Most Southerners ignore the calendar and designate Memorial Day as the first day of summer — at least, our summer. As we do yearly, we fill up a beach bag with essential books from the South, by the South, and about the South.
Essay by Kyle Tibbs Jones
Book summaries by Kyle Tibbs Jones, Alison Law, & Chuck Reece
A few weeks ago, I flew through a crazy storm, maybe the worst turbulence I've ever experienced. Passengers bounced around. The plane jerked back and forth, moaning like it might crack open. In the last row, with my 5-foot-11-inch frame scrunched into a windowless corner, I listened as a dog barked from luggage beneath the seats, a child screamed, and another person cried quietly.
I said to myself, Watch the movie. Panic is contagious. Do not look around. Just focus ... on ... Mary Poppins.
Thank heavens, our plane landed safely in New York, and I was there in plenty of time to see two Bitter Southerner contributors pick up James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards. I was thankful for that, but also for "Mary Poppins Returns," because as I was up there being tossed about, Mary, played by actress Emily Blunt, looked at her charges and, in her smug but lovely British accent, proclaimed, "We're on the brink of adventure, children. Do not spoil it by asking too many questions."
It’s my new favorite quote.
Life these days is turbulent, full of tough questions and too many worries. Between mass shootings, the rise of racist hatred, women's rights to their own bodies being challenged and climate change, it sometimes feels the whole planet might crash.
The Bitter Southerner’s sixth annual list of Southern titles for summer reading gives you several opportunities to put some of the current crisis on vacation, for an hour or two at least. We've also sprinkled in a few necessary books covering issues facing our region and nation. No matter your choices, you can do a summertime swan dive into great reading.
We’re happy to report that this year’s list of 18 titles (presented here in alphabetical order by author) includes books by several Bitter Southerner contributors, plus another by an artist we’ve featured in two of our films. We’ve got compelling memoirs, a passel of novels written from various Southern perspectives, and nonfiction works that will bring you a bunch of stuff you never knew about barbecue, Harper Lee, and other important things.
You’re on the brink of adventure, Bitter Southerners. Don't spoil it with too many questions.
Nonfiction by Jim Auchmutey
Publication date: June 1
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Southerner better suited than Jim Auchmutey to write a “short history of barbecue in America.” As he notes in his acknowledgements, “I started research on this book when I was five years old.” His grandfather, “Daddy Bob” Auchmutey, was already a widely known pitmaster in the Etowah Valley of northern Georgia when, in 1954, he was featured in a Saturday Evening Post article about barbecue. Until a decade ago, grandson Jim spent almost 30 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writing about the culture of the South with consistent insight and grace. Thus, we get what could be Auchmutey’s magnum opus, Smokelore, which makes the case that barbecue — the ways we do it and the food produced — is critical to an understanding of race, immigration, politics, population shifts, and gender roles not just in the South, but all over America. Beautifully illustrated with a riot of barbecue memorabilia and including a few solid recipes, Smokelore is a must-have for anybody who cares about the ’cue. In other words, pretty much all y’all. (NOTE: Auchmutey is working on a special essay about barbecue and politics for The Bitter Southerner. We’ll publish it next month.) — Chuck Reece
Nonfiction by Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott
Published in March
Pressure Cooker is the product of five years of constant research by three sociology professors in and around Raleigh, North Carolina. For half a decade, the researchers repeatedly interviewed and shadowed 150 mothers (and a few grandmothers) who were the primary caregivers of young children. And with 12 families, the research was much deeper, with the writers spending “hundreds of hours” with each woman as she grocery-shopped, ran errands, and prepared meals for the kids. Over the course of the book, they use their findings to take apart many of the ideas that now drive “foodie” culture. And they do it not only as academic researchers but also as great storytellers. We come to know these families and how horribly difficult — or impossible — it is live up the foodie homilies they see on TV. The likes of Michael Pollan dispense their homilies to all Americans — Shop smarter, eat better, they say. Or, Bring good food to others. Those ideas are well intended, but Pressure Cooker argues people with enough privilege to call themselves foodies must recognize how unattainable their ideals are for most Americans. No matter how loyally you support locally raised food and farmers’ markets, reading this book is likely to make you feel you are part of our nation’s hunger problem, instead of being part of the solution. — C.R.
