Thursday, July 28, 2005

News: UT at Austin Recruits . . . a Bookstore

At 40 acres, the University of Texas at Austin has one of the largest urban campuses of any educational institution in the country, but there is no general bookstore within walking distance of the school. (The UT Co-op stocks only texts and nonbook items.) This was not always so: until this spring, when it closed, there was a Barnes & Noble superstore across the street from the school's main entrance, along what's called the Drag. A short time later, a branch of Half Price Books that was also on the Drag moved to a larger location farther uptown.

The absence did not go unnoticed by members of the faculty, including English professor Jim Garrison and others, who circulated an open letter to the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts Richard Lariviere and other administrators asking them to remedy the situation.

The letter, as quoted by the Austin American-Statesman, read in part: "We have now become the only major university in the country without a bookstore. . . . This development is deeply embarrassing for us as a center of intellectual excellence. It has immediate practical consequences, as well, for the UT community no longer has a place to browse for new books and current journals or magazines, to satisfy curiosity about new areas of interest, or simply to be surprised to find writings of unexpected interest. . . . The 'Drag' without a bookstore runs counter to the University's oft-repeated goal of excellence. Accordingly, I, along with others, ask the UT administration immediately to take the initiative in restoring bookstore facilities on or near the campus."

Dean Lariviere told Shelf Awareness he'd received approximately a dozen letters from faculty and confirmed that the University has had very preliminary discussions with bookstores, including Labyrinth Books, which has locations in New York City near Columbia University and New Haven, Conn., near Yale.

The University, Lariviere said, is "still open to negotiating with other stores. What we're looking for is someone who will serve this unique community of 80,000 people who are interested in something beyond a chain bookstore. The Barnes & Noble did moderately well here, but no better than they would have in an average strip mall. They basically didn't adapt their offerings to this market."

The dean emphasized that the University wants a store that will be a destination for scholars visiting the school as well as students and faculty. Acknowledging the challenges academic bookstores face from the Internet, he said he feels some nostalgia for bookstores of yore and the cross fertilizations that browsing in those stores offered. "What's missing is the open-stack shopping experience like the great bookstores of the past offered to scholars and scientist. I remember when you could go into into Paul's in Madison [Wis.] and walk up and down the philosophy section and the biology section, and maybe you saw a book you'd read a review of and just buy the book immediately. That sort of thing doesn't happen on"

Booksellers interested in opening a store at the University of Texas should contact Kevin Hegarty, the University CFO, by e-mail at or by phone at 512-471-1422.

This article originally appeared in Shelf Awareness (

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Review: Until I Find You by John Irving

This review originally appeared in People magazine.

At 826 pages, Until I Find You is Irving's longest book, and it's also the most intimate story he's ever told. It begins with an extended travelogue as 4-year-old Jack Burns makes a not-so-grand tour of European port towns with his tattoo-artist mother; the two are searching for the boy's runaway father, a Scottish organist. Together Jack and his mother, Alice, hang out with prostitutes in Amsterdam and visit church after church, hoping to pick up the trail, while Alice tattoos seemingly half of Northern Europe. They never catch sight of the elusive Scotsman, and Jack--who grows up to become a cross-dressing actor--twice returns to Europe to continue his quest.

Burns is clearly Irving's alter ego: Irving has revealed that, like his fictional character, he was abandoned by his biological father and sexually abused as a pre-adolescent by older women. And like Irving (who recently told The New York Times that his biological father suffered from bipolar disorder), Jack eventually discovers some hard truths about his dad. While this novel is overstuffed, it's at least two-thirds as creative as Irving's best books. And knowing that he's invested so much real-life drama into the story makes the bittersweet ending all the more moving.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Review: The Diezmo by Rick Bass and In the Shadow of the Sun by Alexander Parsons

BEHIND CLOSED BARS; Two historical novels capture the bleak horror of being a prisoner of war. (Lifestyle) Edward Nawotka.

