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Terry McMillan
Terry McMillan

This weekend in Texas offers tons of Juneteenth festivities, and if you’re in the Austin area on Saturday, you’ll want to head over to the Carver Library for the 7th annual African American Book Festival.

This year’s festival features a host of great speakers, including headliner/bestselling author Terry McMillan, whose novels include A Day Late and a Dollar Short and Waiting to Exhale.

Another highlight will be a discussion of The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s epic nonfiction narrative about the Great Migration. Warmth has been one of the most highly lauded nonfiction books of the past few years. The New Yorker called it a “deeply affecting, finely crafted and heroic book” that encapsulates not only the experience of northbound African Americans fleeing the South, but also much of the American 20th century. Other reviewers were also impressed, including The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, which compared Wilkerson’s narrative skill and prose touch to Toni Morrison and Zore Neale Hurston.

Admission is free, and you can find the full schedule here.


DavidBERG_MartineFougeronDavid Berg, a veteran Texas attorney, mines the intersections of family, justice and mortality in his new book Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of Murder in my Family, released this month. Berg will talk about the book at Houston’s Brazos Books on Friday at 7 p.m.

The memoir recounts the story of Berg’s brother’s murder and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the alleged killer, Charles Harrelson, father of actor Woody.

In 1968, Alan Berg was found dead in a ditch outside Houston with a gunshot wound to his head. Testimony from Charles Harrelson’s girlfriend at the time put him at the scene of the crime, though high-profile defense attorneys would later present witnesses saying Harrelson was elsewhere. Harrelson was acquitted in the Berg case; later the same year he would be convicted of another murder, for which he served five years in prison. In 1979, Harrelson received two life terms for the killing of a federal judge.

Though rife with courtroom drama and allegations of shady legal dealings, Berg’s book is more than a true crime tale. It’s also a memoir of Berg’s relationship with his older brother, and his own boyhood and early adulthood in Houston. Along the way, Berg also explores his relationship with the Texas justice system. “The first autopsy report I read was my brother’s,” he writes. Berg began practicing law the same year his brother died, going on to become a successful trial lawyer who represented politicians and won cases before the Supreme Court.

His brother’s murder cast a long shadow over his life—he wouldn’t see a movie with Woody Harrelson in it for years, for instance—and the intensely personal connection gives the book emotional heft and resonance well beyond the courtroom.

The book has already received plenty of positive attention, including favorable mentions from NPR and this New York Times review by Texas’ Christopher Kelly. You can read an excerpt of the book at The Daily Beast.


Talking Texan

After these crazy maps showing America’s speech patterns went viral over the past week, it seems like everyone’s talking about accents and dialects. The maps were designed by a grad student in statistics and eventually found their way to the news website Business Insider, where they generated 17 million page views from folks eager to know who exactly says “y’all” and calls soda “pop.”

It’s safe to assume a fair number of those views came from Texas, where pride in our infamous drawl and twang is part of the state’s identity. But is Texas losing its unique ways of speaking? According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, slowly but surely. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that only about a third of the native Texans they interviewed used the distinctive vowel combinations that characterize Texas accents, down from almost 80 percent in the 1980s.

texas_sayings_and_folkloreYou can find some great audio examples of people talking Texan at the mother of all pop linguistics websites, started in 2010 by a hobbyist named Rick Aschmann. Click Texas on the map and you’ll be taken to a treasure trove of video links to famous Texans exercising their native tongue.

Researchers claim the erosion of specifically Texan speech is a result of the ever-broadening influence of pop culture, urbanization, and the influx of new residents from other parts of the country. They note that the decline is most prevalent among younger Texans.

A posible corrective to the disappearance of native speech—the state’s distinctive sayings, if not its accents—is the April publication of Texas Sayings & Folklore (Bright Sky Press), by Mavis Parrott Kelsey, Sr.

Feel free to add your favorite Texasism in the comments.

New Yorker writer George Packer has penned a complex but cohesive portrait of American decline in The Unwinding, Anis Shivani writes in the Observer‘s June issue.

Developers connive with local government—both aided by Wall Street sharks eager to securitize lousy mortgages in pursuit of out-sized profits—to bring middle-class investors to their knees. This tale has been oft-told, but Packer’s skill in deploying novelistic depth of characterization makes the connections between high and low—normally segregated classes—all too apparent.

