Bourbon and Boots, a great web site selling Southern products from beef jerky to home decor, shared a list of “Soul Cleaning Southern Literature” this week. Of the 10 selected books, I had only read 4, or 5 if you include the Bible which is a work in progress. The post offers solid recommendations, but as several comments echoed, Pat Conroy belongs on any list of Southern must-reads.
For some reason, I started writing down the names of books I read in college and have mostly kept up the practice over the years. The inclusion of high brow literature peaked during my undergrad years, as I never achieved (or attempted) my pledge to read the entire works of Shakespeare. After graduating, I tried to mix in thought-provoking fiction or non-fiction to break up my penchant for mysteries penned by Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson and Stuart Woods .
I went back through this list to see how many of these titles could be considered “Southern” (set or inspired by the South). Below are a sampling of favorites not included in the Bourbon and Boots post – some are more “fun reads” than classic lit. I had look up a few of these books on Amazon to refresh my memory and want to read again:
1) Lords of Discipline and Beach Music by Pat Conroy I’ve waxed about my love Pat Conroy’s writing in previous posts, and these two books reflect his genius for portraying complex relationships and depicting the historic and natural beauty of South Carolina’s low country. Conroy looks to his alma mater The Citadel for inspiration in Lords of Discipline, a coming of age story about a cadet challenging corruption within the venerable institution. Beach Music is one of my favorite books ever, a saga of family and friendship perfectly described on Amazon as, “a sweeping novel of lyric intensity and searing truth”. His new book The Death of Santini, a memoir of his tumultuous relationship with his father, will be released on October 29.
2) Fair and Tender Ladies and Fancy Strut by Lee Smith I read these two novels at least a decade ago, so need to revisit the words written by NC-based author Lee Smith. Fair and Tender Ladies reveals the intimate thoughts of its protagonist in letters, as she grows from a girl to a grandmother in a small Virginia town. Smith evokes laughs with Fancy Strut, the tale of a small Alabama town preparing for its 150 year anniversary.
3) Divine Secrets of the YA-YA Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells A classic for lovers of Southern chick lit. A mother-daughter feud draws in a cast of eccentric characters as the story unfolds from Seattle to a small town in Louisiana.
5) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt This non-fiction bestseller wrapped up murder, glamour and drag queens in one saga with the sultry backdrop of Savannah. As an outsider and part-time resident of Savannah, Berendt, an Esquire reporter, captured the idiosyncrasies of “The Hostess City of the South” and its residents. You can still go on a “Midnight Tour“of destinations featured in the book in Savannah.
6) A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities author heads south in this epic novel – his characters grappling with combustible race relations in Atlanta and the pitfalls of Southern manhood.
7) The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd I forgot about the dark elements in this blockbuster book set in segregated South Carolina in the early 1960’s – 14-year-old Lily escapes an abusive father and faces the haunting truth about her mother’s death. After running away from her father’s home with beloved nanny Rosaleen, Lily finds a new family among the “calendar sisters” on a bee farm with ties with her mother’s past.
8) The King of Lies by John Hart – The first book by Davidson College graduate John Hart won him the first of two Edgar Awards (for mysteries) and introduced his distinctive talent for writing literary suspense. A native of Durham and Salisbury, NC, Hart left the practice of law to write his first novel full-time. He is my favorite new author of the past decade for sure, and not just because we share the same alma mater. In King of Lies, Hart draws you in with a masterful plot, fleshed out characters and the delicious eccentricities of a small North Carolina town.
9) The Help by Kathryn Stockett A new Southern classic with a cast of strong female characters, The Help dazzled the New York Times bestseller list. The book weaves the voices of maids Aibileen and Minny, and privileged college graduate Skeeter, in segregated Mississippi during the early 1960’s. Skeeter embarks on a covert mission to write about the true stories of black maids working for white families, as Aibileen, Minny and their friends risk everything to share their experiences. Though some book-turned-films disappoint on the big screen, the movie version of The Help shined and earned Octavia Spencer for playing Minny.
10) I Totally Meant To Do That by Jane Borden My friend Jane is a gifted comedian – her writing before this debut book appeared on Saturday Night Live and the New York Times. The hilarious collection of essays reveals her geographic identity crisis as she contemplates settling down in New York City or returning to her North Carolina roots.
We can’t always get to our favorite places, but books can bring in the salty breeze from South Carolina marshes or a mint julep from the most exclusive party in Savannah. Though I’ve held on to many books over the years, I could only find a few on this list on my bookshelf. They were either lent to me by friends/family or I passed them on to others with high recommendations. While cultivating an expansive library adds character to any Southern home, sharing one with loved ones is even better.