Smile a While
A children’s book by Kyle “Black Cat Tips” Brooks
Publication date: June 23
Kyle Brooks, aka Black Cat Tips, has been part of The Bitter Southerner Family since our early days. Besides short films, we’ve worked with Brooks on art shows and other events. He even painted original art on canvas bags we sold in our General Store. We adore him for reasons everyone does — his whimsical paintings packed with “sayings” that make us laugh or inspire us. Now, Brooks has poured his joy and wisdom into his first book — it’s for kids, but it’s also for everyone. Brooks tells me he painted all the images last summer. Then, BS contributor Amanda Green created the author photo of Brooks sitting on a five-gallon bucket. Finally, Brooks’ wife Maria (aka White Cat Tips) designed the book, and they shipped the whole thing off to the printer. Brooks originally considered more serious subject matter, then remembered his smiling bears and dogs make people happy — and that we all need to smile a while these days. He describes Smile a While as a note to himself: “When the world gets all over me and I’m walking around in a snit, Smile a While will always be a reminder to keep my mind right. I’m hoping it’ll work like that for everyone who reads it.” And with a book like this, it’s not a spoiler to tell you the words you’ll see on the final page: “Smiling faces, they always do you right. In the darkest of times, you’ll see a little light.” The world needs your light right now, Kyle Brooks. — Kyle Tibbs Jones
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and The Last Trial of Harper Lee
Nonfiction by Casey Cep
Published in May
Furious Hours begins with Harper Lee sitting in a courtroom in Alexander City, Alabama, in 1977. She is covering the trial of M.C. Burns, charged with the murder of a sharecropper and preacher, Willie Maxwell. At the time of the trial, it had been 17 years since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee believed the story of the killing would be the subject of her next book, which she tentatively titled The Reverend. None of us has read that book, of course. Why it was never published is the story at the heart of Casey Cep’s masterful book. But along the way, we get a hair-raising, masterfully written version of the story Lee never published — and an eye-opening dive into a part of Lee’s life few ever saw. — C.R.
Beyond the Point
A novel by Claire Gibson
Published in April
“Some wounds are invisible. It doesn’t mean they’re not real.” That quote from Claire Gibson’s Beyond the Point appears frequently on Instagram, and it’s clear this book’s fans show their passion for it on social media. Gibson’s novel centers on three ride-or-die friends. A nationally ranked point guard, the granddaughter of an Army general, and a wild child homecoming queen meet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. They become close in school, but as they forge ahead through 9/11, the Iraq War, and into their adult lives, the plot thickens. This is the story of life on the front lines, of heartbreak, resilience, and true friendship. Beyond the Point might be the beachiest beach read on our list. Don’t forget to pack it. — K.T.J.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls
A novel by Anissa Gray
Published in February
Told from the perspectives of three sisters — Althea, Lillian, and Viola — The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls tells the story of one family’s past and its present efforts to stay together. When the book begins, Althea is telling her story from jail; she and her husband are about to serve the maximum sentence for defrauding their neighbors and the federal government of funds raised for flood recovery. Baby sister Lillian assumes the role of guardian to Althea’s twin daughters while their parents are in custody. Middle sister Viola skirts her family responsibilities at first, in denial that matriarch Althea is going to spend an unjust seven years in prison, and caught up in her own private issues and marital problems. Debut novelist Anissa Gray, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist living in Atlanta, says she started with Viola’s story, which mirrors the author’s own struggles with an eating disorder. However, Althea and Lillian’s voices crept into the narrative, adding their different takes on the novel’s themes of hunger, forgiveness, and how people react to being hurt by the people they love most. — Alison Law
