A Year in Reading: Vanessa A. Bee

December 7, 2022 | 13 books mentioned 5 min read

I tend to read the least when I am writing the most. This bad habit completely baffles me, given the number of times exposure to great literature has either delivered me out of creative ruts or elevated the quality of my work through some ambient mechanism that borders on metaphysical. But it’s more than that. Like most readers of The Millions, I love books. I love holding them and smelling them and hearing them. I love the feeling being swept into another mind or another world. The feeling of counting down the hours until I can reenter an engrossing narrative. Of finding the perfect literary match for a friend.

home bound cover Vanessa A. BeeWhile 2021 was an exceedingly productive year writing-wise, I missed being connected to others through literature. But I had sold the proposal for my memoir, Home Bound, during the previous fall. As a result, much of the following year was consumed by drafting the final chapters, then rushing to incorporate my editor’s notes before my due date. By the time the baby arrived in December 2021—happy, healthy, and two weeks early—I had read fewer than 10 books from cover to cover.

Dismayed by this performance, I made reading more books my top resolution this year. I was surprised to find that committing verbally helped me stick to my goal. Or maybe goal is too strong a word. With an infant, a day job, and a book coming out in October 2022, I thought it wiser to not hold myself to a firm number. Still, I have done better than I expected. As I draft this essay in late November, I have finished 28 books and hope to squeeze in a few more before the year ends. Most are literary fiction, my favorite genre, but a few nonfiction titles made it onto the list. Here are my simple and honest thoughts on these reads.


the anomaly cover Vanessa A. Beeour country friends cover Vanessa A. Beethe school for good mothers cover Vanessa A. BeeI started out with Hervé Le Tellier’s L’Anomalie, a French blockbuster with a sci-fi edge. I wanted to see what the buzz was about, and whether I could still get through an adult novel in my native French. (I can.) The premise was interesting though I must confess that the book’s reception still does not entirely make sense to me. I found it just all right. But things looked up with Gary Shteyngart’s witty pandemic novel, Our Country Friends, and Jessamine Chan’s heart-wrenching The School for Good Mothers, another sci-fi adjacent novel that resonated that much more with a newborn sleeping on my chest.

less cover Vanessa A. Beemy year of rest and relaxation cover Vanessa A. Beethe morning star cover Vanessa A. Beejoan is okay cover Vanessa A. BeeI flew through Andrew Sean Greer’s charming Less and trudged through Otessa Moshfesh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which I found nihilistic, apathetic, and actively unfunny, despite multiple reviews and my very own husband promising humor. Simultaneously intrigued by author Brandon Taylor’s rave in the New York Times and skeptical about my odds of enjoying Karl Ove Knausgaard, I borrowed my husband’s copy of The Morning Star. From the first page I felt drawn into an eerie Norway on the eve of spiritual darkness. I finished the winter with Weike Wang’s Joan Is Okay, the unsentimental—which I do not mean pejoratively—story of a doctor grieving the death of her father in her own way.


cover Vanessa A. Beeoh william! cover Vanessa A. Beethe town of babylon cover Vanessa A. Beesea of tranquility cover Vanessa A. Beepure color cover Vanessa A. BeeHaving loved Olive Kitteridge, I inhaled Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! (sweet and deceptively simple in prose), followed by Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon (cerebral, funny, relatable, and now a National Book Award finalist). In the market for a couple of quick novels, I moved on to Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (a fascinating idea, again, but maybe sci-fi is just not for me) and Sheila Heti’s philosophical Pure Colour. The latter stumped me at times but I found helpful context in this review by Nora Caplan-Bricker in Jewish Currents. Spring ended with a break from the front list, as I read James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. I must say, rarely has a book made me laugh this much.


glory cover Vanessa A. Beetrust cover Vanessa A. Beein the distance cover Vanessa A. BeeMy progress slowed while I recovered from Covid and readjusted to the workplace after a wonderful six months of parental leave. A podcast interview with the writer NoViolet Bulawayo put me onto Glory, her cutting satire with a cast of animals for main characters. While the novel is intended to skewer Zimbabwean politics, its points very much hit home with this Cameroonian-born reader. This is also the summer that I also finally got around to Hernan Diaz, whose reputation as a writer precedes him. I started with Trust, then looped back to his debut, In the Distance. Neither disappointed but Trust stands out to me as particularly ambitious in its prose and structure.

severance cover Vanessa A. Beeif i survive you cover Vanessa A. BeeWith book tour fast approaching and internal stress levels accordingly, I switched to audio and listed to a few novels: Ling Ma’s Severance (prescient if a little too aloof in tone for me); the first Harry Potter in French audio (just so that the baby could hear the language on the way to and from daycare; I promise to update him on all the problematic aspects in a few years); and Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You (sharp, funny, and definitely my favorite short-story collection of the year).


covercovercovercovercovercoverAfter reading the synopsis for Jeanna Kadlec’s Heretic, I messaged her to say how excited I was about her memoir about American evangelicalism. Having since devoured it and heard Jeanna discuss it at a joint book event, I recommend it wholeheartedly, especially to defectors from strict religious households. While attempting to pick up jogging yet again, I listened to Sayaka Murata’s short-story collection Life Ceremony (a hit-or-miss for me, with several stories that felt underdeveloped). We also got through the second book in the Harry Potter series (less good than the first in my opinion; baby is agnostic/non-verbal). I adored Kayla Maiuri’s Mother in The Dark, which is this beautifully written, simmering portrait of an Italian-American family on the brink of failure. I was proud to finish Lydia Millet’s Dinosaurs—being a mega fan of her previous novel, A Children’s Bible—and Claire Keegan’s Foster while on my own book tour.

covercoverI celebrated being back home for the foreseeable future by treating myself to Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, an engrossing novel about platonic friendship, creativity, and work, with unforced commentary on disability and gender. It completely absorbed me. Next, I listened to When McKinsey Comes to Town by NYT veterans Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe. The book was sometimes dry, in the way all pure reporting can be, but overall this is an essential expose on the (often invisible) power that the consulting titan wields in every major sector of industry. A must-listen.


After my last tour stop, I pivoted back to fiction with Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a compulsively readable story that explores themes of race and class with deft and  humor. Last but not least, I listened to Pulitzer-winning The Netanayahus, read by its author Joshua Cohen. Biting, intelligent, and hilarious—including a perfectly executed poop joke and almost cinematic climax—this is by far my favorite novel of this year. An absolute treasure.

More from A Year in Reading 2022

A Year in Reading Archives: 2021, 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

is the author of Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in N+1, The Cut, The New Republic, The Nation, and Guernica, among others. Her fiction has appeared in Catapult. She lives in Washington, DC.