Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Operant conditioning for the self

Frugal MediaReinforcement is necessary after a visit to the dentist, or a person might never go again. I learned all this from B. F. Skinner (ask me, sometime, about my trained pigeon).

At Frugal Media I treated myself to a duplicate copy of a favorite guide to the birds, plus a book of maps and a Madhur Jaffrey book of Indian recipes printed in the U.K. In stock right now is a very good selection of guidebooks to Austin, a valuable resource when inspiration fails and there are visitors in the house. There’s plenty of comfortable seating for those inclined to browse before buying, and a sign on the door reported that there’s free WiFi.

Then it was on to lunch at the Frisco Shop. I lucked out, since there were still a few choice items of baked goods from the breakfast menu (biscuits and cornbread, those non-pareils). The Frisco, the slaw, the Top Chop’t, and the superlative pie were as pleasing as ever. New to the Frisco are mixed drinks, and the margarita is an excellent value that in no detail disappoints: fresh lime juice and honest ingredients in the proper proportion.

Favorites at booths and tables within sight were the special-of-the-day meatloaf, CFS, catfish, jalapeno spinach, and slices of pie. We saw familiar faces, and could overhear much juicy gossip: personal, political, and business. I love the Frisco!


  • All publicity’s good publicity, as they say. So they spelled his name wrong in a national news publication (“Suddenly There Are Long Lines to Buy Dirt,” Time, April 27). Austin’s own John Dromgoole, our Natural Gardener and proponent of square-foot gardening, is presented as a prophet of the new frugality.
  • Former Austinite Martha Rose Shulman and vegetarian cook extraordinaire keeps a blog for the NYT called Recipes for Health: Talk to the Chef and lets us all know how to keep a kitchen that prepares food that’s good for us and that tastes just as good. Somehow, I had overlooked this blog, but I won’t from now on. She is a prolific author of cookbooks. The Vegetarian Feast was published when she still lived in Austin, and Fast Vegetarian Feasts, after she had moved on. Both have a place on my shelves and both have remained in print through many editions, for good reason.

Sorted out

The Big SortI’ve just now caught up with The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, by Austinite Bill Bishop, with statistical analysis by Robert G. Cushing. This book, now nearly a year old, follows up and greatly expands upon a series of articles on cities of ideas in the local daily of a few years ago (by Bill Bishop and Mark Lisheron), contending that Americans like to live in neighborhoods composed mostly of their cultural and political counterparts and that this may be a Bad Thing. The prose is accompanied by graphs, maps, a long bibliography, and footnotes galore.

I’m not sure that most people deliberately set out to live among their mirror images, but maybe they do. Austin is a oft-cited example in this book, and my own neighborhood, election precinct, and community Listserv come under the magnifying glass at times.

How did I come to live where I do? I’m now in my second habitation on the same side of the same street, having previously resided briefly in the Austin Motel on South Congress, back when the restaurant there was a Chinese cafe. It all came down to which landlords would willingly rent to tenants with two dogs and two cats and no security deposit. That world was south of the river, and it has changed a lot since then.

“Che” is cited in the book as a dog’s name in this part of town. Not our dogs: Mack and Brownie. Our cats? Spike and Mothra.

