This year offered many opportunities to look inward. At the beginning and end of the year, the ongoing pandemic forced us to stay indoors, reflecting on our interior selves. Court verdicts in the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery cases fueled ongoing conversations about justice and equity in America. As Kiese Laymon reminded us this year, existing in this world is a constant process of revision and reinvention.
And there were moments we simply wanted to escape into a story well told.
And Southerners have always excelled at storytelling. This year we said goodbye to some of our Southern literary giants like bell hooks, Anne Rice, scientist and author E.O. Wilson, Larry McMurtry and so many others. We also said hello to some exciting new voices from all around the South. And we were blessed with new works from the South’s brightest minds.
These 25 books, presented alphabetically by author, are just a sample of the South’s rich, ongoing literary tradition.
“#ChurchToo” by Emily Joy Allison
In her book, “#ChurchToo,” Nashville-based writer Emily Joy Allison shares her experience within evangelical purity culture, and challenges the acceptance of abstinence-only sex education. She exposes the harms caused by the purity culture mindset and offers solutions for better sex education for the modern world. – Anna Beahm
“The Second” by Carol Anderson
When Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in 2016, Emory Law Professor Carol Anderson asked a straightforward question: “Do Black Americans have Second Amendment rights?” In a deeply researched book, Anderson traces the origins of American gun policy all the way to the colonial days when the earliest gun laws restricted Black people from owning guns – enslaved and free alike. She reports that in every chapter of American history, gun laws have had an anti-Black stance. If you found yourself angry at the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, this book will help you understand the deep roots of gun policy that got us to this point.
“Shaking the Gates of Hell” by John Archibald
In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. directs his argument to the white moderate, the voices who claimed to want progress but urged civil rights leaders to wait for a more opportune moment. King’s letter was a powerful rejoinder that America couldn’t wait. In his moving memoir, John Archibald interrogates his father’s stance as a white moderate pastor and the responsibility we all bear to use the pulpits that we have for justice. I should disclose that John is a friend and colleague, but I’ve now read this book three times and can think of few messages more urgent for today’s white moderates than this work.
“With Teeth” by Kristen Arnett
Following up on her taxidermy-based hit “Mostly Dead Things,” Kristen Arnett makes it abundantly clear that she has an unmatched gift for dark comedy. In her second novel, she manages to find both wit and warmth in the story of mother struggling to connect with her son and maintain the illusion of an ideal queer family, even as her marriage is unraveling.
“Chronicling Stankonia” by Regina Bradley
Sometime in the last 25 years, “The South got something to say” took on a life of its own. To really understand its weight and the undeniable power of Outkast, you need to understand what hip-hop and the South were like in 1995. Andre Benjamin’s phrase was a declaration to the rest of the world, but also a call to arms for the Southerners that grew up in the shadow of the Civil Rights generation that their words and ideas had power too. Regina Bradley’s book gives Southern rap the academic treatment it was long overdue.
“Where the Devil Don’t Stay” by Stephen Deusner
The best Southern rock band of its generation also gets the treatment it was long overdue in Stephen Deusner’s terrific book about the Drive-By Truckers. Deusner’s book is both a biography of the band – and talented songwriters Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and one-time Trucker, Jason Isbell – but it is also something of a musical atlas, richly mining the history of Southern spaces like Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Athens and Richmond to reveal more about the “Southern Thing.”
“The Parted Earth” and “Southbound” by Anjali Enjeti
Anjali Enjeti hit the South with a powerful one-two punch this past spring. In her collection of essays, “Southbound,” Enjeti confronts the gatekeeping over what is and is not “Southern culture” and “Southern literature.” Living in Chattanooga and Atlanta for most of her life, Enjeti is a keen observer of the idiosyncrasies and demons inherent to the South and she raises important questions about identity, both individual and regional. Her novel, “The Parted Earth,” is more global in its scope, chronicling the effects of the Partition of India and Pakistan as they reverberate through the generations, and make their way into the story of a woman living in Atlanta.
“On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed
This year’s winner for the Pulitzer Prize in history, this book from Annette Gordon-Reed sheds new light on an old Texas story. Equal parts personal memoir and detailed history, On Juneteenth is a critical read for understanding the newly implemented (but hundreds of years old) federal holiday. Her work makes clear that Juneteenth isn’t merely about a single day, but about the much longer history of Black Americans’ fight for freedom and justice, continuing even today.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green
If you’re looking for the perfect pandemic read, look no further than John Green’s Anthropocene Reviewed. Equal parts personal essay and scientific exploration of the times in which we are living, Green’s book is bound to make you laugh, cry, and feel in all the ways necessary for this moment. At a time in which we are more isolated from each other than ever, his book is a comforting reminder of all the things we have in common.
“The State Must Provide” by Adam Harris
The past few years have led many folks to question the current state of higher education: student loans, online learning, the value of degrees and equity. This book from Adam Harris, the higher education reporter for The Atlantic, details the systemic inequities that were baked into the American higher education system from the beginning. Harris outlines how America’s colleges were created, the stories of the students trying to desegregate American colleges, the ongoing role of HBCUsand what the future may hold for colleges in the South.
“The Sweetness of Water” by Nathan Harris
Set in Georgia shortly after the Civil War, this debut novel from Nathan Harris follows the story of two formerly enslaved brothers trying to make their way north. Harris intricately weaves their story into the story of a tumultuous romance between two Confederate soldiers in an unforgettable tale. This book, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, asks us to look at difficult things and not turn away.
