Fave Books of 2022

Looking back at the year so far, it seems to have passed with as much writing and editing as reading, which I suppose is a good thing. Completed a biographical novel about Chris Baker, a 19th Century Richmonder (once infamous and now all but forgotten), who in old age admitted to robbing hundreds of graves hereabouts to supply anatomy labs at the Medical College of Virginia. I’m calling it The Night Doctor of Richmond. Also spent happy weeks puzzling out succeeding drafts of my friend Randy Fertel’s new manuscript on the art of improvisation, which includes considerations of everything from the street layout of New Orleans and the ramblings of our former President to the be-here-now essence of a James Brown performance. And I think my pal disability-advocate Ed Turner is rounding the bend on his memoir, which I’ve been editing as he goes. Ed’s life path, as he recounts it there, is touching, funny, and just plain inspiring. Hope to see all three of these books in print by this time next year.

All that aside, this Thanksgiving I’m offering gratitude for my favorite reads of the past year. As usual, these are not necessarily new books. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name, with my notes of appreciation.  Hope you’ll comment with your own 2022 faves – Happy reading, y’all!

Paul Beatty – The Sellout. An easy pick, this scabrously funny take on the upside-down and inside-out world of everyday American racism won the Man Booker prize in 2016. Like Toni Morrison’s novels or Donald Glover’s FX tv show Atlanta, it’s aimed directly at a Black audience, but with a wry embrace, too, of us clueless White folk. Which means I found myself laughing out loud, then sort of cringing, page after page.

Bill Glose – Half a Man. At the Poetry Society of Virginia conference last spring, met this Gulf War veteran and prolific poet of battle and its psychological aftermath, and brought home his 2013 collection Half A Man.  I’ve read a dozen or more books about our Middle Eastern misadventures, but this one may be the best of the lot. Glose’s sharply-chiseled poems, built on concise sensory impressions, frame a tortured mind determined to make sense of it all.

Percival Everett – The Book of Training and Dr. No. Having written more than 30 books, Everett may finally be rising above cult status, with the popularity of his new one Dr. No. As with Beatty’s novel, probably better not to try summarizing the tale, except to say that it hilariously spoofs spy novels, physics, academia, and the neurodiverse, while spouting dad jokes about the various dictionary meanings of the word “nothing”. Also like the Beatty novel, clever and sly, and as they say unputdownable.  Which leads me to the other Everett book I’ve read, a whole ‘nother thing. The Book of Training is a brief hard cover-only text purported to have been written in Roanoke, VA in 1843 by a slave-holding landowner who offers step-by-step guidance on how to manage human property. I could talk all day about this crushingly shrewd satire, but let’s leave it there, okay?

Paul Farmer – Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor.  I first learned about Farmer in journalist Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize winning Mountains Beyond Mountains, subtitled “The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World,” which recounted this remarkable doctor’s establishment of a free health clinic in Haiti and of the worthy charity Partners in Health, and followed him on his global mission to serve the least resourced people on earth. Sadly, Farmer died in 2022, probably of an exhausted heart, at age 62. Which led me back to a book of medical ethics he published in 2005, a collection of essays that lays out in lived detail the link between social inequality and disease. Frankly, Farmer changed my life for the better, and though few of us can aspire to his heroism in seeing what needs to be done and then doing it, his example can help us all aim higher.

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) – The Miracle of Mindfulness. That 2022 saw the loss of two great souls, Farmer and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thay, truly marks a tremor in the Force. I have several of his paperbacks, all aimed at the general reader, and all intended to teach acceptance, gratitude, awareness of the moment, and what it means to be kind. The Miracle of Mindfulness is my favorite of these; it taught me to breathe mindfully, whether in my room or on a stroll. Thay knew that few could go all the way to Buddhist enlightenment, but he thought that we could all at least learn to appreciate the passing of breath in and out of our lungs. And he hoped that many of us would not stop there, but begin to follow our breath along a spiritual pilgrimage that might just save the world.

David Hinton – The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape. Across a long career, this Vermont poet has published some of the most rigorously true to form translations of ancient Chinese poetry, and this book explains how a poetry of pure image without metaphor expresses that sense of Oneness with all things that is the goal of Eastern philosophy and religion. He goes further, showing how this model leapt to the other side of the globe centuries later to spark what we in the West call modern poetry. If you care about poetry or language or visual art or philosophy, this book is for you.

