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As a kid,  journalist/writer Michael Erard was interested in language, but says he could only find dense technical books on the topic. His new project, Schwa Fire, is conceived as the digital magazine about language—”meaty but accessible,” he says—he wishes he’d had access to then.

Schwa Fire targets language geeks, the grammar-obsessed, linguists, poets, spelling enthusiasts, journalists, and anyone who’s curious about the power of language. That’s a growing audience, Erard says, and Schwa Fire‘s digital-only format will aim to provide quality long-form journalism and audio stories for anyone who writes, reads, listens or speaks.

“Language journalism,” Erard says, “is at the point where sports journalism was before Sports Illustrated came along.”

If anyone’s qualified to get a project like this off the ground, it’s Michael Erard. He’s been writing about language for more than a decade, and his work has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, Science, Wired, and The Texas Observer. He’s the author of two nonfiction books—Um. . .  Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean; and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners—about language.

Schwa Fire is estimated to launch in early 2014. You can check out a sample Schwa Fire story, a trailer for the project, and more information on Schwa Fire‘s Kickstarter campaign page.

On Oct. 21, the Observer published an op-ed by San Antonio author Gregg Barrios titled “Dear Texas Book Festival: Where Have All the Latino Authors Gone?” Barrios’ piece generated some heated response in Texas’ community of authors, along with a reply from Texas Book Festival Literary Director Steph Opitz, and both the Los Angeles Times and San Antonio Express-News followed up on the controversy. Today, in furtherance of the important conversation that Barrios’ op-ed has opened, we’re pleased to publish Arizona-based author Monica Brown’s op-ed about her own experience at the Texas Book Festival:

 

Let me tell you a secret. I’ve been to book festivals all across the country, and the Texas Book Festival is my very favorite. It isn’t my favorite because of the 30 minutes I spend in the children’s tent reading to amazing children and their parents over the weekend. It isn’t my favorite because of the mentions I get in Austin’s major news outlets, and it isn’t my favorite because of the publicity I get for my bilingual children’s books, which, along with being a mother and a teacher, are my life’s work. It isn’t my favorite because of the many parties and lunches and fun events organized for authors. It also isn’t my favorite, in case you were wondering, because it’s some sort of free event/trip—publishers no longer provide the funds to authors like me to cover travel, or lodging, and I don’t get paid to participate.

It is my favorite because of the fact that each of the three times I’ve been to the Texas Book Festival, I’ve arrived a day early to participate in one of the most joyful and inspiring pro-literacy programs in the country: The Reading Rock Star Program. The festival brings authors like me into the schools where I can interact with amazing children who are perhaps meeting a published author for the first time. As a Latina writer, I can inspire and touch creative minds with my writing, celebrating literacy in Spanish and English, both languages side by side on the page. I’ve shared my nonfiction picture books honoring Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Tito Puente, and my fictional characters: Marisol McDonald, who doesn’t “match,” and Chavela, who finds some magic rainforest chicle and takes a ride across mountains, rivers, and oceans.

The festival does not send authors to speak to the children of privilege, rather to the children of hope—all from Title 1 schools. And the event is about more than just one day—it is about the lead-up to the event. Committed teachers and librarians, who I consider literacy activists, build excitement in the students through creative activities, art and writing projects, guiding them to find their own voices and put their dreams into words. At the end of each Reading Rock Star visit, I have the distinct honor of giving each and every child a copy of one my books (on behalf of the Texas Book Festival), signed in advance and ready to be shared with parents, grandparents and siblings. To own an $18 picture book is a luxury the vast majority of children in the world can’t afford, but the Texas Book Festival makes sure thousands of children do, in Austin and the Rio Grande Valley.

This year I flew out to Austin on Oct. 24, my birthday. The next morning I visited hundreds of reading rock stars, who surprised me with beautifully drawn birthday cards. In rainbow letters, one third-grader wrote, “Art is Smart!” and so it is. And if we are smart, we will challenge the folks at the Texas Book Festival to make it even better, something that can only happen when we have the space and place for all our amazing Latino writers and poets of all places and races. But if we are smart, we will also praise and support and sing out loud the amazing work already being done by the Texas Book Festival for our children and all children, 365 days a year.