The Magnetic Girl
A novel by Jessica Handler
Published in April
Nonfiction writer and Bitter Southerner contributor Jessica Handler charges her first novel on the opposite poles of 19th-century science and technology and Spiritualism and Mesmerism. After the Civil War, families were desperate to commune with the souls lost in battle, and Americans were preoccupied with Spiritualists like the Fox Sisters and Cora Hatch. (Handler covered the subject in a nonfiction piece for The Bitter Southerner two years ago.) These women purported to communicate with the dead, while Mesmerists and faith healers claimed to harness the body’s magnetic energy. The movement arose just as electricity came to cities like New York and Paris, and Samuel Morse’s telegraph connected the nation’s capital to the rest of the country with dots and dashes. The Magnetic Girl is based on the true story of Lulu Hurst, a poor, white farm girl from Cedartown, Georgia, who sees a way to escape her family’s circumstances and travel to the faraway places she reads about in her hometown newspaper. She performs sleight-of-hand tricks and “levitates” grown men for the paying public. As word spreads of Lulu’s “abilities,” people treat her differently, especially her father Will. She transforms from being invisible to being revered — or feared. Handler’s beautiful storytelling enlightens us about this time in American history and the ultimate gift the Spiritualist movement gave Leah, Maggie, and Kate Fox, Cora Hatch, and Lulu Hurst — the power to see and be seen. — A.L.
Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy
A collection of essays edited by Anthony Harkins & Meredith McCarroll
Published in March
Hey, Opie, are you listening? You’re about to make the wrong movie. In January, Netflix won a bidding war for the right to make a movie of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and announced Ron Howard would direct it. Clearly, the fierce responses of the countless Appalachians who felt misrepresented by Vance’s book never registered in Hollywood. At the 2017 Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Blacksburg, Virginia, Meredith McCarroll, a Waynesville, North Carolina, native who is now a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College, and Anthony Harkins, a history prof at Western Kentucky University, united those voices. The result is a book of over 40 essays and poems that bring the real Appalachia to life. The writing of these authors ranges from detailed takedowns of the assumptions made in Hillbilly Elegy to heart-wrenching stories of the lives of Appalachians. And there is no way to resist a book filled with with titles like “Will the Real Hillbilly Please Stand Up?” and “Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies”? — C.R.
Alligator Zoo-Park Magic
A novel by C.H. Hooks
Published in March
C.H. Hooks kicks off Alligator Zoo-Park Magic with main character Jimmy following a bunch of people hauling coolers and folding chairs down a dirt road lined with jacked up pickup trucks, the air thick with pot smoke. The folks heading into this moccasin- and gator-filled swamp have left the comfort of their trailer parks to witness Jimmy’s best friend, Jeffers, pull off yet another of his miraculous magic tricks. As night comes and the swamp sinks into darkness, someone passes around baggies full of “shrooms.” Even the town sheriff partakes. The main act, Jeffers, hangs upside down in a tree over a pit of gators. Are you following so far? I don’t think I spoil too much by telling you that in Hooks’ first chapter, the magic trick goes awry, and Jimmy’s friend goes missing. Was Jeffers eaten by Lazarus, the town’s most infamous gator, “as big as a gator can come”? named Lazarus? Or has he finally devised a brilliant escape from a drug-filled depressing little town. Author and Bitter Southerner contributor Harrison Scott Key calls C.H. Hooks “a damned wizard,” and Alligator Zoo-Park a holy hell of a book. Other reviewers have compared Hooks to the late great Harry Crews and Larry Brown — high praise in these parts. Zoo-Park leaves us grappling with the question: What does it mean to truly escape? — K.T.J.
Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
Nonfiction by Tony Horwitz
Published in May
Many of us recognize Frederick Law Olmsted as the visionary behind some of our country’s most iconic outdoor spaces — New York’s Central Park, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, to name a few. But before his legendary career as a landscape architect took seed, Olmsted was a disillusioned farmer who left home to become a writer. In 1852, he convinced the editor of the New York Daily Times to pay him $300 to travel the American South and report his observations of slavery’s effects on the region’s agriculture and economy. An authentic Connecticut Yankee who understood little of the secessionist rhetoric popular at the time and who supported the abolition of slavery, Olmsted planned to spend a few weeks on his Southern writing project for the Times. Instead, he completed two separate trips crisscrossing the South and filled three volumes with his dispatches, filed under the pseudonym “Yeoman.” Some 160 years later, Tony Horwitz, award-winning journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Confederates in the Attic, retraces Olmsted’s steps. The result is a satisfying travelogue that compares Olmsted’s writings about the slave and free states on the cusp of civil war with Horwitz’s experience navigating today’s red and blue states. — A.L.
Losing Earth: A Recent History
Nonfiction by Nathaniel Rich
Published in April
Last year, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to Nathaniel Rich’s history of climate change — specifically, to the years 1979-1989, or what the magazine called “The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” After completing 18 months of research and conducting more than a hundred interviews, the New Orleans-based Rich isolated this decade as the time when U.S. scientists and politicians were waking up to the seriousness of global warming and its causes, saw ways to reverse a looming environmental catastrophe, and failed to act. Rich expands that research and two-part magazine piece in his new full-length book, Losing Earth. Drawing comparisons to John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, Rich’s book shares previously unreported details and first-person accounts that explain why we failed to fix climate change when we first had a chance. The author lives in New Orleans and has previously explored political corruption and prognosticated about natural disasters and apocalypse in his novels. Losing Earth may be Rich’s most chilling and important narrative to date. — A.L.
Gather at the River: Twenty-Five Authors on Fishing
An essay collection edited by David Joy & Eric Rickstad
Published in May
Like many ideas that come to the mind of North Carolina novelist and Bitter Southerner contributor David Joy, the notion for this book arrived at a river bank, where Joy was fishing. Why not, he thought, gather 25 fishing stories into one volume and send the proceeds to a nonprofit? The result is a book that gives us a remarkable Ron Rash piece about a 50-year-old fly reel, memories of frog gigging from Queen Sugar author and BS contributor Natalie Baszile, as well as the remarkable, “In Our Lightning Past” by bestselling author M.O. Walsh, which we excerpted here earlier this year. Once the essays were written, the authors put their heads together to choose a recipient for the proceeds. They chose the C.A.S.T. for Kids Foundation, which was founded in 1991 to pair anglers with special-needs children for fishing trips. Since then, the foundation has expanded its programs to reach urban youth and military veterans and families. — C.R.
Heavy: An American Memoir
A memoir by Kiese Laymon
Published in October 2018
“I wanted to write a lie.” That refrain from the opening of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy alludes to the fact he originally intended to write a book chronicling his efforts to drop 150 pounds. As Laymon began interviewing his mother, grandmother, and other family members in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, about the relationship between weight, poverty, and racial terror, he realized no one is immune to the desire to conceal the truth of past traumas. Grandmama preferred to blame his aunt’s 50-pound weight gain on working for a local chicken plant and frying all the discounted chicken she received, rather than reveal her daughter gained the weight after suffering a sexual assaulted that summer. So, Laymon abandoned any inclination to write a lie and pursued the freedom only truth provides. In Heavy, he tackles his memories with precise, wounding prose and expresses abiding love for the people in his family who join him in his struggle to unburden themselves. Named one of the best books of the year by many publications and winner of several awards, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, is now available in paperback. — A.L.
A memoir by Allison Moorer
Publication date: October 29
Most who are aware of the Moorer sisters — Shelby and Allison — know them for their exquisite singing voices. It’s never been a secret that when they were growing up in Frankville, Alabama — respectively, 17 and 14 years old, their father shot and killed their mother, then himself, in their front yard. While that night has been referenced in stories about the sisters, the publication of Allison Moorer’s memoir, Blood, marks the first full telling. Moorer’s roots are in songwriting, and she’s written this book like a symphony. It is expansive, and its three parts feel like movements. Moorer fills them with prose that has the sharp honesty of the greatest songwriters. In one early passage, she ruminates on her father’s old cowboy hat, which she has kept. “If it’s one of those certain days,” she writes, “I think about his head a little bit longer than other days, and wonder, when he was the exact age I am now, why he had to go and blow it off.” Although Moorer had to look directly at her father’s darkness to write Blood, this book is no true-crime autobiography. Instead, at its heart, it is about how two sisters — blessed with a harmony, both spiritual and musical, that still reverberates between them — used their relationship to survive the horror no teenager should experience. — C.R.
