I choose many of my books for the year either based on my planned travels for the year, or from my huge collection. On this year’s list, I picked books that take place in Florida, Ecuador, The Canadian Maritimes, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. I read 58 books in total, with 13 taking place in Florida, 6 in Ecuador, 5 in the Canadian Maritimes, 4 in Nicaragua, and 3 in Costa Rica. I even read the entire guidebook for Colombia when I thought we’d have to cancel our Ecuador trip altogether. Altogether, I read 16,897 pages. No wonder I can’t get much else done!
Here, you can see my 2022 Year in Books.
Here is my list of top ten books read this year. I gave 5 star ratings to nine out of ten of these on Goodreads. They are not in order of preference, but rather the order in which I read them. I loved them all.
1. The Body in Question by Jill Ciment (Florida)
I loved the slow boil of this tale of a Florida murder trial where a girl on the spectrum, Anca, is accused of setting her baby brother Caleb on fire and killing him. The focus is on the jury of 6, especially C-2, a-53 year-old woman photographer who is married to a much older famous photographer, and her growing attraction for and eventual affair with another juror, F-17, who is an anatomy professor. The story is told in a tight and compact way with a building tension and an emotional punch. I definitely want to read more of this author.
2. Intimacies by Katie Kitamura (The Hague)
I loved this book! The story is a thoughtful and slow reveal of uncomfortable truths in a number of intertwining threads. An interpreter is in The Hague translating in a case involving a former president, a jihadist accused of war crimes. She is uncomfortable with the accused war criminal’s seeming affection toward her. Meanwhile the interpreter falls for Adriaan, a man separated from his wife but still hoping to reconcile for the children’s sake. At a party with Adriaan, she meets the somewhat menacing Kees, a friend of Gaby, Adriaan’s wife, who it turns out is the defense lawyer for the former president. The interpreter’s only friend in The Hague is Jana, who lives in an undesirable neighborhood that is vaguely threatening. The different shadowy characters and the interpreter’s unfamiliarity with The Hague, her rootlessness and her feeling of not belonging, and the characters she meets through Jana, all create a tension that slowly builds and reverberates. Excellent storytelling all around.
3. The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli (Nicaragua)
I loved this memoir by Gioconda Belli about her life and passionate involvement with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s. She is adept at weaving together her personal life, her loves, and her revolutionary zeal in short chapters that unveil the timeline of her life and her awakening to political causes. From her upper middle class upbringing, she comes to see clearly the inequalities in her society under the dictatorship of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle. On December 23 of 1972, a devastating earthquake leveled Managua, and when Somoza absconded with much of the aid offered by other countries, the Nicaraguan people across the board, rich and poor, became united in their opposition of him.
This book is educational about the situation in Nicaragua, the Sandinista movement, and the shameless involvement of the United States; it also reveals the passion a woman has for her country and the revolutionary actions she takes to change the system. In the long run the Sandinista experiment did not work out, not only because of infighting among the revolutionaries but also because of the U.S. attempts to disrupt the movement by supporting the Contras and by imposing devastating economic sanctions. I wonder what would have happened had the U.S. not gotten involved.
4. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (Hong Kong)
Janice Y. K. Lee inspired me in 2010, when I was living in South Korea and reading her fabulous book The Piano Teacher; I determined that I must visit Hong Kong after reading it, which I was finally able to do in 2015. Now, after immersing myself in The Expatriates, I discovered that my expat experience was on a much lower socio-economic level than this group of expats who work for international corporations and live in a bit of a bubble in Hong Kong, possibly during the same time period I was visiting. Still, it took me back to my visit there, and I was glad I could place myself in the center of her story.
I worked as a lowly English teacher in China (and in South Korea, Oman and Japan), and our expat community was definitely not as high in the stratosphere as this group of people. Here, Lee focuses on three expat women: young Mercy, a Korean-American Columbia graduate who has found herself adrift in Hong Kong; Margaret, the wife of a senior executive to an unknown company, and mother of 3 children; and finally, wealthy Hilary, in a rocky marriage to an accomplished attorney, a wanna-be mother without a child. These women’s lives intersect in a way that is devastating. Coming to grips with all the havoc wreaked by this unsettling series of events is what propels this fascinating novel about expats living in Hong Kong. I love Janice Y.K. Lee’s writing too!
Here’s an interesting video with SCSreads (Star Crossed Smile) discussing The Expatriates. I love how she describes the expat community in Hong Kong and how it often is living as an expat.
5. Our House in the Clouds: Building a Second Life in the Andes of Ecuador by Judy Blankenship (Ecuador)
I enjoyed this memoir even more than I did the author’s first book, Cañar: A Year in the Highlands of Ecuador. This one tells how Judy Blankenship and her husband Michael Jenkins built a second home in Cañar, in the highlands of Ecuador. I enjoyed reading the whole process of building the second home and their dealings with locals and neighbors, who were mostly friendly and helpful, but sometimes confrontational. It was fun to read the dynamics between the author and her husband, which were quite entertaining. Although I don’t think I’d like the cold of the “eternal late fall” in Cañar, at an altitude of 10,100 feet, I would certainly enjoy the “eternal spring” of Cuenca, at 8,370 feet elevation. I hope to make it to the Andes in Ecuador as soon as the strikes are over and things have calmed down (June, 2022).
6. The Farm on the River of Emeralds by Moritz Thomsen (Ecuador)
This is a fascinating story by Moritz Thomsen about his years on a farm on the Esmeraldas River in Ecuador. I love how he adeptly reveals layer after layer, exposing the struggles of farming in a relentless environment, unveiling the characters he encounters on the farm, delving into the challenges of the country and its culture, and finally, coming to terms with his complex relationship with his partner Ramón. What I love most is his ability, often belatedly, to get glimpses of his own destructive attitudes and tendencies, and, instead of hiding from them, to admit them with some degree of trepidation, disgust, and embarrassment. He’s brutally honest; he doesn’t shy away. He has a good heart, this man, yet he has his demons and his North American upbringing that he can’t quite escape.
What a wonderful book.
7. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (South Africa)
What a fabulous book. It’s a quick read about Trevor Noah’s growing up during and just after apartheid ended in South Africa. Trevor tells about how he was “born a crime,” with a white father and a black mother; having sexual relations between races was illegal in South Africa during apartheid. He always had to figure out where he fit in, with the black people, the colored people or the white people. His mother was a stalwart woman who was determined she would give everything of herself to raise her son to be a good and successful man. His great love and admiration for her is evident throughout.
I watch Trevor often on The Daily Show and as I read, I could hear him speaking. The book is clearly in his voice. It is an amazing story of how a child in a very racially divided, often violent, and poor country grows up and finds success despite all the odds.
8. In the Field by Claire Tacon (Nova Scotia)
I loved this story set in Nova Scotia, which we visited this year for 5 days after Hurricane Fiona. It was interesting in so many ways because of the setting; we had visited many of the towns around the Minas Basin where this took place. There were so many obstacles for the main character Ellie to navigate: her job loss, her husband’s great successes in his field contrasted with her perceived failures, her mother’s loneliness and health and dementia problems, racial issues with her mixed race sons in a primarily white region of Nova Scotia, her own mistakes as a teenager which come back to haunt her when she reconnects with her old dear friend Bernie. Her whole identity is in flux. Who is she and where does she really belong?
9. Bodies of Water by T. Greenwood (Massachusetts/Vermont)
This book is incredibly well written. It draws you in with ordinary details: a woman, Billie, is living her less-than-perfect life with her adopted daughters and her alcoholic, junk-collecting, Italian-American husband Frankie. The story is set in the 1960s, when women weren’t thought of as anything more than servants to their working husbands. When a new couple, Ted and Eva, move in across the street, Billie is thrilled to find a friend in Eva. But a past incident that Billie’s parents forced her to disavow and bury begins to surface. Billie begins to have yearnings for Eva, and these deepest yearnings cannot be denied or brushed under the rug. It turns out Eva reciprocates Billie’s feelings. And in 1960s America, a relationship like theirs was simply unacceptable. The story deals with the struggles of motherhood, marriage, fidelity, freedom, independence, homosexuality, domestic abuse, and finally, the freedom to be one’s own person, to love who one wants to love.
A fabulous book. It’s hard to believe this was T. Greenwood’s first novel.
10. Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet (Florida)
This book is a complex, mulitlayered tale that explores the many facets of being a first generation immigrant who wants to attend college. I guess I’ve too often assumed that immigrant families are thrilled to have their children attend college, but in the case of Cuban-American Lizet Ramirez, her family is upset that she applied for and got accepted to an Ivy League school far from her Miami home without consulting with them first. Lizet has to negotiate going to college without any support from her family; she’s dependent on scholarships and she feels out of place as she’s pegged as one of only a few minority students at Rawlings, a small college in New York.
Lizet gets in trouble at school right away for plagiarism and for failing to meet the rigorous requirements of a demanding class schedule. When she surprises her family by returning home for Thanksgiving, not knowing if she’s going to get kicked out of school, she finds her mother is caught up in defending the right of Ariel Hernandez, a young Cuban boy whose mother died while fleeing with him on a raft from Cuba to Miami. Her mother and her sister, who has a baby out of wedlock, feel Lizet has abandoned them, and her mother is so busy supporting Ariel’s cause that Lizet is unable to talk with her, or her sister or father, about her troubles at school. When the school gives her a second chance, she dives in and is able to save her semester with just-passing grades.
The story is all about not fitting in, with either her family, her Cuban heritage, or the school. She is pulled back and forth between her Miami family’s high drama and her solid dreams to achieve a college education. Sometimes she negotiates this pull with wisdom and maturity, other times not.
I thought the book dealt with a lot of complex issues very well. Although Lizet’s desire to “save” her mother from her involvement with Ariel was frustrating and some of her interactions with her sister and mother seemed rather immature, overall, the story was well-told and kept my attention and interest all the way through.
What were some of your favorite books read in 2022?