Texas Readers Observed

Texas Readers Observed BY STAR SILVA Naomi Shihab Nye The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Vintage Press) Migration by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press) Conversations with Texas Writers by Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley, editors (UT Press) Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn (W. W. Norton & Company) I just finished reading a very elegant and haunting book called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It’s written in the voice of an autistic boy. The eccentricities of his perception make you think again about your own peculiarities and obsessions. Also I’ve been reading one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin, and his beautiful new book called Migration. He’s especially tuned in to the world of nature—of plants, of trees, of animals, toward the silences, toward the things words don’t do, to what we need words to do, to relationships. I’m in the middle of reading Conversations with Texas Writers. I love this book not because I am in it, but because I’m learning more about old friends—writers living in Texas who I respect, and about writers I don’t know personally. I would also recommend Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Quite a title. Flynn teaches in the University of Houston’s writing program. I have loved his voice in poetry for years now, but this is a memoir about his homeless father. Flynn presents his life as an adult when he’s working in a homeless shelter and encounters his own father. It’s an empowering kind of book, because we all have really rough stuff in every family, no matter how good they look from the outside. Naomi Shihab Nye is the Observer’s poetry editor.

Lou Dubose Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment by Floyd Abrams (Viking Adult) The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago (Harvest Books) Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom (Riverhead Trade) Seems like all the things I’ve been reading lately have to do with the book I’m writing on the Bill of Rights. One of them is Speaking Freely, Floyd Abrams’ new book on the courts and the First Amendment. Floyd Abrams has been litigating on behalf of the First Amendment and the press since he was retained by the New York Times when the Nixon Justice Department went to court to block the Times’ publication of The Pentagon Papers. Abrams was also the attorney on the losing end of the recent Supreme Court case involving the Times’ Judith Miller and Time Magazine’s Matthew Cooper. His courtroom memoir is a terrific study of the defense of the First Amendment. Another book I’m reading is The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1998. It’s the life of Christ as told by Christ and draws on the canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels, in particular the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Saramago humanizes the Christ the way few writers ever have, casting him as a reluctant victim of his father’s pride. The book is full of irony, pathos, and humor and great sadness. It’s also deeply spiritual. Good reading at a time when the country is controlled by primitive Christian literalists. It’s also a gripping story even if we know, or think we know, how it all ends. Saramago’s Christ is far more spiritual and appealing than the Christ sanctioned by the Republican Party. I also liked Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. I’m not done with that yet, it goes through all Shakepeare’s works. I’d like to read Don Quijote again in commemoration of its 400th anniversary this year, but I think it’ll have to wait.  Lou Dubose is a former Observer editor. His Bill of Rights book, his third collaboration with Molly Ivins, will be published next year by Random House.

Chris Bell God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by Jim Wallis (Harper San Francisco) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books) Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company) I’ve been reading God’s Politics by Jim Wallis, an evangelical preacher from Washington, D.C. Basically it’s about taking a different approach with religion toward politics. It’s a liberating read because “people of faith” lately have wondered how you demonstrate that in today’s political climate. The Republican Party has controlled that debate for some time, but Wallis points out correctly that there are many other things being ignored, like poverty for example. He points out that there are moral consequences to fiscal decisions made by governmental bodies, such as cuts to social services. I’m also reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, which looks at how trends develop in America, starting small but then hitting a “tipping point,” where a trend becomes massive and irreversible. I would recommend Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which talks about Billy Beane’s management of the Oakland As and the “outside the box” thinking that made it a success. It’s about baseball, but also about life. I want to read historian David McCullough’s new book, 1776, soon as well. Chris Bell is a former Representative for U.S. District 25.

Kinky Friedman The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling (Louisiana State University Press) Mosquito Coast (Penguin) My Secret History (Ballantine Books) The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin) all by Paul Theroux The Right Madness by James Crumley (Viking Adult) Normally I don’t read these days, I just watch Fox News 24 hours a day and they tell me what to do and think. Ha ha! I’m actually in the middle of a book called The Earl of Louisiana by a guy named Liebling. It’s terrific! It’s about the governor of Louisiana in the 1930s to 1950s, Earl Long. It talks about the state politics at the time. I’m also reading things by Paul Theroux. He’s bitter; that’s why I like it so much. Things like Mosquito Coast, My Secret History, and The Stranger at the Palazzo. He’s a tribal writer not unlike Graham Greene, his style being literary, personal, and vindictive. I’ve also been reading Bukowski, but enough about that. I don’t read much because the best authors are all dead; any dead author will be okay for me. The living ones are derivative, they’re weak. Some books get better when you read them, like The Great Gatsby, or Hemingway. But more of the books I try to re-read end up being the opposite. Confederacy of Dunces, or Kurt Vonnegut, whose early stuff was great but re-reading it just doesn’t hold up. It’s hard to find a good book that’s on the best-seller list. That’s just another way of running with the crowd. I’d rather swallow my own vomit than be on The New York Times best-seller list. Although one of mine, Ten Little New Yorkers, got up to #16. Oh well. Right now Texas Hold ‘Em is doing well. Oh! James Crumley. He’s a mystery writer, and he’s great! And he’s got The Right Madness out right now. I haven’t read it yet but I’m sure it’s excellent. He’s one of the very few contemporary authors that I think is any good. Kinky Friedman is a musician, author, and independent candidate for governor of Texas.

