10 Good Books To Curl Up With

Winter is upon us. Depending on where you live, the cold is coming or is already there. For the next few months, you may be stuck inside quite a bit.

It’s time to snuggle into your favorite overstuffed chair with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book. I can’t provide the soft spot or the hot beverage, but I can recommend some good reads. Most of these books are selected from books I read during 2012, though a couple are throwbacks and I’ll explain later why they were included in the list. It’s an eclectic mix and you should be able to find something here you haven’t read to kill the chill.

My Cross To Bear– Gregg Allman with Alan Light

519iQjM92SL__SL300If you’d like to take a look inside the southern fried rock and roll heart of the legendary wailers that were, and still are, The Allman Brothers Band, open this book. It has everything you’d expect from a sweeping chronicle of a life playing rock music, sex, drugs, death, famous musicians, triumph and tragedy. Gregg Allman gives an unflinching view of his life and the long strange journey of his bandmates. For more information, read my previous review.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much– Allison Hoover Bartlett

book_shadowThis is a story that could have been a great novel, but it’s not. It’s the non-fiction tale of John Charles Gilkey, a man obsessed with rare books who managed to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars of them, not for financial gain, but because he lusted to own them. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. In telling this story, journalist Bartlett takes the reader into the subterranean world of book junkies, a fascinating subculture of collectors and dealers.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter- Tom Franklin

crooked-letter-crooked-letter-book-cover-tom-franklinA dark, gothic southern crime novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a finely written page turner that will leave you sweaty from the heat and humidity of Mississippi. It’s a story about a man living a shunned life in a small town as a result of one damning night when he was in high school. It’s also the story of his childhood friend, now a police officer, who suspects his former playmate is responsible for a wave of killings he must solve. Can’t put it down reading charged with atmosphere and secrets. For more information, read my previous review.

Provinces Of Night– William Gay

provinces-night-william-gay-hardcover-cover-artThe world lost a great writer this year when William Gay died. I’m including this book in the list as a homage to one of my favorite writers and if you haven’t read it, you should run, not walk, and seek it out. Few authors can match the beauty of Gay’s prose. A disciple of Cormac McCarthy, Gay may have eclipsed his idol as a southern literary stylist. He also was a compelling storyteller, and in this, his best novel, he tells the tale of a banjo player who abandons his family to become a traveling minstrel and returns decades later when he is dying. Gay has this astounding ability to mix humor and tragedy while laying out the arc of a life. More about Gay is in my tribute to him earlier this year.

The Architecture Of The Arkansas Ozarks– Donald Harington

architecture-arkansas-ozarks-donald-harington-paperback-cover-artDonald Harrington died not long ago, and I’m including my favorite book of his, not because it’s new, but because he’s a fine writer who isn’t well known and deserves a bigger literary following. Though, the title of the book would make you think it’s non-fiction, it’s a sweeping novel. The Ingledew brothers found a town in the Arkansas wilderness in the early 1800s and Harington traces the progress, or lack of it, over generations into the late twentieth century. A rollicking write, the book has rare moments of absurd humor that may remind you of Twain, high praise indeed for a writer who is fairly obscure.

In A Shallow Grave– James Purdy

shallowgraveStrangely moody, this short novel by Purdy is a darkly melancholy journey uniquely wrought in a quirky writing style. It revolves around a returning veteran who has been so seriously maimed in war that people are repulsed by his appearance. Hiding out and nursing his pain, the novel gets heart-rending when he attempts to gain the love of a nearby widow. Purdy is a force unto himself in his choice of material and writing methods.

The World Made Straight– Ron Rash

imagesCAZ121KTSometimes you come across a writer that grabs you so forcefully your reaction is, God, I wish I could write like that. Rash is one of those writers and this is my favorite novel he has penned so far. You won’t find many writers that are more masterful storytellers. This book is typical. When a teenager finds a patch of marijuana and proceeds to steal it, he is plunged into a dangerous world that culminates in a heart-racing conclusion that is guaranteed to raise your blood pressure to unsafe levels.

