Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Book of 2014: Confessions by Jaume Cabré

Confessions by Jaume Cabré  
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
ArcadiaBooks (London)
978-1-909807-57-0
$38, 751 pgs
The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity. - Leo Tolstoy
There isn’t a single organization that can protect itself from a grain of sand. – Michel Tournier

Confiteor. I cannot do it justice. Mea culpa. This work requires superlatives which don’t exist. Confessions by Jaume Cabré is the best argument I’ve ever encountered for the continuing necessity of a liberal arts education and also the best argument I’ve ever encountered for honoring the 10th commandment. It is a huge-hearted achievement: I laughed and cried; I was disgusted and delighted; I frequently spoke out loud to the characters, sometimes muttering and sometimes shouting. It is a good thing I live in the middle of nowhere – I might’ve alarmed an entire apartment block. ANYWAY, Confessions is the story of one man’s life and simultaneously a history of Europe, a history of ideas, an exposition on the nature of evil, an object lesson on the corrosive effects of envy, and an exploration of the character of beauty, as well as the consequences of obtaining it. 
"Someday I’ll bring the Storioni to class."
"Poor you. If you do, you’ll find out what a good hard cuff is."
"So what do we have it for?"
Father left the violin on the table and looked at me with his hands on his hips.
"What do we have it for, what do we have it for…" he mimicked me.
"Yes." Now I was peeved. "What do we have it for if it’s always in its case inside the safe and we can’t even look at it?"
"I have it to have it. Do you understand?"
"No."

Confessions is written in the form of an epic letter from Adrià Ardevol to Sara Voltes-Epstein, the love of his life. From the Spanish Inquisition to the present day, Adrià attempts to explain his family’s history so that Sara may understand the decisions he has made, the decisions he was too cowardly to make, and that sometimes the sins of the odious father are visited, unfairly or no, upon the son. It is possible to view Adrià's final circumstances as poetic justice. Or not. And yes, I realize how cryptic that is, but if I say much more I’ll give it away: I’m striving for no spoilers. As Adrià notes early on, “It’s strange: there are so many things I want to explain to you and yet I keep getting distracted and wasting time with reflections that would make Freud drool. Perhaps it’s because my relationship with my father is to blame for everything. Perhaps because it was my fault he died.” There’s a teaser for you.

I was intrigued from the opening sentence, “It wasn’t until last night, walking along the wet streets of Vallcarca, that I finally comprehended that being born into my family had been an unforgivable mistake.” And then I was enchanted:
“Have you noticed that life is an inscrutable accident? Out of Father’s millions of spermatozoa, only one fertilizes the egg it reaches. That you were born; that I was born, those are vast random accidents. We could have been born millions of different beings who wouldn’t have been either you or me. That we both like Brahms is also a coincidence. That your family has had so many deaths and so few survivors. All random. If the itinerary of our genes and then our lives had shifted along another of the millions of possible forks in the road, none of this would have been written and who knows who would read it. It’s mind blowing.”
Jaume Cabré
Confessions is intermittently horrifying. It is the bloody history of Europe, after all: the Inquisition, the Third Reich and Franco, to name a very few. I felt physically ill when the origins of the number Adrià’s father used for the combination lock on his office safe were casually revealed. But Confessions is often funny, too, with a sly, droll humor. There is a running joke throughout the work regarding the degree of flatness or roundness of the world, depending on the place and era. For instance, discussing a fire that was deliberately set and burned down a hardwood forest used for making instruments, “…in the Year of Our Lord 1690, when the world was round for almost everyone…” progressing to “The Year of Our Lord 1705…when the earth was increasingly round…” to approximately 1960 “…in those days when Franco ruled and the earth again became flat for us…”

