Despite high-profile arguments to the contrary, I’ve contended for the past few years that Texas literary culture is no longer the backwater that it once was, with numerous young and old writers doing great work.
And a big part of that is happening in Austin, in part because of the University of Texas, where scholars and recent graduates alike are writing intriguing books.
Here are just a few of such titles coming up in the next few months, and some of them sound great. (And please note, this is not a comprehensive list. It’s just based on galleys that I have received in the past couple of months. I’ve tried to order them by date of release.)
- “The City at Three P.M.,” a collection of essays by Peter LaSalle. Most of the essays here deal with LaSalle’s travels to places like Buenos Aires, Cameroon, Tunisia, Carthage and Paris. And most have a distinct literary bent, as he retraces the steps of Borges and others. He’s a member of the creative writing faculty in Austin and spends some of his time in his native Rhode Island. Publication: In December, $15.95 trade paperback, Dzanc Books.
- “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln,” a novel by Austin’s Stephen Harrigan. It opens with a one-armed man visiting Springfield, Ill., to pay respects to Lincoln’s body on the eve of his burial. But as it turns out, the man is far from a mere onlooker. He was a longtime friend of Lincoln in his early days, with Harrigan exploring, speculatively, his the president’s early days. Publication: February, $27.59, Alfred A. Knopf. (This will be one of 2016’s early highlights, for sure.)
- Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century,” by Daniel Oppenheimer, the director of strategic communications at UT. The author focuses on six major political figures who helped reshape American politics – Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens. Publication: February, $28, Simon & Schuster.
- “Work Like Any Other,” by Virginia Reeves. Reeves is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT, and her first novel focuses on 1920s Alabama, where a young man realizes the future of electricity, only to face a tragedy that threatens to destroy his family. Kevin Powers, author of “The Yellow Birds” and a former Michener fellow, says it’s an “exceptional novel told in clear, direct, and starkly beautiful language.” And Philipp Meyer, another Michener fellow and author of “The Son,” calls it a “striking debut about love and redemption.” Can’t wait to read it. Publication: March, $25, Scribner.
- “The Tombstone Race,” by Jose Skinner. A collection of short stories by an Austin writer who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and who’s the former director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Texas – Pan American. Publication: March, University of New Mexico Pres, $19.95. (It’s his second story collection, following “Flight and Other Stories.”)
- “The Association of Small Bombs,” a novel by Karan Mahajan. Mahajan grew up in India, but moved to the States and is a graduate of both Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers. He lives in Austin, and his first novel, “Family Planning,” was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. The new novel deals with a timely topic – terrorism, and its longstanding effects on family and friends. Publication: March, $25.95, Viking. The book has endorsements from Adam Johson (“Orphan Master’s Son”) and Elizabeth McCracken (“Thunderstruck and Other Stories”). That’s good enough for me.
- “The Midnight Assassin,” by Skip Hollandsworth. The Texas Monthly writer and Dallas resident turns his attention to Austin in 1885, when a series of brutal murders rocked the city at a time when the term “serial killer” wasn’t even known. But that’s what Austin experienced, as a killer known as the Midnight Assassin stalked the city. The killings made national headlines, with a dozen men arrested in connection with the murders and an ensuing scandal. But three years later, detectives in London wondered whether the real Midnight Assassin had come to England and become Jack the Ripper. Hollandsworth has been working on this investigation for more than decade, and it sounds fantastic. Publication: April, $30, Henry Holt.
- “Sunset City,” by Melissa Ginsburg. A Houston native, Ginsburg is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and teaches creative writing at the University of Mississippi. Her new novel is described as an “erotically charged literary noir set in Houston, about a woman caught up in her friend’s shocking murder and the dark truth she uncovers.” Publication: April, $25.99, Ecco.
- “The Regional Office Is Under Attack!” by Manuel Gonzales, the former director of the Bat Cave in Austin and now a writing teacher at the University of Kentucky. His “Miniature Wife” was winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Publication: April, $27.95, Riverhead.
- “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos,” by Dominic Smith. Smith is one of Austin’s best writers, and that’s saying a lot, because we have a lot of great writers. I first came across him when I reviewed his first book, “The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre,” while working at the Dallas Morning News. His other books haven’t disappointed. They’re “Bright and Distant Shores” and “The Beautiful Miscellaneous.” In an author’s note, Smith has this to say: “During the seventeenth century, the Guild of St. Luke in Holland controlled all aspects of professional artistic life, including who could sign and date paintings. Its members included the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan van Goyen. The historical record suggests that as many as twenty-five women were members of the guild… But only a small handful of those artists produced work that has survived or been correctly attributed. … One gap in the historical record concerns Sarah van Baalbergen, the first woman to be admitted to the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke. …. None of van Baalbergen’s work has survived.” This historic fiction tale tries to get to the bottom of that mystery – and others. Publication: May, $26, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- As I was putting this list together, two other titles came to my attention: “No Baggage,” by Clara Bensen and “Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso,” by Kali Nicole Gross. “No Baggage” is a memoir about Bensen and a university professor who decide on a risky adventure: take off on a trip with no plans, no reservations and no baggage while traveling to eight countries. Publication: January, $25, Running Press Book Publishers. “Hannah Mary Tabbs,” meanwhile, is a study of a crime in post-Reconstruction Philadelphia, with racial themes. It’s from an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT. Publication: February, $24.95, Oxford University Press.
- And there will be many more books popping up in the next few weeks. I’m sure I’ve left off some good ones that I should have included but got lost in the piles and piles at my desk. If you know of one, please feel free to email me.