Favorites from Southern literature (of the things I have read in my lifetime):
To Kill a Mockingbird
Some writers are incredibly prolific and can put out a novel every couple years. Some are like Harper Lee. But if you're only going to publish one novel in your lifetime, you want it to be To Kill a Mockingbird. I read somewhere that it was voted the best book of the 20th century, and between that, the Pulitzer Prize, and the author's Medal of Freedom, I wouldn't argue. The book paints a vivid portrait of race, racism, and class in the Depression-era American South that was controversial when it was published in 1960 and is an important history lesson for modern kids. (There is, of course, the issue of how the book is received by African-American readers vs. white readers -- but the fact that a book from 1960 can still be debated in 2011 is fantastic, plain and simple.) Scout and Atticus Finch are two of my favorite characters in all of literature, and the book's film adaptation gave us Gregory Peck as Atticus, and for that we should all be eternally grateful.
The Secret Life of Bees
Not as iconic as To Kill a Mockingbird, with a mediocre film adaptation, but still well worth the read. Sue Monk Kidd's narrator is no Scout Finch, but Lily Owens' deeply conflicted narration is teen angst through and through. Part coming-of-age story, part civil rights chronicle, part beekeeping manual, the book is a female-character-driven look at acceptance and the relationships between families (both those related by blood and those bonded by shared experience). There are some truly great images in this book, like the Boatwright sisters' bright pink house and Our Lady of the Chains, the ship's figurehead that sits inside that house. Incidentally, I read this book as part of the girls-only book club at my high school run by the head librarian and my favorite English teacher -- admittedly, I came for the free pizza and lemonade, but getting this book for free was icing on the cake.
I just finished Kathryn Stockett's debut novel this morning, and it already makes a "favorites" list. The book shifts between three narrators (a pair of black maids and a young white woman) and presents a picture of life in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi from both sides of the dividing line between the races. There are a few truly shocking moments, and plenty of good, quotable lines throughout the book. It's funny, sad, hopeful, frustrating, and suspenseful in turns, and was one of those books that I had trouble putting down when it was time to do other things. Every time I closed it, I still wanted to know what was going to happen to Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter, and everyone else. Was Skeeter really going to marry Stuart? What did Minny do to Miss Hilly? When was little Mae Mobley inevitably going to repeat something to the wrong person and get Aibileen fired? The degree to which Stockett managed to get me invested in her characters' lives was almost ridiculous. Kudos, madam. It was really the perfect summer-read-with-substance.
"A Rose for Emily"
Okay, yes, necrophilia is usually a part of discussions about this William Faulkner short story. But the story is Southern Gothic at its very finest, and exactly as creepy as you'd want it to be. I remember even being freaked out by the first-person plural narration, as though the story is being told by the town's collective consciousness, like they're the Borg or something. Faulkner uses that unusual narration to take us through his three-part story about Miss Emily Grierson and the remnants of the Old South in a changing Mississippi town with bits and pieces of Emily's odd behavior and the town's pity for and fascination with her in life and death. It's macabre and dark and dusty throughout, and it still gives me chills every time. You can read (or re-read) the story in its entirety here or in various places around the web.