(Yes, Another List.)
Darlin', just sit down and make yourself a list.”
I’ve been told that my whole life.
“If you’d start with a list...” I know. I know. I’d be more organized.
“Check things off. It’s easy!” Teachers, bosses, one ex-husband and every other overly organized person I’ve ever known could sing in unison: “Make a list, Kyle. Make a list!”
Truth is, I am allergic to list making and lately to list reading.
Outside of The Bitter Southerner, I work in media, specifically social media. These days, every other tweet in my newsfeed is a list. Facebook? Full of lists. Lots of lists. Lists are pinned, Instagrammed, Vined and dissected into infographics (though I will grant they are often beautifully designed).
Whole issues of publications, special editions of newspapers, hours of news and entertainment programs and miles and miles of digital content are filled with annual, biannual, weekly, daily and hourly LISTS. If you spend half as much time consuming media as I do, which no sane person should, I am certain you believe you are “over” lists. But, in truth, you know you’re not. Not really.
Lists have become tiresome, yes, but we all need a little help packing up that summer reading bag. And truly, our Summer Reading Roundup is not about the list — that’s just there to keep us organized. This is about great stories and having some quiet summer time for ourselves. It’s also about the independent booksellers who thoughtfully, lovingly and smartly lead us to the good stuff. I recently chatted with five of our favorite Southern bookshops and asked them to offer up their very best summer reading recommendations. From those conversations, 10 Southern titles (a list of books going in our beach bags and on our nightstands) made our official BS roundup.
Yes, we need a vacation from lists. But before we do that, we’re gonna need this list for our vacation.
by Lisa Howorth
A dark event from her past resurfaces in Mary Byrd’s life, sending the middle-aged mother of two on a crazy trip from her home in Oxford, Miss., to Richmond, Va.. From what we hear, what happens along the way is summer reading gold. Bobbie Ann Mason, author of “In Country,” says of “Flying Shoes”: “Lisa Howorth's dazzling verbal wit almost stops you in your tracks while you are flying along in this delicious prose. It is a scream — also heartbreaking, saucy, sassy, poignant, and triumphant. … It has been a long time since I read a novel with such charm, generosity, humor, daring and brilliance." Howorth lives In Oxford, where she and her husband Richard (our interview with him is in the Q&A section here) opened Square Books in 1979 and raised their three children. A book recommended to me by more than one source, “Flying Shoes” is based on a true story of the still-unsolved murder case of Lisa Howorth’s own step brother. This is her first novel.
by Greg Iles
First of all, BookPage calls Greg Iles’ writing “William Faulkner for the ‘Breaking Bad’ generation.” Yeah? Well, that gets my attention. Additionally, almost everyone I interviewed raved about this book and its author. “Natchez Burning” is set in Mississippi, a place Iles knows well. He spent his youth there, graduated from Ole Miss in 1983 and now lives in Natchez. Nearly 800 pages, the “Natchez Burning” story is actually just getting started: It’s the first volume in a projected trilogy. The Washington Post says, “In the course of its considerable length, ‘Natchez Burning’ deals with a great many subjects: loyalty to one’s family vs. loyalty to such abstractions as truth and justice, the nature and cost of professional ambition, and the once-incendiary subject of sexual relations between the races. More than anything, though, this impassioned novel is concerned with the pervasive impact of past events, events that refuse to remain buried.” That’s about as Southern as it gets.
by Donna Tartt
The third Mississippi writer on our list, Donna Tartt was born in Greenwood and raised in the nearby town of Grenada. She now lives in New York City and has been a favorite of mine since her 1992 novel, “The Secret History.” Her newest, “The Goldfinch,” has been on The New York Times best-seller list for months and took the Pulitzer Prize for fiction back in April. The Pulitzer judges called it “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.” Some crotchety critics have passive-aggressively dismissed "The Goldfinch" as the “It novel” of the year, but it would take more than that to keep us from reading it.
by Susan Crandall
She might be from Indiana, but Susan Crandall’s “Whistling Past the Graveyard” is squarely set in 1960s Mississippi and Tennessee. Starla, a young girl grounded by her father on the Fourth of July, sneaks out to see the parade and gets caught. Thinking she will be sent to reform school, Starla runs away from home. Once out in the country, she is offered a lift by a kindly black woman, Eula, who’s traveling with a white baby. Starla accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville. She hasn’t seen her mama since she was 3, but she’s convinced her mother still plans to send for Starla and her daddy to come to Nashville, where her mother is trying to become a famous singer. Unlikely travel companions Starla and Eula head down a long and sometimes dangerous road revealing eye-opening truths about 1963 Southern segregation. This is Crandall’s 10th novel.
by Rebecca Snedeker & Rebecca Solnit
This beautiful book is coauthored by writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and writer whose work supports human rights and creative expression in her native New Orleans.
