A Year in Reading: The best of the South in 2012

Everything I learned in 2012, I learned from reading the books I reviewed for the AJC.

OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. For one thing, not all my favorites ended up in the Sunday book page. But the learning part isn’t. From “Flight Behavior” to “The World of the Salt Marsh,” “Must Win” to “The Yellow Birds,” both fiction and nonfiction embedded a wealth of hot topics usually discussed on the nightly news. Even the top-selling “Gone Girl” based its thrills on the lethal effect of economic depression on modern love.

I enjoyed every second of my education, whether it involved the war in Iraq, a football season in Valdosta, or a look at a little-known historical occurrence in North Carolina during WW I. Beautifully written, inspiring, funny, wise and unforgettable, these are simply some of the most memorable books 2012 had to offer.

“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Ben Fountain

In this biting, irreverent, yet deeply felt novel, a reluctant young hero of the Iraq War confronts America’s passionate embrace of war, sex, sports and merchandizing during the course of a single Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys game.

“Canada,” Richard Ford

In Ford’s first novel in six years, a middle-aged teacher reexamines the bizarre sequence of events that catapulted him at age 15 across the Canadian border and into a life that eerily mirrored the one he lost. A knockout beginning — “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed” — gives way to miles and miles of elegiac, lush prose that hums with ideas about American life as seen through the eyes of a uniquely damaged soul.

“The Cove,” Ron Rash

In this strong, spooky tale set in Appalachia, a fragile but witchy heroine and her war-wounded brother eke out a meager existence on a piece of cursed land, surrounded by suspicious townspeople. But when the siblings take in a mysterious drifter, the folky Southern Gothic atmosphere gives way to a different and more dangerous atmosphere of runaway patriotism during World War I.

“The Evening Hour,” Carter Sickels

Sickels’ debut novel offers remarkable insight into life in a West Virginia town decimated by Big Coal. His flawed but kindhearted protagonist, a drug dealer who steals from the residents at the nursing home where he works, grapples with his spiritual upbringing as he tries to save the damaged members of his community.

“Flight Behavior,” Barbara Kingsolver

Science and belief collide when a crew of scientists descend on a Tennessee hamlet to study a colony of Monarch butterflies that has strayed from its traditional migratory pattern. As the town’s inhabitants — notably, an unfulfilled young wife and mother hungry for an education — get hands-on lessons about isolationism, climate change and habitat destruction, so does the reader.

“The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature,” David George Haskell

A biologist with the mind of a scientist and the soul of a poet, Haskell’s weekly observations of a patch of old-growth forest in the hills of Tennessee remind us that “nature is not a separate place,” teasing valuable lessons out of everything from lichens to salamanders, snowflakes to vultures.

“Gone Girl,” Gillian Flynn

Set in Missouri, one of the year’s most twisted and delicious whodunits is as much a study of contemporary society and relationships as it is the crackerjack thriller that kept everyone I knew up reading it in one night. An unhappy wife disappears one day, and evidence points to her husband as the killer — until their dueling accounts begin to hint at something far more sinister.

“Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader,” edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin

This superbly curated collection of Southern memoir and storytelling was hands-down the year’s best anthology. Read and fall in love all over again with writers such as Harry Crews, William Gay, Dorothy Allison, Tim McLaurin, Larry Brown, Rick Bragg, Lee Smith, Jim Grimsley and many others who made it out of a South so rough, it’s a miracle they had the grace, grit and humor to do it.

“Fall Line,” Joe Samuel Starnes

Nothing says Southern like a bunch of corrupt good ol’ boys sitting around a table gambling away the lives of poor people. Starnes rips the lid off dirty Georgia politics, skewers the haves and honors the have-nothings who pushed back when a manmade lake came along to drown their communities for electricity and big profits.

“Kind One,” Laird Hunt

A ghostly reimagining of antebellum Virginia, where a slaveholder, his wife and his slaves form lethal ties that poison generations to come. The voices that gradually reveal the story — of the naïve girl who collaborates with her brutal husband — are by turn lyrical and savage, piecing together a nuanced exploration of guilt and forgiveness.

“A Land More Kind Than Home,” Wiley Cash

Cash’s stellar debut about a snake-handling conman and the community drawn into his web deftly juxtaposes three narrators — a young boy, a sheriff, and an elderly woman — who flesh out the history of a small North Carolina town and the inevitable sinnin’ that goes hand-and-hand with that old-time salvation.

“Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team,” Drew Jubera

In the “winningest” sports bio of 2012, Jubera — embedded for a year to interview players, coaches, boosters and families — chronicles the revitalization of the Valdosta High School Wildcats football program during their 2010 season and the effect on a town devastated by economic decline.

“The World of the Salt Marsh,” Charles Seabrook

In the most entertaining and informative tour of the year, the AJC ‘s “Wild Georgia” columnist travels the Southeastern coast, examining the ecological importance of its tidal marshes through a wealth of interviews with Southerners determined to survive wetlands destruction and over-development.

“The Yellow Birds,” Kevin Powers

A young soldier from Tennessee gradually comes to grips with an incident in Iraq involving his war buddy in Powers’ haunting and impressive debut about the after-affects of combat, especially the invisible scars soldiers carry home.