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The best books of 2022

Ten books that ruled this year (without making you think about this year).

Covers for three of the year's best books: "The Hero of This Book," "My Government Means to Kill Me," and "If I Survive You."
Covers for three of the year's best books: "The Hero of This Book," "My Government Means to Kill Me," and "If I Survive You."Read moreCovers courtesy of publishers

What can a list of the year’s best books tell you about the year itself? Nothing, really. Or, nothing specific.

Books, by and large, take a long while to write. Years, decades, sometimes lifetimes. They almost never get released into the same reality they were started in.

None of the books on this list are set in the COVID Era. Any mention of masks, vaccines, or viruses are either coincidental or late additions added for flair. Several of these supposed best books of 2022 are set in the past or the future, or both, and their plots offer little direct advice for those of us stranded in the Maybe Still COVID Era. Which is fine.

If there’s any overarching theme to this list, I’m not seeing it. Two of the books are sequels. Three make use of futuristic technology. One is a two-and-a-half pound graphic novel set in the Canadian oil industry. Another is a novel-in-stories set in Florida. Two (or possibly three) are nonfiction. Several are funny. A bunch of them will break your heart.

10. The Immortal King Rao, Vauhini Vara

In Vauhini Vara’s debut epic, a low-caste kid named King grows up on a South Indian coconut grove and through a few tiny twists of fate, becomes the creator of a technology that alters the course of civilization, for better or worse. The Immortal King Rao is personal and playful, even as it describes a larger world spiraling out of control. (W. W. Norton & Company)

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9. The School for Good Mothers, Jessamine Chan

In Jessamine Chan’s meticulously crafted near-future novel, young mother Frida leaves her daughter unattended and gets banished to a boot camp for bad moms outside Philadelphia — she’ll either learn how to be a good parent or lose her child forever. Frida’s success depends on her ability to care for a terrifying robot child whose care is based on inscrutable algorithms. (As in: A certain type of tantrum can only be quieted by a hug of a particular duration.) Chan pits her everywoman against the henchmen of an unseen authoritarian menace, and starts turning the screws. (Simon & Schuster)

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» READ MORE: Inquirer's interview with Jessamine Chan from Jan. 2022

8. Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, Kate Beaton

In her eye-opening graphic memoir, writer/artist Kate Beaton recounts her experience working oil industry jobs in bleak, remote Alberta, Canada. She and her coworkers, mostly men, start their shifts by sitting through safety meetings about the hazardous conditions and heavy machinery all around them. But these companies offer little in the way of protection for people like Kate who are beaten down by a culture of overt and relentless sexual harassment. So pervasive is her alienation that she’s forced to look for little hints of the wondrous: an act of kindness, a moment’s peace, a starry sky arching over a huddle of trailers, smoke, and floodlights. (Drawn & Quarterly)

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7. My Government Means to Kill Me, Rasheed Newson

Rasheed Newson, TV writer and producer of Bel-Air, Narcos, and others, so deftly drops his protagonist into real life events that it’s sometimes a shock to remember this picaresque novel isn’t the long lost memoir of a real queer young Black man coming of age in 1980s New York City. Trey is smart and scrappy, but also reckless and worrisome as he describes run-ins with bike messengers, bathhouse regulars, and AIDS crisis activists — among them Bayard Rustin, William F. Buckley, and, most hilariously, Fred Trump. This book is vivid, witty, and endlessly charming, even when things get dark. (Flatiron)

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6. Devil House, John Darnielle

A boarded up porno shop in a California off-ramp town becomes a kind of sanctuary for Satanic Panic-era teens — with varying degrees of roughness around their edges — until a double-murder sends them scattering. Decades later, a true crime writer (with questionable methodology) moves into the place, hoping to turn the cold case into another bestseller. Devil House oozes with tension and blood, but it’s got bigger, deeper things on its mind, too. (MCD)

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5. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us, Ed Yong

The Atlantic science writer who wowed us with 2016′s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life — and probably saved lives with his Pulitzer Prize-winning pandemic coverage — followed it up this summer with An Immense World. Propelled by an insatiable curiosity and love of storytelling, Yong reveals the ways every living thing on this planet experiences life differently. We’ll probably never feel what sharks feel or see what bees see, but this book offers a taste of what we’re missing. (Random House)

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4. The Candy House, Jennifer Egan

This beguiling and worthy sequel to 2010′s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad switches perspectives and styles at each chapter break, setting the reader up on blind dates with vibrant characters we’ll never get close to again. But chip away at this gorgeous literary kaleidoscope and you’ll learn about some gnarly, Black Mirror-ish tech that rewires human interaction by uploading memories to the cloud. So, is Egan doing cyberpunk now? Hardly. When it’s this brilliant, they call it speculative fiction. (Scribner)

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3. The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken (Bowlaway, The Giant’s House) promised her tiny, stubborn, hilarious mom she’d never write a book about her. That’s why this memoir is filed under “fiction,” to provide plausible deniability should mother and author reunite in some cloudy, angelic afterlife they’d both find hackneyed and cloying. Ever a victim of mischaracterization, The Hero of This Book has also been called a “meditation on grief,” which makes little room for the sarcasm with which McCracken describes her unnamed narrator’s attempt at a solo re-creation of the trip she and her mother took to London just a few years earlier. (Ecco)

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2. If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery

In Jonathan Escoffery’s stellar debut — a genre-hopping novel-in-stories — a Jamaican family moves to Miami in the late ‘70s in search of some peace and prosperity. Instead, they find wild scenes of misadventure, estrangement, and murder in stormy, quasi-anarchic Florida. There are no cheap laughs or cookie-cutter heartaches — every hair-raising, eye-welling moment is earned, especially that hollow feeling in your gut when you turn the last page. (MCD)

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1. Either/Or, Elif Batuman

If you’re among those who were puzzled by the lack of sex in Elif Batuman’s 2017 masterpiece The Idiot, you’ll take extra pleasure in the sequel, perv. Hilarious and affecting and intimate, Either/Or continues the adventures of Selin, a ‘90s Harvard linguistics and humanities nerd. Having just read Kierkegaard, she has decided to try to pursue an aesthetic life, focusing on beauty and possibility while attempting to put her relationship with the inscrutable Ivan in the rearview. Whether Selin achieves her goals is secondary to the ecstasies of the storytelling, but still we root for her. (Penguin Press)

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