Back of the Book

famouswritersThe Washington Post dubbed James Magnuson’s new novel “a triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper,” and Famous Writers I Have Known has garnered an abundance of similar kudos. The book’s been called a satire, a romp, a farce, and a gleeful jab at the world of MFA writing programs—one that Magnuson, director of UT’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, is well positioned to write. Magnuson will read selections from Famous Writers I Have Known at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21 as part of the museum’s Texas Artists Series.

The book opens on con man Frankie Abandonato and follows his exploits as he poses as reclusive Salinger-esque author V.S. Mohle in order to weasel his way into elderly MFA program benefactor Rex Schoeninger’s bank account. The MFA program in question is fictional, but it resembles the Michener Center in more ways than one; likewise, Schoeninger can be read as both a parody of and tribute to the late James Michener. Frankie’s scheme is destined to fail, but not before Magnuson pokes a semester’s worth of fun at the writers and academics his con man encounters.

Magnuson’s story is lighthearted and playful, while still shedding a gently critical light on the eccentricities and absurdities of graduate writing education. But Abandonato’s deft infiltration of the literary world raises a question not easily glossed over: Are writers and con men really so different? Both rely on a certain amount of theatricality; both are actors playing a role; both tend to make it up as they go along. Frankie may not be V. S. Mohle, but he’s a phenomenal storyteller regardless. As is Magnuson.

His will be the second performance of the Bullock Museum’s Texas Artists Series, a program that aims to connect Texas history with live performances showcasing the music, theater, and literature that bring the stories of Texas to life. Magnuson’s reading promises a whimsical portrait of a program few have the good fortune to get into, and an artful reminder that nothing—authors included—should be taken too seriously.

publicenemyYou may regard Bill Ayers as a hero or a terrorist. It all depends which side of the political trench you stand on. Either way, the infamous Ayers will be at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Thursday, speaking and signing copies of his newest book, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident.

Ayers’ first memoir, Fugitive Days, recounted his past as an influential member of the Weather Underground, the radical left organization that protested the Vietnam war by bombing empty government buildings. Though all charges against Ayers were dropped, many saw Fugitive Days as a kind of unrepentant confession, and its tone was ill received when its publication date inadvertently coincided with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. When a New York Times article quoted Ayers as having said, of the Weather Underground, “we didn’t do enough,” Ayers was labeled as morally insensitive at best and, at worst, a domestic terrorist, even though Ayers argued he was referring only to the Weather Underground’s opposition to the Vietnam war, not the bombings.

In the decade after the 9/11 attacks, Ayers and Barack Obama served together briefly as directors of the Woods Fund Chicago, and both were asked to participate in a conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago. These connections served as fodder for the right-wing demonization of Ayers—and of Obama.

In Public Enemy, Ayers is concerned more with his present, and the chaos that ensued after George Stephanopoulos asked Obama to explain his association with Ayers during a debate, implying that such an association was reprehensible for a presidential candidate. Obama dismissed the question, referring to Ayers as simply “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

To minimize his role in the unfolding drama, Ayers kept deliberately silent as McCain running-mate Sarah Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” even though Ayers was the “terrorist” in question. It didn’t matter that Ayers at that point had long been known for his commitment to education reform, or that he and Obama were little more than acquaintances. With Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 re-election long past, Public Enemy is Ayers’ response to the accusations, and the story of what happens when a person is turned into a symbol against his will.

Whether or not Bill Ayers is a dangerous radical, a dedicated educator, or perhaps just a human being who doesn’t fit easily or fully into either mold, Public Enemy is a tale of triumph. As Jake Austen of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Despite challenging power structures for decades, no force has successfully conspired to ruin Ayers.”

In a literary twist suitable for the master of surprise endings, a lost manuscript by William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, has been recovered. The handwritten manuscript, written under the pen name Del Oliver, contains a story about marriage called “As Others See Us.” The story features absinthe, a battle axe, and—you guessed it—a signature O. Henry twist. Selected pages will be displayed in Austin’s O. Henry Museum as part of the exhibit “As Others See Us: O. Henry’s Unpublished Manuscript.”