Also running throughout the book are Black Eagle, the Valiant Arapaho Warrior Chief, and Sheriff Carson. Childhood toys consulted by an anxious Adrià during childhood, they pop up regularly during his adulthood to offer sage advice and timely warnings that are frequently hilarious in their understated manner. For instance, Adrià has just announced to his mother that he will no longer take violin lessons: 
"That is my decision. You are going to have to put up with it,” I dared to say.
That was a declaration of war. But there was no other way I could do it. I left Father’s study without looking back.
"How." [Black Eagle]
"Yes?"
"You can start painting my face with war paint. Black and white from the mouth to the ears and two yellow stripes from top to bottom."
"Stop joking, I’m trembling."
Please don’t let that number – 751 pages – discourage you. Granted, Confessions develops slowly for the first 80 or so pages and it slows down again for the last 30 pages. But in between it sweeps you along and I was amazed at how quickly a hundred pages passed. It can be confusing in the beginning. The author shifts between first, second and third person narrative – pay attention to pronouns. The child Adrià will disassociate via third person when he becomes particularly anxious. In addition, the speaker of any given sentence will, without warning, not be the same speaker who finishes the sentence. Frequently the era in which a paragraph begins will shift several hundred years backward or forward in time before you finish reading that paragraph. For example, a sentence may begin with Adrià in Barcelona in 1968 and by the end of the sentence you’re listening to Lorenzo Storioni of Cremona and the year is 1764 or maybe you’re listening to Julià de Sau, a monk at Sant Pere del Burgal, and the year is 1380.

Mara Faye Lethem
Adrià has taken advantage of creative license and invented scenes and dialogue from the distant past. He freely admits this: “Don’t look at me like that. I know I make things up: but I’m still telling the truth.” Once you understand that a scene being described from the past will abruptly become the present, you will  become accustomed to these segues and slip into the rhythm. If you get confused then you can always consult the Dramatis Personae at the back of the book. Oh, yeah – that reminds me: be prepared for Latin. And German. And French and Russian and Hebrew. You get the idea. Confessions is a novel for linguists and other lovers of language. Major kudos and possibly sainthood should go to translator Mara Faye Lethem.

Jaume Cabré is a playwright, essayist, and author of several novels that have sold more than a million copies throughout Europe. He has won several awards, among them the 42è Premi d'Honor de les Lletres Catalanes and the Creu de Sant Jordi. Confessions has won so many awards that I don’t have room to list them all so you may follow this link to read about them. Mara Faye Lethem is a literary translator of Catalan and Spanish. Her translations have appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2010, The Paris Review and McSweeney’s.

Confessions is a sumptuous, gorgeous, ambitious, exasperating, disorienting, maddening, brilliant challenge and you must persevere. It is so worth the effort. I realize that I am just gushing here and critics aren't supposed to gush, I know, but this book is as close to perfect as it is possible for a book to be. Confessions has taken a spot in my Top 5.

Confiteor. Mea culpa.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Monday Roundup: December 29 - January 4!

Bookish events in Texas for the week of December 29, 2014 - January 4, 2015:

Monday, December 29:
Austin
Monkeywrench Books, Anarchist Study Group, 7PM

Tuesday, December 30:
Austin
Spider House Cafe & BallroomAustin Poetry Slam, 8PM

El Paso
The Black Orchid Lounge, Bordersenses Barbed Wire Open Mic, 8PM

Houston
Katy Budget Books, Kerrelyn Sparks Launch Party for Crouching Tiger, Forbidden Vampire, 6PM

San Antonio
Olmos Bharmacy, Sun Poets' Society Open Mic Poetry, 7PM

Wednesday, December 31:
Austin
Monkeywrench Books, ABC Political Prisoner Letter Writing Night, 7PM

South Padre Island

Thursday, January 1:


Friday, January 2:
Nothing, nada, zip, not a single thing

Saturday, January 3:
Arlington
Half Price Books - Lincoln Square, Nadia Dorise-Clay will sell and sign her business/marketing book Package Your Brand, 1PM

Austin
Alpha House, They Speak Youth Slam (Youth Writing Workshop and Youth Poetry Slam), 12PM, 

Austin Baha'i Center, Expressions (Features and Open Mic), 7PM

Awesmic City Café, music and poetry, 8:30PM

Bookpeople, Story time: GREG FOLEY will be here to read his picture books, Don't Worry Bear and Willoughby and the Moon followed by a craft and book signing, 11AM

Houston
Houston Public Library - Shepard-Acres Home Branch, Public Poetry January readings featuring poets Jack Brannon, Billie Duncan, Drew Krewer, and Stalina Villarreal, 2PM

Round Rock
B&N - La Cantera, Jackie Smith signs Moving Forward: Volume 2 and Once More With Feeling, 2PM

South Padre Island
Paragraphs on Padre Boulevard, Literary Mercado, 1PM

San Antonio
The Twig Book Shop, Peter J Story reads and signs Things Grak Hates, 11AM

Sunday, January 4:
Austin
Austin Public Library Foundation, Recycled Reads (Round Robin), 3:30PM

Kick Butt Coffee, Spoken and Heard, 7PM

Galveston
Texas Seaport Museum, Galveston and Houston: A Tale of Two Ports: Lecture, Q&A and book signing with Mark Lardas, 2PM

Grapevine
Books-a-Million, Brad Taylor discusses and signs No Fortunate Son3PM

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Welcome Madagascar!