Austin in print

  • There was South by Southwest coverage galore. Some print outfits offered accounts by multiple journalists (e.g., NYT). So far, though, I’ve happened across not much that seemed like genuine enthusiasm. An exception would be the WSJ of March 24, wherein reporter Jim Fusilli (“Where SXSW Points Talent“) says that he loved Austin’s own Band of Heathens, giving the group credit for “the best set I came across during my five nights in town.” Fustilli tweeted from Austin.
  • An outpouring of generosity organized by the local AustinMama community was highlighted in today’s NYT (“Helping out With Cash: A Delicate Art,” byline Ron Lieber). A family with a seriously ill baby and few healthcare resources has been amazed by the support from this local on-line group of caring parents who’ve been known to charge into action as benefactors IRL, as in this case.
  • An Austin-area Voting Rights Act case has attracted national attention and much has been written about it, both as news and as analysis. The best writing that I’ve seen about how this case arose, why it was taken to the Supreme Court and how, and what the issues are is to be found in today’s WSJ (“A Showdown on Voting Rights,” byline Jess Bravin). Note the little remark on how it was that Austin went from single-member districts to an at-large city council. Here’s coverage by the local daily upon the issuance of a writ of certiorari (January 10, 2009; byline Chuck Lindell). The case was originally entitled Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Mukasey and is now v. Holder (08-322). The current Court docket sets this for oral argument on April 29.
  • Austin stars in How Perfect Is That, a novel of social comedy and manners written by our own Sarah Bird. I don’t buy many books these days, and this one’s been constantly checked out from the library, so I only recently caught up with it. I know that Sarah Bird has a national following, but I always wonder what outlanders make of specific references to aspects of Albuquerque (in the case of The Flamenco Academy) or Austin (in this case). Although she sets it as occurring in April, not our current waning days of March, the author offers a wonderful appreciation of the arrival of spring foliage as we see our local trees bursting forth in blossoms and leaves. She pays special tribute to those crispy oysters with yucca root chips on the menu at Jeffrey’s. And one of her composite characters, an earnest and saintly sort, gets about via recumbent bicycle, reminding one of a certain sometimes columnist for the Wheatsville Breeze, frequent writer of letters to the Chron, and former candidate for city council (initials “AB”).
  • One series of accounts from SXSW that I’ve particularly enjoyed appears to be destined for an on-line existence only, but it would be a shame for anyone to overlook these brief takes from some fine folks reporting for The New Yorker magazine.

"Small package to follow"

That’s the IOU in my gift-giving circle, and we all like books. Sometimes we just haven’t thought of the proper one to give by the time that the Occasion has rolled around. Today is customer appreciation day at BookPeople, and I concluded all my “SPTF” business there. It’s 20% off everything except special and Internet orders, gift cards, and items from the cafe. The inventory of seasonal greeting cards was way down, but I think that all seasonal items are being sold at 50% off, not 20%. There’s a great selection of Mokeskine items. When I’d found everything on my gift list, I had a good time tracking down those special presents just for Me. I love BookPeople. Lots is open on South Congress (including Fran’s, Doc’s and way more), Sweetish Hill is closed, Whole Foods and H-E-B are open. OfficeMax on Lamar is closed, but Office Depot on South Lamar is open. Nearly all the people that we saw out and around appeared to be and sounded like visitors, although locals were to be found at many of the usual haunts, riding and running outdoors, or (judging from the neighbors) hunkered down by the TV and merely sending out foragers from time to time to return with food and drink. The quiet days are almost over, and the new year will soon begin in ernest. I think that the long and bright fireworks display last night marked a fresh beginning and hopes for a better future for all of us. And if books are what brighten your outlook, remember that the BookPeople bargain bonanza doesn’t end today until 11 o’clock this evening.

Not in agreement

The author, a travel writer by trade, lists what he calls “beloved places I’m supposed to like, but don’t.” I agree with him about New Zealand, although on different grounds. I certainly agree with him about Colorado, which he calls a midwestern state posing as a western one (or, as one review paraphrased it, “Kansas with hills”). And he didn’t even get into all the reasons why Boulder in particular isn’t great. So, why does he put Austin on his list of beloved places that, by him, aren’t? Why does he say that, if Austin weren’t surrounded by Texas, it would be Sacramento. I kind of like Sacramento, but other than the fact that it is also a state capital and sited on riverbanks, where is the resemblance between it and Austin? Just wondering. (On the other hand, I wonder whether bus-riders in Sacramento are barred from waiting near the governor’s mansion and are scheduled to be barred from waiting in front of the capitol.) The book is Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. It’s entertaining for lots of reasons. I totally agree about bed-and-breakfast outfits, but I can’t quite understand his animus against Lonely Planet books. Don’t read the book for more opinions on Austin; the author says he doesn’t like it and that’s it.

