Arts & Culture

The Best Books of 2020—So Far

Twenty Southern literary treasures, novels, cookbooks, and escapist thrillers.
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Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Stories from the Harlem Renaissance, by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston may have moved to New York and become a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, but the author and anthropologist was a Deep South daughter through and through. This jewel of a collection gathers twenty-one of the late, great Eatonville, Florida–raised writer’s short stories—eight of them nearly forgotten in archives—into one worthy read for fans of her beloved novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and for anyone new to her matchless command of Southern dialects and characters.

All the Thyme in the World: A Collection of Recipes from the Grounded Music Industry, edited by Maria Ivey

“When you get a cookbook passed down, it’s grease splattered, dog-eared, with notes in the margins,” says Maria Ivey, the Nashville music publicist who organized this project after she witnessed friends and colleagues lose gigs to COVID-19 and struggle to rebuild homes after this spring’s devastating tornadoes in Nashville. In true Junior League cookbook fashion, all proceeds go to a cause: the Music Health Alliance’s COVID-19 and Nashville Tornado Relief Fund. Read the full story by Dacey Orr Sivewright here, and order the book here

Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes, by Bryant Terry

Growing up in Memphis, Bryant Terry piled a red-and-green cabbage slaw on his plate next to fried fish, the same style of slaw served at so many rib joints in his hometown. He shares that simple Southern staple along with dozens of other fresh vegetable–based recipes here, just in time for that overflowing CSA bundle at your doorstep. Plus, he told us how to make perfectly bright and spicy pickled mustard greens.

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 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.

Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes from a Disappearing Bayou, by Melissa M. Martin

Before baking these sweet potato biscuits or these pillowcase cookies, stirring this jambalaya, or gathering ingredients for any of the other delightfully Deep South recipes in this book, find a cozy chair and rejoice in the photographer Denny Culbert’s evocative images and the chef Melissa M. Martin’s poetic storytelling. “Louisiana’s coast, a thick, ever-changing blanket of marsh, is disappearing, and our wetlands and bayous are disappearing along with it,” writes Martin, the daughter of a fisherman and granddaughter of oyster farmers. “I want to make sure we put the Cajun food I grew up with and the people responsible for it on record.”

My Vanishing Country, by Bakari Sellers

The ‘dirt road’ adolescence Sellers sketches is lit with idyllic memories—fishing with a cane pole, the ‘Icy Lady’ selling frozen Kool-Aid from her porch, teenage farm work, and playtime in cotton fields,” G&G contributing editor Jonathan Miles wrote in his review of the former legislator’s memoir for the magazine’s Books column. “Yet it’s not a childhood many Americans—certainly not the national media—associate with African Americans. ‘The media equate rural America to white America,’ Sellers writes in the book, ‘and that’s not only an untrue portrait, but it influences how the public perceives the nation’s crossroads.’”

Meals, Music, and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen, by Alexander Smalls, Veronica Chambers

Alexander Smalls wears many hats—literal hats, yes, he does love a dapper bowler—including those of writer, chef, and vocalist. He won both a Grammy and a Tony for his cast recording of Porgy and Bess, and he earned a James Beard Award for last year’s cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven. Now, find him bringing all his interests together in his symphony of a cookbook, which he described in a G&G interview: “None of the recipes in this book are heirlooms—this is not your mama’s kitchen,” he says. “I’m older, I have a view, and now I’m presenting that to you.”

Joy at Work, by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein

Neither author could have predicted that they’d be releasing this book in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, but many of the takeaways about how you use your space and time are valuable right now. Marie Kondo, the megastar of the Netflix series Tidying Up, based on her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, gained international fame by helping people de-clutter their homes. She applied her organizing skills to the workplace in her new book, Joy at Work, coauthored with the Texas-based organizational psychologist Scott Sonenshein. Read more from the two authors here.

In the Waves, by Rachel Lance

A Duke University researcher’s fascinating book on the Civil War–era H.L. Hunley submarine shines a new light on a longstanding mystery. “As a U.S. Marine with a love for military history, I followed the Hunley’s story closely,” writes G&G contributor Russell Worth Parker. Read his full review here.

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.

The Prettiest Star, by Carter Sickels

The publishers at Hub City elevate Southern voices from hollers to hills, as they explained in a piece in G&G’s Southern Heroes issue. The latest novel from the South Carolina–based press tells of the emotional and lesser-known stories of the men who returned to their rural communities in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. 

Always Italy: An Illustrated Grand Tour, by Frances Mayes, with Ondine Cohane

Armchair-wanderlusting at its finest: Let the Georgia-born Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun (and this essay about keeping her Southern accent from the April/May issue of G&G), be your guide to Italy. With co-author Ondine Cohane, a travel writer who lives in Southern Tuscany, this book is a primer on every hidden pocket and charming café you dream of sitting in right about now.

Camino Winds, by John Grisham

It’s a marvel: the dependably page-turning entertainment of the latest John Grisham novel. Camino Winds takes readers to fictional Camino Island (likely based on Grisham’s beloved Amelia Island), where a hurricane is barreling down, a novelist and a book store owner are planning to ride it out, and there is plenty of time for the plot to twist.

Everything Is Under Control: A Memoir with Recipes, by Phyllis Grant

Turn to page 206 and begin making the braised chicken, and at the part where the wish-you-could-be-friends-with-her chef Phyllis Grant says, “Slide the pot to the back of your stove for a few hours,” start at the beginning of this poetic food memoir that is as genuine as a phone call that accidentally lasts hours. In quick vignettes followed by recipes, Grant tells the story of how she went from Juilliard ballerina to pastry assistant to lauded chef, mom, and friend to many. Tear through it, and then tear into that chicken.

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 recent 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.

Me & Patsy Kickin’ Up Dust: My Friendship with Patsy Cline, by Loretta Lynn

The three names on this cover seal the deal: It’s Loretta Lynn writing about her friendship with Patsy Cline, and Dolly Parton pens the foreword. And beneath it all, Nashville itself grows and blossoms and changes as its own character. Enough said—this one is a tender balm of a read for Southern music lovers.

Pride of Eden, by Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown’s fantastical tale of wild animals, poachers, and protectors spans from the savannas of Africa to Savannah, Georgia. Brown layers primal drama atop surreal sights of the South, as when “a lone pony, feeding from a bed of delicate ferns on the putting green,” catches a whiff of a lion.

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.”

Welcome to Buttermilk Kitchen, by Suzanne Vizethann

This is Southern comfort food perfected. Suzanne Vizethann runs Buttermilk Kitchen restaurant in Atlanta, and this generous cookbook divulges her breakfast and brunch favorites (heavy on egg and waffle dishes), as well as new twists on savory classics and, graciously, an entire chapter devoted to leftovers. Read a Q&A with the author here, plus find her recipes for red pepper jelly, blueberry-basil jam, and butter whipped up in a mason jar.

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.