You’ve probably heard the expression “all politics is local.” As I’ve grown as a reader, I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover just how much literature is local as well.
Books are written by people, people whose lives and experiences are anchored in a certain time and place, even if their books are not.
One of the prompts for the 2020 Reading Challenge is “read a book by a local author.” This is your opportunity to pick up a book written by an author who is local to you.
As I’ve explored my own local authors over the years, I’ve been surprised to discover how many authors I’ve read and loved for years have Kentucky roots, as I do, or even live right in my city. (Several years ago we bought a new refrigerator. Imagine my surprise when my appliance salesperson said, “You’re a writer, too? You must know [big-name-author-on-the-book-list-below]. I sold her a GE refrigerator, too!” I’d had no idea this celebrated author lived a few miles from me, in my own community.)
Sometimes my interest in local authors is topic-driven: they’re the ones writing about the highly specific topics and issues my community cares about. Around here, that might mean the Olmsted Parks system, or coal mining, or the Kentucky Derby.
Over the last few years, I’ve grown in appreciation for our local literary scene, too—marking my calendar for local author events, paying attention to independent presses in my area, and taking note of new releases by Kentucky writers.
How do we define “local author” for the Reading Challenge? Please choose a book that makes sense for you and where you are in the world: you could choose a book written by an author in your neighborhood (much easier to do if you’re in NYC or San Francisco), in your city, your state, or even your region. If you need a hand, seek guidance from your local independent bookstore or your local library. They might even have an upcoming (online) author event to attend.
To get your mental wheels turning, today I’m sharing 12 books by my own local Kentucky authors. I keep their books on my favorites shelf and in my To Be Read cart. Some of them I know personally; some feel like old friends because I love their work.
Please tell us what you’re reading for this category in the comments section below. Where are you in the world, and what local work are you thinking about reading? We’d love to hear.
I've talked about Hannah Coulter several times: the books I can't stop recommending, a book I've read more than once, what to read when you feel like the world is falling apart. I adore Berry, who writes gorgeous, thoughtful, piercing novels, and this is one of his finest. Hannah's second husband Nathan Coulter (her first died in the war) was reticent to talk about his experience in the Battle of Okinawa. "Ignorant boys, killing each other," is all he would say. In this atmospheric novel, an older Hannah looks back on her life and reflects on what she has lost, and those whom she has loved. Her recollections paint a vivid portrait of a complicated, loving family. Contemplative, wistful, and moving. More info →
Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky, and sets this novel in southern Appalachia. When a young woman sees something inexplicable in nature, her experience creates tension between religious leaders, scientists, politicians, and climate change experts with different views on what exactly she witnessed. Suspenseful and page-turning, I thought this finely crafted novel had many wonderful moments and a truly horrible ending. (That's not a reason to skip: bad endings make for great book club reading.) And check out the audiobook, narrated by Kingsolver herself. It's unusual for novelists to read their own work, but Kingsolver's lyrical voice perfectly suits her prose. More info →
I knew of Sue Grafton's mystery novel fame, but I didn't connect her to Louisville until seeing her gardens in Garden & Gun Magazine. Grafton is best known for her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries. In the first novel, Kinsey sets up a new detective agency in Santa Teresa, California. She's a classic noir detective—twice-divorced, a loner, fond of the underdog—and she finds herself drawn in by a woman out on parole for her own husband's murder. As the twists keep coming, Kinsey finds herself in more and more danger. More info →
I've been following Silas House's career ever since a friend raved about his YA debut Eli the Good. I would have loved to have heard him speak a few years ago in Louisville, but alas—I was out of town, and took this book along. The story centers on Asher Sharp, a Pentecostal preacher in rural Tennessee. When a flood devastates his community, he offers shelter to two gay men—and his congregation's reaction prompts a crisis of faith, and a public meltdown, the video of which goes viral. In the aftermath he flees to Key West (hence the title) to deal with unfinished business from his past. Warm and reflective, with House's familiar beautiful prose. More info →
