What We’re Reading Now: January 14

Michael Noll, Program Director

The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas

The recent film Knives Out has become a hit in large part because it contains something that has been lacking in most crime and detective stories lately: fun. All of the actors—along with the writer, director, and set designer—are clearly taking immense pleasure at the wonderfully ridiculous conceit of the story. If you’re looking for a literary version of such a story, check out Sherry Thomas’ Lady Sherlock Series. The fourth installment, The Art of Theft, was just released in October, and it contains all of the lightness, joy, and wit of the previous novels, with the addition of a stolen painting and a French chateau where nothing is as it seems.

Thomas takes every opportunity to use the clothes of the time period and the subterfuges of the genre to her advantage. In this passage, Mrs. Holmes (all of Doyle’s classic characters are women in this series) engages in some minor identity-shading:

In her daily life, Mrs. Watson was perfectly capable of seeing to her own toilette. But this was not daily life. She was a woman of more than half a century, roused abruptly from a heavy s lumber, her face pillow-creased, her hair askew, and she needed to look her very best since her wedding day. Which, of course, took longer than she expected, as she agonized over a choice of dresses.

“Ma’am, you look good in all of them!” said Polly Banning.

Yes, she knew that. But which one made her appear closest to her twenty-five-year-old self?

What We’re Reading Now:

Becka Oliver, Executive Director  

Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan

I can remember moderating a panel discussion at the LBJ National Historical Park featuring Stephen Harrigan during which he talked about his then current project, a comprehensive history of the state of Texas. That was in February 2015 and, truly, that project – the 925-page Big Wonderful Thing – has been worth the wait. I’m not sure which I admire more – the unbelievably exhaustive research that must have gone into this book or the brilliant and beautiful prose that brings that research and the Lone Star State to life. As Harrigan so eloquently puts it in the Prologue, “Texas has a history that is of consequence not just to itself, and not just to the nations it was once part of or the nation it briefly became. It sits at the core of the American experience, and its wars, its industries, its presidents, its catastrophes, its scientific discoveries have never stopped shaping the world.”

Michael Noll, Program Director  

The Spectators by Jennifer duBois

When you spend years writing and reading like a writer (mentally analyzing passages and figuring out how you might do something like them in your own work), you can sometimes believe that you’ve lost the sense of magic that good writing holds. You see the smoke and mirrors, the trap doors, and diversions. And so when the wondrous sense of impossibility of a great passage hits you, the impact is even stronger. You understand the mechanics of good writing, and you still get a thrill from seeing it done at a level inaccessible to you.
That’s how I feel about Jennifer duBois’ writing, especially her dialogue. For so many of us, we’re happy if we can write dialogue that doesn’t include some version of “he said, looking at her.” But duBois turns those little physical descriptions between lines of dialogue into some of the most enjoyable phrases in a book.
In this passage, Cel, a young woman working for a Jerry Springer-like reality talk show must tell a guest that the episode has been canceled because it would juxtapose uncomfortably with news of a school shooting that day:
   “Oh, hey!” Cel says, and the devil-boy looks stricken. “I almost forgot!”
   She dashes to her office and returns, triumphant, with a gift bg.
   “Here you go!” she says–in someone else’s voice, possibly someone else’s lifetime. The devil-boy looks cheered, though he really should not; there is nothing good in the bag–just a Mattie M pen and beer cozy and T-shirt, always extra large. Cel cannot imagine anyone wanting it, and after six months with the show, she can imagine a lot of things.
   “Thank you,” says the devil-boy. According to his bio, he is from suburban Connecticut.
   “Sure,” says Cel. “So, Sara will be by in a minute and—“
   “It’s horrible.”
   “I’m sorry?”
   “It’s horrible.” The devil-boy is still staring into the gift bag, and Cel wonders if he’s talking about the beer cozy–or, just possibly, addressing it–but then he looks up at her, eyes shining.
   “It’s a tragedy.”
   Not the gift bag, then.
   “It is,” says Cel.

