The spoken words of authors who appeared at the recently concluded Texas Book Festival are still ringing in my ears, especially as I start reading their books. My favorite of Austin’s perennial events, the festival — held at the State Capitol — is notable as one of the few events that doesn’t involve sacrificing your hearing to ear-splitting music or risking shin splints by running on concrete. Not that the event is devoid of music – there’s a tent on the Capitol grounds where you can hear a steady stream of musicians, none of whom bother touting any literary endeavors. (It must be an unwritten city rule that wherever two guitar pickers can find an audience, a stage must be provided.) But the festival is an absolute feast for those with a literary bone or two in their bodies. It’s where we get to hear the author’s speak about their books, their inspirations, and the spirit that motivates them to sit down and put that pen to paper. On my plate at this feast of plenty, were the following authors whose insights are worth sharing:
Bob Edwards is the man with the mellifluous voice who woke me every weekday morning for about 20 years, until he was summarily fired from his Morning Edition hosting job on National Public Radio (NPR). That voice now comes out of satellite’s SiriusXM Radio, in which I’ve failed to invest yet. His book fair appearance, however, allowed me to reunite with that voice as he discussed his memoir, Voice in the Box. Bob explained to the crowd in the Senate chamber that the title refers to the big Zenith radio in his childhood living room (which he still owns) and his fascination with the box from his time as toddler, longing soon thereafter to have his voice be one in the box. He traced his career from the childhood dream to the dream job of hosting NPR’s Morning Edition for 20 years. Asked about favorite folks to interview, he identified creative people. His least favorite are politicians because they have an agenda and it doesn’t matter what question they are asked, they only want to further that agenda in their answer. Most interesting to me was his rebuke of NPR for trying to run from the “liberal” label. The result of this a misguided attempt to balance the factual truth with those who would dispute the truth. Balance is not achieved, he explained, when you counter the truth as it is known to be with the untrue. All you do is lose your integrity and credentials as serious journalists. On this riff he concluded, “Unless NPR starts broadcasting Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, the network will be labeled liberal no matter what they do!” They should give it up, he said. The audience heartily applauded in agreement.
Another public radio personality, Lynne Rossetto Kasper was just as fun in person as she is on her show, The Splendid Table, discussing her new book, How to Eat Weekends. While preparing a few of its recipes, she kept the audience engaged with countless tips about knives, ginger graters, her preference for Kikkoman soy sauce, cutting scallions and carrots diagonally to get more flavor, and real new one for me: heating up spices for salad dressings with a little oil in the microwave to make the flavor explode. She also recounted the inauspicious beginnings of her radio show, some 17 years ago. It started largely as a call-in show and judging on the number of calls, it seemed like no one was listening. Persevering, Lynne’s family and friends would call in under various pseudonyms, altering their voices and home town. She recalls when she got her first “real” caller, she was so excited that she kept the woman on the line for 10 minutes, peppering her with questions not necessarily related to the caller’s questions. For instance, “Let me ask you, caller, what’s in your refrigerator now?” Fortunately, Lynne now has plenty of callers and a growing audience of fans!
In talking about his new book, Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks raised some of the most important issues facing our lives in the 21st century. The protagonist in the book is a young man, 23 years old, who has served time for some kind of sexual crime and is now designated as a sexual predator, monitored by a GPS anklet and having his picture, name, and address plastered on the internet. He lives under a bridge in a colony of other societal pariahs (which is based on an actual colony in Miami). The title of the book is based on Banks’ observation that we are becoming increasingly digitized as our contacts with other human beings give way to another kind of contact via the internet, computer games, and on-line pornography. He is also troubled by how we, as a culture, have allowed Madison Avenue to define women as sexual objects, in ways that those of us who grew up in the women’s liberation movement could never have imagined. The advertising industry uses sexual images, including sexually suggestive images of children, to sell products. Grown women are often dressed up as little girls, while little girls are vamped up to look like grown women. Banks seemed to be asking, “Why are we surprised when the “sexually sick” lose track of the difference?” And why are they punished while the real perpetrators are rewarded? And why is it considered to punish an individual with a permanent branding after he has served his prison sentence? All good questions.
Photographer Michael O’Brien spoke about his book, Hard Ground, which I wrote about in my prior entry, and explained that this book of photographs of the homeless had its origins when the charity Mobile Loaves and Fishes asked him to take some pictures for a brochure. He went to a church service in East Austin attended by many of the homeless to photograph them after the service. O’Brien began attended these services regularly and taking even more pictures of those individuals who wanted to sit for him. Cooperation was crucial, because the big-frame camera he used with its old-fashioned black hood, required the subject to remain perfectly still for about 15 seconds. Unlike the multiple snaps photographers can capture with digital cameras these days, he only took 1 or 2 pictures of each person because the Polaroid film was expensive, each shot costing $6 or $7. As for the Tom Waits’ poetry serving as interludes between the photographs in the book, O’Brien had actually asked him to write a single poem to introduce the book. When Tom finally sent over his “poem,” O’Brien was surprised to find 23 poems. When O’Brien told him that he had not expected such largesse, Waits quipped, “I wrote one, then another one . . . put them in a room and they had babies!”
Few people knew that Molly Ivins, one of Texas’ most vocal civil libertarians, was a great cook. Ellen Sweets’ memoir of her friendship and kitchen time with Molly Ivins, Stirring it Up with Molly, reveals a side of the woman that many of us never knew. Ellen, a news reporter and feature writer, explained that shortly after moving to Texas, she attended an ACLU meeting in Dallas. The first person she saw was Molly standing outside the meeting room, and determined to meet people, Ellen extended her hand, saying “Hi, I’m Ellen Sweets. I’m new to town and don’t know a soul.” From that simple beginning, a fast friendship formed that lasted until the end of Molly’s life. She recounts that Molly was a really good cook and while she loved chili and Southern food, she would add to her repertoire and hone her cooking skills on trips to France. Food was also important to Molly because she believed in the fellowship and good conversation that sharing food with friends would generate. Ellen described Molly’s beautiful big round table that would seat 8, “or 10 if you didn’t have intimacy issues,” a table large enough to engender many great discussions. As for restaurants, Ellen told stories of Molly liking to eat at Magnolia Café because she thought the wait staff didn’t know who she was, only to learn that they secretly fought over who would wait on her. Eschewing chain restaurants, she had her own table at Austin Land and Cattle and absolutely loved Jeffrey’s where her favorite waiter, Johnny, took great care of her. At this, Ellen was surprised when the real Johnny waved at her from the audience. It was especially poignant to hear Ellen talk about Molly’s final days when she could not eat much beyond chicken soup, but it is the years of laughter Ellen remembers best and memorializes in her book. Along with stirring up many pots of gumbo!!
Thanks to all the authors who feed our souls and sustain our minds with their words and pictures. What a shame I have to wait a whole year before this next celebration of books!