This article originally appeared in The Austin American-Statesman

The pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib last year were shocking not merely because they revealed that U.S. soldiers were torturing Iraqi prisoners but because of the obvious imagination that went into the cruelty. If we are to believe that the soldiers were operating on orders from above, then those photos showed a mean genius at work somewhere in the U.S. military.

Creativity in torture is a trait that is shared by virtually all cultures. Think of Torquemada's rack or the "Chinese" water torture (actually invented in Italy in the 16th century). Santa Anna's Mexican army had its own distinct way of controlling prisoners: the Diezmo. In this ritual punishment, one tenth of a captured army is executed; an opposing force was literally decimated.

Fort Worth-born author Rick Bass has taken the name of this ritual for his second novel, "The Diezmo," a reimagination of the ill-fated Mier Expedition of 1843. The Mier was itself an offshoot of the Sommervell Expedition, in which an army of 750 irregulars marched into Northern Mexico seeking revenge for Santa Anna's defeat of the Dawson Expedition.

First the marauding Texans sacked the border town of Laredo, raping its inhabitants and pillaging what little wealth there was. Then, after two-thirds of the force turned back in shame toward San Antonio, the remainder pushed on to Mier, where they attempted to extort a ransom from the town, promising to save it from Laredo's fate. A large Mexican army came to Mier's rescue, and after a dramatic nighttime battle in which nearly 1,500 Mexican soldiers were killed, the Texans surrendered with the guarantee of being treated as prisoners of war.

Bass tells this story from the vantage point of the late 19th century, through the eyes of James Alexander, a grown man looking back at his youth. Alexander begins with his initial recruitment as a 16 year-old into the army and ends with his eventual release from the notorious Mexican prison at the Castle of Perve.

A little more than halfway through the novel's 200 pages, the captured Texans escape into the desert north of Saltillo. But forgetting to bring water, they suffer horribly in the sun and resort to drastic measures (such as drinking their own urine) to survive. It's the kind of grim material that is endlessly fascinating to adolescent males but will prompt most adults to turn away in disgust.

But that would be a mistake. Bass, who has written numerous nonfiction books about the natural world, is very good at describing how one's senses can interpret the same events differently depending on one's state of mind. In his telling, the barbarity of the Diezmo is enhanced by being conducted at dusk, which is "poor shooting light." Bass elaborates on this point, writing that killing began with "the signal taps of the drum" and then "took a lot of shooting -- volley after volley, amid much shouting." Later, when the men are out of danger, dusk is evoked with these words: "the first fireflies began to appear and the tree frogs in the reeds and groves of cottonwoods began to trill, and the bullfrogs began their nighttime drumming." That double use of drumming -- once, literal, to announce the approach of death, and once, metaphorical, to announce the approach of night -- is quite masterful.

Bass is also not stingy on historical particulars, identifying the colors of stone (green and red) used to decorate the roads and detailing how prisoners would bribe the Mexican blacksmiths to replace metal chain links with malleable lead. It's a sad and well-told tale, but one best suited to history buffs who can stomach the grim detail.

Darkness falls

Another author associated with Texas, the onetime Austinite Alexander Parsons, has also penned a novel, "In the Shadows of the Sun," that focuses on the physical and psychological torture endured by prisoners of war. But Parsons adds another dimension: the effects of war on the home front. "Shadows," the follow-up to his award-winning debut, "Leaving Disneyland," recounts the saga of the Stricklands, a World War II-era New Mexico ranching family struggling to survive after the U.S. Army requisitions its land for use as a bombing range. Parsons jumps between the home front and the story of young Jack Strickland, who was thought to have been killed in the battle for the Philippines, but was in fact captured by the Japanese and is trying to stay alive.

This makes for one bleak book. "Shadows" opens with an Army lieutenant asking for water and then being forced to dig his own grave, and never lets up as nearly all of Jack's friends and acquaintances are killed.