This morning it is my privilege to welcome readers from Madagascar to Texas Book Lover. Two official languages - Malagasy and French: Tonga soa e! Bienvenue!


Friday, December 26, 2014

Review: Where You Can Find Me

978-1250012852
$24.99, 336 pgs

“Normal was a false god…” – Marlene Vincent

Caleb Vincent was eleven years old when he was abducted. Three years later the FBI has found him and returned him to his family in suburban Atlanta. As Caleb is hounded by the media and voyeurs and faces the beginning of high school, any degree of freedom seems impossible. His mother Marlene decides to move the children far from prying, prurient eyes to her mother-in-law’s farm in the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. The family adjusts to a new life in Costa Rica with some success. They learn Spanish, enroll in school and make friends – a semblance of normalcy. But then the past comes calling and Caleb is forced to choose whether he will remain with his family, with which he no longer feels sure he belongs, or return to the life he came to know when he was taken.

Where You Can Find Me by Sheri Joseph is a stunning psychological portrait of a family in the wake of tragedy and an unflinching exploration of their attempts to move forward. The maelstrom of conflicting emotions Caleb must carefully pick his way through is excruciating. Who is he now? Is he gay or straight? Is he permanently damaged? Is the person he used to be gone forever? Does he even deserve to be back with his family? Must fundamentally: is he good or bad?

While the premise of Where You Can Find Me is not particularly original – there have been several books in the last few years about kids who are returned – the author’s treatment of her subject sets her work apart. Josef does not shy from uncomfortable facts or emotional dilemmas that will make you squirm but neither does she present them in a lascivious fashion. Her goal is not to shock you but rather to coax you into considering the situation without knee-jerk reactions. Rich with insight, Josef’s prose is candid, but respectful, and her ability to imagine the profound cross-currents in this situation and engender empathy in circumstances that most of us can’t personally relate to, is remarkable.

The characters in Where You Can Find Me are well-defined and believable. You can tell when characters are individual and complex because they are flawed. You won’t always like the characters in this novel. Marlene can be flighty and irresponsible; Jeff can be reserved when he ought to be offering more of himself; little Lark, Caleb’s younger sister, is an anxious perfectionist who tries desperately to be mature beyond her years but, perversely, this sometimes lends her the peevish air of a petulant toddler.

Sheri Joseph
As horrific and impressive are the large plot points in Where You Can Find Me, it’s the small details in this story that bring you up short and convey the magnitude of the changes each family member has endured. The simplest acts are fraught with possible pitfalls. “At the table that had been purchased the same year as the house, they sat for dinner, unable to remember who sat where.” Caleb’s father watched his son play the piano and wearing his glasses, neither of which he did before he was taken, and struggled to relate to this child as he is now, not as he was. “He was healthy, polite, so clearly present in his watchful way behind those glasses, and yet. Whose child was this? Over time, some tether must have snapped. Or had Jeff only let it go? The boy in his house belonged to others, …”

While the concept for this novel is usually found in a thriller, this is not a suspenseful action-packed story. The pacing can be somewhat slow in places. Josef has crafted a psychologically complex narrative where everything exists in shades of gray. There are no black or white absolutes to be found anywhere. If you prefer stories that deal in moral absolutes with clear good guys and bad guys you might want to look elsewhere. But if you feel like challenging yourself or are more comfortable with realism than parable, I highly recommend Where You Can Find Me.

This review first appeared in South85 Journal.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday Roundup: December 22 - 28

Bookish events in Texas for the week of December 22 - 28, 2014:

Monday, December 22:
El Paso
Plaza News Shop - EPIA, Sergio Troncoso book signing, 9AM

Tuesday, December 23:
Olmos Bharmacy, Sun Poets' Society Open Mic Poetry, 7PM

Wednesday, December 24:
Austin
Monkeywrench Books, ABC Political Prisoner Letter Writing Night, 7PM

Thursday, December 25:
Merry Christmas, people!


