Top 2022 Books: Love, Poetry, Memoirs, Culture [Part 1]


Memoir, poetry and time travel stories are among the BBC Culture picks, write Rebecca Laurence and Lindsay Baker.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Douglas Stuart, the author of the Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain (2020), has won rapturous praise once again for his second novel, a heartbreaking queer love story between Protestant Mungo and Catholic James, who come together across the divided landscape of a Glasgow council estate in the post-Thatcher era. "Young Mungo is a suspense story wrapped around a novel of acute psychological observation. It's hard to imagine a more disquieting and powerful work of fiction will be published anytime soon about the perils of being different," says Maureen Corrigan, book critic of NPR's Fresh Air. "If the first novel announced Stuart as a novelist of great promise, this confirms him as a prodigious talent," writes Alex Preston in The Observer. (RL)

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan

In Jennifer Egan's 2011 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, Bix Bouton featured as a minor character. Now he is back as a tech visionary at the opening of The Candy House, as CEO of internet giant Mandala who is in search of his next "utopian vision". Bouton's invention, Own Your Unconscious, is the catalyst for the novel's exploration of the end of privacy in the digital age and how tech turns the world upside down. Meanwhile, the underlying temptation metaphor of Hansel and Gretel's "candy house" permeates the book. It is an "exhilarating, deeply pleasurable" novel, says Prospect, while The New York Times calls it "a spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes". (LB)

Either/Or by Elif Batuman

A sequel to her 2017 Pulitzer-Prize nominated debut, The Idiot, Batuman's semi-autobiographical second novel continues the adventures of Selin Karadag, a Russian literature student in her sophomore year at Harvard University in 1996. Using Kierkegaard's classic philosophical work as a starting point, Soren ponders the meaning of life through the Danish philosopher's theory of the choice between morality and hedonism, using her literature syllabus as her guide. "Either/Or is a sequel that amplifies the meaning of its predecessor while expanding its philosophical ambit," writes Charles Arrowsmith in The Washington Post, while Sophie Haigney in The New Republic praises Batuman's "brilliant, funny observations." (RL)

Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson

In her follow-up to 2015's Negroland, Margo Jefferson blends criticism and memoir, recalling personal experiences and family members she has lost, as well as jazz luminaries, artists and writers she admires. The veteran critic draws on a rich life full of cultural experience, as well as new thinking about the part race has played in her life, and addresses the core theme of black female identity. "Her approach is an almost poetic presentation of fragments of her experiences as they ricocheted off artists whose work and lives she has found meaningful," says The Washington Post. "It's an extraordinary reading experience - the first book I recall wanting to reread immediately after reaching the end." Or, as The Observer puts it: "It is impossible not to be stirred by her odes to fellow black American strivers of excellence." (LB)

In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Amy Bloom

Described by Hephzibah Anderson in The Guardian as "a courageous howl of a memoir" In Love… is the story of novelist and psychotherapist Bloom's journey to aid her husband to end his life, after a 2019 diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's. The narrative jumps back and forth, documenting the frustrations and administrative red tape Bloom encounters and the ethical considerations involved with assisted suicide, while drawing a vivid picture of her husband, the architect Brian Ameche, with wit, compassion and dark humour. The memoir acts as a powerful testament to the couple's "stickily close" and tender relationship, as Bloom, writes Salley Vickers, also in The Guardian: "has written about him [Brian] with all the brave-spirited, undaunted love to which the book bears stupendous witness." (RL)

Love Marriage by Monica Ali

The tragicomic novel Love Marriage tells the story of Yasmin, junior doctor and dutiful daughter, who, as her wedding day draws closer, begins to dismantle her own assumptions about the people around her. Both her and her fiance's family face an unravelling of secrets, lies and infidelities, and Yasmin must ask herself what a "love marriage" really means. Monica Ali's 2003 novel Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and this is her most acclaimed book since then. It is a "rich, sensitive and gloriously entertaining novel – her fifth, and possibly her best," says the TLS, and "juggles so many questions and plot lines that we keep expecting one of them to break free and become detached… yet everything remains utterly coherent and convincing." The Spectator praises the novel too: "It dares to be deliberately funny," it says, and is "absolutely terrific… genuinely touching." (LB)

Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill

Don Lamb is a repressed 40-something Cambridge art historian working on a monograph about the the paintings of the eponymous 18th-Century Venetian master. It's 1994, the contemporary art world is rapidly changing, and after an embarrassing faux pas, Lamb is removed from Cambridge to manage a South London gallery, where he encounters Ben, a young artist who introduces him to the capital's hedonistic nightlife and a reckoning with his sexuality. Tiepolo Blue combines "formal elegance with gripping storytelling," writes the FT. "[Its] delicious unease and pervasive threat give this assured first novel great singularity and a kind of gothic edge," writes Michael Donkor in The Guardian. (RL)

Fire Island: Love, Loss and Liberation in an American Paradise by Jack Parlett

In his meditative look back at the famous queer party island in New York, Jack Parlett adds his own autobiographical asides. The result is a place-based memoir about hedonism, reinvention and liberation that has been widely acclaimed. The New York Times says: "[Parlett's] concise, meticulously researched, century-spanning chronicle of queer life on Fire Island captures, with a plain-spoken yet lyric touch, the locale's power to stun and shame, to give pleasure and symbolise evanescence." Populated by the mid-century literati – WH Auden, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith all make appearances – the book explores the culture and hierarchies of Fire Island's communities. "Utopias tend to be flawed in revealing ways," says the TLS, and this "sets the tone for an island history that's deeply felt and keenly judged." (LB)

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti

A follow-up to her 2018 novel Motherhood, Sheila Heti's Pure Colour is billed as "a book about the shape of life, from beginning to end," and combines the real with the abstract and surreal in its story of Mira. An aspiring art critic, she meets and falls in love with Annie, who opens up Mira's chest to a portal with her enormous power. Later, when her father dies, Mira transforms into a leaf for a long section. Pure Colour is "simultaneously wise and silly, moving and inscrutable" writes Lily Meyer in NPR. "The apocalypse written as trance, a sleepwalker's song about the end of all things… Pure Colour is an original, a book that says something new for our difficult times", writes Anne Enright in The Guardian. (RL)

Sea of Tranquillity by Emily St John Mandel

The prescient 2014 novel Station Eleven – a dystopian story of a devastating pandemic – was a hit for Emily St John Mandel, winning the Arthur C Clarke award, and also spawning a TV series. Her new book, the time-travelling story Sea of Tranquillity, begins in 1912, with a listless young British immigrant starting a new life in Canada who, when wandering in the woods, experiences an incomprehensible paranormal event. The narrative moves forward to the present day, and then to two futuristic time zones, weaving together disparate threads. The novel has "intellectual heft", says The Scotsman, and "St John Mandel is an intelligent, acute and sympathetic writer". Sea of Tranquillity is, says the Guardian, "hugely ambitious in scope, yet also intimate and written with a graceful and beguiling fluency." (LB)

Memphis by Tara M Stringfellow

"A rhapsodic hymn to black women," writes Kia Corthron in the New York Times, of poet, storyteller and former lawyer Stringfellow's first novel, which spans 70 years and three generations: Hazel, daughters Miriam and August and granddaughter Joan. Memphis is, Stringfellow says, "an ode to my city and the black women living here in it... full of mystery and magic and humour and grit." The Irish Times praises Stringfellow: "Her women are vivid, formidable and funny, exposing the legacy of racial violence not just within the microcosm of family or the titular city, but nationally," while The Washington Post writes: "With her richly impressionistic style, Stringfellow captures the changes transforming Memphis in the latter half of the 20th Century.” (RL)

- Authors: Rebecca Laurence and Lindsay Baker, BBC


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