Meanwhile, at home, the elder Stricklands, middle-aged brothers named Ross and Bayliss, break horses, mend fences, run off looters and wait for the military to take over their land, which is eventually converted into the Trinity field, where the first atomic bombs were tested. All the while, the men neglect their marriages, grow increasingly resentful of their circumstances and fall into penury, drunkenness, murder and, eventually, suicide. It's as if they're imprisoned in their own lives. Parsons writes: "The pattern had started fifteen years before, after their grandfather had gashed his leg on a fence while breaking (a horse), opening an artery and bleeding to death." (That man's father, Jack's grandfather, dies after falling off a windmill he was fixing.) Jack lives, but only to serve as a witness to the atomic explosion over Japan.

Parsons, who has clearly done his research, has included an extensive bibliography of source material. Some of his story is drawn from history. There is a McDonald ranch house on the Trinity site and Jack's unit, the New Mexico 200th Coast Artillery, actually existed.

But while Parsons may have captured the facts, one can't help but think that J.G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy have written about similar milieus, but demonstrated more sympathy for their characters. The misery here is so relentless that one gets the feeling Parsons has thrown character after character into Kierkegaard's void (the one we are all dangling over by a thin thread) just to see if he can hear a "splat" and know there's a bottom.

Parsons does have a touch of the poet in him, which adds some beauty to the darkness. For example, a group of bound U.S. soldiers awaiting execution is described thusly: "At the well the POWs stood with the sun slanting down on them so that they appeared in partial silhouette. Their heads looked overly large and unbalanced on their thin necks, and their hands lent them a formal bearing, as if they were gathered for inspection."

There's grace in that prose, but one is entitled to some skepticism as to its effect. In both of these books, the suffering of American soldiers (or, in the case of Bass's book, Texas soldiers who would become Americans a couple of years later) turned prisoners of war is described in excruciating detail. Perhaps the authors intend to sensitize us to the suffering of our own prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Perhaps they intend to reinforce our country's heightened sense of vicimization. Perhaps they have no political intent at all.

In any case, it would seem there is no better time to read books that powerfully portray the repercussions of mistreating prisoners of war. The question is whether readers possess the will or desire to experience the creative forms of torture these authors have in store for them.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Re-Freyed: The author of 'A Million Little Pieces' keeps putting himself back together

James Frey's 'My Friend Leonard'

Despite his alcoholism, F. Scott Fitzgerald always forced himself to write sober -- which might account for his halting output toward the end of his short life. Yet one wonders what might have been had Fitzgerald sobered up.

Would he have recovered his confidence and, his famous bon mot about there being no second acts in American life notwithstanding, amazed the world with a flurry of new novels?

James Frey is an alcoholic. He's also a crack addict. He's also a bestselling writer who managed to write his first book, 2003's "A Million Little Pieces," by getting sober. A sort of "Girl, Interrupted" rewritten by Hunter S. Thompson, Frey's memoir chronicled his hellish rehab at the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, where he read the Tao, endured oral surgery without anesthetic and befriended his fellow patients -- a federal judge from New Orleans, a woman with whom he fell in love and a mobster named Leonard who became a father figure. One had the impression that the book, a true tour de force, was written in the same way Frey kicked his habit: as a sheer act of will.

What made "A Million Little Pieces" different from the numerous addiction memoirs written in recent years (Augusten Burrough's "Dry," Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story" and Koren Zailckas' "Smashed: The Story of a Drunken Girlhood" the best-known among them) was Frey's direct, declarative writing style -- "I did this, I did that. We did this, we did that" -- and his arbitrary punctuation, breathless repetition and frequent run-on sentences. He came off as someone writing himself out of a panic attack.

Here's his description of the tug of alcoholism: "I feel the urge. Drink. The instinct begins to assert itself. Destroy. My old friend the Fury starts to rise, it says kill what you feel, kill what you feel. The Fury rises it says kill kill kill . . . I know death, I have seen it and been close to it, but not this type of death. I know grief and sorrow and sadness, but I have never felt them so deeply, so deeply, so deeply . . . I can make this all go away, the Fury says kill kill kill, it is time to destroy. I am an alcoholic and a drug addict. I can't deal with my feelings. Make it go away." If a headfirst plunge into the mind of a drug addict is what you're looking for, it's difficult to imagine a better way to do so.