Friday, December 26:
Happy Kwanzaa, people!


Saturday, December 27:
Ballinger
Curiosities, Pamela Howell will sign A Ride Home, 12PM

El Paso
The Rock House Cafe & Gallery, Bordersenses Barbed Wire Open Mic, 8PM

Sunday, December 28:
Austin
Kick Butt Coffee, Spoken and Heard, 7PM

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review - Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life


Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life by Clay Reynolds
Texas Review Press
978-1-933896-98-4
$22.95, 211 pgs

Vox Populi is the fifteenth book from Clay Reynolds, professor and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Texas - Dallas, and claims  - right there on the cover - to be a novel. Before Vox properly begins, there is a preface from  the author discussing the definition of a novel, in which Reynolds reports that the British novelist Paul Scott told him that the only definition of a novel that made sense to him was "a large collection of consecutively numbered pages, each containing a volume of words, bound on one side and open on the other three and generally contained by a cover." Vox is best described as a series of character studies - or situation studies - including the study of our nameless narrator who interacts with each of these characters during the course of Everyday Life.

The narrator encounters these people at the grocery store, jury duty, the car wash, the barbershop, the tax office and on the golf course, among many other everyday locales. These people are sometimes lonely or anxious or fearful; sometimes they're oblivious and arrogant and unreliable; mostly they're just trying to do their best to get through the events of any given day. They (we) are mechanics, housewives, teachers, waitresses, military servicemen and shopkeepers. There is the older, well-off white man who checks every box of privilege this country has to offer, who has never been failed or suspected by law enforcement, who must contend with the uncomfortable conclusion that the young day laborer he sits next to at jury duty knows more about how the world functions than he does. 

There is the middle-aged, carefully coiffed, sensibly dressed, middle management-type woman at the car wash who has a run-in with a chihuahua belonging to a Paris Hilton wannabe. This scene would come off as just another minor annoyance in the larger scheme of things except for three words. The woman's shoes are ruined and she turns to the narrator. "I have an appointment." She looks up at me, tears welling in her eyes. "It's an interview." I don't know how the author has done it but in those three words I felt how all of this woman's hopes for her future were pinned on this interview, that unemployment was threatening her world, and that she had always believed that if you played by the rules and worked hard then all good things would be yours. She has been betrayed by the supreme indifference of the cosmos. All of that in three little words. 

There is the woman who has charged into the tax office to appeal the assessment on her property who indulges herself in a pantomime of commiseration that regularly insults the couple she is pretending to listen to. This woman is so oblivious to her surroundings that she spends the time loudly complaining of the general incompetence of her Latino gardeners and maids but fails to register that the airman in fatigues who is sharing the waiting room with her is Latino. Then she tells him, "I want you to know...I support the troops." It is a nauseating, simpering display by a woman who possesses so little self-awareness that she will never understand how offensive she is. I know every one of these people; so do you.

Clay Reynolds
Clay Reynolds is uncannily skilled at rendering vignettes of strangers forced to occupy the same physical space. He is an astute observer of our smallest gestures and expressions and his dialogue is spot-on, complete with malapropisms that had me laughing aloud. His physical descriptions are detailed to an impressive degree. I could picture these people standing in front of me, to the last vivid detail. At the beginning of Vox, the nameless but not-quite-anonymous narrator seems to be a rather dull blank slate with no personality of his own and at the mercy of the seemingly stronger personalities surrounding him. As the sketches progress, though, our narrator begins to slowly but surely engage more substantively, confidently and empathetically - which is to say, successfully. It is a subtle performance. 

If you prefer books that have a plot and include action to any degree then you will want to pass on Vox. Ole Willie wrote that all the world's a stage and we are merely players. We are also, basically, ambulatory sounding boards - mirrors - whose purpose is to reflect others back at themselves. Each of us would necessarily have a unique filter interfering with that reflection. Do we choose companions based on the self we prefer to see reflected back at us? If so, does that preference change over time? Do our filters change as well?  If these are the sort of questions you could spend an afternoon pondering, if you appreciate a great writing exercise, if you are fascinated by the human zoo, then you will enjoy Vox Populi. 