Neena Husid, Leadership Austin Fellow 

Girl Paper Stone by Laurie Filipelli

This review begins with a pair of disclaimers. The first owns that the author of Girl Paper Stone, Laurie Filipelli, once hired me for a job I adored. Disclaimer number two should be embarrassing but it’s not. Though I’ve done my time studying, reading, writing and criticizing prose, I’m significantly unschooled in the particularities of poetry. And, I kind of like being a form and function idiot. It allows me to take in verse in the same way my uneducated art eye absorbs gallery and museum displays-objectively, viscerally, ignorantly. For me, page after page of Laurie’s book was a dance of ideas and images that moved me in a delirious sway of nostalgia, understanding and surprise that may or may not have been the writer’s intent. But who cares? The joy of experiencing word paintings guaranteed to take you both inside of and beyond yourself is sublime and necessary. The smart, clear-eyed poems of Girl Paper Stone evoke a laconic urgency that’s both prescriptive and addictive. Long after I completed this little book I kept flipping back through, revisiting drugstore bikinis, claw-bottomed slippers, continents of cupcake stickers and the innards of paper scraps. I just needed more uninterrupted, uneducated time to continue feeling a heart inside a heart  and the uncertainty that’s uncertain like that.


What We’re Reading Now:

Michael Noll, Program Director  

Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias

A couple of years ago, I was talking with the famous East Texas crime novelist Joe Lansdale about genre and the way it sticks to writers. He has always avoided being pigeonholed and told me, “I write the genre of Joe Lansdale.” The same is true for the author Gabino Iglesias, whose work is so astonishingly fresh and new that he’s coined a term for it–“barrio noir”–and everyone has said, “Yep, that’s exactly what it is.” The opening chapter of his new novel, Coyote Songs, is perfect: creepy, off-kilter tone; charged sentences, and a moment that literally made me gasp in shock.
Iglesias starts with something familiar and then veers off in unexpected directions. This scene, with a man teaching his son how to fish, sounds like it could be a setup for a Rio Bravo Old Man and the Sea:
“Así you’re gonna be ready for anything, entiendes? El pez caimán es inteligente…very smart. That’s why we have to hide the hook. Fishing is lying, and lying to a smart fish is almost impossible. We also have to see him before he sees us. He stays in the water, unmoving, like a log. Igualito que los caimánes. Sometimes you don’t see it until it’s too late. Most fish are stupid, but not this one. When you go fishing for pez caimán…you have to think of it as going to war with a man, not a fish.”
Just a hint: Iglesias uses this scene to take the reader places Hemingway never imagined.

Catherine Gregoire, Administrative Assistant 

Black Light: Stories by Kimberly King Parsons

Just as the title entails, Parsons puts her characters under a black light so the reader can see what is so often left in the dark–things that are all too real and frightening to explore. When a writer takes such risks, it’s helplessly enthralling. And there’s much to be said of her prose: harrowing, ethereal, gives you the good kind of shivers because you feel that as she’s dissecting her characters’ souls she is, in turn, dissecting your own.


What We’re Reading Now:

Becka Oliver, Executive Director  

This Is My Body by Cameron Dezen Hammon

This Is My Body is an honest and compelling memoir, an exploration of the author’s evolving faith coupled with a candid look at her marriage as she and her husband find themselves growing apart. Cameron is an accomplished musician and songwriter and it shows in her lyrical prose. I was lucky enough to meet her at last month’s Texas Book Festival and can confirm that she’s the real deal: open and thoughtful with some great insights – on faith, on feminism, on love – to share.

 


Michael Noll, Program Director  

Watershed by Mark Barr

As a first-time congressman, a young LBJ made rural electrification his top priority. He’d grown up without electricity and knew that going from electrified Austin to the dark Hill Country was like traveling to another country and another time. In his debut novel Watershed, Mark Barr plays up the drama caused by the changes that electricity brought. If your house had lights, if your kitchen had an electric stove and refrigerator–if, in other words, your entire world order was upended by a transformation nearly as drastic as moving from The Flintstones to The Jetsons–what would you do? In this passage, one of the main characters, a young mother named Claire whose husband has given her a venereal disease, begins to get a taste for what other transformations might be possible.

