The Bitter Southerner surveys five great indie booksellers to bring you a list of nine new Southern books — and one monumental reissue — for your vacation reading season.
Roundup by Kyle Tibbs Jones
Thunder is shaking the rafters and rain is blowing sideways through the windows. Everything is wet and I don't really care. I’m trying to convince myself this might actually be better than mopping.
I love how summer storms wash the sticky off of everything. I feel lighter after the earth gets a good soaking. It's also the only time in the South's hard-core hot months when you can catch a breeze.
Mostly though, when it’s raining cats and dogs, I want to read.
There's nothing like a stormy summer afternoon for getting lost in a book. The truth is, summer is reading season no matter what — when it’s hot as Hades, in the early evenings, in the middle of the night as buzzing insects bounce off window screens. At the beach, in the bed, in the mountains, on a plane, on a train ... anywhere.
Whether we read constantly or only “in season,” sometimes we all look around and feel a bit intimidated by the stack of unread books. When that happens, we’re probably just out of the reading rhythm and a good choice is all we need to get our groove back. Sometimes, we feel behind because we've missed so many of the greats. Why should I buy this new book when I've got so much catching up to do? Well, I say, this summer, let’s not think like that. Instead, let’s dig into a few new books we can love and enjoy and rave about to our friends. Let’s read the good stuff. The juicy. The delicious. The funny.
So, as The Bitter Southerner does annually, we’ve made you a list of great Southern reads for the summer. I've called five independent booksellers around the South and we’ve rounded up some books with real potential.
I talked with Frank Reiss at our old standby, A Cappella Books in our hometown of Atlanta, Jamie Kornegay at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Miss., Tom Lowenburg at Octavia Books in New Orleans, Matt Nixon at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, a 30-year institution in Memphis, and to Rachel Watkins at Avid Bookshop over in our beloved Athens, Ga. From their recommendations, we present our Top 10, based on the consensus choices.
I bet there’s a summer book in here for most all of you. Take a look. Decide what fits, and go buy one or two from your local independent bookstore.
Don’t wait for a rainstorm.
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Of course, the release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman” is a major literary event. Presumably a lost manuscript that was recently found, this novel is on everyone’s must-read list. And honestly, the crazy scuttlebutt and controversy swirling around it only make us want to read it more, right? I cherish my dog-eared, now yellow copy of “To Kill A Mockingbird” from high school. I cannot wait to know Scout’s full story and have these books side by side on my bookshelf. So here’s an idea: We all buy the book right when it comes out. A couple of weeks after that (end of July) let’s meet back on The Bitter Southerner’s Facebook page for a BS Read Well Book Club discussion. Yes? I’ll get back to you on the date.
— Novel, available July 14
The World’s Largest Man
by Harrison Scott Key
If you don’t follow Savannah writer Harrison Scott Key on Twitter, you are missing out on one of the funniest souls in the whole wide world. Thank goodness he has written his new book, “The World’s Largest Man,” a collection of essays, a memoir that reads like fiction. It truly is a gem. The stories of a young boy who, over the years, works to reconcile with a larger-than-life father and also comes to terms with his own marriage, the arrival of kids, how he might be like his dad after all, and all the other usual things that we go through in life (only our tales aren’t nearly as funny, sweet or dear). “The World’s Largest Man” reads like a mashup of Mark Twain and David Sedaris. It hits all the right notes. Stay tuned later this year for some of Key’s writing in The Bitter Southerner. He has promised us a travelogue of his current book tour through the South. We fully expect shenanigans.
— Memoir, out now
by Jamie Kornegay
I saw Jamie read from “Soil” during a broadcast of “Thacker Mountain Radio Hour” from Square Books in Oxford, Miss., earlier this year. What a treat. I watched as his children sat on their mom’s lap hanging on every word as their daddy read from the stage. It was priceless; plus, Jamie’s a great reader. I bought the book on the spot, and started reading it in the car on the way home. I couldn’t put it down. The main character, who is living a paranoid, off-the-grid life, finds a dead body on his property and decides to hide the evidence. All along the way, you are led to believe that he had nothing to do with it. (No spoilers here.) What follows is a bounce-around tale that’ll have you turning pages. We very much like the fact that we can with great confidence recommend the work of an author who is also a bookstore owner. Kornegay owns Turnrow Books.
— Novel, out now
by Brian Panowich
Every bookseller I spoke with raved about the coming of “Bull Mountain,” an intergenerational crime epic set in rural Appalachia. As they say in the book biz, this novel is “highly anticipated.” According to Booklist: “Dazzling . . . (Georgia writer) Panowich tells his story in lengthy, nicely worked chapters reminiscent of John Steinbeck, who did his own brother-versus-brother story in ‘East of Eden.’ … Read and recommend to anyone who follows country noir or savors delicious prose.” And there’s this from bestselling author Tom Franklin : “Holy cow, what a book! It moves like a bullet. Mr. Panowich knows his mountains, his whiskey, his dope and his meth. And boy, does he know his characters, who are drawn so vividly I can't forget them. I can't recommend this novel enough — it will thrill fans of Daniel Woodrell and Larry Brown as well as fans of Dennis Lehane and William Gay. First rate, first rate!” (A note to my Dad: I’ll go ahead and preorder a copy for you and one for me.)
