Southern biographies, memoirs figure prominently in 2016


Ready to ring in a new chapter? Start with our favorite Southern titles for 2016. Highlights include the first nonfiction book ever from Lee Smith, two decades of collected work from award-winning Atlanta poet Kevin Young, a debut by Bronwen Dickey that may change your mind forever about pitbulls, and new biographies of Nina Simone, James Brown and Harry Crews.

JANUARY

‘Blue Laws:’ Kevin Young. Subtitled ‘Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015,’ this substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, “Blue Laws” is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)

‘The Family Tree,’ Karen Branan. Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)

‘A Thousand Naked Strangers,’ Kevin Hazzard. Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)

‘Shame and Wonder,’ David Searcy. In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)

FEBRUARY

‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ Alan Light. Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)

‘Out of the Blues,’ Trudy Nan Boyce. Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinder block blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)

‘My Father, the Pornographer,’ Chris Offutt. Upon his father’s death in 2013, award-winning author and Kentucky native Chris Offutt discovered that the man he knew as a tyrant, workaholic and virtual shut-in was the author of nearly 375 books of pornography. In the tracing of Andrew Offutt’s clandestine career and its effect on the family, Offutt revisits his own lifelong struggle to understand a complex, profoundly divided man. (Atria Books)

‘The Black Calhouns,’ Gail Lumet Buckley. The daughter of Lena Horne, Buckley (“American Patriots”) sets forth the saga of her prominent family in this outstanding blend of history and memoir, subtitled “From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family.” Beginning with her great-great-grandfather, a house slave who became one of the most successful businessmen in Atlanta, Buckley reconstructs the Calhouns’ lives in Atlanta and New York during the Harlem Renaissance, up through the civil rights era, providing a vivid portrait of six generations of social upheaval and change. (Atlantic Monthly Press)

MARCH

‘Dimestore,’ Lee Smith. Her isolated but happy childhood as the daughter of two “kindly nervous” parents leads off Smith’s charming memoir-in-essays, in which she recalls the joys of life at her father’s Ben Franklin dime store; growing up in the homespun mountain town of Grundy, Va.; her early years in college and as a young mother; and the evolution of her writing career. Though the tone throughout is bright and nostalgic, Smith writes openly about her family’s history of mental illness: particularly her parents’ depressions and anxiety disorders, and her son’s battle with schizophrenia. (Algonquin)

‘News of the World,’ Paulette Jiles. Recalling Charles Portis’ “True Grit,” Jiles’ sharply observed story set in 1870 follows a crusty war veteran from Georgia who makes a promise to return a 10-year-old girl, stolen by the Kiowas at age 6, to her family in San Antonio, a perilous 400-mile journey across unsettled territory. Along the way, they’re tracked by a predatory outlaw with designs on the girl, her septuagenarian protector ekes out a living reading the newspaper to locals hungry for current events, and his small but fierce companion proves that her time among the Indians has not been in vain. (William Morrow)

APRIL

‘I Don’t Like Where This Is Going,’ John Dufresne

In Dufresne’s second Wylie “Coyote” Melville novel (after “No Regrets, Coyote”), the deep-thinking psychotherapist and his poker-playing magician friend relocate to Las Vegas, investigating what may or may not have been a woman’s suicide. Come for the ghoulish Vegas vibe and surreal story of human trafficking; stay for Wylie’s musings on art, literature, physics, magic, and ancient Egyptian funerary texts. (Norton)

‘Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for the Real James Brown,’ James McBride. Time has not been kind to the Godfather of Soul, nor have many of the portrayals of his life and times. McBride, a musician and the award-winning author of “The Good Lord Bird,” restores Brown’s dignity and humanity in a compassionate investigation that includes candid interviews with longtime bandmate Pee Wee Ellis, Brown’s “Money Man” David Cannon and manager Charles Bobbit. McBride pays careful attention to the war over the $100 million fund Brown left to educate poor children in South Carolina and Georgia. (Spiegel & Grau)

MAY

‘Pit Bull,’ Bronwen Dickey. Dickey delivers a spirited defense and celebration of the American pit bull, whose once-sterling reputation was ruined long before the days of Michael Vick. When she adopts “affectionate, timid” pit Lola, Dickey finds that the dog purported to be “biologically wired to kill” makes one of the most loyal, hardworking and affectionate pets around. Her well-researched, enlightening book introduces many statistics, advocates, and history aimed at restoring faith in this much maligned, misunderstood breed. (Knopf)

‘Blood, Bone, and Marrow,’ Ted Geltner. Before his death in 2012, Harry Crews, the Rabelasian author of “A Feast of Snakes,” met with Geltner to discuss the prospect of a literary biography. Crews, in declining health, was game. “Ask me anything,” he said, “but you better work fast.” The result is the first full-length biography of the dirt-poor boy from Alma who went on to create the unforgettable voice of his own uniquely gritty, outlaw South. (University of Georgia Press)


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