2022: My Year in Books

A few years ago I began keeping a list of the books I’d read each year, and posting it on social media in the event that others would find it handy, as I find inspiration in the booklists of friends and colleagues. This year, as December rain comes down on my little house in the woods of southern New England, I’m going an extra step and giving a little blurb of a review for each title. Why not? Please enjoy these reflections on 2022, my year in books.

  1. The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane. The wonderful British writer walks the world’s oldest known footpaths, from Britain to Palestine to Nepal, and brings the landscape of histories to life. Beautiful, stirring.
  2. My Life in 100 Objects, Margaret Randall. Margaret Randall is one of the boldest, bravest and most provocative writers – and humans – of our time. In this poetic memoir, she chooses 100 talismanic objects from her collection to tell the stories of her extraordinary journey. An easy, inspiring and transformative read.
  3. The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh’s look at our current set of global crises goes beyond the physical fact of climate chaos to the psychic dimension of our predicament. He turns his brilliant critical faculties to the failure of imagination and vision that is part and parcel of the ecological catastrophe. While it may be the job of science to unearth the facts of global heating, it is the job of culture-makers to move us to action – and Ghosh finds the culture industry to be asleep at the switch. I’d argue that, at the heights from which he looks, Ghosh misses a vast network of culture workers at the fringe and the grassroots – where one should always look for artists’ response to the zeitgeist.
  4. The Name of War, Jill Lepore. Before Jill Lepore went on to write numerous books on US history, law and culture, she wrote this brilliant scholarly analysis of King Phillips’ War – the first all-out genocidal war in what would become the U.S. The book dives deep into historical materials from the 1670’s through the nineteenth century to consider how the meaning of that conflict was interpreted and transformed over time as a foundational narrative in establishing the myths that undergird our national sense of colonial America.
  5. Life in the City of Dirty Water, Clayton Thomas-Mueller. How often does one of our foremost climate justice activists and Indigenous thought leaders give us the whole ragged story of growing up in a complicated, troubled and broken family and becoming a leader in countless struggles for global justice? Thomas-Mueller does us all a huge service by rendering his personal truths into a fearless narrative of commitment and vision in the face of daily adversities.
  6. Casting Deep Shade, C.D. Wright. The wonderful poet CD Wright, who passed on way too soon in 2016, spent her last years writing this ambling lyrical set of reflections on the extraordinary beech tree, the tree whose smooth bark has long served as a graphic surface, such that ‘beech’ is the old word for ‘book.’ Beautifully produced with many photographic plates of the wild tangled beeches along her journey, the book does amble off into many tangles and brambles and doesn’t always satisfy. But a lovely book to return to from time to time….
  7. When we cease to understand the world, Benjamin Labatut. I walked into a bookstore asking for a book about physics for my 14-year old – and walked out with this grim and bold blend of fiction and non-fiction that explores the breakthroughs of twentieth century physics and chemistry as the fruits of gothic madness and existential dread. Labatut turns his eye to scientists both known and obscure and imagines them as creatures of nightmare vision and eccentric habit whose dark lives reflect, and generate, the terrors of modernity.
  8. The Mouse and the Mare, Martin Prechtel. Whatever can be said about Martin Prechtel’s writing pales against the reality of this ingenious indigenous teacher, storyteller, master craftsman and world-healer.Having said that, in this first book of a trilogy Prechtel digs into his long life full of horses, horseplay, and chivalric wisdom to dish up stories that are comical, emotive, and deliciously entertaining while gently, sometimes forcefully, revealing that the petro-plastic world that modernity advertises as the one and only reality is merely a toxic surface veneer to the ancient life-givingearth beneath our feet.
  9. Stories of the Lotus Sutra, Gene Reeves. The Lotus Sutra, at the heart of the Pali canon – the original teachings from the Buddha’s time as recorded by his beloved companion Ananda – contains some of the essences of Buddhist wisdom in the form of parables told by the Buddha to his disciples. While not a thrilling read in its own right, Reeves as a lifelong Buddhist scholar provides a good intro to the means and meanings of one of Buddhism’s oldest and most revered pieces of scripture.