Dallas 1963 is devoid of conspiracy theories. It’s not a dry, brittle history text. And you won’t find any single person blamed for JFK’s assassination.

Instead, Observer contributor Bill Minutaglio and Wittliff Collections curator Steven L. Davis have resurrected the political climate that suffused Dallas in advance of Kennedy’s fateful visit, showing how businessmen, religious zealots, political leaders and moneyed tycoons all contributed to a complex atmosphere of intolerance and hate.

His experience working with the archives at Texas State University’s Wittliff Collections certainly gave co-author Davis a home-field advantage in researching the project. “Working in the archives means you know what questions to ask to find the right material,” Davis says. For Davis, much of that material lies in unprocessed primary sources—documents that have yet to be categorized and are therefore not open and accessible to the public. As a result, these primary sources have rarely—if ever—been reported on. “Going into the archives, you’re finding things that no one has ever really looked at,” Davis says. “That’s when you start doing something really exciting and groundbreaking.”

Take, for example, the Mink Coat Mob riot, organized by Republican U.S. Congressman Bruce Alger, which occurred in Dallas just days before Kennedy’s 1960 election. That attack on Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson has long been relegated to a footnote in histories of the Kennedy campaign, but Davis says the event has been under-appreciated as a factor in Kennedy’s election. The attack inspired sympathy from, for instance, Richard Russell, a Democratic senator from Georgia who had refused to support Kennedy and Johnson because of their pro-civil rights plank. After the Mink Coat Mob accosted the Johnsons, however, Russell flew to Texas and stumped for the ticket, helping to bring “reluctant segregationist-minded voters back into the Democratic column,” according to Davis.

Further research into this overlooked event led Davis and Minutaglio to the Nixon presidential papers and recordings housed in California’s Nixon Presidential Library. One recording documents a frustrated Richard Nixon telling a staff member, “Well, we lost Texas in 1960 because of that asshole congressman [Alger] in Dallas.” Davis says the recording makes it clear that Nixon blamed Alger and the Mink Coat Mob incident for his loss, as he’d previously been leading the Texas polls.

“When you find something like this in the archives,” Davis says, “it puts a new light on this historical incident and proves our assertion of how consequential this event turned out to be.”

Minutaglio and Davis bring such historical nuance to light throughout Dallas 1963. The duo will be at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. and at Austin’s BookPeople on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. to discuss their collaboration. For an excerpt of Dallas 1963, see the November issue of The Texas Observer. 

jennifer_duboisPair the talent implied by acceptance into and completion of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with the affirmation of a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Award for 2012 and you get Jennifer duBois. DuBois, who teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University-San Marcos, secured her rising stardom last year with the publication of her first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes.

Her follow-up, Cartwheel, published last month, has been making waves and earning duBois some well-deserved respect. The New York Times called the novel “a pleasure,” describing duBois’ writing as “electric, fine-tuned, intelligent” and “conflicted”—the latter characteristic applied to duBois’ realistic portrayal of the paradox-laden psyche of a modern American citizen displaced in a foreign country.

The novel chronicles the lives of Middlebury College student Lily Hayes and her family during Lily’s indictment and trial for the murder of her roommate while studying abroad in Argentina.

DuBois’ skill at crafting situation and circumstance delivers deep insight into each character’s internal experience, turning a story that runs the risk of derivative rehashing (duBois has said the tale was inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox debacle) into a memorable novel that blends engaging plot twists with smart social commentary.

DuBois will speak and sign Cartwheel at Austin’s BookPeople Nov. 4 at 7:00 p.m.

[Also see the Observer‘s TBF End of the World Itinerary, Debut Author Itinerary, Foodie Itinerary, Borderlands Itinerary, Enviro Itinerary, and Whodunit Itinerary.]

Texas is no stranger to presidential politics. We sent LBJ and two Bushes to the White House, with decidely mixed results, and we rightly remain traumatized about the state’s role in taking JFK out. And then there’s Rick Perry’s apparently undiminished (and is “quixotic” too noble a word?) ambition for presidential power, and the tantalizing prospect that would-be usurper Ted Cruz might out-crazy Perry on his far-right flank.

