The Observer’s criteria for book reviews is intentionally vague, so we can include anything with a connection to Texas that’s well worth reading. In 2015, Observer reviews covered fiction, essays, poetry, politics, economics, sociology — even cooking. Here are our five favorite books we reviewed in 2015.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic
by Sam Quinones
The opiate-trafficking Xalisco Boys are part of the American heroin epidemic covered in Quinones’ horrifying but highly readable book. From the review by Ricardo Gilb:
Quinones’ story does get complex, and the sheer number of characters introduced in Dreamland — there are portraits of heroic cops and detectives, market-savvy criminals, shady businessmen, good-hearted drug users, passionate community activists — can be dizzying. But in a country committed beyond reason to an endless “War on Drugs” and “Securing Our Borders,” showing such complexity is itself a powerful argument. The book gives overwhelming evidence of two facts: first, America’s drug problem does not come from drug dealers; and second, the solution is not to be found at the border, but in an acknowledgment of the broad scope of the problem. Unfortunately, the shame felt by addicts and their families, alongside a vengeful desire to pass more punitive laws against users and dealers, helps keep the problem hidden. Quiñones offers powerful examples of parents of addicts overcoming their fears and discussing their children’s problems with other parents, helping others to open up and begin fighting to regain control of communities devastated by drug use.
In his acclaimed book, Broughton, a sociologist, details the economic fallout for low-income residents on both sides of the border after the passage of NAFTA. From the review by Jose Skinner:
It took Broughton more than 10 years to research and write this book, and he has crafted a narrative that reads like a novel, well paced and free of polemic. He puts a human face on economic inequity, and by showing that it is politics that brought us to the current predicament, he lets us see that it is through politics that we can find our way out.
Barefoot Dogs: Stories
by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho
His collection about the children and grandchildren of a kidnapped patriarch returns to a Latin American literary tradition dominated by urban elites. From the review by Ashley Hope Perez:
The “barefoot” in the title of Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s debut story collection might trigger expectations of earnest evocations of poverty, rootlessness, uncertain identity and loss—themes that have long been staples of U.S. Latino literature. The wealthy Mexico City socialites brought masterfully to life in Barefoot Dogs, however, are more characteristic of a Latin American literary tradition largely dominated by urban elites. With deftness and nuance, Ruiz-Camacho, a 2014 Dobie Paisano Fellow who lives in Austin, captures the flawed but fascinating humanity of the extended Arteaga family: five children and seven grandchildren of kidnapped family patriarch José Victoriano.
All the Houses
by Karen Olsson
The 1980s Iran-Contra affair is at the center of a finely written novel about disillusionment with family and country. From the review by Brad Tyer:
As a family drama with ambitions of national resonance, All the Houses reminds me of nothing so much as the recent swing-for-the-fences novels of Jonathan Franzen. The difference is that Olsson’s book is more intimate, less portentous, better written and more resonant with its time and place. One wouldn’t want to be quite so grand (or absurd) as to say that it’s the only one, but All the Houses makes a more legitimate claim than most as a genuinely great American novel.
Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism
edited by Uriel Quesada, Letitia Gomez and Salvador Vidal-Ortiz
This collection of essays tells the story of the important but largely ignored role of Hispanics in LGBT activism during a history-altering era. From the review by Ashley Hope Perez:
A clear thesis emerges from the collected narratives: Queer brown experiences cannot be understood solely in terms of Latina/o identity or LGBT identity. Rather, the intersections between these identities shape both the discrimination that the contributors faced and their experiences with activism. Activist efforts represented in the collection include organizing support groups, facilitating consciousness-raising sessions, pursuing political causes, fighting discriminatory practices, performing cultural outreach, and translating AIDS treatment and drug information into Spanish. As represented in the collection, queer brown activism is a double-pronged endeavor, one that simultaneously works to increase acceptance within the Latina/o community and raise the profile of Latina/o concerns within the mainstream LGBT community.