Dee's 'Best Books of 2022'
Author's note: A few of the books listed below were published in 2021, but I read them during the past year and feel compelled to mention them in my Best Books list because of their excellence.
This is one of the few years in which three books on my list were among the NY Times Book section's list of 2022's 10 best books. These books are:
1. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong, one of the most extraordinary books of this year or any year, about the vastly different sensory worlds of animals. Yong's book has so much surprising information and analysis that it is impossible to do the book justice in a few sentences. Even animals which share the same senses experience the world quite differently because of the strength or range of some senses, e.g., the sense of smell in dogs which is far more sensitive and discerning than human smell. For example, in one experiment, dogs could detect a single fingerprint that had been dabbed on a microscope and then left exposed to the elements for a week! Dogs can detect drugs, bombs, landmines, missing persons, smuggled cash, truffles, low blood sugar, oil pipeline leaks and tumors. Some animal species (and a few humans) can see ultraviolet light. These powerful senses are much easier to imaginatively grasp than senses such as echolocation, i.e., "a form of biological sonar," which humans lack but which bats, dolphins and several other species depend on to sense the dimensions of objects (including prey), or even the insides of fish with hooks in them, in the case of dolphins.
An Immense World has important philosophical implications which appear to be of limited interest to Yong whose range of interests and knowledge nevertheless dazzles. His book has only one obvious deficiency: it does not explore the enmeshment between sensory experience and affect, admittedly difficult to do across a wide range of species. Nevertheless, some scientists have published studies re the experience of pain in some fish and insect species and these studies, and others, have extended the study of conscious awareness to species that predate humans by hundreds of millions of years. Still, An Immense World incorporates a range of knowledge re the sensory world of animals that seems inexhaustible, and which invites careful study and rereading of specific chapters.
2. Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv, uses in-depth stories of persons with apparent extreme mental health problems to discuss the limits of mental health diagnostic categories and current psychiatric understanding of mental illness. Aviv is not polemical or didactic; she allows her stories to make her case that experts often are unable to understand or help many persons with mental health problems, and may well do more harm than good. One of my favorite chapters is about an Indian woman viewed as mentally ill by her Brahmin family who comes to be regarded as a saint by many during the last part of her life. Aviv also has a great chapter on the reckless misuse of psychotropic medications in which some meds are prescribed to control the effects of other meds, and which persons taking these psychotropic cocktails fear they must remain on for life despite their negative effects. Aviv's book is a thoughtful exploration of complex issues that should lead to some degree of humility in professions that have done great harm in recent decades to entire societies, not just to floridly mentally ill persons.
3. The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. What are the chances that a novelist who has published one of the best novels since 2000 (A Visit from the Goon Squad) could write a sequel with many of the same characters a decade later that is as good as the first novel? Exceedingly unlikely, yet this is what Jennifer Egan has achieved in The Candy House, which appears to be a dystopian novel about development of a technology that allows access to everyone's consciousness who chooses to upload their memories into the program. Egan appears to have limited interest in this dystopian future, but a consuming interest in the nature of consciousness and memory, and in the narratives that stich memories together to form identity, and in the inherent flimsiness of these narratives, far less solid than they seem. Egan's characters are given to radical transformations, e.g., a compulsive shoplifter from her earlier novel becomes an artist who works with great creative freedom; and there are many other such stories in The Candy House, a delight to read on every page, with terrific comic elements. However, the central question which Egan does not fully answer is ,"why is immersion in the consciousness of others (whom we may dislike or even despise) a potential sweet shop for novelists and their readers?" This is a novel of astonishing intelligence which contains an implicit ethic in the presentation of characters, especially Lulu, the supremely self assured adolescent in a visit from the goon squad who becomes a spy in this novel, and who endorses and embodies an ethic of self effacement. I have written a lengthy review of The Candy House which I will be happy to share on request.
Other outstanding books published in 2022:
4. Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, a novel about one of Strout's characters, Lucy Barton, an emotionally vulnerable novelist who has appeared in some of her earlier novels, during the first phase of the pandemic. Lucy is rescued from New York City by her unfaithful ex- husband, William, who takes her to a small town in Maine, at first for a few weeks and then permanently. This is a meditative novel by a writer who can never believe she is important or matters much to anyone due to her emotionally deprived childhood, though she is deeply loved by her two daughters and her ex- husband who is a rock of stability and strength during the pandemic. This is a novel about a breach in the world caused by the pandemic that reveals the solitude and loneliness of elderly people (and some middle aged people as well) whose world is quickly fading. Misfortunes that occur to family members cause Lucy to reflect, "It is a gift in this life that we do not know what awaits us." And even at the end of the novel when Lucy is in the close embrace of William, with whom she has become reconnected romantically and sexually, Lucy comments: "A tiny shiver of foreboding passed through me then, a shiver of foreboding for myself and the entire world." Lucy also engages in empathetic social commentary re Trump supporters. Unfortunately, she lacks the caustic acerbity of Olive Kittredge, Strout's other alter ego in several of her fictions. Curiously, in this novel Lucy and Olive live in the same small town in Maine without meeting. Too bad, a great opportunity lost.