The museum’s education coordinator (and Observer contributor) Michael Hoinski says that with a leap of faith “As Others See Us” becomes believably autobiographical. “There’s no date associated with the manuscript,” he says, “but we believe it to be written around 1908-1910. That was when O. Henry was married to his second wife.”

According to Hoinski, O. Henry was known as a pretty heavy drinker, especially toward the latter part of his life. “There’s a quote [in the story] that goes, ‘I am an artist in drinking and I have seldom met another.’ Basically, you have this alcoholic [main character] who thinks he’s a professional alcoholic and he’s hiding his vice from the world when it’s actually unraveling in front of those around him … he seems to be married to a woman who dotes on him, but he’s so consumed with his drink that he’d almost rather be left alone.”

Hoinski says the manuscript may shed light on O. Henry’s relationship with his second wife, which has not been well documented. “What’s generally written is that they got along really well,” Hoinski says. “This could tell us otherwise.” Informational panels will discuss the personal nature of the manuscript, as well as Porter’s use of pen names, as part of the museum’s exhibit.

Visitors to the museum will learn that this internationally known literary figure got his start in Austin. Although O. Henry is largely considered a New York writer, Hoinski says Austin is where the writer really “cut his teeth.” Visitors can see the house O. Henry lived in, as well as the only known recording of O. Henry’s voice, which is displayed on an iPad in the museum.

In this 2-minute recording, an enthusiastic O. Henry discusses why he loves the short story form. “You gotta come to the museum to see that,” Hoinski says.

O. Henry’s best-known works include the frequently parodied “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Hoinski calls O. Henry a “technician” whose mastery of the short story form allows him to touch on universal themes in an accessible way. As far as the twist endings: “It works, but there’s a lot of times when you’re reading the story and you know the twist ending is coming and he almost paints himself into a corner … the twist endings can be really believable or less believable,” Hoinksi says.

The O. Henry Museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting O. Henry artifacts, and will be displaying the lost manuscript until May 4, 2014. Transcripts of the story will be available for museum-goers to read. The museum is open and free to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m.

220px-Alan_Pogue-APR21Longtime Texas Observer contributing photographer Alan Pogue has mounted a collection of his photography at La Peña in Austin. Pogue, whose work is known for its wide-ranging humanitarian and social-justice focus, has spent nearly half a century photographing people whose plights often go unseen: migrant farm workers, displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. His archive is one of the most impressive catalogs of social justice movements and activism of its time.

Most recently Pogue has aimed his efforts at raising awareness of the injustices faced by factory workers across the border in Mexico. In the Observer‘s December issue, Pogue and staff writer Melissa del Bosque document the unfortunate story of Rosa Moreno, a Reynosa maquiladora worker who lost her hands to a hydraulic press in an HD Electronics plant. Pogue hopes the story will inspire donations to provide Moreno with a set of prosthetic hands.

The exhibition—”A Retrospective Look at 46 Years of Peace and Justice Photography”—contains photographs spanning Pogue’s 46-year career, highlighting the hardships faced by Texans and citizens from around the world, notably in Israel and Palestine. Pogue’s book Witness for Justice will also be available for purchase.

An opening reception is scheduled for 6-8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, at La Peña Gallery, 227 Congress Ave. The exhibition will be on view through Dec. 31, 2013.

 

 

 

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Left to right: Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain, and Michael McGriff

The Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas is widely known as one of the nation’s premier creative writing MFA programs. So it’s no surprise that the center hosts a plethora of superb writers for their annual reading series. Next up is a triple- header from poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Carrie Fountain and Michael McGriff.

Nye, the self-described “wandering poet” (and the Observer‘s longtime poetry editor) has written an impressive 26 books of prose and poetry, and has been awarded the Lannan Literary Fellowship for her work, among a long list of honors and awards. She’s currently teaching a first-year seminar at the Michener Center.

