Of the books I reviewed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution during 2013, twelve stood out. Highlights include Margaret Wrinkle’s unflinching examination of the double bind of slavery, Jesmyn Ward’s stunning tribute to a lost generation in her hometown, a much-anticipated new bildungsroman by Donna Tartt, and a portrait of “the new America” by George Packer that will guarantee you’ll never buy another discount book from that online superstore.
A Long Day at the End of the World, Brent Hendricks. Hendricks, whose father’s body was discovered at the scene of the Tri-State Crematory tragedy in 2002, relates the pilgrimage he made years later to the site in this poetic and affecting memoir, an unearthing of family and past that draws from Greek myth and classic poetry to illuminate Hendricks’ grief and reconciliation.
Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward. In a memoir as raw and uncompromising as her award-winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” Ward combines a childhood spent growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi, with hauntingly tender portraits of five young black men, including her brother, who died within a four-year period. (Full review here.)
Wash, Margaret Wrinkle. In Wrinkle’s inspired debut, a debt-ridden Revolutionary War veteran and slaveholder,Gen. Richardson, turns a field hand named Wash out to stud. Wrinkle offers unexpected insights into both men, notably Wash’s ability to survive on the strength of his mother’s West African teachings and the disintegration of Richardson’s sense of himself as a fair-minded man who once fought to win freedom for all.
The Son, Philipp Meyer. Meyer’s multigenerational saga of a Texas oil family from the early 1800s through the 20th-century was 2013’s “Lonesome Dove.” Three members of the McCullough family recount the bitter battle between whites and the Mexican Americans and Native Americans they brutally dispatched in the battle for land. The unquestionable heart of the book is Eli McCullough, whose spectacular Indian captive story tells of his abduction at 12 by Comanches who eventually make him one of their tribe. (Full review here.)
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride. McBride, best known for his memoir, The Color of Water, takes some risks with his third novel, a rambunctious, good-humored tale narrated by Henry Shackleford, a slave who finds himself unexpectedly “freed” by abolitionist John Brown. Mistaken for a girl and nicknamed “Little Onion,” Shackleford travels with Brown’s forces toward the inevitable showdown at Harper’s Ferry, while McBride slyly divests some well-known sacred cows of their halos in the process.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. Kiernan’s well-researched account brings to light a WWII-era community hidden in the mountains of Tennessee— where high school graduates lived and worked and fell in love as they unwittingly helped develop the atomic bomb. Based on interviews with the surviving workforce, Kiernan’s account alternates between the scientific and the day-to-day, embodying the tension between the government’s draconian efforts to keep its employees in the dark and its awareness of what was at stake.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, George Packer. Packer’s brilliant survey evokes the ghost of Studs Terkel with its highly readable, revealing glimpses of American life in the trenches over the past 30 years. The many profiles here — from ordinary people to Oprah to Raymond Carver to Newt Gingrich — come together to explain the gradual unraveling of the social contract that once defined America.
Heart of Palm, Laura Lee Smith. In a debut novel reminiscent of Richard Russo, Smith gives us the appealingly dysfunctional Bravos, a north Florida family whose neighborhood bar and coastal property turn up at the center of a real estate deal that could change their lives forever. As she chronicles the losses that hold them hostage, Smith portrays her damaged souls and unlikely heroes with compassion and humor.
Where You Can Find Me, Sheri Joseph. Joseph’s meditative, richly imagined third novel takes a perilous subject — the kidnapping of a young boy by a pedophile ring and his unexpected return three years later — and examines the repercussions on his family and his place within it. Can a child regain his identity in the face of what he had to become to survive captivity? Joseph offers a ray of hope in a story that questions conventional family structures.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Tartt’s first novel in over a decade drops readers into a rich sprawl of Dickensian characters and plot. Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose mother is killed in a museum bombing, walks clear with a priceless painting in hand, and becomes the artful dodger of a host of predators, including his own father and the Russian mob. The book’s emotional range, intellectual energy, pitch-perfect dialogue and perfect combo of desperation and humor make nearly 800 pages fly by.
Render: Poems, Collin Kelley. Atlanta novelist, poet and playwright Kelley used the work of renowned photographer Sally Mann as a jumping off point for this powerful and candid look at his past. Like Mann, Kelley’s steady gaze never falters as he snaps pictures of family, coming of age and coming out, and mines pop culture — Barney Rubble! Wonder Woman! Pam Grier! — for unexpected role models. (For a longer story about Collin, go here.)
Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, Scott McClanahan. With this extended praise song to the family and friends of his childhood and adolescence in rural West Virginia, McClanahan plunks us down in the middle of post-coal Appalachia and so vividly recreates the mixed shame and humor of growing up poor and disadvantaged that his book sprouts wings. (Full review, see here.)