An Observer Staff Guide to the 2019 Texas Book Festival

It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The book tent at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
The book tent at the 2015 Texas Book Festival. Flickr/Barbara Brannon

It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The book tent at the 2015 Texas Book Festival.
The book tent at the 2015 Texas Book Festival. Flickr/Barbara Brannon

The 24th annual Texas Book Festival, happening this Saturday and Sunday in downtown Austin, is expected to draw approximately 50,000 curious readers to hear from nearly 300 authors. Among the most prominent speakers are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, pop scientist Malcolm Gladwell, podcaster John Hodgman, and grillmaster Aaron Franklin. There’s also a cooking tent, the Latinx Lit tent, and a series of STEM-themed panels. Fiction lovers will have the chance to see dozens of Texas authors whose books the Observer has reviewed this year: Lara Prescott, Sergio Troncoso, Oscar Casares, Attica Locke, and Bryan Washington, to name a few.  

To help you plan your weekend, our writers and editors have put together a handpicked list of recommendations for Observer readers. You can also search the full schedule here.

Detective stories from real-life detectives

Houston attorney David Dow has written five nonfiction books based on two decades of work defending death row inmates. For a sample, check out his viral TED Talk, which begins with the tale of a client named “Will,” a Texan who was only 5 years old when his mom, a paranoid schizophrenic, tried to kill him with a butcher knife.

But Dow, founder of the Texas Innocence Network, has admitted in response to critics that he sometimes felt compelled to fudge names, places, and other noncritical facts in books to shield secrets under attorney-client confidentiality.  

On Saturday at 3:00 p.m. in the Capitol Extension Room E2.012, Dow will discuss his journey into fiction in the debut novel, Confessions of an Innocent Man, in which, he says, he felt freer to explore the fuzzy boundaries between good guys and bad guys. Dow appears with Oregon novelist Rene Denfeld, who lived on the streets as a teen and later became chief investigator for a public defender’s office where she, too, worked on hundreds of cases. —Lise Olson, senior writer and editor

Native American writers in the spotlight

Nonfiction is having a moment. In the wider literary world, essays and narratives are getting greater shrift than perhaps ever before. That’s why Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers, edited by literary scholar Theresa Warburton and writer Elissa Washuta, couldn’t be more timely. The book explores innovation in form through the work of contemporary Native writers. “Thinking about teaching this collection or teaching Native lit in general, there are real misunderstandings about indigeneity, where it really only gets conflated with race or ethnicity but that’s not what indigeneity is,” Washuta told Essay Daily. “I always tell my students that we’re not looking at Native writers. We’re looking for what they say about the world and how we can learn about the world from what they say.”

Warburton, Washuta, and contributor Bojan Louis will discuss the collection Saturday at 1:15 p.m. in Capitol Extension Room 1.016. —Sunny Sone, engagement editor

Fighting the good fight for vaccines

Peter Hotez has made it his mission to advocate against misinformation around vaccines. Hotez, a renowned vaccine scientist, pediatrician, and father of a child with autism, will discuss his 2018 book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, a debunking of the pernicious myth through a scientific and personal lens. 

Hotez has become the face of the pro-vaccine movement in Texas, where anti-vaxxers have quickly grown in power and where nonmedical vaccine exemptions have soared in recent years. In 2019, the United States had more measles cases than it has had in more than a quarter century. One of the outbreaks was in Texas, which has seen 21 confirmed cases so far, according to the most recent data from the state health department. That far exceeds any annual total for more than a decade, with the exception of 2013, which had 27 recorded cases. Yet GOP state lawmakers this year tried to make it even easier to opt out of vaccines. “It’s so frustrating because it’s like a train two miles down the track that I can see coming,” Hotez told the Observer last fall. “Unfortunately, I think we’re on a collision course.” 

He’ll appear with KUT’s Jennifer Stayton on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. in the Capitol Extension Room E2.012. —Sophie Novack, public health reporter

Memoirists speak out

Memoirs are some of the most poignant stories an author can share. Experiences of trauma and violence, inner turmoil and introspection, can be healing for both the writer and their audience, as well as offer a window for those who have faced similar circumstances to know they’re not alone. At the 11th Street and Congress tent on Sunday at 2:15 p.m., four authors share their stories of strength and survival. From sexual assault to gender identity, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jeannie Vanasco, Jaquira Díaz, and Cyrus Dunham will discuss how they put pen to paper on deeply personal experiences.   —Loren Lynch, development director

Changing the conversation on guns

Texas has experienced a scourge of devastating mass shootings in just the past few years, from Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe High School to the more recent tragedies in El Paso and Midland-Odessa. But Texas is also one of the most notorious pro-gun states in the country, and its Republican leaders have responded to this gun violence with even laxer gun laws.

But the politics of guns are shifting, even in Texas, thanks to growing opposition to hardline gun groups such as the NRA and activism by reform groups including Moms Demand Action. Igor Volsky, a national gun-control activist and author of the new book Guns Down: How to Defeat the NRA and Build a Safer Future with Fewer Guns, will be on a panel with Nicole Golden, the co-founder of Moms Demand Action in Austin, moderated by University of Texas at Austin sociologist Harel Shapira. Join on Sunday at 4 p.m. at the C-SPAN 2/Book TV Tent for a discussion about how to reduce gun deaths, advance new gun regulations, and release the country’s political system from the NRA’s grip. —Justin Miller, politics reporter

Award-winning short fiction and storytelling

The annual Lit Crawl includes all the best parts of the Texas Book Festival, but with cocktails. Looser and more intimate than the main event, this year’s Saturday night bar crawl includes multimedia storytelling, a “literary death match,” spoken word poetry, and a series of science-fiction readings, among other quirky offerings. The Texas Observer is getting in on the fun with an event at Side Bar at 6:30 p.m. Come meet the four honorees in our ninth annual short story contest, judged by Fernando A. Flores, and find out who will take home our top prize. —Rose Cahalan, managing editor

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