Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022: A Year of Books


This year, for some reason, I really got into reading. I read more than 100 books this year, twice as many as I have typically read in other years. The complete list, in the order I read them, is at the bottom of this post.

I think my biggest discovery this year in the realm of books was the goodreads website. I've been mildly aware of goodreads for a long while, I guess, but for some reason this past fall I decided to check it out more carefully and I ended up establishing a presence there. What I am liking about goodreads is that is provides me with a really helpful way to keep track of what I've read and what I'd like to read--I am a great one for getting excited about new topics, authors, and interests, and they come and go and flux and change, and so rather than just putting titles on my Kindle as they appeal to me (which is what I was doing), I am now able to organize my disparate fancies in goodreads lists, and I can read the opinions of others to try to gauge whether I really want such-and-such a book and remove and adjust the lists as needed. Overthinking, perhaps, but enjoyable to me.

The second thing I like about goodreads is that I am able to find and link up with people whose reading tastes seem to match my own. From these people I have been able to discover a lot of excellent work that I probably wouldn't have found or paid much attention to otherwise. For example, thanks to one goodreads "friend" I have gotten a taste of Young Adult fiction, a genre that never seemed interesting to me but which I now find pretty appealing. So I am grateful for all the new directions my reading is going, thanks to the advice and recommendations of folks I am meeting virtually on goodreads.

I have also been reviewing everything I read now, which is a nice way to put to practice the skills I learned reviewing theater for all those years; and also a nice way of setting down the reading experiences in a kind of permanent way, something I never did until this year (except for plays, of course). The process of thinking about and writing about what you've read is useful and edifying, and I am glad that I am doing it. Links to my goodreads reviews are at the bottom of this post.

Best Books of the Year

So which books mattered the most to me in 2022? At the top of the list has to be Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which is a book I tried to read when I was much younger and abandoned; and then came to it at precisely the moment I was ready for it and needed it, this past October. It is such a rich, profound work full of wisdom and love; it filled my heart in a way that few books ever have. I will cite two sentences that really resonated with me:

And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.

He saw: this water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same and yet new in every moment!

The other book that really stayed with me was Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood. I came to it because, as I was going through my old theater reviews to prepare some of them for goodreads, I discovered that I had seen a dramatic version of this book at New York Theatre Workshop, about twenty years ago. Yet, I had no memory of it whatsoever. I thought it might be interesting to read the source material. And I am so glad I did: Cunningham tells the story of a family so vividly and intimately and with such immediacy that I found I could not turn away and I could not stop getting more and more wrapped up in their lives. It's a beautiful book about love and the eponymous stuff--flesh and blood--that goes with it.

Flesh and Blood has drawn me into fiction in general--I rarely used to read fiction except for mystery/suspense/detective genre novels and stories--and into romantic/love stories in particular. These I always avoided, I guess because I thought they were sappy; I realize now it was probably because I thought they'd remind of what I didn't have in my life. Either way, I am glad to be embracing all of these kinds of reading and look forward to more in 2023.

Discoveries of the Year

I read more widely this year than ever, and along the way I came upon a few new (to me) authors that I have really enjoyed:

  1. Howard Fast: I have no idea how I didn't know about Howard Fast until this year! I already wrote something about him in this blog post. Since that post in September I have finished the Masuo Matsuto mysteries and read a big book of Fast short stories. He is a wonderful writer, and a deeply humanist one (although the whiffs of homophobia I detected in a few of his pieces troubled me just a bit). I'm not sure how much more of his work I will read in the future, but I am glad to have spent a lot of this year with him.
  2. Christopher Rice: On a whim, I bought Light Before Day, an early work by this writer (who is the son of Anne Rice of Interview with the Vampire fame). This is from the review I posted: "It's a vivid, intense account of a young journalist who finds himself in the middle of (quoting from the goodreads summary) 'a deadly conspiracy involving runaway sugar daddies, salacious A-list parties, and three handsome young men who have vanished without a trace'. Now, I would not normally ever read a book with a description like that, let alone love such a book, but Christopher Rice takes this material and makes it transformative." He's a fine, humane writer, and the second book of his I read this year, Sapphire Sunset (writing as C. Travis Rice) was, for sheer enjoyment value, my favorite book of 2022. It's a purely romantic tale of two young men who come to realize they belong together; there's a neat suspenseful plot in the background, but the focus is on the growth of a deep and loving relationship. I am looking forward to Rice's sequels (there are two of them, so far) next year. 
  3. Richard Stevenson: I rediscovered the Donald Strachey mysteries this year. I know I read one of them when it was new (or newish), thirty or more years ago; this time I started with the first one, Death Trick, and I'm really enjoying them. (I'm nearly halfway through the third one now.) These date from the 1980s and are set in Albany, New York, featuring a gay private detective, which was definitely a rarity back then.