I'm going to close with a quote from "Neighbors."
Even though it seems that many of my observations about this benighted family are tinged with an odd combination of approbation and disgust, I have absolutely no problem living next door to them. On the whole, they're solicitous and cause me no direct problems. I've had worse neighbors in my time, and for all their oddity, they pose no threat to my welfare, health or happiness.
That strikes me as a pretty good litmus test for neighbors, friends and family. It is so easy to be kind to each other. Why are we so bad at it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Another published review!

My review of Where You Can Find Me  (St. Martin's Press) by Sheri Joseph was published yesterday by South85 Journal! Please follow this link to read the complete review. Astonishing and highly recommended.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Roundup: December 15 - 21!

Bookish events in Texas for the week of December 15 - 21, 2014:

Monday, December 15:
Austin
Monkeywrench Books, Anarchist Study Group, 7PM

Carthage
Sammy Brown Library, Bill O’Neal, the State Historian of Texas, will be signing his latest book in the Images of Ameria series, Texas Gunslingers, 11AM

Dallas
Magnolia Lounge - Fair Park, Island of Misfit Toys- A Christmas Reading by Pandora's Box with Special Musical Guest Lily Taylor, 8PM

Tuesday, December 16:
B&N, San Pedro, Sun Poets' Society Open Mic Poetry, 7PM

The Twig Book Shop, Kathleen O'Toole Poetry Event, 5PM

Wednesday, December 17:
Austin
Bookwoman, Vintage Virgin-day with poems from Natalia Trevino, 6:45PM

Malvern Books, Albert Huffstickler Birthday Celebration, 7PM

Monkeywrench Books, ABC Political Prisoner Letter Writing Night, 7PM

Dallas
Anson
Pioneer Hall, Paul H. Carlson will sign copies of Dancin' In Anson, ?

Austin
The North Door, December Bedpost Confessions, 8PM

Dallas
Two Bronze Doors, Pegasus Reading Series with Logen Cure, Mag Gabbert and Lucas Jacob, 7PM

Houston
River Oaks Bookstore, Micki Fine reads and signs Need to Please, 5PM

Friday, December 19:
Malvern Books, An Evening with Hoa Nguyen, Dale Martin Smith & Julie Choffel, 7PM

Dallas
Heroes Sports Bar & Grill, Dallas Poetry Slam and Open Mic with Alexandra Marie Thurston and RockBabyPages Matam, 8PM

Houston
Austin
B&N - Lakeline Crossing, Starr Burgess Signs Counselor Dynamite Befuddles the Bullyville Crew, 3PM

Malvern Books, The Lion & The Pirate Unplugged, 2PM

Northwest School of Music, Austin Poetry Society, 1:30PM

Dallas
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, Judy Scott will sign copies of her book, Afternoon Tea at the Arboretum, 11AM

Dripping Springs
Awesmic City Café, music and poetry, 8:30PM
Galveston

Half Price Books, Robert Peek will sign his new paranormal fantasy book, The Arrival, Volume One of the Twilight Mist Series, 12PM

Houston
River Oaks Bookstore, Women of Mystery panel and signing event with Pamela Fagan Hutchins, Stephanie Jaye Evans, Gay Yellen, Kay Kendall, Rebecca Thompson Nolen, Patricia Flaherty Pagan and Mandy Broughton, 4PM

San Antonio
Half Price Books - Bandera, Peter J. Story will sign his new psychological satire, Things Grak Hates, 12PM

The Twig Book Shop, Walker Smith reads and signs Bluestone Rondo, 11AM

South Padre Island
Paragraphs on Padre BoulevardDon Clifford will read and sign Squeaky: the Littlest Angel, 1PM

Sugarland
Half Price Books, Robert Johnston will sign his new Christian study book, Sanctification: A New Beginning, A New Life, 12PM

Waco
B&N, Janna Beatty discusses her new book Quintessential Style, 1PM

Sunday, December 21:
Austin
Bookwoman, Winter Solstice Celebration, 3PM

Kick Butt Coffee, Spoken and Heard, 7PM

Malvern Books, An Afternoon with Mong-Lan & Abe Louise Young, 2PM

Houston

Thursday, December 11, 2014

#ThrowbackThursday - Review of Limber by Angela Pelster

Limber      By Angela Pelster
Sarabande Books, 154 pgs
978-1-936747-75-7
From the publisher
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The first line of Limber is "It is still winter." Indeed. This is the wintriest spring I can remember in west Texas. Persephone is lingering in the warmth. But I digress.

