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Back of the Book

Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections will host four authors on Thursday, April 3, to discuss Latino literature: where it’s been, where it’s going, and the borders it does, can and will cross. The event is free and open to the public, and those who wish to attend are encouraged to RSVP to [email protected]

San Antonio’s inaugural and current poet laureate, Carmen Tafolla, will moderate a conversation between poet and police officer Sarah Cortez, filmmaker and author Severo Perez, and poet Tino Villanueva.

Cortez has written several books, including How to Undress a Cop and Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence. Perez is best known as the writer and director of …and the earth did not swallow him, which won several awards on the film-festival circuit; Perez recently donated his archives to the Wittliff Collections. Villanueva has authored seven books of poetry; one of them, Scene from the Movie GIANT, recently won the American Book Award.

For her part, Tafolla has published an array of award-winning work for children and adults. Her writing blends English and Spanish, academic jargon and street patois, into verse that’s distinctly Texan. (You can read Observer contributor Nick Swartsell’s piece on Tafolla and her fellow Texas poets laureate here.)

The conversation starts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 3. A book-signing will follow.

 

The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages; $25.00
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney’s
496 pages; $25

Trying to describe The Parallel Apartments is like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach while reciting the alphabet backwards. In his sophomore novel Bill Cotter deploys a broad and complicated cast of characters, all of whom are riddled with budding psychoses. There’s the aspiring serial killer, the infertile baby-crazed lunatic, the sex-bot madam, the matchmaking hermaphrodite, and, at the center of it all, the collage-obsessed chronic masturbator. These and more come together briefly as residents of the book’s eponymous Austin tenement. Based on their quirks, and the title’s reference to the location of their intersection, it would be easy to label the book black comedy.

That would be a gross oversimplification. Even the weirdest and wackiest members of Cotter’s menagerie play second and somewhat discordant fiddle to the book’s true focus: the estrangement of three generations of Austin women and their paths toward reconciliation.

Charlotte, Livia, and Justine Durant have issues, to put it mildly. Justine, unintentionally pregnant in New York City, finds her way back to her hometown to decide whether to keep her baby. She’s also searching for answers regarding her own origins after a homeless woman cryptically informs her that Livia, who always told Justine she was adopted, is actually her birth mother. Livia and her own mother, Charlotte, are no longer on speaking terms for undisclosed reasons.

There’s a lot going on here, but if a cohesive theme emerges, it’s motherhood. The Parallel Apartments is a bizarre catalog of women who have babies but don’t want them and women who want babies but don’t have them, and how these predicaments leave mothers and daughters and childless women emotionally (and often mentally) crippled. It would be far easier to label the book a farce if these depictions weren’t so heartbreaking, and readers may be left wondering whether Cotter is trying to say something about childbirth (and if so, what?), or if it’s just another of his many fictive obsessions.

The mixture of satire and seriousness is what makes The Parallel Apartments so confusing; Cotter continually convinces us that his characters are jokes, then pulls the punch-line out from under us, leaving readers flat on their backs, bewildered. This constant subversion of expectations is also what makes the book an intriguing, if emotionally disorienting, read.

Every now and then ambition impedes cohesion. Too often the saga of the Durant women is interrupted by supporting characters, rather than complemented by them. And after the 15th scene of Justine masturbating, eye-rolling is justified, if not outright demanded. The book is peppered with self-indulgent geographical nods to Austin, and these unnecessary references to Bass Concert Hall, Airport Boulevard, the U.T. Tower and other Austin icons make the writer seem worried that readers might forget where the book is set, or, worse, that its author is an authentic Austinite.

But even as Cotter labors to present Austin as weirder than it actually is, and even as his characters do abominable and ridiculous things to themselves and to one another, I found myself pitying, even rooting for, his band of bawdy misfits. For each of the plot’s points of despicable nonsense, there’s a counter-instance of unexpected kindness, all filtered through Cotter’s conflicted mix of mockery and compassion. The result is both horrific and heartwarming, no matter how difficult to describe.

Lucha-LibroThe next few weeks will bring a slew of writers to Austin and San Antonio, but don’t expect the usual staid readings. Instead, authors will do battle for the sale of honor, glory, and the competitive literary spirit.

