This year, we surveyed independent-bookstore owners around the South and assembled two lists: 10 works each of fiction and nonfiction, and each in its own way deepens our understanding of the weird region that formed us.
By Chuck Reece
Not every reader gets a summer vacation. We might all have the fantasy of having an entire week to sit engrossed in a good book. Having the opportunity is a whole other thing.
Thank heaven, then, for books, for they do not require you to sit under a beach umbrella to read them. Every book, in one sense or another, is a vacation in itself. Each one takes us out of daily life, or gives us new knowledge and insight. Of course, figuring out which books are worth the reading time we do have is the hard part.
Every year, mid-summer, The Bitter Southerner calls up the folks who have always been our favorite recommenders of books — the brave souls who run independent bookstores. We ask them:
1. What are the most notable Southern books (or books about the South) so far this year?
2. Which books set for publication later this year hold the greatest promise?
Last year’s list brought us some amazing and unexpected gems, such as Brian Panowich’s masterful debut novel, “Bull Mountain,” and veteran journalist Jim Auchmutey’s heart-wrenching “The Class of ’65.” This year, we had enough strong recommendations to create two lists: 10 works each of fiction and nonfiction.
Some are light and uplifting, others deeply challenging, but all of them play out against the context of the American South. Y’all, we clearly have a lot of important reading to do.
Dimestore: A Writer’s Life
by Lee Smith / Out Now
Since 1968, the beloved Virginia native Smith has brought us works of fiction (such as the bestselling “The Last Girls”) that offer up, in the words of Jamie Fiocco, owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “impeccable observations on the people and ways of the Appalachian South.” True, that. But this time, Smith offers 15 essays looking back on her own life, starting with her childhood in her daddy’s 10-cent store in Grundy, Virginia.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race
by Jesmyn Ward / Coming August 02
The Mississippi-born National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward moves into the editor’s chair for this volume, which collects short essays and poems from great writers, including Southern stars such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, poet Kevin Young and professor Carol Anderson, on the issue of race. The title of the collection, of course, is a riff on James Baldwin’s immortal “The Fire Next Time,” in which he wrote to his nephew, at the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, “You know and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon.”
Handmade Gatherings: Recipes and Crafts for Seasonal Celebrations and Potluck Parties
by Ashley English / Out Now
Ashley English and her husband loved to throw casual parties at their place in Candler, North Carolina. “Along the way, however, we began to realize something,” she writes. “While hosting these gatherings brought us immeasurable joy, they were rather costly to pull off on our own.” This is the book for folks who’d love to kick Martha Stewart’s butt at party-throwing, but can’t drop half a month’s rent at Williams-Sonoma.
Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America
by Calvin Trillin / Out Now
The venerable New Yorker writer has covered America’s racial struggles for 50 years. This volume collects Trillin’s articles on race and racism, through the present day. Dwight Garner, The New York Times’ Southern-born book critic, called the Trillin collection “a memorial of sorts. It contains the names of many forgotten figures in the civil rights struggle. The biggest honor Mr. Trillin paid these men and women was to write about them so honestly and so well.”
Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon
by Bronwen Dickey / Out Now
North Carolina writer Dickey got a pit-bull puppy, a docile and affection thing, and began to wonder why that breed had been demonized. Her search for answers put her on a fascinating trip into American history. The New York Times said Dickey’s book “takes the reader on a thoroughly comprehensible tour of genetics and behavioral science to explain why breeding never guarantees an individual dog’s personality, and shouldn’t be used to condemn it.”
The Underdogs: Children, Dogs and the Power of Unconditional Love
by Melissa Fay Greene / Out Now
Atlanta writer Greene, a two-time winner of the National Book Award, has written a funny, touching book about Karen Shirk, who was stricken with a neuromuscular disease at age 24. The illness immobilized her and made her dependent on a ventilator. She wanted a dog, but no service-dog agency would accept her request because of the severity of her disability. So, encouraged by her nurse, Shirk raised her own, from a puppy, and transformed her own life in the process. “The Underdogs” is a book chock-full of hope.
Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes
by Ronni Lundy / Out August 30
If you love the South and don’t love Ronni Lundy, it could only be because you don’t know who she is. If you don’t, “Victuals” will help you fix that problem — and it will give you perhaps the finest book ever about mountain food. Born in Corbin, Kentucky, where Col. Harland D. Sanders (an Indiana native, mind you), developed the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Lundy was already a beloved music writer before she drifted toward writing about food in Louisville. She’s a founder of both the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Appalachian Food Summit. She also had the delicious audacity to write the following sentence in her 1994 “Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken”: “I was born in Kentucky and Col. Harland D. Sanders was not, so you can believe me when I say that I, not the Colonel, know the secret to making honest fried chicken.” You gotta love her.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
by Dr. Carol Anderson / Out Now
Two years ago, commentators were freely using the words “black rage” to describe African-Americans’ responses to police-shooting incidents. Then, Anderson dropped a bomb into the national conversation. With a powerful op-ed in The Washington Post, the Emory University professor traced the cause instead to “white rage at work. With so much attention on the flames, everyone had ignored the kindling.” This short volume, sadly even more relevant today, broadens and deepens her argument. Matt Nixon from Memphis’ Booksellers at Laurelwood told us: “It’s like being bludgeoned. I can only take it in small doses. It’s punishing. But it’s necessary.”
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
by Nancy Isenberg / Out Now
In the middle of the current national discussions on race, Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg broadened the conversation with this deep study of class in America. Soon thereafter, her book was on the bestseller lists. Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic Gina Webb wrote, “What makes people whom Trump has never cared about before this election so eager to see him as their spokesman? What in tarnation do they see in his vague bluster and thinly coded racist remarks? For answers to these and other questions, look no further than Nancy Isenberg’s fascinating and unsettling new book.”
Women of the Smokies: No Place for the Weary Kind
by Courtney Lix / Out Now
Linda Marie Bennett, who runs Malaprop’s Books in Asheville, North Carolina, told us this book is selling like hotcakes up in the mountains. As well it should. Author Courtney Lix gives us portraits of 19 distinguished women from the Smokies — the likes of Karen Wade, the first femal superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to Amanda Swimmer, a Cherokee potter whose work is in the Smithsonian, to, of course, the most beloved Smoky mountaineer of all, Dolly Parton.
All the Governor’s Men
By Katherine Clark / Out Now
Alabama writer Clark reimagines George Wallace’s final run for governor in 1982 through the character of Daniel Dobbs, a country boy from South Alabama, freshly graduated from Harvard University, who is quite the political animal. Dobbs comes home to join the fight to defeat Wallace — and to win the heart of a girl from the Birmingham suburbs whose family might think Dobbs beneath them. Jake Reiss of the Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham says Clark “nails Alabama politics” and notes that the book includes a foreword by the late Pat Conroy, one of his last pieces of writing.
By Ann Patchett / Coming September 13
Patchett, a bookseller (she owns Nashville’s Parnassus Books) as well as a bestselling novelist, focuses her upcoming story on two Southern families through five decades. When one of the children, in her 20s, begins an affair with a legendary writer, the trials of both families become the subject of his own wildly popular book. Its publication forces the family to come to terms with issues that have long stayed in the dark. Reiss calls it “a unique tale of the dissolution of two marriages and the joining of the two families.”
Thomas Mullen / Coming September 13
Atlanta novelist Thomas Mullen scored critical raves with his first three novels, but “Darktown,” we hope, will be his big breakthrough. We admit we’re homers for Tom, particularly given the fact that he contributed a short story, “Last Call at the Stork Hotel,” to The Bitter Southerner in its earliest days. But I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of his upcoming book, and it’s a remarkable mix of deeply resonant Southern history and old-school cop thriller. The book’s lead characters, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, are two of the first eight officers sworn into Atlanta’s “Negro Police Force,” created in 1948. From that historical fact, Mullen spins a shockingly realistic crime tale that is buffeted constantly by the racial tension of the Jim Crow-era South. I couldn’t put it down. Evidently, the same was true for Jamie Foxx, who is set to produce a TV series based on the book.
