Katy Simpson Smith's eloquent debut, The Story of Land and Sea, follows three generations of a family as they struggle, each in their own way, to come to terms with the premature loss of a young woman, Helen. Set in the twilight of the Revolutionary War, this story of love and grief follows those Helen left behind— her father, husband, daughter and former slave. Our reviewer writes that the novel is "a striking debut novel that reads like poetry and will linger like mythology." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Smith has enjoyed reading, so we asked her to recommend three favorites.
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
I got to hear Trethewey read from her work at the New Orleans Public Library a couple of years ago, and it was so inspiring to see a fellow Mississippian tackling our past with such bravery and beauty. I read a lot of poetry, but rarely does it reflect my own complex corner of the world. Reading is about accessing new lands, unimagined lives—that’s the pleasure it gives us, especially when we find the familiar there—but sometimes it feels good to see your own self clearly in the mirror of the words. Trethewey weaves the past with the present, blacks with whites, and concocts a nuanced version of race and history that reminds us of all the wrongs that still need addressing. The poem recounting the trials of the all-black Louisiana Native Guards during the Civil War is alone worth the price of admission. And Trethewey was the U.S. Poet Laureate, which we’ll be telling our Mississippi kids for generations to come.
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
This slim book was found at a used bookstore’s going-out-of-business sale (alas), read by my mother, and then passed along to me. It’s a charmingly wry narrative about a small community of people living on barges on the Thames in the 1960s, and if you have any preconceptions about what kinds of people live on barges, Fitzgerald will overturn them. One of her many talents is animating characters with no more than a few keen swipes of description; thus, in under 150 pages, we can know a half-dozen characters intimately. My favorites are the two young sisters, one half-wild and one surprisingly demure, who run from barge to barge across unsteady planks and spend their evenings stopping up leaks; and their cat Stripey, who stalks the boats “in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close-furled and ready for dirty weather.” There is as little plot as there are stable dwellings, but the humor alone, both mordant and sweet, makes this a book to cherish.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I seemed to have missed this when it was assigned in high schools across America (though I also missed junior-year English altogether, so maybe that’s where it was lurking), but I finally got around to this masterwork of race and political identity. (I blame the delay on its forbiddingly tiny typeface in my 1952 paperback edition.) While it didn’t hold my love throughout, especially after the narrator left the surreal and provocative South, the first few chapters made me entirely re-imagine what fiction can do, what images a writer can present to a reader, and with what effect. The scene where boys are forced to scrabble for fake coins on an electrified rug! After almost every page, I had to stop and say, “Katy, you need to be a better writer.” This reaction, which is regular, is what makes me adore reading so.
Thank you, Katy! Have you read any of her suggested picks?
(Author photo by Elise Smith)