Within Packer’s sweeping survey of American ills, it’s his skill at connecting the dots between seemingly disparate characters and events that makes Packer’s work so compelling, Shivani suggests. Read the whole review here.

The Dallas Morning News also gave The Unwinding a favorable review, calling it “long-form journalism at its best.”

And while having your book described as “a 51hL5KA3ohL._SL500_AA300_painful thing to read” by The New York Times is often not a good thing, in this case reviewer Dwight Garner is describing his visceral reaction to the book’s power. Garner says The Unwindinghums—with sorrow, with outrage and with compassion…

The Boston Globe is somewhat less impressed, calling the book “compelling at times,” but pegging it as perhaps Packer’s “worst non-fiction book” due to its fragmented reliance on stories already familiar to many readers.

Carmen4Bio-250pxSan Antonio Poet Laureate and Chicana author Carmen Tafolla’s work often explores the intersections of identity, culture and language, mixing Spanish with English and blurring academic knowledge and street wisdom.

It’s only fitting, then, that an innovative new website dedicated to sharing Tafolla’s poetry would employ multiple avenues and voices to help readers explore her words. The site features video performances of seven of Tafolla’s poems along with reading guides, writing prompts for students, discussion of her work by noted academics, a biographical documentary on Tafolla, and other contextual information.

“My idea was to create a video, web-based resource where you can see Carmen perform the poetry, because she’s such a great performer,” says Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, who co-produced the site with San Antonio’s Public Studio collaborative.

The site kicks off with a greeting from Mayor Julian Castro, who praises Tafolla’s work as an ambassador for San Antonio, its arts scene, and for poetry in general.

“San Antonio is seeking to become a world-class creative community,” Castro says in the introduction, “and Carmen has been a wonderful part of that journey.”

Cities don’t usually name poet laureates, but that may be changing. San Antonio named Tafolla its first such in 2012, and both Houston and McAllen named inaugural poet laureates—Gwendolyn Zepeda and Olga Valle-Herr, respectively—this year.

It’s a role Tafolla, a San Antonio native, takes seriously. She’s booking public performances, community meetings and events to promote the link between poetry and literacy. She’s active in San Antonio as well as reading her work around the world, including a recent performance in France.

With the website, Milligan hopes more people will be able to discover Tafallo’s work, which he says represents San Antonio perfectly. “She’s imminently honest,” he says. “She took that language of the streets and consciously used it as an art form. That makes her a great voice for the people of San Antonio.”

Philipp Meyer, whose story “You Are Right Here” appeared in the Observer’s 2011 books issue, is on a roll lately. His second novel, The Son, is garnering rave reviews, with the Daily Beast going so far as to call it “the next great western.” He’s coming back to Austin—where he graduated from UT’s Michener Center—to read at Book People on Thursday at 7 PM.

The Son—Part II of a planned trilogy that began with 2009’s American Rust—spans the 20th century in surveying the fortunes of a Texas oil and cattle family. It’s a tale of abduction, survival, power, and race shot through with the complexities Meyer has proven so adept at teasing out of his characters.

Look for a full review of The Son in the July issue of the Observer.

Midnight In Mexico
Midnight In Mexico
Alfredo Corchado, Mexico City bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, will be at Austin’s Book People on Wednesday at 7 PM to discuss his new book Midnight in Mexico. Debbie Nathan reviews the book in the Observer’s June issue, admiring how Corchado goes beyond the usual blood and gore suffusing books chronicling Mexico’s drug war.

While there’s plenty of violence in Midnight, which starts with a death threat against Corchado, the book’s real hook is the author’s exploration of his relationship with his native country. His reporting on Mexico’s complex and treacherous networks of cartels and corruption give the book authority, but Corchado’s intimate narrative provides a deeply personal context.

Other reviewers have also been impressed. The Washington Post called the book “electrifying,” noting its skillful parsing of the relationship between the United States and Mexico. The Austin American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News have published similarly enthusiastic reviews, and Texas Monthly has an interview with Corchado you can find here.

mary karrTexas’ own Queen of the Memoir, Mary Karr, gives a salty interview to Salon‘s Nina Puro, wherein she disses Augusten Burroughs, dishes on David Foster Wallace, and dismantles certain notions about addiction and romance.

