Reading Southern Women

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

“What it do when it pissed off?” I ast.

“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

– Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Earlier last year, I was stumped by a Facebook request to name favorite Southern women writers. Since then, I have binged on women from the American South. I read Flannery O’Connor for the first time, and Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. I reread Gone with the Wind, and The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I made lists of books I’ve read in the past that were written by Southern American women. If you are a fan of powerful writing, rich language, languid scenery, human complexity, colorful humor, and emotional depth, read these women. Any of them. All of them. You won’t be sorry.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker Alice Walker: (1944- ) Born in Eatonton, Georgia, a tiny town in middle Georgia where I grew up eating scuppernongs on my Grandaddy and Nannie’s farm, Alice Walker was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer prize. She won it with The Color Purple, and if you read it, you will see why. A story that could be devastating, she makes funny and hopeful, deep and spiritual. The dialect, the characters, the beauty, the humor, the equanimity in the face of hardship and abuse that would break most of us, and the wisdom Walker writes into these pages is a wonder and a gift. If I had one book on this list that I thought everyone should read, it would be The Color Purple. It is a masterpiece.

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, coverMaya Angelou: (1928-2014) Angelou was born in Missouri and was raised in St. Louis and Arkansas. The list of prizes she’s been nominated for or awarded for her work is long, and includes a Pulitzer nomination and three Grammys for her spoken albums. She writes the South, and womanhood, and the African American experience, and the civil rights movement with poise and deep soul. I read I know Why the Caged Bird Sings many, many years ago, and I highly recommend it. But what I remember most about Maya Angelou is her poems. Read them. Or better yet, listen to the poet herself, here reading “Still I Rise.”

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg, book coverFanny Flagg: (1944- ) Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Flagg is best known for Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. With Whistle Stop, Flagg delivers a fun (and funny) read that sets you squarely in the small town South with parallel stories of a pair of 1980’s middle-aged women, and another set of friends, Idgie and Ruth, who ran The Whistle Stop cafe in the 30s. It’s a page-turner, and the characters are irresistible – Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, remarked “Idgie Threadgoode is a true original: Huckleberry Finn would have tried to marry her!”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston: (1891-1960) Hurston was born in Alabama, but was raised in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the nation. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston tells the story of the town’s origins, of it being built from the ground up by the black community, but more importantly, it tells the story of Janie, who wanted life and living, not riches and sitting idle on a porch. It is a deeply moving novel about love and what makes it real, and damning the “shoulds,” and how everyone needs something different in life to make them feel alive. This was one of my favorite reads of the year. Hurston also wrote a book about voodoo, Tell My Horse, that I may have to read for a Halloween capsule.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book coverHarper Lee: (1926- ) Lee was born in Alabama, the setting for her Pulitzer prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She only had one novel in her, but thank God for that one. Lee studied law before changing paths to pursue a career in literature, and that background prepared her for the iconic courtroom scenes of Atticus Finch who, with grace and eloquence, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. One of the many beauties of To Kill a Mockingbird is that is told in the voice of a child, Scout, who innately knows justice – “that’s not fair!” – but who is also susceptible to buying into other peoples’ prejudices (think Boo Radley). To Kill a Mockingbird is one to read and reread, as you age, as you mature. Scout is a funny and refreshing character who gives us an innocent yet wise perspective on the issues of what is right and what is wrong. To Kill a Mockingbird is considered to be a work of Southern Gothic† literature.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and other stories by Carson McCullers, book cover Carson McCullers: (1917-1967) McCullers, also known for Southern Gothic fiction, was born in Columbus, Georgia. McCullers felt “other” as a young woman growing up in the South, and with outcast characters, she explores that isolation and deep desire for connection in her fiction. I read The Ballad of the Sad Café this year, a beautiful, haunting novella of unrequited love involving a huge manly woman, a hunchbacked midget, and an ex-con, and which climaxes in a small-town brawl. This story, and particularly its characters, will stick with me for a long time. McCullers also wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which I have not read, but I plan to.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell book coverMargaret Mitchell: (1900-1949) Born in 1900 in Atlanta, Georgia, Margaret Mitchell was a flapper who, according to her biography on the Margaret Mitchell House website, “scandalized Atlanta society by performing a provocative dance at a debutante ball.” Mitchell was also, obviously, a writer. And a Pulitzer prize winner. She wrote and published Gone With the Wind over a period of 12 years, beginning at the young age of 24. As a Georgia native, I have read and reread Gone With the Wind and credit this book with helping me understand the often frustrating paradoxes of Southern culture. It is a novel that will teach you about the South, about its ways, its people, its stubbornness, its charm, its beauty, its old and its new, its prejudices, its weaknesses, its strengths, and its land. Always, the land.

