ArtsATL > Books > Year in review: Our book critics look back at literary events, bookstores and favorite reads

Year in review: Our book critics look back at literary events, bookstores and favorite reads

Pat Conroy and Teresa Weaver converse at the MJCCA Book Festival.
Pat Conroy and Teresa Weaver converse at the MJCCA Book Festival.

Sarah Sascha Dollacker: Many Atlanta writers — among them, Susan Rebecca White, Joshilyn Jackson and Lynn Cullen — published books this year. Charles McNair’s Pickett’s Charge, however, is most notable for its scope, bold storytelling and piquant characters.

Half-bald 114-year-old Threadgill Pickett wakes up one morning with a profound need to kill the last surviving Yankee soldier. He has also just been visited by the ghost of his dead twin brother. On fire with vengeance, Threadgill begins his plodding march to Maine to kill the soldier, avenge his brother’s death and vindicate the Southern cause. On his way, he learns a thing or two about the South and his own troubled relationship with it.

McNair’s romp through Southern history blends murder, war, a red-haired Southern beauty, monkeys in a Cadillac, a retirement home in Mobile and a mysterious sea monster into a mind-bending tall tale. Pickett is hilarious, his quest fascinating and what he discovers vitally important. Finally, though, McNair may have answered the ultimate Southern question: how do we move past the Civil War?

Pat Conroy’s appearance at the MJCCA Book Festival in November was a testament to his power to tell stories — on and off the page. Conroy’s conversation with Teresa Weaver, Atlanta magazine’s book critic, entertained 1,200 people with stories from his newest memoir, The Death of Santini, which charts the complicated terrain of life with an abusive father and analyzes the ways in which the most damaged relationships can be saved.

Sitting comfortably in an armchair, Conroy talked to the members of the audience as if they were close friends. With humor and humility, Conroy explored the stories and characters that contributed to the tumultuous, but ultimately reformed, relationship with his father, Don Conroy. The inspiration for Marine fighter pilot Bull Meechum in The Great Santini, Don was a powerfully negative force in Conroy’s young life. But, as both men aged — and Conroy achieved fame for his novels — the tension between father and son softened. By the end of Don’s life, Conroy told the audience, “He had become a father to me.”   

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Dollacker’s Picks

Longbourn by Jo Baker is not just another volume of Jane Austen fan fiction. This insightful novel is a new version of Pride and Prejudice, told from the perspective of Sarah, Elizabeth Bennet’s maid. With penetrating detail, Baker provides the social and historical details that Austen left out of her enduring classic.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is almost Tolstoyan in its scope. At once an immigrant’s tale, race manifesto and feminist apologia, it is also a coming-of-age story about two young Nigerian lovers seeking success in America and Britain. Adichie artfully intertwines provocative ideas with an absorbing plot, creating a novel that is thoughtful and captivating.

Anjali Enjeti: For Atlanta’s indie booksellers, it was a Dickensian sort of year — the best of times and the worst of times.

Humpus Bumpus has served cumming for 20 years.
Humpus Bumpus has served Cumming for 20 years.

Beloved Peerless Bookstore in Alpharetta, which hosted the clever Girls, Guns & Books Book Club, shut its doors in June this year, after only a two-year run. Others are going strong: Laura Relyea’s traveling bookstore, Vouched Books, celebrated its second anniversary in July; Suwanee’s Read It Again has been in business 11 years; Humpus Bumpus counts more than two decades in Cumming.

In October, Little Five Points’ Charis Books and More was vandalized with homophobic graffiti. But Charis soldiered on, and with volunteers from the community, painted over the graffiti the next day. The oldest feminist bookstore in the country now prepares for the celebration of its 40th anniversary next year.

Atlanta’s Indie bookstores rounded out the year on November 30 by participating in the inaugural Indies First Saturday (a literary spin-off of Small Business Saturday), where local authors assumed the roles of booksellers at their favorite bookstores and recommended some of their own favorite authors’ books.

Dozens of local authors participated, including playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage, award-winning nonfiction author Isabel Wilkerson and best-selling crime writer Karin Slaughter at Charis; children’s book author Laurel Snyder and poet and novelist Collin Kelley at Bound to be Read; novelists Susan Rebecca White and Sheri Joseph, as well as nonfiction author Jessica Handler at A Capella Books; novelists Joshilyn Jackson and Lynn Cullen turned up at Eagle Eye Bookshop; and novelist Charles McNair headed to Fox Tale Bookshop in Woodstock.

Enjeti’s Picks 

Hamid-How-to-Get-Filthy-RichHow To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. Poverty, corruption and shady business deals set the stage for a clever self-help-style novel interwoven with a surprisingly tender love story.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. When two awkward teens are forced to share a seat on the school bus, mix tapes, comic books and the experience of not fitting in sparks a love more layered, brave and timeless than Romeo and Juliet. Readers of all ages will enjoy this young adult novel.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace is dying of cancer. She doesn’t have the time or energy for a boyfriend. But when handsome Augustus Waters takes her on an adventure of a lifetime, she comes to understand the true measure of love in the face of death in Green’s insightful, intelligent and witty young adult novel.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. In the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that slammed into the coast of Sri Lanka, Deraniyagala experiences an unimaginable tragedy — the deaths of her parents, her husband and her two young sons. In a brave, heartbreaking and exceptional memoir, Deraniyagala struggles to find a way to rebuild her life and hold on to her love for her family — while also learning to let them go.

Parul Kapur Hinzen: The AJC Decatur Book Festival reinvented itself this year by stirring art — a large helping of it — into the pot. More than 40 dance, theater, music, film and visual arts organizations in the inaugural art|DBF, curated by Julie Delliquanti, shared the weekend event with some 500 literary authors, crime novelists, children’s writers, public figures, debut novelists and more.

Bethany Collins and Justin Rabideau's "Too White to Be Black," a WonderRoot project.
Bethany Collins and Justin Rabideau’s “Too White to Be Black,” a WonderRoot project.

Executive director Daren Wang based the concept on the spontaneous collaborations of past years when writers bumped up against other creative artists. “The Optimist’s Daughter,” a folk opera inspired by a Eudora Welty novel in the works at the Theatrical Outfit, began that way. As much fun as it was for visitors to sample a performance by Serenbe Playhouse or Staibdance, or pause for a pop-up performances as they meandered around book stalls, art|DBF gave writers and artists a unique chance to catch each other’s eye and see what they might cook up together in the future.

Hinzen’s Picks

flameMen We Reaped  by Jesmyn Ward.  In this raw, beautiful memoir, Ward takes a hard look at why the rural black Mississippi community where she grew up is falling apart, and why so many young black men close to her are dead of a fatal combination of racism and self-destruction.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Motorcycles, the New York art scene in the ’70s and militant Italian politics make for what feels like a genuine, culturally mashed-up life story of our times. When Reno, a young land artist from the West, falls for the older Italian Sandro, her life takes off like a bike roaring through the desert.

Soniah Kamal: In any given month metro Atlanta evenings play host to an exciting variety of reading series that are fast turning Georgia into a literary paradise. We look back at the year’s highlights and look ahead to 2014.

Jackson Pearce, author of young adult books, at Write Club Atlanta.
Jackson Pearce, author of young adult books, at Write Club Atlanta.

True Story. Curator Kate Sweeney. Nonfiction only. Rogue writers and nervy journalists bring artifacts from their pasts and tell the stories behind them.
2013: Philip Gerard brought in a photo of himself as a clown. Laura Shields,with shorn hair, talked about the year she spent living modestly.
2014: Josh Green, Jamie Iredell, Terra Elan McVoy

Georgia Center for the Book. Curator Joe Davitch. Best-selling and critically acclaimed authors.
2013: Garrison Keillor, Anne Lamott, James McBride, Lynn Cullen, Sheri Joseph, Amy Tan
2014: Sue Monk Kidd, Laura Lippman, Benjamin Marcus, Dave Barry, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Vida Voce. Curator Sherri Caudell. Women writers in all genres. (Men are welcome to attend.)
2013: Unisa Asokan, Shyla Hardwick
2014: Laura Relyea, Stephanie Balzer

Ivy Hall Writers Series. Curator Georgia Lee. Local, national, emerging, big-name.
2013: Jeannette Walls, Pearl Cleage, Terrel Tannen, Christopher Bundy
2014: Jessica Handler, Jamie Iredell, Alice Hoffman

LostintheLetters. Curator Scott Daughtridge. Edgy pairings of local and out-of towner.
2013: Ajay Vishwanathan and Anis Shivani. Michael David Murphy’s reading from Unphotographable capturing in words what cannot be, or is forbidden to be, photographed.
2014: Caleb Ludwig, Jacob Appel. Megan Volpert, Brock Guthrie.

Solar Anus. Curators Amy McDaniel, Jamie Iredell and Blake Butler. Writers who fund their own book tours and locals.
2013: Poets Patricia Lockwood, Laura Solomon, Alex Philips
2014:  Jeff Jackson, Megan McShea

WRITE CLUB. Curator Myke Johns. Writers are given opposing topics and spar through their readings.
2013: Shows at the Decatur Book Festival, Shakespeare’s Tavern and the Earl.
2014: Show following Creative Loafing Fiction Writing Contest Ceremony.

What’s New in Poetry? Curated by Gina Meyers and Bruce Covey. A range of emerging practitioners to Pulitzer Prize winners.
2013: Rae Armantrout, Kim Gek Lin Shor, Khadijah Queen, Farid Matuk
2014: Jenny Boully, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Hoa Nguyen, Sommer Browning, Noah Eli Gordon, Amy Lawless.

Kamal’s Picks

fishFive Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. Is the Chinese dream the new American dream? In fun and energetic prose, Aw follows four very different characters in contemporary China as they navigate fame, fortune and failure.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. A heartbreaking and beautifully written novel that follows the fates of star-crossed siblings. (reviewed for ArtsATL) 

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. A searing novel about the food we eat and the way it ends up consuming a brother and sister and a husband and wife — body, heart and soul.     

Death at Sea World: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity by David Kirby. A rivetingly written and unforgettable exploration of the relationships between whales, people and the meaning of captivity and freedom for both. 

  

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