BFG’s esteemed critics offer up their picks
(Editor’s note: we only have time to read a fraction of the countless thousands books published every year. The content stream never ends. But we have a really good filter here at Book and Film Globe. Trust our critics. They know what they’re doing!)
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan — I’m not sure I’ve read anyone as good at describing what it’s like to be human as Jennifer Egan. We are all living in a science-fiction novel now — we get to see billionaires self-destruct in real time and watch nations fight with drones while robot cars run people down in the streets — and Egan manages to capture that insanity and still make the people the most interesting part of the story.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson — This is where I humblebrag through full disclosure: Antoine is a friend of mine, and one of my favorite people in the world. Maybe that will cause you to discount my verdict here, but Mouth to Mouth is a goddamn triumph. It takes a situation familiar to anyone who’s lived in LA, when you can actually save someone’s life— you slam on your brakes as they step off the sidewalk staring at their phone — and they barely give you a nod of recognition. Antoine turns an entire world on one of those moments, and forces us to consider whether there’s any such thing as a truly good deed.
Illuminations by Alan Moore — I already did a whole review of the legendary comic book writer’s collection. I was glued to the pages just like when I first read Moore’s Miracleman or Swamp Thing as a pasty adolescent. Moore is a chameleon, a mimic, and a magician, both literally and figuratively.
Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon — A near-future road trip piloted by an oddly charming and lovable thug-for-hire. Will Bear is the perfect guide through the decaying corpse of America when he gets a call on his burner phone from a young woman who claims to be his daughter. This slim thread might be a way to drag him back to humanity, or it might be a lure that’s going to get him killed. But either way, it tugs at him, and at us.
The Last Days of Roger Federer by Geoff Dyer—Perhaps it’s not surprising that Geoff Dyer used the quiet time of the pandemic to think about endings. Dyer confronts the big questions with his usual grace and good humor and honesty, even when death is closer than anyone wants to admit.
Other books I loved this year, some by friends and acquaintances and well-wishers: A Righteous Thirst for Vengeance by Rick Remender and André Lima Araújo; Bleeding Shadows by Joe R. Lansdale; The Furies by John Connolly; Hokuloa Road by Elizabeth Hand; The Human Target by Tom King and Greg Smallwood; The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell; Secret Identity by Alex Segura; These Prisoning Hills by Christopher Rowe; and The Wheel of Doll by Jonathan Ames.
Though I try to cover all the worthwhile new SF releases in my monthly science fiction column for Book and Film Globe, I also try to look at debut writers even though they are, obviously, less predictable. Of this year’s debutants, music star and film actor Janelle Monáe was the most dramatic, bringing with panache and notable excellence her “dirty computer” world from the world of music and video into print via The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories From Dirty Computer. The best debut SF novel this year, however, was the moving and imaginative tale of a future pandemic, How High We Go in the Dark. In it, Sequoia Nagamatsu convincingly describes near and far futures and nails a tone across the 14 connected stories that, though elegiac, never veers into the maudlin.
I spent most of this year working for HIAS, a refugee and humanitarian aid organization. That meant I was keenly aware of the plight of refugees and the displaced people of Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Ukraine. I didn’t think, though, that one of the players in my Sunday morning pickup soccer game would contribute his voice so decisively to refugee discourse in America. Indeed, I probably would never have read Edafe Okporo’s autobiographical account of growing up gay in Nigeria had he not handed it to me a month before it was published but I could not put it down. ASYLUM, A Memoir & Manifesto is a surprising and angry book that recounts Okporo’s precarious life as a boy and young adult. He brings us along on his journey from provincial Warri, Nigeria, to cosmopolitan and still-uncaring New York, via becoming an ordained priest, a gay activist and an undocumented asylee in New Jersey’s brutal Elizabeth immigrant detention center. His editors also made a strong choice to leave it Okporo’s African idiom which means readers are reminded at every turn of the author’s provenance and his ongoing, active process of self-justification in a hostile world.
Also related to my soccer adventures I was lucky enough to review the concise Football by poet Mark Yakich. Though not without its flaws, Yakich’s volume fulfils the mission of the Object Lessons series to describe, “beautifully … the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Despite extending only to 160 small format pages, Football not only explains the history, the geography and the essence of the “beautiful game” but also gives an exemplary insight into how it has pervaded the author’s personal and professional life. To provide his account of the cultural significance of a sport, Yakich also describes football’s impact throughout the height of the Covid-19 lockdown and during his own clinical depression. It’s not War and Peace (thank goodness) but it does transcend its niche genre with a tender evocation of personal and historical significance.
Finally, another book that I reviewed — The Escape Artist : The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland — turned out to be both fascinating and compelling. In a year where the flames of antisemitism continue to burn, it is important to remember the horrors of 20th century antisemitism. It’s a situation of indefensible ignorance that most young people in American don’t know any of the significant facts about the Holocaust. While that should serve as an indictment of America’s culture and education, it also shows the need for documentaries by master craftsmen such as Ken Burns’ The U.S. and the Holocaust and Freedland’s book. Having watched the Burns in its entirety and read the Freedland likewise, I would recommend both as essential re-tellings of stories that are, in their newly crafted perspectives, eye-opening and heart-grabbing.
IT CAME FROM THE CLOSET: QUEER REFLECTIONS ON HORROR, edited by Joe Vallese (October 11, 2022 by The Feminist Press at CUNY) This overwhelmingly crowdfunded collection is unique, insightful and fascinating. Writers like Carmen Maria Machado and Sarah Fonseca offer their analysis and queer readings of horror classics, like Halloween and The Blob, and indie favorites alike. I will certainly never watch The Birds in the same way again.
Koshersoul by Michael Twitty
We need more Jewish books like this one. Reminiscent of Elisabeth Ehrlich’s Miriam’s Kitchen but wholly fresh and illuminating, it’s a pastiche of memoir, essay and recipes that’s also an ode to the way food tells our story. Twitty candidly and thoughtfully explores the many facets of his identity as they intersect with his Judaism, from African foodways to navigating extremely conservative Jewish spaces as a gay man.
More than You’ll Ever Know by Katie Gutierrez
Katie Gutierrez knits together two women’s yearnings in this novel about a true-crime reporter digging into the night one of Lore Rivera’s husbands killed the other. Lore is the heart and soul of this story, and Gutierrez expertly shepherds us along the path that finds her living a double life – one with the father of her twin sons in Laredo, Texas, and one with divorcé Andres in Mexico City. It’s to Gutierrez’s credit that we don’t just believe Lore’s journey, we deeply understand it.
Shutter by Ramona Emerson
Shutter defies easy genre classification. Rita Todacheene is an Albuquerque forensic photographer who can see the ghosts of the dead surrounding her. So yes, this is a mystery with elements of horror, but the novel also plumbs Rita’s relationship with her grandmother, who raised her on the Navajo reservation hours from the city where she now works. The result, featuring one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read (admittedly, not for the faint of heart), leaves us with so much more than phantasmagoric thrills.