Required Reading: Volume One

Today we introduce a new series, Required Reading, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be.

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“So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book.” —Nora Ephron

I have always been a bookworm. As a kid, I was constantly getting in trouble for reading in class, stashing Anne of Green Gables inside my math textbook or Nancy Drew in my lap. By college, I was a Comparative Literature major, ditching the math textbooks altogether and reading and talking about books to my heart’s content. Today, I have books on shelves, on my desk, in my purse, and stacked up by my bed. My Amazon wish list is several pages long. I have more books than I have shoes, and I have a lot of shoes. The biggest challenge when I moved to New York was finding space for them all, a never-ending game of tetris as I attempt to crowbar more volumes onto my scant shelves.

My books are my friends, my bosom buddies, drugs of choice, bed mates, therapists, and seducers. They are how I come to understand myself and my world, and the lives and viewpoints of others. Books allow us a gateway into someone else’s mind: I’m inclined to agree with Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about this stuff, when he calls writing “telepathy.” A stranger, miles or years away, puts pen to page. They lay out a road map. And at your leisure you pick up their missive, follow its instructions, and find the treasure they buried just for you. It’s strange and new, but also familiar, adjusting form as you pick it up, shaped by your own preconceptions and experience. “Books belong to their readers,” John Green is fond of saying (another guy who knows a thing or two about the written word), and again I agree. They are telepathy, and teleportation, and transfiguration, all bound up in paper or transmitted to a screen.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying what I stated at the beginning of this post: I am a bookworm, a bibliophile, “one who loves books.” And because I love books, and I passed kindergarten (aside from the whole “reading when I was supposed to be adding” thing), I want to share some of my favorites with you. This series will shine a spotlight on some of my favorite books of the South, and of New York — stories that have come to define my experience in both regions, and have helped me arrive at a richer understanding of them.

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In this, the first installment, I present four books by and about ladies from the South, since we here at Z&S are firm believers in awesome lady power. I found these treasures at various points along the road map of my life. Maybe you’ve found them and love them, or not (whatever floats your literary boat). Or maybe they’re still waiting somewhere for you, too.

Classic Fiction: To Kill a Mockingbird

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Author: Harper Lee (Monroeville, Alabama)

When It Was Published: 1960

When I Read It: 8th grade, as is the rule in 21st century America

Where It Takes Place: Maycomb, Alabama

Why I Love It: I’d be surprised if any of you weren’t already familiar with this one; it’s a classic for a reason. But I don’t think its customary place on middle school reading lists has done anything to diminish its power. If anything, the fact that a story about race and injustice, about imagining our fellow humans complexly and doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing, about bias and stereotype and confronting the ugly parts of our history without its make-up on, is promising. Between the Ferguson protests and Lee’s recent announcement that she has a second book coming, a Mockingbird sequel over 50 years in the making, this tale of Atticus and Boo Radley and one of this blog’s namesakes, Scout, has never been more relevant.

Contemporary Fiction: Swamplandia!

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Author: Karen Russell (Miami, Florida)

When It Was Published: 2011

When I Read It: 20 years old, the summer I lived in Florence, on hot Italian afternoons on the train to Viareggio

Where It Takes Place: The Everglades, Florida

Why I Love It: There are some who do not consider Florida the South, but I would bet big money that Karen Russell is not one of those people. Her writing is steeped in Southern storytelling traditions, touched with something a little mystical and spun thick as the humidity on an August afternoon. Like Mockingbird, Swamplandia! is largely told through the eyes of a young girl, in this case 13-year old Ava Bigtree. Full of vibrant characters and unafraid of the darkness that lurks in the swamp, this Pulitzer finalist accomplishes one of the most precious feats of literature: constructing a new world. Russell is also a short fiction whiz, and I highly suggest starting with her first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves. The tales give you a taste for her particular flavor of magical realism, and one of them was the basis for her novel, introducing us to the Bigtrees and their gator-wrestling, Dredgeman-haunted world.

Nonfiction: The Liars’ Club

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Author: Mary Karr (Groves, Texas)

When It Was Published: 1995

When I Read It: Senior year of college, in my first creative non-fiction writing seminar, which, like this book, utterly changed my life

Where It Takes Place: Texas, Colorado, and Texas Again

Why I Love It: Karr is widely recognized as a master of the memoir form, and this recounting of her childhood in an East Texas oil town is why. With brutal honesty, seasoned wit, and a seriously impressive long-term memory, Karr pieces together the troubled tales of her early years like a skilled orchestra conductor, letting the story spin out just to the point of wandering and then deftly reeling it back in to sock you in the gut. Her story, and that of her family, will stay with you for a long time: it is horrifying, and it is hilarious, and it will smash your heart to pieces with a smile. But the real achievement of this book is Karr’s voice, wholly her own, which lays bare without judging or condemning the sins that shaped her youth.

On My Wish List: Salvage the Bones

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Author: Jesmyn Ward (DeLisle, Mississippi)

When It Was Published: 2011

Where It Takes Place: Bois Sauvage, Mississippi

Why It’s Awesome: Winner of the National Book Award, this novel from Mississippi native Ward includes the following: a hurricane, a fifteen-year old pregnant girl, a town called Bois Sauvage, Greek mythology, and a slew of pit bull puppies. The New York Times described it as “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather.” It’s an old story, and a Southern one, particularly in the damp towns clustered along the Gulf, one ill-fated gust away from oblivion. And it’s Southern too in its drawing on old myths and themes, respinning them into a tale of the modern age supported by ancient bones. My copy arrived from Amazon today, and I cannot wait.

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