The quote above actually appears in "My Friend Leonard," though one can find similar passages, almost verbatim, in "A Million Little Pieces." So if you've read the first book, expect more of the same -- at least for the first quarter, as Frey struggles to forge a new life for himself.

"My Friend Leonard" picks up right where "A Million Little Pieces" left off -- Frey is serving a six-month prison sentence in Ohio, after being released from rehab. From there, he moves to Chicago, only to encounter more tragedy, which causes him to borrow $30,000 from mobster Leonard, who puts him to work as a bag man to help cover the debt.

In between trips transporting unmentionables around the Midwest, Frey battles his demons, works simple jobs, parties with Leonard in high style (fancy hotels and food, but no drugs or drink), falls in and out of love and spends most nights fighting his demons, crying. He then begins his second act: "I decided I want to write something. I have no idea what, I don't really care, I just want to try. I buy a computer. I sit down in front of it and stare at the screen. I open a word-processing document and with two fingers I type -- What are you staring at (jerk)? -- over and over and over again." What he ends up writing are screenplays, but what he really wants to write is that first book. After having his life threatened, Frey goes legit, moves to Hollywood and continues his friendship with Leonard (more fancy food, Vegas, still no drugs or drink).

Unexpectedly, the book's plot arc doesn't hinge on his avoidance of drugs and booze, but on love: Leonard loves Frey, whom he calls his son, or rather his "SON." As outlined here in Frey's flat, tough-guy prose, their relationship is close and enviable, with Leonard playing the charming and generous mentor (he encourages Frey to buy a Picasso drawing with his ill-gotten gains) and Frey the capable, but vulnerable, twentysomething. The focus on friendship rather than drugs and physical pain makes this an easier book to digest than the first. But the coda at the end of "A Million Little Pieces," which reveals a key fact of Frey's and Leonard's relationship, will deaden the emotional impact of this book's ending -- at least for those who have read the first.

Like Leonard, Frey loves Frey -- or at least the sound of his own voice, the manic energy of being alive. It's easy to mistake the constant repetition of "I, I, I, I" for mere egotism, but while this sort of stream-of-consciousness would get an "F" from any schoolteacher, it has served writers from Ernest Hemingway (in "A Farewell to Arms") to William Kotzwinkle ("Fan Man") to William Gaddis ("Carpenter's Gothic") extremely well. If you surrender to it, you might find that Frey's small opus represents a 21st century version of Whitman's "barbaric yawp" -- a reminder that he has survived and lives to sing the song of himself.

This originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

McMurtry finds Cody was a coda to the West that wasn't

Larry McMurtry's 'The Colonel and Little Missie'

Larry McMurtry is probably Texas' best-known literary celebrity, having been thrust into the limelight way back in 1971 when the movie adaptation of "The Last Picture Show" was nominated for eight Oscars (and won two). He became a permanent fixture in the firmament in 1989, when more than 125 million people watched the television adaptation of "Lonesome Dove."

So it's no surprise that he would want to tackle the topic of celebrity, as he does in his latest book, "The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America." Here he offers up a dual portrait of William Frederick Cody, proprietor and namesake of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which ran for over 30 years, from 1886-1916, and his greatest star, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

McMurtry has spent much of his career deconstructing the mythology of the American West, and there is no more abiding mythmaker than Cody. To this day Cody, with his fringed buckskin jacket, swooping mustache and rifle casually cradled behind his shoulders, remains one of the most enduring icons of the old West.

In "The Colonel and Little Missie," McMurtry draws on scholarly and historical sources to search for the truth behind the fiction that Cody portrayed on stage to the delight of millions of Americans and Europeans. McMurtry argues that Cody was "probably the most famous American of his day," adding that he was "easily more famous than any President, more famous even than Theodore Roosevelt."