This Wednesday, March 26, at Austin’s Whip In, How Best to Avoid Dying author Owen Egerton will face off against Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and director of Austin Bat Cave, in a duel of writerly wits, or, more formally, a Lucha Libro. Co-sponsored by the Texas Book Festival and the Whip In, the event will feature authors competing for the title of best short-story writer in a series of cutthroat challenges, including (but not limited to) reciting their books’ sexiest sentence and reading their most offensive passages.

Steph Opitz, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, will act as referee. The Lucha Libro is free and open to the public, whose votes will determine the victor. The event aims to celebrate the releases of Gonzales’ and Egerton’s recent work with an evening of beer, readings and good-natured competition.

Though one author will go home defeated, hard feelings can’t last long, since Egerton and Gonzales will reunite on April 3 for another authorial battle. This time Egerton will sit on panel of “celebrity judges” and Gonzales will be one of four contestants in an American Idol-esque Literary Death Match at Austin’s Alamo Draft House-Ritz. Egerton will be judging alongside Austin musician Bob Schneider and Texas Literary Hall of Famer Sarah Bird as Gonzales takes on Jennifer DuBois, author of Cartwheel, A Partial History of Lost Causes and teacher at Texas State’s MFA program; Neal Pollack, author of Downward-Facing Death, Jewball, and certified yoga instructor; and Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and holder of the James A. Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin. Each author will read a 7-minute selection from their work and then submit to a ruthless critique from the judges, after which the winner will be chosen in a game show-style final round. You can buy tickets here.

Litdeathmatch

Literary Death Match will then make its way to San Antonio on April 5, where Egerton will compete with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta; Antonio Sacre, author of My Name is Cool: Stories from a Cuban-Irish-American Storyteller; and Malin Alegria, author of Border Town #4: No Second Chances—all under the inscrutable judgment of Texas Monthly editor in chief Jake Silverstein; Siempre Mujer Magazine editor in chief Maria Cristina Marrero; and chief of engagement for San Antonio nonprofit SA2020 Molly Cox. Produced by the San Antonio Book Festival, the event will be held at the end of the festival itself, which features free public readings from more than 70 national, regional and local authors. San Antonio Death Match tickets can be purchased here.

Both Literary Death Matches will be hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, founding editor of Opium Magazine and co-creator of the Literary Death Match Series, which he, Elizabeth Koch and Dennis DeClaudio premiered in 2006. Since then the event has traveled from Seattle to Beijing. Now it’s Texas’ turn.

DeathFernando A. Flores’ Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 chronicles a Rio Grande Valley that’s never been known as a haven for the punk rock underground — unless you were part of it. Flores was, as was Observer contributor Dan Solomon, who reviews the new book here.

If you’d like to get a taste for yourself, Austin’s Farewell Books is hosting a book release party tonight, March 19, at 7 p.m.

James Magnuson

Texas Observer contributor Anis Shivani, who writes fiction, poetry and criticism from his home in Houston, reviews James Magnuson’s novel Famous Writers I Have Known in the March issue. The novel centers on a J.D. Salinger-like literary recluse named V.S. Mohle, a James Micheneresque Pulitzer-winning popular novelist/philanthropist named Rex Schoeninger, and an East Coast con man/imposter named Frank Abandonato.

Magnuson, who directs the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, spoke with Shivani by email about campus novels, Internet self-promotion, writerly self-doubt, and the utility of MFA writing programs.

Texas Observer: I was fascinated by your description of Rex Schoeninger as a way of understanding the late James Michener. What kind of relationship did you have with Michener, and what did you learn from him?

James Magnuson: I would say that our relationship was mutually respectful. He was anything but a glad-hander. I quickly learned that the last thing you should do with Michener was ask him for something. He was a very shrewd man and knew when he was being worked.

TO: The founders of some of the country’s generously endowed writing programs and residencies would perhaps not recognize the degree to which their original function and rationale have altered. What do you think have been the biggest changes with Stegner, Yaddo, Fine Arts Work Center, and what would surprise the founders the most?

