Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.
Here they are in order of publication dates:
Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young
This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)
The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan
Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)
A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard
Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)
Shame and Wonder, David Searcy
In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)
What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light
Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)
Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce
Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)
My Father, the Pornographer, Chris Offutt
Upon his father’s death in 2013, award-winning author and Kentucky native Chris Offutt discovered that the man he knew as a tyrant, workaholic, and virtual shut-in was the author of nearly 375 books of pornography. In the tracing of Andrew Offutt’s clandestine career and its effect on the family, Offutt revisits his own lifelong struggle to understand a complex, profoundly divided man. (Atria Books)
The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family, Gail Lumet Buckley
The daughter of Lena Horne, Buckley (“American Patriots”) sets forth the saga of her prominent family in this outstanding blend of history and memoir. Beginning with her great-great-grandfather, a house slave who became one of the most successful businessmen in Atlanta, Buckley reconstructs the Calhouns’ life in Atlanta and New York during the Harlem Renaissance, up through the civil rights era, providing a vivid portrait of six generations of social upheaval and change. (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Dimestore: A Memoir, Lee Smith
Her isolated but happy childhood as the daughter of two “kindly nervous” parents leads off Smith’s charming memoir-in-essays, in which she recalls the joys of life at her father’s Ben Franklin dime store; growing up in the homespun mountain town of Grundy, Virginia; her early years in college and as a young mother; and the evolution of her writing career. Though the tone throughout is bright and nostalgic, Smith writes openly about her family’s history of mental illness: particularly her parents’ depressions and anxiety disorders, and her son’s battle with schizophrenia. (Algonquin) Read more here, and here.
News of the World, Paulette Jiles
Recalling Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” Jiles’ sharply observed story set in 1870 follows a crusty war veteran from Georgia who makes a promise to return a ten-year-old girl, stolen by the Kiowas at age six, to her family in San Antonio, a perilous 400-mile journey across unsettled territory. Along the way, they’re tracked by a predatory outlaw with designs on the girl, her septuagenarian protector ekes out a living reading the newspaper to locals hungry for current events, and his small but fierce companion proves that her time among the Indians has not been in vain. (William Morrow)
The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, Annie Dillard
According to press, this will be a collection “rigorously curated” by Dillard to update and reframe some of her “most beloved” work but also include some “rarely seen” pieces. Sorry for the vague description, but that’s all I got. For “old and new,” read new and selected. The brilliant Geoff Dyer wrote the foreword, and some definites include “Total Eclipse,” “Expedition to the Pole” and “This Is the Life.” (Ecco)
Bottomland, Michelle Hoover
The narrator of Hoover’s second novel breaks into her two sisters’ locked bedroom one morning to find them gone, precipitating a search for the girls that stretches to Chicago and across several decades. The setting is the Iowa prairie, the time, post-WWI, and the Hess family have been steering clear of town since their governor banned spoken German. Seen through the eyes of several family members, this intimate and powerfully told story offers an authentic portrait of the German immigrant experience as well as an unvarnished look at an age-old American tradition: scapegoating our neighbors during wartime.
In Dufresne’s second Wylie “Coyote” Melville novel (after “No Regrets, Coyote”), the deep-thinking psychotherapist and his poker-playing magician friend relocate to Las Vegas, investigating what may or may not have been a woman’s suicide. Come for the ghoulish Vegas vibe and surreal story of human trafficking; stay for Wylie’s musings on art, literature, physics, magic, and ancient Egyptian funerary texts. (Norton) Here’s my review of his first book.
Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown, James McBride
Time has not been kind to the Godfather of Soul, nor have many of the portrayals of his life and times. McBride, a musician and the award-winning author of “The Good Lord Bird,” restores Brown’s dignity and humanity in a compassionate investigation that includes candid interviews with longtime bandmate Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s “Money Man” David Cannon, and manager Charles Bobbit. McBride pays careful attention to the war over the $100 million fund Brown left to educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. (Spiegel & Grau)
Dickey delivers a spirited defense and celebration of the American pit bull, whose once-sterling reputation was ruined long before the days of Michael Vick. When she adopts “affectionate, timid” pit Lola, Dickey finds that the dog purported to be “biologically wired to kill” makes one of the most loyal, hardworking and affectionate pets around. Her well-researched, enlightening book introduces many statistics, advocates, and history aimed at restoring faith in this much maligned, misunderstood breed. (Knopf) Preview here at Garden & Gun.
Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, Ted Geltner
Before his death in 2012, the Rabelasian author of “A Feast of Snakes” met with Geltner to discuss the prospect of a literary biography. Crews, in declining health, was game. “Ask me anything,” he said, “but you better work fast.” The result is the first full-length biography of the dirt-poor boy from Alma who went on to create the unforgettable voice of his own uniquely gritty, outlaw South. (University of Georgia Press) Geltner on Crews’ first journalism assignment, a trip to Alaska for Playboy.
Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler
The new Hogarth Shakespeare project offers novel versions of Shakespeare’s plays, and began last October with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, her cover of The Winter’s Tale. Forthcoming in June is Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew in which Kate is a put-upon pre-school teacher in love with her eccentric father’s Russian lab assistant. (Look for Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, Jo Nesbo on Macbeth.)
As for 2015, these are some of the best, both Southern and otherwise. Where possible, I’ve linked them to their reviews, either online or here. (Note: there’s a five-article limit on the AJC before a pay wall.)
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett (nonfiction)
See How Small, Scott Blackwood (fiction)
A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros (memoir)
How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood, Jim Grimsley (memoir)
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola (memoir)
Last Mass, Jamie Iredell (memoir)
The Folded Clock, Heidi Julavits (memoir/essays)
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr (nonfiction)
H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (memoir/nature writing)
My Unsentimental Education, Debra Monroe (memoir)
Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neill Null (fiction)
Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, Ann Pancake (novellas & short stories)
Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story, David Payne (memoir)