Favorite Books of 2021

Our picks for the best books that are written by Southern authors or that take place in the South.


Matrix

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Full Review Here

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Author Bio: Lauren Groff is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Monsters of TempletonArcadia, and Fates and Furies, and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. She has won the Story Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Groff’s work regularly appears in The New YorkerThe Atlantic, and else­where, and she was named one of Granta‘s 2017 Best Young American Novelists.


Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

This book is not for the fainthearted. It is an explosion of romance and lies and coming to terms with adult life. Andrew and Eddie do everything together until Eddie leaves to start his graduate program at Vanderbilt. Six months later, Eddie dies of an apparent suicide. Andrew is left to pick up the pieces (though he is a hapless and helpless Sherlock) and what he finds is steamy and scary. Mandelo is masterful at details and describes the setting down to the potholes and discarded beer cans. Summer Sons is a queer novel about love and loss that includes gothic ghosts—both real and metaphorical. Life hits hard and sometimes we have to face it honestly in order to be better prepared for the next round.

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Author Bio: Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and occasional editor whose fields of interest include speculative and queer fiction, especially when the two coincide. They have been a past nominee for various awards including the Nebula, Lambda, and Hugo; their work can be found in magazines such as Tor.comUncanny MagazineClarkesworld, and Nightmare. Aside from a brief stint overseas learning to speak Scouse, Mandelo has spent their life ranging across Kentucky, currently living in Lexington and pursuing a PhD at the University of Kentucky.


Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar

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Author Bio: Kaveh Akbar is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf and has received honors such as a Levis Reading Prize and multiple Pushcart Prizes. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in low-residency programs at Warren Wilson and Randolph Colleges.


The Genetic Lottery by Kathryn Paige Harden

Behavior geneticist Kathyrn Paige Harden highlights that genes do play a role in how people advance in society (“how they correlate with success, mental health, criminality for particular populations in a particular society at a particular time”). She does not disclaim that environmental and socio-economic aspects also play a great role, but she notes that it is no longer the total constraint in getting ahead in life. Though this may sound like “eugenics”, Harden is proposing that we may also look at the new data to see which genes or genetic combinations can affect outcomes in life and then use that data to “ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy lives of dignity and comfort.” This book is a fascinating look at a different opinion about how genes influence our life that is backed up by, relatively new, scientific data and analysis. 

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Author Bio: Kathryn Paige Harden is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is director of the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and co-director of the Texas Twin Project. She went to grad school at the University of Virginia. She lives in Austin. Twitter @kph3k


The Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

The narrator, Pheby, is a slave who as a child saw a kinder side to the system. But all that changes when the Richmond plantation owner marries following his first wife’s death. After being secretly sold off by this second wife and landing in jail under the evil eye of Rubin Lapier, Pheby finds herself pregnant and her only possible savior. Furthermore, she must run Lapier’s house, becoming his “yellow wife,” and raising their subsequent kids. Johnson is marvelous at being unsentimental and diving into the minds of her characters. Though harrowing at times, the story’s detailing of the bonds between characters, specifically between mother and child, is exceptional. An intense story for fans of historical fiction, The Yellow Wife will keep you engrossed in this tale of struggle and strife.

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Author Bio: Sadeqa Johnson is the award-winning author of four novels. Her accolades include the National Book Club Award, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award, and the USA Best Book Award for Best Fiction. She is a Kimbilio Fellow, former board member of the James River Writers, and a Tall Poppy Writer. Originally from Philadelphia, she currently lives near Richmond, Virginia, with her husband and three children.


Madrigalia by Lisa Russ Spaar

Lisa Russ Spaar’s book of new and selected poems is a treasure. It is always interesting to see how the writer’s mind and style evolve over time, how themes are reworked and expanded or taken over by new concerns and ideas. Many of her poems sing so well, “Debussy” especially tickled my tongue as I read it aloud. She puts what his music does for the ear into words so accurately. Spaar is a smart writer but not a snob. She does not go off into rants that sound more like literary theory. These poems address life and dreams and history and death. Madrigalia is a beautiful book that delights with wit and words matched with an emotional draw.

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Author Bio: Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, most recently Orexia (Persea, 2017), and a collection of essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry. She is the editor of Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poems on JeffersonAcquainted with the Night: Insomnia PoemsAll that Mighty Heart: London Poems. She is a poetry columnist for Los Angeles Review of Books and a Professor of English at the University of Virginia.


My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

Full Review Here

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Author Bio: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s writing has appeared in GuernicaThe Guardian, Phoebe, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story “Control Negro” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2018, guest edited by Roxane Gay, and read live by LeVar Burton as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts series. Johnson has been a fellow at Hedgebrook, Tin House Summer Workshops, and VCCA. A veteran public school art teacher, Johnson lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.


The Organ Thieves by Chip Jones

A well-known journalist, Chip Jones writes like one in his book The Organ Thieves. The field of true-crime books owes much to Capote’s In Cold Blood, but Jones isn’t going for that. In May 1968, Bruce Tucker (an African-American factory worker) failed to come home. When family and friends finally get worried they find that Tucker had been taken to the Medical College of Virginia and died. However, his heart and kidneys were unaccounted for. This is the story. Chip Jones investigates this tragedy and the medical and racial implications of how society allowed for this sort of stealing. He doesn’t let authorial asides interrupt the narrative and allows the events themselves to speak for themselves, to have his audience see the horror of this harrowing tale for themselves.

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Author Bio: Chip Jones has been reporting for nearly thirty years for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, Virginia Business magazine, and other publications. As a reporter for The Roanoke Times, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Pittston coal strike. He is the former communications director of the Richmond Academy of Medicine, which is where he first discovered the heart-stopping story in The Organ Thieves.


America by Fernando Valverde

America is a look at America from the perspective of a poet whose first language is Spanish (but who is bilingual). Diving into the history of the nation, these poems are not afraid to describe the darker shades of the past and of reality nowadays. Valverde also ties in his own ideas about learning another language and what language, in general, can do for society, how it can open perspectives up and open a dialogue between two people who, at first, seemed different. Though the history of America is fraught with difficulties and accomplishments, Valverde handles the hurdles with ease and honesty. It is this honesty and insight into life that makes the reading rewarding.

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Author Bio: Fernando Valverde is a preeminent poet writing in the Spanish language today. Born in Granada, Spain, Valverde has been awarded some of the most prestigious awards for Spanish poetry, and his books have been published across Europe and the Americas. In 2014 his book The Insistence of Harm received the Book of the Year award from the Latino American Writers Institute of the City University of New York. Valverde was also nominated for a Latin Grammy for work integrating poetry and flamenco. Valverde is a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Virginia.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum