Happy Friday, and welcome to a (slightly different) edition of Required Reading! We’re still at the beginning of this year of 2016, and so in the spirit of resolutions and goal setting, I thought that this week instead of sharing some of my favorite works of Southern or New York literature that I’ve already read, I thought I would compile a literary to-do list of books that have been sitting on my shelf or my floor, in my Goodreads queue or my Amazon cart, for far too long. I may not hit all of these this year, but it’s a worthy goal. And even if I don’t make it all the way down the list, I’ll still get to experience some fascinating, thought-provoking, imagination-consuming stories in the process.
Now my original plan was to make a list of both Southern and New York books for this post, but there were just too many great options to choose from — this whole post would have been a novel in and of itself. So instead, here are a dozen of the Southern works I’m most eager to read. New York edition coming soon!
A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson: I’ve been a big fan of Bill Bryson for years, ever since I read Neither Here nor There as a study abroad student in Paris. His razor sharp observations and wry sense of humor never fail to leave me chortling out loud, often to the amusement of my fellow subway passengers. This book, about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, has been recommended to me by family members and friends alike, and it’s high time I took them up on it.
All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg: Rick Bragg was a dirt-poor kid from northeast nowhere, Alabama, who grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times. This book, consistently named as one of the best memoirs about the Southern experience, spins the tale of Bragg’s childhood — booze and cotton fields, joy and bitter heartache — with incredible compassion and unflinching honesty. I received a copy for Christmas and can’t wait to crack it open!
A Death in the Family, James Agee: I read Agee’s non-fiction tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, my last semester of college, and was blown away by its searing look at the oftentimes bleak but still richly human lives of Southern sharecroppers in 1936. In this novel, published posthumously and largely autobiographical, Agee turns his pen to the experiences of loss and grief as a Tennessee family grapples with the sudden death of Jay Follet.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Yes, I realize it is a crime that I have not yet read this essential member of the American literary canon. Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this epistolary novel weaves together the stories of several women of color living in the South (mostly in rural Georgia) in the 1930s. As someone whose own (white) grandmother lived in Atlanta during that very period, I’m particularly eager to read this one.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: Another classic still missing from my library, this novel follows 16-year old Janie through three marriages and a murder trial in the town of Eaton, Florida. It has been deemed a favorite novel by numerous people whose literary opinions I trust (John Green and Zadie Smith among them). It’s high time I took my own crack at it.
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor: Maybe I won’t get through every single one of Miss O’Connor’s stories — 576 pages is a lot in one go — but as a master of the form, and one of the preeminent voices of the Southern Gothic movement, she indisputably deserves a spot on this list. In her 39 years on this earth, the Savannah, Georgia, native managed to produce an incredible body of work including novels, letters, and essays, but short fiction is where she thrived. The 31 tales in this book spin stories of love and loss, flowers and hellfire, suspicion and lust and hope.
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: In this completely bananas election year, full of bombast and farcical characters who would be uproarious if they weren’t so terrifyingly real, fact can seem to verge on fiction. Better, it seems, to stay in the satirical world of power and corruption in Depression-era Louisiana, and to remember that this too shall pass, like the Huey Long’s that came before. Hopefully we at least get a great book out of it.
Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: A coming of age story about the indomitable Ruth Anne Boatwright, otherwise known as Bone. This is also a family saga in the Southern tradition, set in the wilds of Greenville County, South Carolina, and a particularly honest look at the often hard and violence-strewn lives of Southern women, particularly in the poor, rural corners of the region.
Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward: I absolutely adored Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, and her memoir, centered around five men in her life who she lost to drugs, accidents, murder, or suicide over the course of four years, is no less gripping, or so I hear. Ward takes the searing humanity and beautiful prose that made her tale of Esch and her family so engrossing and turns them to her own life, grappling with love and loss and the painful legacy of systemic racism and disenfranchisement in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi.
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: a mad-cap comedic classic, this is the story of Ignatius J. Reilly as he traipses from mishap to adventure. Brimming with the kinds of colorful characters that make both the fiction and the reality of the South, and particularly in a city like New Orleans, so delightful (and debauched): Miss Trixie, Myrna Minkoff, Patrolman Mancuso, Darlene, etc., etc., etc.
Coming Through the Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje: Speaking of New Orleans, I’m dying to get my hands on this fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans trumpeter and one of the unsung godfathers of ragtime and jazz music. I’m a big fan of Ondaatje’s memoir Running the Family, about his childhood in Sri Lanka, so this novel, which combines Ondaatje’s experimental style with Creole culture and jazz history, seems like it could be just my cup of tea (or chicory coffee, as it were).
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell: Last but not least, I am ashamed to admit that while the movie version of Scarlett O’Hara’s triumphs and tribulations is one of my favorite films of all time, I have never actually read the novel on which it is based. A travesty, I know. This year, I plan to stop thinking about it tomorrow and just read the damn thing, today.