2022 reading roundup: Staff writer Steve Pfarrer’s favorite reads of 2022

Staff Writer
Published: 12/23/2022 2:54:27 PM
Modified: 12/23/2022 2:53:53 PM

Just as in 2020 and 2021, I did a lot of reading in 2022, maybe because I’d been conditioned by the pandemic, even as I started getting out out of the house more this year. So here’s a list of my favorite 2022 books, roughly in the order in which I read them, including books published this year and one that dates back to 1982.

Travelers in the Third Reich by Julia Bond — This 2018 title provides a fresh look at the well-plumbed subject of Nazi Germany by examining the impressions of dozens and dozens of visitors, predominantly from Great Britain and the U.S., who came to Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

These first-person accounts, from tourists to students to public figures such as Charles Lindbergh, document the conflict many visitors faced between their love of Germany’s history, scenic landscapes, and artistic legacy and the rise of right-wing movements there, culminating with Nazi rule.

Some people eventually turned away from Germany, while others made excuses for the Nazis and continued to visit late into the 1930s. Even as they criticized state violence against Jews, certain travelers essentially blamed the victims for the problem, such as British journalist Evelyn Wrench, who said there was an understandable sense in Germany that “the Jew has got a disproportionate share of the ‘plums.’ ”

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger — Krueger is the author of a long-running mystery series built around a former Chicago cop who now battles various bad guys in northern Minnesota. I read the first book in the series and wasn’t all that impressed. But I really liked this 2013 standalone novel, set in Minnesota in 1961 and narrated by a middle-aged man, Frank, who looks back on his 13-year-old self and a fateful summer that upended life in his small town.

The story captures a vanished, more innocent time, when Frank and his younger brother, Jake, roam through the fields and woods outside their town as summer begins. But Frank will soon find himself exposed to an adult world full of secrets and darkness: murder, suicide, premarital sex and adultery, racism. He’ll see his own family, from his pastor father to his artistic mother, threatened by tragedy. How everyone copes with these issues makes this a beautiful coming-of-age tale.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell — This 2020 biography is a great addition to WWII history, focusing on an American socialite, Virginia Hall, who defied family expectations and physical limitations — a prosthetic leg — to become a leading spy in Nazi-occupied France. Hall essentially talked her way into Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and in 1942 became the first female Allied agent deployed behind enemy lines. She organized resistance activities in France and soon became a principal target of the Gestapo.

She also refused orders to leave, insisting on continuing the fight; then, with the Germans practically on her doorstep, she escaped over the Pyrenees Mountains on the French-Spanish border in winter despite searing pain caused by her wooden leg. Yet after returning to Britain, Hall convinced her handlers to infiltrate her back into France in 1944, where she oversaw a successful guerilla campaign against elements of the retreating German army. An incredible story.

The Caretakers by Amanda Bestor-Siegal — Bestor-Siegal, who lives in Texas but has family ties to the Valley, creates memorable portraits of six women in her debut novel, published this year, which centers on American au pairs caring for the children of well-to-do French families in a suburb of Paris. The author explores the cultural clashes between the French and Americans, and she grounds the story in a mystery whose denouement doesn’t come until the very end.

One of the book’s strengths is that few of the characters, at first blush, seem that likable. Yet as Bestor-Siegal develops their voices and sheds light on their histories through a cross-cutting, well-paced narrative, her characters become more sympathetic and their actions more understandable.

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard — I’d read two previous books by the U.S. popular historian Millard but not this first one, originally published in 2006. It’s a gripping account of how Teddy Roosevelt, after his unsuccessful attempt to reclaim the presidency in 1912, joined his son Kermit on an expedition down an uncharted river in the Amazon jungle in an attempt to map it — and nearly died.

In fact, a number of men on the expedition did die, and one was murdered, as they faced Indians with poison-tipped arrows, roaring rapids, voracious insects, disease, and near starvation. The book is not only a historical page-turner but a wonderful introduction to the primordial nature of the rain forest; Millard previously wrote for National Geographic, and she brings her knowledge of nature and a great explanatory writing style to her story.

I also read Millard’s brand-new book, River of the Gods, an account of the clash between two 19th-century British explorers competing to find the source of the Nile River. Recommended.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman — I don’t remember how I came across this 1982 historical novel centered on England’s King Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, but I was hooked when I read that Penman had rewritten the story from scratch after her original typed manuscript was stolen from her car. That’s one dedicated writer — and her Richard III is a far more sympathetic character than the evil hunchback of Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich — I read one of Erdrich’s more recent novels, The Night Watchman, a few years ago, which prompted me to check out some of her mid-career books. I liked “Doves,” published in 2008, for its multi-narrator storyline and the way it reveals how an act of white vigilante violence against Native Americans in North Dakota in the late 19th century continues to reverberate in a small community there a century later.

She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes — A great 2014 memoir by a Brit-born journalist exploring the troubled early life of her mother, Paula, who grew up in a South African family terrorized by their violent, alcoholic father. Paula eventually fled to England in 1960, reinventing herself so completely that her daughter knew almost nothing of her past.

But after her mother’s death, Brockes goes to South Africa to fill in the gaps, meeting her aunts and uncles and learning of their earlier lives. She finds plenty of pain and suppressed emotion but also develops a new appreciation for her mother’s strength in surviving a past that might have defeated a lot of people.

The Saxon Series by Bernard Cornwell — Cornwell is a prolific author of historical fiction, including this series on the birth of England in the 9th and 10th centuries as the Saxons fight the invading Danes. The books, also known as The Last Kingdom series, are narrated by Uhtred, a Saxon boy captured and raised by the Danes, who becomes a warrior and then reluctantly fights against the Danes, whom he admires.

I read the first five books — or was it six? — of the series this year; they’re something of a guilty pleasure, with bloody battle scenes and usually some treachery thrown in. They’re a bit repetitious, but they can be quite funny, too. Uhtred’s voice is irreverent and sardonic, especially in his observations of Christianity. One reviewer calls him “a Han Solo for the Middle Ages,” which seems just right.

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor — Beevor is a great narrative historian, predominantly of WWII history, and in this 2022 book he tackles the chaos and tragedy of the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war, events that may have left as many as 12 million people dead. There’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s still an engrossing read. I didn’t know that much about Russia’s civil war — especially how brutal the opposing sides were to each other.

I’d also like to give a nod to some fine books by Valley-based writers that I wrote about this year: Daniel Shays’s Honorable Rebellion by Daniel Bullen; A Cheerleader’s Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by MB Caschetta; Regicide in the Family by Sarah Dixwell Brown; and The Long Field by Pamela Petro.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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