Molly Ivins Sophisticated Sabotage: The Intellectual Games Used to Subvert Responsible Regulation by Thomas O. McGarity et al. (Environmental Law Institute) Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Knopf) In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon) The Master by Colm Toibin (Scribner) A Matter of Opinion by Victor S. Navasky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics by Richard Parker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) I would recommend Sophisticated Sabotage. It deals with the intellectual games used to subvert responsible regulation in every industry. Things like using risk assessment, or economic models, to trump regulation. All these people who keep saying cost-benefit analysis, comparative values— it’s all garbage. I would also recommend Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett, a murder mystery. Alexander McCall Smith writes the Ladies’ Detective Agency stories. The new one in the series is also set in Botswana. Also The Master by Colm Toibin. This one was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize. It’s a literary work on the life of Henry James. A Matter of Opinion, nonfiction by Victor Navasky. It’s basically on the importance of independent press. Navasky is the publisher and former editor of The Nation magazine. The John Kenneth Galbraith biography by Richard Parker is great too. Molly Ivins, a former Observer editor, is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her most recent book with Lou Dubose is Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America (Random House).

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken (Dutton Adult) Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster) How to Argue & Win Every Time: At Home, At Work, In Court, Everywhere, Everyday by Gerry Spence (St. Martin’s Griffin) Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson et al. (McGraw-Hill) I’m loving Lies by Al Franken. This just confirms what I perceive about the Bush Administration making the news, and distorting the facts to fit what they want to be policy. Of course a perfect example is Iraq and tying Iraq to 9/11, when there was in fact no such connection. They lied to us about WMDs, lied to us about the reason why we’re going to war. But this is also a really funny book. I’m also reading Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, which talks about distortions by Bush and the Administration regarding the environment, the war, all across the board. It talks about how they do a lot of research, and then the Administration selectively gives people what they want them to see. In this way they distort facts. Two more are Gerry Spence’s How to Argue & Win Every Time. It’s for lawyers and I’m finding it very useful. Crucial Conversations is a good book that talks about the transition between ordinary conversation and persuasion. It shows you how to be more diplomatic in conversations or business negotiations. So I think it will help me in the Legislature. State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa represents Texas District 20.

Jim Hightower Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner (Knopf) I probably should be reading the complete works of Madison, Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, but in fact I’m reading about food. There’s a big revolution taking place on the farm, in kitchens, and in markets. It’s all about local sustainable production. This is happening with very little participation by government and often despite government. It’s rather exciting. I’m reading Spice, by Jack Turner, which basically tracks nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, mace, and pepper around the world, and how the pursuit of these spices altered history or made history. I’m also just reading some wonderful articles in food magazines, like Gourmet and Saveur—not about how to put a beautiful arrangement on the table, but about farmers who are changing the way we eat in very positive ways that are environmentally sound, economically sustainable, and supportive of communities. The current issue of Gourmet has two articles. One is called “Redesigning the Pig,” about a black entrepreneur in North Carolina who is working with farmers, particularly African-American farmers, to really return to the past and develop a pig that’s not designed for industry but designed for superior flavor. They are relying on organic feed, non-confinement, and dealing with some of the old breeds. The second article, “A Grand Experiment,” is by Bill McKibben, who wrote about spending last winter up in Vermont eating only foods that were produced within a few miles from where he lives. That can be a challenge, but it was a remarkable experience. Former Observer editor Jim Hightower was twice elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner (1983-1991). His most recent book is Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country And It’s Time To Take It Back (Knopf).

