Read Any Good Books Lately?



The book I am still in stunned disbelief about is Crazy Loco, by Austin/Edcouch writer David Rice. That’s mostly because I know this, uh, writer. I have been as shocked as everyone else that this dude could assemble a collection of young adult stories which are, amazingly, good—really good too. We’re talking tasteful, sensitive, not close to, like, snark-snark dirty or something like that. Assembling is one thing though, but anybody who knows Arroz would howl with the claim that he even wrote them: Quoting another writer: “Yeah, I was telling my fiancé, Salma, about how great this book will be for our future young adult children.”

First question: When? The dude is out partying every night. Where, at the Star Bar? How? On the napkins? This dude don’t own a computer or even a typewriter! Most of us don’t particularly believe all his bragging that he graduated from college. This book could be the literary equivalent of an Enron or WorldCom scam. Except the point (because we are talking books here) would be to make no money. And yet the evidence is there, bound in a handsome hardback published in New York. Suspicion: He hired someone. Someone: A woman. A woman: Rice has some really, really bad taste in that area, and so the potential is that he charmed one so lonely and desperate and yet highly intelligent with literary ability—a strong possible explanation. Whatever the truth, whoever really wrote it, Crazy Loco goes under the author name of David Rice (his “I got the look” photo is on the flap) and it’s even out in paperback.

Dagoberto Gilb’s most recent book is Woodcuts of Women (Grove Press). Gritos will be published in 2003.


The Story of Our Lives, with the Monument and the Late Hour (Knopf)

This reissue of Strand’s books of verse from the 1970s is my first experience with his poems. What excites me about Strand’s voice in these poems is that it is so damn dry and unemotional but still, by the end of each poem, completely compelling. This is not light summer reading; this is intense, wrenching reading that will leave you dry-mouthed and reaching for your mint julep.

Farid Matuk is a poet and freelance writer in Austin.


The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848 (Penguin USA)

Eastern Approaches (Puffin)

Past Forgetting

Ivy When Young: the Early Life of I. Compton-Burnett

The Fateful Alliance

I almost entirely read books about European history. And at the moment, I’m reading a very good book about the House of Rothschild, the great bankers who dominated European finance for 150 years. It’s by Niall Ferguson, a well-known British historian. It’s an enormous job—two volumes in the American edition, one very large volume in the English edition. I always have about four or five books going at the same time. I’m reading a book by the famous English explorer-soldier Fitzroy MacLean called Eastern Approaches. It’s about some travels that he did in Russia and central Asia in the middle thirties. I’m also reading a memoir by his wife, Veronica MacLean—he’s been dead for four or five years—called Past Forgetting. Then I’m reading a biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, English author, called Ivy When Young, by Hilary Spurling. It’s the first volume of a two-volume biography. I don’t read fiction.

I’ve got another book by Ambassador George Kennan called The Fateful Alliance, which is about how France and Russia watched World War I come on. But most of my reading is about what happened in Europe between 1870 and 1950, when the world changed, or really 1870 to 1914, when World War I came and changed the world. That’s what most of my reading is focused on. I’d like to understand how the world got the way it is.

Larry McMurtry’s most recent book is Sin Killer (Simon & Schuster).


The Boy from the Tower of the Moon (Beacon Press)

Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin USA)

If you are feeling exhausted by all the sad news related to the Middle East, try Accawi’s The Boy from the Tower of the Moon for relief and beauty—an elegant memoir of a boyhood in a village in Lebanon. I want to read whole sections aloud after reading them to myself.

More than one person told me to find Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses. It is challenging, captivating poetry, imaginatively constructed, clarifying by nature, refreshingly original. Good for summer. Like a wake-up call to language!

Naomi Shihab Nye is the Observer poetry editor.


Atonement (Doubleday)

Oxygen (Harcourt Brace)

Three Junes (Pantheon Books)

Atonement, which opens in rural England just before the outbreak of the Second World War, at first seems like one of those gorgeous old English country-house novels, á la James or Forster, where everyone is playing croquet and thinking devious thoughts. In fact it’s a searing ode to literature itself: a beautifully wrought novel about war, betrayal, and the sovereign powers of the imagination.

Oxygen, a finalist for last year’s Booker Prize, is a death-bed novel. As such, it dares to plumb what is most important about life: courage and love and mercy. With prose as careful as it is soulful, Miller tells the story of two sons—one a diffident translator, the other a down-and-out two-bit actor in L.A.—coming home to England to witness and participate in their mother’s last days.