Books by Friends and Colleagues

I am lucky to have so many people within my circle who are also marvelous writers. This year, I was deeply moved and inspired by a pair of books about the Covid years, Julia Lee Barclay-Morton's The Mortality Shot and Micah Bucey's The Book of Tiny Prayer. They are very different from each other but share two important aspects: both, while serious and somber, are filled with love and hope; and they are as conventional as their authors, which is to say that they are not conventional at all. I am grateful to count both of these talented artists as friends, and was enlarged in 2022 by their work.

Here are other books by folks I know or have known that I got to read this past year:

  • Iphigenia in Aulis by Edward Einhorn: a wonderful new version of the Greek tragedy, as a drama and a graphic novel
  • Life on the List by Jeffrey Essmann, a very funny sexy book by the (former) performance artist (he is now, I believe, a priest)
  • Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger: an intense, funny account of the birth of the musical Spider-Man, written by the playwright who was that show's co-librettist
  • The Lost Conversation: Interviews with an Enduring Avant-Garde by Sara Farrington: interviews with more than two dozen indie theater artists like Richard Foreman, Mac Wellman, and Ching Valdes-Aran; wonderful to hear their voices and know they're being preserved here
  • All We Buried by Elena Hartwell Taylor: a gripping, highly engaging mystery novel by a playwright whose humane and readable work (dramatic and non) I always enjoy

Some Random Notes

I finished Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small novels early in the year; I am so happy to have come to this series! They are warm, gentle mysteries (I guess we'd call them cozies nowadays) and I learned much about Judaism and humanity in reading them.

I started re-reading Ellery Queen's works this year; I have largely abandoned the project. I found that I prefer the earliest ones, where Ellery is insufferable but indisputably the main attraction of the books. Starting with Halfway House, I found the stories to feel more and more like second-rate Agatha Christie, with perky heroines and sappy love stories that she can write but he cannot.

I also tried three of the Philo Vance novels and concluded that two were plenty. Vance is as insufferable as his critics suggest. I re-read a Nero Wolfe novel that I discovered lurking on my shelf, The Second Confession, and I found that it pretty much soured me on that series. I'm quite proud of the review of this that I wrote on goodreads if you care to learn more.

I read Andrew Tobias's memoir about financial life, My Vast Fortune, and got quite a bit out of it. I emailed Mr. Tobias to let him know how much I liked this book and his earlier memoir The Best Little Boy in the World and to my surprise I got not one but two emails back from him (signed Andy). It's nice to know how approachable he turned out to be! And I am looking forward to reading his subsequent memoirs (a new one is said to be coming out next year).

I read several other memoirs and bios; the only one that really stood out was Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin, which is an honest and thoughtful account about growing up inherently racist in the South in the 1960s-70s. It's a smart and courageous book.

And I read Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, and it really surprised me. It is an excellent novel! Very modern feeling, with lots of good lessons for living packed in that don't ever feel didactic or dogmatic.

All the Books I Read in 2022

(links are to reviews on goodreads)

