12 best Southern books to read this fall

Karr, Gaitskill and Theroux top the list

It’s a shame book publishing isn’t more of a fantasy sport.

If it were, this fall would definitely be the season to get a league started. The lineup of all-stars releasing buzz-worthy titles sounds almost too good to be true.

Along with heavy hitters like Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie, autumn promises enticing new novels from Margaret Atwood and John Irving, story collections by Joy Williams and William H. Gass, nonfiction by Marilynne Robinson and Joyce Carol Oates — and that’s only a smattering of fan favorites.

Focusing just on Southern authors and titles also finds an embarrassment of riches for readers. Beyond the high-profile returns of veterans like Mary Karr or Mary Gaitskill, the season brings engrossing new work from Lauren Groff, Paul Theroux , Julia Elliott and many more. Here’s a peek at 12 of fall’s legends and future MVPs.

Fiction

‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff

Readers nervous about spoilers should tread carefully: Even the dust jacket copy reveals more than it should about this complex critical darling.

The much-hyped latest by Groff, author of “Arcadia,” begins with a bang. Lotto and Mathilde, 22 years old, rush to consummate their secret marriage on a cold Maine beach, which isn’t quite what Lotto had pictured with “this gorgeous girl he’d magicked into wife.” The rough, yet tender scene plants the first clues that the author may be working other sorts of magic tricks behind the scenes.

For the first half of the book, we watch decades of the passionate relationship unfold from Lotto’s perspective. Groff, who first conceived of “Fates and Furies” as a pair of separate novels, switches to Mathilde’s point of view for the remainder — forcing a fateful reassessment of everything that came before. (Riverhead, September)

‘Honey from the Lion’ by Matthew Neill Null

“West Virginia is a museum of failed enterprise,” writes Null, and he should know. He grew up among the rubbish of closed coal mines and oil derricks; a landscape where empty towns were left to rot. “Honey from the Lion,” Null’s compelling debut novel, delivers a stark assessment of the logging of virgin timber and the unfortunate legacies of the Gilded Age.

While the prospect of spending 264 pages reading about deforestation in turn-of-the-century Appalachia might sound tedious, Null’s striking, lyrical language is an engrossing delight. “With a metallic groan the tree twisted and fell — so fast, so slow, the drizzling molasses, as they all do. It parted the forest like a blade, the world shook and blurred with its percussion. Branches snapping, birds flaring. Like a courthouse coming down.” (Lookout, September)

‘Cries for Help, Various’ by Padgett Powell

Powell, a National Book Award nominee and writing professor at the University of Florida, spent years in Sisyphus mode shopping this anthology, his first new collection since 1998. It’s easy to see how the previous subtitle, “Forty-Five Failed Novels,” sent publishers packing.

Now, Powell’s cantankerous, funny prose finally reaches readers via a new literary venture by Elizabeth R. Koch, daughter of conservative billionaire Charles Koch. The 44 stories in “Cries for Help” hustle through dreamlike predicaments with dizzying resolve, pulling you by the ear into 7 Elevens, car dealerships and covered wagons. Cameos include Janis Joplin, Ted Turner and lots of Boris Yeltsin. It’s a mixed bag, for sure, but some of the strongest flash fiction pieces bring to mind the humor and economy of Lydia Davis. Powell’s at his best when he resists pushing the envelope too far, suggesting that what looks like reckless abandon on the page may actually be white-knuckled control. (Catapult, September)

‘Twain’s End’ by Lynn Cullen

In “Life on the Mississippi,” Samuel Clemens gives an account of borrowing his literary pseudonym from a riverboat captain. “Mark twain” was a sailing term indicating that the water was 2 fathoms deep and safe to navigate. As it turns out, the story is probably a fabrication — something to keep in mind when diving into Cullen’s tense “Twain’s End.”

Her previous page-turner, “Mrs. Poe,” found Edgar Allen Poe in an illicit love affair.

In her latest historical novel, Cullen doubles down on love triangles. Helen Keller gets caught up in a complicated relationship involving her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, and Anne’s husband, John. Their messy situation is practically a cake walk compared to the jam Isabel Lyon’s in. The secretary grows ever closer with her employer, Twain, as his wife dies. But in a twist Poe might applaud, the person standing in the way of their love is none other than the self-loathing Samuel Clemens. Deep waters, sure, but maybe not so safe. (Gallery, October)

‘The New and Improved Romie Futch’ by Julia Elliott

Elliott’s rule-breaking collection of gothic, apocalyptic short stories, “The Wilds,” landed on several “best of” lists last year. This funny and imaginative debut novel delivers even more sci-fi satire and dystopian strangeness. The title character is a depressed South Carolina taxidermist desperate for cash and aching to get over his ex-wife. He agrees to take part in an experiment conducted by Atlanta’s Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience. Surprising no one, cerebral downloads of a liberal arts education only make his situation trickier.

