The 12 Books That Rescued Me from the Pits of Despair This Year

January 1st, 2022

In 2019, I read 12 books. Then last year — The Quarantimes — I read 27 books. But this year — the year I turned fifty and the pandemic never stopped — I read 32. Clearly there is a direct relationship between my stress and my reading.

In fact, reading has always been a coping mechanism since I was very little, shuttling back and forth between my divorced parents’ homes. Back then, I could actually read in the car. Now, if I even think about reading in the car, my salivary glands start whining. 

These days, I read in bed. I look forward to it at the end of every day. When I finally crawl into bed and pick up the book at the top of the pile, I feel a rush of giddiness. There is nothing better. 

In that spirit, here are the twelve best books I read this year, the ones that will stick with me forever. I tried to narrow it down to ten; I just couldn’t.

  1. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

“Never think you are safe. Never take for granted that your children’s hearts beat, that they sup milk, that they draw breath, that they walk and speak and smile and argue and play. Never for a moment forget they may be gone, snatched from you, in the blink of an eye, borne away from you like thistledown.”

One of several plague and apocalypse novels I’ve read over the course of this pandemic, Hamnet is a fictionalized account of what happened to Shakespeare’s son, who died of the bubonic plague in the 1500s — although it never actually mentions Shakespeare by name and is not about Shakespeare at all.

  1. Coyote America by Dan Flores 

“If one’s argument for civilization holds that wild predators should never roam in broad daylight through the boroughs of America’s largest, loudest, most radically urban metropolis, then, truly, the end of civilization had arrived on paw prints in the snow.”

Coyotes are cool, but did you also know they are one of the most adaptable animals on the planet? People have tried to drive them off and exterminate them for centuries. They just come back stronger. I have been blessed to live near coyote packs multiple times, and the sound of them conducting roll call in the late evening is breathtaking.

  1. The Shame by Makenna Goodman

“How did I get here? Who registered my car? Who scrambled my eggs, took me to the dentist, made corn on the cob, refrigerated the butter? I dive into the pond but emerge the same person. I push around the shopping cart, and another woman’s hands grab the granola.”

About a groovy, homesteading mom and wife here in Vermont who becomes obsessed with an influencer and runs away to New York to find her. This was one of my very favorites. The writing.

  1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

 “Every now and then her thinly daubed, beautifully formed lips would quiver slightly as if she had caught herself on the verge of talking to herself. Watching her, I could see why Nagasawa had chosen her as his special companion. There were any number of women more beautiful than Hatsumi, and Nagasawa could have made any of them his. But Hatsumi had some quality that could send a tremor through your heart.”

Such a beautiful, sad writer. Or, a beautiful writer of sadness. Or a sad writer of beauty?

  1. Shugie Bain by Douglas Stuart

“Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl. ‘She is not,’ said Shuggie, quite proudly. ‘My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.’ The matted mink coat gave her an air of superiority, and her black strappy heels clacked out a slurred beat on the long marble hallway.” 

A little boy growing up in the rundown Glasgow of the ’80s and his awful, mesmerizing, train wreck of a mama. 

  1. Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

“In our hearts, we were pilgrims.” 

Another absorbing piece of historical fiction, this one about the Pilgrims in the New World and the blurred line between “religious freedom” and puritanical fervor. 





  1. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips 

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.” 

I was surprised to love this book so much. It’s about a pair of young sisters on a remote Russian peninsula who disappear while walking on the shore, and how they are eventually found, while all around this central story, other equally heartbreaking stories unfold. 

  1. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave  

“‘This is your land?’

‘No.’ The girl’s tone was firm as her gaze. ‘We only lived here.’”

This historical-fiction novel, about a Norwegian village of women who are all that is left after the men summarily die in a storm while out fishing, is another one that pits oppressive religion against the real, soulful nature of humans.


  1. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

“The trees in a forest care for each other, sometimes even going so far as to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it was cut down by feeding it sugars and other nutrients, and so keeping it alive.”

I read mostly novels, but the exceptions can be fantastic, and this was an incredible exception. In a way, I gained a new appreciation for trees, but in another way, this book simply helped me articulate what I must have always known about trees, without realizing I knew it.  They are magical, intelligent creatures. 

  1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt 

“He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, guttural verbs, and the word ‘postmodernist.’”

I loved The Goldfinch when it came out, but somehow I missed the fact that Donna Tartt had written other books — really, really good books. This one is wicked. It’s clever and dark and tragic and light all at once. 



  1. A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

“At that time in my personal life, I was coming to grips with the end of the world. The familiar world, anyway. Many of us were. Scientists said it was ending now, philosophers said it had always been ending. Historians said there’d been dark ages before. It all came out in the wash, because eventually, if you were patient, enlightenment arrived and then a wide array of Apple devices.”

One of the most disturbing books I have ever read.  

  1. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

“Bit remembers what Titus used to call his own spells of sadness: the old black dog. How appropriate: fanged and servile, neither wild nor human, but an odd by-product of civilization, hungry and slinking near.”

Lastly, a book very close to the heart of my inner child, about a boy growing up in a commune in New York State in the ’70s, who never fully figures out how to transition to adult life. 

Was there a theme to all these ebooks? Perhaps there is something in there about coming to terms with the end of the world. 



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