This day brings angst and anticipation for lovers of literature and nonfiction, the very morning of the fourth annual San Antonio Book Festival. Procrastination now gives way to hurried study of Saturday’s rich and crowded schedule of authors from near and far. Hard choices can no longer be delayed.
San Antonio has a young, yet very good book festival. More than 90 authors will fill the Central Library and Southwest School of Art for seven hours of conversations and programs that promise to be insightful, entertaining or intense, depending on the book’s subject. More than 15,000 festival-goers of all ages will have the opportunity to meet and speak with a favorite author and take home an inscribed book. A good book festival offers standing-room events interspersed with moments of informal and intimate conversation.
What makes a good book festival so exciting and causes people to rush headlong with expectation from one event to the next also means people will miss most of it. The arithmetic is inescapable. Take the single opening hour of 10 a.m. There are 12 different author events starting at that hour. Some festival goers will jump from room to room, a practice I would discourage. Don’t overload your plate with more than you can digest.
“We like to think of the Book Festival as a gift to the city: it’s an investment in the library, in downtown and in our literary community, in the city’s stature nationwide and in its future, as we inspire and educate young readers,” said Katy Flato, one of the book festival’s founders and its executive director. “As the festival evolves each year, so does our audience. We get better at putting on the festival, and the community gets better at attending it. They understand and appreciate what we are offering, and have learned how to best navigate the day. With such a rich and deep author lineup, there are many choices to make as to which session to attend; sometimes it’s difficult for a festival-goer to choose. Our hope is to see every venue at standing room only.”
Here is my plan for the day, with some still unresolved decisions. Do you have your plan?
Saturday 10 a.m.
The headline event for me will be the conversation with New York Times Columnist Joe Nocera, author of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA. Nocera will be interviewed by Dan Goodgame, a long time Time magazine bureau chief, author and magazine editor who is now a Rackspace executive. He is a skilled interviewer. Nocera is an old-school journalist who takes on one of the most powerful sports combines in America in his latest book, which received a starred review from Kirkus: “A vigorous indictment of collegiate athletics, a system that enriches everyone except the athletes.” Get there early for a seat.
My first choice of the day is an easy one, although there is a wealth of other authors. Consult the full schedule here, and don’t hesitate to post a comment at the end of this article offering your own choice for the hour, explaining how very wrong I am.
The second hour poses some difficult choices, indeed.
My favorite author and work of fiction at last year’s book festival was David Liss and The Day of Atonement, his historical novel covering the dying days of the Spanish Inquisition in Portugal. This year, I believe that author and book will be Stephen Harrigan and A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Harrigan needs little introduction to the San Antonio reading audience. His work appeared for years in Texas Monthly and he is the author of The Gates of the Alamo, which remains the best fictional work about the events leading up to the famous 1836 battle, in my opinion.
Lincoln author Jerome Charyn, writing in the Washington Post, praised Harrigan’s fresh look at one of America’s most studied and admired presidents, saying he “offers us an acute and original portrait of Lincoln in the 1830s and 1840s, when our 16th president was still a young backwoods lawyer whose hair was ‘like a clump of crow feathers.’” Harrigan will be interviewed by author, documentarian, and San Antonio native John Phillip Santos, who is now a distinguished scholar in Mestizo Cultural Studies at UTSA’s Honors College.
Interesting bit of San Antonio journalistic/literary trivia: Both Goodgame and Santos were in the same class of Rhodes Scholars at Oxford. For readers who count important “firsts,” Santos was the first Latino to ever win what is widely regarded as the world’s most distinguished fellowship.
At the same time, a two-author panel titled, “The Things They Carried: The Stories Border Objects Tell,” will feature two of the day’s rich trove of books set on the Texas-Mexico border. George T. Díaz, a lifelong border resident and assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, is the author of Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande. He will be joined by Kimball Taylor, author of The Coyote’s Bicycle. The conversation will be moderated by David Martin Davies, the host of Texas Public Radio’s “The Source” on KSTX.
For people interested in the book festival’s first foray into theater, San Antonio author, playwright and journalist Gregg Barrios will offer both performance of scenes from his play I-DJ, and a conversation with Elaine Wolff, the founding editor of Out In SA magazine and former editor of the San Antonio Current. Barrios was profiled this week on the Rivard Report by Camille Garcia: Gregg Barrios is SA Book Festival’s First Featured Playwright.
