After two years of pandemic panic and interruptions, Texas book festivals were back in full swing—the San Antonio festival was packed for its 10th anniversary celebration despite May heat that made even the city poet laureate, Andrea Vocab Sanderson, sweat as she opened the festival on an outdoor stage backed by mariachis. In November, our rose-colored Capitol and surrounding tents filled with crowds for the return of the in-person Texas Book Festival. Meanwhile, indie bookstores opened or expanded all across the state—with many hosting events. All that activity means plenty of good reads out there for Texans. Here are some of this year’s top titles.
A group of tough Texas women teamed up to bring us The One Ann Only: Wit and Wisdom from Texas Governor Ann Richards, definitely one of the holidays’ very best gifts for all book-loving Texans. A big thanks from all of us to Margaret Justus, founder of the Ann Richards Legacy Project, and to Sarah Bird and Mary Beth Rogers. Read more about why this carefully curated collection of quotes and photos brings “light in dark times.”
Keri Blakinger of the Marshall Project trained her sharp eye and sharp pen on her own story as an ex-figure skater and an ex-prisoner-turned-journalist. The result is the memoir Corrections in Ink. Blakinger really knows how to write a lede, as Gus Bova described in his Texas Observer review: “Heroin, Cornell, Prison, and Journalism.”
Lance Scott Walker also turned in a provocative biography this year called DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution.
Perhaps this year’s best nonfiction narrative on Texas is The Fishermen and the Dragon surprisingly by a California-based journalist—Kirk Wallace Johnson—who dug up lots of dirt on the activities of the KKK in his compelling tale about the Klan’s attack on Vietnamese fishermen in the early 1980s. The unlikely result of that ugly mess, he explains, was forging new alliances between white and Vietnamese shrimpers and other allies who still try to protect the environment all along the Texas Gulf Coast.
Will Hurd, the ex-congressman and ex-CIA agent, took aim at political extremism and weighed in with his own more moderate ideas in American Reboot: An Idealist’s Guide to Getting Big Things Done.
Texas novelists—Austin’s Amanda Eyre Ward and Houston’s Chris Cander—used their keen-eyed observation of neighborhood dynamics and their imaginations to create two very different fast-moving narratives that spin odd mysteries around hallowed Texas icons, like the dark side of Austin’s Barton Springs pool and Houston’s enclave of West University Place.
That versatile and prolific Texas bard Sarah Bird dove deep into the all-but-forgotten subculture of dance marathons for her latest novel, The Last Dance on the Starlight Pier. Her book features women and men caught up in the competitive world of literally dancing till you drop, a popular spectacle that arose during the Great Depression. Bird’s book explains how some people danced while sleeping. And it lovingly recreates a Galveston that had pulled itself up after the 1900 hurricane—with the help of mobster money—and became a destination for those looking for fun in dark times.
Sergio Troncoso, a Yale Writers’ Workshop professor originally from Texas, took readers on a crazy ride in a tractor-trailer across America with a Texas teen, his Mexico-born friend, and a Missourian they meet along the way inNobody’s Pilgrims.
Poet and former Observer editor Geoff Rips turned in his own novel this year, Personal Geography.
And if you’re still catching up, here are three more nonfiction books to read from 2021: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford; Let the Lord Sort Them by Marshall Project Staff Writer Maurice Chammah (and Code of Silence by Observer Senior Editor and Writer Lise Olsen).