I must admit, it's thrilling to find yourself on the shelf of local authors at your neighborhood bookstore! Stay at home orders interrupted my book tour, but signing copies at my local bookstore provided a much needed sense of celebration. If you've been struggling with decision fatigue, overwhelm, and overthinking, this friendly guide to overcoming negative thought patterns is for you. In Don't Overthink It, you'll find actionable strategies that can make an immediate and lasting difference in how you deal with questions both large and small. Don't Overthink It offers you a framework for making choices you'll be comfortable with, freeing you to focus on what really matters in life. More info →
I enjoyed Leesa's novel set in Louisville, Whiskey and Ribbons, and eagerly picked up her newest short story collection just in time to talk with her on Stay at Home Book Tour. (Watch Leesa's session right here.) I thoroughly enjoyed this sophisticated short story collection, which takes the reader on quite a ride, emotionally speaking. My personal favorites are The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying And So Are We and Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting (I could have read ten more pages of that one!). Don't miss Leesa's acknowledgements. More info →
Merton's autobiography has been translated into more than 20 different languages; it's considered one of the most influential religious works of our time. At age 26, Merton took vows to become a Trappist monk—one of the strictest, most demanding Catholic orders involving silence and constant prayer. This book follows his journey of withdrawal and immersion, written from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. His commitment to a higher calling and strong writing voice stand out in his autobiography. More info →
"An African American feminist writer from Kentucky," Crystal Wilkinson was the 2019 Appalachian writer in residence at Shepherd University and has won several awards for her lyrical writing. The Louisville Review says of her writing: "on the surface, one can hear echoes of predecessors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison." The Birds of Opulence features her lush prose and an intergenerational story about mental illness, survival, and relationships. Described as tragic and hopeful, this sweeping story is exactly the kind of complicated family novel I adore. More info →
I got to talk with local author Katy Yocom on What Should I Read Next Episode 231: Lush literary novels with page-turning appeal. Her book takes place in India and Kentucky, while one nomadic sister travels to India to help save the endangered Bengal tigers and the other stays home in Kentucky offering support from afar. A complicated family story weaves in and out of a travel narrative with stunning descriptions and increasing tension. In her WSIRN episode, Katy mentioned being constantly on the hunt for absorbing novels with plots that not only incorporate the natural world, but ones in which the story absolutely depends upon it. Her fondness for nature writing shines in her own book as well. More info →
Ward is best known for her vampire romance series The Black Dagger Brotherhood, but I thought it more Kentucky-appropriate to highlight her latest series about a wealthy southern family with a bourbon empire. This upstairs-downstairs novel sounds a bit like the Audrey Hepburn movie Sabrina. Head gardener Lizzie King falls in love with Tulane, troublemaker son of the Bradford bourbon dynasty. Two years after their break-up, he returns to his family home and the two meet again. As you can imagine, drama (and romance) soon follows. I haven't read this one, but I'm pretty sure Ward writes open door romance. More info →
My 12 year old LOVES this book. Fizzy is committed to being a "good southern girl" and winning the Southern Living cook-off. That first part proves difficult, as Fizzy stifles her feelings and deals with her parents' divorce. She just wants to yell, to share her feelings, to say what she means. But a good southern girl says "yes ma'am" and keeps it inside. The cook-off, plus a couple of new friends, make the perfect distraction, and might just teach Fizzy about speaking up and expressing herself. More info →
Fun fact: Garth Greenwell and I used to walk to school together. His books explore desire, power, and sexual identity. This one reads like a collection of interrelated short stories. In Sofia, Bulgaria, an American teacher reflects on his life and relationships. Each story from his past touches on themes of connection to people, places, and ourselves. Critically acclaimed for his lyrical writing, Greenwell's work will appeal to fans of Brandon Taylor, Jenny Offill, or Ottessa Moshfegh. Heads up for frank and detailed writing about sex. More info →
Do you have a favorite local author? How did you find out about them? Please tell us in the comments.