JM: I’m no expert on the history of writing programs, but I have seen how the Michener Center has changed. Twenty years ago we were the new kids on the creative writing block and a bit of an oddity, because we were interdisciplinary. We made lots of mistakes in the beginning, corrected them as best we were able to. Because of the success of a number of the students, we are certainly viewed in a very different way now. That can be unnerving. I’ve tried very hard to keep us from getting too fancy.

TO: In Famous Writers I Have Known, the writing-workshop students have a decent recognition of literary theory. That may be true on an individual level, but my understanding is that on a more systemic level, theory and creative writing function in isolation, even antagonism. Do you regret the passing of humanist criticism in favor of the technocratic language of theory?

JM: When someone showed me a Walter Benjamin article in the 1970s, it felt like a total revelation. A few years later, critical theory was spreading like kudzu. What had seemed so electrifying soon became doctrinaire and disspiriting, particularly to writers. You’re right about the antagonism. It does exist. I do still seek out eccentric and suggestive criticism written by writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams. Zadie Smith is superb writing about books. But I confess, sometimes I will read a book like [Michael Taussig’s] Shamanism, Colonialism, and The Wild Man.

TO: What parts of writing can be taught? What can’t be taught? Are we under a mass illusion when it comes to the teaching of writing, or is something helpful being done with instruction? Do you think the age of great original writers is over?

JM: I think you can teach a young writer to spot and destroy the most egregious cliches, how to use point of view in a consistent way, how to develop a bit of an eye for the telling detail. You can get them excited about reading. You can teach them to prune dead language, even if you can’t really teach them how to make language come alive. But the storytelling instinct is either there or it isn’t. You have it or you don’t, and there’s not much a teacher can do.

TO: What do you think is the biggest con as far as the writing industry is concerned?

JM: A tough question. I think it’s probably instilling false hope. I wince at this, because I’m a natural encourager. But sustaining a writing career is so difficult. My greatest nightmare is telling someone he’s a genius, because I want him to feel better, and then he ends up wasting the next decade of his life.

TO: I like the degree of moral overlap in Famous Writers I Have Known between Frank as con man and the feelings of anxiety and self-doubt—if not feelings of outright fakery—most writers experience. Was the character of Frank the original germ of the story, or was there some other starting point?

JM: I appreciate your point. I spent eight years working on this novel and it was turned down by 30 publishers before it was finally taken. I absolutely felt like a fraud for a substantial part of that time.

As far as the germ of the novel goes, the book sprang from two very different notions. On the one hand I was intrigued by the idea of a low-life passing himself as a world-class writer. I’ve always taken pleasure in farce, in those Danish plays where the beggar wakes up in the king’s bed and everyone treats him as royalty.

But the other seed of the novel was planted as I watched so many people circling James Michener at the end of his life, angling for the remainder of his fortune. My wicked thought was, who could come along to ace them all out?

TO: Did you have any difficulty settling on the tone for the novel?

JM: Getting the tone just right was the hardest thing, and the most crucial. I had to take the utmost care not to impose my literary opinions on Frankie. In one sense I had to dumb him down (smart as he is). I went through and meticulously deleted all the words that I would use and he wouldn’t. I also had to keep from becoming too fair-minded and kind for as long as I could.

TO: We seem to be well past the era where a literary dispute could mean anything to the culture at large, as with the case of Mohle and Schoeninger’s spat on national television, which had dire consequences for both. Yet writers are eagerly enlisting in the latest phase of their own cultural emasculation—namely participation in social media, which really amounts to substituting a fake brand for any sense of individuality. What are your feelings toward the impact of technology on various aspects of writers’ self-understanding?

JM: I’m bewildered by all this. I’m one of the late adapters, one of those people who can never remember their password. It’s a little unnerving. On the one hand, I find some great literary things on the Internet I would never find any other way. But I wonder if it’s turning all of us nerdy literary types into something we’re not. A friend of mine says she feels like one of those clowns with the balloons out in front of Jiffy Lube, hopping up and down shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!”

TO: What are some of your favorite campus novels?