Her anger ran like a strong, black current. It puzzled her how easily love rolled over to become something darker, colder. And beyond the sting was the surprise at how easily it all fell away. Everything that she’d worked toward since she was a girl, finding a man to marry, starting a family, making a home, Travis had soiled with his betrayal, leaving her life split open along the seam that had joined her to him. Her sudden freedom was bewildering and a shock, but pleasing as well, though she couldn’t quite put a name to the sensation. She knew she’d have to go back to him, for the children’s sake, if not her own. But not yet. Let him stew a while more. Let him drive that car around alone for all the town to see. She knew there’d be gossip, but she was beyond caring about that now.


Samantha Babiak, Member Services Manager 

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

This memoir is a must-read for absolutely everyone. Its visceral, lyrical prose grabs you from the first sentence to the last. Jones weaves his coming (out) of age story with short vignettes that paint a vivid and honest portrait of what it is like to grow up as a gay, Black man in the South.

Jones is a master storyteller. There is so much to learn about craft in terms of narrative structure, language and the possibilities of memoir, but also about trauma, childhood, and family dynamics. I cried, laughed, gasped, and ached reading this. At once healing and heartbreaking, How We Fight For Our Lives is one of my favorite books of the year and I can guarantee, it will be one of yours too.


What We’re Reading Now:

Becka Oliver, Executive Director 

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

I was lucky enough to read Attica Locke’s debut novel, Black Water Rising, in manuscript form more than ten years ago. Scenes from that wonderful book – which was set in Houston and went on to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize, not to mention nominated for several other awards – have stayed with me to this day. (Seriously, everyone, read Black Water Rising). And now, all these years later, Heaven, My Home (September 2019, Mulholland Books) reminds me once again why we should all consider ourselves lucky to have Attica Locke writing about Texas. This time, as she did in the Edgar Award winning Bluebird, Bluebird, she takes us to small town East Texas where Texas Ranger Darren Matthews searches for a young boy who’s gone missing on Caddo Lake. Before long, he’s entangled in a web of false accusations and unreliable witnesses, set against the backdrop of a town still grappling with its past and willing to make any sacrifice for its future. I couldn’t put this one down.

Michael Noll, Program Director

Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

While reading this new poetry collection about the inhabitants of a street named after a fruit, it’s impossible not to think of Sandra Cisneros’ most famous work. But this San Antonio street is captured in a voice and tone all of Cooper’s own. The book weaves together an older narrator and his younger self in dreamlike lines.
Cooper will read from Zarzamora on October 24, 7 p.m., at Malvern Books along with Claudia Delfina Cardona and Laura Villareal. More info here.

Neena Husid, Leadership Austin Fellow

Writing to Persuade by Trish Hall

Style books exist in plenitude. But not many invite you into the frenzy of an iconic editorial department while doling out their do’s and don’t’s. Through advice, examples and personal stories-some thrilling and gossip-filled (remember the NYT’s Putin op-ed?)-Trish Hall’s, Writing to Persuade is a style book with both gravitas and grins. The former editor of the New York Times op-ed page underscores familiar writing rules while pulling some intriguing new rabbits out of her journalistic hat. “Facts aren’t magic,” Hall warns op-ed writers and no matter how many convincing sentences you craft, people will believe what they believe. Regardless of that frustration, she’s firm in her assertion that getting into fights on the page won’t win you converts. Writing to Persuade is a fun and telling read: a book authors of any genre can learn from and enjoy.

What We’re Reading Now: THE WHICH WAY TREE

The Which Way Tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Elizabeth Crook

Published in February 2018 by Little, Brown and Company

Reviewed by Amanda Moore

In the middle of the night on a small farm in rural Texas, a young girl is attacked by a panther outside of her home. Her mother runs to her aid and is tragically killed by the panther in a brutal and vicious manner. Traumatized by the events of that night, Samantha Shreve develops a deep-seated obsession for revenge and uses every opportunity to hunt and kill the wild animal.

The Which Way Tree is a fascinating and captivating tale told primarily from the perspective of Samantha’s half-brother, Benjamin Shreve. As a young boy living in the late 1800’s, he witnesses the panther attack and other questionable incidents that occur close to his home. Years later and now seventeen years old, Benjamin is asked by a local county judge to give a written account of these incidents.