  10. Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit. The latest in a long series of brilliant book-length essays by one of our most prolific and instructive contemporaries begins with a chance encounter with roses planted by the British writer in 1936, still blooming nearly a century on. Orwell’s Roses has Solnit transforming our vision of George Orwell from the grim dark-spirited leftist whose best-known legacy is his vision of the coming totalitarianism to a life-affirming, earthy gardener who chose to plant roses and later tend sheep even as Europe descended into daily terror. In bringing us on this transformational journey, Solnit continues to expand and deepen the promise of Hope in the Dark and A Paradise Built in Hell – to show that beauty-making and beauty-seeking can, should, and have always been, central to progressive values, and to assert that by affirming this often marginalized perspective, we join the polyphony of life’s inherent music.
  11. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon. Published in 1983, Changes in the Land was groundbreaking when it came out, in its approach to the human ecology of the land that became known as New England. Eschewing centuries of racist colonialist notions that the land was terra nullis when French and English colonists arrived in the early seventeenth century, Changes in the Land looks into patterns of habitation and stewardship among pre-contact people, demonstrates the ways in which English notions of fixed property and the colonial fixation on boundary-making and taming the wilderness have profoundly degraded the ecologies of the region, while also destroying the cultures of the people who had maintained the land since before time.
  12. M Train, Patti Smith. Another in the series of delicious memoirs by Patti Smith, following the artists whose lives and works inspired her; reflecting on her love, life, travels and family-making with Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith; joining her in the journey to reclaim a cottage in Far Rockaway in the years after Hurricane Sandy; tracing the path of Jean Genet, Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud. Reading Patti Smith is like indulging in a sweet, sad opium dream swept over by music from some distant room in the vast mansion of the human psyche.
  13. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh takes on climate change again, this time looking at the crisis as an outgrowth of colonial enterprise. Retracing a genocidal act by the Dutch in Indonesia’ Banda Islands in pursuit of nutmeg, Ghosh makes the violent quest for nutmeg a parable for the climate catastrophe centuries in the making, where the imperial hunger for spices, for hardwoods, for slaves, for fossil fuels, leaves a wake of destruction of global proportions. It is not new to see the linkages between climate disaster and colonialism – indigenous peoples movements and their allies have drawn this connection for decades; but, per Ghosh’s other recent book, The Great Derangement, it may be true that the upper echelons of culture – including the global literati among whom Ghosh seems to sit – have not done enough to grasp this fundamental truth.And Ghosh’s writing itself is so compelling and enjoyable, he takes an argument that is not new or particularly radical, and breathes life into it.
  14. Blues People, Amiri Baraka nee Leroy Jones. I was very fortunate to read this book while still in High School, and it was time to revisit it. In 1963 Amiri Baraka, one of the most important cultural workers of the last half century,broke new ground with this book which, simply put, argues that the history of music in America is the story of Black people in America, the path, in Baraka’s words, “from Africa to Negro.” Tracing the social history of Black music in America, Baraka made the case that the music’s strongest innovations came when shunning, not courting, white audiences. And all of this just on the cusp of the rock revolution where a bunch of shaggy-haired art school boys from Britain brought American blues to a whole ‘nother place.
  15. In The House in the Dark of the Woods, Laird Hunt. A creepy surreal puritan witch story written in masterfully sensuous prose. The plot and setting both leave a lot open to interpretation, a lot unresolved – which is part of the novel’s singular magic. Eerie, trippy, unfathomable and very satisfying.
  16. In the Eye of the Wild, Nastassja Martin. A French anthropologist working in the Russian Far East is mauled by a bear and, in the vision of her indigenous informants, becomes part bear. Written in a wry, spare, self-conscious prose that is very French while not being very “scientific,” this is the story of a woman disfigured and transformed by the world, and compelled not to retreat from the pain, but to dive deeper in. A truly strange, beautiful and inspiring work.
  17. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, The Conquest of Civilizations 1600-1675 Bernard Bailyn. Long on detail but not short on story, if you want a deeply researched magisterial tome on the finer details of the early years of the British colonial enterprise in all its gruesomeness, this is your book.