Given its sophisticated, contemplative sensibility, no one could have spotted Julia Glass’s Three Junes as a first novel. Arranged in triptych, it unfolds over the course of a decade, tracing a Scottish family through reproductive joys (border collies, sons) and strife (the dogs caused less trouble than the boys). This is a splendidly realized debut about a family’s secrets and kindnesses.

Gail Caldwell is a native of Amarillo. She is the chief book critic at The Boston Globe and won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001.


King Leopold’s Ghost

The Brotherhood of the Grape and Ask the Dust

I’m reading King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, a former publisher of Mother Jones. It’s just a great book. It reads like a novel. It’s an incredible tale of greed and plunder in the Congo—it’s a true story. He happened upon a footnote in something by Mark Twain in which he said that eight million people died during this brief period in the Congo, and he was overwhelmed. Hochschild was so overtaken by this footnote that he started digging around, and anyway, he’s just researched a wonderful book. He’s a great writer—and it was turned down by 12 publishers before it was picked up.

Fante writes semi-autobiographical novels about himself and the Italian-American family that it was his great fortune and misfortune to be born into. They’re short novels—they’re one-flight novels. He’s just a wonderful writer. It’s kind of a treat to discover someone who was writing in the thirties who you’ve never read before.

Former Observer editor Louis Dubose is the author, along with Molly Ivins, of Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Random House and Vintage Books).


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay: A Novel (Random House)

All the Names (Harvest Books)

Sam Houston (University of Oklahoma Press)

I’ve just finished and really enjoyed Kavalier and Clay. It’s about the early days of comic books and superheroes. And I must say that adolescent male fantasies haven’t really been of any great interest to me, but I just think it’s a wonderful book. It’s about the character that they invent for their comic book—”The Escapist.” And in some ways it’s about the things you can’t escape.

I read much more nonfiction, but I do belong to a good book club, and we do good modern fiction, which is how I got to José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years ago. When the Nobel Prize for literature is awarded, everybody looks up and says, “Who?” It always turns out to be the finest living writer in the Urdu language, which is of no help to us, because everything is so contingent, in those cases, on the translation. And either Saramago has an excellent translator or he’s just an excellent writer or both, because the one I read, All the Names, is just a wonderful satire of bureaucracy.

And then I just started the new Sam Houston. I’m a Sam Houston devotee, and I must say I’m not very far into it, but I have great hopes for this one.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. She was co-editor of the Observer from 1970-1976.


The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth About Globalization, Corporate Cons, and High Finance Fraudsters

The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy (Barrett-Koehler)

By all means, read Greg Palast’s book. Palast is the American reporter who’s been based at the BBC and the Guardian in England. He astonishes with how much momentous news is not being reported, even in the most serious newspapers, about Florida in 2000, and about the World Trade Organization. The Divine Right of Capital establishes that the corporation form makes no sense at all, because the people who are called stockholders are not investors, but are simply speculators. The idea that stockholders should get the proceeds from corporations forever is an absurdity, since they don’t actually invest in the company.

Ronnie Dugger founded the Observer in 1954, and was later owner and co-publisher until 1994.


The Means of Escape and The Beginning of Spring

The Glass Palace: A Novel (Random House)

by Amitav Ghosh

What I really have enjoyed this summer is the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald. She’s done a collection of short stories called The Means of Escape, and her last novel, which I really enjoyed, is called The Beginning of Spring. They’re beautifully written and meditative; I don’t know how she does it. She’s won several prizes, but she didn’t start writing until she was 60, so she gives us all strength. The Glass Palace is about the end of Burma and the beginning of India. It’s a wonderful, wide-ranging historical romantic novel about Asia, wonderful and occupying. I read lots of mysteries, too but you don’t need to know about those…

Along with Robert Fernea, Elizabeth (B.J.) Fernea is the co-author of The Arab World: Forty Years of Change (Anchor). She is Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas-Austin.


Disciplined Minds

The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism

Disciplined Minds is a blunt examination of how graduate and professional schools socialize students to accept subordination to power. Anyone thinking of going for an advanced degree should read this book. So should the professors who will teach them.

The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism, is one of the best books on the “war on terrorism,” showing clearly that it is primarily about U.S. domination abroad and suppressing democracy at home, not fighting terrorism. (Full disclosure: Rahul and I wrote several essays together after Sept. 11.)

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Media & Culture).


Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (Penguin USA)

This book reads like a novel. When it begins, Pablo Escobar is on the rise from a not-especially-competent bicycle thief to an obese billionaire drug lord in Medellín, Colombia. By the time it ends, our hero is dead in his underwear on a rooftop. This heartwarming family drama about the Escobars has everything: violence, twisted sex, torture, and corruption. It also exposes the former Colombian President, Cesar Gaviria, as a craven opportunist who handed his government over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Medellín cartel, before fleeing the country to assume his post as the Secretary General of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., where he remains today. The subplot here is the creepy way in which the DEA, operating under the expedient principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, trained and funded the unimaginably sadistic paramilitary forces in Colombia, hoping they would help to get Pablo. Which they did. The question now, of course, is who’s left to get them?

A native of Houston, Gabriela Bocagrande now lives in Washington, D.C., where she reports on mulilateral malfeasance for the Observer.


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Money Makes the World Go Around (Penguin Putnam, Inc.)

Two books for the summer stay-at-home. Barbara Ehrenreich is an Orwell for our age, updated and feminized. Her Nickel and Dimed could have been called “Down and Out in Portland and St. Paul.”

Barbara Garson is more in the vein of a Jules Verne. Money Makes the World Go Around unveils the pull and flow of financial electrons much as Around the World in Eighty Days showcased the global-mechanical age. Both books skillfully illuminate global capitalism—from the bottom up.

James K. Galbraith is co-editor with Maureen Berner of Inequality and Industrial Change: A Global View (Cambridge University Press). He teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin.


Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth (Routledge)

Who Owns the Sky?: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism

America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters (Basic Books)

These are books that get at what I think is the fundamental, primary political issue that can be the underlying value for regenerating progressive politics in our country, and that value is the common good versus private greed. George W. and gang, of course, are hell-bent to turn anything public over to the private sector, and the Democrats are offering only modest objection. I find that most people in the country have, deep within their hearts, this value of the common good, the notion that we’re all in this together. And if we were to refocus our politics instead of just “here’s an issue, there’s an issue,” but focus in on this value of what I consider the ethic of the common good versus the ethic of greed, then we could rally a majority constituency—you know, as I say not just the bean sprout-eaters but the snuff-dippers.

Author and columnist Jim Hightower is a former editor of the Observer.


Power Politics

Power Politics tells us, among other things, how Enron moved to take over India’s electrical power production. What Enron has done to America seems not so bad in comparison. Then there is the Big Dam thing. Two companies—neither had ever built a dam before—conspired to build a thousand of them through central India to produce electricity that no one could use and displace fifty-six million people in the process. The wonders of globalization are reveal
d: “The Reincarnat
on of Rumplestiltskin” is the subtitle of the essay.

The Supreme Court of India was so put out by Arundhati Roy that they declared the “… Judicial process and institution cannot be permitted to be scandalized or subjected to contumacious violation in such a blatant manner as has been done by her [Ms. Roy] …vicious stultification and vulgar debunking cannot be allowed to pollute the stream of justice…” I can’t get enough of the stuff myself.

Staff photographer Alan Pogue’s current exhibit (“Los Pobres de la Tierra”) can be seen at the Narciso Martinez Cultural Center in San Benito through August 16, and will then travel to Austin.


Berlin: City of Stones

Lutes does marvelously complex graphic novels—a.k.a. comic books. If you’re still harboring ridiculously schoolteacherish prejudices against this medium, get the fuck over it. Berlin is a fascinating document of the German capital from September 1928 to May Day 1929. The main characters are ideally positioned to bear witness to the political and cultural climate of this pivotal eight-month period. But Lutes also includes average citizens caught up in the economic and political upheaval. Their stories are all too relevant today, when we often find ourselves looking at our fellow citizens and wondering, “But how can you believe/espouse that?” Meticulously researched and beautifully rendered in Lutes’ distinctively clean drawing style. For adults.

Roxanne Bogucka is senior editor, cinema, for and the copy editor for the Observer.


The Beach (Riverhead Books)

Remember when the movie came out, and it seemed like a teen flick revolving around Leonardo DiCaprio? And there was additional hype about how American film crews were less than exemplary in their treatment of the island in Thailand where the movie was filmed?

The book, which I read before renting the video, had so much more information and was so riveting and interesting that I plowed through it in a day or two. It takes a good, hard look at certain aspects of tourism that are kind of bogus, such as the search for the perfect, non-tourist place to visit as a tourist. Plus, it gave me a hankering for salt water, which is what summer reading is all about!

Contributing artist Penny Van Horn lives in South Austin.

When not on the phone asking Texas writers what they’re reading, Observer intern Emily DePrang can sometimes be found in the library at UT-Austin.