"Unfathomable City" — with its combination of essays and maps — takes the reader far deeper into the heart of our beloved NOLA than an ordinary "travel book" could ever do. The Wall Street Journal says, “Calling this an atlas is a bit misleading. It's really a collection of essays, nearly two dozen of them, each accompanied by a colorful map.” Essays on New Orleans musicians, prison activists, environmentalists, and local experts, including the coauthors' compelling contributions, accompany 22 full-color maps in two-page spreads.
by Katherine Faw Morris
When I read about the plot (Nikki, 13, finds herself fighting to save the family drug business in the North Carolina hills) I immediately thought of Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone.” Turns out Woodrell himself has something to say about “Young God”: "A poetic, grim, and beautifully dark novel about backwoods violence and horror recounted in a numbed, laconic voice. Morris writes with splendid economy, chapters short as contes, and plenty of slashing insights on the rough world of throwaway lives ..." Laura van den Berg, author of “The Isle of Youth,” calls the main character, Nikki, “one of the toughest, most electrifying, most unforgettable heroines I have encountered on the page. This is a furious blaze of a book that will rough you up and reorder your sense of the world and what’s possible in it. A debut for the ages. " It sounds intense, dark, electric. I want to read this.
by Ann Patchett
New York Times critic Janet Maslin said of Ann Patchett and this book, her latest, “Ms. Patchett believes in telling stories straightforwardly. You don’t drown a character and then go back to figure out why it happened, she says. You lead up to the event and then consider its causes and consequences. That, at least, is how she writes about the most memorable subjects in ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,’ all but one of which are either animate or much mourned. Those that are dead come very much alive as Ms. Patchett lovingly recalls them.” Patchett’s family moved to Nashville when she was 6 and she continues to live there. Patchett has talked about the love she feels for her Nashville home with her doctor husband and their dog. When asked if she could go any place, that place is always home. "Home is … the stable window that opens out into the imagination. …” Her writing is wonderful on so many levels. If you haven’t read Ann Patchett, please do.
by Todd Snider
Over his long career, singer-songwriter Todd Snider has been compared to Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, John Prine and countless others. But mostly, he just makes us laugh with wry, funny tunes like “Beer Run” and “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males.” (So of course, he would make a Bitter Southerner list, right?) We can’t wait to see what Snider has come up with in his first book. His bio describes him as “part storyteller, part performer and part stand-up comedian.” At least two of those talents will be on full display in this collection of essays.
by Anton DiSclafani
I grew up with horses and spent many of my young summers in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so this book may be my jam. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called the book “this summer’s first romantic page turner” and praised “DiSclafani’s sure-footed sense of narrative and place, and her decision to portray her heroine, Thea Atwell, in all her complexity: fierce, passionate, strong-willed, but also selfish, judgmental and self-destructive.” DiSclafani grew up in northern Florida, where she rode horses, competing nationally. She graduated from Emory University in Atlanta and received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she remains, teaching creative writing.
by John Brandon
The New York Times praised Brandon's last novel for a style that combined Elmore Leonard and Charles Portis. Brandon writes what we would call Florida noir. (Read our recent “Abba Dabba Dab” for reference.) Critics are saying that Brandon brings black humor and dark style to this, his first collection of short stories. The Times calls Brandon’s novels “choral compositions in the voice of marginal Americans. ... At his best, which he’s at with some frequency here, he writes in a crackling way about small hopes and larger despair. He gravitates to the kind of regional misfits who drew Flannery O’Connor’s eye, and his dialogue is snappy and eccentric.” Brandon was raised on the Gulf Coast of Florida and is now based in Minneapolis.