JM: I love the David Lodge novels, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

TO: It seems to me that Schoeninger—with his research orientation—does have a glimmer of truth in his possession, as far as the future of the global novel is concerned, even if his execution, and those of others like him, lacks much literary merit. Have you incorporated research in any of your novels? Do you think there can be a balance between the genuinely autobiographical (represented by Mohle) and the sociological approach (represented by Schoeninger)? Are there writers today who successfully integrate both elements, the autobiographical and the sociological?

JM: I used to do a lot of research for my novels. I loved to go out into the world with a small spiral notebook in my back pocket and just look at things. I learned about rat-baiting in nineteenth century New York, the layout of major league ballparks, the whereabouts of anti-war radicals in the mountains of New Mexico. But then a family and a job curtailed my roaming. I made adjustments.

I love novels with reach and ambition. It seems to me as if a lot of contemporary fiction is way too cautious, as if it’s been put through the rinse cycle one too many times. Peter Carey’s novels are wonderful in the way they blend history and the very idiosyncratically personal. What Salman Rushdie pulled off in Midnight’s Children was amazing. And don’t forget Doris Lessing and the way she shuttled back and forth between the autobiographical and the political in The Golden Notebook. Will there be another Tolstoy? I don’t know. I’d be happy with another Dos Passos.

Support the Texas Observer
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00
Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life
By David Dow
Grand Central Publishing
288 pages; $25.00

There’s a certain amount of irony in appending the epigraph “I could write a book about what I don’t know” to one whose title foregrounds its intent to share the lessons gleaned over the course of a career, and one walks away from Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book about Life wondering if, in fact, there is anything David Dow has yet to learn. Perhaps the real question is: If there are things Dow still doesn’t know, what hope do the rest of us have?

Things I’ve Learned from Dying is an energetic three-part memoir delineated into sections titled “Beginnings,” “Middles,” and “Endings.” Dow, a professor of law at the University of Houston and of history at Rice University, as well as founder and director of the Texas Innocence Network, details his father-in-law’s death from a quickly metastasized melanoma, his family’s beloved Doberman’s death from acute liver failure, and one of his many clients’ final years on death row and eventual execution. True to its title, the book is peppered with sentences structured around the phrase, “One thing I’ve learned,” such as: “One thing I’ve learned is that there is a time to be silent and there’s a time to hold nothing back. What I might not have learned is which is when.”

Taking some liberties with its timeline and compressing legal cases that spanned the better parts of decades, Dow explains how to argue a death penalty case in Texas, along the way bringing to light some of the nuances of the appeals system—and some of the ways in which he longs for even more nuance. He outlines the four stages of a death penalty case: the trial and state court appeal come first, followed by the state court habeas proceeding; after that comes the federal habeas appeal; the final stage is what Dow describes as “all the last-minute freneticism when death penalty lawyers try to think of anything they can to save their client’s life.” In Things I’ve Learned from Dying, we enter death row inmate Eddie Waterman’s case at the third stage. Dow’s ruminations about representing Waterman before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals show him at his most entertaining and opinionated:

People who think bogus legal proceedings happen only in places like Iran or China apparently haven’t been to Texas.

It hasn’t always been this way. … But decent judges have been replaced by bureaucratic hacks who reach results that melt their political butter no matter how much violence they have to inflict on legal principles on the way to getting there.

In the section titled “Middles,” Dow recounts offering advice to a younger colleague who is distraught after the execution of his first client: “Work on developing a cold cold heart, pal,” he says, invoking Hank Williams. But while there is evidence here of professional numbness—occasional decisions based solely on detached experience and expertise—this is not the narrative of someone unaffected by a life spent with the dying. Throughout the memoir, using passages from a journal he kept during his father-in-law’s illness and recreating other scenes from memory, Dow meditates on the instant between life and death. “One thing I’ve learned,” he writes, “is that beginnings are unambiguous, but endings are not.”

His story’s overlap of human, canine, legal and familial loss ultimately leads Dow to acknowledge the difference between the individual and the universal: “The deepest knowledge, I’ve learned, can be awareness of the chasm separating you from someone else.” In convincing prose, Dow shows what such lessons cost.

