As we do every summer, The Bitter Southerner brings you a selection of new works by Southern authors — and about Southern people.
By Kyle Tibbs Jones
So far, it’s been a whirlwind of a year.
Scanning the news these days feels like trying to follow a Tom Clancy plot. We cannot, of course, stick our heads in the sand, because we care too greatly about what’s going on in the world. But we do have a suggestion as you head into the summer:
Don’t forget to read other things. Like this summer’s crop of great Southern books.
Every year, our recommendations come from the BS staff and a few of our brilliant, thoughtful, and forever well-read friends at indie bookstores around the South. This year, we checked in with A Cappella Books in Atlanta, Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, Octavia Books in New Orleans, and Parnassus Books in Nashville. Just like always, the South’s most beloved independent shop owners generously offer up what’s new, what’s coming, and which titles they consider must-reads.
The book sellers agree that an emerging genre of Southern fiction is hot right now. Some call it “mountain noir” and others call it “Appalachian noir.” Either way, it means stories set in rural Southern settings with characters who deal with violence, addiction, and harsh poverty. Has the genre caught our attention because, as a country, we’re all trying to figure out the urban/rural divide we saw in the election? We’re not sure, but we do know that when one of Appalachian noir’s leading lights, David Joy, shared his story “Digging In the Trash” with us a few weeks ago, it was one of the most widely read stories in Bitter Southerner history. Joy’s dark, haunting novel, “The Weight of the World,” was one of BS editor-in-chief Chuck Reece’s favorites.
This summer, we also have a healthy dose of memoir — or in North Carolina native David Sedaris’ case, his diaries. I absolutely loved Hannah Palmer’s charming memoir about growing up in a neighborhood that was razed to expand Atlanta’s airport. Richard Ford is back with a memoir about his parents. There’s a tall tale from the Legendary Shack Shakers’ lead singer, J.D. Wilkes, as well as Joan Didion’s just published take on the American South in the 1970s. This year’s Summer Reading Roundup is filled with a mix of exceptional writers from across the South — Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Alabama, the Georgia coast, Appalachia.
Also, if you’d like to talk with the BS staff and each other about any of these titles (online book club, anyone?) we’ve recently created a special Facebook Group just for Bitter Southerner Family Members. If you’re a card-carrying member of the BS, we sent you an email yesterday with the link to this special group. If you’re not a BS Family member, go here, join up, and we’ll invite you, too.
Finally, we encourage you to purchase your books from independent booksellers. If there isn’t an independent where you live, shop online with one of the bookstores listed at the bottom of this story. With our dollars, we can keep these missionaries of good and important reading alive. God knows they keep us alive with their knowledge and devotion.
Here are a baker’s dozen books we consider essential reading for Southerners this summer, presented in alphabetical order by author’s name.
The River of Kings
By Taylor Brown / Fiction / Out Now
“The River of Kings” is told in three alternating narratives, each set in a different era on Georgia’s Altamaha River. Our main characters are Hunter and Lawton, 20-something brothers kayaking the river with their father’s ashes in tow. As they slowly paddle through the chapters of this book, danger — both real and mythic — builds. Their father was a rough man who died under mysterious circumstances, and Hunter and Lawton are looking for answers. They’re also facing their dysfunctional family’s demons along the way. The second narrative is about Hiram, Hunter and Lawton’s drug-running father, now deceased. And the third story Brown incorporates is his fictionalized interpretation of the French encounter with Timucua natives in the 1560s. Sounds complicated, I know, but Brown weaves the narratives into one fine novel. Brown grew up on Saint Simons, where I lived for 10 years and raised my sons. I wish I had known this gifted young man. Some are calling him the new Cormac McCarthy. I understand the comparison. — KTJ
Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music
By Peter Cooper / Nonfiction / Out Now
When I told Chuck Reece that our friends at Parnassus had recommended “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride,” he messaged back, “F&$*, yes. Peter Cooper writes like god.” (Chuck does know his music writers.) “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” delivers essential stories about country music’s greats. Cooper moved to Nashville in 2000 to cover the music industry for The Tennessean. Today, he works at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Cooper is no longer a beat reporter, but we’re awfully glad he's still writing. This book is a backstage pass to untold histories. No gossip here, but a genuine and heartfelt look at some of the genre’s most important figures. — KTJ
