Observer contributor Cecily Sailer reviews Greg Baxter’s new novel, The Apartment, and finds it “intricate and complex, both reportage and confession, littered with moments of meaning—or at least a meaningful search for same.”
Back of the Book
Last year, the Observer’s Emily DePrang called George Saunders on the phone to talk about Tenth of December: Stories, his most recent work. She asked him if short stories fight injustice, and Saunders responded that they do. In his words, short stories “make the boundaries permeable … remind you that you’re not without agency and you’re not above or below the fray.” Saunders will be in Houston at Brazos Bookstore at 7:30 p.m. tonight. To mark the occasion, we polled Observer writers for their favorite short story collections, new and old, that traverse boundaries and pull readers into the fray.
Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
A few months before celebrating his 80th birthday last March, Philip Roth, the most decorated living American novelist, announced that, after publishing almost a book a year since 1959, he had ceased writing. Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched his career of brilliant literary provocations, is still astonishingly fresh. Consisting of the title novella and five short stories, the volume explores love, faith, and assimilation with both wit and compassion. In particular, “Defender of the Faith,” the story of a war-hardened drill sergeant who responds in complex ways to a cunning Jewish recruit who tries to exploit their common background to extract special treatment, shows no signs of aging.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Recommended by Emily DePrang
Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, is messed up. Not the execution of the book itself—it’s crushingly beautiful and stylistically perfect; I mean perfect—but the content: drugs, crime, car accidents, drugs again. It makes you feel deeply with and for people you would never want to meet and live moments you’d never want to live through, except that because Johnson is such an excruciatingly good writer, you’ll read on anyway. And if you’re me, you’ll read on again and again and again, just to get that feeling.
Recommended by James McWilliams
“Jack liked his office and it was alright to like your office.” This is the opening line of Norman Rush’s classic short story, “Lying Presences,” originally published in The Paris Review in 1982. Rush’s story is one of 20 published Paris Review pieces now compiled in a book called Object Lessons. It goes without saying that the stories themselves are, in various ways, masterful (if largely dark) expressions of what many prematurely lament as a dying genre. But what’s especially valuable about this anthology is that leading contemporary writers—including Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore—chose the stories and, albeit too briefly, introduced them. Unexpected insights emerge from this arrangement. Who would have guessed—as Mona Simpson, who introduces Rush’s story, reveals—that the opening line about Jack liking his office had, on its own, convinced The Paris Review (where Simpson once worked) to publish the story before even finishing it? As Simpson notes, “Editors, like curators, develop refined intuition.” It shows throughout this volume.
Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories by Richard Burgin
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Burgin writes some of the most dangerous short fiction being published today, as Hide Island: A Novella and Nine Stories—his newest collection, and ninth overall—demonstrates. These stories are dangerous because they force readers to question ordinary ethical behavior and the boundaries between transgressors and victims. While his previous collections have also been dark—involving every variety of sadomasochistic behavior imaginable—the new book seems to be his darkest yet, compounded by an intensified concern with mortality in addition to Burgin’s usual preoccupation with sexual “deviancy.” In all these stories, Burgin puts the darkest possible spin on our private lives, exposing the baleful mendacity and self-deception whereby we operate day to day. There is an undertone of a radical political critique here, an ardent nihilism that is all the more lovely for its ring of unshakeable truth.
The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is usually remembered for the story at the end, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” because it inspired the movie starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel, but for me, Millhauser’s magic lies in his shorter stories. The one I can’t forget is titled “Rain,” and follows a man caught in a downpour after coming out of a movie theater. City lights and storefront signs swim around him, and eventually everything—even the protagonist—dissolves. The premise is straightforward, and the story is approximately eight pages long, but in those eight pages Millhauser manages to explicate the futility of an unremarkable life, while deliberately, and beautifully, washing it away. The Barnum Museum is a series of age-yellowed, water-damaged images—long-forgotten artifacts and mementos both magical and achingly sad.
Texas songwriter and wordsmith Steven Fromholz died in a hunting accident this past Sunday, Jan. 19, at age 68, when a rifle he was handling on a feral hog hunt near Eldorado, south of San Angelo, fell and discharged. According to legacy.com, Fromholz’ funeral will be held at 2 p.m. this Friday at the Ft. McKavett Cemetery near San Angelo.
Born in Temple and educated at the University of North Texas in Denton, Fromholz became one of the founding fathers of Texas folk and country, performing everywhere from Houston’s Anderson Fair to Terlingua’s Starlight Theater in Big Bend, where he periodically worked as a raft guide on the Rio Grande. His long-out-of-print debut From Here to There, with Dan McCrimmon, laid the groundwork for a sound that would be built on by a subsequent generation of Texas songwriters including Lyle Lovett, who covered Fromholz’ “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy”—a three-part ode to the tiny town of Kopperl, Texas, in Bosque County, comprising “Daybreak,” “Train Ride” and “Bosque County Romance”—on 1998’s Step Inside This House album. Willie Nelson, John Denver, Hoyt Axton and Jerry Jeff Walker have also covered Fromholz’ songs.
“Texas Trilogy” was also the inspiration for a book, Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Texas Town, by writer Craig D. Hillis and photographer Bruce F. Jordan, published by University of Texas Press in 2002 and excerpted in the Observer.
The songs alone are legacy enough to install him in the Texas canon, but Fromholz was an accomplished storyteller in multiple modes. He was named Texas’ Poet Laureate in 2007, the same year TCU Press published his New and Selected Poems.
The Dallas Morning News published this photo essay of late-career Fromholz.
But perhaps the best way to remember him is just to listen.
2013 Texas Poet Laureate Rosemary Catacalos, a longtime San Antonio resident of Mexican and Greek heritage, makes frequent use of the Ariadne myth in her 1984 book, Again for the First Time, originally published in 1984 and recently reissued by San Antonio’s Wings Press in a 30th-anniversary edition.
The 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.
You 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.
Longtime 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.
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.
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.