Andrea Reads America: Mississippi

Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi books
Andrea Reads America map of Mississippi

That’s quite a set of authors: Donna Tartt, Pulitzer winner for The Goldfinch; William Faulkner, Nobel  laureate; and Jesmyn Ward, two-time National Book Award winner, first for Salvage the Bones and second for Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’m reading now. I’ve read multiple books by all of these authors, all of whom are expert at weaving a compelling story while making the setting a character in the book. Mississippi is hot and humid, filled with racial tension and poverty, and has that deep South mystery and darkness that spawns great literature. It was a pleasure to read this state.

salvage the bones book cover Novel: Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward, born 1977, DeLisle, Mississippi
Setting: coastal Mississippi at the time of Hurricane Katrina
Categories: Literary Fiction, African-American Fiction, Southern Fiction

Wow. Talk about setting being a character in a book. The Mississippi portrayed in this book is the bayou life of an African-American family filled with men, boys, and one girl, for the mother has died. Despite the poorness of the family, the scenes are rich. I was able to feel the sweltering heat, smell the sweat and mud, hear the barks and the slobbery panting of the story’s pit bull, China, raised and loved by Skeetah to fight in dog fights.

In the novel, Hurricane Katrina is making its way towards Louisiana and Mississippi. Our narrator, Esch, is the only female in the entire book, except for girls and women mentioned in passing, and she portrays the experience through that lens: the perspective of one girl in a sea of men.

There is deep love in this book. There is tenderness. The are also harsh realities, of poverty, of the strange conflicted world of pit bull fighting, of hunger, of a need to protect, of loss, and of aftermath. It is a beautiful book, and I am happily devouring Ward’s next one.

the sound and the fury book cover Novel: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner, born New Albany, MS 1897
Setting: 1910 and 1928 Mississippi
Categories: Southern Gothic, Literary Fiction

Set in Mississippi in the early 1900s (1900-1928), The Sound and the Fury is the story of the Comspon family, and secondarily, the Bascoms who, according to the mother’s complaints, are not seen as being as high-born as the Compsons. There’s Benjy, the 33-year old who someone described on his birthday as being 3 for 30 years. There are Quentin the brother and Quentin the niece. There’s the mother closeted in her room because, as she says, “I am not one of those women who can stand things.” There are Jason the alcoholic father and Jason the ferocious brother, and there’s incest, and suicide, and swimming, and a wedding, and who knows what all else that I still haven’t figured out.

This is a difficult book to read, not because of the content (though if you are able to figure out the content, it is difficult, too), but because of the jumping back and forth through time, because multiple characters have the same name, and because the narrators are mentally unstable. Surprisingly, the difficulty of this book did not frustrate me or make me want to throw it against a wall, though that would be a valid reaction to it. Instead it made me want to know, what the hell is going on?

I read this book twice within the space of a week. I wrote more about the experience on my main blog, in The Sounds and the Fury: wut, so I don’t want to repeat myself here, but this book got into me. Two weeks after reading and re-reading it, I’m still thinking about it. It might be my favorite read of the year.

the little friend book cover Novel: The Little Friend
Author: Donna Tartt, born Greenwood, Mississippi,1963
Setting: 1960s Alexandria, Mississippi
Categories: Literary Fiction, Southern Fiction

I had no idea what to expect of this book. It began quickly with the murder of a child: a white boy hanged from a tree in the yard on Mother’s Day, like a lynching. Set in Mississippi in the 1960s, the book leads us through small town dramas of race and class that make you wonder, “Who did it?”

Then after a while, the story winds this way and that, like the snakes the young protagonist, Harriet, steals from a snake-handling wannabe preacher, who is brother to the most dangerous men in town — hard, rough, violent men who are amped on meth, and who cook and deal meth from their booby-trapped lab in the middle of the Mississippi woods, and who shoot at black folks for sport.  As the reader, I first wondered, “Wow, is Donna Tartt serving up a murder mystery?” as the murdered boy’s sister seeks revenge on his killers, who she must first find. Then, as the stories unfold, I wondered, “Maybe this isn’t about who did it after all.”

There are many layers in this novel, and as with all of her books, I find myself afterwards trying to figure it all out. The racial commentary is very clear, as is the class commentary, but I’m not sure what it all means in the end, or if it means anything at all.

