Arts & Culture

The Twenty Best Books of the Year—So Far

Halfway through 2019, we’re looking back at the delightful novels, biographies, memoirs, story collections, and other works that have already made this a stellar year in Southern literature
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The Longest Silence, by Thomas McGuane

“The more we fish,” writes the outdoorsman Thomas McGuane, “the more weightlessly and quietly we move through a river and among its fish, and the more we resemble our own minds in the bliss of angling.” McGuane’s classic collection of fishing writing was first published in 1999. This year, it was rereleased with seven new essays from McGuane, a guy you’d want to spend hours with on the water.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

Fans of Harper Lee might not know this about the author: After To Kill a Mockingbird, she worked tirelessly on a true-crime book about an Alabama serial killer. This riveting account of both the murders and Lee’s reporting, writing, and editing process is fascinating for its behind-the-scenes look at one of the South’s cherished creative minds.

Possum Living, by Dolly Freed

“I refuse to spend the first 60 years of my life worrying about the last 20,” said the plucky writer Dolly Freed in her 1970s tribute to scrappiness, Possum Living. Thirty years after it was first published, this frank and no-nonsense manifesto about skipping out on office life and surviving off the land (and roadkill!) in rural Pennsylvania was re-released with new insights from its salt-of-the-earth author, who now lives in Texas and post-Possum publication became a NASA engineer. We spoke with the author about the book’s legacy and what her life is like now.

We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

An ambitious debut novel, We Cast a Shadow is a surrealistic satire about identity, race, and family relations in an unspecified Southern city in the near future. Ruffin, who is a New Orleanian, counts among his influences Toni Morrison, and is a talented, genre-bending writer to watch. For G&G, Ruffin recently wrote an ode to the streetcars he races in the Crescent City.

Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide, by Tony Horwitz

Before he became America’s most famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted was a journalist who traveled the South for fourteen months in the 1850s. In a can’t-put-it-down travel narrative through the deep South, author Tony Horwitz, who died in May, retraced Olmsted’s path, noting the influences of Southern plants on many of Olmsted’s later designs, and added his own observations and musings on the changes—and consistencies—of the South.

All the Way: My Life in Four Quarters, by Joe Namath with Sean Mortimer and Don Yaeger

NFL icon Joe Namath might be known for his years with the New York Jets, but his career was deeply shaped by his time in the South. “There was a price to pay to stay on Coach Bryant’s team,” he writes of Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant in his new, fast-moving, and entertaining autobiography. “This was a bonding experience and everybody that lasted had to earn their way.” Read our interview with Namath about his years with Bryant and how he learned to love sweet potato pie.

Orange World and Other Stories, by Karen Russell

In the opening tale of Karen Russell’s Orange World, two Florida girls flee hotel jobs, go prospecting for adventure out West, and take a chairlift to a party in an avalanche-crushed lodge where their dance partners are ghosts with eyes of gold. That kind of surreal storytelling made the Miami-raised author’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, a Pulitzer finalist, and blooms madly again across these eight stories. It’s tempting to say Russell showers Florida funk on the rest of the world, but her writing knows no bounds—it’s otherworldly.

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, by Tommy Tomlinson

Raised on Georgia’s St. Simons Island, G&G contributor Tommy Tomlinson has early memories of fried catfish and biscuits. At the University of Georgia, he made friends over bourbon and Cokes. By the time the Pulitzer Prize finalist and long-time Charlotte Observer columnist was fifty, he weighed 460 pounds. Here, he shares his moving and at turns funny account of what life is like for a Southerner who carries extra weight.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, by Jennifer Berry Hawes

“Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history—we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history,” the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney once said. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes’s new book is dedicated to Pinckney and the eight other Emanuel AME Church congregants who were murdered at their bible study in 2015. But Grace Will Lead Us Home is more than a recounting of the crime and its aftermath—building on her connections to the family members of those who were killed, Hawes reflects on the power of anger, pain, and forgiveness in this moving and personal look at a group of people whose legacies are shaping today’s South.

The New Iberia Blues, by James Lee Burke

The prolific Texas-born author of the Dave Robicheaux series returned this year with another mystery, now with Robicheaux pursuing an escaped Texas inmate and piecing together a Hollywood director’s life in Louisiana.