They always say God is in the truth, and I’ve ended loneliness and been able to feel connected by saying who I am and how I feel. I’m sort of comfortable to the degree to which I’m an asshole. It’s not like I’m not an asshole—people know the ways I’m an asshole and it’s within the realm of acceptable asshole-ocity. Part of my drinking and depression was having a voice in my head that was constantly criticizing everybody. I was sort of brought up that way, hypercritical, and I feel like my spiritual practice is a constant correction out of judging everybody else. But I think I’m more critical of myself than anybody, strangely enough, as marvelous as I am.

Now just try to resist reading the whole thing.


As a more-or-less-native Houstonian and longtime resident now removed from the city of bayous, I take a certain rubbernecking joy in watching my hometown’s convoluted relationship with the facts of itself. Especially as exemplified by the city’s constant struggle to establish an identity on the national stage with a series of shortlived mottos.

So is Houston Hot? Or is Houston Cool? Forbes is split on the question. Last July, the magazine bucked convention and guaranteed a lively click-bait debate when it put Houston on top of its list of “America’s Coolest Cities,” based in large part on the city’s burgeoning arts scene. Then, just last month, Forbes named Houston “America’s Next Hot Startup Town.”

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, not coincidentally, has launched a new “Houston is Inspired” campaign that invites visitors to “Explore the arts & culture of America’s Hottest Coolest City!” And that Hot/Cool city is not just “inspired” (because Houston contains multitudes, dontcha know), but also “hip” “tasty,” funky,” and “savvy.”

I love Houston, I’ve got no bone to pick with the application of any of those adjectives, and I’ve got increasingly decreasing patience for the jingoistic tribalism that accompanies all these eyeball-trolling listicles of Best This and Coolest That and Most Livable Whatever.

But what I love most about Houston is that no matter how many layers of packaging are applied to that town, there’s always someone resisting the reduction, poking holes in the wrapper from the inside out.

Houston arts blogger Harbeer Sandhu does just that, beautifully:

Now scroll back up to the mural called “Houston is…”  The one with the random words: inspired, hip, tasty, funky, savvy.  The one that stands at Market Square, near the convergence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous, right above Houston’s birthplace at Allen’s Landing and the place where the Houston Police Department beat Jose Campos Torres to death before dumping his body in the bayou, yet makes NO REFERENCE TO ANYTHING TANGIBLE in favor of some abstract curlicues and a “y” shaped like a fork.  Are you shaking your head yet?  Are you knitting your brow?  If not, please check your pulse immediately, like now, seriously.

The ENTIRE POST is worth a read for its free-range take on public art, civic boosterism, and content-free arts criticism.

Enjoy. Fume. Discuss.

Submit: 2013 Texas Observer Short Story Contest Now Open for Entries

2013 Texas Observer Short Story Contest now open for entries

When Larry McMurtry agreed in 2011 to guest-judge The Texas Observer’s first short story contest, we at the magazine were thrilled: what better name to attach to a Texas-based writing competition than the man who authored Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and so many other memorable books?

What we didn’t expect was that so many people outside of Texas would match our excitement. Stories arrived from all 50 states and from Russia, Korea, Australia and Germany.

In the end, Mr. McMurtry kept the prize here in Texas, choosing McAllen’s Brian Allen Carr as the winner for his anti-cowboy myth story, “The First Henley.”

Last year a new guest judge, Heidi Durrow (author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and winner of the 2008 Bellwether Prize for Fiction) selected Larina Lavergne’s “Water Birth” as the contest’s winner. Lavergne is a North Carolina native. As in 2011, stories came in from dozens of U.S. states and foreign countries—but the four runners-up were all Texas writers. Great writing can come from any corner of the globe, but Texans are natural-born storytellers, and our contest results reflect it.

We’re looking for more great writing this year. Short story eminence Dagoberto Gilb—no stranger to Texas letters—is judging our 2013 short story contest. The winning writer receives $1,000 and publication in our annual Books Issue and online. CLICK HERE for all the relevant information, and to SUBMIT.

Then send us your most artful fiction, your tallest tall tales, your most colorful characters, your cleverest plots, your wittiest and most touching anecdotes. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Make us proud to publish your story in our pages.