Flannery O'Connor, the collected works, book cover Flannery O’Connor: (1925-1964) Ah, Flannery. I’m so glad to have found you. You have converted me on short stories. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, and like Carson McCullers, is considered a Southern Gothic writer. Her fiction is sharp, witty, and full of dark humor, and I am constantly amazed by her titles – “The Violent Bear it Away” – and her ability to punch in the space of a very short story. My favorites so far have been “The Crop” (read it – it’s only 9 pages), “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “The Barber.” I look forward to reading more of her work.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse RayJanisse Ray: (1962- ) Ray, born in Baxley, Georgia, is the only nonfiction author on my list (I know – shame on me!). Her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was one of those treasures in memoir that made me realize that truth can be as well-written, and as fascinating, as fiction. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells Ray’s story of growing up in an evangelical household in a junkyard along Highway 1 in south Georgia. In the book, she weaves the stories of the vanishing Cracker population with that of a dying ecosystem: the vanishing longleaf pine forests. A powerful read.

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora WeltyEudora Welty: (1909-2001) Welty, yet another Pulitzer winner, and another Southern Gothic writer, was born in Jackson, Mississippi. She was awarded the Pulitzer for her novella, The Optimist’s Daughter. I think I was in a tired place in my life when I read the novella this year, and I had a hard time gaining traction with it. Either that or I just didn’t like it. Welty also writes short stories about the American South.

Sarah Addison Allen, (1971- ) born in Asheville, North Carolina. Allen is a modern writer who sprinkles magic and light into her Southern set novels. I enjoyed Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper for quick, bright reads, and I have The Sugar Queen on my To Be Read (TBR) list.

Mary Kay Andrews, (1954- ) born in St. Petersburg, Florida. Andrews was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and covered for the AJC the events in Savannah, GA that inspired John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. She writes fun beach reads like Savannah Breeze and Deep Dish which are set in and around Savannah.

Olive Ann Burns, (1924-1990) born in Banks County, Georgia. Burns is the author of Cold Sassy Tree.

Susan Gregg Gilmore born Nashville, TN. Listen here as she discusses the Southern Literature genre: Books on the Nightstand episode #245: What is Southern Fiction?

Sue Monk Kidd, (1948- ) born in Sylvester, GA. Best known for The Secret Life of Bees, which I loved and need to reread now that I have a daughter.

Barbara Kingsolver, (1955- ) born in Annapolis, Maryland, raised in rural Kentucky. Kingsolver writes the natural world beautifully (and manages to weave evocative stories as well.) Her novels generally address issues of biodiversity, social justice, and ecology (including the human role in it). My favorite Kingsolver titles are Prodigal Summer, The Bean Trees, and The Poisonwood Bible.

Katherine Anne Porter, (1890-1980) born in Indian Creek, Texas. I have not read any of Porter’s work but kept coming across her name in conjunction with Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and William Faulkner as a Southern Gothic writer, so I’m thinking I should read her. Oh, and also, she won a Pulitzer.

Eugenia Price, (1916-1996) born in Charleston, West Virginia. Price wrote historical fiction romance novels, and I read her St. Simons Lighthouse trilogy years ago. I couldn’t tell you anything about it now, only that I enjoyed it, probably in large part because of the setting (I lived the first five years of my life on St. Simons Island.)

Anne Rivers Siddons, (1936- ) born in Atlanta, Georgia. I have not read any of Siddons’ work yet, but in the space of a week, I was gifted two of her books by two separate people. My Uncle Syd recommends Peachtree Road, which tells a story of the city of Atlanta.

Kathryn Stockett, (1969- ) born in Jackson, Mississippi. So far, Stockett has published one book: The Help. She is young – we will likely see more from her.