  18. The Dawn of Everything (1/2), David Graeber and David Wengrow. Confession: Many months after beginning it, I am halfway through, as this tome is massive in scope and ambition. That said, it’s a pure joy to read, as Wengrow and Graeber (who sadly passed way too soon early in the pandemic), undertake an authoritative revision of everything we know about the history of human societies. Visiting eras of history where centuries and even millennia have been traditionally glossed over with boilerplate notions of social development, Graeber and Wengrow ask new questions, posit new propositions, and generally chart a new course for the past with the potential to open new vistas for the future.
  19. Blue Flame Ring, Tinker Green. A sweet sad collection of lyrical poems in the informal, style of the New York School by an itinerantpoet I had the good fortune to meet on the street of San Francisco’s Mission District.
  20. Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization, James Mavor Jr. and Byron Dix. You will never find this book without a thorough search – I bought my copy from the widow of one of the authors – but if this topic interests of you, it is an essential find. At the time of their study in the 1980’s, most of New England had not been archeologized with any rigor, and the authors take a measured scientific view of the fact that, if it has not been studied, we cannot foreclose on any possibilities. With great forensic attention and with deep listening to the land and respect for its caretakers, they find that New England is home to an extensive geography of ancient stone landscapes, many of them likely used as stellar observatories, calendars and places of prayer and ceremony.
  21. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, Jean Obrien. A keen historiography of New England by an Ojibway scholar: Obrien scrapes town records from across New England to find a treasure trove of accounts of “firsting” – where white settlers proclaim the first white child born in x town or the first church, the first whatever whatever – and accounts of “lasting” – declaring so and so to be “the last Indian in Natick,” the last of his race, the last of a noble people, etc.With a straightforward and compelling thesis delivered in clear prose, Obrien’s project is a necessary revelation in examining precisely how white settlers of New England created a narrative that erased Native people while claiming themselves as the only agents of history.  
  22. Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, Jennifer Raff. A new book telling the latest version of an old story – that the peopling of North America likely happened much earlier, and by different routes, than had been previously believed. Written with real respect for native guardians and informants, Origin gives a sense that genetic science can be undertaken respectfully, and even reverently. That said, the book is a bit dry and goes on a bot too long.
  23. These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home, Bayo Okomolafe. Nigerian scholar, teacher, visionary Okomolafe weaves a meandering series of letters to his daughter that challenges the myths of modernity, the notions of fixed identity, of linear time, of western knowledge. In truth, I wanted to love this book more than I did. While very excited about Okomolafe’s vision, his teaching, his presence as a force for a new reckoning with post-colonial reality, the book would have benefited from a hard-nosed edit.
  24. Sincerely, Your Autistic Child: What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish Their Parents Knew About Growing Up, Acceptance and Identity. Autism takes many forms, as I have recently learned watching my nonbinary teenager emerge into unmasked autism, painfully revealing that patterns I had thought to be frustrating behaviors are in fact deeply seated in their neurodivergent way of seeing and being in the world. This book, produced by the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, gives voice to autistic people to describe their own experiences and the challenges they had growing up with parents who failed to recognize, accept and address their neurotypes. If you have or think you may have a child or family member on the spectrum, I recommend you go to this book to begin your self-education. I admittedly have a lot more study to do on the topic, for the good of my family – but this book was a great place to start.
  25. A Wild Love for the World: Joanna Macy and the Work of Our Time, Ed. Stephanie Kaza. Like Martin Prechtel, Joanna Macy is such a huge presence through her teaching, her transformative vision, her unwavering devotion to deep ecology and what she calls ‘the ecological self,’ that no book can contain her multitudinous luminosity.But this one, just out in 2022, is a fantastic primer and deep dive into her work and her living legacy: a selection of essays and reflections by Macy’s students, disciples, companions and the teachers of her work, with each section prefaced by two short and generally revelatory essays by Macy herself. As an introduction to or refresher on this prophet of compassion and visionary for our times, A Wild Love for the World is a true gift.