Limber is Angela Pelster's debut collection of seventeen heedful and often elegiac essays, meditations at the juncture of the natural world and language. I made a point of reading this slim volume outside, under an elderly just-budding mesquite tree. Some will deride this tree as not a tree but a large shrub. It's what we have. The author has many more and larger trees: poplar, redwood, mango, mountain ash, acacia, and the eponymous limber pine, among others.

There is the Burmis Tree, a local landmark in Burmis, Alberta, Canada, a limber pine, so named "...for the ways they bend in the harsh winds and grow in curves around it; they slither their roots along rock faces until they find cracks they can slip into and drink from." There is the Tree That Owns Itself, a white oak, in Athens, Georgia, that the purported owner loved so much that he deeded the tree and the land surrounding it to it. There are the Moon Trees, sprouted from seeds that orbited the moon with astronaut Stuart Roosa of Apollo 14 fame. There is L'Arbre du Ténéré (The Loneliest Tree in the World), an acacia, the only tree for 250 miles in the Sahara, northern Niger. My favorite essay is "How Trees Came to Be in the World" (pg 135). I don't think I've read a more accessible account of evolution anywhere, truly.

I enjoyed this collection, although I was confused by a few of the essays that either don't seem to fit even the broad theme or are so nebulous as to seem to be about, well, what exactly? Maybe these essays do belong in this particular collection and I'm not seeing the connection. Believe me, that's entirely possible. Now that's out of the way and we can focus on the good stuff. Pelster does not romanticize nature, which is refreshing and a relief. Romanticizing shouldn't be necessary. She is angry when anger is called for, magnanimous when capable, always empathetic. Pelster's gift of description is powerfully evocative. On the collapse of a mountain from decades of mining blasts: "The falling rock created a sucking wind. It inhaled the mud of the river bottom with a gulp and spit a wave of violence before it." On the humidity in a redwood forest in northern California: "...the air was so wet you could suck the rain from it with your lips." A metaphysical observation in the same forest:
The signs also said that the tallest tree in the world is a redwood in California. It was the land of giants, I thought, and difficult to know where the myth began and the truth ended. Ask a poplar if it believes in redwoods and it might start talking about faith.
When the Burmis Tree finally gave up the ghost to rot it was propped up again with steel and chains. When the Tree That Owns Itself succumbed to a storm the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself, grown from an acorn, replaced it. When the Loneliest Tree in the World was mowed down by a drunken truck driver the trunk and limbs were glued back together and placed on display. Our willful illusions will not suffice. We cannot leave well enough alone.
A tree ring marks a year of growth, but it isn't marking it for humans. The rings are a memory of what the seasons brought and what the tree made of it. The widest rings are the good years, recorded in thick dark circles of brown, and the hungry years are narrow and pale and hard to read.
After the countless blows inflicted to the body of our mother, what story will the trees tell about us?

Angela Pelster’s essays have appeared in GrantaThe Gettysburg ReviewSeneca ReviewThe Globe and Mail,Relief Magazine and others. Her children’s novel The Curious Adventures of India Sophia won the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice award in 2006. She lives with her family in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

National Arbor Day is April 25th. Click here to find out what you can do.

Limber arrived with a thoughtful gesture: a seed-embedded leaflet that you can plant and flowers will grow. I'm gonna go do that now. My mesquite needs company.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Roundup: December 8 - 14

Bookish events in Texas for the week of December 8 - 14, 2014:

Monday, December 8:
B&N, San Pedro, Sun Poets' Society Open Mic Poetry, 7PM

Wednesday, December 10:
Texas Theater, Oral Fixation presents "Outside the Box," 8PM

The Wild Detectives, Deep Vellum Presents Marian Schwartz (Russian translator of Mikhail Shishkin, Andrei Gelasimov, and more, reading from her translation of Anna Karenina), 7PM

San Antonio
The Twig Book Shop, Sister Patricia Marie Lohre of IWBS reads and signs Open Your Eyes, Open Your Heart, 5PM