— Novel, available July 7
A Clear View of the Southern Sky
by Mary Hood
I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read Georgia Writers Hall of Fame member Mary Hood since her 1984 collection of nine stories, “How Far She Went.” In the 10 stories of “A Clear View of the Southern Sky,” we meet various women who, as one reviewer puts it, “have come to the edge of their known worlds.” In each of their situations, each has to decide whether to stay or go. All of these stories are set in the 21st century, and the book ends with her previously published novella, “Seambusters.” About Mary Hood, Clyde Edgerton says, “Her prose demonstrates moral sense, compassion, narrative efficiency, and depth of vision — all rolled together — placing her squarely among America's best writers." (An important note to everyone who joined The Bitter Southerner Read Well Book Club last year: “A Clear View of the Southern Sky” will be the fourth quarterly selection you’ll receive, and your copies will arrive signed not only by Hood, but also by Pat Conroy, who wrote the book’s foreword. Stay tuned for news about the 2015-16 edition of the Book Club.)
— Short fiction, available July 30
by Nell Zink
Nell Zink’s 2014 novel, “The Wallcreeper,” was a critical smash hit, and it looks like “Mislaid,” is following in the same path. I’m told this book is funny and sharp. The story goes like this: Peggy, a freshman, falls for her professor. They have an affair and she gets pregnant with a son and they eventually marry. (Oh, by the way, she’s a lesbian and the professor is gay.) Years later, she leaves with their 3-year-old daughter, and her 9-year-old stays behind with his father. She goes underground moving with her daughter into a housing project — and from here, the book sends some of our assumptions about race and racism, sexuality and desire out the window. Vanity Fair says, “‘Mislaid’ is a sprawling multi-generational saga of a Southern family that is as absurd and hilarious as it is tragic ....”
— Novel, out now
The World is on Fire
by Joni Tevis
South Carolina’s Joni Tevis has been described as Southern Sarah Vowell, and really, as a fan of Vowell’s quirky essays, that’s all I need to know. Descriptions of the book say this: The sermons of Joni Tevis’ youth filled her with dread, a sense “that an even worse story — one you hadn’t read yet — could likewise come true.” In this revelatory collection, she reckons with her childhood fears by exploring the uniquely American fascination with apocalypse. The theme for all of the tales seems to be transformation. Tevis teaches literature and creative writing at Furman University, but formerly she was a park ranger, factory worker and seller of cemetery plots, all of which seem perfect training grounds for becoming a great Southern writer. I can’t wait to read “The World Is on Fire.”
— Essays, out now
by Sally Mann
A couple of us here at The Bitter Southerner attended Sally Mann’s recent talk and book signing at the Atlanta History Center. We already knew Mann was one of the South’s greatest photographers, but we sat transfixed as she read her beautifully written words and regaled us with stories about the love she continues with her husband of more than 40 years, her friendship with the great Virginia-born artist Cy Twombly, the self-doubt that comes with the artist’s life, and of course, the topic everyone lands upon: her children, who were the subjects of many of her most affecting (and controversial) photographs. As I write this, “Hold Still” sits next to me on my sofa, complete with its never before published images, calling out, begging me to finish with work so I can dig in.… It’s the first book on this list I’m going to finish.
— Memoir, out now
The Class of 65 - A Student, A Divided Town & The Long Road to Forgiveness
by Jim Auchmutey
For almost 30 years, Jim Auchmutey was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s most masterful feature writer, specializing in stories about the South’s history and culture. Auchmutey tells the story of Greg Wittkamper, who grew up in the South Georgia Christian commune of Koinonia, whose members devoutly and publicly supported racial equality. When Americus High School was integrated in 1964, Wittkamper stuck to his beliefs and refused to insult and attack the school’s first black students; he and wound up being mistreated as badly as they were, harassed and bullied and beaten. But 41 years later, a dozen former classmates wrote to Greg to seek forgiveness and invite him back to Americus for a class reunion. Auchmutey’s book is a heartbreaking story of the segregated South and how some Georgia kids of the 1960s came to reconsider the ideas with which they’d been raised. Frank Reiss at A Cappella Books says it’s his No. 1 recommendation for the summer. (Stay tuned for a July story from Auchmutey in The Bitter Southerner about his experiences in Americus and what’s happened among the class of 1965 since the book was finished.)
— Nonfiction, out now
The Nashville Sound
by Paul Hemphill
“The Nashville Sound” by the late Atlanta writer Paul Hemphill is, according to our Chuck Reece, one of the most important books ever written about country music. Out of print for a while, UGA Press has reissued this 1975 book with a beautiful cover and a new foreword by the music historian Don Cusic. You know we have to have at least one book about music on our list, and “The Nashville Sound” captures Nashville’s music scene at one of its most critical junctures: when country music was beginning to move beyond its monolithic hillbilly roots and reach into the broader worlds of Hollywood and rock and roll. For the student of country music, this book is indispensible.
— Nonfiction, out now
And Two Bonuses From BS Writers
Two other authors whose work have appeared in The Bitter Southerner have books that would also make nice additions to your summer stack. Joe Samuel Starnes, who wrote the great “A Boy, His Granddad and the Monumental Courage of Henry Aaron” for us last year, has a new tale set in the world of sports: “Red Dirt: A Tennis Novel.” And “Big Fish” author Daniel Wallace, who gave us his essay “Killings” earlier this year, has his 2013 novel “The Kings and Queens of Roam” out in paperback.