I just came across the Southern Reading 2009 Challenge. Check it out at Maggie Reads. The challenge to read at least three Southern books (any genre) begins May 15 and ends August 15. You can count me in. I've always loved novels by Southern writers, firmly believing that they merit reading beyond the region. The site offers suggestions, but I'll add some of mine as well.
I've already mentioned The Help, Kathryn Stockett's first novel, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. I also recommend all of Ron Rash's novels (from his first, One Foot in Eden to his latest Serena). So many people who read one at my recommendation have worked their way through the whole list. I always enjoy Clyde Edgerton's novel for a good laugh (usually with some underlying serious themes). This time of the year, you can read Dori Sanders' novel Clover and visit her at her peach stand one Highway 321 in South Carolina. I've read all of Joshilyn Jackson's novels (Gods in Alabama, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Between, Georgia.) Ann Patchett (who lives in Nashville) is another of my favorite writers. Her Bel Canto is one of my most memorable reading experiences. All of her novels are beautifully written but not alike at all.
For laughing until milk comes out your nose, try Celia Rivenbark (Bless Your Heart, Tramp, Just Like You--Only Prettier, and Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank). Although not your typical Southerner, David Sedaris did grow up in Raleigh. One particularly favorite of mine (in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I believe) described his family's regular visits to the Atlantic coast, where they would speculate on names for a family beach house.
I'm hardly doing justice to the books on my shelves, but Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, has some great titles on their First Editions Club list, many but not all by Southern authors. I can't wait to decide what to read next.