Herman Melville – Moby Dick. Maybe like me, you were assigned this lengthy tome in an American literature course in college, skimmed it before fall exams, and called it a day. I pulled it off the shelf again this summer and thought, what the hey. And, oh my. I’m older now, have read and lived more, and again, oh my. There is nothing like this novel-travelogue-how to-guidebook, which grows madder and madder as Captain Ahab does, yet opens up to dreamlike passages that are simply unforgettable in their beauty, all somehow framed amidst the physical rigors and stomach-turning ugliness of whaling. People always ask what Melville was up to here, what Moby Dick really means. Whatever you may think, you’re probably right.

David Mills – Boneyarn. Mills gave a rousing reading from this collection at the Poetry Society of Virginia conference last spring (to get a flavor of his bravura style, check out this Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PW41815WoX8). Each of the Boneyarn poems is a dramatic monologue told by one of the people buried in the old African Burial Ground in New York City. Mills sought out the truth of their lives during years of archival research, and crafted telling poetry from what he learned. These poems can be brutal in recounting torture following a slave rebellion, and tender in expressing a mother’s love, but they all swing with a musical acuteness that reminds me of Langston Hughes (a propos, in that Mills once lived in Hughes’ apartment in Harlem).

R. J. Smith – The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. This isn’t the only biography of the Godfather of Soul (novelist James McBride wrote a good one, too – Kill ‘Em and Leave), but music journalist R.J. Smith’s book gets to the essence of Brown’s genius, which is his insistence in a world that left him orphaned, jailed and forgotten as a young boy, that I Am Somebody. That’s the core of Brown’s funk invention, the enactment of a ritualized and ecstatic eternal now, of sheer irrepressible presence. Maybe it ain’t zen, but you can dance to it.

Paul Witcover – Lincolnstein. I listed this novel last year, before publication, because my dear friend Paul had allowed me a peek at the manuscript. The book is out now, was well-reviewed in the Washington Post last summer, and it’s all I said before – a wily mashup of American history and literature that puts the brain of Huckleberry Finn’s Jim into the body of Abraham Lincoln and sends the monster off on a piqaresque journey across the Civil War South. Like Percival Everett, Paul’s been putting out one good book after another for decades – hope this one gets him the attention he deserves.

Seeking Captions!

As the photo mural posted above shows, have seen a lot of tortoises this past few weeks, fascinated by their distinctive-as-a-fingerprint shell patterns. That said, have only been fortunate enough to come upon (pun intended) box turtles in congress once before, years ago. This morning, though, almost stepped on this coupling couple in the Bon Air woods, that glaring fellow clearly not happy with my iPhone intrusion – what’s his glare and her all tucked in peekaboo saying?

The Best Summer of My Life – a poem

For example, Daddy sent me out
with a willow switch I didn’t need
to nudge the old Herefords
back to the barn.

Dawdling along a fence line
strung across the pasture ridge
everything in sight seemed to sizzle.

Then the clouds unclenched
a crack at my ear a tree crashing split
in the woods.  I was right not to care.

Lifted my freckled face begging
the deluge, just daring the hand of God.

Bring it on, I cried, at the top of my game.
Bare-chested and streaming
cackling like a mad man

astride one endless instant
both poem and prayer.

On a Lake in Vermont – poem

Somehow had never visited the Green Mountain State, but spent the past week there giving lectures and touring around. Oh my how beautiful! Re this poem that emerged from a sojourn alongside Morey Lake.

Low hills mirrored
in water like glass.

A cloud sliver paces
its twin.

Swallows swerve for bugs,
their paired reflections swimming,

brush strokes that underscore
the otherwise limpid calm.

Loon song evinces
a quaver in the curtain

chorus of those I mourn.
A yodeled incantation:

It is this way today
while you are here

and will be when like us
you are gone.

The Birdman of Central Park (read aloud)

Hope you will take a few moments to listen to this wintry season tale, my first halting effort at audio recording one of my short stories. This one derives from my first job as an occupational therapist at the Manhattan VA Hospital in New York. One of the outpatients I treated there came in one day with a photograph of himself standing with arms outstretched as a perch for a row of birds. As anyone who’s lived in New York knows, one of the great wonders of the city is it’s many eccentric residents. He was certainly one of them, and in this story I tried to imagine what his life must be like. It’s included in my story collection, Last Rites.

2022? Whew….

