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Neither of us will forget 2020, but hopefully some of those memories will come from books we read for comfort and consolation during these strange times. Below are a handful of recommendations – each with a Texas connection – for Christmas gifts or for your own reading list. Two non-fiction books literally put the spotlight on one of the state’s favorite actors, Matthew McConaughey, while other titles introduce new perspectives and voices that explore the landscapes and identities of Texas in new and unexpected ways.
Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral Story of Richard Linklaters’ Drowsiness and Confusion by Melissa Maerz (HarperCollins)
Maerz, a veteran magazine editor and journalist, interviewed nearly 150 people, including the cast, studio producers, and even director Linklater’s old high school friends, for this comprehensive look at Dazed and Confused. It also examined letters, memos, script drafts and other archival material from the coming-of-age film, which celebrated its 27th anniversary in September.
Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Grove Press)
Crooked Hallelujah records the interconnected stories of four generations of Cherokee women – Grandma, Lulu, their daughter Justine, and Justine’s daughter Reny – who try to live better lives for themselves. Justine and Reny travel to Texas and cross the land of the Red River for a fresh start only to face unpredictable forces of natural and human form. “Each heartbreaking chapter slowly adds to the reader’s understanding of these women and their increasingly difficult lives,” said one magazine.
Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (Crown)
This vivid, unconventional memory is full of stories and anecdotes from one of the Lone Star State’s favorite actors. Part adventure, part comedy, part self-help guide. This book promises to keep readers entertained while imparting insightful wisdom. A New York Times reviewer wrote: “The book offers a shotgun slot for all the living McConaughey has amassed, from his upbringing in a tumultuous Texas family to his rise as a gruff, cheerful star.”
Bryan Washington Memorial (Riverhead)
In 2019, readers were first introduced to his first collection of short stories, Lot with the living voice of the Houston native. That fall, Washington returned with his impressive debut novel, tracing the lives of Benson, a black daycare teacher in Houston, and Mike, a Japanese-American chef who travels to Osaka to visit his estranged father. Through these alternating narratives, Washington creates a delicate, broken portrait of young men trying to find their way through romance, work, family, and their own identities. Memorial is as popular as its story collection and was selected for television by A24.
Nothing Happened Nights by Simon Han (Riverhead)
Hans’ debut novel animates the struggles of an immigrant family from Tianjin, China, who live in Plano, a suburb of Dallas. Amid internal and external challenges, each member of the Cheng family tries to gain a foothold amid the changing fault lines of their evolving family identity. Kirkus Reviews calls the story “an astutely realized portrait of the collateral damage caused by pursuing the American Dream”. Han was born in Tianjin, China, and grew up in various cities in Texas before studying creative writing in the graduate program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Just the Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery Publishing Group)
Stephen Graham Jones was born and raised in Texas. That year he returned with this popular horror novel. Combining classic horror with social commentary, this engaging narrative follows four Native American characters whose lives are haunted by a moose hunt of their youth. “Jones is one of the best genre-independent writers today, and this gritty, heart-wrenching novel could be his best yet,” wrote an NPR reviewer.
Simon the violinist by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow)
In her seventh novel, Paulette Jiles takes up a supporting character, the red-haired Simon Boudlin, from her bestseller “News of the World” (the film of which will be released on December 25th). Simon the Fiddler follows Boudlin’s adventures and missteps in South and East Texas in the late 19th century amid the chaos and turmoil of rebuilding. As proven in her previous novels, Jiles is a master of historical storytelling and brings her characters to life on the page with ease.
Sutherland Springs: God, Arms, and Hope in a Texas City by Joe Holley (Hachette)
Seasoned Texan journalist Holley delivers a masterly, intimate narrative of the 2017 mass shooting in which 26 parishioners were killed at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs. As part of this retelling, Holley spent a year with survivors – attended church with them and dined with grieving families – detailing the tragedy and advocating for tighter gun control in Texas and across the country.
Things You Would Know If You grew up here by Nancy Wayson Dinan (Bloomsbury)
Set during the 2015 Memorial Day floods, this debut novel skillfully animates the footsteps of Boyd, an 18-year-old woman who tries to navigate and survive the drought-stricken area of central Texas. Fans of Emily St. John Mandel and Karen Thompson Walker will be mesmerized – and perhaps a little appalled – by this surreal tale set amid a pre-apocalyptic landscape familiar to many Texas readers.
Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore (Harper)
Odessa-born Wetmore moves seamlessly between the perspectives of seven female characters to tell the story of 14-year-old Gloria Ramírez, who appears on a family porch one morning after being raped. This lyrical, well-crafted narrative unfolds with an open examination of how the 1976 brutality affected the Odessa working class community. Jenna Hager Bush picked Wetmore’s debut for her popular book club on the TODAY Show, and the novel quickly rose to the York Times bestseller list in The New.
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