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
It’s been a while since we’ve had a good epic novel — certainly one that centers Black women — and Jeffers comes through for us with Love Songs. Set in Georgia, Jeffers’ debut novel jumps back and forth in time, from when white men first enslaved Africans and started stealing land from indigenous people to the modern day, highlighting America’s unique generational traumas. Love Songs was longlisted for a National Book Award, chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and appeared on a number of lists for best books of the year. – R.L. Nave
“Reparations Now!” by Ashley M. Jones
Ashley M. Jones is the youngest person to ever be named Poet Laureate of Alabama as well as the first Black person to hold the title. Her talent is abundantly clear in her latest collection of poetry, which takes its title from a work that she wrote as a response to George Wallace’s “Segregation Now, Segregation Forever,” speech. Throughout, Jones draws from the personal, the historical and the political to produce work that is both intimate and epic in scope. Her star will only continue to rise.
“My Monticello” by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Rather than look at the Monticello of the late 1700s, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson sets the title novella from her mesmerizing debut short story collection in a dystopic near future at the Thomas Jefferson estate. Climate change has led to rising oceans and failing power grids. White nationalists have set fire to Virginia, targeting black neighborhoods and, in an ironic twist, the Black UVA student at the heart of the novel seeks refuge at an abandoned Monticello. The story unfolds like a cinematic thriller and, in fact, is already being developed into a feature film.
“Long Division” by Kiese Laymon
To the extent authors pour their hearts, souls and other insides into their novels, Kiese Laymon’s republication of Long Division is anything but niggardly. (You’ll get that reference once you read the book.) Laymon has been vocal about his travails getting Long Division, his first novel, published in 2013 and why he wanted to put it out into the world as he originally envisioned it. Like some of the other books on our list, Long Division plays with time — in this case, literal time travel — to explore themes of racism, love and bussin waves in Laymon’s native Mississippi. Laymon has also been a two-time guest on The Reckon Interview. – RL Nave
“Dear William” by David Magee
So many lives have been devastated by the opioid epidemic and David Magee captures the grief of a father mourning his son beautifully in “Dear William.” It’s a book about battling demons and addiction, family secrets, and a search for identity. And ultimately it offers a compelling message of hope to all those who need it.
“These Precious Days” by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is among the South’s most beloved novelists and is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, a remarkable independent bookstore. This warm, soothing collection of essays has a little bit of everything: Tom Hanks, Eudora Welty, Snoopy, knitting. Throughout, Patchett offers us an intimate look into her process and the big questions she wrestles with as a writer and as a person. At their best, they invite us to look inward and mine our experiences for new meaning.
“Angel of Greenwood” by Randi Pink
This is the kind of young adult novel I wish existed when I was in school. Angel of Greenwood follows two Black teenagers, Angel and Isaiah in 1921 Tulsa, OK who fall in love despite Isaiah’s bad boy facade and Angel’s bookish nature. The beautiful love story is grounded in descriptions of Tulsa’s lush and thriving Greenwood district. Though you know it’s coming, the book’s climax centering on Tulsa’s Race Massacre, still feels like a gut punch following the stories of Black joy and romance. I hope this book finds its way onto assigned reading lists across the South. – Abbey Crain
“Graceland, At Last” by Margaret Renkl
If only we could all see the South the way Margaret Renkl sees it. In this selection of her New York Times essays, Margaret helps us see the beauty in our own backyards and elevates the stories of all the people working each day to make the South a better place – such as a modern day shepherd in her hometown of Nashville. It’s the perfect book to put on your shelf and take down and read a chapter or two whenever you need your spirits lifted.
“The Ledger and the Chain” by Joshua D. Rothman
These next two books on the list actually pair well together as an accounting of the way America’s past was shaped by slavery. In popular culture, we’ve cast slave traders at social pariahs but Joshua Rothman’s book refutes that whitewashed narrative. In many ways, slave traders were celebrated businessmen and he traces the stories of three of the biggest slave traders to show how much the economies of the South and the North relied on America’s original sin.
“How the Word is Passed” by Clint Smith
In recent years, we’ve increasingly reckoned with the Confederate iconography that litters the landscape of the South and much of the United States. Another part of that story is the way that America has suppressed the story of slavery, even if plantation homes and other vestiges of the antebellum past are hiding in plain sight. In this eye-opening book, Clint Smith travels throughout the country to reclaim some of those stories, visiting Angola Prison, Monticello, New Orleans, Manhattan and elsewhere to reveal just how much the legacy of slavery continues to shape America – and how those stories get told.
“Fight Songs” by Ed Southern
Why is the South so obsessed with college football? It’s not a question most of us ever stop to think about. Football has just always been a constant. Luckily Ed Southern has done the work for us. In his book, he outlines how the rules of football and Southern culture evolved in tandem with each other, whether there is any truth to the legend about football being a way for Southerners to re-fight the Civil War, and how 2020 may have reshaped the future of college football.
“Olympus, Texas” by Stacey Swann
Stacey Swann’s debut novel “Olympus, Texas” is a lesson in the intricacies of Southern family drama. Swann expertly weaves Greek Mythology into the story of twin philandering brothers and their dysfunctional parents. Think Greek gods meets Dumplin’ meets The Family Stone. “Olympus, Texas” was also a Good Morning America Book Club pick. – Abbey Crain
“The Plague Year” by Lawrence Wright
New Year, new variants. Right now it may feel like everyone has Covid. As we enter another year of the ongoing pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we revisit its origins, if nothing else than to understand how systems broke down and misinformation spiraled out of control. Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Looming Tower and God Save Texas, offers a masterful account of how Covid-19 spread in 2020, the race for a vaccine, and all the social and economic upheaval that accompanied the virus. And he has such a gift for finding engaging characters that this is a breezy read, even if it brings back frustrating memories.