  26. The Moor’s Account, Layla Lailami. If you are familiar with the tale of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish would-be conquistador shipwrecked off Florida who floated to Texas and walked up the Rio Grande and then to New Spain, it is from his own version of the tale, produced for the Crown and the Church and so surely cleansed of anything untoward. Here Lailami tells the story from the voice of Estabanico, de Vaca’s Moorish slave, the first African to travel what would be the American continent, a century and a half before African-descended Crispus Attucks took the first bullet of the Boston Massacre. A great adventure story that examines the roles of slave and master, imperial subject and imperial narrative, in a tale as full of strange enchantment as the thousand and one nights.
  27. Active Hope, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. An instruction manual and facilitator’s guide for Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects.A healing and hearty must read for activists or anyone experiencing climate grief.
  28. The Casket of Time, Andri Snaer Magnason. I first read Magnason just last year, when through Emergence Magazine I was introduced to his book-length essay, Of Time and Water. The Casket of Time is a parable about time and convenience and the modern human (adult) need to control the elements of our lives; it pretends to be a young adult novel, though the young adult in my life wouldn’t touch it with a fireplace poker. Somewhat contrived as a young adult-ish parable, and demanding a heavy dose of willful suspension of disbelief, nonetheless a fun and engaging read.
  29. Akhneten, Naguid Mahfouz. A delightfully melancholy short novel: a portrait of the monotheistic Egyption pharaoh Akhnaten written as a post-mortem investigation by a young courtier. Thoroughly enjoyable. 
  30. Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon. I rarely give myself the luxury of a fantasy or sci-fi novel. In my teens though I was a huge lover of fantasy and sci-fi and there was none I loved more than the swashbuckling tales of the red-headed Norseman Fafhrd and his lithe and swarthy companion the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber. I long since gave up thinking that my Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser itch would ever again be properly scratched – and the inimitable Michael Chabon did it – he gave me a reading pleasure such as I’ve not had since I was maybe 15. And he did it with Kazarian Jews and a lesson in the medieval geography of the Caspain Sea region to boot. Ahhhh.
  31. Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, Lars Mytting. I have chopped and stacked a bit of wood in my life, and I would not have guessed how little I knew on the topic until a good schooling from this Norwegian best-seller. From the ergonomics of the chopping block to the economics of home-scale biomass energy to the thermodynamics of the wood stove, it’s all here in a beautifully designed rustic-looking little book that sits nicely on the shelf next to your (well, my) Vermont castings wood stove.
  32. Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dara MacNulty. Dara MacNulty, an autistic and highly sensitive Northern Irish teen, finds mental comfort and excitement in the natural world, from the finest details of spring’s first wildflowers to the majesty of the Irish landscape. In this sweet, melancholy book, MacNulty chronicles a year in his life through his and his family’s adventures in the natural landscapes of Northern Ireland. Read as a book on one teen’s engagement with nature and ecology the book is charming; read as an exposition of one teen’s experience of autism and his communion with nature-as-medicine, the book is a lifesaver. A book to be treasured and adored.
  33. Inherited Silence: Listening to the Land, Healing the Colonizer Mind, Louise Dunlap. As 2022 comes to a close I am only halfway through this book, just released this year. In 2021, I was fortunate to begin a correspondence with the author, a Buddhist practitioner, retired teacher of writing and longtime anti-racist activist. So when her book appeared I eagerly grabbed up a copy. After decades of activism alongside native people fighting for sovereignty and historical memory in New England, Dunlap is called back to her ancestral family home in Napa County, California, where she realizes the role her own family played in the brutal genocide of California scarcely a century ago. Delicately sharing out her own learnings about the colonization of land and its people, Dunlap offers us a gift of her carefully gained experience, her profound compassion, and her willingness to break a silence that not only shaped her family for generations, but that masks the ugliest truths about our current society and the ongoing violence it perpetrates. If you are on the lookout for important cutting edge wisdom about decolonizing and making right relationship with the land, read this book.

Published by Jeff Conant

Writer, social and ecological justice advocate, world traveler, family-man, gardener, bee-keeper, baker & tender of life in all her fine forms. Here on The Watering Hole you will find my books, both published, unpublished and in progress, my photographs and artwork, and my short (and long) essays and ruminations here in the late stages of the anthropocene as humanity struggles to turn away from millenia of destruction toward a future of co-existence with all creation…or not.

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