Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Andrew Porter's Novel Has a Houston Problem

The San Antonio writer's novel, In Between Days, doesn't get its Houston setting quite right.
San Antonio writer Andrew Porter’s debut novel, In Between Days (Knopf), is a powerful portrait of family dysfunction, a worthy successor to his award-winning short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter. Unfortunately, Porter’s close observations of upper-middle-class unhappiness aren’t matched by a deep knowledge of his story’s Houston setting. He mentions that one character worked at the Whole Foods in Montrose three years ago, even though the store opened last year, and another character refers to Nuevo Laredo as “New Laredo,” which is simply unheard of. There’s a general fogginess about Houston life that will be apparent even to recent transplants—the main characters almost never leave the small Montrose neighborhood, which is all but impossible to conceive. It feels as if Porter visited the city, spoke at Rice, made some notes, and left it at that. He hits the obvious places a hip young writer would learn about as a visitor to Houston but not the places where a hip young Houston writer would actually hang out. So, rather than a depiction of a specific time and place, take In Between Days as a universal comment about love, loyalty, and loss. In this, it succeeds.

The Man Who Knows Too Much

Buy it at Amazon
Photograph by Adam Voorhes
Bruce Sterling has an unnervingly good track record of predicting the future. And what he sees just keeps getting darker and darker.
In another life Bruce Sterling would have made a tremendous fire-and-brimstone preacher. Since he began publishing in the seventies, the Brownsville-born author has been warning us to be careful about rushing headlong into the future. His novels presaged, among other things, wearable computers, the growing power of global capital, and terrorists using mass media to broadcast executions. The twenty-first century we’re living in looks much like the one he imagined in his twentieth-century fiction.
Sterling is best known as a godfather of cyberpunk, the science fiction subgenre that shifted readers’ attention from distant futures and far-flung galaxies to near-future dystopias dominated by, as one description put it, “high tech and low life.” Sterling (along with the better-known William Gibson) not only predicted much of what we call the Internet but actively shaped our expectations of it. Further collapsing the already small distance between his writing and ...

Book review: 'The Surf Guru' by Doug Dorst

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Book review: 'The Surf Guru' by Doug Dorst

Reviewed by Edward Nawotka for the Dallas Morning News

The Surf Guru shows off what Doug Dorst does best, which is channel an array of lifelike voices that seem to be simultaneously of and not of this world.
Much like his debut novel, 2008's Alive in Necropolis, which featured a cast of fictional and historical characters, some who were alive and most who were dead, his latest book covers a lot of ground. There are stories about rebel armies, political candidates on a downward spiral and Latin American towns with bizarre rituals of justice. Settings range from modern-day California to 19th-century France.
In the title story, a dying "Surf Guru" sits on the deck of his house, drinking Chianti out of a coffee mug and watching as surfers navigate the nearby waves. He notes that most of the surfers are donning his namesake GOO-ROO-brand surf gear, save for a few iconoclasts who opt for that of his competitors, Pacific Skin and LoweRider; he also muses on his life.
The story is broken into sections that vary in length from a single sentence - "Some say the Surf Guru controls the tides" - to several paragraphs, and the tone alternates between quirky, disengaged philosophizing (on the metaphorical meaning of hats, for example) to more urgent matters including disease, divorce and the demise of his company. The story masterfully mimics the ebb and flow, ripple and crash of the waves themselves.
Austin is the setting for "Dinaburg's Cake," about a woman who runs a high-end custom-cake business out of her home. When she loses a lavish commission for a wedding to take place at the Four Seasons Hotel, she finds herself increasingly critical of her seemingly disconnected husband and her children, one of whom has the disturbing nervous tic of pulling hair from her head. Yet after a freak accident at a birthday party involving a piñata, a baseball bat and someone's face, she realizes that her life should be appreciated for what it is, and not what she thought she wanted it to be.
Dorst, a professor of creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, is clearly a great student himself. One story, "Splitters," carries a subtitle, "H.A. Quilcock's Profiles in Botany: A Lost Manuscript Restored," and offers a fictionalized portrait of the work of one Hartford Anderton Quilcock, a troublesome 19th- and early 20th-century academic, who offers a series of quirky portraits of botanists - all heavily footnoted. It reads like a mash-up of Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace.
Another, "What Is Mine Will Know My Face," about a New Jersey florist delivery driver who discovers his best friend's girl is cheating, begins with the line, "I drove Trace to the hospital the day they tried to fix his eye," which immediately brings to mind the matter-of-fact tone of Denis Johnson's famous story "Emergency," which features a man with a hunting knife stuck in his eye.
Trace appears in another story, "Vikings," as a drifter (his girl having left him for a bench-warming New York Yankee) who finds himself marooned in a town in the Mojave Desert while on his way to Alaska. When Trace is handed an infant by a meth addict, he and his friend join a gay hustler and head with the baby to a bar, only to end up in a very bad way in a seedy hotel. This kind of intense "dirty realism" would do a younger Richard Ford proud.
None of this detracts from Dorst's originality. It merely underscores the company he keeps. He has delivered a collection that is consistently enjoyable from start to finish.
Ed Nawotka is editor of He lives in Houston.
The Surf Guru
Doug Dorst
(Riverhead, $25.95)

