Arts & Culture

Favorite Books of the Year—So Far

G&G editors and contributors share the biographies, nonfiction reads, thrillers, and unforgettable novels that have started 2021 off right for readers
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Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard 

Finding the Mother Tree is an exploration of the way trees not only communicate with other trees but even share resources. I went in somewhat skeptical but came out a believer, and I’m reminded that we have so much more to learn when it comes to this big wide world. —David DiBenedetto, G&G editor in chief

The Life She Wished to Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, by Ann McCutchan

In The Life She Wished to Live, the first major biography of Rawlings in more than a quarter century… the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings that emerges is ornery in the best sense, like a salty aunt who the adults all fear but the teenagers adore. She was as adept at hunting alligators in Alachua County swamps as she was at arguing philosophy with Thomas Wolfe in a New York dive bar. She drank, smoked, cussed, and drove the rural back roads so recklessly that her car wrecks almost constitute a running gag in the book. (Rawlings defended herself, not quite deftly, by claiming she drove “with deliberate slowness when I have had a good many drinks.”) —G&G contributing editor Jonathan Miles, in his review

Things We Lost to the Water, by Eric Nguyen
Some of the best Southern stories are, in their own way, ghost stories, and the same is true of Eric Nguyen’s debut novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family in New Orleans. His descriptions of weather and landscape are enchanting and this family’s quest to find a way to connect with one another kept me turning the pages. —Latria Graham, G&G contributing editor

Bewilderness, by Karen Tucker

North Carolina writer Karen Tucker’s Bewilderness is a unicorn of a novel. It has a plot like a roaring freight train and every sentence is a well-polished gem. It’s about two best friends who are caught in the vicious cycle of addiction, and it’s dark and wild. But it’s really a story about friendship. I rarely believe those fatuous blurbs that begin “I couldn’t put it down.” But I couldn’t. —Daniel Wallace, G&G contributing editor

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays, by Helen Ellis

Despite how often I type the letters “LOL,” it actually takes a lot for me to laugh out loud. But I found myself doing so at least once a chapter while reading the Alabama native Helen Ellis’s new essay collection, Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light. In-between hilarious tales of ride-or-die friendships, Birmingham garage sales, and poker trips to Biloxi, she drops important distinctions like this: “A hoot is a naturally funny woman. A character is a woman who’s funny because she’s tipsier than a Gibson’s pickled pearl onion.” —Amanda Heckert, G&G deputy editor

The House Uptown, by Melissa Ginsburg

I read Melissa Ginsburg’s first novel, Sunset City, in Houston, where the book is set, as summer humidity fogged my eyeglasses. On July 1 of this year, I drove to New Orleans with The House Uptown in my backpack. I had planned to wait until I arrived in the city where her second noir novel is set. But I couldn’t. So far, I can tell you that, as Ava, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, barrels to New Orleans, where she is set to live with her addled and reclusive artist of a grandmother, we get to track her, knowing that no matter how hot and bright it gets in New Orleans, Ginsburg will put Ava in places that are a little creepy and a whole lot dark. —John T. Edge, G&G contributing editor

(Re)Born in the USA: An Englishman’s Love Letter to His Chosen Home, by Roger Bennett

I found myself chuckling on nearly every page as the author, a Brit by birth, describes his early love affair with the United States (and the pop culture of the eighties and nineties) and his journey to citizenship. It’s an homage to this great country, and a reminder of what makes it special. —David DiBenedetto

The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life, by T. Edward Nickens

Garden & Gun contributing editor T. Edward Nickens has spent decades writing about his sporting escapades—flats skiff fishing in the Caribbean, wading Appalachian trout runs, and hunting across every holler and hill in his home state of North Carolina. Here, he threads his stories from Field & Stream with powerful reflections on losing his father as a boy and finding a mentor in a marine sharpshooter who taught him to connect what’s wild inside to the wildness outside. —CJ Lotz, G&G senior editor

Milk Blood Heat, by Dantiel W. Moniz

Between Karen Russell and Lauren Groff, some of my very favorite stories come out of the swampy Florida landscape, so I really can’t wait to read Milk Blood Heat, a debut collection of short stories by Dantiel W. Moniz. With a soulful bend towards Southern gothic, Moniz’s stories dive into race, womanhood, and inherent darkness in the Sunshine State. —Caroline Sanders, associate editor

No One Is Talking about This, by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood—poet, memoirist, and goddess of the avant-garde—has written a headlong love poem to consciousness in this novel that begins in the (dis)connected collective of the internet and ends in intimacy, as the narrator, a viral Twitter sensation, is called home from a world tour to help her sister birth and grieve a baby with Proteus syndrome. I laughed. I cried. I felt a lot less alone. —C. Morgan Babst, G&G contributor

Nick, by Michael Farris Smith

The Mississippi author Michael Farris Smith shared an imaginative new take on The Great Gatsby by exploring Nick Carraway’s life before he starred in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. “When I sat down to revise Nick last year, I was amazed at how timely it felt,” Smith says in an interview with G&G. “The feelings and the emotions are so similar one hundred years later.” —CJ Lotz

Why Peacocks?: An Unlikely Search for Meaning in the World’s Most Magnificent Bird, by Sean Flynn

Don’t let the fact that it’s perhaps never crossed your mind to read about peafowl stop you from picking up the award-winning journalist Sean Flynn’s immensely engaging Why Peacocks? Flynn’s chronicle, of course, is not just about the fine-feathered show-offs and the subculture surrounding them (though there is plenty of both). The warm, moving account of his own life with his wife, two sons, and an increasing number of animals at their “Potemkin farm in North Carolina” that Flynn weaves throughout truly makes the book special. —Amanda Heckert

Black, White, and the Grey: The Story of an Unexpected Friendship and a Beloved Restaurant, by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano

“Neither of us had opened a restaurant before, we were not from Savannah, and we had a very young and inexperienced staff,” writes Mashama Bailey in the riveting memoir of sorts she coauthored with John O. Morisano, her partner at the celebrated Grey restaurant. “Thank goodness we never stepped back to view it from 10,000 feet.” Each chapter ends with a personal recipe, including some from their grandmothers and one for the Paper Plane, the Grey’s perfect bourbon-based aperitivo. —CJ Lotz

The Killing Hills, by Chris Offutt

All the things Chris does well live in this novel, a moving tale of grit and beauty and heartache of both character and region. —Michael Farris Smith, G&G contributor

In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of Alice Walker’s Masterpiece, by Salamishah Tillet

Tillet delves into the backstory of [The Color Purple], explores why Walker’s book continues to resonate, and explains how the literary work became a cultural phenomenon, all while masterfully weaving together personal, cultural, and historical conversations about the text, including original interviews with Walker herself and players in the film and musical such as Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Danny Glover. —Latria Graham, in an interview with the author

This Far and No Further: Photographs Inspired by the Voting Rights Movement, by William Abranowicz

“Everybody says in the South, you can stand on the soil and feel things,” says the photographer William Abranowicz, “because America’s memory is in the soil.” Before he began photographing historic Southern places for This Far and No Further, Abranowicz studied archival images from the famed photographer Walker Evans, and then was stirred by the similarities between many of those midcentury pictures and what he saw through his own lens. See a preview of the book’s photographs here. —CJ Lotz

Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, by Adrian Miller

While Black Smoke is studious, it’s not stuffy: “part celebration,” as Miller writes, “and part restoration.” It quotes Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s stuffed with killer recipes and sidebar profiles of Black pitmasters, past and present. Miller never forgets that barbecue is, at its heart, about pleasure: about smoke, sizzle, and joy. Black Smoke is scholarship with a little sauce on its chin. Jonathan Miles in his review

Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day Is a Good Day, by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie

Scott is the virtuosic pitmaster who opened Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina, after honing his craft at his family’s longtime joint. His World of BBQ is the first major cookbook by an African American pitmaster—a long overdue publication, to understate. Half memoir, half recipes, World of BBQ lets Scott’s disco-ball personality glitter while supplying home barbecuers with a recipe foundation—from whole hogs to that legendary sauce to mac and cheese—that’s as solid as it gets. Jonathan Miles, in his review

What’s Mine and Yours, by Naima Coster

The Dominican-American author of 2018’s heralded Halsey Street now delivers the saga of two interconnected families in North Carolina’s Piedmont and the Atlanta suburbs. Coster’s lyrical writing crosses time and generations to reveal deeply empathetic characters that feel like someone you just might know. —CJ Lotz

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott

By fellow North Carolinian Jason Mott, Hell of a Book is the story of an author on tour for a book he can’t quite remember writing, all the while being haunted by a past that turns out to be the collective cultural, existential memory of all Black Americans. It’s a comedic, tragic, propulsive novel that everyone should read. —Wiley Cash, G&G contributor

A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape, by W. Ralph Eubanks

Confession: Mississippi is a place that still lives mostly in my imagination. Over the past year I’ve thought a lot about this quote that is often attributed to William Faulkner: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” So I started to seek out interpretations of this place through literature, music, and geography. Two books that have helped me do that are B. Brian Foster’s I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place, and the Backbeat of Black Life and W. Ralph Eubanks’s A Place Like Mississippi. —Latria Graham

Insects & Bugs for Kids: An Introduction to Entomology, by Jaret C. Daniels

As a kid, I toted around a field guide whenever I went outside, in case I came across some rare and unusual creature. I would have loved this new, written-for-kids guide to bugs (and its companion workbook) by Florida biologist Jaret Daniels, a butterfly expert well versed in all things creepy and crawly. The book covers bug basics, and the field guide section includes some Southern standouts like the Carolina mantis, the purple hairstreak butterfly, and a caterpillar called the hickory horned devil. And for adults, Daniels just came out with Native Plant Gardening for Birds, Bees & Butterflies in the Southeast. —Lindsey Liles, G&G editorial assistant

Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer, by Matthew Raiford

“When I was eighteen, I swore off ever going back to the South,” says the farmer Matthew Raiford in an interview with G&G. Thankfully, he did go back, and this cookbook is his homage to the roots of Gullah Geechee cooking and farming in the South. “There were things inside me that I discovered when I started farming. Mother Nature has taught me that the more I think I know, the more I need to ask her to partner with me.”

Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know About Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, by Cate Doty

A former Weddings reporter for the New York Times who still remembers trying on her mother’s gown and veil as a kid growing up in North Carolina, Doty has long been fascinated by weddings and marriage customs. Her very personal, sometimes biting, and often hilarious book, Mergers and Acquisitions, combines rollicking stories of matrimonial reporting and her own heartbreaks and ultimately triumphant love story. She shares more in an interview with G&G. —CJ Lotz

Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia, by Thomas Hager

Imagine it: A pristine new megacity rising from the hills, bluffs, and fields of Northwest Alabama, an urban center ten times the size of Manhattan but unlike it and every other city in most every way. … What it also had, unlike most utopian visions, was the potential to actually happen. That’s because its masterminds were “the richest man in the world and the greatest inventor in the world,” as Thomas Hager writes in Electric City, his beguiling history of the City That Almost Was. —Jonathan Miles, in his review

The Heathens, by Ace Atkins

No living crime writer can pull readers along for a ride quite like Ace Atkins, who returns with a Quinn Colson novel that follows troublemakers in Mississippi and Louisiana. Colson, the sheriff of fictional Tibbehah County in rural north Mississippi, knows a thing or two about trouble himself—before he was an Army Ranger and then sheriff, he was a rambunctious kid. Takes one to know—and find—one. —CJ Lotz

The Road to Wherever, by John Ed Bradley

The author of one of the greatest sports books ever, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, as well as the writer of this G&G piece about the forgotten Louisiana artist Cora Kelley Ward, here shares his talents with adolescent readers. In a road novel about an eleven-year-old boy journeying with his quirky older cousins, the ragtag crew learns about repairing not only old Ford Fairlanes, Rancheros, and Thunderbirds, but the process of mending their own old wounds as well. —CJ Lotz

The Swamp Peddlers: How Lot Sellers, Land Scammers, and Retirees Built Modern Florida and Transformed the American Dream, by Jason Vuic

The writer Jason Vuic’s two other books have covered fascinating failures—The Yucks: Two Years in Tampa with the Losingest Team in NFL History and The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. Now no one’s calling Florida a failure here, but Vuic turns his deep research and entertaining writing on the lot sellers and marketers that hacked out parcels of swampland in the Sunshine State and dubbed it the American Dream. —CJ Lotz