Edited to include suggestions from readers:

Adrian Blevins (Abingdon, VA), Carrie Brown (Blue Ridge Mountains, VA), Kate Chopin (Louisiana), Moira Crone (Goldsboro, NC), Ellen Douglas (Mississippi), Claudia Emerson (Chatham, VA), Dorothea Benton Frank (Sullivan’s Island, SC), Kaye Gibbons (Rocky Mount, NC), Shirley Ann Grau (New Orleans, LA), Melissa Fay Green (Macon, GA), Beth Henley (Jackson, MS), Mary Hood (Brunswick, GA), Joshilyn Jackson (Georgia), Gayl Jones (Lexington, KY), Holly Goddard Jones (Russellville, KY), Tayari Jones (Atlanta, GA), Mary Karr (Groves, Texas), Bobbie Ann Mason (western Kentucky), Sharyn McCrumb (Wilmington, NC), Ann Patchett (Tennessee), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Memphis, TN), Sherri Reynolds (rural South Carolina), Anne Rice (duh! how could I forget?! New Orleans, LA), Lee Smith (Grundy, VA), Ruth Stone (Roanoke, VA), Donna Tartt (Greenwood, MS), Natasha Trethewey (Gulfport, MS), Adriana Trigiani (Big Stone Gap, VA – see Appalachian Capsule), Olympia Vernon (Bogalusa, LA), Margaret Walker (Birmingham, AL), Jesmyn Ward (DeLisle, MS), Stephanie Powell Watts (Rebecca Wells (Alexandria, LA ), Bailey White (Thomasville, GA), Crystal Wilkinson (Kentucky)

†According to Wikipedia:

Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence. It is unlike its parent genre in that it uses these tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South.

This is a follow up to Reading Southern Women, published March 26, 2013.

I received this tweet the other day from a local friend:

As soon as I read through the list, and the author’s reasoning behind putting the list together, I knew I needed to add a link to the map to my Andrea Reads America resources. The article’s author, Kristen Iverson, explains about her book choices:

“All are literary in voice and spirit; every last one will let you understand a time and place in a more profound way than you maybe thought possible.”

I was particularly excited to see titles from my to-read list on there, along with some of my favorites that are usually edged out by other titles. I knew this list was for me when I saw the New Hampshire pick was not the obvious Hotel New Hampshire but the even better John Irving choice: A Prayer For Owen Meany.

8 Great Literary, Book Nerd, and Storytelling Podcasts

I am a huge fan of the podcast medium. I listen while I clean, while I walk, while I cook, while I dress after my shower. I do not subscribe to print periodicals that run book reviews, I am not a librarian, and I no longer work in a book store, but I am a reader who is interested in what’s going on in the book world, in reading culture, and who loves a well-told story. With limited time to consume print media, but with ample time to listen, I have become an avid fan of podcasts, and my hungry mind devours the bookish and storytelling podcasts below. These shows provide the literary fix I need as a word nerd. I plan special walks or add extra chores to my list when any of these drop new episodes. I hope you enjoy them, too.

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast icon on iTunesThe New Yorker Fiction Podcast: Hosted by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, this podcast highlights the best of the best of the short story. Each month an esteemed writer chooses a story from the archives of The New Yorker, reads it aloud, and then discusses it with editor Deborah Triesman. Many of the stories are classics, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and the discussions are every book-lover’s book-club dream: Triesman and the reading-writer discuss what makes it a good story, they discuss craftsmanship, they attempt to tease out meaning, and – most importantly for any listeners who might one day hope to be published in The New Yorker – the discussions provide insight into the personality and inclinations of a high-quality fiction editor. My favorite episodes include David Sedaris reading Miranda July, Tessa Hadley reading Nadine Gordimer,  and Karen Russell reading Carson McCullers. Follow New Yorker Fiction on Twitter @NYerFiction.

book riot podcast iconBook Riot Podcast: Described in their intro as “A weekly news and talk show about what’s new, cool, and worth talking about in the world of books and reading,” this, along with The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, is my favorite podcast. Hosts Jeff O’Neal and Rebecca Schinsky are the editors of Book Riot, and I like hanging out with them: they’re smart and they make me laugh. On the podcast, they don’t just talk about new releases or prize winners or good books that will make your to-be-read pile even more overwhelming (though that does happen), they cover news that is of interest to readers: new technology in the reading world, the latest research on how reading affects human behavior, notes from backstage in the publishing world, and encouragement for diversifying our reading lives to include authors and characters who don’t look like us. If you like books and you’re fun and you’re looking for a podcast that isn’t simply reviews or more talk about the latest NYT bestsellers, start with Book Riot. Follow Book Riot on Twitter at @BookRiot.