What I do know is that Donna Tartt nailed the oppressive swampy heat and mosquito, snake-infested landscape of the low country of Mississippi. As the novel progresses, she nails the characters of the deep South as well: the dialect, the prejudices, the pride, and the oblivion.

This one was a page turner, and a brain-prodder as well. At the end I wanted to start at the beginning again, but I didn’t. Instead I kept a list of questions I want to ask when I come across someone who’s read it recently.

For Further Reading in Mississippi

Books I’ve read:
– As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Books I want to read:
Long Division, Kiese Laymon


I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at

Andrea Reads America: Georgia

Andrea Reads America Georgia Book Map deluxe
Andrea Reads America: Georgia

I have arrived in my home state on my US reading tour. Georgia. Where there is no way I can narrow the greats to only three books, and where as you can see by the map, I have cheated. I don’t know what it is about Southern literature, and why it has its own subgenre — Southern Gothic — but there is something about books entrenched in the deep South that appeals to me. Much of Southern literature is dark, with colorful and backwards characters, and there are undercurrents, always undercurrents, of hypocrisy, moral twisting, and a lack of self-awareness. Of masks of shoulds, and supposed-to-dos, and pretending for the sake of appearances.

But those things are human, not just Southern. Maybe I am fascinated because the American South is my home, and its history is both rich and mournful. Slavery blended African and New World, without the consent of the Africans who were brought here. It bred tensions that exist today, a pushing, pulling, and blending of cultures and cuisines and dialects, leaving contradictory, paradoxical relations between races, and endless struggles around social structure, wealth, and status. But there’s also the sullen heat, oppressive humidity, and the perfect soil — and perfect climate — for cotton, which built an economic powerhouse on the backs of slaves: an economic structure that collapsed with the abolition of slavery, leaving the proud whites poor, and the freed slaves poorer.

At any rate. Before I get to my three official picks, I want to acknowledge my cheats. Any Georgia book list is not complete without Gone With The Wind. I’ve read Mitchell’s masterpiece multiple times, and it has made me understand my home state in a way that no history class ever could. Since Gone With The Wind is always on every Georgia book list, I don’t feel it needs yet another hoorah here, so I’ve decided not to highlight it in my three picks. I couldn’t bear to not mention it at all, though, because it really is one of the best books I’ve read that truly captures the essence of a place. Likewise, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a raw, honest, must-read memoir written by Janisse Ray, who grew up wild and isolated in a rural Georgia junkyard, dirt poor and daughter of fundamentalist Christians.

Because I’m from the coast of Georgia, I can’t go without mentioning favorite beach reads set in my home town of Tybee Island, the beach Savannah residents flock to on summer weekends, and that seems to be gaining popularity as a tourist destination as well. For a break from Southern Gothic, and for fast, fun, and funny reading, I adore Mary Kay Andrew’s Savannah Breeze series. And finally, the ultimate cheat, who doesn’t make an appearance on the map (due to space), is Carson McCullers, with her brilliant Ballad of the Sad Café (which features a hunchback, small town gatherings on the store porch, and a fist-fighting female café owner) and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, which I am currently reading (and devouring).

Are you still there? If so, awesome! Now that my cheats are out of the way, let’s get on to my three picks for Georgia 🙂

The Color Purple book cover by Alice Walker coverNovel: The Color Purple
Author: Alice Walker, born 1944 in Eatonton, GA
Setting: 1930s rural Georgia
Categories: African American Fiction, Literary fiction, Pulitzer, National Book Award

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one of the finest novels I have ever read. Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where I spent much of my childhood catching yellow-bellies in the creek, digging potatoes with my Grandaddy, and shucking corn with my Nannie. Walker’s novel is set before my time, but she captures the feel of middle Georgia beautifully.

The marvel of The Color Purple, aside from its brilliantly written dialogue, authenticity, warmth, and spiritual truths, is that Celie, the main character, in the face of a devastating life, somehow manages to find resilience, humor, intimacy, and even joy. She is confronted continually with a world that beats her down, as she writes to her sister here about her husband:

He laugh. Who you think you is? he say. You can’t curse nobody. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, he say, you nothing at all.

After a childhood with a father who rapes her, and after being married off to a husband who abuses her, Celie would have every reason to believe a statement like the above. But she doesn’t buy into it. She doesn’t fight it, she doesn’t become an angry, raging woman. Instead, from a life that brutalizes her, she gets tired of it all, says Screw it, and moves in her own direction.

Miss Celie, You better hush. God might hear you.

