By the Book: Summer Reads

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Whether sheltering in place or soaking up sunshine, add these titles by Georgia authors to your summer reading list.

Story by Chip Bell

Summertime, and the reading is easy. Plots are jumping, and the mystery’s high. The big question is what book titles to grab, along with your sunscreen, when heading for the backyard or beach.

The Georgia Writers Museum in downtown Eatonton is your best source for “what’s hot” and what goes best with the sun and relaxation. We have three surprising and diverse titles to suggest.

  1. The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker.

My friend, best-selling author Terry Kay, is always a good source for great reads. As a Townsend Award winner and a Georgia Writers Hall of Fame inductee, Terry believes Walker’s best book is her first novel, our featured title. You recall how The Color Purple kept you reading way past your bedtime? This 1970 novel reveals the magnificent tension between Walker’s boiling fury and her groundwater of hope. Like driving two wild horses pulling a wagon at breakneck speed, her book unfolds with the emotional highs and lows of a literary roller coaster.

The plot plays out over three generations of African-American Georgia sharecroppers. Grange Copeland starts his adult life happily married to Margaret. But the cruel white landowner exploits Grange, driving him hopelessly into debt. Grange turns his rage into heavy drinking, abuse, and adultery. Margaret gets back at him by having an affair with a white man, which results in a light-skinned baby. Grange abandons his family, and the roller-coaster ride of emotions goes on from there. According to Walker, the murder in the novel is based on one that happened in Eatonton. 

“It was an incredibly difficult novel to write,” wrote Alice Walker, “for I had to look at, and name, and speak up about violence among black people in the black community at the same time that black people (and some whites)—including me and my family—were enduring massive psychological and physical violence from white supremacists in the southern states, particularly Mississippi.”

  • The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South by John T. Edge.

John and I met last November at the ceremony inducting him into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. He charmed the audience with his magical food stories. My favorite was his Old Miss masters degree thesis on the 1931 “food fight” that played out in the editorial section of the Atlanta Constitution between Louisiana governor Huey Long and newspaper editor Julian Harris (son of Joel Chandler Harris) over whether cornbread should be dunked or crumbled when dipped in potlikker. Edge is a foodie’s foodie, but he is not a recipe-type writer. He is a food historian and a magnificent storyteller. 

Edge’s book covers a 60-year period, telling the story of the South through food—from the kitchen of Georgia Gilmore, who organized cooks and bakers to sell food to raise funds to support the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, to the modern Southern artisanal food movement. Want an appetizer? During the days of enslavement, slave masters retained the collard greens for themselves and gave the potlikker to the enslaved, not knowing it contained most of the nutrients. John Edge will be the featured “Meet the Author” speaker at the Georgia Writers Museum on August 2.

  • Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories by Michael Bishop.

When Bishop spoke at the “Meet the Author” event at the Georgia Writers Museum last

December, he

told the enthusiastic crowd that as a young writer he could not decide if he wanted to be Ray Bradbury (bestselling author of the classic sci-fi novel, Fahrenheit 451) or Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, William Faulkner. We are all fortunate he never gave up his confusion. Bishop has written award-winning science-fiction stories as well as highly acclaimed novels. He was a 2018 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. And his newest book, featured here, won the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year Award for Short Story Collections.

Much like Flannery O’Connor, Bishop’s stock in trade is darkly humorous stories crafted around eccentric characters in rather freakish situations. My favorite of the 15 stories is “Rattlesnakes and Men.” Quick backstory: Bishop and his wife, Jeri, lost their son in 2007 to a shooter at the Virginia Tech massacre. Here is a teaser (but not a spoiler).

The small fictitious town of Wriggly in Nokuse County, Georgia, is the home of a biotech company that has genetically engineered poisonous snakes to live coiled around human limbs to serve as self-defense “carry snakes.” The town passed an ordinance that required every resident to carry a self-defense snake. This, even though every year more citizens were killed by the snakes than were protected by them. When a few citizens protest this practice, they are either attacked or driven out of town for threatening the town’s way of life. The tongue-in-cheek fable unearths a collection of comical events, never straying far from its metaphoric message. And, as in O’Connor’s short stories, there is always a miracle waiting at the end.

  • Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and author of several award-winning, best-selling books. He serves on the board of the Georgia Writers Museum in Eatonton which celebrates the life and work of world-renowned authors Alice Walker, Joel Chandler Harris, Flannery O’Connor, and serves as the home of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. It provides numerous events that promote Georgia writers and educate future writers.

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