So it’s little surprise that this weekend’s Texas Book Festival — which after all was founded by pre-first lady Laura Bush — will feature a raft of books and authors addressing themselves to the highest office in the land.

SATURDAY, OCT. 26

JonathanAlterThePromisecoverartBegin your political journey with Jonathan Alter and Dan Balz at 10 a.m. in the House Chamber. Alter, bestselling author of The Promise, chronicle’s Barack Obama’s path to reelection in his new The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. Balz’s Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America offers both a well-researched account of the election and a predictive analysis of the future of American politics.

thistownNext head on over to the CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent for an 11 a.m. discussion with Mark Leibovich, author of This Town and chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. This Town examines the “media industrial complex” of the ruling class and offers accounts and analyses of Washington’s transformative effect on the politicians who get sucked in. Moderated by journalist and G.W. Bush biographer Robert Draper.

DALLAS1963(HC)Good news: You don’t have to move an inch to catch the next panel, which begins at noon and features Steven L. Davis and our own Bill Minutaglio. Davis, curator at the Witliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, and Minutaglio, journalism professor at UT-Austin, will discuss the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Their book, Dallas 1963, explores the Big D political forces aligned in opposition to the Kennedy presidency leading up to the assassination, and offers an interesting take on the reasons many Americans still blame the city for JFK’s death.

witnessDon’t give up that seat yet! The 1 p.m. CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent panel features another JFK discussion, this one between Hugh Aynesworth, Allen Childs and Howard Willens. Aynesworth, an investigative reporter who witnessed the assassination, examines the events in his book November 22, 1963: Witness to History. Childs, author of We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963, will offer a medical perspective on the assassination. Finally, Willens, who worked on the Warren Commission Report, will discuss his book, History Will Prove Us Right.

Now go get something to eat.

WILSONReturn to the CSPAN-2/Book TV Tent for a 3:45 p.m. panel featuring A. Scott Berg, author of Wilson, a detailed biography of Woodrow Wilson.  Berg will talk about Wilson’s journey to the White House and his fight to create the League of Nations.

SUNDAY, OCT. 27

At noon, head back over to the CSPAN-2/Book TV tent for a panel on President Obama featuring Richard Wolffe and Dan Balz. Wolffe, a political correspondent for MSNBC who covered the entirety of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, examines the marketing genius behind both  Obama victories in The Message: The Reselling of President Obama. Balz will again discuss Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America.

[Also see the Observer‘s Debut Author Itinerary, Foodie Itinerary, Borderlands Itinerary, Enviro Itinerary, and Whodunit Itinerary.]

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and that’s just fine with the pack of authors peddling dystopian lit at this year’s Texas Book Festival. If you like your fiction post-apocalyptic, these are the events to hunker down with.

SATURDAY, OCT. 26

Dog-Stars-Book-CoverStart your dystopian Saturday off right with a worldwide flu epidemic. At 11:45 a.m. in Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004, Peter Heller will discuss his debut novel, The Dog Stars, in which an epidemic survivor and his dog leave their homeland in search of a better life. Heller is joined by Ayana Mathis, who will talk about her own debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

Grab another dose of dystopia with YA authors Neal Shusterman and Heather Terrell at 3:30 p.m. in the Family Life Center at 1300 Lavaca St. Shusterman’s UnSouled, the third book in his “Unwind Dystology” series, chronicles the lives of Connor, Lev and Cam, three engineered humans attempting to bring down an oppressive society. In Terrell’s novel, Relic, protagonist Eva, devastated by the recent death of her brother, turns to relic-collecting in the ruins of a once-great civilization.

AliensHead straight to Capitol Extension Room E2.014 at 4:15 p.m. for the “Apocalypse Now” panel with Alexandra Coutts, Matt de la Pena, and Brian Yansky. In Coutts’ thriller, Tumble & Fall, three island-dwelling teens have to figure out how to spend the rest of their short lives with a massive asteroid scheduled to hit Earth in a week. In de la Pena’s The Living, a novel hailed as “a harrowing, exhilarating ride” by Kirkus Reviews, an earthquake rocks the planet and traps a cruise ship at sea, forcing the passengers to fight for their lives. In Yansky’s comic Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments, Jesse, a human with the power to vanquish the aliens that have all but eradicated humanity, must decide whether to grow into his potential as the Chosen One or let his fellow earthlings perish.

SUNDAY, OCT. 27

Lighthouse-Island-by-Paulette-Jiles-198x300Starting off the day at 11 a.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.026, Paulette Jiles will discuss her new novel, Lighthouse Island, at the “Island Utopias” panel. Jiles spins the tale of young orphan Nadia Stepan’s journey to the Pacific Northwest with James Orotov, a mapmaker, in a world of critical water shortages, overcrowded cities and  unprecedented destruction of nature. Jiles will be joined by Robert Antoni, author of As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Competing in the 11 a.m. time slot is the “Idols” panel, with Manil Suri and Shawn Vestal, in Capitol Extension Room E2.030. Suri is the author of Devi, a novel about Mumbai on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Vestal’s latest is Godforsaken Idaho, a story collection.

Entangled newNext, head to the Lone Star Tent at 12:15 p.m. for a panel of three fiction writers, “Move Over Katniss: New Heroines,” featuring end-of-the-world enthusiast Amy Rose Capetta. Capetta will discuss her recent novel, Entangled, which chronicles the life of Cade, a girl from the future connected at a subatomic level with Xan, whom she must find to save the universe. Joining Capetta are Austinite Tracy Deebs (Doomed) and Aprilynne Pike (Earthbound).

[Also check out the Observer‘s Borderlands Itinerary, Enviro Itinerary, Debut Author Itinerary, and Foodie Itinerary.]

It’s no mystery that readers love whodunits, and this year’s Texas Book Festival has a variety of events to showcase the mystery and crime genres. If you love blood, crime scenes, shady characters and yellow police tape, be sure to see these authors.

SATURDAY, OCT. 26

MaynardAt 10 a.m., Joyce Maynard will discuss her new novel, After Her, in Capitol Extension Room E2.012. After her father fails to crack the case of the “Sunset Strangler”—a serial killer who leaves the bodies of his female victims on a mountain in Northern California—protagonist Rachel uses herself as bait in an attempt to catch the killer, but instead ruins her father’s career and changes the lives of everyone around her. Thirty years later, Rachel tries again to catch the Strangler, but ends up discovering a transformative family secret.

Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” presentation, in the Lone Star Tent at 10 a.m., features Justin St. Germain, whose latest is a memoir titled Son of a Gun. When his mother is murdered by her fifth husband when Justin is 21, his life is split into Before and After. Years later, unanswered questions about his mother’s life and the horrific crime take St. Germain back to confront the people of his past.

thicket - joe lansdaleAt 1 p.m., join Kathleen Kent and Joe R. Lansdale in Capitol Extension Room E2.012 for a panel titled “Wild Wild West.” Kent’s latest novel, The Outcasts (see the Observer‘s review here), combines the suspense of a classic murder mystery with the enduring romance of a love story. After escaping the Texas Gulf Coast brothel where she’d been imprisoned, Lucinda Carter embarks on a journey to Middle Bayou to meet her lover. Meanwhile, Nate Cannon, a young Texas policeman, hunts for a ruthless killer named McGill. The Outcasts is a portrait of a woman determined to make a new life for herself. Lansdale recently published The Thicket, a potboiler in which protagonist Jack enlists a ragtag band of bounty hunters to chase the bandits who killed his grandfather and kidnapped his sister.

The_Double_by_George_PelecanosAt 1:30 p.m., make your way to The Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church (1201 Lavaca, enter from Lavaca St.) for “Mediums: Stories in Print and in Picture.” This panel features Jeff Lindsay, whose character Dexter Morgan now has a life of his own on Showtime’s hit series Dexter. In Lindsay’s latest novel featuring the vigilante killer, actor Robert Chase becomes fixated on Dexter while researching a role. Joining Lindsay will be George Pelecanos, who’s been called America’s greatest living crime writer. In his new book, The Double, a woman turns to detective Spero Lucas to help her recover a painting stolen by her ex-boyfriend. After landing the case, Lucas has to decide how far he’s willing to go to get what he wants—and what kind of man he wants to be.

At 1:45 p.m., join Justin St. Germain and David Berg for “Violence in the Family” in Capitol Extension Room E2.030. Both authors will be discussing their memoirs, both of which focus on brutal murders within their families.

pollackAt “On the Fringe,” which takes place at 2:30 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.030, hear Neal Pollack discuss Open Your Heart, his second Matt Bolster detective novel. After solving the mystery of guru Ajoy Chatterjee’s untimely demise, Bolster begins to see growing attendance in his Los Angeles yoga classes. In this satire of “sex-drenched yoga culture,” Pollack explores the intersection of loving enlightenment and the darker side of human nature.

At 2:45 p.m., join the discussion in Capitol Extension Room E2.028 with “Texas Mystery Writers,” featuring George Wier and Julia Heaberlin. Wier, an East Texas native currently living and writing in Austin, will discuss his latest novel, Long Fall from Heaven, in which a pair of former cops sets out to solve a string of grisly murders in Galveston—a locale whose ins and outs Wier knows like few others. Heaberlin’s latest is Lie Still, a suspense novel built around a stalking case in fictional Clairmont, Texas.

SUNDAY, OCT. 27

Start your day at 11:45 a.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.016 with Anne Hillerman, who continues her late father Tony’s Leaphorn and Chee mystery series with Spider Woman’s Daughter, in which a skillful detective in Navajo country digs up new details on a cold case.

snicketYoung readers will be lining up to see Lemony Snicket at 12:15 p.m. in the Capitol’s House Chamber, where the mysterious author will discuss his latest “All the Wrong Questions” book, When Did You See Her Last? In this new offering, apprentice Lemony Snicket must solve the case of the missing Cleo Knight, but with an incompetent mentor and a neverending web of mystery, can Snicket find the girl? Or is that, once again, the wrong question?

Join Jean-Christophe Valtat in Capitol Extension Room E2.030 for “The Known Unknown” at 1:30 p.m. Valtat’s latest novel is Luminous Chaos: A Novel, the second book in the author’s steampunk adventure series The Mysteries of New Venice, hailed by The Guardian as a “magnificent achievement.” Luminous Chaos tells the story of Lillian Lake and Gabriel D’Allier’s brief travel through time, from 1907 New Venice to 1895 Paris. After arriving in the past, the duo is thrust into an exciting murder-mystery adventure steeped in anarchism and Parisian history.

utopia-texas-2Cap the day with “Border Fiction” at 3 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.012, featuring Adam Mansbach and Michael Glasscock. In Glasscock’s Utopia, Texas, grumpy husband and game warden Monty Kilpatrick finds himself in a war with drug lord Juan Diaz in his quiet South Texas town. Mansbach’s latest is The Dead Run, in which young girls start disappearing and bodies begin to surface on either side of the Mexican-American border. Meanwhile, an American who finds himself in a Mexican prison must deliver a box to a cult leader … a box containing the beating heart of a virgin.

[See also the Observer’s Enviro Itinerary, Debut Author Itinerary, and Foodie Itinerary]

From Town Lake’s Trail of Tejano Legends to the taco trucks on every street corner to the population’s rapidly changing demographics, it’s easy to see Mexico’s profound influence on Austin—and Texas—identity. As Gregg Barrios recently pointed out, Latino and Latina authors and subjects are underrepresented at this year’s Texas Book Festival, but they’re not absent. Anyone interested in goings-on south of the border should check out these events.

SATURDAY, OCT. 26

Saturday morning at 10 a.m. in the Cooking Tent, meet Austin Breakfast Tacos authors Mando Rayo and Jarad Neece, two food journalists with big appetites and bigger opinions on taco culture in Texas.

At 11:30 a.m. in the Family Life Center (1300 Lavaca), Karen Harrington and Diana Lopez will take part in a panel titled “On the Verge of Crazy.” Lopez weaves Mexican holidays, Spanish proverbs and the complexity of a bicultural upbringing into her debut for children, Confetti Girl.

Pancho-Rabbit-and-the-Coyote-A-Migrant’s-Tale-MainPhotoAt 2 p.m. in the Children’s Read Me a Story Tent (13th & Colorado), join Duncan Tonatiuh for his latest children’s book, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale. This allegorical picture book broaches the complicated topic of immigration for young readers with folk-art illustrations and pointed cultural references (“coyotes,” of course, smuggle migrants across the border for pay, scrupulously and otherwise).

