The books Southern indie booksellers are recommending to readers everywhere!

Essays

Dirtbag, Massachusetts by Isaac Fitzgerald

Darkly funny and brutally honest, this memoir about surviving a chaotic childhood is a page-turner. The author is a natural storyteller who also offers insight into his motivations and those of his parents. (And I can attest to the accuracy of his descriptions of high school, since we attended the same one, though at different times!)

Dirtbag, Massachusetts by Isaac Fitzgerald, (List Price: 27, Bloomsbury Publishing, 9781635573978, July 2022)

Reviewed by Anne Peck, Righton Books in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia

A Girlhood by Carolyn Hays

While I suppose no book is perfect, I think A Girlhood: Letter to My Transgender Daughter is about as perfect as they come.

It’s part memoir, part research project, part confessional. The writing is personal, tender, and fierce. I found so much that resonated about parenting in general, the way we love our kids and try to help them find the most joy possible in this life. And, as the wife of a trans guy, I also found kinship in the experience of watching someone transition and find their true selves. It’s beautiful. Sometimes frightening. And often hard for a host of reasons. But ultimately, joyful.

A Girlhood will be my go-to recommendation for anyone trying to understand gender identity or transness. And for parents of gay kids, trans kids, cis kids, gender non-conforming kids–parents of humans. I cannot think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to. As a person in the queer community who didn’t have a stellar coming out experience with my parents, I find narratives about parents who support and champion their LGBTQ kids to be a balm. Because I always believed I deserved better than I got–and seeing other kids get that kind of support is healing and hopeful. Because I was right. We do deserve better. And always have.

There’s lots of LGBTQ history mixed in to the narrative. And the writer is Catholic–so there’s also this gorgeous arc of what Catholicism can be. There’s a lot of hype there. But also a lot of realism. The author is constantly acknowledging her privilege and unpacking difficult social construction and religious dogma.

I am 100% enamored of Carolyn Hays’ intellect, compassion, and fierce love for her kid. This is a must read.

A Girlhood by Carolyn Hays, (List Price: $28.95, Blair, 9781949467901, September 2022)

Reviewed by Kendra Gayle Lee, Bookish Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia

The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt

With a heavy heart and a recently missing cat (wringing out the old year, hearing the ringing of the new through my poorly insulated walls), I started a book that followed me home from work. For years, Samantha Hunt novels, on glancing and flipping, have always looked to be in the “Alley (up my)” or “Wheelhouse (in my)” genres, but this is my first and, by golly, I can’t stop rambling, deleting, rambling, deleting this review. She lets grief, family, empathy, childhood, alcohol, a boy band, authority, loss, parenthood, faith (and much much more) drop, all at once, into the top of the Plinko board, amazingly not jamming the derned thing up. What settles at the bottom is a nice, orderly, call for all to relish the unknown, hold tight to loss, and madlib the half-assed answers to life’s half-asked questions. I, for one, am retooling “rut” and giving a new shine to “stuck in a.” However, as newly-formed fanboy insecurities blossom, the Samantha Hunt in my mind says “well, YOU sure missed the point on the head.” But surely the fact that I got what I wanted out of [the book, which I forgot to mention is a work of nonfiction] was surely the point of it exactly. Or at least that’s what I got out of it. Surely.

The Unwritten Book by Samantha Hunt, (List Price: $28, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9780374604912,  April 2022)

Reviewed by Ian McCord, Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia

You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston

The gift of Zora Neale Hurston and her multifaceted works shine beyond decades. You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays covers the timelessness of her work. Zora Neale Hurston’s work holds an essential space in piecing the histories of America and the visibility of the lives of Black Folk. Hurston honors the language, spirit, and progressive movements that are exhibited in our history and heritage. This book gives us a deeper understanding of Hurston and her legacy.

You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston, (List Price: $29.99, Amistad, 9780063043855, January 2022)

Reviewed by Jasmine from Cafe Noir, in Memphis, Tennessee



Graceland, At Last by Margaret Renkl

Margaret’s weekly New York Times columns about culture in The South call out our many failures while describing in beautiful detail what makes our part of America so beautiful. Just when I think there’s no possible way to capture the tension between the terrible and the special, Margaret’s words are there to express what I am feeling.

Graceland, At Last by Margaret Renkl, (List Price: $26.00, Milkweed Editions, 9781571311849, September 2021)

Reviewed by Sissy Gardner, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee


Letter to a Stranger by Colleen Kinder

As the season changes, I find myself drawn to books that I can pickup, read however much I want whether it be a page or fifty, and then put back down and not worry about losing my spot or anything like that. I want digestible, but not fluff, I still want the grit and strong storytelling. This book is the cure for this predicament. Colleen Kinder sent out an email to authors everywhere, simply asking them to write a letter to a stranger who haunts them. The result is this intimate collection of letters from some of the most beloved authors of our time, and perfect is an understatement. The book is broken up by emotional prompt, which I like but was wary as books similar to this can be sort of repetitive with the themes of stories in them, but this next level. The sections are symmetry, mystery, chemistry, gratitude, wonder, remorse and finally, farewell. This is what makes this book so strong, it’s not just emotions of love or pain, it’s so much more than that. It’s funny, startling,and at times heartbreaking. A book that has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and one I do not think I will ever get tired of skimming through.

