10 Books About Texas: an Approximation

A Reading List to Capture that Lone Star Vastness

“The making of anthologies is not a task for the faint-hearted,” wrote Larry McMurtry in the opening of his foreword to Don Graham’s Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande, published in 2003. “It always involves reducing an overabundance of material to something that can fit between the covers of a normal-sized book.”

If you know your Texas, at least a little, and you want to talk about its letters, you know you have to start with McMurtry — or with J. Frank Dobie or Américo Paredes, to that extent — and then follow up with Graham’s anthology — perhaps not necessarily in that order. While Graham’s selection might be subject to objection — as ought to be the case with any attempt to anthologize the unanthologizable — what I like about it is its awareness of the expansive and intricate territory that it aims to cover, described on the back cover of the book:

“This collection traces the continuing legacy of Texas literature. Despite generational and cultural differences, these authors share a landscape and a history that inspire them.”

Graham’s list includes names as culturally, geographically and stylistically distant from one another as Naomi Shihab Nye and Peter LaSalle, Dagoberto Gilb and Harryette Mullen, Katherine Anne Porter and Lawrence Wright, Rick Bass and Tomás Rivera, Molly Ivins and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith. The list goes on and on, making Graham’s anthology a strong point of departure to start delving into the rich literary tradition of a mammoth state over which six different national flags have waved through history.

Now I’ve been entrusted with an impossible task — write yet another list of ten books that represent the Lone Star state. I have tried to incorporate mostly new, contemporary voices, but also some classic ones, while trying to bring together a pool of authors diverse enough to hopefully mirror the state’s vastness.

I have tried to incorporate mostly new, contemporary voices, but also some classic ones, while trying to bring together a pool of authors diverse enough to hopefully mirror the state’s vastness.

Subjective as any list is, it’s been put together from the perspective of somebody who moved to Texas — from abroad! — as an adult twelve years ago. Furthermore, it’s been compiled from the standpoint of an author living in Austin, of all places — if you know your Texas, at least a little, you know that visions of the state are heavily influenced by region: the one perceived from the hipsterized state capital is different from the one observed from San Antonio, or Houston, or McAllen, or El Paso, or Dallas, or Abilene.

One thing, however, remains as true as the rapturing beauty of the Texas skies and the overpowering frailty of the bluebonnet: all of them are authentic in their own sense, bespeaking the immensity — geographical and otherwise — of the state. But never is the representation of Texas more inaccurate and caricaturesque than the one rendered by provincial and myopic bicoastal observers who’ve been to “Texas” just for SXSW or ACL.

My list.

1. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa

First published in 1987, Borderlands… not only channeled and redefined the fluid and elusive concepts of cultural boundary and identity, and elevated to canon the uniqueness of the border, but also revealed to us the superpowers of Mestizo badasschickness. Reading Anzaldúa, a lesbian, an activist, a fierce poet and moving essayist, will change the way you look at writing as a bridge to bring seemingly distant ends together, all while introducing you to one of the most undefinable regions of the Lone Star state.

2. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

What’s more Texan than football, Beyoncé’s extraterrestrial talents, and the devising of the Iraq War? Fountain delivers them all in one single punch with a vertigo-inducing sculptural language and a keen eye to observe the Dallas-power culture and the commercialization and objectification of both sports and warfare. Many books have been written about America’s latest war, but none of them captures the collision between working-class patriotism and betrayed hope, and the establishment’s disregard for human loss and appetite for blood-stained profit the way this one does.

3. Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Cásares

The Rio Grande Valley, having being once an independent country for a brief period of time in 1840, is a universe in and of itself, with its own idiosyncrasies and even its own Spanglish. Cásares’s awe-inspiring debut collection portrays the lives of a myriad of residents of this small remote town seating on the edges of Matamoros, Mexico, with a language that is both bold and poetic, funny and moving. “Chango,” my favorite piece of all, is a story that I’ve read on countless occasions, and still brings me to tears every time.

4. The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan

Nothing captures the collective imagination of the state as the Alamo does. The mission was not only the battlefield of one of the pivotal battles of the Texas Revolution, but has also become one of Texas’s top tourist destinations. Harrigan approached the fall of the Alamo from an unseen-before perspective — that of the participants on all sides of the war — and in doing so rose to become one of the most distinctive, and popular, authors of historical fiction that Texas has ever had.

5. Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

That is not only the title of a fierce and subversive story collection that revels in its Texanness (“Never Marry a Mexican,” my favorite piece in the book, is an acid trip, a love funk, a heart-shattering rock), but also the name of an actual creek that crosses Alamo City. San Antonio became not only Cisneros’s adoptive hometown, but the place from where she has advanced and supercharged Latino and multicultural literature through her Macondo Workshop.

6. Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston

“Chekhov advised writers to make sad stories cold, and I wanted to flip that logic. I wanted the summer heat of South Texas to exact the kind of pressure on my characters that the Russian winters exacted on this,” has said Johnston about bringing his hometown, Corpus Christi, to life in this haunting novel about a kid from the fictional town of Southport who is found four years after his disappearance. An enthralling tale of family, morality, fear and forgiveness, it’s, above all, a novel about a place, the Texas gulf coast, that is as intoxicating and quaint as rarely any other place in the state — and beyond.

7. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

“I intended to just write a slick little thriller,” has said Attica Locke about her absorbing debut novel set in Houston in the early 1980s. At the center of it is a struggling black lawyer entangled in a series of fateful relationships that touch power, oil money, politics, and race. She writes about a place she knows well, her hometown, which epitomizes the South in transition. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s also the writer and co-producer of the TV show Empire. Locke’s the perfect ambassadress of the multicultural metropolis that is Houston.

8. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce

Attributes like “visceral,” “unsentimental,” “shocking,” or “transgressive” have long been used to define some of the most seismic writers associated with Texas, which have tended to be men — think Cormac McCarthy and his Blood Meridian. But those hallmarks have all been used rather recently to describe Tierce’s debut. Her protagonist, a waitress at an upscale Dallas steakhouse, was best described by Michael Ennis in Texas Monthly as “one of the most mesmerizing heroines in recent fiction, a self-destructive naïf who embodies the plight of millions of underemployed and overworked single mothers.”

9. Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa

Here’s an epic story loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States that features a parade of characters as seemingly dissimilar from one another as distinctive to the state’s landscape: “Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dance hall girls”. Not only do I admire its timeliness, or Boullosa’s wild writing, but that it was published in translation from Spanish by a small imprint out of Dallas quickly becoming a powerhouse in the American literary firmament: Deep Vellum.

10. The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

If you know your Texas, at least a little, you might want to finish a piece about its letters the way you started it: with McMurtry — or with Tino Villanueva, or Bejamin Alire Sáenz, or John Graves, to that extent. But if you decide to wrap it with him, you might not want to fall for the obvious and pick Lonesome Dove. You might want to pick a coming-of-age novel set in a place in West Texas so tiny and unknown it feels as if the author made it up.The Last Picture Show remains as heartbreaking, controversial and universal as ever. AsThe New York Times Book Review wrote about it in 1966, “Thalia is pretty hateful, but you are likely to remember it.”

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