Time to write a novel in a month!

It is once again time for NaNoWriMo. Every November people join together to face the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It’s all about silencing your inner editor and just breaking down the creative walls even if you just spew random crap. Check out the details at the link above and sign up. Thee will be a midnight write-in at The Dragon’s Lair tonight for people participating so if you sign up and want to go start writing with other Austin NaNo’ers head on down.

You can have previous ideas or outlines but you can’t actually have anything written before midnight tonight so no continuing or finishing up old projects (well not officially with NaNo anyway, but no one says you can’t use November to kick yourself into gear finishing up some project).

The usual cast of characters

I borrowed Literary Austin (edited by Don Graham) expecting to dip into the interesting parts and skip the rest but I read it all. Even though there are over 450 pages, there’s plenty of white space in this sturdily bound and heavy book. Chronologically ordered, this collection devotes the expected amount of space or perhaps even more to the usual: O. Henry, The Bedichek-Dobie-Webb triumvirate, Billy Lee Brammer and company, and the TexMo people, but there are a few surprises, and these are what make this book worth reading. It’s carelessly edited (Governor “Clemens,” “Hayes” County, every possible variation on Scholz Garten, and more), and it’s generally a collection of light journalism and light-hearted gossip. I was interested to learn that, at least at one time, the Austin parks department was keeping the head of Stephen F. Austin in storage. Stephen F. Austin’s feet remained in place long after the rest of the statue depicting him disappeared, there at the little triangle favored as a lounging spot by those with no better way to pass their time, just off South Congress by the county precinct offices. I loved Robert Draper’s brief account of working for Jeff Nightbyrd of Austin Sun and powdered-urine fame. A great feature of this book is the brief annotated bibliography of works not excerpted in the compilation. Of course, it includes brief descriptions of some of the works of Shelby Hearon and Sarah Bird, but it also gathers in one place information about quite a number of the many mysteries set in Austin. This book is already at some library branches and is on order at others.

Somewhat slender, but not totally tenuous

That’s the connection between a book by a used-to-be Austinite and Austin. I recognized the author’s name, so I borrowed the book from the library. The name is Adrienne Martini, and the book is Hillbilly Gothic, subtitled “A Memoir of Madness and Motherhood.” The name was familiar from the Chron and also from Austin Mama, to which Adrienne Martini contributes an essay sort of monthly. The events recounted in the book, which is in great part a memoir of post-partum depression, take place in Knoxville. As to Austin, the author thanks her old editor, Robert Faires; the dust jacket carries a blurb by Marion Winik, another former Austinite and Chron contributor; and we learn that the author lived behind a Walgreens and that Austin is hot, hot, hot three seasons of the four. I don’t think she loved Austin, describing it in the book as “being strip-mined by Hollywood and the recording industry for all of its cool, indy cred” and saying that summer “spanned from April to October” and writing of the “oppressive sunlight.” Why did she decamp? “After five years there, I was ready to leave. Austin is a great place to live, as long as you don’t mind the constant heat and oppressive hipsters. But it was time for me to go. I’ve never been a good fake Texan and am completely unable to embrace the expensiveness that is their birthright. There’s too much sun and too much sky and too much space.” Adrienne Martini now resides in Oneonta, New York, reportedly the birthplace of Jerry Jeff Walker. She has her own blog.

Austinite Lawrence Wright Wins Pulitzer for Nonfiction

Austin author Lawrence Wright won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction with his book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright apparently also plays in a local blues band called WhoDo. He has a copy of an Austin-American Statesman article about the book from August 6th, 2006 on his web site.

Congratulations also to fellow Texan, Ornette Coleman (born in Ft. Worth), who won for his recent release, Sound Grammar.

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