The Shelf: Top Ten of 2010

Teresa Weaver picks Georgia’s best books of the year
Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson (Grand Central Publishing)
Jackson’s previous life as an actress serves her fourth novel well, lending just the right balance of wit and melodrama to this new Southern gothic tale of a woman forced to choose between her abusive husband’s life and her own.
ONE GREAT LINE “Desert air whirled through the car in a constant cyclone, catching up in our hair and rifling through it, blowing all the Alabama off our skins.”
The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant (Pantheon)
Nearly four decades after Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and tells the fullest story possible of a reticent hero.
ONE GREAT LINE “Hitting, it could be argued, represented the first meritocracy in Henry’s life.”
BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family by Mara Shalhoup (St. Martin’s Press)
Shalhoup, editor in chief of the local Creative Loafing, is fearless in exploring the Black Mafia Family, a hip-hop record label and drug-distribution network with tentacles that reached into Atlanta’s rich and fabulous ranks.
ONE GREAT LINE “By the time the Bentleys were rolled out and the billboards went up and the rappers were invoking his name in top-ten hits, he was past the point of no return.”
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)
Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, uses the lives of three people—a sharecropper’s wife in Mississippi, a citrus picker in Florida, and an Army surgeon in Louisiana—to tell the engrossing story of the exodus of 6 million black people from the Jim Crow South to uncertain futures in the North, West, and Midwest.
ONE GREAT LINE “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”
My Reading Life by Pat Conroy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
This uncharacteristically slim volume by Atlanta native Conroy is a beguiling tribute to the books—and the book people—that have shaped him.
ONE GREAT LINE “Ever since the English language in all its vertiginous, high-hurdling glory had been passed down to me by a word-stung mother, I had enjoyed getting my hands dirty anywhere the language would grant me a letter of transit.”
A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell (Algonquin Books)
Skibell’s huge, sweeping story begins in early 1895 Austria and ends in the Warsaw ghetto. The author, a professor at Emory University, paints a magnificent portrait of Eastern Europe through three indelible characters, including a cocaine-snorting Sigmund Freud.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “Beneath the whiskery arms of his mustache, he drew on a yellow-green cigar, grinding its smoke between his teeth. Two fumes coiled out of his nostrils like a pair of charmed snakes.”
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen (Random House)
Decatur author Mullen puts a magical spin on the gangster mythology of the Great Depression. Bank-robbing brothers Jason and Whit Fireson wake up in an Indiana morgue, riddled with bullet holes, defying death for the first of many times on the road to becoming folk icons.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “Wherever they looked, things were crumbling . . . Dirt sneezed itself from one side of the road to the next. Street signs had trouble maintaining appropriate posture, their arrows pointing to heaven or hell.”
The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen (Putnam)
Cullen, who lives in Atlanta, has written several books for young readers. In her extraordinary first leap into fiction for adults, she re-creates Spain’s Golden Age through the character of Sofonisba Anguissola, a real-life protégé of Michelangelo who flees Italy and becomes entwined in a love triangle in the royal court.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “I paint for my sisters. I paint for my Queen. I paint for all the women of the world who, burdened by caring for their families, by the expectations of others, by unbreakable chains of love or gold, can never go in search of their dreams.”
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides (Doubleday)
Historian Sides (Ghost Soldiers) crafts an unbelievably taut, tense narrative by juxtaposing the last months of Dr. King’s life with those of his assassin, James Earl Ray. Even knowing how this story ends can’t take away from its literary power.
ONE GREAT LINE “[George] Wallace had called the Nobel laureate everything but the Antichrist, but in an odd way Wallace needed King, for the governor understood that great political strategies can exist in the abstract for only so long before cooking down to the personal.”
The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (Bloomsbury USA)
Two years after memorializing his late father in a collection titled Dear Darkness, Emory poet Young has put together a brilliant anthology of contemporary poems of loss. Included are poems by Dylan Thomas, Natasha Trethewey, Lucille Clifton, and many others.
ONE GREAT LINE “Death is nature’s way / of telling you to be quiet.” —Franz Wright