Arts & Culture

Best Southern Books of 2018

What G&G editors and contributors loved reading this year
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Calypso, by David Sedaris

“Somebody said the other day, ‘Is writing cathartic?’ And it’s not. But, that said, it’s how I make sense of the world,” the humorist David Sedaris told Garden & Gun. His latest collection of funny, touching stories is set mostly on the North Carolina shore.

Florida, by Lauren Groff

In an assemblage of moving, nearly unnerving stories, Lauren Groff, who lives in Gainesville, mines the Sunshine State from inside the minds of Old Florida and New Florida residents: a “vanished daughter,” neighborhood gentrifiers, porch sitters, and snake chasers.

Southernmost, by Silas House and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte

“Two of my favorite books of 2018 are Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia and Silas House’s Southernmost,” says the author Wiley Cash, who also contributes to G&G. “Both challenge the very idea of what it means to be from and of the ‘much maligned’ region: Catte does this with facts and figures that are undeniable; House does it with characters and heartache that are just as real.”

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles

G&G contributing editor Jonathan Miles’s Anatomy of a Miracle is an intense, profound story of a veteran who walks again—and the ins and outs of how people, including his protective sister, interpret his “miracle.”


The Overstory, by Richard Powers

National Book Award winner (and Smoky Mountains resident) Richard Powers tells a layered story about trees in his twelfth novel. G&G Editor in Chief David DiBenedetto calls this one of his favorite books of the year, and he first heard about it from the author of the next book on this list, David Joy.

The Line That Held Us, by David Joy

Writer, hunter, and fisherman David Joy’s latest novel is a searing page-turner that barrels through a Western North Carolina forest of family-drama darkness. No one distills themes of mountain ruggedness—ginseng poaching, a hunting trip turned whodunit, deep and dangerous loyalties—quite like Joy.

South Toward Home: Adventures and Misadventures in My Native Land, by Julia Reed

Don’t miss G&G contributor Julia Reed at her best, sharing her fanciful interactions and hilarious romps through the South. The collection of her Garden & Gun columns features a foreword by Jon Meacham.

G&G editors liked these four cookbooks so much we excerpted them for The Skillet, our biweekly food newsletter: Soulby the Atlanta chef Todd Richards, Secrets of the Southern Table, by Virginia Willis, Coconuts and Collards by Von Diaz, and Alabama expat Marti Buckley’s Basque Country.

Four more cookbook favorites from Garden & Gun books reviewer Jonathan Miles: Carla Hall’s Soul Food, by Carla Hall and Genevieve Ko; Mississippi Vegan, by Timothy Pakron;  Chasing the Gator, by Isaac Toups and Jennifer V. Cole; and Red Truck Bakery Cookbook by Brian Noyes and Nevin Martell.

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, by Rick Bragg

The heralded Southern writer pens a loving, recipe-filled ode to his favorite cook in Alabama and on earth—his mother.

Monument, by Natasha Trethewey

The country’s most heralded living poet—two-time poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner—hails from Gulfport, Mississippi, and now releases a collection of new and selected poems, which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy
With both compassion and no-bull reporting, Roanoke, Virginia–based journalist Beth Macy charts America’s current opioid crisis. Dopesick focuses on the I–81 corridor, from East Tennessee through Virginia—the deepest vein of the lethal heroin epidemic that painkillers, “the new moonshine in rural America,” wrought.

Bearskin, by James A. McLaughlin

“The woods and creatures come alive,” says Beth Macy, author of Dopesick and a G&G contributor, of one of her 2018 favorites—James A. McLaughlin’s debut novel set on a fictional Virginia mountainside. “So much so that when I was reading it in my backyard and heard a thud, I was not surprised to see a red-tailed hawk stick a landing on the roof of my garage.”

Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, by Sally Mann
The first major career survey of work by renowned Virginia-based photographer Sally Mann, this book of portraiture, ghostly still life, and atmospheric landscapes deserves a place of honor on every Southern photography lover’s coffee table.

The Carrying: Poems, by Ada Limón

Lyrical, tender, and knowing—Kentucky-based author Ada Limón’s poetry connects the personal and the universal: a woman struggling with infertility; a daughter caring for her family. Above it all, hope alights. “Fine then, / I’ll take it,” she writes. “I’ll take it all.”

Heavy, by Kiese Laymon

A dynamic and eloquent memoir from a Jackson, Mississippi-raised writer who is a professor at the University of Mississippi. “Laymon’s book is about his lifelong struggle with his weight. And it’s about growing up black in Mississippi,” says Tommy Tomlinson, an author and G&G contributor. “But mostly it’s about a son and his abusive, brilliant, infuriating, loving mother—a relationship that has stuck with me long after I put the book down.”

The Reckoning, by John Grisham

As always, Grisham’s legal suspense is right on the money, but this story has something new for his longtime readers—it’s more of a sprawling novel that shows his Southern Gothic chops are top tier. The Reckoning spans from Mississippi to the Philippine jungles during World War II, and still maintains Grisham’s masterful, taut storytelling.

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

This novel focuses on a newlywed couple in the modern South dealing with unexpected—yet universal—challenges to their marriage. Oprah loved it, as did awards panels: An American Marriage was one of the buzziest books of the year and a National Book Award finalist.

A Well-Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler

North Carolina-based author Therese Anne Fowler first fixed her historical-fiction gaze on the story of the most famous flapper in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Her new release is a fascinating look at Alva Vanderbilt, a strong-willed woman at the dramatic center of the gilded-age family renowned for its wealth and properties, including the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.

The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, by Linda Jane Holden

The late Rachel “Bunny” Mellon was famous for her fantastic wealth and marriage to Paul Mellon. But her life’s greatest passion was gardening—she even designed the White House Rose Garden. In this first-ever deep dive into Mellon’s greenspaces, photographer Roger Foley shares lush images, most notably of her stunning Virginia equestrian estate.

Robicheaux: A Novel, by James Lee Burke

Anything new from James Lee Burke moves to the top of our bedside table pile—and doesn’t stay there long. Another page-turner from the Gulf Coast-raised writer, Robicheaux brings back Burke’s popular character, Dave Robicheaux, for a gritty mystery set in the backwoods of Louisiana. For 2019, the prolific writer already has Robicheaux’s next adventure lined up: New Iberia Blues is out in January.

The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, by Anthony Ray Hinton
A powerful memoir of a poor man from Alabama who spent thirty years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, this book elicits anger, compassion, and—ultimately—hope. Anthony Ray Hinton never lost sight of the truth that eventually set him free.

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

The South has been one of bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s most constant characters. Her latest, Unsheltered, traces two intertwining storylines. One follows a Virginia couple who lose their jobs and reckon with larger questions about their hopes while they fix up a crumbling brick house. The other is peppered with nineteenth century characters who are curious about Charles Darwin and science. Tying them both together are themes of curiosity and the boundless human spirit.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, by Earl Swift

A “low-lying Virginia island, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, is likely to be America’s first climate-change casualty—‘the first to go,’ as Earl Swift writes in Chesapeake Requiem, a deep dive into the past, present, and narrowing future of Tangier.” Read Jonathan Miles’s entire review here.