Book review: 'The Passage' by Justin Cronin

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It hasn't happened yet, but the end of the world begins under the 610 loop in Houston.
It starts when a River Oaks housewife in tennis whites pulls over her gleaming black Denali to give a homeless man $20. That innocent encounter ends luridly, like so many of the true-crime stories that come from the nation's fourth-largest city, with the woman floating dead in her pool and the man, named Carter, sitting on death row in Huntsville.
Fast forward to 2016, when our story begins proper, and things are familiar but different: Jenna Bush is governor, gasoline is $13 a gallon, and New Orleans, destroyed by Hurricane Vanessa, has been cordoned and redubbed the Federal Industrial District of New Orleans. It's a giant petrochemical factory surrounded by flooded, polluted flatlands. The country is still in the midst of the "War on Terr-rah" and has suffered several new attacks, including "The Mall of America Massacre," in which 300 holiday shoppers were slain by Iranian jihadists.
A pair of FBI agents, Wolgast and Doyle, have given Carter an offer he can't refuse: a pardon in exchange for his agreement to become the 12th candidate in a special weapons program being developed in a secret facility in Colorado. The program's goal is to produce a breed of vampiric super-soldiers, a new Manhattan Project, that promises to usher in an era of Pax Americana. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a refugee nun from Sierra Leone takes a 6-year-old girl named Amy to the zoo, where the animals react as if Amy is speaking to them. Wolgast and Doyle are dispatched to pick up the girl, who is another candidate for the program.
Naturally, this being a government project and all, things don't quite go as planned.
Two years later, much of the world is dead. Or undead, as the case may be. Ninety years after that, humanity is represented by a few lone survivors, who must all go on an epic journey to save the world.
That's all that should really be said. To give much more away would ruin much of what is going to be one of the singular beach-reading pleasures of the next several years. This fat, 700-page book combines some of the best elements of some of your favorite books and movies, from the Bible, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Stephen King's The Stand to 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and Children of Men.
There's even something of Lonesome Dove in it. The early settings are in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado, and it eventually settles in Oregon and California. This is a Western through and through - animal husbandry is an important element, for instance.
That its author, Justin Cronin, holds the same teaching position at Rice University in Houston that McMurtry once held isn't an accident. While he doesn't have a Pulitzer Prize, he does have a PEN/Hemingway award for his debut book of short stories, Mary and O'Neil, in 2001.
You may be thinking, "Gah! Not another vampire book." And you may have heard that Cronin was paid around $4 million for the book and two more to follow - The Passage is the first of a trilogy - and that Fox 2000 and Ridley Scott's Scott Free Productions paid an additional $1.75 million for the movie rights. Indeed, The Passage is great entertainment.
Techies will love the technical and procedural details Cronin offers about this new dystopian civilization's workings; parents will be drawn in by the various domestic dramas and the "child-in-peril storyline." What's more, it is refreshingly free of the schlocky, fetishistic sexualization of vampires that mars several other popular works in the genre. (Guilty: Anne Rice. Guilty: Stephenie Meyer.)
The Passage is the type of big, engrossing read that will have you leaving the lights on late into the night for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that light keeps vampires away.
If the book has one fault, it's that the characters, fighting for their lives in this quasi-militaristic world, tend to blend together and remain somewhat faceless before dying and being quickly replaced with others, like soldiers in a war.
As for Houston, well, when the end comes, the city gets the last laugh. The thinly veiled Joel Osteen stand- in, "Houston Mayor Barry Wooten, best-selling author and former head of Holy Splendour Bible Church, the nation's largest," declares the city "a Gateway to Heaven" and urges residents and refugees from elsewhere in the state to gather at Houston's Reliant Stadium to prepare for "our ascension to the throne of the Lord, not as monsters but as men and women of God."
Take that, Dallas!
Ed Nawotka of Houston is editor-in-chief of Publishing
The Passage
Justin Cronin
(Ballantine Books, $26)