Brad Watson / Out Now
This novel from National Book Award nominee Watson seems to have every Southern bookstore owner buzzing. Released only last week, Watson’s story dials back time to the 1930s and focuses on a rural Mississippi woman born with a birth defect that prevents her from having children. Flyleaf Books’ Fiocco calls this novel “a really satisfying story of a woman living life on her own terms when this was perhaps unheard of.” Frank Reiss of Atlanta’s A Cappella Books praises the title character’s “grace, wisdom and grit,” and concludes, “It's a beautiful and uplifting novel.” This one’s moving to the top of the stack.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Ed Tarkington / Out Now
Fiocco describes this debut novel from Nashville writer Tarkington in a way that makes it sound absolutely delightful to us: “Set in the late 1970s in old-money, small-town Virginia. A coming-of-age story peppered with a young brother's hero worship of his older brother, living in fear of your father's rules, rolling in the hay with the neighbor's daughter and a fantastic running commentary on great ’70s music.” An awesome story, with plenty of brain-tweaks for music nerds.
Over the Plain Houses
Julia Franks / Out Now
Another debut novel, this book is set in the North Carolina mountains of 1939. Virginia Furman works for the New Deal-era U.S. Department of Agriculture, and she’s been sent to Appalachia to help farmers modernize their operations. There, she becomes the object of the paranoia logger-turned-preacher named Brodis Lambey, who believes Furman is responsible for his wife’s increasing urges to escape their marriage. Franks lives and writes in Atlanta, but her roots are in the mountains. “Cold Mountain” author Charles Frazier praises “her ear for the diction and rhythm and creativity of Southern mountain speech.”
Robert Olen Butler / Coming September 6
Florida writer Butler snagged the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 23 years ago with his “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” and his writing — over 16 novels — is of the caliber that consistently prompts critics to wax rapturous, such as this from Jeff Guinn of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period.” Alabama Booksmith’s Jake Reiss says he believes Butler “has a good shot at becoming a two-time Pulitzer winner” with “Perfume River.” Reiss says the book is “a stunning look at family anguish and the Vietnam War. This is as thought-provoking as any novel I’ve read this year.” And Jake reads a lot.
John Hart / Out Now
There’s an argument to be made that Virginia’s John Hart leads a charmed life: once a defense attorney, then a stockbroker, and now a bestselling writer of thrillers. He is the only author in history to win the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award for best novel with two consecutive books. After a five-year wait, Hart is back with “Redemption Road.” Fiocco calls it “another great psychological thriller set in small town North Carolina. A strong female protagonist, emotionally and physically damaged characters, all racing to figure out who done it. He's really at the top of his game with this one.”
Ron Rash / Coming September 6
Few serious students of modern Southern lit would challenge the claim that Rash is among the region’s finest living writers. A professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, Rash has given us a lot over the last 22 years — four collections of poetry, six short-story collections, six novels and even a children’s book. All of them dig into the heart of the mountain South with insight few other writers can muster. His upcoming “The Risen” is greatly anticipated. “He is one of those writers who say so much in a short sentence,” Fiocco says. “You read a Ron Rash book for the setting and the language, and you also remember it for the characters. They don't leave you quickly.”
That Bright Land
Terry Roberts / Out Now
Rash himself praises few Southern writers with the enthusiasm he reserves for Asheville writer Roberts, proclaiming that this novel “further confirms Terry Roberts’ place as one of Appalachia’s most important voices." The book is set one year after the end the Civil War, and it follows a former Union soldier — one born in the North Carolina mountains — who's been sent to hills of his homeland to find a serial killer. The book is based on true events, and Rash calls it “a thrilling and seamless fusion of fact and imagination, bringing to light a too-long neglected part of American history.”
The Bitter Southerner General Store is proud to offer signed copies — available now or for pre-order — of 11 of these books, through our partnership with our buddies at Atlanta’s A Cappella Books.
As always, we encourage you to support Southern independent booksellers. Buy these or any other books from our friends at these stores.
A Cappella Books
The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Garden District Bookshop
New Orleans, Louisiana
Asheville, North Carolina
Fearrington Village, North Carolina
Quail Ridge Books
Raleigh, North Carolina
The Regulator Bookshop
Durham, North Carolina