Fountain, a Las Cruces, New Mexico, native, is the 2009 National Poetry Series winner for her debut collection Burn Lake. She’s a former fellow at the Michener Center and currently teaches at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

McGriff is the author of three poetry collections and winner of the Lannan Fellowship for his most recent book, 2012’s Home Burial. His second collection, Dismantling the Hills, received the 2007 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Like Fountain, McGriff is a former fellow at the Michener Center, and currently teaches the program’s graduate poetry workshop.

Nye, Fountain, and McGriff will read Thursday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium on the UT campus.

S.
by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
Mulholland Books
472 pages; $35

This is not a book to read on your Kindle.

S. arrives in a sleeve, and unsheathed it looks like it could be an old library book, complete with an index card and dewey decimal sticker. The pages have been browned and stained, and in the margins of each page is a scribbled conversation between two readers as they annotate the story they’re both ostensibly reading: Ship of Theseus by V.M. Straka. Tucked into the book’s pages, the reader might encounter a dirty napkin, a postcard, or a map. Just as Eric and Jen, the two characters scribbling in the margins, are becoming enmeshed in a story they don’t quite understand, readers will find themselves challenged to decode the mysterious S. 

It’s all part of the literary puzzle conceived by filmmaker and producer J.J. Abrams and penned by Texas writer Doug Dorst, author of the novel Lost in Necropolis and a short story collection, The Surf Guru. He currently teaches at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Dorst will be speaking and signing S. at BookPeople on December 9 at 7 p.m.

Texas History Loses an Eminence

FehrenbachThe San Antonio Express-News reports today that esteemed Texas historian T.R. Fehrenbach died on Sunday of a congenital heart condition at San Antonio’s Northeast Baptist Hospital. Fehrenbach was 88.

Among Fehrenbach’s more than 20 books, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans was the best known and most widely read. Fehrenbach was also a longtime columnist at the Express-News and a former head of the Texas Historical Commission.

In October 2012, Observer contributor Saul Elbein interviewed Fehrenbach for a feature on the author and his book’s lasting legacy.

Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen by Al Jourgensen De Capo Press 336 pages; $26.99
Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen
by Al Jourgensen
De Capo Press
336 pages; $26.99

Conventional rock wisdom holds that the road to superstardom is paved with discarded schoolbooks, whiskey bottles and seven-digit hotel bills. The path then twists through addiction, bitterness and—finally—memoirs recounting the untold history. Before VH1′s “Behind The Music” docudramas arrived to warn against the “pitfalls of fame” (chemical dependency and suicidal recklessness, mostly), heavy-metal heroes of the ’80s and ’90s had to live the life to learn its lessons.

Two hard-rock icons recall that journey in recent books: Official Truth, 101 Proof by Rex Brown, bassist of the defunct Arlington metal band Pantera, and Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen, by the titular founder of industrial-rock pioneers Ministry.

Both men’s stories begin in ruptured though not broken homes. Brown was born in Graham, Texas in 1964, where his “Daddy Bill” had a job with Texas Electric. When Daddy Bill was diagnosed with cancer in 1971 and died early the next year, Rex found solace in rock and roll. “While listening to music in my bedroom one night, I remember hearing the most fucking amazing sound emerging from my radio … [t]he name of the song was “Tush” and the band was ZZ Top, and when I heard this song, it immediately altered my outlook on everything. I held onto that feeling for dear life.”

Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera by Rex Brown De Capo Press 304 pages; $26
Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera
by Rex Brown
De Capo Press
304 pages; $26

A world away from Graham, Al Jourgensen was born in Havana, Cuba in 1958. “My mother was sixteen when she had me,” he writes, “and I have no idea who my father is but I know he didn’t stick around.” His mother married Ed Jourgensen when Al was six, and though the father/stepson relationship had pitfalls, they found a shared interest in watching sports, particularly hockey, “I loved the competitiveness, the action, the violence,” Al says of the game. And then came music. Jourgensen remembers a 1967 Rolling Stones performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” as having “… this raw, primal energy I had never seen before, even in sports, and they were way more transgressive and dangerous than Elvis or the Beatles.”

