Sometimes I am strangely reticent to pick up a work of fiction. I always feel like I should be reading non-fiction instead. In other words, I should be finding some way to better myself, to expand my skill set, to learn more about the world and my place in it. But thats the thing: I do learn more about the world (and my own heart) whenever I read fiction. There is something so much deeper about the way that books carefully unwrap a story. That depth simply can’t be replicated by a show or a film, no matter how great it is. I try to remind myself that a solid work of fiction is exhilarating and enriching: its never a waste.
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Oral History by Lee Smith is one of my favorites. It tells the tale of a single family’s ancestry in Appalachia. When I read it, I couldn’t put it down (and I soon became desperate to learn even more about my own heritage!). The inside flap mentions murder, incest, and suicide, but its really more about strength and roots, along with the pain of forgetting. It probably helps that Lee Smith attended my alma mater, Hollins University, but even if I didn’t know that I would still love her. When I have more time on my hands, I would love to read more of her stuff. Southern women writers are my jam.
Another Hollins writer (and possibly the very best). Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. From the very first paragraph, you’ll understand why. Its not necessarily an easy read, however. I found it a tad laborious at times, perhaps because I don’t read much nature-writing to begin with. In the words of Eudora Welty, “The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing….A reader’s heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled.”
Jubilee is sort of like Gone with the Wind, except that it focuses on people of color and their experience of the South. The spirited main character, Vyry, was author Margaret Walker’s ancestor. Walker did decades of research to complete this book and it makes me really sad that so few people have heard of it. I loved this book and read it quickly.
Their Eyes Were Watching God would be a favorite of mine, wouldn’t it? It is a Southern love story that takes place right here in Florida, after all. I love my boy Tea Cake. I had no trouble getting into this book, but for those who don’t quite get it, I’ve heard that the audiobook version is great.
Speaking of my home state Florida, there will always be a special place in my heart for The Yearling. This book is a wonderful read-aloud for children, and it absolutely makes the Floridian landscape come alive. Its also full of charming and robust characters.
Back to the subject of Southern women writers, this book offers a great sampling of their stories. This clunky anthology holds a center place in our bookcase because it was a favorite text from college. It includes pieces by Lee Smith, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Zora Neale Hurston and more.
I know that not everyone loves The Red Tent, but it remains one of my favorites. I first read it in high school and formed a fast attachment to it, probably because it was the first book I had ever read that sparked an interest in biblical traditions. I felt similarly when I read The Dovekeepers– perhaps the language (and all the sex, bleeding and witchcraft) is way over the top, but there’s something about that bloody mystical Judaism that was a stepping stone for me from paganism towards an earthy, incarnational monotheism.
Flannery. I’ve heard that some people don’t like her stuff- too disturbing, too Gothic, too heavy? On top of being plain brilliant, I think her work is hysterical- so maybe that’s way I’ve never experienced her as being too dark. There are moments when I just cant help but laugh, and moments when I feel genuinely disturbed, Her depictions of life in the rural South are among the most accurate I’ve read. She’s also super Catholic, and once you know that, you see it everywhere in her writing.
Gone with the Wind. I’m actually a genuine collector at this point, which is mostly an inheritance from my mother. I have two first editions (who even knows how many my mom has!). I always loved knowing that Margaret’s husband encouraged her writing, even when she felt uncertain about it. She never wrote another book, because the success of this one (and the subsequent film) basically took over her life- she spent years politely responding to letters from her fans.
Kristin Lavransdatter is probably my favorite book for the time being, mostly because it added color and texture to my faith. Please read this review of this book because it spells out every feeling I have about Kristin. It drew me closer to Catholicism because I could feel that ancient, mystical energy in its pages. This is another Pulitzer Prize winner, and it really freaks me out that I had not even heard of this masterful work until I was 26 years old! I had never once seen the cover, nor heard of Undset, until I began considering reverting. I love the setting, along with the descriptions of Kristin’s sun-worn strength and beauty. This epic story isn’t necessarily a happy one, but its full of feasting, medieval magic, and characters that stay near your heart. Tim and I have been reading it aloud to each other at night lately, because we are 100 years old.
In This House of Brede is another one that carried me towards my faith. Its the story of Philippa Talbot, a chic and successful woman in London who leaves the world to become a Benedictine nun. Not everyone will get it- but this book about life in a nunnery is a total page turner, full of real flush-and-blood life problems and solutions. I cried A LOT reading this book. It also made me fully aware of the power of women in religious life.