“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

10 best Southern books of 2016

Many of the year’s finest blend fact and fiction

Even in this “post-truth” era of dubious news, some stories are just dumbfounding.

For example, is it really possible that the candidate who promised to “make America great again” might be making America read again?

According to Publishers Weekly, post-election angst seemed to lift book sales over Black Friday weekend. Independent booksellers reported a surge of customers trying to escape the political hangover, or else searching for answers about the changing electorate.

Many of 2016’s most fascinating books appeal to readers in both camps while also blurring the lines between facts and fiction. It was a big year for invented histories and faux biographies. Novelists such as Brad Watson and Ann Patchett used real-life details from family folklore as jumping off points for exquisite works of fiction.

In other cases, attempts to reconcile childhood stories outgrew the bounds of memoir, leading to impressive nonfiction works from Patrick Phillips, Margot Lee Shetterly and J.D. Vance.

And still other writers, like Colson Whitehead, Julia Franks and Ron Rash, opted to use more metaphorical or metafictional tools to unearth hidden truths. Here’s a roundup of the year’s best Southern titles.

FICTION

‘Commonwealth’ by Ann Patchett

Patchett calls her latest “the book I should have written when I was 25, when people write their autobiographical first novel.” The brilliant, generation-spanning American epic demonstrates that lives rarely go according to plan. Based loosely on the author’s childhood travels between divorced parents in California and Tennessee (Virginia in the book), “Commonwealth” follows five decades of rivalries, alliances and betrayals in a hilarious gang of step-siblings. The novel asks difficult questions about the ownership of stories and the scope of community. (Harper Collins)

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

If you haven’t heard about this much-hyped historical fantasy, welcome back from the literal underground. A National Book Award winner and Oprah’s Book Club selection, the trippy genre-bender functions as a fable of self-determination and an indictment of antebellum violence. Two slaves flee a Georgia cotton plantation by way of the Underground Railroad, rendered here as every elementary school student imagines it, a clandestine subway system carrying runaways to freedom. Whitehead’s dizzying metafictional travelogue explores worlds many of us would rather soon forget. (Doubleday)

‘Miss Jane’ by Brad Watson

As in Michael Chabon’s “Moonglow,” Watson plucks details from the life of an idiosyncratic relative to create an engaging character study. Jane Chisholm, inspired by the author’s great-aunt, is born in backwater Mississippi in the early 1900s and into a cycle of seemingly relentless disappointment. A rare birth defect makes the inimitable heroine an outcast who feels drawn to nature. Watson’s soothing, dulcet prose could tame a timber rattlesnake. (W. W. Norton & Company)

‘American Housewife’ by Helen Ellis

Ellis has been a novelist, an Upper East Side housewife — and a semi-pro poker champ who coached Colson Whitehead for the World Series of Poker. Like a Hold ’Em player shifting personas, the Alabama native tries on a range of voices in this witty, fearless collection of stories and flash fiction. “American Housewife” pokes fun at beauty pageants, book clubs, arts patrons and, best of all, the vicious double-speak of Southern women: “‘She’s the nicest person’ means she’s boring as pound cake. ‘She has beautiful skin’ means she’s as white as a tampon.” (Doubleday)

‘Over the Plain Houses’ by Julia Franks

This forceful debut novel arrives “full of wonder of questions,” which is the way headstrong heroine Irenie Lambey describes a Department of Agriculture agent visiting her corner of the North Carolina mountains at the end of the Great Depression. The wonders rarely cease over the next 200-plus pages. Franks weaves a suspenseful yarn that pits Irenie against her Bible-thumping husband who fears that she may be a witch. (Hub City)

‘The Risen’ by Ron Rash

Rash says his chilling seventh novel was inspired by an unsolved murder 20 years ago and the nightmares that plagued him afterward. Eugene first glimpses 17-year-old Ligeia Mosely swimming in a secluded North Carolina fishing hole. His brother Bill jokes that she might be a mermaid, but the mysterious newcomer turns out to be more of a pill-popping siren who lures Eugene into a summer of sin. The novel begins when a gruesome discovery several decades later forces Eugene, now a washed-up alcoholic, to question his brother’s loyalty. (Ecco)

Nonfiction

‘Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America’ by Patrick Phillips

The author was in second grade when his family relocated to Forsyth County — too young to grasp how an “all white” enclave could still exist in Georgia in the late 1970s. This important and shocking exposé traces a campaign of racial cleansing that endured for much of the last century. While it may sound like an odd follow-up to his pensive “Elegy for a Broken Machine,” a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in poetry, both works offer profound meditations on loss, morality and mortality. (W.W. Norton)

‘Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margot Lee Shetterly

As a child in “Spacetown, USA” (Hampton, Va.) in the 1960s, Shetterly took it for granted that math and engineering were “just what black folks did,” judging from the diverse staff her father knew at Langley Research Center. Her groundbreaking debut names the space race’s forgotten black women scientists, attempting to give these unsung trailblazers “the kind of American history that belongs to the Wright Brothers and the astronauts.” A feature film adaptation starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae premieres in January. (William Morrow)

‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J.D. Vance

Long before the New York Times listed it among “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” this heartfelt regional memoir was already a breakout hit and one of the most discussed titles of the year. The author, a graduate of Yale Law School, uses his improbable tale of overcoming a dirt poor childhood as an entry point into a greater “history of opportunity and upward mobility viewed through the eyes of a group of hillbillies.” Even if you don’t agree with some of his prognoses, there’s no denying Vance has a finger on the pulse of white poverty in Appalachia and the Rust Belt. (Harper)

“March: Book Three” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

The gripping conclusion of Rep. John Lewis’s graphic memoir is an inspired narrative hybrid. Its monochromatic brushwork strike a balance between stark negative space and vibrant imagery in covering complicated events such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery. When a bomb explodes in the 16th Street Baptist Church, pages drown in black smoke. A rare specimen of storytelling synergy, this must-read trilogy makes the civil rights era come alive to readers of any age. (Top Shelf)

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