Credit: LubosHouska/Pixabay

In a December tradition that goes back to 2010, Berkeleyside editors have put together a list of the year’s best books. We change up the rules slightly from year to year — that’s part of the tradition — and this year we’ve asked Berkeleyside and Cityside staffers (and one familiar name no longer on staff) to give a shout out to the two favorite books they read in 2022. As is usual, we imposed no requirement for when the books were published. 

Frances Dinkelspiel, co-founder and former executive editor, Cityside

Two of my favorite books in 2022 were nonfiction books that brought me to places I barely knew existed. 

Solito: A Memoir by Javier Zamora is an extraordinary book about a 9-year-old boy who travels 3,000 miles from El Salvador to the United States to reunite with his parents. We first meet Zamora in his small El Salvadoran village where he lives with his grandparents and aunt. He barely remembers his father, who left for the U.S. when Zamora was 1, but desperately misses his mother who left his town four years earlier. Zamora talks to them from their home in San Rafael every few weeks, and they say goodbye with the promise that they will soon reunite. 

That day finally comes in April 1999 when Zamora starts his pilgrimage to the United States. His family thinks it will take about two weeks. After all, the coyote Don Dago, who led his mother across the border, will now take Zamora. But Don Drago disappears and Zamora finds himself alone and scared until fellow travelers — Patricia, her 10-year-old daughter, Carla, and their 19-year-old friend, Chino — informally adopt him. The details in the book bring the brutality and terror of this journey to life. We see Zamora riding on buses where soldiers demand identity papers, trudging on foot, desperately thirsty, through scorching desert, and hiding from Border Patrol agents. But we also get the thoughts of a 9-year-old who is afraid to flush a modern toilet, muses on the different thickness of tortillas in various countries and declares that Mexican horchata tastes like water.  

The Last Slave Ship: The True Story of How Clotilda Was Found, Her Descendants, and an Extraordinary Reckoning by Ben Raines is a gripping historical detective story that also explores the lingering legacy of slavery. In 1808, the United States outlawed the importation of enslaved people, but that didn’t stop wealthy Alabama shipbuilder Timothy Meaher from wagering with friends 50 years later that he could defy the law. He funded Captain William Foster to sail the Clotilda to Benin and bring back 110 captives who were promptly sold into slavery. They then burned and scuttled the ship to hide their crimes. For 160 years, the whereabouts of the Clotilda were a mystery. Many even doubted its existence, despite the stories told by those who had been captured and their descendants, many of whom had settled in Africatown, a small community near Mobile. But in 2018, Raines and other divers found the burned hulk in the swamps of Alabama, confirming the macabre tale of the last ship to bring enslaved Africans to the U.S. In The Last Slave Ship, Raines recounts the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic, the venality of the boat’s backers, and the search to locate the boat’s remains. But the book also explores how the Meaher family is still negatively impacting the lives of the descendants of those brought on the Clotilda. The Meahers leased some of their extensive land holdings near Africatown to industrial companies whose smokestacks are releasing harmful pollutants into the air and harming the health of those nearby. A recent Netflix documentary, Descendant, also masterfully tells this tale. 

Zac Farber, managing editor, Berkeleyside

I have a friend who works as a public librarian and lives dangerously in a little apartment in which piles, hillocks and towers of books are at constant risk of toppling. Out of concern for his welfare and appreciation of his taste in reading material, I agreed to accept his offer of four canvas bags brimming with books. The stories in the bags resembled my friend rather well: spare, dryly comic, somewhat esoteric, prone to romanticizing the inner lives of gentle bookish men who live alone in walk-up flats and spend their afternoons pondering the lives of artists and whether to invite their landlord over for tea. A number of them I found a bit dreary, but I fell in love with the work of an Argentinian author named Cesar Aira who writes novellas that he’s described as “Dadaist fairy tales” and “literary toys for connoisseurs.” They’re confounding and sweet and airy and intricately plotted with the logic of dreams. Each one is like biting into a cream wafer and finding orange juice dribbling down your chin. I recommend The Literary Conference, the plot of which involves gigantic world-destroying worms and an ancient riddle solved casually during a beachside stroll.    

