The Best Southern Books of February 2021

February is usually the month when I stare at the calendar in disbelief that it’s still winter and conclude that time has probably stopped. This year, that feeling is compounded by reaching the year marker of the pandemic in the U.S. and by grief for the many people we have lost.

Books — and talking about books even when I haven’t had the focus to read them — have been a lifeline for me, and maybe for you too, so here are some of this month’s best poetry and short story collections, novels, and nonfiction books.

Working It Off in Labor County
By Larry D. Thacker
February 1, 2021

West Virginia University Press: “The residents of Labor County, a fictional small community in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, may be short on cash, but they are rich in creativity and tirelessly inventive as they concoct new schemes to make ends meet, settle old scores, and work off their debts to society and, in a way, to themselves. More than a collection of tales, Working It Off in Labor County assembles memorable characters who recur across these seventeen linked stories, sharing in one another’s struggles and stumbling upon humor and mystery, the grotesque and the divine, each in many forms.”

Soul City: Race, Equality, and the Lost Dream of an American Utopia
By Thomas Healy
February 2, 2021

Metropolitan Books: “The fascinating, forgotten story of the 1970s attempt to build a city dedicated to racial equality in the heart of ‘Klan Country.’ In a gripping, poignant narrative, acclaimed author Thomas Healy resurrects this forgotten saga of race, capitalism, and the struggle for equality. Was it an impossible dream from the beginning? Or a brilliant idea thwarted by prejudice and ignorance? And how might America be different today if Soul City had been allowed to succeed?”

Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia
By Elizabeth Catte
February 2, 2021

Belt Publishing: “Between 1927 and 1979, more than 8,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in five hospitals across the state of Virginia. From this plain and terrible fact springs Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America, a sweeping, unsparing history of eugenics in Virginia, and by extension the United States.”

This Close to Okay
By Leesa Cross-Smith
February 2, 2021

Grand Central Publishing: “Alternating between Tallie and Emmett’s perspectives as they inch closer to the truth of what brought Emmett to the bridge’s edge — as well as the hard truths Tallie has been grappling with since her marriage ended —This Close to Okay is an uplifting, cathartic story about chance encounters, hope found in unlikely moments, and the subtle magic of human connection.”

The Removed
By Brandon Hobson
February 2, 2021

Ecco Press: “Drawing deeply on Cherokee folklore, The Removed seamlessly blends the real and spiritual to excavate the deep reverberations of trauma — a meditation on family, grief, home, and the power of stories on both a personal and ancestral level.”

Milk Blood Heat
By Dantiel W. Moniz
February 2, 2021

Grove Press: “Milk Blood Heat depicts the sultry lives of Floridians in intergenerational tales that contemplate human connection, race, womanhood, inheritance, and the elemental darkness in us all. Set among the cities and suburbs of Florida, each story delves into the ordinary worlds of young girls, women, and men who find themselves confronted by extraordinary moments of violent personal reckoning. These intimate portraits of people and relationships scour and soothe and blast a light on the nature of family, faith, forgiveness, consumption, and what we may, or may not, owe one another.”

Sweetgum & Lightning
By Rodney Terich Leonard
February 15, 2021

Four Way Books: “Sweetgum & Lightning lets us into an extraordinary poetic universe, shaped by a vernacular rooted in the language of self, one’s origins, and music. In poems that are deeply sensual in nature, Rodney Terich Leonard considers gender and sexuality, art, poverty, and community. Imagery expands through unexpected lexical associations and rumination on the function of language; words take on new meaning and specificity, and the music of language becomes tantamount to the denotations of words themselves.”

Real Life
By Brandon Taylor
Paperback Release February 16, 2021

Riverhead Books: “Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.”

The One Certain Thing
By Peter Cooley
February 27, 2021

Carnegie Mellon University Press: “Peter Cooley’s eleventh book of poetry is an elegy, not only of lamentation but also of self-reckoning in the face of his wife’s sudden death, after a marriage of half a century. The three-part conversation between the speaker, his wife, and God, plays across landscapes of home and the natural world. Faith and imagination carry us backward until the past and the present are one in language.”