Afterwards, unless you’re a child, you might want to visit Lucinda Hutson at 3 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.016 for “Viva Tequila!”  and a spirited discussion about agave, ummm, spirits.

At 4:15 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.016, Mexican-cooking eminence Diana Kennedy presents the new reissue of her 1998 classic, My Mexico: A Culinary Odyssey with Recipes.

SUNDAY, OCT. 27

loteriaOn Sunday at 1:30 p.m., in Capitol Extension Room E2.030, explore “The Known Unknown” with Mario Alberto Zambrano, who will talk about his novel, Loteria, an intimate look at Mexican-American life through anecdotes inspired by Mexican-bingo cards.

If you’ve got a young reader in tow, go to “Scavenger Hunt” at 1:30 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room E2.010, which features Jude Watson and Xavier Garza. Garza’s latest book for young readers is Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel, in which 11-year-old wrestling aficionado Maximilian discovers a connection to El Angel, the world’s greatest masked wrestler, turning his summer into an action-packed dream come true. The comic-style illustrations make this bilingual middle-grade novel a spunky tribute to Mexican lucha libre culture.

DonnaAt 2 p.m. at The Contemporary Austin—Jones Center (700 Congress), explore “Unsettled/Desasosiego” with University of Texas photojournalist Donna DeCesare, who will present her new book, Children in a World of Gangs/Los niños en un mundo de las pandillas.

Finally, at 4:15 p.m., head over to the “Border Politics” panel in the C-SPAN2/Book TV Tent, featuring Ricardo Ainslie and Alfredo the-fight-to-save-juarezCorchado. In The Fight to Save Juarez: Life in the Heart of Mexico’s Drug War (read the Observer‘s review here), UT professor Ainslie explores Juarez, ground zero for Mexico’s drug war, from four different perspectives: Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, a cartel member’s mistress, a photojournalist, and a human-rights activist. Dallas Morning News Mexico City Bureau Chief Corchado has spent decades in Mexico, writing and reporting with a special interest in the billion-dollar drug industry. Fast-paced and suffused with reporterial flair, Ainslie’s Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness (see the Observer‘s review here) provides shocking insights into a country’s violent decline, and one man’s dedication to finding and telling the truth.

 

Austin goes to great lengths to paint itself green, so it’s no surprise that some of this year’s Texas Book Festival authors will be discussing environmental issues. Here are some events that the eco-aware—and those who aspire to be—won’t want to miss.

(Also, check out our Texas Book Festival Foodie Itinerary and Debut Author Itinerary.)

SATURDAY, OCT. 26

Start out at The Contemporary Austin—Jones Center (700 Congress Ave.) at 11 a.m. with Lorie Woodward Cantu and David Langford. Their Hillingdon Ranch: Four Seasons, Six Generations is a photographic portrait of Langford’s ranch that will have you considering the connections between family and landscape.

the-emerald-mile_originalAt 11:15 a.m., join Observer managing editor Brad Tyer as he hosts “A Wild Ride” conversation with Kevin Fedarko in Capitol Extension Room E2.016. Fedarko’s new The Emerald Mile is ostensibly about the fastest whitewater run through the Grand Canyon ever attempted, but along the way Fedarko synthesizes a watershed’s worth of information about geology, dams, water politics and weather.

Tyer will also be featured in “Where to Fight the Fight: Books on Conservation,” along with Deni Bechard, in the same room—Capitol Extension Room E2.016—at 1:45 p.m. Tyer’s Opportunity, Montana: Empty HandsBig Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape examines American industrialism, river restoration and sacrificial landscapes in a small Montana town. Bechard’s Empty Hands, Open Arms: The Race to Save Bonobos in the Congo and Make Conservation Go Viral explores how human interference threatens animal populations, and how it might help save them. Observer associate editor Forrest Wilder moderates.