Year in Review: Books trends that got our attention

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Looking back, 2011 will be remembered as the year when publishing was turned on its head.
Self-published authors, once the pariahs of the book business, gained credibility — outselling many established names and giving hope to would-be authors everywhere. Borders, the second-biggest bookstore chain in the country, went under, signaling a shift in priority from print books to e-books.
Making headlines during the year were:
Steve Jobs: In 2010, Steve Jobs promised to revolutionize reading with the introduction of Apple’s iPad; in 2011, concurrent with his passing, he became the subject of possibly the bestselling book of the year: Walter Isaacson’s 656-page, $35 biography Steve Jobs. Jobs knew in life — and now in death — how to wow an audience and get people to open their wallets.
Self-publishing: Prior to 2011, the road to becoming an author was arduous, requiring a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. Self-publishing was seen as the option of last resort. Now, dirt-cheap self-published books are topping bestseller lists at and elsewhere. In 2010, there were 133,036 self-published titles released, and when the numbers come in for this year, that figure is expected to double or triple. It’s said that everyone has at least one book in them, and now we can buy them.
Borders: But where? In 2001, Borders had more than 2,000 bookstores in the United States, 50 overseas, and earned more than $3 billion in annual revenue. In July this year, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company went bankrupt, shuttering hundreds of stores (including several in Dallas), putting 10,000 people out of work and leaving book lovers everywhere bereft.
Barnes & Noble: The growing popularity of e-books is credited with killing Borders (note: there was a lot of human error involved as well). Determined not to suffer the same fate, Barnes & Noble aggressively pushed e-books and put its Nook devices front-and-center in their stores. Throughout 2011, they beat archrival Amazon to market with several innovative devices, including updated touch-screen e-ink devices and color Android tablets. The company, previously seen by many as a villain blamed for the closing of many independent bookstores around the country (yes, including Dallas), became the last, best hope for those who like to browse and buy physical books in real stores.
Amazon: Ask booksellers who the biggest bully is now and they will likely tell you it is our “friends in Seattle,” as Amazon has euphemistically come to be known. The Voldemort of the book business not only controls an estimated 60 percent of e-book sales and a significant chunk of print book sales, it has now become a publisher, establishing imprints for everything from romance novels to children’s picture books and putting out more than 100 books of its own in 2011. It is even competing with the big houses in New York to pay top dollar for authors, as it did when it ponied up $800,000 to acquire a memoir by the film director Penny Marshall.
Amanda Hocking and John Locke: That generous sum falls well short of the reported $2 million paid by St. Martin’s Press to Amanda Hocking, the 27-year-old Minnesota author who became a hot commodity when her series of inexpensive, self-published novels about attractive magical trolls became a phenomenon. She joined thriller writer John Locke as the second self-published scribe to sell more than 1 million e-books on, alongside mega-bestsellers James Patterson, Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich.
Stephen King does Dallas: Speaking of mega-bestsellers, Stephen King — who helped Jeff Bezos launch the original Amazon Kindle and is now pimping for Barnes & Noble’s Nook — gave Dallas a special gift this year: 11/22/63, a 1,000-page novel in which a young man travels back in time to try to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. King delighted big crowds with appearances in Dallas and McKinney.
Time-traveling Texas debuts: Era hopping time-travel also featured in fascinating debuts written by Texans, yet set “abroad” in different eras, such as screenwriter Jenny Wingfield’s The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, a powerful family drama about 1950s Arkansas; David E. Hilton’s Kings of Colorado, a book that was equal parts Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry set in Colorado in the 1960s; and Ernest Cline’sReady Player One, which challenged readers to brush up on their 1980s pop culture while navigating a future dystopia.
Tried-and-true Texans: Several seasoned Texas fiction writers returned with new books this year, including Amanda Eyre Ward’s Close Your Eyes, Sarah Bird’s The Gap Year, Bruce Machart’s Men in the Making, Jeff Abbott’s Adrenaline, Joe R. Landsdale’s All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky, Dominic Smith’sBright and Distant Shores, Stephen Harrigan’s Remember Ben Clayton, David Liss’ The Twelfth Enchantment and David Lindsey’s mystery Pacific Heights — his first book in several years — which was mysteriously published under the pen name Paul Harper.
Books as movies: Another major Texas novelist worth noting is Rick Riordan, who continued to extend his blockbuster series of books about the children of mythical demigods with the October publication of The Son of Neptune. While we won’t be enjoying the second installment of the film adaptation of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, The Sea of Monsters, until 2013, this year did see the finale of the most popular (and profitable) book-to-film adaptation ever made, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which took in an astonishing $1.33 billion worldwide. Which, no matter how you look at it, would buy more self-published books for your Kindle than you could possibly read in a lifetime, or maybe a million lifetimes, depending on your taste.
Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of Publishing He lives in Houston.