Gather at the River: Twenty-Five Authors on Fishing, edited by David Joy and Eric Rickstad

“All I know of beauty I learned with a fishing rod in my hand,” David Joy writes in the introduction to Gather at the River. The essay collection coedited by the North Carolinian includes J. Drew Lanham’s ode to fishing holes; Ron Rash on Appalachian trout; and Jill McCorkle mulling over mullet.

Julia Reed’s New Orleans: Food, Fun, and Field Trips for Letting the Good Times Roll, by Julia Reed

In the follow-up to Julia Reed’s South, the author gets graciously specific, penning a guide to food and fun in her beloved New Orleans. Full of entertaining ideas, lush photos by Paul Costello, and recipes G&G readers will want to try immediately—satsuma margaritas and seafood gumbo—this book is also stuffed with tips about where to get the best po-boys and Sazeracs, all told with Reed’s signature candor.

Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, by Matt Lee and Ted Lee

The chapter titles in this riveting tell-all about the catering business by Charleston-raised food authors and brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee share a hint of the drama to be found in the pages—and in the largely hidden world they unveil: “The Client is (Almost) Always Right;” “The Happy Couple Fancied Themselves Food Curators;” “Sixteen Hundred Deviled Eggs.”

In Pursuit of Flavor, by Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis, who died in 2006, was revered as the first lady of Southern cooking. She knew every trick in the book (because she wrote it): Season she-crab soup with roe. Punch up cheese straws with extra-sharp cheddar and cayenne. Balance a salad with both bitter and sweet greens. As Mashama Bailey, the heralded chef of the Grey in Savannah, writes of Lewis in this re-released classic cookbook’s new foreword: “Three decades later, her voice continues to lead the way for chefs young and old.”

I Miss You When I Blink: Essays, by Mary Laura Philpott

The Nashville author Mary Laura Philpott’s son once said, “I miss you when I blink,” and it made her realize she missed herself. The result of that minor mid-life crisis is this delightfully personal but relatable collection of essays-as-memoir that puts Philpott in league with Elizabeth Gilbert, Nora Ephron, and Cheryl Strayed. Among the many moments that shine: The tale of Philpott’s mother, who upon realizing her baby was scrawny, put her immediately on a diet of banana pudding. There is a charming “after” photo.

Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog, by Dave Barry

All the classic trappings of beloved Florida humorist Dave Barry are here—the dad jokes, the wry observations, the charming self-sabotage: “AARP, as you probably know, is the last sound you make before you die.” But there’s also something gentler at work in this ode to Barry’s patient mutt named Lucy—the effect of a dog who loves unconditionally.

Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir, by Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein

One powerful takeaway from chef Kwame Onwuachi’s beautifully written memoir: Cooking keeps stories alive—stories of ancestors, stories of ourselves. Onwuachi describes how his Nigerian roots, Louisiana family, and rocky rise working as a caterer, a chef onboard a Deepwater Horizon cleanup ship, and eventually in fine-dining kitchens, contributed to the success he’s experiencing now, as executive chef of the lauded Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C.—and as the James Beard Award Rising Star Chef of the Year.

Southern Lady Code: Essays, by Helen Ellis

In this spit-up-your-bourbon-funny essay collection, Helen Ellis greases together such topics as thank-you notes, why the trend of “tidying” can address antiques hoarding, and how to force-feed a cheese log to a guest: “Slather some on a Ritz cracker and choo-choo it toward her mouth,” Ellis writes. “One bite and she’s speaking in a Southern accent.”

The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business, by Wright Thompson

ESPN the Magazine’s all-time most-read articles are by Wright Thompson, the Mississippi native son known for his in-depth profiles of such icons as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. This collection of sports stories will be a highlight for fans familiar with his writing and those who are new to it. It opens with a scene at Kathryn’s on Moon Lake, the old-school Italian joint in the Mississippi Delta that is also the focus of a personal essay Thompson recently wrote for G&G.

The New Pie, by Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin

Doctors by day and award-winning pie-bakers by night, Chris Taylor and Paul Arguin have given a gift with this book—their perfect-crust secrets, filling tips, and baking tricks, and decorating hacks, plus 75 Instagram-worthy recipes for berry, chocolate, and custard pies—oh my!