A novel by Brian Panowich
Published in April
In 2015, Georgia writer Brian Panowich burst onto the literary scene with Bull Mountain. I read it and then recommended it incessantly to anyone who would listen. When asked why I loved it, I had the same answer for everybody: “It’s like if Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather in Appalachia.” Panowich writes with the punch of the greatest crime novelists. It’s no stretch to compare his work to Raymond Chandler’s or Lee Child’s. And now, four years later, Like Lions picks up the story of Clayton Burroughs once again. Panowich’s main character is the scion of a multigenerational crime family — first the moonshine, then the weed, then the meth — in the mountains of North Georgia. Clayton wants his life to go in a different direction than his family’s, and he has become the sheriff of the county, which is precisely what got him shot twice in the chest by a crooked FBI agent at the end of Bull Mountain. In Like Lions, Clayton is popping oxy to dull the never-ending pain of his gunshot wounds, but he’s determined to bury his family’s past once and for all. Earlier in this decade, the term “Southern noir” came into use. Panowich is one of that genre’s most exemplary writers. — C.R.
We Cast a Shadow
A novel by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Published in January
Rave reviews have poured in since January, when this, Bitter Southerner contributor Maurice Ruffin’s first novel, came out. We Cast a Shadow is a terrifying and surreal tale. His setting is an imagined future in which Southerners of color live in fenced-in ghettos and face extreme police violence. The main character, an attorney (one of the few African Americans at a law firm), desperately wants to ensure his son’s safety and is considering a medical procedure that will change his son’s pigmentation. The central question: How far will the main character go to protect his son? As a parent, I’m riveted by this story. I’m equally riveted as a human being living in a time when racism and white nationalism are at a fever pitch, and the system in place to protect us seems broken. To what lengths will we go to protect our own children? What must we do as a society to protect all the children? — K.T.J.
We Are All Good People Here
A novel by Susan Rebecca White
Publication date: August 6
Being friends with Susan Rebecca White on Facebook is grand. I’m fascinated with artists and the creative process, so following along as she researched this novel was fun. Susan crowdsources material in posts, asking questions specific to a place and time. Turns out, We Are All Good People Here is 100 percent true to the eras in which it occurs. Her attention to detail and meticulousness about the several decades make every page real. Her story begins in 1962 as two radically different but privileged white girls arrive at college, then become sorority sisters and fast friends. Quickly, they find themselves in the middle of our nation’s tumultuous civil-rights struggle. Each young woman has her own political awakening, but along the way, mistakes are made. Eventually, many years later, their daughters come together and stumble upon a long-buried secret. We Are All Good People Here asks questions like some of us may ask ourselves in these crazy times: Is it possible to separate our political choices and our values? As we grow older and as we evolve, do we ever truly escape our history? — K.T.J.
The Nickel Boys
A novel by Colson Whitehead
Publication date: July 16
In his first novel since winning the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead sets his new book in Jim Crow-era Florida. In The Nickel Boys, two African American boys are sentenced to a segregated reform school after a miscarriage of justice. Elwood and Turner endure horrific conditions, including physical and sexual abuse at the hands of school staff members. Each boy must find his own way of surviving the Nickel Academy or become one of the many students who go missing “out back.” Whitehead based the Nickel Academy on Florida’s infamous Dozier School for Boys, where over 100 unmarked graves of the incarcerated were found after the state institution closed in 2012. In an interview with The New York Times, Whitehead said he set aside a Harlem crime novel he was writing to dive, instead, into this dark era of Florida history. — A.L.