‘Telephone Road,’ by Austin fiction writer Thomas Derr, often reads like a memoir

Reviewed by Edward Nawotka for the Dallas Morning News (September 2012)

The stories in Thomas Derr’s debut collection,Telephone Road, often read like a memoir. Not surprising, given his pedigree as a graduate of the University of Iowa writing workshop. Derr’s stories echo the tone of the program’s longtime director, the late Frank Conroy, whose book Stop-Time laid the foundation for memoirs that read like novels.
The Austin writer’s fiction — save for a few narrative flourishes — often has the ring of the truth. In “Fire Party,” Derr, who after high school served in the Navy on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, tells the story of a young man serving aboard the dry-docked Enterprise who is enlisted in a hunt for an arsonist.
The story is rich with detailed exposition of the dull duty of Navy life. But the skillful sentence building is what holds your attention, as Derr deftly counterbalances the leaden diction of the military with surprising syntactical twists.
One sentence reads: “At 2300 hours on a duty day I sat in the Ventilation Repair Division Space — a hangar deck level space in the bow of the ship, in a passage called the tunnel — reading an unabridged dictionary, writing out word lists, increasing my working vocabulary.” I bet you didn’t see that last bit coming.
While Derr exhibits great skill with words, it is also his flaw, as several of his stories center around cerebral discussions of the nature of memory, possession and nostalgia.
The opening story, “Housebreakers,” is based on a clever premise, in which a man watches with neighbors who have let strangers pay for the privilege of destroying their house across the street. But as the tale devolves into a pot-fueled philosophical rambling, it leaves little room to deal with the denouement: the sudden appearance of a corpse. .
In “Clutter,” a man drives to his ex-girlfriend’s house to help her dispose of a dead deer that she found on her lawn, only to find himself overtaken by memories of their life together. When, by the end of the story, he is “gripped by a wistful sensation, a gathering proximity to remote things,” it leaves the reader longing for some explanation.
But these faults are not entirely the writer’s; Telephone Road would have benefited from a better editor. The book was published by Colgate University Press, a company that took a hiatus from 1994 until 2008, and since its return has put out just seven books, of which Telephone Road is only the second work of fiction.
A more attentive editor — Frank Conroy, maybe? — would have fixed the otherwise fine story, “Pronto Stop,” in which a house in Houston is alternately described as “five miles” and “just blocks” away, and questioned whether 16-year-old delinquents would casually reference Melville and P.G. Wodehouse.
All told, Derr is undeniably a talented writer. In the collection’s most memorable story, “The Sleeper,” a family bonds by engaging in impromptu drag races on Houston’s Westheimer Boulevard, with the kids bouncing in the back seat. When the parents separate, the father tries to redeem himself by taking his wife for a race in his newly souped-up ride, only to find himself outclassed.
It’s a wild, unexpected tear of a story, one that shows Derr is on his way, even if he hasn’t quite reached his destination.
Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of
Telephone Road
Thomas Derr
(Colgate University Press,$18.95)

