There are 89 authors from around the country converging on the city for the third annual San Antonio Book Festival, but if I were acting as judge and jury, I’d tell festival-goers the six or so must-see authors happen to be from San Antonio and Austin, with one great Latino storyteller from Southern California added to my list.
This is a highly subjective selection. I haven’t read near enough of the writers to speak with real authority. But I have been reading steadily off the authors’ list for several months now, and if you follow my advice you can’t go wrong. Look at it this way: San Antonio’s community of writers has grown nicely in the 25 years I have lived and worked here, enough that so-called “local writers” aren’t local writers at all. They’re writers of national import who happen to be locals.
First on my list is novelist and historical fiction writer David Liss, whose new work, “The Day of Atonement” is a masterpiece equal to “A Conspiracy of Paper,” “The Coffee Traders” or “Whiskey Rebellion” to name three other critically acclaimed novels by the author. I consider Liss one of the most accomplished historical fiction writers alive today. His attention to period detail, deep character development and ability to create sheer narrative drama are never less than completely satisfying. This time Liss takes the reader to 18th century Portugal during the last days of the Inquisition, a time when torture and terror in the name of religious authority rivaled anything we see today in the Middle East. All of Liss’ novels take us into the past and as we pleasure ourselves lost in history, we suddenly realize we are measuring past times and events against the present, exactly, it seems, as Liss intended. I am not the least bit objective here. Given my choice of authors to interview at the Book Festival, I chose Liss. Our conversation goes from 12:15-1 p.m. in Rogers Hall at the Southwest School of Art.
If he were speaking at any other time than the same time as Liss, I would point you to Luis Alberto Urrea, who crafts fine fiction and nonfiction alike, and is one of the best storytellers around when speaking extemporaneously to an audience, all the better if you happen to be bilingual and can keep up. Urrea will sell and sign a lot of books, no doubt, but everyone ought to read these three: his latest work of fiction, “Into the Beautiful North,” the non-fiction “The Devil’s Highway” and the magical novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.” Urrea will appear at the Coates Chapel at the Southwest School of Art from 12:30-1:15 p.m.
On the nonfiction side, my first choice would be Jan Jarboe Russell, author of the non-fiction “The Train to Crystal City,” the depressingly true and all but lost account – until now – of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secret internment camp in South Texas where whole families of “enemy origin,” that is, Japanese, German and Italian immigrants and their U.S.-born children, were imprisoned. It’s a tough dose of reality for those of us who grew up lionizing FDR. It’s a sad chapter of U.S., history, but the book finds hope and faith and endurance in the characters of the people who suffered the most. Many of those imprisoned lost all their property and were arbitrarily deported in prisoner exchanges, some taking decades to fight their way back to America, some never making it. Crystal City was not a concentration camp or even a modern-day Guantanamo, but America’s xenophobia and long history of racism and ethnic repression is a subject the country has yet to truly face. This is certainly one story that never made it into Texas or U.S. history textbooks. If Jarboe Russell had not written it now, it might never have been written at all, as the last of the survivors and witnesses are dying off. It all happened less than 120 miles south of San Antonio. Her session will be held in the Central Library‘s main auditorium on the first floor from 4:30-5:30 p.m.
I have just started reading “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David,” by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, who lives in Austin and also is the author of “The Looming Tower,” the single best post-9/11 account of the rise of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and “Going Clear,” Wright’s damning and unimpeachable biography of Scientology. Like all of Wright’s books, the Camp David book is a flawless mix of historical research and journalistic digging. Wright’s new book takes us back to 1978 and the Camp David conference where Pres. Jimmy Carter persuaded Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat to sign the first modern peace treaty in the Middle East and, sadly, the only lasting peace treaty in the region. Can any of us imagine world leaders today (Obama, Netanyahu and the Ayatollah) enduring such a testing two-week negotiating marathon with world peace hanging in the balance? Wright will appear on the West Terrace on the third floor of the Central Library from 10-10:45 a.m.
I also am recommending poet Naomi Shihab Nye for anyone who has never attended a reading or session with San Antonio’s most accomplished poet. She captivates and delights audiences with her simplicity and honesty and has always struck me as one of the most centered and peaceful writers I’ve ever read or met or, on occasion, envied. She will appear in the Central Library’s third floor Story Room from 2:15-3 p.m.
Finally, longtime Austin writer and journalist turned documentary film maker Joe Nick Patoski, the author of biographies of Selena, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, brings his new feature-length film chronicling the music and life of San Antonio musician Doug Sahm, called “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove” for a first showing in San Antonio at the Empire Theater at 1 p.m. I’ll still be savoring my conversation with Liss and my inner mind’s wanderings through 18th century Lisbon after the earthquake. If for some odd reason, you choose not to attend the session with Liss, the Empire Theater is where you’ll want to be. Enjoy this film trailer and Bob Dylan cameo. I’ll catch it next time you’re in town, Joe Nick.
See y’all Saturday at the San Antonio Book Festival.
*Featured/top image: From top left to bottom right: David Liss, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jan Jarboe Russell, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Lawrence Wright. Courtesy photos.