DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Poets, patriots, immigrants and robber barons are among the varied subjects of the books on Maureen Corrigan's 10 best list of 2022. Here's Maureen.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern, like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or standout memoirs. But as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Let's start with nonfiction. Ada Calhoun's "Also A Poet" is a moving account of her attempt to connect with her elusive father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, by trying to complete his abandoned biography of the beloved New York poet Frank O'Hara. Calhoun recalls how, one day, in the basement of the East Village apartment house where her parents lived for decades, she stumbled upon a treasure trove of cassette tapes from the 1970s - interviews that her father conducted with O'Hara's painter friends and fellow poets. Ultimately, the book Calhoun writes isn't an O'Hara biography either. It's a genre-defying memoir and work of criticism, as well as a love letter to O'Hara's poetry and to the city that inspired it.
Renowned critic Margo Jefferson's book, "Constructing A Nervous System," is also a virtuoso fusion of different forms - memoir, quick riffs and cultural criticism. As one of the few prominent African American female critics of her generation, Jefferson tells us she was always calculating - not always well - how to achieve, succeed as a symbol and a self. The pieces collected here range from a sharp consideration of the significance of Ella Fitzgerald's sweat during her television performances to the challenges Jefferson, herself, faced in teaching Willa Cather's work, along with its racist passages, to her majority-white college students. I wanted them to feel chagrined, says Jefferson. And I wanted them to be disappointed. That last response is one I'm certain Jefferson's own readers will not experience.
Two works of narrative history stood out for me this year. "The Facemaker" by medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris tells the story of British surgeon Harold Gillies' pioneering work in reconstructing the faces of some of the estimated 280,000 men who suffered facial trauma during World War I. Stacey Schiff's biography of Samuel Adams, called "The Revolutionary," is a timely account of how the colonists came to think of themselves not as Bostonians or Virginians, but as Americans, and how Samuel Adams, the so-called forgotten founder, played an essential role in that transformation.
On to fiction. Dani Shapiro's profound new novel, "Signal Fires," jumps around in time to piece together the story of a car accident, two families and what persists even after neighborhoods change, people grow old and collective memories fade. Jonathan Escoffery's debut collection of short stories, "If I Survive You," overwhelmed me with its originality, heart, wit and sweeping social vision. The you Escoffery's mostly Jamaican-born immigrant characters are trying to survive is America itself. Survival of sorts is also the subject of Claire Keegan's matchless novella "Foster," in which a young Irish girl is palmed off by her parents for a summer with relatives she doesn't know. Keegan is a writer who revels in emotional tension, the suspense of the unspoken, the held breath.
A cast-off young person, is also the main character in "Young Mungo" by Douglas Stuart, which takes readers deep into the working-class world of Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1990s. There, a 15-year-old Protestant boy named Mungo falls in love with a Catholic boy. If that premise sounds sentimental, consider that the outer frame of Stuart's novel is a suspense story not just about innocence lost, but slaughtered. "Trust" by Hernan Diaz is an ingeniously constructed historical novel with a postmodern point, namely that readers can't wholly trust any of the slippery stories we read here, especially the opening one about the rise of a Wall Street tycoon much like Charles Schwab or J.P. Morgan. Diaz makes a dazzling connection throughout this novel between the fantastic realms of fiction and finance.
I was reluctant to put Elizabeth Strout's latest novel, "Lucy By The Sea," on this best-of-the-year list. After all, her novel "Oh William!" was on last year's list. But it's no use to hold out against Strout. She's too good. "Lucy By The Sea" transports Strout's familiar heroine, Lucy Barton, out of New York City and into a ramshackle house in Maine with her ex-husband, William. The two shelter in place there during the worst months of the pandemic, months Lucy recalls as having about them a feeling of diffuse grief and mutedness. Strout's spare sentences and her simple pacing constitute her own idiosyncratic take on Hemingway's famous iceberg theory, in which a depth of meaning and emotion lurks beneath the surface of the words on the page. In contrast, I'll just be direct and say that all 10 of these disparate books of 2022 are superb.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. You can see her complete list on our website, freshair.npr.org. On tomorrow's show, how should a country memorialize its past sins? Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith has written about how American landmarks deal with slavery. In a new cover story, he explores how Germany has commemorated the Holocaust. The article is "Monuments To The Unthinkable." I hope you can join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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