SUNDAY, OCT. 27

On Sunday at 2 p.m. in the C-SPAN2/Book TV Tent, check out “Countdown with Alan Weisman,” where Weisman will discuss his latest book, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, an account of visionary Paolo Lugari and his dream of creating a self-sustaining community in Colombia, earning Lugari the nickname “inventor of the world.”

5bd6efa6-5ba7-4e6a-b6c9-cd2e3fae5465news.ap.org_t150Finally, at 3:15 p.m., get blown away by Asher Price and Kate Galbraith as they discuss The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power in the C-SPAN2/Book TV Tent. (The Observer‘s Forrest Wilder reviews the book here.) The Lone Star State now leads the nation in wind energy production, and environmental reporters Galbraith and Price track the individuals, events, and circumstances that led to the state’s unlikely rise as a wind-power powerhouse.

Don’t be fooled by the marquee names and Oscar buzz. Don’t be dazzled by the presence of famous directors like the Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen, or the glamour of A-list stars like Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep and Justin Timberlake. Don’t even be wowed by the tribute to Susan Sarandon. The Austin Film Festival may have very quickly become one of the biggest and brightest in the world, but like all truly great festivals, its heart still lies with the tiny movies no one’s ever heard of, all struggling for a little attention and the hope of life beyond the festival circuit. Especially the low-profile movies representing the state and the town that’s opening its doors to the hullabaloo: the hometown heroes. That’s where the hope lies.

Of course, to be heard over all that noise, a small, local film has to be able to make some noise of its own, and it’s best if a film has something to say: a philosophy, a point of view that festivalgoers can take with them after they’ve left one theater and moved on to the next. This year, two Austin-based filmmakers are bringing their own particular, and differing, viewpoints to AFF in hopes of making their voices heard.

DearSidewalkTake Dear Sidewalk, which has plenty to say about the power of hope in the face of despair—or, rather, in the face of boredom, which is worse. The film’s hero is Gardner, a 24-year-old mailman in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. Addicted to his daily routine and terrified of the chaos of life beyond it, Gardner sees his existence as a series of well-regulated but meaningless gestures. His arms and his legs move, but there’s no blood going to them. He may as well be a robot or a beast of burden, out of touch with his fellow man. And he prefers it that way. He is a mailman, after all—the living symbol of an obsolete form of communication. No one connects through the mail anymore.

Dear Sidewalk is filled with this kind of metaphor. It’s a prime example of the cinema of easy symbology, where every moment and every physical reality is mined for meaning. It’s not enough that Gardner feels detached from the rest of humanity; he has to find literary significance in the sidewalk he tramps every day. He has to live on a boat parked in his friend’s driveway—not on land, but not at sea, unmoored from society but drifting nowhere. And he must collect stamps, petrifying the tools of human communication and locking them away, stripping them of their true value. His physical reality must be a key to understanding his emotional state. Gardner and Dear Sidewalk exist entirely in worlds of their own making.

SombrasCompare that to Sombras de Azul, which shares a spot on the AFF Texas Independents program with Dear Sidewalk, but represents an entirely different approach to filmmaking, storytelling, and life itself.

Based on the personal experiences of writer and director Kelly Daniela Norris, Sombras follows a young Mexican girl named Maribel to Cuba, where she travels after the suicide of her older brother. While there, Maribel gives herself over to the unmanageable whims of memory and reflection. Long scenes of natural beauty unfold while Maribel engages in enigmatic voice-overs about the nature of death and love and loneliness. Shots of birds, butterflies, waves crashing on rocks, sunlight streaming through leaves: These are the visual accompaniments to Maribel’s inner, philosophical wonderings. Where Dear Sidewalk is regulated and contained, Sombras de Azul is poetical, meandering and unconfined, more concerned with the essential questions of life and death than with answering them. Like a heroine in a Roberto Rossellini picture, Maribel searches for meaning among the actual citizens of an actual city, residents who don’t realize they’re being filmed. Which means that at any moment, anything can happen—a visual parallel to the sudden and unexpected death of Maribel’s brother and the effect it has on her life.