Let ‘im hear me, I say. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.

What I love about The Color Purple is that despite the world’s endless battering, despite the abuse from the men in her life, despite the loss of a sister and of a lover, Celie finds a strength inside her. She finds a direction, and she finds a strength.

Well, I say, we all have to start somewhere if us to do better, and our own self is what us have to hand.

She finds a strength in part because she finds love: love from another woman, love for a God who is not a white man with a beard but who is in trees and fields and the color purple, love for her lost sister whom she pours her heart out to in the letters that are this novel. With all that love, she finds herself, and she finds herself worthy.

For further reading about Alice Walker and other Southern women authors, please see Reading Southern Women.

Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories book coverBook: The Complete Stories
Author: Flannery O’Connor, born 1925 in Savannah, GA
Setting: 1940s rural Georgia
Categories: Southern Gothic, Short Stories

Grotesque. Sharp. Funny. Moral.
Dry. Smart. Twisted. Poignant.

Flannery O’Connor’s short stories make me think of a mash-up of Patsy Cline’s country music and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. O’Connor’s settings — with the heat, humidity, red clay, drawling dialect, racial tension, and moral righteousness — take you deep into small towns and back woods of central Georgia, and the stories are bizarre, populated with characters of the deep South whose convoluted minds O’Connor grants us entreé to.

O’Connor’s writing is tight, with every metaphor, every descriptor, contributing to the mood of the story:

She leaned a little closer and got a whiff of him that was like putting her nose under a buzzard’s wing.

Her stories are cunning. They are both alarming and witty as they examine deep truths and hypocrisies of Southern culture — outward appearances that mask judgement and racism; the struggles with Satan and rapture, Heaven and hell, class and color; and my favorite aspect, the poignant yet funny inner worlds of of her characters:

He had written a note and pinned it in his pocket. IF FOUND DEAD SHIP EXPRESS COLLECT TO COLEMAN PARRUM, CORINTH, GEORGIA.

Her characters make the stories, and it is impossible to walk away from an O’Connor story without marveling not only at her sharp wit and even sharper intelligence, but also her humility in the face of her genuine struggles with her faith in God and Church.

For further reading about Flannery O’Connor, please see Flannery, My Fire.

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter book coverNovel: Paris Trout
Author: Pete Dexter, born 1943, raised in Milledgeville, GA
Setting: 1940s small-town Georgia
Category: Literary Fiction, National Book Award

Set in a liquor-dry, small fictitious town in Georgia, Paris Trout is a vivid account of a stubborn white man, Paris Trout, who is driven by a convoluted set of principles that allow him to abuse his wife because she belongs to him as a husband, and to kill a black girl and a black woman because they happen to be in the same house as a black man who owes Paris Trout money.

Written in a series of chapters titled for different characters, this book is a page turner. The plot is paced like a runaway train, and you can’t look away from the wreck you know will happen. There were portions that were exceedingly violent, portions that made me want to quit the book. But as soon as I was ready to put it down in disgust, the chapter would end and a new character voice would begin.

Paris Trout won the 1988 National Book Award, and I can see why. Though the setting is clearly Georgia, with its red clay, moonshine, and Southern sensibilities, the story is universal. Paris Trout is white and comes from a solid, respected family. He is an important man in the county. His social station carries more weight than the crimes he commits. As such, his story plays into one of the more potent themes that runs throughout the stories of the characters: appearances.

‘I didn’t have to make a living up there. I didn’t have people watching me.’

She closed her eyes as if she could not stand to see him. ‘What is left for them to see, Carl?’ she said. ‘You were the best Boy Scout in the world when you were eleven years old, and somehow that has obligated you to be the best Boy Scout forever.’

Paris Trout takes a fascinating look at  appearances: how people cultivate them, how color dictates them, and how absolutely devastating it can be when the appearance the world sees — or chooses to see — is out of sync with the truth of a person.

The way he’s crazy isn’t that far off center so most of the time he seems like anyone else… Ordinary people might consider things in the abstract, but bad intentions aren’t what crazy is about. Even if we’re all on the same road, Paris Trout doesn’t have any brakes.

For Further Reading in Georgia

Books I’ve read and recommend:
Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Anne Burns
Delrium of the Brave by William C. Harris, Jr.
Lighthouse by Eugenia Price
Books that have been recommended to me and I have not yet read:
Peachtree Road by Anne Rivers Siddons
Cane by Jeane Toomes
Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at