South and West: From a Notebook
By Joan Didion / Nonfiction / Out Now
Joan Didion — cultural icon, novelist, and literary journalist — is a writer many consider to be the most glamourous and “coolest” (yes, that is how her admirers see her) of our time. So if you haven’t read this living legend, a good place for a Southerner to start is “South and West.” In the 1970s, Didion traveled with her husband through New Orleans, Oxford, Tuscaloosa, and other towns across the South. Along the way, she kept notebooks, jotting down her observations and making notes for future articles. The stories of her encounters back then mirror much of what we have seen and heard in this last political cycle. Her writing (which is, unsurprisingly, condescending at times) tells of a South where people held tightly to the past, often considering anything outside of their region irrelevant. Didion’s gut feeling at the time — that the South was beginning to hold great power over the rest of the country — did in fact prove true. Her take on the ’70s South feels incredibly prescient, and, as Southerners who pride ourselves on getting real about our past, she forces us to ponder exactly how far we have we come. — KTJ
The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South
By John T. Edge / Nonfiction / Out Now
Perhaps it is unfair to call any single book an author’s “life’s work,” particularly when the writer has authored, edited, and contributed to as many volumes as John T. Edge. But let’s be clear: “The Potlikker Papers” is indeed John T. Edge’s life’s work. This earnest, sweeping 60-year history of the South, told through the lens of food, is the culmination of a quarter century’s work by a man who has continuously complicated our understanding of this region. Edge and his gifted staff at the Southern Foodways Alliance have been almost two decades compiling the stories of the working-class people who grow, harvest, butcher, and cook what we eat. To read “Potlikker” is to understand modern Southern history at a deeper level than you're used to. The book takes us beyond the familiar stories and heroes, and we see our history through the eyes of working folks. We all know the story of Rosa Parks and the start of the Montgomery bus boycotts; far fewer of us know the stories of African-American women such as Georgia Gilmore, a cook who fed the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement from her home in Montgomery. “The Potlikker Papers” not only celebrates such people, but also brings us to a new understanding of how influential they are and were. This is not just a history of Southern food; it also stands as a singularly important history of the South itself. — CR
Between Them: Remembering My Parents
By Richard Ford / Nonfiction / Out Now
Although he is the master of the short story and one of America’s greatest novelists, I often forget Richard Ford grew up in the South. One thing I do remember: Right around 1986, when his novel “The Sportswriter” was published, I changed as a reader. I fell in love with contemporary fiction in the mid-1980s, and I’ll always have a soft spot for Ford and a few other writers of that time. Now, Ford has written a memoir about his parents. It is an affectionately told tribute to Edna and Parker Ford, their ordinary hopes and dreams, their lives as parents, as people. “Between Them” is a great portrait of American life in the middle 20th century, of living in poverty and moving up to the middle class, and how a young boy raised in Mississippi and Arkansas became one of America’s finest writers. — KTJ
Magic City Gospel
By Ashley M. Jones / Poetry / Out Now
Ashley Jones is one of the brightest lights among young Southern poets. Her career got a special boost in 2015 when she was one of five recipients of the Rona Jaffe Award, an annual prize aimed at supporting young women writers of exceptional talent. Now comes “Magic City Gospel,” her first published collection of poems, and a dazzling debut it is. Author Danez Smith writes that this collection “lays Alabama bare, wide, beautiful, terrifying, and familiar.” With both a hurting heart and joyful humor, Jones sings a love song to Birmingham. — KTJ
The Weight of This World
By David Joy / Fiction / Out Now
Many of our readers had their first exposure to the work of David Joy a few weeks ago, when The Bitter Southerner published his “Digging in the Trash,” a hard-hitting defense of the people of Appalachia. Joy’s fiction packs the same wallop, but it also displays an almost otherworldly ability to render characters that ring absolutely true to anyone who knows the rural Appalachia of the 21st century. “Weight” begins with a sharp left hook to the reader’s emotions, delivered in what I’d argue is the best first sentence of any book I’ve read this year: Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard “I love you.” The story unspools after Aiden’s best friend, Thad Broom, returns to North Carolina from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the two witness the accidental suicide of a meth dealer, leaving them with a pile of cash, a stash of dope, and the need to figure out what to do with both. — CR