5. The Angel of Rome and Other Stories, by Jess Walter who lives in Spokane, Washington. The Angel of Rome is a smart and very funny collection of stories about human folly, but without meanness, a difficult thing to pull off in fiction. The funniest and best (in my opinion) stories are "Town and Country," about a gay middle aged man stuck with the care of his raunchy libidinous father who has dementia, and "The Way The World Ends" about two 35-40ish climate scientists who interview for the same faculty position in a small town in Mississippi. The climate scientists end up in a highly embarrassing state of undress when they are discovered in a local motel by two faculty members sent to interview them. The foursome engage in a drunken revel on a stormy night only to be discovered the next morning by a gay student desk clerk struggling to "come out" re his sexual identity. The student is far more shocked by the academics' gloom and doom talk about climate change than their dissolute behavior. He asks the climate scientists: "So this is what I want to ask you .. if you think we've done everything we can?" "It is this second question that takes Anna's breath away. No, she thinks, "we haven't done a goddam thing." .. She straightens, walks over to Jeremiah (the student desk clerk) and hugs him. She thanks Jeremiah and says, "There is so much more we can do." She turns down the offer of the faculty position and heads to Siberia to do scientific work on carbon capture. In Walter's wonderful stories, humans (at least most humans) are redeemable.
Books published in 2021 which I read in 2022:
6. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber (deceased) and David Wengrow. This is a book about social evolution that sets out to demolish the standard version of social evolution from egalitarian small bands to hierarchal societies and cities shaped by the requirements of agriculture, and the development of "States" with law, bureaucracy, etc. The authors attack this common simplified story of civilization so frequently, they become tediously repetitive. However, in every other respect their book is filled with intellectual riches, including discussion of the sources of power in ancient societies, ideas about freedom in war and peace, and in their analysis of schismogenesis, i.e., "People come to define themselves against their neighbors. .. If 'national character' can really be said to exist, it can only be the result of such schismogenetic processes." Graeber and Wengrow apply this concept brilliantly to explain polar opposite cultural practices between contiguous tribes in the Western US during pre- colonial centuries; but curiously, they do not discuss how the same process leads to the fragmentation of groups, cultures and societies. This is a powerful idea which warrants further elaboration.
Some of the most fascinating information and discussion in The Dawn of Everything concerns societies in the Americas from about 500 CE to 1500 CE, i.e., prior to the Spanish conquest. The authors emphasize the diversity and complexity of these societies,, and resist any framework that attempts to impose law-like patterns on early human history. Early humans were more creative and far more thoughtful than they have been given credit for by anthropologists and archaeologists, these authors believe. They take on all comers in a scholarly debate re early human groups and societies which their book has fundamentally changed.
7. Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution by H.W. Brands is the best book about the American revolution I've read in recent years. Brand structures his gripping story of the revolutionary war around Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, both of whom were probably irreplaceable due to Franklin's diplomatic skills that brought France into the war at a critical time and Washington, who held Patriot armies together against all odds; and who won the war with a daring "all-in" march of his army from New York to Virginia in 1781. Brands emphasizes the bitterness of the war that led to multiple atrocities on both sides and Patriot rage against the British who freed slaves to fight on their side. The British also allied with Indian tribes to attack and destroy rural communities with Patriot affiliations. In the eyes of Patriots, these were unforgiveable actions which made a negotiated settlement that left England with nominal control of the US unthinkable. From my standpoint, however, the most surprising information in Brands' account is how close the British came to winning the war due to likely mutinies in Patriot militias fed up with lack of pay and adequate supplies. It was for this reason that Washington, an exceedingly cautious and defensive minded commander, uncharacteristically risked everything to trap the English army at Yorktown, a strategy made possible by the arrival of a 36 ship French fleet off the Virginia coast. Washington understood that if the war continued much longer, much (perhaps most) of his army might desert, or worse, hold Congress and the states hostage until they were paid. The Patriot victory was a close call that could have ended in ignominious defeat, except for Washington's daring strategy to trap Cornwallis, and eliminate the will of the English government to fight on. There was nothin inevitable about the Patriot victory, Brand's outstanding book makes clear.
8. The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams by Sidarta Riberio. Riberio, a Brazilian neuroscientist, is a creative thinker with encyclopedic knowledge of the science of dreaming, and has published experimental studies of dreams during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. He is also widely read re the cultural anthropology of dreams, early human development and Freudian thought re the function of dreams. The Oracle of Night is one of the few recent books (in my view ) to advance the understanding of dreams, and explain why they were given so much importance by many ancient cultures and groups. Riberio's hypothesis is that dreams enhance and consolidate memory of daily events, as well as pruning memories which are unimportant to dreamers' motivation. Many animal species dream; it is an early development in the evolution of central nervous systems. In addition, dreaming is a way the sleeping brain conducts simulations of possible futures, without physical danger, according to Riberio. Implicit in his thinking is the realization that multi-celled animals consisting of millions, billions or trillions of cells must work unceasingly, including during sleep (which is required to detoxify the brain), to achieve the unity of purpose necessary for survival. Riberio agrees with Freud that dreams reflect repressed or barely conscious desires and fears, but not in order - per Freud - to maintain sleep, but rather to create an organism that operates on the principle, "an injury to one part of the organism is an injury to the whole organism." Riberio believes that dreams are like stars which are always present but can only be seen clearly after dark, thus the term 'daydreaming.' Dreams complement internal self talk during waking hours which sustains the authorial self. Riberio speculates at length re lucid dreaming, i.e., achieving conscious control of the dream narrative, which he believes can be cultivated to achieve desires, harm enemies and potentially wreak havoc, a dubious speculation in my view, but then I lack this power.