Houston Rap Tapes

I mean, most poor people don’t even know they can do something… You don’t know. You don’t even know that you have recourse. And people ain’t been educated on fighting’ back unless it’s some street shit, like fighting your neighbors or beating up… fighting your family members, killing your best friend. And nobody like… fightin’ the government, the city. “What the fuck you mean, fight the city? You mean like… Houston against me?” —Willie D., Houston Rap Tapes

“Your city is only as big as the parts of it you allow yourself to see,” writes Lance Scott Walker in the preface to Houston Rap Tapes. Walker will be at Brazos Bookstore in Houston tonight at 7 p.m. signing copies of Houston Rap Tapes, the companion book to Walker and photographer Peter Beste’s documentary photo book, Houston Rap (excerpted in the January issue of the Observer). Walker will also be at Sig’s Lagoon in Houston tomorrow, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m., and at Farewell Books in Austin on March 1 at 1 p.m.

Houston Rap provided a window into Houston rap culture through the faces and stories of the producers, MCs, DJs, radio personalities and community members who shaped it. The photo-heavy book had room for only brief excerpts from nearly 10 years’ worth of interviews, so Houston Rap Tapes tells the rest of the story. The new book’s oral histories illuminate what Walker calls a “cross-section” of Houston hip-hop, and each person’s story reveals something about the larger story of Houston—and about the people and places that too often go unseen.

Though Houston Rap and Houston Rap Tapes offer a big picture of Houston, Walker notes that the picture is in no way complete. “I think there are a lot more stories to tell, and we’re successful if this encourages people to take another look into the history of Houston rap artists and learn more about the city. If you’re from the area or identify with the city, you end up learning about yourself along the way,” Walker says. “The great thing about finishing a project like this is that once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own, and when that manifests in something that’s going to turn people on to the culture and the music, that’s good for everybody involved.”

The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages; $25.00
McSweeney's
The Parallel Apartments
by Bill Cotter
McSweeney's
500 pages
$25.00

Bill Cotter has a thing for maladjusted characters who transplant their problems from one city to another. His first novel, Fever Chart, traced its dysfunctional lead from Boston to New Orleans, while Justine Moppett, the heroine of his second, The Parallel Apartments, carts her neuroses from New York to Austin in search of answers.

Cotter will be at Austin’s BookPeople on February 25 at 7 p.m. to read from The Parallel Apartments; he will be joined by performance artists Annie La Ganga and Rebecca Beegle, also known as The Grownup Lady Story Company. In keeping with the women’s stories within The Parallel Apartments, La Ganga and Beegle will each tell hilariously true stories of their own.

Though he was born in Dallas, Cotter has lived in Austin for the last 17 years and considers it home. It was Austin that gave him the idea that would become The Parallel Apartments, so he decided that in Austin the story would stay. “One time I was in Austin driving around with my mother, and she pulled the car over on Avenue G, I think it was, and pointed at a duplex across the street,” Cotter says. “There were weeds in the yard, those fancy artisanal chickens you see sometimes, and she pointed to the place and said, ‘Bill, that’s where you were conceived.’ My mother is not one to confess that sort of thing, and so at the time the idea of a fictional character came to me, a character returning to their place of conception instead of their place of birth, hoping to find the answers to some mysteries. I don’t think I could have set it in any other city but Austin.”

The book’s promotional material makes The Parallel Apartments sound like a Pedro Almodóvar film—full of color, and featuring an ensemble of bizarre yet lovable characters including at least one transvestite—but they give nothing away about what Cotter says the book is really about. “I had this story that I wanted to tell about a matriarchy and the matriarch herself. It’s about these five generations of Austin women. And the middle three generations, they’re mutually estranged,” Cotter says. “And the story is about the circumstances of their estrangement and how they’re trying to solve it, how they’re trying to get over it, get around it, and get back together again.”

Cotter says he grew up surrounded by powerful women, and although he found the concept of matriarchy intriguing, at times he found himself doubting his ability to portray women accurately and authentically—and almost abandoned the story completely. “I really struggled with this book in this way. I am writing about women, and I’m writing about women from the first person, from their perspective, and I’m not a woman, and I think it’s a kind of arrogance for me to try and write about that,” Cotter says. “I didn’t want to be seen as presumptuous and arrogant, but at the same time it fascinates me and I wanted to explore it. Whether I succeeded or not I don’t know.”