Good book festivals always include chefs and cookbook authors, thus the “Learn How To Make One Of Mexico’s Most Revered Dishes” session with Enchilada co-authors Cappy Lawton and former Nashville songwriter and record producer Chris Waters Dunne. Two generations of the Lawton family own and operate Cappy’s, La Fonda on Main and Cappyccino’s. Years before there was a Pearl or Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, Lawton was a driving force for a culinary school here. He loves the city, its culture and its food and is a San Antonio original worth knowing.
Hugh Daschbach, the culinary concierge at the Hotel Emma and Rivard Report contributor, will moderate.
A parade of food trucks will offer enticing choices for lunch on the run for those unwilling to skip a session. There are 11 different panels that start in the noon hour with three very different ones vying for my attention.
“All the Single Ladies” runs from 12:15-1:15 p.m. and offers two New York-based writers in conversation with Texas Monthly managing editor and author Mimi Swartz. Kate Bolick is the author of the New York Times bestseller Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Rebecca Traister, the author of All the Single Ladies, is writer at large for New York Magazine and a National Magazine Award finalist. Both authors are serious journalists who have written compelling books about women in an era when marriage is now a choice rather than an obligation or inevitability. Swartz, a San Antonio native, herself is a nationally-recognized journalist and writer. Get there early for a seat.
“The Next Wave: Bold Voices from Mexico” will showcase two award-winning Mexican writers. Carmen Boullosa is a Mexican novelist, poet, essayist, and dramatist, and the author of Texas: The Great Theft, a mid-19th century novel set on the Texas-Mexico border that offers a view of cross-border history and its characters very different than the version taught in Texas public schools. She will appear with novelist Álvaro Enrigue, who teaches at Princeton and Columbia University and is the author of Sudden Death, his first novel to appear in English, described in a New York Times review as “a postmodern romp through Baroque Europe that begins with a tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo.”
Patricia Portales, a professor of English at San Antonio College and a Rivard Report contributor and book reviewer, has her work cut out for her, moving from the Rio Grande Valley of 1859 to Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.
For readers who love books that offer a deep exploration of the animals we most love, The Horse: The Epic History of our Noble Companion, by science journalist Wendy Williams, will not disappoint. Williams will be in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Espy, a Texas A&M trained veterinarian and major figure in the equine world. Her book explores “our love affair with horses” back to prehistoric times when one of the first works of art ever found was an Ice Age carving of a tiny ivory horse.
Horses have existed for tens of millions of years, but they’ve only been domesticated for a few thousand years. Readers drawn to this session with Williams also should visit the Witte Museum to explore its new exhibit, Splendor on the Range: American Indians and the Horse, the subject of a Rivard Report story published earlier this week.
I won’t pretend to be neutral about the early afternoon offerings. From 1:30-2:30 p.m. I am moderating a conversation titled, “Shadow Country: Murder & Race In 19th Century America,” which will bring together longtime Texas Monthly feature writer Skip Hollandsworth, a National Magazine Award winner and co-writer of the 2011 film Bernie, and Kali Nicole Gross, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin.
Both have true crime books that are page turners covering tales otherwise all but forgotten. The Midnight Assassin by Hollandsworth is billed as “panic, scandal and the hunt for America’s first serial killer,” a murderous crime spree by the so-called “Midnight Assassin” that occurred right up the road in Austin in 1885. Numerous men were arrested and charged, but three years afterwards, London detectives speculated that the real Midnight Assassin had fled Texas and come to England to continue his killings as Jack the Ripper.
Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso by Gross is “a tale of race, sex and violence in 19th century Philadelphia,” and like Hollandsworth’s case study, the author re-examines a crime and investigation and the people it involved, steeped in the social mores and biases of the day which helped define or distort how authorities and the public viewed victims and their alleged perpetrators.
I do not know Gross, but Hollandsworth and I were both young reporters at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald in the early 1980s, and he was a keynote speaker at the book festival dinner two years ago. He is a polished and entertaining speaker, and will undoubtedly find ways to make everyone laugh while looking back at a serial killer who bedeviled Austin police 130 years ago.