Thursday, December 11:
Austin
B&N - Arboretum, Poetry Open Mic, 7PM

Bookwoman, Second Thursday Open Mic featuring David Meischen, 7:15PM

Waterloo Records & Video, Michael and Elizabeth O'Brien book signing for The Face of Texas, 7PM

Dallas
The Tower Club, John DeMers and Carolyn Kneese discuss Bragging Rights: The Dallas-Houston Rivalry, 6PM

The Wild Detectives, Student poets from Southern Methodist University will read selections at “Rapid Readings,” 7PM

Houston


Round Rock
B&N - La Frontera, chef Jack Gilmore presents Jack Allen's Kitchen: Celebrating the Tastes of Texas, 7PM

Sugarland
B&N - First Colony Mall, Jackson Michael presents The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, 7PM

Friday, December 12:
Austin
Amarillo
BYN - Westgate, book signing for This Might Be A Good Story by the Amarillo Globe's Jon Mark Beilue, 1PM

Austin
B&N - Sunset Valley, signing of Waiting Hearts by Beth Ann Stifflemire, 7PM

Bookpeople, GIVING TREE STORYTIME: BOOKSPRING, 11:30AM

Brave New Books, Jordan Page In Concert, 7PM

Malvern Books, An Evening with Peter J. Story & Joanne Fox Phillips, 7PM

Monkeywrench Books, Ugly Holiday Sweater Dance Party, 9PM

Beaumont
B&N - Parkdale Mall, Meet the Writer: Kenneth Lee Greer, 1PM

Dallas
31 Bar and Grill, Love Jonz Presents Poetry-music-dinner with RAGE ALMIGHTY, 8PM

B&N - Preston Royal, Martha Louise Hunter Signs Painting Juliana, 2PM

Mighty Fine Arts, Holiday Jamnation featuring Randall Garrett and Inferno Texino with Andy Don Emmons, Clay Stinnett, Jason Cohen and Mark Martinek, 9PM

Denton
B&N - Golden Triangle Mall, Willy the Texas Longhorn Storytime and Signing, 10AM

B&N - Golden Triangle Mall, Blue Bonnet the Armadillo Storytime and Signing Bluebonnet at the State Fair of Texas, 11AM

El Paso
B&N - Sunland Park, Mark Paulda Signing El Paso 120 Edge of the Southwest, 4PM

Galveston


McAllen
B&N - Palms Crossing, Hello Little Snowflake reading by Suzanne Schrewe, 7PM

San Antonio
B&N - Ingram Festival, Melissa Weathersby signing Are You Arresting Your Blessing?, 1PM
Austin
B&N - Arboretum, Tim and Elizabeth O'Brien Signing The Face of Texas, 1PM

George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center, Austin Zine Fest 2014, 12PM

Denton
Recycled Books, Fishboy will perform a special acoustic version of their new album An Elephant, 4PM

Hurst
B&N - NE Mall, George Dalton Signing A Collision of Dreams, 1PM

McAllen
B&N - Palms Crossing, Celeste Barnard signing Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love, 2PM

Round Rock
The Book Spot, Holly Through the Heart Event w/ Sisters in Crime, 2PM

San Antonio

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Texas: the Great Theft

Texas: the Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa
Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Deep Vellum Publishing
978-1-941920-00-8
$15.95, 285 pgs

Once upon a time in Texas, there was a man perturbed, even aghast, by the rarity of contemporary translations of literature in this country. Thus was born Deep Vellum Publishing. Deep Vellum, based in Dallas, released its first title today. Woo hoo! Congratulations all around. And what a debut it is: Texas: the Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Texan Samantha Schnee of Words Without Borders fame. Her translation from the Spanish is inspired: chatty, cleverly colloquial and full of energy.

One day in 1859 in the Texas town of Bruneville (aka Brownsville), Don Nepomuceno witnesses the local sheriff pistol-whipping a drunken vaquero in the town square. When Nepomuceno confronts the sheriff, the sheriff insults him, “Shut up, you dirty greaser.” The news of this insult spreads rapidly along both banks of the Rio Grande/Bravo via what resembles a giant game of telephone, assisted by messenger pigeon and lightning bolt. The town is of two minds about this. On the one hand, “How could a puffed up carpenter dare speak that way to Don Nepomuceno, Doña Estefanía’s son, the grandson and great-grandson of the owners of more than a thousand acres, including those on which Bruneville sits?!” And on the other hand, “Nepomuceno, that no-good, goddamned, cattle-thieving, red-headed bandit, he can rot in hell for all I care!” Shots ring out. The sheriff is wounded and Nepomuceno, taking the old vaquero with him, escapes across the river to Matasánchez, Mexico (aka Matamoros) where he proceeds to make plans for an invasion of Texas.