Chatting up the trendy new AI this month was more rattling than I expected. It’s clearly neither omnipotent nor sentient, but the computer speaks fluent English, and it is sufficiently gifted at human mimicry and certain types of conceptual thinking to give a glimmer of its potential. Brian Christian’s The Alignment Problem — an effective primer on so-called artificial intelligence —avoids sci-fi-ish speculation and doomsaying. Act I is over; the monster’s already on the job. In a world where algorithms decide who gets a mortgage and who gets bail, Christian shows how training them to do so fairly is no less a philosophical puzzle than teaching a person to be good or a society to be just. If any world-destroying worms come crawling, they’ll be modeled after us. 

Lance Knobel, CEO, Cityside

Katherine Rundell is a bestselling children’s author, but in her day job as a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, she focuses on Renaissance literature. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne is an absolutely gripping biography of a man who journeyed from religious outsider (his brother died in jail aged 19 for hiding a Catholic priest) to unsuccessful sea adventurer to Dean of St. Paul’s and the most famed preacher of his day. But the reason we care about Donne is he also was the greatest love poet in English literature. Rundell’s own dazzling language and evident passion for Donne in all his guises creates an astonishing literary biography. 

The Stasi Poetry Circle: The creative writing class that tried to win the Cold War by Philip Oltermann should by all rights be fiction. Oltermann digs through the files of the East German secret police and tracks down aging former Stasi officers to reconstruct a group that met monthly to learn how to write poetry. The origins of the “writing Chekists” group was benign: Johannes Becher, East Germany’s first culture minister, thought that poetry, “the very definition of everything good and beautiful,” should have a central place in society. But in the surveillance society of the GDR, little could remain pure. Some of the Stasi poets-in-training were assigned to unravel purportedly dangerous writing. Oltermann includes the story of young Annegret Gollin who, aged 23, joined a poetry circle in Zwickau. She ended up being jailed for 20 months for “public vilification of an organ of the state” for an unpublished poem, Concretia, on the proliferation of concrete buildings. 

Ximena Natera, visual journalist, Berkeleyside

Pussypedia, a comprehensive guide by Zoe Mendelson with illustrations by Maria Conejo

I bought this book four times this year and gave them away as birthday, graduation and break-up gifts to people I adore. I am in awe of Zoe Mendelson and Maria Conejo, who painstakingly researched and crafted this work. They grab your hand and guide you on a wild, honest (brutally so) and joyful adventure. Rather than reading this book in one sitting, Pussypedia is meant to be used as a tool, something to keep at hand and consult over and over. So now, get your copy, throw a party and discuss it in groups (and tell me all about it).

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

I can’t, by the life of me, remember if I stumbled upon this book at the airport or a bus or train station, but I was in transit. I also can’t remember much about that trip other than it gave me this book and the chance to explore Zadie’s brilliant mind in a new way. Here, she processes her grief and shock about the pandemic through short essays that seem to be about everything but that.

Nico Savidge, city hall reporter, Berkeleyside

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Pea guacamole. The London fatberg. “Don’t email my wife.” If those phrases mean anything to you there’s a good chance your brain has, like mine, been curdled from spending too much time online. In her celebrated 2021 novel, “No One Is Talking About This,” Patricia Lockwood writes with dazzling clarity about the social media haze through which many of us have taken in information and culture for more than a decade.

It follows a narrator who rises to viral fame on a Twitter-like platform referred to only as “the portal,” until a family crisis lurches her priorities elsewhere. Based on Lockwood’s life, the story unfolds in loosely connected segments that replicate the sensation of scrolling and the “sapphires of the instant” it can deliver. Her questions – which include what exactly we’ve gained from all the hours we’ve spent on and obsessing about Twitter, and what it could mean for us to leave – feel even more pressing as 2022 comes to a close.

Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original by Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant chronicles Rickey Henderson’s journey from a home on Alcatraz Avenue in North Oakland to the heights of major league stardom in this definitive biography, which weaves together the historical and cultural contexts that created one of the game’s legendary figures.

Bay Area readers will be especially interested in its opening chapters, where Bryant dives into how the Great Migration and residential segregation shaped generations of Oakland athletes. Later, he unpacks how baseball’s rising salaries fueled resentment of players who demanded to be paid what they were worth, especially Black stars such as Henderson, whose now-beloved style clashed with the game’s gatekeepers. Bryant also takes a critical eye to the many stories often told about Henderson, separating fact from fiction while probing what the enduring myths tell us about the public’s image of him.