"In Between Days" by Andrew Porter
Reviewed by Edward Nawotka for the Dallas Morning News (September 2012)
It is the mid-2000s and the Hardings of Houston — a white, upper-middle-class Texas family — are sent reeling when their daughter, Chloe, returns home after being kicked out of her East Coast college trailed by a felonious scandal, detectives and an Indian-American boyfriend intent on fleeing with her across the border.
This isn’t the Hardings’ only trouble. Family patriarch Elson, a fading-star minimalist architect, is sliding into booze and boorishness after his divorce from his wife of 25 years, Cadence, who is alone and psychologically unmoored in a big house in Montrose. Meanwhile, their eldest child, Richard, a recent Rice graduate and poet, fights the urge to take himself seriously by submitting to the “anesthetizing freedom” of the gay party scene.
When Chloe suddenly disappears, each tries to rally to her aid, but they make a series of decisions that, “clouded by love,” only exacerbate the situation to the point where it remains uncertain whether they can ever fully recover.
This is Andrew Porter’s first novel and, as a portrait of a modern American nuclear family in crisis, it is a deft one. He weaves in the full tapestry of contemporary life and its complications: male menopause, desperate housewives, extended adolescence and race relations in post-9/11 America.
That Porter, author of the acclaimed collection of short stories The Theory of Light and Matter and a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, set his book in Houston is all but immaterial to the plot. It is placeholder of sorts — one could not, as James Joyce was fond of saying of Ulysses, navigate the city by its pages — and it could have easily been replaced by any large American metropolis. And this is a shame, since to put it frankly, Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, has rarely been exploited by fiction writers. True-crime writers? Yes, but not by novelists.
At one point Chloe notes, “To them,” referring to her friends at college, “Houston represented big hair and cowboy hats and conservative politics” (which sounds much more like the clichés about Dallas-Fort Worth than Houston, actually), but to her it was a “magical place.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t come across in the pages of the book.
That said, the fact that Houston serves as such a bland backdrop may be intentional. The characters take the foreground and they, Porter seems to be saying, are much like us — or at least the type of reader looking to pay good money for a mildly suspenseful novel about well-off, well-meaning, mostly white people in crisis.
Porter’s characters serve as tropes for things that have defined the middle class: work as identity, education as opportunity, marriage as an institution. Each character is challenged, in the same way that those societal foundations are being challenged. And in this way, the novel is an accurate reflection of our larger (reading) society as it stands today.
That and, well, a certain segment of Texans — who as we all know really are not so dissimilar from people everywhere else.
Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of
In Between Days
Andrew Porter
(Knopf, $24.95)

An Unforgettable War 

by Ed Nawotka (Texas Observer)
Published on: Monday, September 24, 2012
For nearly a decade publishers have been filling bookstores with tomes about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. First came those from the embedded journalists; then the officers and politicians who led the wars, whether in Washington or on the battlefield; then the survivors, snipers, SEALS and soldiers with Silver Stars. These books will be quickly forgotten. Save for a few non-fiction titles about war, the books that linger longest are those by writers who transformed the events of the day with their imaginations.
Poets in particular have proven expert at capturing the emotion and terror of war. Think of Whitman writing about the Civil War, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the trenches of World War I, Auden and Eliot on the horror of World War II. Regarding our recent wars, one thinks of Brian Turner's 2005 volume Here, Bullet, a visceral manifestation, in poetry no less, of the life of a modern soldier.
Now we have The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran and Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Texas at Austin. Powers' novel relays the story of two Virginia boys—21-year-old Pvt. Bartle and 18-year-old Pvt. Murphy—from basic training at Fort Dix to the battlegrounds of Al Tafar, Iraq, and its stateside aftermath. Murphy ("Murph") never returns after a horrifying tragedy.
In Powers' depiction of military life in and out of war, he punctuates Wordsworthian passages of poetic stream-of-consciousness about nature and human nature with Hemingwayesque observations. (A vaporized body is described as "a perfect bloody angel made of dust.")
But what does it say about war today? Well, war is a "morbid geometry," and this novel delivers a close approximation of the mental anguish and loss that war inflicts on the sensitive and the barbaric alike. The Yellow Birds reads like one man's raw version of the truth, and you feel not only for, but with Pvt. Bartle. This does not make for easy or particularly enjoyable reading, but it is full of passionate intensity. Exactly what might give this particular book about war a chance to last.
Ed Nawotka is the Editor-in-Chief of Publishing, a trade journal for the international book business. He lives in Houston.