So many books, so little time. I wouldn’t dare claim these are the best books published in 2022, given that there are so many I haven’t read, but every one has something important to add to our cultural conversation.
Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It by M. Nolan Gray (Island Press). Zoning is one of those things that most people accept as “just how things are,” if they notice it at all. But zoning regulations shape our world in many ways, as Gray reveals in this readable history and analysis of zoning and its uses. Local note: zoning is a subject of particular relevance to people living in metropolitan St. Louis, given how effectively it has been used to create and perpetuate racial segregation in the absence of explicit Jim Crow laws.
Brace for Impact: A Memoir by Gabe Montesanti (Dial Press). A lively memoir by a young woman who grew up in a time and a place that had no room for her. So, in best heroine fashion, she found her way to the big city, studying at Washington University and becoming “Joan of Spark” on the Arch Rivals roller derby squad, choices that empowered her to find herself and her place in the world.
Fatty Fatty Boom Boom: A Memoir of Food, Fat, and Family by Rabia Chaudry (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). You may be familiar with the author for the role she played in getting Adnan Syed freed, but trust me, she contains multitudes. This memoir explores her relationship with food and family, with Pakistani and American culture, and how she found her voice and her life.
The Forerunner: A Story of Pain and Perseverance in America by Cori Bush (Knopf). I knew Cori Bush brought a different background, and thus a different viewpoint, to Washington than did the typical Congressperson, but I didn’t appreciate how different until reading her memoir. She holds nothing back as she recounts her life and the many trials she has overcome, from racism to domestic abuse to homelessness, as well as how her experiences have shaped her political ideals.
I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir by Harvey Fierstein (Knopf). Harvey Fierstein has amassed quite a resume by now, from his early days in the experimental downtown theatre scene to four Tony Awards and numerous film and television roles. He spills a whole lot of tea in these pages, making this book an essential resource for anyone interested in the theatre or gay life in New York City. Plus, it’s always heartening to learn about the early struggles of people who eventually made it big. Tip: listen to the audiobook if you can, since Harvey reads it himself, and his gravelly voice is one of the most distinctive in show business.
Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory by Sarah Polley (Penguin). The recovery process from a serious concussion in 2015 led actor/director/screenwriter Sarah Polley on a journey of discovery into her own past life, during which she embraced the advice that gave this book its title. I knew she was brave (she told Harvey Weinstein to get stuffed when he started in with his offers to “help” her career), but reading this book makes it clear I didn’t know the half of it. This is no simple trauma memoir, however, but a straightforward accounting of the experiences that helped make her the artist, and the person, she is today.
Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World by Karen Armstrong (Knopf). Armstrong, a former nun who became a philosopher of comparative religion, is one of the more interesting voices in that field today. In Sacred Nature she describes how the Western way of separating spirituality from nature differs from the approach taken by most of the rest of the world, and what we can gain by embracing the natural world and placing ourselves within, rather than apart from, it.
A Sentimental Education by Hannah McGregor (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). McGregor wears many hats: she’s a professor at Simon Fraser University, host of several pioneering podcasts (Secret Feminist Agenda and Witch, Please among them), co-editor of the hard-hitting collection Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (for which she was sued), and advocate for living a feminist life. These varied interests come together in the essays in A Sentimental Education, which draw on her life and experience, as well has her literary training, to examine questions ranging from how sentimentality and “relatability” are connected to centering whiteness, to what it means to project “authenticity” over social media, to how her response to the This American Life episode “Tell Me I’m Fat” changed over the years.
Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century by J. Bradford DeLong (Basic Books). DeLong, an economics professor at UC-Berkeley and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, creates a grand narrative of the long 20th century (1870-2010) to explore a simple yet seldom explored question: since humanity has solved the problem of making enough stuff to go around (and then some), why are so many people still poor and/or miserable? Spoiler alert—worship of the market as the solution to all problems has something to do with it.
Wild: The Life of Peter Beard: Photographer, Adventurer, Lover by Graham Boynton (St. Martin’s) A gossipy but eminently readable biography of the photographer, conservationist and international playboy which reveals some of the less lovely aspects of Beard’s personality and behavior while also noting his many accomplishments. Beard was a master of self-promotion and created many legends about himself and others, so it’s refreshing to hear from someone who has made an effort to separate truth from falsehood. | Sarah Boslaugh