Happy new year. We were proud to be included in two Top Ten Books lists, plus my own Top Ten of 2015. Thanks to Jay Trachtenberg and Joe O’Connell, writing in the Austin Chronicle. I respect and value their opinions, as Jay is one of the best deejays in Austin with his Jazz Etc. show on KUTX and Joe is, among other things, an esteemed creative writing instructor at ACC.
Joe O’Connell’s Top Reads of 2015
In my favorite 2015 read, Joe Lansdale takes on the mythically true-ish story of Nat Love, an African-American marksman nicknamed Deadwood Dick who was both a marshal and a Buffalo Soldier. Along the novel’s picaresque journey, Love is tracked by a racist killer seeking revenge. Paradise Sky (Mulholland Books), like Lansdale’s equally fine 2013 novel The Thicket, channels Mark Twain. It’s fun, beautifully written, and, most important, captures a neglected piece of the American puzzle.
Charles Baxter is known as a writer’s writer. His collection There’s Something I Want You to Docements that rep with stories divided into virtues and vices. The story “Loyalty” shines the brightest with its abandoned husband coming to the aid of his crazed ex-wife. Baxter’s tales are elegant gems of humanity. Austinite Elizabeth Harris’ novel Mayhem reverberates around a castration done in anger after a potential rape in rural 1936 Texas. The fine prose echoes Katherine Anne Porter in its sense of place.
Gary Cartwright’s memoir The Best I Recall (UT Press) was my favorite nonfiction work of 2015. It follows Cartwright’s career from Sixties Dallas/Ft. Worth, reporting sports alongside Bud Shrake, Blackie Sherrod, and Dan Jenkins, to drug-addled Seventies Austin and his days at Texas Monthly. But his honest take on the losses of late life make this book truly a keeper.
Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel of the migrant journey, The Same Sky (Ballantine), is the most important book to come out of Austin this year. Debra Monroe’s blue-collar-to-academia memoir My Unsentimental Education (University of Georgia Press) is as well-written as it is wise. Jesse Sublett gets wonderfully gritty in his true-crime book 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital(Arcadia Publishing). Former Austinite Dao Strom mixes music and memoir in the lyrical We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People (MPMP), a book/album examining memory and identity. I just read Elizabeth McCracken’s masterful 2014 collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories (Dial Press). You should too.
Jay Trachtenberg’s Top Reads of 2015
Nearly the first quarter of my reading year was taken up with Jamaican novelist Marlon James’ gargantuan epic A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead). Released at the end of 2014 and named the winner of this year’s coveted Man Booker Prize, it is a complicated, harrowing, violent tale centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in December 1976, an act with ramifications that extend into the NYC drug wars of later decades. Dickensian in its scope and huge cast of characters, many of whom speak Jamaican patois, it’s an intense, exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating read.
Traveling this summer in Morocco and last summer in Turkey has naturally piqued my interest in the Muslim world. Two novels from this year were certainly pertinent to current events. Submission (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq (just published stateside, translated by Lorin Stein), is the timely tale of what happens when the Muslim Brotherhood wins the French election in the near future. Insightful, dark, and very funny, it is interpreted from the viewpoint of an emotionally disenfranchised university professor. Highly recommended to political junkies. Also generating controversy upon its original publication in Algeria is The Meursault Investigation (Other Press), by journalist Kamel Daoud (translated by John Cullen). He cleverly revisits Albert Camus’ 1942 existential masterpiece The Stranger, this time through the eyes of the brother of the heretofore nameless Arab murdered by Camus’ antihero Meursault. Daoud addresses the legacy of colonialism and, by extension, the current state of Arab identity.
Two Austin-centric books of note are Scott Blackwood’s See How Small (Little, Brown and Company) and Jesse Sublett’s 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital (Arcadia Publishing). The former is a rather unsettling fictional account of the still-unsolved 1991 yogurt shop murders. The latter is the lively, noirish, and well-researched story of the largely forgotten Timmy Overton Gang and the Dixie Mafia that ran wild 50 years ago.
Jesse Sublett’s Top Ten Books of 2015
The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today by Bryan Doerries (Knopf), chronicles the author’s work with war veterans, prison workers, and other PTSD victims using Greek tragedies authored by Aeschylus and Sophocles – both war vets who had seen best friends ripped apart on the battlefield.
2) All That You’ve Seen Here Is God (Vintage) collects four of Doerries’ stripped-down translations of the Greek classics. Both are recommended.
3) War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad by Christopher Logue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is one hell of a book/poem. Reading it now, saying “wow” a lot.
4) H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Grove), a memoir of a daughter’s grief and a bird, seems to have swooped down and stolen everyone’s heart. Nice work if you can get it.
5) The Berlin series (City of Stones, City of Smoke, and City of Light) by graphic novelist Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly) is set in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, just before Hitler takes over. Chapters 17-19 were issued in comic-book format in 2015; the final compilation volume, Berlin: City of Light, is expected in late 2016. Great, great stuff.
6) A Better Goodbye by John Schulian (Tyrus) is the first crime novel by Schulian, author of some of the best writing about boxing ever. Just got it and expect to be floored.
7) The Roses Underneath by C.F. Yetmen (Ypsilon & Co.) is a novel of Germany just after the end of World War II, told from the survivors’ POV. Yetmen, who lives in Austin, draws on her own family history with deft skill and soul. I predict you’ll be hearing much more from her.
8) Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown and Company) is something we all expected to be a great read, and hell yeah, it is.
9) Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett knocked me out when I re-read it, in sequence with every other Hammett novel this summer. Hammett’s prose still crackles with electricity, action zips along at breakneck pace, and slanguage sings. Hammett rocks!
10) And this was the year I finally published my true-crime chronicle, 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked the Capital (Arcadia Publishing). Does it seem immodest to include it on my Top 10 list? Tough luck, it would be a lie to leave it off. Happy New Year.
PS. We have scheduled a SPECIAL EDITION of Noir at The Bar to celebrate John Schulian coming to Austin to sign his new book, A Better Good-By, for Feb. 16, 7 PM at Opal Divine Penn Field. Mark your calendar. I’ll be there to play a couple of songs, along with my colleagues in crime Scott Montgomery and Molly Odintz of Mystery People. The current calendar listing hasn’t been updated yet and I’ll post a link to it when it has been fixed.
PS: Jay mentions Gary Cartwright’s Best I Recall memoir. I have done several quick reads of this book, but every time I have done so, I’ve come to a dead stop on the page where Gary writes that Jack Ruby was sent here as a representative of Murder Inc. It’s such a ludicrous notion that I at first I assumed that Gary meant it as a joke, but it’s not very funny. Some very goofy decisions have been attributed to made men in the Mafia over the decades, but I don’t see how this one could have been possible. Everyone who knew Jack Ruby was aware that he was a nut case not to be trusted. One of the things best known about him was that he was a terrible snitch, a cop groupie. Associated with crime, organized and otherwise, yes, he was. A paid assassin for the Chicago mob? No way. Maybe it was a sloppy slip-up by a copy editor. I did enjoy the other references to Ruby and Candy Barr, however, and Gary has certainly done a lot for Texas-centric writing over the years.