As both books unfold, Brown and Jourgensen’s careers and lives dovetail in Texas again and again. Brown lives in Arlington between long stints on the road with Pantera, and Jourgensen spent time in Austin, Marble Falls, and elsewhere in Texas before finally settling in El Paso, where he still lives. And both Pantera and Ministry experienced growing pains in the 1980s before bronzing into metal museum pieces. Pantera started off glam when Brown hooked up with sibling co-founders “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott (guitar) and Vinnie Paul Abbott (drums) in high school, and in their early years the band performed in spandex and teased hair. Ministry also abused hairspray and eyeliner in the early ’80s, and Jourgensen adopted a faux British accent for his band’s debut, a major label synthpop album called With Sympathy.

With Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell (1990) and Ministry’s Psalm 69 (1992), each band not only solidified its signature sound, but found an audience as big as the noise they made. The money followed, and though it’s difficult to imagine in today’s frugal musical economy, mid-’90s major-label largess was enough to keep both Brown and Jourgensen awash in enough disposable income to finance not just impractical recording sessions and ballooning drug habits, but extracurriculars like thousand-dollar bar tabs at strip clubs. Fame also afforded these artists an abnormal freedom from consequence; Jourgensen recalls on more than one occasion working an entire deli tray’s worth of contents up his rectum for the sole purpose of disgusting his perceived foes. Such acts become so commonplace that by the fifth recounting of destroyed hotel rooms, intoxicant binges and sexploits, both books begin to read like joyless exercises in repetition, less the stories of a long party than those of slow suicides.

The eventual reveals—Brown is now sober; Jourgensen has kicked hard drugs and “only” drinks—present another complication. In recovery, addicts are urged to “stay in the solution,” avoiding rosy remembrances and the snare of relapse, but the tell-all book demands the opposite. It’s difficult to feel simultaneous empathy for the subject’s struggles with addiction and joy at their tales of excess. The debauchery feeds our appetite for destruction but the meal never satisfies—especially when we know in advance that the pleasure comes from an attempt to mute pain.

Another difficulty—at least in terms of generating readerly sympathy—is the cruelty in some of Brown and Jourgensen’s characterizations. Brown’s book begins with a series of complaints levied at former Pantera drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, and he revisits this target over and over through the course of 250 pages. Similarly, Jourgensen, who worked with former Ministry bassist Paul Barker for 17 years, expresses nothing but bile for his former collaborator. But even unhappy marriages have bright moments, and the fact that we’re afforded not a single glimpse of better times creates a serious (and obviously intentional) vacuum.

Both books deliver rambling, entertaining and frequently disturbing anecdotes and exaltations that expand on their authors’ iconic mythos. But the gravity these stories might have had (and whatever lessons they could have imparted) are deflated by the very things that hard-living rock memoirs require by design: bile and bluster. Both Brown and Jourgensen should know that dynamics, not volume, matter most.

Noir Does Dallas

Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The white Xs in Dealey Plaza that demarcated the tragedy have recently been paved over, but the event left “a permanent black scar on [Dallas] history that can never be erased,” writes editor David Hale Smith in his introduction to Dallas Noir. “On that day in 1963, Dallas became American noir.”

It’s no coincidence that Dallas Noir, an anthology of short fiction, was published earlier this month. It’s a dark tribute by contemporary authors—including Ben Fountain, Kathleen Kent, and Clay Reynolds—who have deep connections to a city that Hale compares to “a beautiful woman with poison under her fingernails.” The book is divided into three sections titled “Cowboys,” “Rangers” and “Mavericks,” and each story is set in a different Dallas neighborhood. In a review for The Dallas Morning News, Joyce Sàenz Harris addresses those who might think Dallas is too dull for such a literary treatment: “Perhaps you haven’t gotten out much and seen the dark edges of Big D for yourself.” This collection explores those dark edges with stories featuring femme fatales, gangbangers, lonely waitresses and a Civil War reenactment gone wrong.

David Hale Smith will join a panel of contributing authors on Dec. 6 at Austin’s BookPeople to discuss the anthology.

Austin theater darlings Rude Mechanicals are at it again with Fixing King John, a modern retelling of King John, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Resident Rude Mech playwright Kirk Lynn discusses his touchstones, from Robert Johnson via the White Stripes to the Bard’s love of smut.