I will be sorry to miss Laura Tillman, a journalist who started her a career at the Brownsville Herald, where so many of us got our start, and will be at the festival to discuss her first book, The Long Shadow Of Small Ghosts: Three Murders In Brownsville. Something about life on the border adds a different dimension or distortion to human behavior, as evidenced in this macabre story from 2003 when three young children were murdered by John Allen Rubio, a drug-addled and psychotic man who was father to one of the children, and his common-law wife. The couple repeatedly stabbed the children to death and then cut off their heads in what was seen as the time as Satanic ritual.
Tillman will be interviewed by author and Mexico City native Ricardo Ainslie, an award-winning psychologist and psychoanalyst whose published books have explored killings along the border and elsewhere in Texas. The session goes from 1-1:45 p.m.
A starred Kirkus Review called Tillman’s book “a Helter Skelter for our time,” and it’s impossible to read it without almost calling Charles Manson to mind. Her Death Row interviews with the mentally ill Rubio, whose insanity defense failed, suggests that such claims, although challenging to authenticate, are too quickly dismissed when communities are left traumatized by especially heinous and inexplicable acts of violence against innocent children. The same argument raises questions about capital punishment in Texas, and whether state execution of people who appear to be insane can really be called justice.
Paulette Jiles and John C. Kerr, two San Antonio area writers of Civil War-era novels, will make for another compelling panel, “Hard Reconstruction: Civil War-Era Texas Novels,” that runs 1:30-2:30 p.m. Jaime Javier Rodríguez, an associate professor of English at the University of North Texas, will moderate. Jiles’ novel, News of the World, which received a starred review in Kirkus, and explores one of the most fascinating subplots in the story of the American West in the 19th century: the capture of white children who lost their identity after being captured by Native American tribes. Johanna Leonberger, a 10-year-old girl, makes her way back to life with an aunt and uncle after she is sold back by Kiowa Indians who killed her parents four years earlier and then raised her speaking their language and learning their customs.
Kerr’s latest novel, The Silent Shore of Memory, is about James Barnhill, a young Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg, who returns to his native Texas during Reconstruction. He becomes a lawyer and judge who fights corruption and vigilante violence and even goes on to defend an African-American man accused of raping a white women.
My single pick for a panel (2:45-3:30 p.m.) features Brandon Caro, a young Texas State University graduate, U.S. Navy combat medic in Afghanistan from 2006-07, and debut novelist. Caro is the author of Old Silk Road, a book reviewed on the Rivard Report last week. Some of the most powerful books written by war come from the experiences of combat vets. Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” has become America’s longest war, one that is starting to produce its own body of literature. Caro’s own battles with drug addiction and thoughts of suicide play out in the behavior of his characters and offer a more realistic and nuanced understanding of men at war often treated as heroes by people back home who have little or no idea of the unheroic experiences combat vets have endured.
Director Al Reinert will screen his documentary film Rara Avis: John James Audubon and the Birds of America. Screenwriter Alex Schenker, who lives here and in Hollywood, will moderate the conversation. Reinert co-wrote the screenplay for the 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, and directed For All Mankind in 1989. His newest film traces the life of painter, naturalist and ornithologist Audubon, whose majestic illustrations of birds helped awaken the young nation’s appreciation of nature and avian life.
The final hour poses the day’s last hard choices. One possibility is The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama by best-selling author and Sports Illustrated senior editor Alexander Wolff, moderated by veteran NBA writer Mike Monroe, who covers the San Antonio Spurs for the Rivard Report. Obama is both the nation’s first black president and the first to play basketball, a sport that helped to shape him, perhaps more than the most mainstream media have understood or reported. Monroe will know firsthand how much Obama’s passion for the sport has raised the political consciousness among the Spurs players and others around the league. Who will the players vote for come November as Obama prepares to leave the White House?
Award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye has a new book of poems, Famous, a title that runs contrary to anything evident in her own life or work. She will be in conversation with San Antonio librarian and educator Dana Hutchins. Completing a long day of literary foraging might best be completed with Nye’s reading of a poem.
See you at the book festival.
*Top image: Clockwise from top left: Carmen Boullosa, Gregg Barrios, Kate Bolick, Joe Nocera, Wendy Williams, Stephen Harrigan, Laura Tillman, George T. Diaz, Kali Nicole Gross, and Naomi Shihab Nye.