He points out that Cody and his exploits -- which included claims to making the third longest run on the short-lived Pony Express, killing numerous Indian leaders (one in revenge for the murder of Custer), winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the army and slaughtering more than 4,000 Plains buffalo -- fed a need back East for a depiction of the West as a ruthless and unforgiving place full of colorful characters, adventure and death-defying acts of bravery.

Of course, all of this occurred at a time when the frontier was largely settled, the Indian nations were subdued and the railroads brought the reality of the West within the grasp of any New Yorker with the inclination to make her way across the Mississippi and see for herself.

Cody created what amounted to the first massive touring road show, incorporating Indians, horses, vaqueros and trick ropers into a series of tableaus that depicted many of the great events from his life. McMurtry determines much of it was exaggerated and a good deal of it was pure hokum.

"Somehow Cody succeeded in taking a very few elements of Western life -- Indians, buffalo, stagecoach, and his own superbly mounted self -- and creating an illusion that successfully stood for a reality that had been almost wholly different," McMurtry writes.

On the other hand, Annie Oakley, a stoic girl from Cincinnati who became a sharpshooter in order to support herself by hunting game as a teenager, really could shoot. She did, though, cheat a bit, using birdshot rather than bullets to ensure that her targets, often glass balls, shattered in a compelling fashion.

Still, for all of its fascinating factoids -- McMurtry's birdshot, as it were -- "The Colonel and Little Missie" misses the mark. For starters, the author never gets around to recreating an actual show, much less describing how it must have felt to sit in the audience and witness a phalanx of Indians in war bonnets whooping and thundering in on their spotted ponies or to watch the petite Oakley popping off pigeons in rapid succession.

This kind of narration is sorely missed; if you're going to deconstruct someone's hard-earned mythology, you should at least give the mythmaking its due.

The narrative also skips around maddeningly, key facts are often repeated as if they are new information and McMurtry, in the early chapters, will begin an argument and then trail off, writing, "this will be examined in more detail later." This digressive prose style has about as much drama as a Ph.D. thesis.

These failings may have something to do with the origins of the piece: McMurtry published an essay on this very same topic five years ago in the New York Review of Books, which was also reprinted in the anthology "Sacagawea's Nickname." "The Colonel and Little Missie" appears to be, more or less, a half-baked expansion of that essay.

It is also likely that these failings are, at least in part, the result of McMurtry's own celebrity. No one at Simon & Schuster, it seems, has the authority to do much editing on his books. As a result, some of McMurtry's efforts are markedly better than others. One particularly good one is the 2001 novel "Buffalo Girls," in which McMurtry re-imagines the life of Calamity Jane, who also performed in the Wild West Show. It's a work of fiction, but it'll get you a lot closer to the feel of Cody's theatrical world than this book will.

This originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

Friday, July 01, 2005

IDLE SPECULATION: Can one ever truly know one's cousins across the pond?

A review of Eric Idle's The Greedy Bastard Tour and J.R. Daeschner's "True Brits: A Tour of Great Britain in All Its Bog-Snorkeling, Shin-Kicking, and Cheese-Rolling Glory"

When a 29-year-old Charles Dickens arrived in the United States for the first time in 1842, he was so popular that a crowd greeted him off the boat in Boston and tore away patches of his fur coat to take as souvenirs. Dickens later complained about the adulation, writing, "I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude." The author came to America to lobby Congress for an international copyright law to prevent upstart American publishers from pirating his work He was losing money and wanted it to stop.

Dickens made a second trip in 1867, prompted by promises of huge profits to be made on a reading tour. He stayed for five months, gave 76 performances and made 19,000 (the equivalent of $2 million today).

Money is a great motivator.

British comedian Eric Idle doesn't try to hide his desire to make some cash by exploiting old material from his days in Monty Python. In late 2003, he embarked on an 80-day bus trip to perform 50 shows throughout the United States and Canada (but none in Texas). He called it "The Greedy Bastard Tour." A diary from that trip has just been published to coincide with the opening of "Spamalot," Idle's theatrical rehashing of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," which opens on Broadway at the end of the month.

