Bookin’ It

In our twenty-four issues, the Observer annually reviews somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred books. We generally emphasize books either by Texas writers, or on some Texas subject, or on the national and international political issues that are the Observer’s persistent preoccupation. In assigning a review, we look for writers who know a particular territory, asking those writers to write on the subject as well as the book, and to write for an audience not of specialists but of general readers — among which we number ourselves. We make a vain but we think justifiable assumption: if it isn’t interesting to us, it ain’t gonna interest our readers. The writers, even for the pittance we pay, usually deliver. They like books.

During the year, our Afterword department is home to personal essays on various off-beat topics somewhat afield from the generally earnest reporting that dominates most of the magazine. The Poetry pages, eclectically edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, serve up poets from all over the country and indeed the world, steadily reminding us that the known universe is not all foul air, bad bills, and worse politicians. We know we need the reminders, and we hope our readers agree.

Twice a year, we raise the ante with our Summer and Winter Books issues. These are intended both to catch up on important books on various subjects and to allow our small staff brief vacations, during which we hope to read a few books ourselves. The Books issues also allow us to take the time to find (with some traditional begging and pleading) a few pieces of extraordinary writing that sustain the Observer’s long tradition of publishing the best Texas writers. In this issue, we call your attention to Dagoberto Gilb’s definitive end-of-millennium tale, “010100,” and Lucius Lomax’s rhythmically perfect and illuminating family memoir, “Business.”

There’s also a lot of other good stuff: Char Miller on fractured history, Dick Holland on memoirs both grand and dubious, Pat LittleDog on border fiction, Robert Jensen on media mendacity, Steve Kellman on the grand old man of progressive radio, Clay Reynolds on the Alamo Nuevo, Louis Dubose on virtual political autobiographies (one click and they’re gone).

But as the issue and the year close, inevitably we find ourselves in melancholy perusal of the books these pages didn’t get around to, at least not yet. For those of you who have dutifully plowed through this issue and are still righteously hungry, here’s a very small taste, with our recommendation, of other books we wanted to review this year, and for one impertinent reason or another (not always because the reviewer blew the assignment) just missed:

Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer (The New Press). The Sentencing Project is an indispensable resource to anyone working on criminal justice or prison issues. Assistant director Mauer’s book is a sobering analysis of how we built and defend our absurd and tyrannical prison empire.Edward Albee: A Singular Journey by Mel Gussow (Simon & Schuster). The greatest living American playwright is maintaining his tradition in part at the University of Houston. Gussow’s biography catches the sweep of an honored and unstintingly honorable career.Profit Over People (Seven Stories) and The New Military Humanism by Noam Chomsky (Common Courage). We did manage to excerpt some of Chomsky’s work on Kosovo, and are always running in his wake: see also the updated re-issue of his definitive book on the Middle East conflict, Fateful Triangle (South End). Buy and read these necessary, irreplaceable books.The Price of Doing Business in Mexico by Bobby Byrd (Cinco Puntos). Byrd and his family are best known for their small El Paso press, which occasionally makes international headlines. The gray eminence is also a fine poet, and the title poem here is wise, funny, and biculturally attentive.

There could be more: new books by Tino Villanueva, Naomi Nye, Michael Meeropol, Christopher Hitchens, Garry Wills, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov…. We’re out of room. And time. Happy reading, and Happy Holidays, from all of us here at the Observer.

— Michael King

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