The Moth icon from iTunesThe Moth: True Stories Told Live The Moth is true stories told live on a stage, and the first time I listened, I was so inspired I paused the episode, leaned on my mop, and recorded a 15 minute story of my own onto my phone’s voice recorder. Since I first began listening I’ve heard Moth stories featured elsewhere, most notably on NPR’s This American Life and as inspiration for a Radiolab story about a man who forgave his daughter’s murderer via letters sent to and from the killer in jail. Moth stories are quality live storytelling, without notes. Most stories include comedic elements but they are all powerful (and true) narratives, often told by renowned storytellers or comedians, and sometimes told by regular people. I eagerly await every new episode. My favorite recent stories are Simon Noonan’s Every Expense Was Spared and Elise Hunter’s story about dumpster diving.  Follow The Moth on Twitter at @TheMoth.

Selected Shorts from PRI iconSelected Shorts: Let Us Tell You a Story I only recently found this storytelling podcast, and I am already in love with it. Kind of a mashup between The Moth and The New Yorker Fiction podcast, Selected Shorts are performed live as on The Moth. Unlike The Moth, though, where the storyteller tells his or her own true story, Selected Shorts are actors and performers reading others’ short fiction, as on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast. There is no discussion of the work as there is with The New Yorker, but each episode contains several quality works. The one I listened to today, Romantic Disasters, had a wonderful story from Miranda July (I seem to be a Miranda July fan) read by Parker Posey, in which the main character coaches an octogenarian swim team – without a body of water to instruct in. Follow Selected Shorts on Twitter @SelectedShorts.

Books on the Nightstand iconBooks on the Nightstand: Hosts Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, who seem to have read everything and who also work in the publishing industry, give book recommendations and talk about the behind-the-scenes world of the book industry. They are friendly, funny, knowledgeable, and approachable, and I’ve read several of their recommendations, including A Compendium of Collective Nouns which Kindness talked about in Episode 251: Books, Words, and Punctuation. I have not been disappointed by any of their suggestions. Plus Ann loves Pat Conroy, and The Prince of Tides is one of my favorite books of all time, so that gives her a special place in my heart. Follow Books on the Nightstand on Twitter at @BksOnNightstand.

Bookrageous podcast iconBookrageous: a podcast about books and why they’re awesome: Bookrageous is like sitting around with friends and talking books. When I listen to this one, I often find myself opening my mouth to chime in, then realizing Josh, Jenn, and Rebecca are not sitting on my bathroom counter. They can’t hear me. It’s just my phone. But its fun to pretend. Follow Bookrageous on Twitter at @bookrageous.


The Readers Book Based Banter podcastThe Readers: This podcast’s tagline is “Book Based Banter,” which captures its charm brilliantly: the hosts are an Englishman and an American, and their exchanges tickle me. Every time Simon chuckles, which is often, I smile. I particularly loved episode 85: Your Country in Ten (or Eleven) books, in which they each selected ten books from their home country in an effort to showcase the culture and sense of place of the US and UK. My TBR list grew by 15 books that day. Follow The Readers on Twitter at @BookBasedBanter.

Dear Book Nerd podcast iconDear Book Nerd: Hosted by librarian Rita Meade, Dear Book Nerd is a podcast that grew out of Meade’s “Dear Book Nerd” advice column on Book Riot in which she answers questions like “What’s the Best Pickup Line to use on a Librarian?” The podcast is relatively new – 7 episodes as of this writing – and she has tackled questions ranging from how to not feel defensive about not reading literary fiction to the risky business of lending books. You can follow Rita Meade on Twitter @ScrewyDecimal.