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Literary critics give their takes on the best of books of 2022


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Judy Woodruff: The year in books.

We take a look now at some of the best writing of 2022.

Jeffrey Brown leads the way for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's always one of our favorite discussions of the year, even if we can only get to a handful of top books. We will do our best.

Joined this year by Gilbert Cruz, books editor of The New York Times, and Maureen Corrigan, book critic of NPR.

Nice to talk to both of you.

Gilbert, let's start with fiction. How about two or three picks?

Gilbert Cruz, Books Editor, The New York Times: Sure.

I will mention two books that we recently put on our top 10 books of the year list. The first is "Trust" by Hernan Diaz. This is a novel that tells the rise of a financier in New York City in the early 20th century. But it tells it from four different perspectives. It is historical fiction, but it's also literary fiction.

It's something that I honestly did not know anything about going into it. I picked it up off the shelf this summer. And I think, in the first five or six pages, I was just totally taken by it. It was one of my favorite books of the year.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, how about a second pick?

Gilbert Cruz: Sure.

Another of my favorite books of the year is "The Candy House" by Jennifer Egan. So, Jennifer Egan wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Visit From the Goon Squad." This came out in 2010. And "The Candy House" is a sequel, a follow-up. I think she calls it a sibling novel.

You find some of the same characters, but it sort of takes them in a completely different direction. It presupposes that there's a technology that has been invented called Own Your Unconscious. So it's sort of a social novel, in that it is grappling with what it means to be hooked into technology and social media. It's fun. It's relevant. It's endlessly inventive. It's fantastic.

Jeffrey Brown: I'm glad you picked that one. And I hope our viewers will remember my talk with Jennifer Egan earlier this year for that book.

So, Maureen Corrigan, two fiction.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR Book Critic: OK, Claire Keegan's "Foster."

This is a novella. It was originally published in 2010 in "The New Yorker." It's been out in Great Britain for years. It's the first time it's been published in this country.

Jeffrey Brown: She's an Irish writer.

Maureen Corrigan: She's an Irish writer.

She's telling the story of a young girl who's shipped off to relatives she doesn't know to live her summer on a farm. Keegan raises the question of whether this is a kindness or not to introduce a child who has been deprived to a different way of living and different relationships, when she's going to be shipped back to her parents at the end of the summer. So that's one.

The other book that knocked me out was a debut by Jonathan Escoffery called "If I Survive You." It's about a Jamaican American family. The parents come to Florida to escape political violence and to try to give their two young sons another kind of life. They keep getting knocked down, the 2008 recession, Hurricane Andrew, racism.

Escoffery is a terrific writer. He's funny. He's witty. He's sharp. His characters are more than just sort of ideas. They're fully realized human beings. And the "you" his characters are trying to survive is America.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, let's turn to nonfiction.

Gilbert, you want to pick -- give us a couple?

Gilbert Cruz: I sure do.

The first is a book called "Stay True" by a gentleman called Hua Hsu. Hua is a writer for "The New Yorker" magazine. And stay true is a memoir. It's a memoir of growing up as the child of Taiwanese immigrants in California, but it's also the memoir of going to Berkeley in the mid-1990s.

He becomes friends with the son of Japanese American immigrants, a boy named Kenton, who he first thinks is sort of this very simple frat boy, but then grows to learn it's much more complicated than he first suspected. It's a book about grief. It's a book about youth and nostalgia.

There's so much that it's packed into such a small -- such a small amount of pages. It's quite wonderful.

The second is called "An Immense World." Ed Yong is a writer for "The Atlantic" magazine. Some might know him for his wonderful stories over the past three years on coronavirus. But this is a book about animals.

And it's specifically about the ways that animals perceive the world and how those perceptions are different from the way that humans see the world. And whether you like animals or not, it was just endlessly fascinating.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, Maureen, nonfiction.

Maureen Corrigan: Ada Calhoun, also a poet.

Jeffrey Brown: Ada Calhoun.

Maureen Corrigan: Fabulous.

Ada Calhoun is writing about her father, Peter Schjeldahl, who was an art critic for The New York Times.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, very prominent art critic.

Maureen Corrigan: Very prominent, but kind of an elusive -- emotionally elusive father.

Ada goes down into the basement of the East Village apartment house where her parents lived for decades. She comes upon these cassette tapes that her father made when he was trying to write a biography of the New York poet Frank O'Hara.

And she decides she's going to use these tapes to try to complete what he never completed. He never wrote this biography. "Also a Poet" is literary criticism. It's biography of both her father and Frank O'Hara. And it's also a daughter's memoir and a love letter to New York City. So it's fabulous.

The other book I -- that has stayed with me is by the medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris. And it's called "The Facemaker." It's about the pioneering plastic surgery work of Harold Gillies, a doctor during World War I...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Maureen Corrigan: ... who's faced with this catastrophe of all of these men who've had their faces shattered by the new technology of warfare during World War I.

There are no textbooks. There are no guides. He's trying to put these men's faces back together again and to give them their lives.

Jeffrey Brown: Gilbert, I know, in your position, you get lots and lots of books sent your way.

I'm wondering, do you see any themes jumping out at you or subject matter that speaks to our moment, whether it's the pandemic, the politics of our time? Anything hitting you?

Gilbert Cruz: One book that came out this year that was particularly well received, a book called "Lucy by the Sea" by the author Elizabeth Strout.

And this was a novel starring a character that she's written about several times before, Lucy Barton. And in this novel, Lucy experiences the pandemic. She is an older woman who has to leave New York to go up to Maine to join her husband in a cabin, so they can sort of get away from what they imagine is a very dangerous place to be at the moment.

It's a little too close for some people at the moment. I found it extremely readable. And I imagine we're going to continue to see books like that over the course of the next many years.

Jeffrey Brown: Maureen, you get a lot of books coming your way. What do you see?

Maureen Corrigan: I do.

The pandemic novel and nonfiction. I see the pandemic entering in ways that I don't expect, something like Alexandra Horowitz's "The Year of the Puppy." Alexandra Horowitz is the head of the canine Cognition Lab at Barnard.

And she's written a lot of nonfiction about the way dogs think, kind of connecting with what Gilbert said about Ed Yong's nonfiction book. She and her family adopted a puppy during the pandemic. And so it's partly that personal story. So many people adopted dogs and cats during the pandemic, but also this attempt, yes, to get into the mind of a creature who we love, but who is not us.

So I think we're going to keep seeing those pandemic stories.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, just some of the best books of 2022.

Maureen Corrigan, Gilbert Cruz, thank you both very much.

Gilbert Cruz: Thank you.

Maureen Corrigan: Thank you.

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