IMG_4035-Edit-2What inspired you to start “fixing” some of Shakespeare’s plays?

I was running and I was listening to a White Stripes live album, and they were covering ‘Stop Breaking Down,’ by Robert Johnson, and I started thinking, ‘Would Robert Johnson even recognize this as his music?’ Especially on the live version, not on the album version, the solo is just so aggressive and noisy. I was like, ‘I want to do that.’

The poet Charles Simic said this thing I really feel connected to. He said that writers want to honor the masters of their craft, but they also want to overthrow them and make room for themselves and sort of destroy them.

I thought, ‘I just want to cover something and make it sound like the White Stripes make ‘Stop Breaking Down’ sound: respectful, and clearly in the tradition of blues—and loving the blues—but just annihilating it, too.’

fixingjohnSo how did you go about  fixing King John?

I went online, downloaded the full text as a text file, and every morning before I would start whatever my bigger project was, I would just do a page or so, turning it into contemporary English and adding curse words. I feel like a reason Shakespeare can sort of smuggle himself into high schools and colleges is because we don’t recognize how foul he is. Shakespeare loves smut.

So, that was the first pass. Then, I abandoned any loyalty to the Shakespearean text and just tried to edit it like I would one of my plays: Cut it down to 10 characters so you could do it. King John goes from 22 down to 10 characters. Then, just smooth out the plot. And then there were some other things. I really wanted to push toward more gender parity, so I gave the female characters more lines.

Is a retelling more difficult to write than an original play?

I don’t think so. In some ways it was easier. Like anything, once you get under the hood, you find these beautiful sections where you’re like ‘Oh my God, this is a goldmine here.’

Is there any contemporary political commentary at work in the play?

Yeah. There’s a lot of talk about these guys just going to war at the drop of a hat; they don’t seem to care about it. There’s a French king, Philip, in our play, who keeps saying, ‘Man, I just don’t fight anymore.’ He lets his son do all the fighting. And he has this fairly beautiful speech on why he doesn’t fight anymore. It has to do with the slaughter of innocent kids. In Shakespeare, they talk about, ‘Man, we lost this duke,’ and they list out the nobles, and in our play they mention the fact that they lost countless people that nobody knows their names. So there’s a lot of talk about the cost of war.

I originally was drafting a few years ago as we were feeling like we were going to get to move out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ways, especially in Iraq, in which we took civilian life, still ongoing with the drone work… how do we want to count these people? For the most part, it seems like we don’t even want to count them or think about them. There’s no character named Obama or George Bush, but there is meditation on ‘What do wars actually cost?’

Is your method of “fixing” Shakespeare any different from updating Shakespeare for a modern audience, which is a fairly common undertaking?

I think it’s different in that, at a certain point, I just abandon any loyalty to the text. I got to work on it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with some real Shakespearean actors, which was a real kick, and I think the percentage came out about right. There were probably, out of 15, three or four people who thought it was offensive and not a great idea, and I think that’s kind of the sweet spot that I want to hit: 10-12 people think this is beautiful and three people think it’s kind of… If it’s not offensive to anybody, I would have failed. It takes Shakespeare as the starting place, but abandons it eventually. The farther you get into the play, the less it has to do with Shakespeare.

What’s the future hold for Rude Mechs’ “Fixing Shakespeare” series?

Every two years, the Rude Mechs are going to fix a new one, so we’re asking people what they think is the worst Shakespeare so we can fix that one next. We’re messing around with Timon of Athens, which is a fun play.

Another little feature is that once we produce these plays, they’re going to be given away for free. My greatest desire is that high school kids will find them and love them. It’s fun to do them professionally, but it seems like the people who might really appreciate them are the student that I was when I was 17 or 18. I loved Shakespeare, even at that age, but being forced to talk about it as though it’s purely high culture can take all the fun out of it. I guess even undergrads in college could produce it on their own. There are no rights or royalties attached, so they can do whatever they want with it.

“Fixing King John” runs through Nov. 24 at the Off Center.