That Old Cape Magic- Richard Russo

that-old-cape-magic-203x300Russo is one of those rare writers who can bridge the gap between commercial and literary fiction. In his latest novel, he has created a charming, funny and touching story about a man in mid-life crisis trying to figure out which way to turn. Raised by two combative college professors, Jack Griffin feels lost, his marriage in trouble, his career choice in question. He can’t even decide where to spread the ashes of his dead parents, so he hauls their remains around in his trunk on a return journey to Cape Cod, his parents’ favorite place. It’s a trip you’ll enjoy sharing with a satisfying destination.

Life– Keith Richards with James Fox

book-articleInlineIf you’ve ever fantasized about being a rock star, this is the right read for you. The Rolling Stones are legends, icons of their genre, and still rocking as Richards approaches 70 years of age. For more than 500 pages, the Stones’ original guitar player tells how they rose from lower class obscurity to become one of the most famous bands of all time. Richards observations are as much about his musical journey as they are about the band’s misadventures and rowdy reputation. There’s rock history in the book you won’t find anywhere else.

Red Means Run– Brad Smith

red-means-run-novel-brad-smith-paperback-cover-artCanadian born Smith has been producing good suspenseful fiction for years, and this is his latest offering. This book is a slight departure for him, in that it is pretty much a straight up who-done-it mystery. Though it’s not his best book, probably previous novels like Crow’s Landing and All Hat are better reads, it’s well worth spending some time with for the ensemble cast of interesting characters he always creates. His continuing protagonist Virgil Cain is back and on the run from the law for being falsely accused of a series of murders. Smith’s writing is always a pleasure to read.

Writer William Gay dead at 68




William Gay

One of my favorite writers, William Gay died Thursday of heart failure at age 68. I’m very sad for his loss, and the loss of all the beautiful fiction he would have written if he had survived.

William Gay came up poor in the small town of Hohenwald, Tennessee. He never attended college and made his living as a carpenter. For about 35 years, he would write his haunting southern stories and send them off to magazines, and for decades, they were rejected. But he kept writing, kept getting better, and ultimately, he did get published in some of the most prestigious literary magazines.

In the mid-90s, I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona. One Saturday, I was at a yard sale and I came across a cassette tape edition of his first novel, The Long Home. At the time, I’d never heard of William Gay, but the blurb on the case made it sound like my kind of story, so I bought it for a dollar and stuck it in my car.

A few days later, I was driving somewhere and I remembered the tape and popped it into the player. I listened for about five minutes, and I immediately was drawn in completely. So much so, that I thought what I was hearing was just too good to listen to on tape. I knew that the tape was a shortened version of the novel, and I didn’t want to miss any of it, so I went to a bookstore and found the novel and read it and I was hooked addictively to William Gay’s exquisite sentences.

I went on to read everything I could find of William Gay’s. His second novel, Provinces of Night was even better than the first. His two collections of short stories include some of the best I’ve ever read. When I ran out his books, I hunted down his work in magazines and anthologies and read it.

In 1997, I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas, home to the University of Arkansas. When I found out William Gay was giving a reading on campus one cold winter night, I went and dragged my son along with me. We found seats on the third row of the auditorium where he would be reading. Local writer of note Skip Hayes, who I remember was suffering from a terrible cold, introduced William Gay.

When he came out, he was a slight, retiring man. He stepped to the podium and began reading one of his short stories from a current copy of Tin House. There was a microphone in front of him, but the public address system wasn’t working that night.

And William Gay was so soft spoken, we couldn’t understand the words he was reading, and we were only about fifteen feet away.

Everyone in the auditorium sat there politely while he read, though not one person in that audience could understand what he was saying. When he finished reading, I went to him and shook his hand and told him how much I loved his writing. I wish I had done even more, invited him to coffee, or a beer. Even if he’d turned me down at least I would have tried. And if he had accepted, I would have been overjoyed.

I’ve replayed that moment in my mind for the past few years and I constructed a fantasy that someday I would be driving through Tennessee and I would go through Hohenwald and I would call William Gay and invite him to meet me at the down home cafe there that appears in his novels. That’s how much I liked this writer.

A couple of days later, I went to the library and read the story I had been unable to hear him read that night, and it was a fine one.

Southern literature has lost a great voice. His time here was not long enough. I told him in the brief moment I met him that I thought his work was transcendent. It’s doesn’t seem fair for him to be lost to us, to be silenced in the prime of his artistic life. I will miss him like crazy.