The Parallel Apartments is difficult to define. One part kooky comedy, one part family drama, one part exploration of womanhood, and one part gruesome catalogue of emotional dysfunction, Cotter’s second novel defies any particular genre, except, perhaps, Cotter’s own. Protagonist Justine Moppett has an obsession with creating collages, and The Parallel Apartments is its own kind of collage, pieced together from scraps of Cotter’s own psyche. “I guess I’m pretty maladjusted myself, and that’s not to say I’m interested in myself, but I’m interested in characters that aren’t quite normal. They haven’t made it. They’ve been mishandled by providence some way or another,” Cotter says. “They hold more interest for me—someone that’s been damaged in their life, and are trying to heal themselves.”

Support the Texas Observer
Sofia Piel
San Antonio playwright Gregg Barrios

Gregg Barrios, the San Antonio playwright, poet, journalist, and occasional Observer contributor, is taking his new play, I-DJ, to New York City, where it will kick off the FRIGID New York Festival later today. I-DJ is one of the first original San Antonio plays to run in a commercial New York City theater venue, and Barrios is duly excited. “It’s quite an honor to have my work at this year’s FRIGID New York. Of the thirty companies selected, most are from New York City, a few are from Canada, but we’re the only one west of the Mississippi,” Barrios says. “That speaks volumes in my playbill.”

The seedling of the idea that would become I-DJ was planted when Barrios worked as an arts journalist during the early 1980s in Los Angeles, where he covered the city’s recording industry, including Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ A&M Records. In I-DJ, A&M artists constitute the soundtrack for the life of gay Mexican-American DJ Amado Guerrero Paz, aka Warren Peace, whose story traverses both the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. “He tells his story through the music that emerged from Alpert’s A&M Record label,” Barrios says. “The Carpenters, Chris Montez, Joan Baez, The Police, Peter Allen, and briefly, the Sex Pistols. The music is a character that comments, disagrees, and soothes Warren as he tells his story.”

In the original version of the play at San Antonio’s Overtime Theater, Warren, played by Rick Sanchez, tells his tale against a backdrop of music, film clips and a wall plastered with graffiti by San Antonio artist Supher. As B.V. Olguin describes the play in the San Antonio Current, “Call it a cross-cultural, multimedia dog pile.”

Though some elements of the dog pile didn’t make it to New York (Supher’s graffiti wall, for one), the play should find a warm welcome at FRIGID; the festival’s mission is to offer participants total artistic freedom and to provide venues for work regardless of content, form or style. “FRIGID New York prides itself as an open and uncensored festival,” Barrios says. “We had the creative freedom that many other curated festivals shy away from. It also is a smaller [festival] with only 30 productions, so you don’t get lost in the crowd of shows. And best of all, FRIGID gives us 100 percent of our box office.”

First, I-DJ had to raise the funds to get there, and Barrios says he’s thankful for the support of I-DJ’s home stage, the Overtime Theater, and the wider San Antonio theater community. “The response from the local community has been overwhelming. Four theater groups—the Overtime, the Playhouse, the Woodlawn Theater and San Antonio College—have contributed with in-kind services, fundraising and cast and crew,” Barrios says.

“The best part about going to do this particular show,” Barrios says, “is that it tells a Mexican-American story. That’s a real rarity in New York theater, and even locally. It isn’t often that Mexican-American actors have the opportunity to do Latino parts. The play also speaks to the underserved LGBT community,” Barrios says. Plus, “The fact that our local team will get to see how a play is produced in NYC is a rare opportunity for them to get a taste of what working actors who come to NYC in search of a career in theater have to endure, and perhaps weigh their options when pursuing their own dream. That experience alone is priceless.”

The FRIGID Festival runs through March 9, and features five performances of I-DJ at the Under St. Marks Theater.

