It was a banner year for Southern books in 2017. And by Southern books, we mean those written by authors who live or grew up in the Southeast, as well as books on Southern topics or set in the South. Among our critics’ top selections is a Man Booker Prize winner and four books long-listed for the National Book Award, one of which won. It was a particularly good year for women writers; eight of our selections were penned by female authors. From novels and nonfiction to memoir and books for young readers, here are a dozen titles we recommend.
‘Bandit: A Daughter’s Memoir.’Molly Brodak’s dad robbed 11 banks when she was 13, went to prison for seven years, got out and lived “normally” for seven years before being locked up again for robbing more banks. That premise would be compelling even if it were fiction, but it would lack the rawness and powerful imagery revealed in Brodak’s memoir. As a bonus for Atlantans, the transplant occasionally references the “city that really did rise again after being burned to the ground during the Civil War, a city whose seal I see imprinted on the trash bins I pass on my morning run…” (Black Cat/Grove Press)
‘Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.’One might think a chronicle on chicken farming would be dry as dust, but Maryn McKenna digs up gobs of juicy details on the poultry industry’s longtime reliance on antibiotics, and her storytelling flows nicely. She was blessed with colorful real-life characters, Georgia chicken growers among them, who inject plenty of pluck into the meaty narrative. (National Geographic)
‘The Blood of Emmett Till.’ Timothy B. Tyson’s re-examination of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi succeeds in bringing the victim to life on the page as never before. But perhaps more importantly, it definitively reveals that the incident that triggered the murderous act — Till’s alleged flirtation with a white woman — was fabricated by his accuser. The New York Times best-seller was long-listed for the National Book Award. (Simon and Schuster)
‘The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.’ During her diagnosis and treatment for metastatic breast cancer, poet Nina Riggs chronicled the joy, humor and love that helped her cope with her impending death in this searing debut. A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs inherited his poetic genius and each indelible, provocative passage leaves readers with a greater understanding of the psychology of human mortality and the pursuit of writing and mothering two young sons while seizing the forces and fortitude inherent in a finite life. (Simon and Schuster)
‘Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.’Poet Kevin Young is an inveterate investigator of all things untrue in this ambitious nonfiction book. Racism and xenophobia feature heavily in the history of the hoax, from its American roots in P.T. Barnum’s 19th century circus acts, to its more contemporary iteration in, for example, black pretender Rachel Dolezal, the imagined journalism of former New Republic reporter Stephen Glass, and the ever-popular faux literary memoir. In “Bunk,” Young proves that two centuries of charades make the birth of “fake news” a logical though unfortunate conclusion. (Greywolf Press)
‘Dear Martin.’ Justyce McAllister is a high school senior attending a fictional Atlanta private school on full scholarship. He’s black and super smart; most of his friends are white and privileged. He thinks the issues at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement don’t affect him, until they do. As a way to explore the turmoil in his head, Jus begins writing letters to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who’s been gone for 50 years. A timely, thought-provoking debut for young readers. (Crown)
‘Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-memoirs.’ Beth Ann Fennelly’s genre-defying collection is so engaging and readable that you won’t even notice how much you’re learning about confronting the hardest challenge we all share: being human. Wise, irreverant, funny, the pieces — ranging from one sentence to a few pages — condense Fennelly’s life into singularly precise, powerful moments. Collectively, however, they become a living, breathing entity with which you will have many pleasant but deep conversations about your own life. Everyone should read this book. (W. W. Norton & Company)
‘The Hidden Light of Northern Fires.’ A runaway slave’s escape and a feisty abolitionist’s efforts to aid him fuel this action-packed debut novel by AJC Decatur Book Festival founder Daren Wang. The vividly drawn backdrop to the fast-paced drama is a true but little-known piece of Civil War history surrounding the secession of a town in upstate New York and its role in the Underground Railroad. (Thomas Dunne)
‘Lincoln in the Bardo.’ Devoted fans of short fiction superstar George Saunders know to expect the unexpected in his darkly funny, modern parables. However, even the diehards may be disoriented at first by this debut novel, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. The chilling premise comes from reports of Abraham Lincoln’s odd behavior after losing his young son to typhoid fever. At Oak Hill Cemetery, a clique of oddball ghosts observe that the president is unable to let go. While Saunders supplies colorful back stories to the departed and lots of macabre slapstick humor, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is ultimately a moving reflection on loss. (Bloomsbury)
‘Orphan Island.’ Nine children, ages 3 to 11, live happily on an island without adults. They fend for themselves, romp all over their tropical paradise, catch and cook fish, sleep in their own cabins. Once a year, a small green boat delivers a new 3-year-old and carries away the “Elder” child to gosh-knows-where. Who the children are and how they came to live on this island are questions that prove secondary to the sheer enchantment of Laurel Snyder’s book for young readers, which was long-listed for the National Book Award. (Walden Pond Press)
‘Sing, Unburied, Sing.’ Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward made history last month when she became the first woman and first black writer to receive the National Book Award for fiction twice. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” begins in the Gulf Coast backcountry last seen in her prize-winning “Salvage the Bones,” but quickly departs on a tense, hallucinatory road trip to an infamous upstate prison where restless ghosts and other supernatural weirdness reveal a disturbing legacy of racism. The novel’s exquisite language elevates desperation into poetic reverie. (Scribner)
‘The Twelve-Mile Straight.’Through meticulous research, descriptive writing and a knack for verisimilitude, Eleanor Henderson craftily keeps readers hooked and guessing in this full-bodied saga that never loses steams. Readers are swept back to 1930 and fictional Cotton County, Georgia, where the story opens with two events: the lynching of a field hand and the arrival of Wilson and Winna, “miracle twins” who make headlines clear to Macon because one is white and one is clearly not. Many terrific characters spice things up, but the tale belongs to two inseparable women barely past girlhood: Elma, daughter of a white sharecropper, and the younger, silent Nan, “skinny and dark as a shadow.” (Ecco)
— Contributed by Julie Bookman, Tray Butler Anjali Enjeti, Becca J.G. Godwin, Anna Schachner, Suzanne Van Atten
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