At heart, both Gardner and Maribel are mourners—Gardner of his childhood and Maribel of her brother—but they deal with loss, that most fundamental of life’s realities, in radically different ways: Gardner by controlling those parts of his life he feels he can control, Maribel by ceding all control to her mental meanderings and the ungovernable beauty of the natural world. Maribel wanders through life aimlessly; Gardner builds maps and routes and never deviates from them. Sombras de Amor and Dear Sidewalk and their protagonists represent two opposing philosophies, two different schools of thought about life: the inquisitive versus the descriptive, questions versus answers, mystery versus definition.

arsonAnother regional film making its Texas premiere at the Austin Film festival is Little Hope Was Arson. This one’s a bit more literal, if no less complex. The following review will appear in the Observer‘s November print edition:

The life of the atheist is in some ways easier than the life of a true believer. Particularly, I think, when things go really, really wrong. The religious person, of course, will disagree and argue that faith in God provides a sense of strength and comfort to get you through trying times. People like me, on the other hand—people who believe in nothing—regard disappointment and difficulty as the inevitable inheritance of anyone born into an indifferent universe, so we’re not surprised when hard times arrive. Sure, we may have no rock to lean on, no one to carry us through our trials, but neither do we take it personally when the darkness falls. For those who have a personal relationship with God, disappointment and heartbreak can lead to devastation and despair. And, in extreme cases, arson.

Little Hope Was Arson, which has its Texas premiere at the Austin Film Festival, is director Theo Love’s fascinating new documentary about a series of East Texas church burnings in 2010. The film starts off as a police procedural—with Texas Rangers and ATF agents walking us through the steps they took to arrest Daniel McAllister and Jason Bourque for the burning of 11 churches over the course of a little more than a month—but it finds its stride as an investigation of faith in communities where God is experienced not as metaphor, but as a visceral presence. In the wake of the burnings, nearly everyone Love interviews, from perpetrators to parents to pastors, admits to having experienced a crisis of faith—a remarkable turn of events in communities where faith is foundational.

The tragedy of McAllister and Bourque starts where most tragedies end: with unrequited love and sudden death. While some people might view such things as marks of life as most people live it, to deeply religious kids like McAllister and Bourque they amounted to a breach of trust. When God failed to save McAllister’s mother from a fatal stroke and declined to force the girl of Bourque’s dreams to love him back, the two young men felt betrayed. Their heartbreaks became proof of sinister agency or, worse, divine indifference, which flew in the face of the evangelical philosophy they’d been raised on: that God cares about each of us individually. McAllister and Bourque’s personal God turned his back on them; burning his churches was an act of personal vengeance.

But the 2010 church burnings weren’t just symptoms of two young men unable to tolerate the disappointments of the world. They also sparked a moment of clarity for many in the Christian communities of East Texas. Like tribal medicine men, the pastors and laypeople of cities like Canton looked at the destruction of all that wood and gleaned a message in the ashes. They believed the burnings were both a test of faith and proof of God’s disappointment. They transubstantiated destruction into symbolic significance.

During those terrifying weeks in early 2010, many parishioners, like the good Texans they were, barricaded themselves inside their churches with guns in case the arsonists should come for them next. In the end the irony was on them; many came to believe that the fall of Daniel McAllister and Jason Bourque was the result of the Christian community metaphorically locking itself inside those churches to begin with, of their own false belief that a church is the four walls of a building and not, as one repentant minister says, “God’s people.” In this interpretation, the church burnings were punishment for the congregations’ failures as messengers of Christ. In a world where God is personalized and nothing happens for no reason, the community’s failure to look beyond its own walled garden led to the destruction of those walls. It’s the kind of perfect symbolism that only the truly religious, or a bad novelist, could love.

“The only church that illuminates is the burning church,” famed Italian anarchist Buenaventura Durruti once said. Love concludes his film with that quote, and though Durruti had a different meaning in mind, no other sentiment could capture Little Hope Was Arson half so well. The East Texas church burnings of 2010 became the flashpoint for an entire community’s soul-searching. Those flames shined a light into every dark corner and every abandoned room.

 

Dear Sidewalk screens at 8:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28, at the Alamo Drafthouse Village; and at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Sombras de Azul screens at 7:10 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 24, at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts; and at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28. at the IMAX Theatre at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.

Little Hope Was Arson screens at 9:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25, at Texas Spirit Theater at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum; and at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Rollins Theatre in the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

 

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