Benjamin’s descriptions of his experiences and the actions of other characters are surprisingly mature and insightful. He demonstrates honesty and integrity in his caretaker role as a brother, but he also experiences the normal fears and concerns of an adolescent.  Throughout the novel, he recalls his constant state of distress as he tries to prevent his sister from engaging or provoking the animal that freely roams the countryside. Samantha’s obsession overshadows her concerns for her personal safety and that of her family. Readers will undoubtedly recall other literary tales of revenge and obsession including that of an infamous white whale and the captain who pursued it in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Through the eyes of the narrator, readers will observe the challenges and hardships of living on the Texas frontier and the unique relationship between a brother and a sister. Benjamin not only tries to protect his sister from a violent individual who crosses their path, but he also tries to care for her well-being even when he disagrees with her choices. It is a well-told story that explores the different emotions of the human experience – fear, compassion, courage and hope.

Amanda Moore is an attorney and writer living in Austin, Texas.  She won first place in the Texas Bar Journal 2015 Short Story Contest and was asked to return as a judge in the annual competition for two consecutive years. She has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2014.  Amanda is an avid reader and book aficionado.

Interested in writing reviews? Current WLT members are eligible to write reviews and can send an email to kelsey@writersleague.org.

Have a book you’d like us to review? We review books by Texas authors, as well as books that are set in or about Texas. Email kelsey@writersleague.org for instructions on sending a review copy.

What We’re Reading Now: THE MIDNIGHT MAN

The Midnight Man

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by David Eric Tomlinson

Published in January 2017 by Gallery Books

Reviewed by K.L. Romo

In his debut novel, The Midnight Man, David Eric Tomlinson weaves basketball, law enforcement, self-realization, and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building into a tapestry of Oklahoma culture and attitudes. The unexpected intersection of such diverse lives gives us a glimpse of what we can learn from each other if we keep ourselves open to possibilities.

Brothers Cecil and Ben Porter survived a long-ago tragedy that left one paralyzed from the waist down, and the other infected with guilt. Now little brother Ben is a successful real estate developer who can schmooze a meal from a starving man. He’s never admitted to anyone that his fortune is the result of some not-so-legal business deals – and Ben’s hidden an even bigger secret for most of his life: the truth about his older brother Cecil, who’s been his hero ever since he can remember and is never far from his mind.

Becca Porter is in a rut now that her children are grown and gone, and her husband, Ben, is never home. She decides to fill her days as a volunteer at a local social services center, forming a bond with a young Native American boy who’s been placed in foster care. As her love for the boy grows stronger, so does her understanding of what she must do. But will Ben be able to accept her decision?

Dean Goodnight is an investigator with the Oklahoma City Public Defender’s office, assisting with the defense of an addict who’s been accused of the torturous murder of a drug dealer when things went south. Because Dean is Choctaw, like the defendant, he hopes he’ll be able to get enough background information from the Choctaw community to save his client’s life.

Aura Jefferson is a former collegiate basketball player whose basketball-superstar brother has just been killed. Although she’s a nurse and physical therapist, she still plays in the midnight basketball league she founded years earlier to keep kids off the street. Playing basketball helps release her fury.

“It’s come undone,” is a sentiment often felt by these seemingly unconnected Oklahoma residents, their lives unraveling in ways they aren’t sure how to stop until their paths ironically become tangled in a strange synthesis of strength, forgiveness, and devotion.

With a voice and perspective befitting the Southwest, Tomlinson tells the story of very different people growing up in middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma. But their stories soon intersect and merge into a tale of accountability, alternate perspectives, forgiveness, and the need to care for one another. In the end, these diverse individuals learn that their differences of White, Black and Native American only play second fiddle to all they have in common, the individual pieces finally fitting together like a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Her historical novel, Life Before, is about two women separated by a century who discover they’ve shared a soul. Web: KLRomo.com or @klromo.

Interested in writing reviews? Current WLT members are eligible to write reviews and can send an email to kelsey@writersleague.org.

Have a book you’d like us to review? We review books by Texas authors, as well as books that are set in or about Texas. Email kelsey@writersleague.org for instructions on sending a review copy.