, you’ll see something of yourself and your life in this tale, in which everyone at one point or another fervently wishes that the real world was more like a video game.
20. How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures by Sabrina Imbler.
We close our list of the best new novels and nonfiction books of 2022 with a true original. Feeling invisible is just one of many ways in which being “different” – especially being Black, female, LGBTQ+ – takes a marked emotional toll on even the best and brightest among us. This remarkable work of nonfiction illuminates this reality in a truly original way. In the book’s preface, the author of How Far the Light Reaches notes that they have always been drawn to the mystery of life in the sea, and particularly to creatures living in hostile or remote environments. Their own life experiences share poignant similarities with those of the invisible deep sea dwellers profiled in this work.
Each essay in this debut collection profiles one such creature: the mother octopus who starves herself while watching over her eggs. The Chinese sturgeon whose migration route has been decimated by pollution and dams. The bizarre Bobbitt worm (named after Lorena!). And 7 other uncanny creatures lurking in the deep ocean. What we learn about them has implications for how we see ourselves and others – especially those who may not usually be allowed to dwell in the brightest possible light.
best new novels and nonfiction books of the year 2022
That’s our highly subjective and person take on the best novels and nonfiction books of the year 2022. What’s on your list, dear reader?