At dawn on New Year’s Day a year ago, the phone rang to tell us that my wife Chris’ 99-year old grandmother Angelina had died just before midnight at the nursing home in Poughkeepsie, NY, where she had lived for a year with encroaching dementia, most of that year in isolation, unable to understand why her daughter and granddaughter, on the other side of the window, could not cross over for a hug. (Chris had lost her other grandmother Connie, age 101, in the first week of covid, before testing was a thing. She developed a respiratory illness of some sort and was gone in three days.) We still have not had a funeral for Grandma Connie, but the other side of the family was insistent about figuring out how to hold a funeral mass for Grandma Angelina. As her executor, Chris somehow made it happen in the first week of the new year. We drove up with the boys after work one night, masked up in a nearly empty hotel (this was pre-vaccine, you will remember) in New Rochelle, and the next day laid our dear grandmother to rest, after a socially distanced mass in the quaint Catholic church she had attended her whole life. At the gravesite, we dared brief hugs, and departed for home, after stopping for pizza (you can’t go to the old Italian neighborhoods of New York without getting pizza) and cannoli (same). 

Waiting for the pizza, I noticed that President Trump was giving a speech on the tv. He seemed angrier than usual, pumping his fist. The staff rooted him on. As we navigated the maze of streets that lead to the George Washington Bridge and the Jersey Turnpike, powdered sugar from the cannoli speckling my suit front, news of trouble in DC began to interrupt radio music. By the time we got to the Delaware Memorial Bridge every station was talking about some kind of violent demonstration at the Capitol. Son Stephen, working Twitter in the backseat, said tear gas, people breaching the doors, lawmakers evacuating. I switched channels constantly. Piecing together a narrative from all the snippets as we drove was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle forming in real time. We curved around DC on the beltway, then with darkness falling, on I-95 South, noted a long line of Virginia State Police cars, lights on and sirens blaring, racing towards the city. It seemed that every vehicle around us, heading away from the U.S. Capital, was a jacked up pickup truck, some with American flags waving from the bed. The troopers were late to the party, the Insurrectionists headed home.

I say all this, writing at dawn on New Year’s Day 2022, in memory of a year that, frankly, started awfully. And having lived through the first nearly two years of the covid era, do any of us expect a whole lot different from the months to come?  We’re all so tired, adapting as we can to pandemic management rules that seem to change daily, to political leaders who at best operate in a reactive mode, at worst aim to kill us all, and to everyday lives that are pinched on all sides. I do want to be cheerful, optimistic, grateful for all we have and can look forward to. I’m well aware that as a recently retired professor and natural introvert, working on a pair of books and masking up only for groceries and my weekly Meals on Wheels run, that I’m very fortunate to be out of the line of fire, with a wife who comes home from the hospital every day, takes off her mask, and cheerfully rocks out to Jazzercise on the tv, a dog who loves to walk with me in the woods, and sons who are quite resourcefully finding their way in the minefields of college and what comes after. Friends to zoom with, to chat with on the porch, my bicycle, my books. So stop bitchin’, right? Okay, will do. Let’s get on with it, see what this new year may bring. Let’s help each other when we can, practice that smile of the eyes above the mask we’ve been learning, maybe wake up to the fact that we’re all in this together, and hope, because hope is free after all, that this too shall pass.


Whew, boy, postscript after stroll in the woods with pup and my perennially glass half full (at least) wife Chris, where some of the stuff I’d written while she slept off our New Year’s Eve bottle of bubbles this morning sort of came up, and to which she replied, not necessarily in this order:  (1) vaccines, (2) a President who cares about more than himself, (3) one son graduating college and the other about to, (4) my no longer having to grade stacks of exams, (5) we haven’t yet caught covid, (6) loving memorials for Grandma and a pair of close friends, (7) a 25th Anniversary trip to California where we saw family, hiked nearly every day for ten days (including in Yosemite), and no one got sick, (8) writing writing writing, (9) fun volunteering at FeedMore, Folk Fest, vaccine tents…., (10) getting tutored in woodworking by our friend Ken and building a table for Chris’ plants, a Little Free Library box, and a Walley World plaque for our friend Jeanne’s beach house, (11) collecting and publishing a dearly departed friend’s book of poems, and (12) did I mention we haven’t gotten sick yet?  I stand corrected, grateful, and marginally less cranky. As Chris said, if 2022 can bring anything like that kind of good fortune and fun, then bring it on, eh?  Wishing you the same!

And, as usual, Watterson said it better…

Snowy Day Poems

Dawns on me that the day may soon come when central Virginia will see a winter without snow, and then another, and then before long snowy days will have become just a memory for us to bore our grandkids with. I’m going to make a hot chocolate, pull a chair up to the window, and, with our pup Buddy at my side, attend.

Sharing, too, a couple snowy day poems, the first by me, the second by Sarah Knorr, who loved snowy days so much. If you’ve written one, please comment back with it – let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!