Boullosa has taken an incident from the fraught and bloody history of Texan/Mexican/American relations and woven a generous tale full of magic and the all-too-human, reminiscent of Revolt by Qaisra Sharaz and John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War. The cast of characters in the two towns are a motley and varied crew, representative of the actual historical residents of the region (I swear – look it up): Mexicans, Texans, Native Americans, socialist Germans, escaped slaves, a commune of a dozen Amazons (yes, you read that correctly), Cubans, Russians, Irishmen, ghosts, espionage agents, agents provocateurs, mystics and one philosopher-baker.

Texas is a delight, packed with sly wit, word-play and sharp observation. The omniscient narrator regularly addresses the reader directly, as actors will address the camera and speak to the audience, poking a sharp stick at absurdity with a deadpan delivery that had me laughing aloud. For instance, when describing the locals, "…two madmen (Connecticut, who only says “I’m from Connecticut,” and the Scot, who says lots but in his country’s strange accent it’s impossible to understand, which is just as well, because his babbling is full of obscenities),…" And this, "Jones never stops for Father Vera, he’s not stupid and he knows that the priest dislikes him and thinks he’s a heretic because he’s read the whole Bible from cover to cover several times (proof to the priest that Jones is a damned Protestant)."

There are doses of the magic realism for which Mexican literature is famous. For instance, the local mystic is hailed by a fence post:
“Psst, Iluminado!”
El Iluminado thinks the voice is coming from the ruined fence…
“I’m going to help you. Make me your cross and I will speak the Word to all.”
The voice is sharp and childish, no one would believe it’s coming from this old piece of wood.
Without asking anyone’s permission El Iluminado yanks up the talking board…
“That’s right! Well done! Now nail the board next to me, crosswise.”
“What nails should I use?”
“We’re going to get some at the store.”
“I don’t have any money, and Señor Bartolo doesn’t give credit.”
“I’ll talk to him. Let’s go!”
The results of the talking cross? “The line that beggars and believers have formed to bless themselves with the holy water where the (miraculous) Talking Cross was dunked snakes all the way to the Town Hall.”
Carmen Boullosa
Boullosa is also skilled at the quirkily pastoral, “Although it’s nearly settled, they won’t announce it until dawn, after a nightlong vigil discussing the matter in darkness, to the hooting of owls, the dreaming of foxes, the nighttime wiggling of fish.” She infuses even a description of the spies passing messages with her unique style, “In passing, they utter phrases to balconies that appear to be empty. In the confessionals, they confess sins that aren’t sins, and their confessors aren’t priests. The barber repeats them in the middle of conversations, like non sequiturs. Lovers say things that aren’t at all loving.”

Texas, despite the subject matter, is not a plot-driven thriller. It doesn’t move quickly – if you’re looking for a lot of battle action then you should look elsewhere. What Texas has are characters and language; history that continues to impact Texas and Mexico that we might otherwise prefer to avoid; and an intelligent and stylish delivery that points out the abundant absurdities and hypocrisies. This book is to be savored, not gulped. Texas will reward your patience. Do not make the mistake of thinking this is all fun and games. I’ve dwelt on the humor and magic in this review because they are the unique and most impressive qualities. People die here and swing like strange fruit; people lose their land, homes, families, livelihoods and traditional ways of living and these sins haunt us still in news headlines daily.

I will leave you with a prophecy from the philosopher-baker:
“If we don’t get rid of them, before we know it they’ll pass a law preventing us from working on the other side of the Río Bravo…the worst is still to come. They’ll put up a fence or build a wall so we can’t cross over to ‘their’ Texas…and then, you’ll see, listen closely, they’ll take the water from our river, they’ll divert it for their own purposes,…there won’t be a single mustang or plot of land they don’t claim as theirs. South of the Río Bravo will become violent. Mexicans will begin to treat each other with the same contempt…Our women will be raped and butchered and buried in pieces in the desert.”
“Go and drink your chocolate, Óscar, you’re talking nonsense.”
¡Viva la Raza!