Tracey Taylor, editorial director, Cityside

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

Only a writer as gifted as Kingsolver could set a retelling of David Copperfield in a dirt-poor Appalachian community riven by the opioid crisis and pull it off with such mastery. At times harrowing, but always compelling, we follow the story of Damon Fields, nicknamed Demon Copperhead, whose life lurches from bad to worse after his young single mother dies, leaving him at the mercy of foster care. Each time you think his situation couldn’t possibly get worse it becomes more hellish — whether he’s working a job sorting through a toxic trash dump that’s a front for a meth lab or being robbed of his only dollars while on an arduous trip to find his only surviving relative. Kingsolver keeps you gripped by blending incisive social commentary, humor, a wonderful cast of characters, and, ultimately, hope.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

At the heart of this extraordinary, beautifully written novel is the premise that books have the ability to save us. As do libraries, in whatever future form they might take, and the wise librarians who know which portals to open for the curious to gain knowledge. Doerr won a Pulitzer for his 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. In Cloud Cuckoo Land he brings us five vividly drawn characters whose stories, despite spanning nearly six centuries, are bound together by their love for a single book — a dilapidated Ancient Greek tome. Inventive and original, he tells a story infused with compassion about the resilience of children and the triumph of humanity.

Pamela Turntine, editor-in-chief, Berkeleyside

If you’re like me, you may have books on your shelves you’ve started but never finished. Well, I finally got around to picking up I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, a fictional story about a complicated but endearing relationship between identical twins, one of whom suffers from schizophrenia. I don’t know why it sat on my shelf for as long as it did but it was worth the wait to finally finish. You won’t be disappointed.

On my BART trips to work, I listened to Liana Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, which was adapted into a series on Hulu. It’ll make you think twice about going to a secluded health resort that promises tranquility. Still, an easy and amusing one to follow while commuting.

Mal Warwick, contributor, Berkeleyside

Mal Warwick has published over 1,900 reviews on his personal blog

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French

We’ve been taught that the modern world dawned when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492 in search of a route to the riches of “India.” In fact, for centuries, historians have been telling us that everything changed because explorers from Spain and Portugal set out across the unknown reaches of the seas to establish new trade routes to what we know today as China, Indonesia and India. Without question, the ensuing Columbian Exchange played a large role in setting off the Great Divergence between East and West. But in Born in Blackness, a compelling new revisionist history, Howard W. French persuasively offers an alternative explanation about the origin of the shift.

“The first impetus for the Age of Discovery,” he writes, “was not Europe’s yearning for ties with Asia, as so many of us have been taught in grade school, but rather its centuries-old desire to forge trading ties with legendarily rich Black societies hidden away somewhere in the heart of ‘darkest’ West Africa.” 

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

For millions of white Americans, the 19th century was an era of expanding opportunities. Settlers steadily pushed back the Western frontier, and the Industrial Revolution gained momentum until, by century’s end, the United States boasted the world’s most productive economy. But for African Americans, Native peoples, Chinese immigrants, and for anyone else — Irish, Italians and Jews — who simply seemed “different” to the country’s majority population, the experience of life in America was often harsh beyond measure. Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s moving novel, Four Treasures of the Sky, illuminates one of the most overlooked of those experiences. In luminous prose, she tells the long-hidden story of the Chinese men and women who came across the Pacific, willingly or not, to work the mines and railroads, the laundries and the brothels, in the old, fast-changing West.

Supriya Yelimeli, housing and homelessness reporter, Berkeleyside

It’s OK to read just one book in a whole year … if that book is A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abduraqib. In the spirit of continuity and selective attention spans, I read everything Abduraqib puts out. And because his writing and poetry make me more mindful of the way I consume music, pop culture, media, sports … what have you. This year, his latest release is an (easier-to-approach) companion read to Flyboy in The Buttermilk, by Greg Tate*. Tate died last December and was a role model for a generation of art and music critics, including Abduraqib.

Abduraqib’s collection of essays about the celebration and exploitation of Black art touches on the Rolling Stones, Josephine Baker, Whitney Houston and violent histories in the Bay Area (Alameda County, specifically). He dwells on love and fear, as always. If you like it, you can jump next to They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (which has effectively become my personal music encyclopedia) and the lovingly told Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest.

*out of print, Marcus Books will order it for you (I’m still midway through)

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