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Archive for the ‘Nonfiction’ Category

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:

January

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Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems.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)

 

February

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)

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Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.

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Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.

Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).

In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”

Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.

A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.

In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660. (more…)

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At a party to celebrate the birth of her first child, Jowita Bydlowska did what a lot of relieved, new mothers might do: She drank a glass of champagne, after nine long months of sobriety.

Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.

Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:

“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”

This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it. (more…)

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This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

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When the advance copy of this book first appeared, I made time to page through it mainly because of its subtitle: A Memoir of Disaster and Love. Because who hasn’t lived through the twin poles of love and disaster? Show of hands?

Especially the ones involved in marriage, which is what Joe Blair’s memoir is about: a marriage in deep trouble, and his attempt to shore it up before it collapsed. In the finished book, By the Iowa Sea has lost its subtitle. But the twin poles remain.

It all begins with rain—“an innocent enough thing…day after day of it. Through February and March and April and May.” But this is no average rain.

In the early spring of 2008, heavy rains pound the Midwest and the Iowa River floods, transforming the streets and parking lots and manicured lawns of Joe’s small town into a beautiful, terrible sea. With the flood comes an atmosphere of irresistible change. All of the activities Joe thought were inevitable—his commutes to work, his trips to the grocery store—are now impossible. And freedom, that beautiful, terrible thing, is suddenly forced upon him.

That quote is directly from the publisher’s catalog. I was intrigued, but it wasn’t really what drew me into the story. Nor was it the first few pages of Blair’s memoir. What I couldn’t quit reading was something I found when I opened the book at random: a description of a fight he’d had with his wife. (more…)

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By the time I finished the first three essays in this book, words like “virtuoso” and “damn!” were coming to mind, and I started having to take breaks, where I’d walk around the house alternately bouncy with the joy of finding something so terrific to read, and thinking I’ll never, ever be this good, at anything.

Before I get lost in embarrassingly worshipful paeans about the pieces on Axl Rose (“with the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet”) and Michael Jackson (“a god moves through him; the god enters, the god leaves”) and the rest, let me stop and explain.

Pulphead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16), by John Jeremiah Sullivan, is a collection of ruminations about American pop culture and politics interspersed with a look at cave paintings in Tennessee, a portrait of a misunderstood 19th-century naturalist, a tender and revealing ode to a former teacher, a story about the author’s brother—basically, things that you wouldn’t expect to find in a book called Pulphead.

So, not your usual hipster quotient. (more…)

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