Letter to a Stranger by Colleen Kinder, (List Price: $19.95, Algonquin Books, 9781643751245,  March 2022)

Reviewed by Grace Sullivan, Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia

Between the Lines by Uli Beutter Cohen

From the creator behind Subway Book Review, this is the newest Humans of New York, but for book lovers. This is a collection of short interviews Cohen conducted on the subway of New York City, documenting not only everyone’s reading list but also creating a conversation and connection. From beloved classics to niche dog-eared, worn books, this covers just about every genre you could think of. What I really love about this book is that it could’ve just as easily been a book full of tiny book reviews, but it’s something much more intimate. Cohen does a great job of telling these people’s stories all in about 400 words each. There’s representation of everyone; queer, trans, all races, all occupations. It’s raw, gorgeous and executed so flawlessly I can’t get enough of it.

Between the Lines by Uli Beutter Cohen, (List Price: $24.99, Simon & Schuster, 9781982145675, October 2021)

Reviewed by Grace Sullivan, Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia

The Cruelty Is the Point by Adam Serwer

I’ve followed Serwer’s articles in the Atlantic for several years. In this collection of his most moving pieces, he’s added a short introduction to each one with new insights and background. Bonus – Kevin Kruse blurbed it.

The Cruelty Is the Point by Adam Serwer, (List Price: 28, One World, 9780593230800, July 2021)

Reviewed by Sissy Gardner, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee

Pop Song by Larissa Pham

In its best moments, Pop Song makes deeply resonant connections between works of art, the lives of artists and the author’s own experience as an extremely online person trying to find healing and community in the isolating wasteland that is late capitalism’s information economy. There were certainly times where I felt like I was too old for this book; the break-up that anchors the denouement did not feel as sharply observed to me as the relationship’s tender beginnings and what they shook loose. But overall this is a strong effort by a writer I have long admired. And if you came of age on Tumblr this book will probably feel like slipping on a glove.

Pop Song by Larissa Pham (List Price: $26, Catapult, 9781646220267, 5/4/2021)

Reviewed by Steve Haruch, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

A Spring 2021 Read This Next! Title

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Knopf, May

Being Korean American and already a fan of Michelle Zauner’s music under the Japanese Breakfast moniker, I was predisposed to love this book. Having read the title essay in the New Yorker I was predisposed to love this book. Even so, I was struck by just how much I loved it. I’m so grateful for this book — for how it walks through grief not as a way to leave it behind, but as a way to remember its exact shape. I’m grateful for its funny, self-deprecating and wise observations, and for its difficult beauty.

– Steve Haruch from Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Being Korean American and already a fan of Michelle Zauner’s music under the Japanese Breakfast moniker, I was predisposed to love this book. Having read the title essay in the New Yorker I was predisposed to love this book. Even so, I was struck by just how much I loved it. I’m so grateful for this book — for how it walks through grief not as a way to leave it behind, but as a way to remember its exact shape. I’m grateful for its funny, self-deprecating and wise observations, and for its difficult beauty.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (List Price: $26.95, Knopf, 9780525657743, 4/20/2021)

Reviewed by Steve Haruch, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee

Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Jenny Lawson is a genius. She can make me sob uncontrollably from both laughter and the heartbreakingly honest way she talks about mental illness. She takes the worst things in life and finds a way to laugh through them. Her ability to bring people together in a celebration of human awkwardness is just beautiful. This book provided much needed relief and escape from the divisiveness of the world.

Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (List Price: $27.99, Henry Holt and Co., 9781250077035, 4/6/2021)

Reviewed by Melissa Taylor, E. Shaver, bookseller in Savannah, Georgia

Good Apple by Elizabeth Passarella

This warm, wonderful memoir in essays by Southern writer Elizabeth Passarella comes on the scene just when we need it most. In a series of funny, honest, personal stories, she breaks down stereotypes and misconceptions about Southerners, New Yorkers, Christians, Democrats, parents, and more in a way that will appeal to pretty much everyone, whether you fit into one of those groups or not. In reading about her ice maker, her child’s crib in the closet, her belief in thank-you notes, or her memories of her late father, I bet you’ll absolutely relate to Elizabeth Passarella’s stories about what it really means to find a home in the world.

Good Apple by Elizabeth Passarella (List Price: $25.99, Thomas Nelson, 9781400218578, 1/19/2021)

Reviewed by Lady Smith, The Snail on the Wall in Huntsville, Alabama

A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South edited by Cinelle Barnes

A Fall 2020 Read This Next! Title
Hub City Press | 9781938235719
October 6, 2020

This fierce collection celebrates the incredible diversity in the contemporary South by featuring essays by twenty-one of the finest young writers of color living and working in the region today, who all address a central question: Who is welcome?

Kiese Laymon navigates the racial politics of publishing while recording his audiobook in Mississippi. Regina Bradley moves to Indiana and grapples with a landscape devoid of her Southern cultural touchstones, like Popeyes and OutKast. Aruni Kashyap apartment hunts in Athens and encounters a minefield of invasive questions. Frederick McKindra delves into the particularly Southern history of Beyonce’s black majorettes.

Assembled by editor and essayist Cinelle Barnes, essays in A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South acknowledge that from the DMV to the college basketball court to doctors’ offices, there are no shortage of places of tension in the American South. Urgent, necessary, funny, and poignant, these essays from new and established voices confront the complexities of the South’s relationship with race, uncovering the particular difficulties and profound joys of being a Southerner in the 21st century.

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