GMGReads: My Best Books of 2022
Including: A fantastic thriller, one perfect book, and the funniest bio of Putin you'll ever read
Happy New Year — and welcome to 2023! As the world waits to see if Kevin McCarthy can pull of the speakership today—or ever—the galactic Magic-8 ball would be hard-pressed to say “signs point to yes.” It’s hard to capture for those of us who were in DC political circles circa 2008 to explain just what a rising star McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor were, the self-proclaimed GOP “Young Guns.” That all three have ended up with such checkered political careers is a remarkable larger tale of how the GOP lost its way and developed a strongly nihilistic wing in the last two decades. I hope someone will write that book once McCarthy’s own arc and ending is clear.
Anyway, onto the first part of this week’s two-part newsletter: Those of you who have been reading me for a while may remember I did a 101-night-long Twitter thread at the start of the pandemic — you know, the period where we thought the world would be open by Easter! — called #GMGReads, offering themed nightly reading recommendations. All of those threads are archived on my website, if you’re hungry for reading suggestions, but I also wanted to start the newsletter this year with my annual roundup of the best books I read in 2022.
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I started off this essay thinking I’d had a terrible reading year. With two young kids most of my time for “pleasure reading” has disappeared, and so I thought I’d spent most of the year buried in plodding “work reading,” which has meant pouring over dozens of uniquely bad books on UFOs and space exploration (for my own next book, coming fall 2023!), as well as lots of pretty depressing books about white nationalism and far-right extremism (for a new project that I’ll tell you about in a couple weeks). Fiction, unfortunately, has almost entirely disappeared from my reading mix, and I knew it wasn’t a year that I read as diversely and widely as I usually try.
Once I started sorting through my year of reading, however, I found that I’d enjoyed more of it than I remembered—in fact, it turns out, I read in 2022 some of the best books I’ve read in years.
There were some unexpected gems—including one, ACCIDENTAL CZAR, that completely surprised me and provided a literally joy-filled reading experience more enjoyable than almost anything in years; a thriller, FIVE DECEMBERS, that was the best fiction I’ve read in years; and one, THE FALCON THIEF, that felt the closest I’ve ever come to finding a perfect little book. And I read some really great books, like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s cancer biography THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES that were fascinating and even profound that I didn’t even include in the list, simply because I had to draw the line somewhere.
Here are my top #GMGReads of the year, in no particular order:
1) AMERICAN MIDNIGHT, by Adam Hoschchild :: I feel like every year I read one book about World War I that underscores how little I know about that period (see my 2021 list at the bottom of this essay for last year’s entry in this category) and Hoschchild’s portrait of what its subtitle calls “The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis,” is a haunting story of the dark days of nativism, anti-Communist raids, racist uprisings, and government censorship—and a reminder of the fragility of our democracy.
2) REAGANLAND, by Rick Perlstein — This portrait of the country from 1976-1980 finishes off Perlstein’s 3,500-page tetralogy of books tracing the rise of conservatism in America from Goldwater to Reagan, which has to be one of the most ambitious nonfiction literary undertakings of recent memory, eclipsed perhaps only by Robert Caro’s work on LBJ.
3) SIRENS OF MARS, by Sarah Stewart Johnson :: This was far and away my favorite read of my own UFO-book research this year—a completely charming and engaging memoir/history of human exploration of Mars, written by a planetary scientist at Georgetown. I read a bunch of memoirs of scientists working on the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” aka SETI, and they’re all filled with this incredible sense of hope and optimism that feels such a blissful antidote to the cynicism of so much of reading about Earth these days.
4) THE RISE AND REIGN OF MAMMALS, by Steve Brusatte :: Those of you who have been following my reading recommendations for a few years may remember that I loved Brusatte’s fascinating and fun RISE AND FALL OF DINOSAURS, and he’s followed it up with an even-more-ambitious portrait about the incredible evolution of mammals, e.g., us. This is one of those truly humbling books because I learned so much that I didn’t even know I didn’t know; science and life is so much weirder and wilder than we realize. Steve comes across in the book as really thoughtful and generous colleague—the type of person I’d both love to work with and also hope to have a beer with someday.
5) LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, by Rinker Buck :: In another life, I’d like to grow up to Rinker Buck, who is a great writer in addition to having what must be one of the best author names working today. You may remember his bestselling book from a few years, THE OREGON TRAIL, where he built a Conestoga wagon and literally retraced the Oregon Trail in a mule-drawn wagon, and his follow-on is just as ambitious: He built a flatbottom boat and maneuvered it down the Ohio and Mississippis, just like in Huck Finn’s day. Mixed with a lot of American history and some amazing travelogue, it’ll change the way you think of the country. (If you’ve ever read John McPhee, you’ll especially love Rinker’s writing—his Mississippi book reminded me a lot of UNCOMMON CARRIERS.) After the reading Rinker, I caught some barge traffic on the Ohio out the window of a couple plane rides this fall and felt myself transported right back into the pages of his book.
6) DEACON KING KONG, by James MacBride, and HARLEM SHUFFLE, by Colson Whitehead :: These two novels both deal with a noir-ish New York in the ’50s and ’60s, and were wonderful reads, richly developed worlds and great characters. HARLEM SHUFFLE ended up as the first new addition to the honorary shelf of “great fiction” in my library in years.
7) THE FALCON THIEF, by Joshua Hammer :: This was the perfect little book. I picked it up at our local indie bookstore here in Burlington based only on its awesome-looking cover and enticing title, and then when I started reading it, I was instantly captivated — a fascinating subculture, amazing characters, well-written, deeply researched, and engaging on every page, and the rare piece of current nonfiction that’s just escapist enough that it feels unrelated to all the heaviness of the day-to-day world. Only when I was well into it did I realize that the cover that caught me the first time was actually also done by the great Alison Forner, who designed my new WATERGATE cover.
8) ACCIDENTAL CZAR, by Andrew Weiss :: This is a graphic novel biography of Vladimir Putin, written by a top Russia expert at Carnegie Endowment who paired up with a great cartoonist, and it’s just breathtaking in execution—incredibly smart, thorough, and a blast to read. I’ve read a ton on Putin and yet I still learned something on almost every page. Plus, in a phrase that one doesn’t normally attribute to books on Putin, it’s downright funny.
9) THE NINETIES, by Chuck Klosterman :: This came out the same week as my WATERGATE did, and so I found myself reading about it in many of the same roundups of new nonfiction and, subsequently, picked it up as soon as my own book tour was over. It was so much fun to read and as a child of the 1980s, for whom the 1990s were thus so formative, it’s just a rollicking wild trip back through a very strange time when life seems, in hindsight, so much lower-stakes.
10) SOUTH TO AMERICA, by Imani Perry :: I’d been excited for this book for a while, and then raced through when I found that Dr. Perry and I were going to appearing at the Palm Beach Book Festival together in March. It’s an incredible work of memoir and history, as Dr. Perry excavates the history of the South—and thus American history more broadly—through travels to a dozen different sites, and I full-on fan-girled when we sat together at the authors’ dinner in Palm Beach.
11) FIRST PRINCIPLES, by Thomas Ricks :: This unique intellectual history of the four key founders and first presidents — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison — draws out the Roman and Greek influences in their education and lives and how those influences, in turn, shaped the founding of our country. It’s a remarkable work not just for the amount of research Ricks put into it, but also because of how engaging he makes such seemingly abstract and far-removed stories as Catiline, Cato, and others.
12) FIVE DECEMBERS, by James Kestrel :: This book is part of a new imprint that does throw-back noir covers, and I got it basically because James Fallows did a cover blurb for it (James Fallows blurbing fiction?!? Buy now!). It was just a fantastic literary thriller, really really good, written in a deeply compelling throwback style, almost like Mickey Spillane. I’d worried I’d lost the focus to read fiction in the pandemic, but it turns out I was just reading bad fiction. This held me straight-through.
13) STAMPED FROM THE BEGINNING, by Ibram X. Kendi :: I may be just about the last person in the country to read this, and so you probably don’t need me to tell you it’s really good, but wow, this book really is just as important as everyone says it is and will forever change the way that you look at the United States.
14) BUB, by Drew Bratcher, and BOMB SHELTER, by Mary-Laura Philpott :: These two books of essays both earn a spot on my list this year simply because of my personal ties here—Drew is an old work colleague, one of my favorite writers I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve been waiting for his debut book to arrive—BUB features a collection of his writing on the south and family. I’ve always felt that reading Drew is what it must have been like to be one of William Faulkner’s first readers—every sentence packs a fresh punch of the whole history and soul of America's south.