The main deficiency of Riberio's outstanding book is that he does not explain symbolic dream logic in which the brain utilizes memories of sense experience to embody feelings, first and foremost desires and fears. Riberio is one of the world's most creative thinkers re the biology of mind, not just dreams. Fame awaits him, not something to look forward to unless you want to sell playing cards with fictional persona.
9. Accidental Gods: On Race, Empire and Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin, a book with the potential to offend just about everyone with a religious bent, which includes me, though I was more gobsmacked than offended by this mesmerizing book. Subin's theme is the powerful human tendency to make gods of mere mortals, and she has many amazing examples that include:
Prince Philip (Queen Elizabet's husband),
General Douglas McArthur,
Brigadier General John Nicholson ( British India, 19th century),
Several obscure British administrators of colonial empires
A few anthropologists, and
Some Christian ministers in India.
All of these persons, without exception (it appears), were distraught and appalled by being deified. Gandhi reminded his followers repeatedly that "I am not God." John Nicholson, worshipped in part because of his brutality, frequently whipped his followers in India who tracked his every step and emotional expression. No matter: the beatings just strengthened the power associated with divinity and enhanced his divine status.
Subin writes about these phenomena in a variety of ways, i.e., mockery, wonderment, analysis of colonial oppression and the way in which it mirrored deification, but her most effective approach is when she tells the stories as believers thought and felt about the human gods they created and worshipped with offerings such as flowers, cigars, brandy, or with other favorite things of the human god they worshipped. Concretely, this means that she asserts true prophecies, miracles (such as healing), and other powers associated with gods, mystics or charlatans. Several of the persons listed above had millions of followers, and for many years. In these cases, all of which have occurred during the past 175 years, there was no event or experience which was viewed by believers as disconfirming their beliefs. This is a mind boggling book which leaves no doubt that in certain circumstances, there is a powerful need to invest an unlucky human, sometimes an exceptional person, but just as likely to be ordinary, with godlike powers and to regard everything that happens to these persons, good or bad, as confirmation of their divinity. Subin, like Krishnamurti, questions the whole concept of distinct religions, an assumption she blames on scholars who understand the world in categories.
10. Growing Up in the Lone Star State: Notable Texans Remember Their Childhoods by Gaylon Hecker and Marianne Odom. Hecker and Odom conducted 47 oral interviews with famous or well known Texans of various races/ ethnicities over a period of more than 35 years. The result is stories of childhood that lack literary artifice or pretension and contain a wealth of intimate details that bring alive the time and place of their childhoods in a vivid totally convincing way. These oral histories include actors and actresses (e.g., Debbie Reynolds), race care drivers ( A.J. Foyt), athletes, politicians and judges, astronauts, military leaders, TV personalities ( Phyllis George), business tycoons, journalists ( Dan Rather, Bob Schiffer). This book reveals the formula for worldly success in 20th century Texas:
1. Begin with a child who is the apple of at least one parent's eye.
2. Add parents, one of whom may have died early, but who otherwise stayed married, no divorces.
3. Surround the child with many supportive extended family members who help out with resources as needed.
4. Give the child a consuming interest or ambition in her/ his elementary school and middle school years.
5. Arrange for fortuitous breaks/ luck in late adolescence.
6. Place child and family in a community which has pride in its traditions.
7. Treat fame and recognition like economic reimbursement..
8. Look back on childhood as a great blessing, the path to a charmed life.
I grew up in Texas during the 1950's with very different early experiences; so I find it amazing that some of my peers had lives like the ones described in this book. However, I definitely recognize the time and place details of these stories which was a great pleasure in reading this book, which I highly recommend to non-Texans. Hats off to Hecker and Odom for collecting so many great stories of childhood, with such eloquence.
Other noteworthy books of 2022: Sugar Street by Jonathan Dee; Don't Know Tough by Eli Cranor (a debut novel) ; Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World, by Gaia Vince, The Lonely Century: How to Restore Human Connection in a World That's Pulling Apart (2021) by Noreena Hertz ; Feeling and Knowing by Antonio Damasio, and Notes From the Apocalypse (2020) by Mark O'Connell. In addition, I am ending the year by reading an outstanding novel that was published in 1980, The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard. Great novels are rare in any era, but to finally read a highly regarded novel I ignored for 40 years is a great blessing. The more I like a novel, the more I slow down and savor every sentence. I only read a few pages per day of Hazzard's novel.
-- Dee Wilson