  1. The Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman
  2. New York: A Bicentennial History by Bruce Bliven,Jr.
  3. Virginia: A History by Louis D. Rubin, Jr.
  4. That Day the Rabbi Left Town by Harry Kemelman
  5. West Virginia: A History by John Alexander Williams
  6. Vermont: A History by Charles T. Morrisey
  7. Massachusetts: A Bicentennial History by Richard D. Brown
  8. The Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
  9. Delaware: A Bicentennial History by Carol Hoffecker
  10. Knot My Sister's Keeper by Mary Marks
  11. Rhode Island: A History by William Gerald McLoughlin
  12. Jack & Susan in 1913 by Michael McDowell
  13. North Carolina: A History by William S. Powell
  14. Tennessee: A Bicentennial History by Wilma Dykeman
  15. The Tragedy of X by Ellery Queen
  16. Georgia: A History by Harold H. Martin
  17. Totally Pawstruck by Sofie Ryan
  18. Dummy Days by Kelly Asbury
  19. The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen
  20. Stamp Collecting by Charles F. Adams
  21. Master of Ceremonies by Joel Grey
  22. Castle Skull by John Dickson Carr
  23. The Chinese Orange Mystery by Ellery Queen
  24. Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham
  25. The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen
  26. Murder on Wall Street by Victoria Thompson
  27. All About Me by Mel Brooks
  28. The Tragedy of Y by Ellery Queen
  29. The One Penny Orange Mystery by Morris Ackerman
  30. Halfway House by Ellery Queen
  31. Fun and Profit in Stamp Collecting by Herman Herst Jr.
  32. The Gracie Allen Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  33. Lost Countries by Stuart Laycock & Chris West
  34. Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod
  35. A History of Britain in Thirty-six Postage Stamps by Chris West
  36. The Door Between by Ellery Queen
  37. The Man Who Died Laughing by David Handler
  38. The Floating Lady Murder by Daniel Stashower
  39. The Tragedy of Z by Ellery Queen
  40. The Case of the One-Penny Orange by Howard Fast
  41. The Official Stamp Collector's Bible by Stephen Datz
  42. Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel; and Other Stories of a Young Nation by Howard Fast
  43. The Case of the Angry Actress by Howard Fast
  44. The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book by Vince Waldron
  45. The New Adventures of Ellery Queen by Ellery Queen
  46. The Affair of the Christmas Card Killer by Jack Murray
  47. Full Service by Scotty Bowers
  48. The Case of the Russian Diplomat by Howard Fast
  49. The Scarab Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  50. Generally Speaking by Lawrence Block
  51. Death Trick by Richard Stevenson
  52. The American by Howard Fast
  53. Drury Lane's Last Case by Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen)
  54. The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs by Howard Fast
  55. Broadway Babylon by Boze Hadleigh
  56. Light Before Day by Christopher Rice
  57. Jokebook About American History by Ray Ginger
  58. Bodies in the Library 5 edited by Tony Medawar
  59. The Four of Hearts by Ellery Queen
  60. How I Shed My Skin by Jim Grimsley
  61. The Case of the Sliding Pool by Howard Fast
  62. Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast
  63. Two Tall Tails by Sofie Kelly
  64. The Mortality Shot by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton
  65. New Leaf by Andrew Grey
  66. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  67. Tao of Thoreau by Mark J Bozeman
  68. The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels
  69. Productivity for the Depressive Polymath by Brennen Reece
  70. Elephants in the Distance by Daniel Stashower
  71. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  72. On the Other Hand, Death by Richard Stevenson
  73. You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn
  74. The Art of Zen Meditation by Howard Fast
  75. The Second Confession by Rex Stout
  76. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
  77. The Goat Parva Murders by Julian Worker
  78. Time and the Riddle by Howard Fast
  79. Sapphire Sunset by C. Travis Rice
  80. Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart by Steven Bach
  81. God Said, Ha! by Julia Sweeney
  82. Facebook for Dummies by Carolyn Abram
  83. The Case of the Extra Grave by Christopher Bush
  84. Iphigenia in Aulis by Edward Einhorn
  85. Government Gay by Fred W. Hunter
  86. Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story by Steve Wilson & Joe Florenski
  87. The Zen Book by Daniel Levin
  88. Sleight of Paw by Sofie Kelly
  89. Django 4 for the Impatient by Greg Lim
  90. Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham
  91. The Kennel Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine
  92. Comfort and Joy by Jim Grimsley
  93. Helping Gay Men Find Love by Israel Martinez
  94. The Case of the Kidnapped Angel by Howard Fast
  95. My Vast Fortune by Andrew Tobias
  96. Out of the Pocket by Bill Konigsberg
  97. Life on the List by Jeffrey Essmann
  98. Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger
  99. The Lost Conversation: Interviews with an Enduring Avant-Garde by Sara Farrington
  100. Birthday Boys by Simon Strange
  101. The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower
  102. The Unexpected Heiress by Frank W. Butterfield
  103. Bourbon Street Blues by Greg Herren
  104. All We Buried by Elena Hartwell Taylor
  105. The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie by Howard Fast
  106. The Book of Tiny Prayer: Daily Meditations from the Plague Year by Micah Bucey
  107. Making the Naughty List by Darryl Banner
  108. The Boys by Katie Hafner
  109. Two Christmases by B.J. Smyth
  110. After the Ecstasy the Laundry by Jack Kornfield
  111. Men Are Pigs But We Love Pork by Woody Miller (aka Michael Alvear)
  112. Flamer by Mike Curato
  113. Is It Hot in Here (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth by Zach Zimmerman

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