By Michael Knight / Fiction / Out Now
Michael Knight has been turning out A-grade fiction for almost two decades, earning praise from the South’s most iconic novelists. Before Barry Hannah passed away in in 2010, he said, “Michael Knight is more than a master of the short story. He knows the true pace of life and does not cheat it, all the while offering whopping entertainment.” This summer, we’re happy to see Knight’s return to the short story in “Eveningland.” His collection of interconnected stories is set in Mobile Bay, Alabama, in the days leading up to a devastating hurricane. Most of the Knight’s characters are older and dealing with life’s rewards and regrets. We won’t spoil plots here, but suffice it to say, we believe a couple of these stories will become classics. They are varied and beautifully constructed. — KTJ
Flight Path: A Search For Roots Beneath The World’s Busiest Airport
By Hannah Palmer / Nonfiction / Out Now
Hannah Palmer grew up in the shadows of Atlanta’s airport but moved away, as so many of us do. Fast forward to years later, Hannah moves back to the South from her adopted city of Brooklyn to find that three of her childhood homes have been torn down to make way for an massive airport expansion. She pours herself into this story of what has happened to the communities, some now ghost towns, surrounding Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Detective, urban historian and soon-to-be mom, Hannah’s soulful and nostalgic journey reveals a story of corporate power, race, unchecked progress in the modern South, and the devastation of community, family, and beauty. Hannah’s first line: “Despite protests from the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization and bad press in the local paper, they bulldozed the house where I lost my virginity.” I love this book. — KTJ
Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
By David Sedaris / Nonfiction / Out May 30
Aren’t we lucky? The brilliant, hilarious, observant, and wildly curious David Sedaris has kept a diary since 1977, the year he dropped out of Kent State University and moved back home to North Carolina. This is the first published collection of his diaries, whose entries have long been the source of his remarkable autobiographical essays, which have had us in stitches since the 1990s. We’ll meet you at the bookstore the morning “Theft by Finding” comes out. — KTJ
By Michael Farris Smith / Fiction / Out Now
A homeless woman named Maben, who drifts from place to place in Mississippi with a young daughter in tow, and a man named Russell Gaines, fresh out of the penitentiary after 11 years served for vehicular homicide, are the two primary characters in Michael Farris Smith’s latest novel. It’s a remarkable story about how two people — seemingly very different — find their lives entwining as they both look to escape the violence that marked their pasts. The story of Maben and Russell, in and of itself, compels our attention. But what pushes “Desperation Road” to Great Novel status is the beauty of Smith’s prose. The great Ron Rash wasn’t kidding when he called the book “elegantly written.” As his characters search their souls for new ways forward, Smith captures their thoughts in long, punctuation-less sentences — some even Faulknerian in their length. It’s as if he can write at the speed of thought, but in ways that never lose the reader. — CR
No One Is Coming to Save Us
By Stephanie Powell Watts / Fiction / Out Now
Just as Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” was a modernized retelling of “King Lear,” Stephanie Watts Powell’s “No One Is Coming to Save Us” is an updated take on “The Great Gatsby.” But instead of Fitzgerald’s waspy cast of characters dashing around on 1920s Long Island, this extended family is African-American and living in modern day Pinewood, North Carolina. The book is winning universal acclaim for Watts’ way with dialogue and her lovingly drawn characters. Everyone in the story has a conflicting view of the American Dream, and therein lies the drama and conflict. This is Watts’ debut novel, and it’s an impressive one. — KTJ
The Vine That Ate the South
By J.D. Wilkes / Fiction / Out Now
This debut novel comes from one of modern Southern rock and roll’s great frontman, J.D. Wilkes of the Legendary Shack Shakers. “The Vine That Ate the South” is most certainly a tall tale, but beyond that, it’s hard to categorize. Is it myth? A Southern gothic, punk-rock style? A drug-induced dream? Kirkus Reviews called it an “epic saga of two Kentucky hillbillies in the wicked heart of the American South.” Yep. The story begins with our hero and his trusty sidekick setting off to find a house of mystery, deep in the woods, where an elderly couple is rumored to have been swallowed by a hungry vine. Be warned: On their odyssey, these two meet all kinds of scary characters, but Wilkes remains humorous in the telling, even in the story’s darkest moments. A book you can read in one afternoon, if you dare … — KTJ