By Gina Webb
“The Help” — Kathryn Stockett: During the tumultuous early years of civil rights, a group of black maids agree to speak out about the bigotry and prejudice of their white employers in this remarkable book set in Jackson, Miss. Stockett employs the poetry and rhythm of the maids’ dialect to reveal the rich inner thoughts — and wicked humor — of women who missed nothing, but survived by keeping quiet.
“Half Broke Horses” — Jeannette Walls: Walls (“The Glass Castle”) recaptures the rambunctious voice of her frontier grandmother, Lily Casey, who grew up in a riverbank dugout, helped her father break wild horses, rode 500 miles at age 15 to get a job in a one-room schoolhouse, sold moonshine hidden under her baby’s crib — and still managed to make the best of each hardscrabble phase of her life.
“Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans” — Dan Baum: The real New Orleans comes to life through the intersecting stories of nine people — among them a transsexual, a coroner, a city cop and a Mardi Gras Indian chief. Baum’s eye for details is both tender and sharp; of a teenage football player who pilfers bras from his mother’s lingerie drawer, he writes: “His favorite was the light blue one with the cotton rose between the cups. Size 38C; he could barely get it around his broad chest.”
“The Prince of Frogtown” — Rick Bragg: In the final volume of his family trilogy, Bragg, inspired by an evolving relationship with his 10-year-old stepson, sets out to understand his own father; the result is a compassionate, forgiving ode to the man he barely knew: “A little man, even shorter than my tall mother, but incredibly strong. Through the open neck of his sports shirt you could see the tattoos of bluebirds inked high on his sunburned chest.”
“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” — Wells Tower: Misfits and malcontents — hilariously savage but oddly likable — inhabit these nine bleak but superbly crafted stories. Their terrible life choices are the wrecks we can’t turn away from, especially since it looks as if the victims are going to crawl out alive. But barely.
“Invisible Sisters” — Jessica Handler: In this graceful, frank account of the tragic loss of her two younger sisters, Handler reconstructs a family once bound together by hope and a stubborn refusal to accept defeat: one day joyful, one day anguished, one day pretending all was well. “I have read that because so few people have been to the moon,” she writes, “astronauts have found that they can fully connect emotionally only with other astronauts.” Yet Handler makes fellow astronauts of us all.
“Lark and Termite” — Jayne Anne Phillips: Phillips spins a sensuous, dreamy tale about a handicapped brother, Termite, and his caretaker sister, Lark, that links the insular world of West Virginia with the Korean War. Four narrators — including the mystical and poetic Termite — take turns recounting a family history steeped in sorrow and feverish hope.
“Zeitoun” — Dave Eggers: No good deed goes unpunished as contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun paddles his canoe to rescue neighbors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, only to be arrested as a terrorist and thrown into a local version of Guantanamo. Did the American dream disappear, too, in New Orleans in 2005? Eggers puts a human face on one of the worst tragedies of our time.