1379

Happy Valentine’s Day from The Texas Observer! We’d like to use the occasion as a shameless excuse to share some of our writers’ favorite books about love—be they memoirs, cultural histories, or novels.

museumofinnocenceThe Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Recommended by Anis Shivani
Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2009) stands out for me as the most remarkable recent love story. Perhaps not since the 1960s has a novelist of world repute tried to cover the different paradoxes of love on such a grand scale. What is the distinction between love and obsession? Does one have to sacrifice identity to be truly in love? In other Pamuk novels, politics are often prominent, but here the politics of the authoritarian 1980s in Turkey recede into the background as the single-minded pursuit of Kemal for his distant relative Füsun makes him rediscover himself as a nobody. Kemal spends night after night at Füsun’s home over many years, craving the slightest nearness, while Füsun carries on with another man. Recently Pamuk has added another dimension with the remarkable museum he has laboriously constructed to document Kemal’s love in the form of the minutiae of the era; the museum’s catalog—or rather Pamuk’s philosophy of love and of novel-writing—is available in an astounding art book called The Innocence of Objects (2012).

lovewesternworldLove in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont
Recommended by Steven G. Kellman
Inundated with erotic images, one might believe that romantic love is universal. However, as François de la Rochefoucauld observed: “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had never heard of love.” A social construction, love was, according to Denis de Rougemont, invented in medieval Provence. In Love in the Western World (1939), de Rougemont identifies troubadour poetry as the origin of a condition he traces through to Hollywood. Though biological coupling is ancient, the exaltation of passion as a transcendent state was new to the Middle Ages, an era of religious mysticism. Saint Valentine was a third-century Roman, but it was not until the 14th century that he was celebrated as the patron of love. On Valentine’s Day, Love in the Western World provides an antidote to the reification and deification of love.

justkidsJust Kids by Patti Smith
Recommended by Brad Tyer
Punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her formative years is swimming in love: love of words; love of books; love of Smith’s youthful co-conspirator, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; and love, maybe most of all, for the New York City of the late 1960s and early ’70s, which nurtured all the love above in a way that seems almost hopelessly romantic from a distance of over 40 years. The book has its quirks—Smith’s beloved “for,” for example, is an unsalvageably stilted synonym for “because”—but anyone capable of producing the album Horses can be forgiven that and a whole lot more.

 

americanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Patrick Michels
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deftly avoids a common pitfall of so many will-they-won’t-they love stories, abruptly ending her novel at the moment that central question is resolved. Along the way, though, Americanah takes you through decades of urban development and political strife in Nigeria, two central characters’ immigration to two different countries, and meditations on the meaning of race in the United States. There’s a lot going on here. The central love story, the tale of an old college couple that never got the satisfaction of a proper break-up, carries it all well, tying together a story about rediscovering people and places we once thought we knew.

 

writtenWritten on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Recommended by Elizabeth Stewart
This book is often celebrated (and taught in college classrooms) for its gimmick: The enigmatic narrator’s gender is never revealed, making the love story therein possibly queer, possibly not. Narrative intentions and questions of heterosexual or homosexual aside, Written on the Body is unforgettably smart, wry, and gorgeous. Although at first it’s difficult not to assign pronouns to said narrator, eventually you forget about whatever genitalia the storyteller might have because it doesn’t ultimately matter. The story isn’t about that. It’s about the narrator’s love for the redheaded Louise, what that love means, and how having a savior complex serves only yourself. At the beginning the narrator asks, “Why is the measure of love loss?” and by the end we’ve figured out that it doesn’t have to be.

oldconflictA Fine Old Conflict by Jessica Mitford
Recommended by Robert Leleux
For those in search of a romantic read, I’d recommend Jessica Mitford’s A Fine Old Conflict, one of my all-time favorite books. Among the 20th century’s finest muckrakers, Mitford was also—much like her good friend Molly Ivins—a fierce politico and a legendary humorist. This memoir chronicles her time as a card-carrying Communist, for which she makes no apologies. It’s a fascinating, rigorous history, and it’s also a scream. (Few writers could make you weep with laughter over the evils of McCarthyism.) A Fine Old Conflict is also the story of Mitford’s marriage to Bob Treuhaft, one of the nation’s pluckiest lefty lawyers. The story of their romance, laughter, activism and partnership is something I keep with me always.