Ronnie Dugger My Life as a German and Jew by Jakob Wassermann (Coward-McCann) Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 1 by Mahatma Gandhi (Greenleaf Books) The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction by Glenn W. Smith (John Wiley & Sons) All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (Harvest Books) I’m reading Jakob Wassermann’s last book. He was a German Jew who died in the early 1930s. Also the first volume of everything Gandhi ever wrote. His autobiography is just short of pitiful, and the biographies—I mean, not one of them is worth a damn. So I decided to read everything he wrote. It might be two years before I’m finished with that project. You should get it at the library. I recommend a book by Glenn W. Smith, a Texan, called The Politics of Deceit. Texans would find it interesting because of the analyses of the Tony Sanchez gubernatorial campaign and Ron Kirk senatorial campaign. Namely, that Democrats have to stand for something and when they don’t, people don’t go out to vote. Currently the question is, something happened to the Democratic Party, what do we do now? There’s also a Huey Long biography by Robert Penn Warren called All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account about the foreshortened assault on “politics as usual.” Huey Long was a fascist and a thief, [and the brother of Earl Long]. But he was also a populist who became governor of Louisiana. Later he was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 1930s, and opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt for President in 1936. That was the year Long was murdered. Also, I wanted
to mention: No one reads poetry much anymore. Try to find a poet who’s worth reading and share it with others. I don’t find many poets nowadays that are worth shit. So try to find them and tell me about them. Ronnie Dugger is the Observer’s founding editor.

Dagoberto Gilb I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Selection from Samuel Beckett’s Work by Richard W. Seaver, editor (Grove/Atlantic) The Wilderness Reader by Frank Bergone, editor (University of Nevada Press) The problem is that I haven’t been reading much lately. I have been into this Samuel Beckett anthology. I’m re-reading some things, “Waiting for Godot,” and other stuff. This time I’m re-reading it in sequence. And I’m finding that, wow, his older stuff was bizarre. I’m not even sure it was good! But that’s why I became a writer, because I love reading. And reading someone else’s writing at the time affects your own. That’s why you choose what to read or what to avoid reading. I know when I read Beckett I get depressed! I could also recommend The Wilderness Reader by Frank Bergon; I think it was published way back in 1980. But they are essays by wilderness writers, about all kinds of environments. Here, I’ll read you a quote. This is about the desert: A cry in the night! Overhead the planets in their courses make no sound, the earth is still, the very animals are mute. Why then the cry of the human? … Century after century that cry has gone up … and always insanity in the cry, insanity in the crier. I love this book because I see nature everywhere I go. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, it was a reminder of how nature can take away everything in a split instant. Or right now, the war in Iraq is altering the landscape. There is no escape. Dagoberto Gilb’s most recent book is Gritos (Grove Press). He teaches in the creative writing program at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Alan Pogue The Uses of Haiti by Dr. Paul Farmer; Foreword by Jonathan Kozol; Introduction by Noam Chomsky (Common Courage Press) Minding Mind: A Course in Basic Meditation by Thomas Cleary, editor (Shambhala) I’m reading two books, one of which is The Uses of Haiti by Dr. Paul Farmer. There’s very little new published on Haiti aside from the three Vs: violence, voodoo, and viruses. Farmer’s book is a history of Haiti and a biography of Aristide, and includes a very good analysis of modern Haitian history. The other side of my reading habits is philosophy. I’m reading Minding Mind, essays by Zen Buddhist scholars on meditation. It’s not so much about how to meditate, but what one is trying to achieve. The best way to explain is that everything is in motion: objects, including mind, ego, sense of identity. There is no such thing as permanence. In the end, everything, including galaxies, dies. Both books show that whether you’re talking about an individual life or a large social movement, it all comes down to trying to achieve harmony. The work of documentary photographer Alan Pogue has appeared in the Observer for more than 30 years.

Karen Olsson In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Modern Library) The Complete History of New Mexico: Stories by Kevin McIlvoy (Graywolf Press) Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Grove Press) Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark by Jane Geniesse (Random House) Basically I’ve been reading Proust for a while—I hadn’t read him before. In Search of Lost Time is not short, but it’s amazing and funny and wise and you just get lost in the sentences. I really liked The Complete History of New Mexico: Stories by Kevin McIlvoy, who teaches at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The stories give us a chorus of New Mexican misfits who stumble upon magic in barrooms and urge us to love in chain letters. The title story is a three-part research paper by an 11-year-old that alternates between beautifully mangled historical facts and a geography of his own life, his family, his best friend, and his community. I’ve also been reading Sightseeing, a book of stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young Thai-American writer who writes engaging, comic tales about cross-cultural misunderstandings, generational conflicts, and growing up. Finally, a book I really liked, although it’s not so recent, is the biography of Dame Freya Stark, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Stark was a British “lady traveler,” who, after a fairly lousy childhood and early adult life, began to learn Arabic and then set off for Syria. She went on to travel extensively in the Middle East, where she did a lot of bold and reckless exploring, contributed to modern geography, and aided Britain during World War II. One of my favorite episodes involves her sneaking a film projector into Yemen, so as to show British propaganda films to Yemenis (whose apparent favorite was one of rural scenes and sheep) by saying it was a portable toilet. Karen Olsson, a former Observer editor, is the author of Waterloo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2005).

Observer intern Star Silva graduated from UT-Austin last May with degrees in government and Spanish. Next month she leaves for Toulouse, France, where she will teach English for a year.

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Published at 12:00 am CST