Mary-Laura’s book, meanwhile, has a surprising me-focused twist to it that I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say I’d never heard of her or met her until she sent me a galley at the start of the year. I was—pun intended—blown away by the book, and if you’ve ever loved someone or been loved by someone, BOMB SHELTER will have resonance for you. When I finished it, I added it to my shelf of great essays, alongside Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, Joan Didion’s THE WHITE ALBUM, and Nora Ephron’s CRAZY SALAD.
I’m going to have another post later this week focused on the January 6th report and the half-dozen books about our modern politics and the state of our country.
Tell me: What were the best books you read this year? My tech friend Chris Schroeder also does an annual reading round-up that I’m always interested to see.
PS: I’ve tried to link my favorite book titles above to Bookshop.org, which supports local independent bookstores. In some case, Bookshop.org shows books are backordered, but they’re readily available on other websites if you want to find them there.
PPS: Just in case you want even MORE reading recommendations, here’s my 2021 list of top books, which I’m including since this newsletter didn’t exist last year. Much like this year, I read little fiction in 2021, beyond a few Gerald Seymour thrillers and Rex Stout mysteries, and so my list is all nonfiction—the common theme ended up being history and reportage that surprised and impressed me. In no particular order, here they are:
1) THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, by Philip Zelikow — this history of trying to make peace in World War I was just the best kind of history, something that felt totally fresh and interesting and where I kept turning the pages not knowing the twists and turns ahead.
2) HOW THE WORD IS PASSED, by Clint Smith — this travelogue/history of slavery and it's modern place in America was the book I've thought more about since than any other I read this year, just as my friend Kuna promised when she gave me a copy for my birthday. It's an amazing story of the history that surrounds us—and I promise you'll never think about New York City the same way.
3) HIS VERY BEST, by Jonathan Alter — Ever since my research for RAVEN ROCK, I've come to believe to Jimmy Carter is wildly undervalued as a president and Alter's biography tries to reset a lot of that understanding of what we think we know about Carter and his time in office. It's a fantastic story, well told, and thoroughly researched.
4) TEST GODS, by Nicholas Schmidle — Nick's book, about the new race for space and the larger-than-life personalities who become enmeshed in such grand endeavors isn't the book you think it is when you start. With a surprise twist, it ends up being as much about the past as the future.
5) AN UGLY TRUTH, by Sheera Frankel and Cecilia Kang — The tour du force of tech and business reporting, which caused so many waves when it came out this spring and presaged so many damaging revelations about Facebook this fall, demonstrates all too clearly how the company looked the other way at the harm it caused online.
6) FLIGHT 149 by Stephen Davis — This history of the first Gulf War focuses on the unknown story of a British special forces team inserted into Kuwait City as the Iraq invasion began about a British Airways flight, and the harrowing story of the passengers, crew, and military operators put into harm's way at the last minute.
7) TO START A WAR, by Robert Draper — I never thought I'd enjoy a history of the run-up to the Iraq War as much as I did this; every page feels both newly eye-opening and newly forehead-smacking and the lies, half-truths, and missteps that propelled us into a two-decade war in Iraq after 9/11 felt especially poignant to read as Afghanistan fell this summer.
8) THE SUM OF US, by Heather McGhee — The subtitle explains this book is about "What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together" but so much of it is also about how much racism is embedded in our daily lives in myriad ways we don't think about and how broken the American narrative is that we tell ourselves about the country. Incredibly compelling and thought-provoking.
9) SUBWAY LIVES, by Jim Dwyer — this kaleidoscopic portrait of 24-hours in the New York City subway in the late 1980s, when it and the city it served was just beginning to turn the corner from chaos, is the very best of old fashioned gritty "Metro" reporting, the likes of Mike Rokyo or Edna Buchanan, and one of the best portraits of the city ever.
10) EMPIRE OF PAIN, by Patrick Radden Keefe — Patrick is probably just the most talented writer/reporter working today and his reporting on the Sacklers and their role in creating the opioid crisis has been such an incredibly important contribution in recent years. I was just as awed by this book as I imagined I would be.
11) THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON, by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker — I've been so looking forward for years to reading this biography of James A. Baker III, probably the most powerful figure of the last fifty years in Washington never elected to the presidency, and it delivered on every page, from his Texas childhood to the closing pages and an unexpected elegy for the GOP in the era of Trump.
12) WILDLAND, by Evan Osnos — Building off his New Yorker writing, Evan traces how the American dream broke over the over last generation, focusing on Chicago, Greenwich, CT, and Clarksburg, WV, and created the “dry kindling” necessary to ignite the Trump era and January 6th.
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