Bookshelf: Books and authors to be thankful for this year

Plus the Black Renaissance, the Pulitzer Prize and the return of live events.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about the authors I’m grateful for this year.

Among them is Heather Havrilesky, the North Carolina native whose book, “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage” (Harper Collins, $27.99), kicked off the year with some much needed humor.

Havrilesky has this amazing ability to create work that combines an acerbic wit and lacerating insight with a deep well of compassion. That skill is never better displayed than it is in this collection of 19 linked essays that trace her long relationship with her husband, Bill.

The couple met when she was a columnist and he was a fan who sent her an email. From there romance ensued. With humor and keen insight, her essays reflect on their courtship, meeting each other’s families, a very fraught proposal, hilariously sweaty nuptials in the desert, pregnancy, child-rearing, a cancer diagnosis and a pandemic.

Skewering the fairytale fantasy of marital bliss, Havrilesky mines the irritable, petty side of too much togetherness. “Why is this person always the same, and always in the way — a mumbling roadblock, a pointy Lego brick underfoot, a smelly heap of laundry blocking the bathroom door,” she writes — but then adds, “and also, somehow, the only path back to sanity?”

Readers who don’t get her edgy sense of humor fault her on social media for being mean, but they aren’t paying attention. Havrilesky is a savvy writer who sacrifices herself on the altar of good storytelling. It’s no accident that Bill comes out smelling like a rose in “Foreverland,” and she’s the one covered in thorns.

As an added bonus this year, Havrilesky publishes fresh new work on a regular basis with her Ask Polly and Ask Molly columns at Substack.com.

I’m also grateful for Janisse Ray, whose self-published novella “The Woods of Fannin County” (Janisse Ray, $19.99) continues to haunt me and remind me of how much I have to be thankful for.

Her first foray into fiction tells a captivating story based on true events about a resourceful family of children who are abandoned by their parents in a remote, falling-down shack in the mountains. Miraculously they band together and figure out how to survive on their own for years. It’s a heartbreaking but uplifting story of love and resilience that would make a great gift for a Thanksgiving host or hostess.

Ray also blogs regularly on Substack.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

I’m thankful for the Black Renaissance we’re currently experiencing across all art forms but especially for its influence on publishing. I’m thankful for the education I’ve received this year reading insightful, thought-provoking books like Imani Perry’s “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation” (Ecco, $17.99) and “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic” (Lookout Books, $18.95), edited by Valerie Boyd and featuring essays and poems by Pearl Cleage, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. And I’m thankful for so many more I want to read, like Andre Henry’s “All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope — and Hard Pills to Swallow — About Fighting for Black Lives” (Penguin Random House, $26) and Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s “My People: Five Decades Writing About Black Lives” (Harper, $27.99).

Also this year, I’m grateful for the Pulitzer Prize committee for bestowing its 2022 award for biography on “Chasing Me to My Grave” (Bloomsbury, $21), an incredible memoir about racial injustice, unconscionable violence and the power of art to transform pain into beauty.

It tells the story of Georgia native Winfred Rembert who astonishingly survived a near lynching in 1967 and spent seven years on a prison work gang. He later went on to use the leathercraft skills he learned in prison to create paintings on tooled leather to depict his life growing up in the Jim Crow South.

In collaboration with Erin I. Kelly, Rembert wrote his memoir and illustrated it with his phenomenal paintings of juke joints, jail cells, cotton fields, baseball games and domestic scenes.

Sadly, Rembert died in March 2021, six months before the book published. When the Pulitzer was awarded in May of this year, Kelly was joined by Rembert’s widow and son to receive the honor.

Lastly, I am extremely thankful for the return of live, in-person book festivals and author events. Here’s hoping it continues into 2023 and beyond because if there’s anything avid readers like to do more than read books, it’s talk about them with others.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com.