Usually, when I search for a new book to read, I experience an inward conflict. Should I read something recently published, or should I tackle a classic that I have yet to pick up? As an English major, the need for conquering canonical titles is an itching one. I still haven’t read Homer’s The Odyssey, much to the chagrin of some of my professors who, if they had it their way, may not have let me out of the school without having read that particular masterpiece.
I suppose my Introduction to Southern Literature course at the University of the South was what caused me to abandon Homer and Jane Austen for what I thought was “obscure” work like that the Fugitives– Robert Penn Warren and Andrew Lytle– and fiction by Wendell Berry and Eudora Welty. A year into my fascinating studies of American, particularly Southern, fiction I realized we’ve canonized those writers as well, and I simply have to read all of them!
So, now as I consider what books I will definitely-without-fail read this year, do I pick from the must-reads of 2015 or the must-reads of all time? So far, my list strays from the Barnes & Noble literary classics table. On it you’ll find some popular titles and some older books that appear to be overlooked, and perhaps ought to be pulled back up into the currents of popular readership.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew-Bergman. In her debut collection of short-stories, Bergman explores how our relationships and decisions are influenced by the wildness and beauty of nature. Publisher Simon & Schuster notes, “Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love or fear collides with good sense, or when our attachment to an animal or wild place can’t be denied.” This collection sounds mysterious and alluring. Megan is the 2015 recipient of a new writing award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. I’m looking forward to adding a new writer to my bookshelf in this new year, and meeting Megan at the Celebration of Southern Literature in April!
Wolf Whistle, by Lewis Nordan. A friend of mine recommended that I read this powerhouse of a novel. Until then, I had been unaware of Lewis Nordan as an eminent Southern writer. The story is a fictionalized account of the true murder of Emmett Till, a young black boy murdered in 1959 for wolf-whistling at a white woman. The two white murderers were acquitted in a Mississippi town, near Nordan’s boyhood home. In this extraordinary novel, Nordan transforms one of America’s most notorious racial killings into a magical mystery ride of hilarity and horror that you will never forget.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The description on Amazon makes this novel seem like Dead Poets Society gone terribly, terribly awry. Under the guidance of a charismatic professor, an elite group of misfits at New England college discover a way of thinking and living so heightened, and far different than the dull existence of their contemporaries. When they breach moral boundaries, however, their lives are profoundly shook. I devouredThe Goldfinch last summer and I look forward to picking up what has been hailed as an equally impressive novel. Welcome to Donna Tartt pre-Goldfinch.
Stoner by John Williams. I’ve started reading this book and the tagline “the greatest novel you’ve never read” is pretty accurate. William Stoner is born at the end of the 19th century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude. Contemplative and deeply sad, this book conjures memories of our own followed and lost paths, the feeling of our failures, and most of all, the permanence of solitude.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I picked up this book at Books & Brews, a book swap event the Southern Lit Alliance hosted a few weeks ago. It is listed as a young adult novel, but the woman who recommended it wrote the most impressive review that I was compelled to choose it! Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. I’m looking forward to reading a novel that captures such a difficult theme as race for such a young audience.
What are you reading in 2015? If you haven’t checked out Serena by Ron Rash, you should! It’s an incredible novel full of drama, politics, and one hell of a female protagonist. Don’t forget to come to the Serena So Lit Book Club event on Feb. 17 at 5:30 PM at Brix Nouveau!