Don’t want to read Harper Lee? Try these books instead

Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn Ward.
Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn Ward.

Reviews may have been mixed, but the verdict is in: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is a hit. Since its release on July 14, the novel — either a sequel to or rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on whom you ask — has sold 1.1 million copies, according to Publisher’s Weekly. Publisher HarperCollins reports the book has gone back to press for 1.3 million additional copies, with Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million reporting that last week it was the fastest-selling adult fiction title in the history of both retailers.

But Go Set a Watchman is not without its critics, due to its questionable publishing history, its author’s health problems and its portrayal of a beloved fictional character, Atticus Finch, as a racist. So maybe you don’t want to read it. No worries. We’re happy to suggest something else. Southern fiction is a rich treasure trove with a wide range of stories, from the hilarity of Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at The P.O. to the dark matter of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. Read Southern fiction and you can laugh, cry, gasp or brood — or all of the above.

Yet we’ve all read the classics, haven’t we? William Faulkner’s Light in August or The Sound and the Fury (though some of us might counter that As I Lay Dying is the true masterpiece). Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Even later, more modern works of art — Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain — we’ve read those, too (if you haven’t, do yourself a favor, get to them).

Here, we offer a few suggestions that may be less familiar. Happy reading.

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward. A killer hurricane is bearing down on the Gulf Coast, and a motherless family in Mississippi — including a drunken father and pregnant teenage daughter — are ill prepared to face it. Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel (she’s also author of the memoir Men We Reaped) is an unsparing look at the brutal effects of poverty.

Burning Bright, Ron Rash. In these grim stories of life in Appalachia, modern times (methamphetamine, recession, Lynyrd Skynyrd cover bands) collide with the remnants of the old South. Rash has written other fine story collections (Nothing Gold Can Stay, for instance), but Burning Bright is his best.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones. Set in Virginia, Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about black slave owners in the years before the Civil War is complex but deeply rewarding, the sort of book that stays with you long after you’ve savored the final pages.

The Anna Papers, Ellen Gilchrist. Another master of the Southern short story — oh, how wonderful her collections Victory Over Japan and In the Land of Dreamy Dreams are! — Gilchrist connects her work through the web of combative but loving families. Still, her best work is this unsentimental novel about a dying writer who commits suicide but leaves a powerful legacy behind.

Crazy in Alabama, Mark Childress. Two stories emerge in Childress’ entertaining novel: In one, a youngster named Peejoe Bullis and his brother are shipped off to live with an uncle as the Civil Rights movement begins; in the other, Peejoe’s wild Aunt Lucille poisons her husband and heads to Hollywood looking for a part on The Beverly Hillbillies. Crazy indeed.

Ellen Foster, Kaye Gibbons. Young Ellen has no family and no safe haven, but don’t feel sorry for her. In Gibbons’ slim but powerful novel she finds a space to call her own. Read all about it in the sequel The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster.

A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews. Things always get out of hand during the Rattlesnake Roundup in the hard-drinking, hard-luck rural town of Mystic, Georgia. But this time the crazy really lets loose, thanks to Crews’ wild, profane imagination. Want a change of pace? Read his elegiac memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.

Standing in the Rainbow, Fannie Flagg. This delightful novel that centers on “Neighbor Dorothy,” a local radio personality who doles out “news” in a quirky small town, takes place in Missouri, and that may not count as Southern. We’re giving Flagg the benefit of the doubt since was born in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and because this book’s folksy rhythms wash over you with a definite Southern feel.

Going Away Shoes, Jill McCorkle. She’s best known for such novels as The Cheer Leader and Ferris Beach, but McCorkle truly shines in her short stories, if you ask me. I once listened to her read the story Me and Big Foot at Miami Book Fair International, and I’m still chuckling.

Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree, Greg Iles. Thriller writer Iles is two-thirds of the way through his trilogy about justice and corruption. In Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree, a former prosecutor struggles to clear his father, a popular doctor, from a murder charge. There’s plenty of time to catch up before book three is published.