Full disclosure: I'm not much of a Monty Python fan. Sure, I thought the show and movies were funny the first time I saw them back in the '80s, but the effect has since worn off. Nevertheless, I still have a dozen friends who will repeat Python lines at the drop of a top hat. I suppose I'm just over it.

Most of the original Pythons have moved on, too. John Cleese has made a name for himself as a seriocomic actor. Michael Palin has become an intrepid traveler writer and documentarian. Terry Gilliam is a respected movie director. Terry Jones can now call himself a serious medieval historian (his book "Who Murdered Chaucer?" was also recently published here). Graham Chapman died in 1989.

The man most responsible for keeping the old Python's shtick alive is Idle, who wrote many of the songs that made the Python movies such a gas, including the whistle-worthy "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," from the closing scene of "Life of Brian."

Though he promises that "this diary is a lapdance across America with a laptop," the day-to-day chronicle, most of which was previously posted to the PythOnline Web site, never rises to that level of excitement. As an artifact of the trip, it's perfectly adequate. Idle is dutiful in recounting meals, people met, the growth of a pain in his leg (he thinks it's gout, but it's actually a snapped tendon) and logistical issues with the show. Like Dickens, he complains, though not of the adoring crowds, which Idle craves, but of the need to make publicity calls to radio and television stations.

The one redeeming quality is that these dull passages are interspersed with reprints of bits from Idle's classic Python's sketches and interesting anecdotes about their origins. Still, this may not be enough for anyone other than die-hard fans. The expectation prompted by the book's subtitle -- that Idle, being a Brit, has a fresh take on America -- is never met. He's lived here off and on for more than 30 years and, having surrendered so completely to the American dream, is one of us now.

A Yank's take on Brit humor

Which raises the question: Is Idle's English eccentricity an act put on for the amusement of others, or does it have genuine origins?

American writer J.R. Daeschner believes that British oddball behavior is "a national treasure" and "a manifestation of their national identity." A transplant to London, where he works as a journalist, his book, "True Brits: A Tour of Great Britain in All Its Bog-Snorkeling, Shin-Kicking, and Cheese-Rolling Glory," documents his experiences participating in some of the most bizarre, outlandish cultural traditions -- many masquerading as sports -- that the U.K. has to offer.

Some date back hundreds of years. Shin-kicking, for example, can be traced to the "Cotswold Olympicks" of 1612, where in addition to sack races and hay bale hurling, citizens participated in a brutal game in which two people lock arms Greco-Roman wrestling style and kick at each other's legs until one topples over into a pile of manure. The modern incarnation is equally painful, as Daeschner discovers first-hand.

To, errr, kick things off, Daeschner takes part in The Sway, a slow-motion riot that resembles a giant rugby scrum, with a hundred or more men from opposing towns fighting over a short leather tube at the center. The goal is to move the tube, called The Hood, to either of two pubs on opposite sides of a field. Daescher, a 6-foot-4-inch redheaded Yank, throws himself into the fray, where he runs the risk of being crushed to death.

While his willingness to take personal risks for his reportage is impressive -- he often tries events more than once -- what's even more satisfying is Daeschner's commitment to explaining some basic elements of mainstream British culture alongside all the weirdness.

For example, during a discussion of bog snorkeling, in which people race 120 meters through freezing, murky water, he serves up a lengthy explanation of the phenomenon of the Page 3 Girl, the topless photo that often runs in most British tabloid newspapers. When describing Gurning, a form of clowning to produce the ugliest facial expression, he embeds the history of the Sellafield nuclear reactor, home to the second worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Another time, he combines a thorough explanation of Protestant anti-Catholicism and the conflict in Northern Ireland, with a description of "pope burning." (Only the book can do it justice.)

Daeschner's fine travelogue confirms that British comedic culture, whether embodied by Eddie Izzard or "The Office," is fed from wellsprings of oddball tradition. It also prompts the reader to hope that someday Eric Idle finds the time to write a proper memoir that attempts to explain whence his own offbeat sense of humor springs. That's a book Python fans -- on either side of the Atlantic -- would surely embrace.

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman