Arts & Culture

Our Favorite Books for Southerners in 2020

Dozens of memoirs, novels, and nonfiction books that got us through a year unlike any other (P.S. find our favorite cookbooks of the year here)

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World of Wonders, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

“When the first glimmer-pop of firefly light appears on a summer night, I always want to call my mother just to say hello,” writes the Oxford, Mississippi, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil in her debut nonfiction book. Her gorgeous essays reveal how nature for all of us, and for each of us, is deeply personal. The author recently wrote an ode to holiday walks in Central Florida for G&G.

Where I Come From, by Rick Bragg

A cancer survivor, Bragg has been spending most of this year isolating at home in Alabama with his mother. The book editors he works with told him this collection would be a welcome balm for readers during a difficult year. “I hope that everyone’s right and that it does give people a breath,” he told G&G in an open-hearted Q&A. “I think we need one. I know that for me, reading the people who write down here has served to help pass the time, if not quicker, then it gives something of value to fill up that time.” 

The Well-Gardened Mind,  by Sue Stuart-Smith

“I had no idea just how good getting your hands in the dirt is for your mental health until I read Sue Stuart-Smith’s The Well-Gardened Mind,” writes G&G style director Haskell Harris. “Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist, who spent years working for the National Health Service, is also married to the acclaimed garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith, with whom she’s spent the last thirty years creating a jaw-droppingly beautiful garden in Hertfordshire.”

A Private Cathedral: A Dave Robicheaux Novel, by James Lee Burke

In the prolific novelist James Lee Burke’s fortieth book, he brings back his beloved lead character Dave Robicheaux for a Louisiana romp. The eighty-three-year-old’s devoted fans likely already have this one ordered, but do keep tabs on Burke: “I’m writing a lot,” Burke told G&G this summer. “I just started another book, the sequel to my novel The Jealous Kind, which is probably one of my three best books.”

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett

One of the buzziest books of the year, this rip-through-it novel traces multiple generations in Louisiana and California and explores themes of race, power, and identity, all set against the always-fascinating drama of family. Bennett was a guest at this year’s virtual Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, and her conversation can be found here.

The Address Book : What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, by Deirdre Mask

Learning how postage and the postal system began has been the most fun part of my philatelic journey. “The Address Book by Deirdre Mask shares how streets and addresses got started and why they are important. Stamp history is absolutely fascinating. Stamps are a tangible symbol of the human need for connection and communication,” said the stamp collector and vendor Gracie Cote in an interview with G&G.

Lords of the Fly: Madness, Obsession, and the Hunt for the World Record Tarpon, by Monte Burke

“‘Fishing—the sport, the pastime, whatever you want to call it—is, in the end, about stories,’ Monte Burke writes. The stories in his Lords of the Fly are about tarpon, and they’re great ones: flashy, brawny, and electrifying, just like the tarpon itself,” says Jonathan Miles in his full review here.

The Birth of All Things, by Marcus Amaker

“A good story can last for generations and inspire new narratives, even better than the last…” writes Marcus Amaker, the heralded “poet laureate of Charleston,” who in this latest book of poetry explores the breaking-open effect his newborn daughter had on his heart and mind.


Eat a Peach: A Memoir, by David Chang with Gabe Ulla

In a footnote in David Chang’s new memoir, Eat a Peach, the Virginia-raised chef known for his Momofuku restaurants (and his helpful quarantine Instagram videos) describes how some folks fell back in love with country ham: “Americans still only had eyes for Italian prosciutto when we first started serving paper-thin slices of smoked pork made in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia from purveyors like Benton’s, Broadbent, Colonel Newsom’s, and Edwards,” Chang writes. A fascinating, personal peek into one of the world’s top culinary minds—with some knowing nods to the South.

In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on Serena, by Ron Rash

In her profile of the writer Ron RashG&G contributor Bronwen Dickey describes his new collection: “[Rash’s] tenacity has yielded a wide-ranging body of work—seven novels, seven books of short stories, six books of poems, two anthologies, and a children’s book over the past twenty-six years—all set in the deep folds of Southern Appalachia. In the Valley includes Rash’s first novella, which continues the saga of Serena Pemberton, the ruthless logging magnate from his 2008 best-selling novel, Serena.”

Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last, by Wright Thompson

“Being with Julian,” i.e., Julian P. Van Winkle III, whose bourbon “Pappy” you might have heard about, “made me think about craft in America,” writes the Mississippi-based journalist Wright Thompson in his new book, Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Over the years spent reporting on the Van Winkles, Thompson pondered not only their impeccable talents, but also their sense of fun, as when they sneak the good stuff into the Kentucky Oaks by pouring it into a Seven Seas salad dressing bottle. Thompson’s time with them raised questions about his own family, revealing how ambition can draw both light and darkness, and how some of the greatest stories ever told are just perfectly aged, delicious myths.

Rattan: A World of Elegance and Charm, by Lulu Lytle

 “I have looked at thousands, and I mean thousands, of photographs of rattan in interiors, and I cannot find a single one where people are looking miserable,” says the author Lulu Lytle in an interview about her fascinating book on rattan, a long-beloved furniture material. “Rattan humanizes even the grandest setting—it’s like the furniture is saying, sit back and have a drink.”

American Gardens, by Monty Don and Derry Moore

The always fascinating and delightful British horticulturist Monty Don explores something a little closer to home for some of us—treasured American gardens. Armchair wanderlust at its finest, especially for plant lovers, with lovely photographs by Derry Moore.

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger: A Memoir, by Lisa Donovan

The pastry chef Lisa Donovan knows the insides of some of the South’s top restaurant kitchens even better than people think they want to know them. In her moving, real-talk memoir, the James Beard Award–winning writer describes beautifully the current, sometimes painful moment that Southern writers, editors, and chefs—perhaps especially women—have found themselves in as the world at large seems enamored by Southern food. “And, not for nothing,” she writes, “in the process of getting down into the nitty-gritty of being Southern, of learning how to accept it for what it is and for what it tries to be despite itself, I discovered that I had some secrets up my sleeve with regard to baking that I didn’t even know about.” And she generously shares.

The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir, by André Leon Talley

In this entertaining and personal read, the North Carolina–raised editor and fashion icon André Leon Talley tells all—about his years at Vogue, his globe-trotting adventures in pursuit of haute beauty, and about the Southern women (especially his grandmother) who raised him.

Hieroglyphics, by Jill McCorkle

When the couple Lil and Frank retire to North Carolina, the edges of their individual and shared pasts blend and fray when Frank becomes fixated with his childhood home and the young single mother living there. This is the Tar Heel State author Jill McCorkle at her best—a masterful storyteller noting the complications of life with a heart full of empathy.

If I Had Two Wings, by Randall Kenan

“Rangy, wise, and unpredictable, If I Had Two Wings is Randall Kenan’s first collection since 1992’s groundbreaking Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Surprises lurk in almost every story,” wrote G&G contributing editor Jonathan Miles in his review of the last work of Kenan, who died in August. Read some of Kenan’s work for G&G here.

When These Mountains Burn, by David Joy

In this new Appalachian noir from novelist David Joy, “Joy’s storytelling is top-notch (and not for the faint of heart), and you’ll find yourself turning pages deep into the night,” wrote G&G editor in chief David DiBenedetto in his August/September 2020 issue Editor’s Letter, which mentions this book. “But it’s his knack for capturing a sense of place that really brings the hammer down.

The Last Taxi Driver, by Lee Durkee

Over one fever-dream day in Mississippi, a cast of misfits rotate through cabdriver Lou’s Town Car, beginning with a fresh-out-of-Parchman convict palming a twelve pack of Bud Light. Blotted with jet-black humor, The Last Taxi Driver is the lauded author Lee Durkee’s first novel in twenty years. This ride is worth the wait.

Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther, by Craig Pittman

Longtime Tampa Bay Times reporter Craig Pittman shares a deeply researched and entertaining look at how a group of scientists brought the Florida Panther back from the brink of near-extinction. “It’s a punchy, riveting story,” writes Jonathan Miles in his review in G&G here.

Blackwood, by Michael Farris Smith

“Only two living creatures didn’t look at me strangely back then when I said I wanted to become a part of the literary tradition of Mississippi,” the novelist Michael Farris Smith wrote in his G&G Good Dog column, about his confession to his Lab mix named Black. “One I later married. The other was Black.” In his latest novel, Smith proves that grand ambition has come true, and his Southern Gothic chops are honed sharp—Blackwood is set against a small Mississippi town in 1976 that swarms with secrets beneath creeping kudzu.

Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era, by Jerry Mitchell

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting journalist Jerry Mitchell dug into a slew of murder cases gone cold from the civil rights era for this personal history that moves with force. “It is, on one level, the closest memoir can get to a John Grisham thriller,” writes Jonathan Miles in his review in the February/March 2020 issue of Garden & Gun. “On another level, it’s a profound firsthand testament to how, per Faulkner, the past is never dead, but neither is the need for justice.”

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Natasha Trethewey

When the Pulitzer Prize–winning former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey was a child in Atlanta, the shadowy space under the staircase frightened her. Her mother had an idea: “Instead of trying to brighten it, we would make use of the darkness,” Trethewey writes. The two tucked a lamp into the nook, and crafted cardboard and aluminum foil into stars. As Trethewey revisits her past, she again turns on a light in the darkest of corners, piecing together the memories of her childhood and her mother’s death at the hands of her former stepfather. Her pain still feels primal, but the poet confronts shadows to reveal, as she writes, “the story I tell myself to survive.” It’s a personal, beautiful masterpiece.

How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons): Poetry, by Barbara Kingsolver

“Telling a moment is Kingsolver’s apt description of what poetry does, and it’s what she does, stunningly, in How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons), her first book of poems since 1992,” writes Jonathan Miles in his full review here.

A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham

Grisham is at the top of his game, still. In October he brought back Jake Brigance, the main character in his classic A Time to Kill, for the new legal thriller A Time for Mercy (he shared an exclusive excerpt here, and also listed a few of his own favorite reads here.)

African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, edited by Kevin Young

A beautiful new anthology from the Library of Congress and Kevin Young, the recently announced new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Young highlights 250 important poets from as early as 1770 to those expressing beautiful, powerful truths today.