Southern books 2014: A deep look at the culture, past and present

A musical genius from Georgia. A gifted deaf-dumb-and-blind child who learned language before Helen Keller was born. The baddest bad boy ever to emerge from the American South. Women who fought the Civil War. A battle between the old soul of Appalachia and its modern future. The best books we read in 2014 gave us a deeper look at a culture, past and present, that never ceases to amaze, enlighten and enrich us.

“Long Man,” Amy Greene

Greene wowed readers with her intimate connection to the people and history of Southern Appalachia in 2010’s “Bloodroot.” Her stunning follow-up once again embodies the spirit of place through its characters, spinning a story based on real-life events: When a rural community loses its fight against a government dam that will flood its land, one stubborn holdout refuses to leave — a young mother who can’t bear to see her child lose her deep ties to their land. As the deadline for the evacuation looms, the little girl goes missing, setting the stage for a near-mythic showdown between tradition and progress. (Knopf)

“American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning,” Kate Sweeney

Whether or not you’re of an age to contemplate the hereafter, you’ll appreciate the old traditions and new rituals Sweeney digs up in this illuminating survey of America’s often bizarre approach to death. During her travels into “the American landscape of mourning,” she investigates Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist; as well as making sense of by-gone customs such as Victorian mourning jewelry made of the deceased’s hair. Sweeney’s approach to people who make death their business combines curiosity, respect and humor, and above all, compassion for the living and their myriad ways of dealing with loss. (University of Georgia Press)

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“The Heaven of Animals,” David James Poissant

Reviewer Tray Butler called Poissant’s self-assured short-story collection a “penetrating look at the anxious state of manhood in the new century.” His conflicted men long for emotional connections, but their human failings and reptilian brains keep getting in the way, demonstrating that mankind may not be so separate from the animal kingdom after all. Poissant, who grew up in Atlanta, fleshes out a convincing landscape of dirt roads and rural decay that include a 500-pound alligator, killer bees, a talking wolf and “an overprotective beagle” for this promising, well-received debut. (Simon & Schuster)

“What Is Visible,” Kimberly Elkins

The first blind-deaf-mute person in the U.S. to learn language was Laura Bridgman, born in 1829. A protégée of Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, the teenaged Bridgman learned to read, write and perform in public, feats that earned her world-wide fame — yet a decade later, she was all but forgotten and died in obscurity in 1889. In this richly imagined first novel, Elkins rescues Bridgman from her long sleep and writes her back into history. Along the way, she chronicles changing attitudes toward the disabled and feminism, and breathes new life into suffragist Julia Ward Howe, Bridgman’s teacher Sara Wight, and a young Annie Sullivan. Elkins’ remarkable reinvention reminds us that to be deaf, blind and mute is not always to be noble, but always human. (Twelve)

“Song of the Shank,” Jeffery Renard Allen

Thomas Greene Wiggins, a 19th-century piano virtuoso from Georgia known to the world as “Blind Tom,” is the subject of poet, essayist and fiction writer Allen’s second novel, which reviewer Jeff Calder hailed as “a landmark of modern African-American literature.” Born into slavery, Wiggins took lessons from his mistress, then went on to tour the world, perform at the White House and make his guardians millions of dollars by today’s standards. The story of his effect on the world he inhabited propels Allen’s visionary work, which uses Wiggins’ life to explore the history of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. (Graywolf Press)

“Neverhome,” Laird Hunt

Hunt’s gender-bending take on a young wife’s desire to defend her country — and also free herself from the constraints of 19th-century farm life — was inspired by letters from a real Civil War private who died in 1864. “I just wanted to fight,” claims Ash Thompson, citing her late mother as an example of courage and self-confidence, “to plant my foot and stand stalwart and never run.” But the reasons for Ash’s Odyssean journey from Ohio to Virginia and back, are more complex, and Hunt (“Kind One”) renders this mesmerizing portrait of war, race, memory and gender through her conflicted service. (Little, Brown and Company)

“Love Me Back,” Merritt Tierce

In her spare but harrowing debut novel, Tierce takes readers into the mind of a teenage waitress whose struggle with marriage and motherhood leaves her escaping via work and sex, and plenty of both. The Texas native’s anti-heroic account of a life gone off the rails made a lot of top ten lists for 2014 for its insider look at the Texas restaurant scene, its bracing lack of redemption and the kind of writing and characters that grab you and won’t let go. Marie, the embattled waitress, young mother and addict, best sums up the novel: “It was about how some kinds of pain make fine antidotes to others.” (Doubleday)

“Sister Golden Hair,” Darcey Steinke

Steinke takes the heroine of her best-known novel, “Suicide Blonde,” and gives us a believable, bittersweet prequel set in the 1970s that will charm your bell-bottoms off. Jesse leaves Philadelphia for Virginia, where her father, a defrocked minister, hopes to make a fresh start outside the church. She explores the exotic new universe of the South through the kooky denizens of her seedy subdivision, and with each new friend comes a little closer to adulthood. And, poignantly, one step farther from a lovable array of childhood concerns: her fascination with worldwide funeral customs, her Venus fly-trap and her secret desire to turn into a unicorn. One concern straddles both worlds — Jesse’s growing need to replace her abandoned faith via the sisterhood of the title. (Tin House)

“Jerry Lee Lewis: His Story,” Rick Bragg

Who better to get the lowdown on the South’s wildest musical son than Pulitzer Prize winner and eloquent chronicler of Southern pride n’ grit? Bragg (“All Over But the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man”) spent two years interviewing Lewis for an electrifying biography that begins when Lewis first laid eyes on a piano and documents a life spent bronco-busting the devil’s music to make it his own. Bragg nails Lee’s swagger and genius: “He had figured out that a person, if they were special enough, if they had something uncommon to offer, could live by a set of rules separate from those set down for dull, regular people.” And so he did, all of it set forth here — the grueling early club circuit, performances marked by riots and fist-fights, substance abuse, brushes with the IRS, seven marriages and the deaths of two sons — in language as bodacious as Jerry Lee himself. Now 79, the Killer has never underestimated his own charm: “I think my music is like a rattlesnake. It warns you, Listen to this. You better listen to this.’” You might say the same for this book. (Harper)

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