And then along comes Hogzilla, a genetic monstrosity that Romie vows to take down. Just when it seems Elliott has jumped the shark, at least it was only a thousand-pound feral hog. (Tin House, October)

‘Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator’ by Homer Hickam

Years before Hickam was born, his parents Elsie and Homer undertook a dangerous 1,000-mile road trip. Their mission: to return Albert, Elsie’s pet alligator, to the swamps of Florida. The minor detail that the gator had been a gift from actor Buddy Ebsen adds incredulity to an already fishy sounding narrative, but Hickam maintains that those parts of the story are true.

Unfortunately, his parents passed away before they could help him fill in the missing blanks, which is what he does with gusto via a lighthearted travelogue. Further blurring the lines between genres, Hickam refers to the novel as a prequel to his memoir, “Rocket Boys.” Fact or fiction, it makes for an amusing and affectionate story about the lengths we all go to for love. (William Morrow, October)

‘The Mare’ by Mary Gaitskill

It’s been a strange journey for Gaitskill. Born in Kentucky, she made her debut with 1988’s edgy “Bad Behavior” and went on to sporadically publish forceful tales of obsessions, dysfunctional relationships, runaways and fashion models. Now comes a novel with what sounds like an altogether staid premise: A young girl learns to love horses — and herself.

Eleven year-old Velvet is a street-smart Brooklynite from a Dominican-American family. Through the Fresh Air Fund, she begins spending time with an upper-class white family in upstate New York and forms an attachment to a neglected horse. In the hands of many writers, this would be fodder for proselytizing or, even worse, cloying sentimentality. Gaitskill sidesteps both. (Pantheon, November)

Nonfiction

‘Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine’ by Damon Tweedy’

Tweedy, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, takes on the particular challenges facing black doctors and patients in today’s so-called “post-racial” society. Equal parts memoir and exposé, Tweedy details his personal journey as the son of a meat cutter attending medical school on a scholarship.

Enduring prejudice from skeptical professors is taxing enough, but the beguiling complexity of his situation really hits home when an African-American patient demands that he bring back a white doctor. Being diagnosed with hypertensive kidney disease (common among blacks than whites) allows Tweedy to ponder the racial divide from both sides of the examination room. (Picador, September)

‘The Art of Memoir’ by Mary Karr

“No one elected me the boss of memoir,” Karr declares with typical Texas swagger in this sparkling new meditation on the form. Elected or not, the poet and professor is frequently credited with inciting an explosion in autobiographical writing thanks to her 1995 bestseller, “The Liars’ Club.” She’s since published two sequels and mentored hundreds of writing students, the core audience for this spirited and penetrating guidebook overflowing with practical advice.

Non-writers who adore Karr’s distinctive voice no matter what the subject will encounter plenty tasty morsels and points worth pondering about her body of work, such as: “Though ‘The Liars’ Club’ rang true to me when I wrote it, from this juncture it seems to have sprung from a state of loving delusion about my family.” (Harper, September)

‘Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads’ by Paul Theroux

Before agreeing to any road trip, it’s smart to make sure you actually like your traveling companion. The advice applies to this hefty, 448-page travelogue that follows a year of the author’s meandering car rides below the Mason-Dixon Line. Though traveling without destinations in mind, Theroux does make a point to avoid big cities and stick to “the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.” Readers therefore experience the South on shuffle: glimpses into gun shows and pawnshops, chats with preachers and policemen.

The 74-year-old Theroux proves to be an engaging seatmate for the excursion. Early on, he confesses that the trip’s absence of airport indignities helped him rediscover the joy in travel: “Driving South, I became a traveler again in ways I’d forgotten.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September)

‘A Boy from Georgia: Coming of Age in the Segregated South’ by Hamilton Jordan

Jordan, a key adviser and chief of staff under Jimmy Carter, worked on this childhood memoir for the final decade of his life. His daughter Kathleen took on the task of finishing the book when Jordan died of peritoneal mesothelioma in 2008. The resulting memoir zeroes in on the narrator’s experiences growing up in segregated Albany in the 1950s and ’60s, which Kathleen describes in the preface as “a society only a half step removed from slavery.” The book serves as a fine companion piece to Jordan’s 2000 memoir “No Such Thing as a Bad Day,” detailing his political career and cancer struggles. (University of Georgia Press, October)

‘My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things’ by Joseph Skibell

Skibell, novelist and professor at Emory University, became obsessed with guitars after his father’s death in 2009. He describes his dad’s rocky final months in the hospital in the opening piece from this new collection of 16 interrelated essays, Skibell’s first foray into nonfiction. Despite the gravity of the domestic situation, the author manages to find humor and self-effacing wit even while contemplating his own mortality and possibly defective memory. Skibell discovers that even when writing so-called “true” stories, all lives are filled with imaginary things. (Algonquin, October)

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