This summer’s nonfiction ranges from the memoirs of a ramblin’ Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to the musings of a civil rights icon to the travelogue of an accidental bird-watcher. New novels set in suburban Atlanta, rural Georgia, Manhattan, small-town Alabama, North Carolina, and a midsize Hungarian city are testaments to the depth and variety of literature happening right here.
ACROSS THAT BRIDGE by John Lewis (Hyperion)
Atlanta’s longtime congressman renews his call for nonviolent activism and basic civility, revisiting lessons learned more than half a century ago. Having survived more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, when Lewis frets about today’s partisan discourse, he deserves a receptive audience.
First look: Even I, who have looked down the barrel of a gun with only my faith to defend me, would say there is a unique hostility in these times that almost seems worse to me than we experienced in the 1960s.
THE ARMCHAIR BIRDER GOES COASTAL by John Yow (University of North Carolina Press)
In this delightful follow-up to 2009’s The Armchair Birder, Yow travels beyond his backyard in Acworth. Organized by seasons, Yow’s avian adventures stretch from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, down the coast, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico, blending anecdotes with field notes from top naturalists.
First look: Seeing us coming, two hundred white pelicans had already removed themselves from the beach and resettled on the water a hundred yards out. As we picked our way carefully along the shoreline, the air was filled with the low murmur of birds yet unseen in the vegetation rising on our left side. Then, sudden as summer thunder, the white ibises arose . . . wheeling low overhead in a churning cloud of white.
MY CROSS TO BEAR by Gregg Allman with Alan Light (William Morrow)
Allman’s solo album Low Country Blues was nominated for Best Blues Album at 2011’s Grammy Awards, where his band was honored with a lifetime achievement award. In his memoir, Allman opens up about his years in Macon (or at least what he can remember of them), his brother’s death, his most famous wife, and all his personal demons. The only constant was a pure, palpable love of making music.
First look: Basically you state the problem in the first verse, you embellish on the problem in the second verse—like “let me tell what a bitch she really is”—and then you usually have some good music to let you think about them words for a while and also get lifted up by that music.
THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE REDNECK RIVIERA by Harvey H. Jackson III (University of Georgia Press)
A historian at Jacksonville State University focuses on the stretch of coast from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Panama City, Florida, that grew from a string of small, sparsely populated fishing villages into a vacation mecca for Southern working-class families and spring break bacchanals. The book captures the constantly shifting relationship between the coast and its people.
First look: Children were not the only harbingers of change. Even though the motels close to the amusements had maintained their reputation as safe places for families to stay, the beach was beginning to attract people who wanted to do more than swim, play Goofy Golf, fish a little, eat seafood fried or raw, and go home with a carved coconut head.
THE WORLD OF THE SALT MARSH by Charles Seabrook (University of Georgia Press)
For more than three decades, Seabrook has traveled the world writing about science and the environment for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In this book, he takes a very personal—but still beautifully reported—journey as he explores the Southeastern U.S. coast, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Canaveral, Florida. A native of Johns Island, South Carolina, Seabrook delves into natural history and ecological threats without letting the poetry of the marsh get lost in the science.
First look: I spent half my childhood trying to get off an island. I have spent half my adulthood trying to get back.
CARING IS CREEPY by David Zimmerman (Soho Press)
In this relentless psychological thriller, fifteen-year-old Lynn Marie Sugrue escapes her bleak reality by flirting online with a young soldier. When he gets in trouble on base and flees to the girl’s home in rural Georgia, a bad situation turns really disturbing. Lynn keeps him in a storage space accessible only through her closet, even as her mother’s boyfriend sinks deeper into criminal activities that put the entire household at risk. The author grew up in Atlanta and teaches now at Iowa State.
First look: So this is August of 2005 in Metter, Georgia, population half of nothing. A million miles from anywhere good. So this is me and Dani, just turned fifteen and a couple weeks away from our sophomore year at Metter High. So this is me f—ing up my life like you wouldn’t believe.
ELZA’S KITCHEN by Marc Fitten (Bloomsbury)
Fitten returns to the Hungary he depicted so brilliantly in his debut novel, Valeria’s Last Stand (2009), for another fable of midlife passion and rekindled purpose. Forty-eight-year-old divorcee Elza runs a respectable restaurant in the city of Delibab, serving up Hungarian classics and missing something she can’t quite identify. The author lived in Hungary in his twenties, when that country was going through tremendous political and cultural change. His characters capture a time and a place while still being absolutely magical.
First look: Elza arrived at the woeful conclusion that the last time she could remember feeling truly hopeful about life was a staggering twenty years prior—when her skin was a touch more elastic, her hair was uncolored, she was newly freed from a bad marriage, and her future spilled out around her like a tipped-over bag of flour.
I COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE by Jillian Medoff (Grand Central Publishing/Five Spot)
Eliot, a middle-aged working mom in a precariously blended family, has a chance encounter with her long-lost first love, Finn, that sets off a series of crises (real and existential) that threaten her carefully calibrated life in the Atlanta suburbs. Midway through the novel, a family day at the beach takes a nasty, slightly melodramatic turn that puts everything in perspective for Eliot. Life is all about choices, made and unmade.
First look: At the beginning of my daughter’s princess party, right before Cinderella is scheduled to arrive, my sister Sylvia announces, apropos of nothing, that she is going blind.
SAVING RUTH by Zoe Fishman (William Morrow Paperbacks)
In her second novel, Fishman draws inspiration from her own childhood—growing up Jewish in Alabama—to spin a coming-of-age tale that has a little of everything: racial tension, sibling love-hate, even an eating disorder. Ruth Wasserman and her soccer-star brother come home from their respective colleges for the summer to take up their regular lifeguarding duties. When a little girl nearly sinks on their watch, long-held secrets start their inevitable rise. The author, who now lives in Atlanta, has a deft touch with the details of childhood.
First look: I wondered if my old Barbies were hiding in there, with their botched haircuts and chewed-up feet. My appetite for those minuscule hunks of malleable plastic had been insatiable. By the time I had been done with a Barbie, she was hairless and crippled.
SEVEN WAYS TO DIE by William Diehl with Kenneth John Atchity (AEI/Story Merchant Books)
Before he died in 2006, Diehl (Sharky’s Machine and Primal Fear) had written more than 400 pages of his tenth novel, about a captain in the NYPD on the trail of a serial killer in Manhattan. Using an outline and notes that Diehl left behind, Atchity finished the thriller, staying very true to the fast-paced, screenplay-ready plot that was the author’s trademark. It’s a fitting posthumous tribute to the former journalist—and first managing editor of Atlanta magazine—who left his day job in his fifties to pursue his dream of writing fiction.
First look: As always his psyche was momentarily askew. He performed each autopsy compassionately. They were constant reminders of the finite line between life and death, between the human body and a corpse without a soul.
SPRING FEVER by Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press)
The ninth in a shelf full of crowd-pleasing novels from the chick-lit maven of Avondale Estates is set in Passcoe, North Carolina. Annajane Hudgens is so over her ex-husband that she shows up for his wedding to the horribly perfect Celia. Fate intervenes in the unlikely form of a child’s ailing appendix, which halts the wedding and makes Annajane (and her ex) start thinking about second chances.
First look: “Don’t kid yourself that he’s had a change of heart, Annajane dear. One little night apart won’t hurt me. Because he’ll be sharing my bed for years and years to come,” Celia gloated. She stepped aside and held the bathroom door open with a flourish. “And don’t bother to wait on an invitation to the wedding. This time, it’s strictly a private FAMILY affair.”