A reading with Nadine Eckhardt

Nadine Eckhardt will read from her memoir Duchess of Palms on March 31 at 5:30 p.m. in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

In her funny and honest memoir, Eckhardt tells the remarkable story of a “fifties girl” who lived through the politically powerful men in her life, acclaimed political novelist Bill Brammer and, later, U.S. Congressman Bob Eckhardt.

From her beginnings as a teenage “Duchess of Palms” beauty queen, to her entrée into the political and literary circles of Washington D.C. and Austin, Eckhardt lets the reader in on the private journey of a woman who was able to come into her own as a writer, restaurateur and assistant to beloved columnist and political commentator Molly Ivins.

Nadine Eckhardt

Nadine Eckhardt

Joining Eckhardt will be her daughter Sarah Eckhardt, Travis County Commissioner and LBJ School alumna. Following Eckhardt’s reading, they will discuss the political roles and opportunities that have expanded for women since the time of LBJ when Nadine Eckhardt came of age.

For more information on the event with Nadine Eckhardt, visit the Center for Politics and Governance’s web site.

For an interview with Nadine Eckhardt, visit the Austin American-Statesman.

A Look into the Mexican-American Struggle for Equal Rights

During the economic boom of the Second World War, Mexican laborers experienced unparalleled occupational gain in the United States. However, Emilio Zamora, associate professor of history, points out that discrimination impeded their movement from low-wage, low-skill agricultural jobs to better-paying jobs in rapidly expanding industries.

In “Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas: Mexican Workers and Job Politics during World War II” (Texas A&M University Press, 2009), Zamora traces the wartime experiences of Mexican workers in America and their struggle for civil and labor rights.

Through extensive use of Spanish-language archives in Mexico and the United States, Zamora reveals that despite the rising numbers of Mexican laborers who advanced from second to middle class ranks during World War II, significant numbers were denied job opportunities due to discrimination.

Offering compelling evidence on how unjust employment practices restrained the immigrant workers’ upward mobility, Zamora reveals how race-conscious Anglo workers, including members of industrial unions, maintained racial order. He also discloses how government agencies, such as the United States Employment Service, collaborated with segregationists to maintain an uneven rate of advancement between Mexican and Anglo workers.

Despite the problem of unequal access to wartime jobs, Zamora notes that Mexicans made unprecedented improvements in their lives during this time of transition. However, he argues Anglos and African Americans benefited more from wartime opportunities and recovered faster from the Great Depression.

Zamora is author of the award-winning “The World of the Mexican Worker in Texas.” He is also editor of “Mexican Americans in Texas History; Selected Essays,” and “Beyond the Latino World War II Hero: The Social and Political Legacy of a Generation.”

For more background on Zamora’s penetrating research in Mexican-American and U.S. labor history, read his interview in the March 1 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.

A poetry triple header

Three Michener Center alumni—whose ties date back to birth and their undergraduate days— have debut poetry collections out and will read from their work at BookPeople at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 25. The poets are: Matthew and Michael Dickman, and Michael McGriff.

Twin poets Matthew and Michael Dickman beat long odds to both earn admission to the Michener Center’s graduate program in 2002, and they have gone on to curiously parallel successes.

Both landed first book deals at Copper Canyon Press. Matthew’s “All American Poem” released last September won the American Poetry Review Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry. While Michael’s “The End of the West” is due out this spring. Between them, five of their poems have been published by The New Yorker during the past nine months, an incredible track record for any writer.

The Dickmans met fellow poet Michael McGriff as undergraduates at the University of Oregon, and McGriff followed the Dickmans to the Michener Center in 2003. In his final year at Texas, McGriff received a distinguished Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and after graduation, a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford, where he currently is a Jones Lecturer.

MCGriff’s debut collection “Dismantling the Hills” won the Agnes Starrett Lynch Prize and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press last fall. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for 2009.

What's On Your Nightstand, Andrea DeLong-Amaya?

Andrea DeLong-Amaya has spent more than a decade at The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, one of a handful of botanical gardens in the United States focused on native plants. As the director of horticulture since 2004, she oversees the care and management of thousands of native wildflowers, plants and trees in the gardens, and of the 100,000 plants that nursery staff and volunteers grow annually.

She has designed and redesigned many of the center’s gardens, focusing on plants from Central Texas and expanding into the far reaches of the state. She currently directs the design of a new Children’s Garden with a sustainable footprint that will open at the center in a few years. DeLong-Amaya, a native Texan, has been a guest on KLRU-TV’s “Central Texas Gardener,” and contributes regular columns about native plant topics to e-gardens, an electronic newsletter for readers of Neal Sperry’s Gardens magazine

DeLong-Amaya’s been known to chase down word definitions in dictionaries for the fun of it and has a penchant for self-help and health books, whether they’re about the environment or green personal care products. Here are some favorites from the gardening corner of her collection:

“Design Your Garden” by Diarmuid Gavin (Dorling Kindersley, 2004)

Any good gardening book has great photos, and Gavin’s comprehensive design book has many from stunning gardens in Great Britain and elsewhere. It also provides a 10-step plan for garden design, with scores of helpful diagrams explaining things like how to draw out a garden plan, create garden features and address gardens with challenging shapes. The plant suggestions won’t likely help since most aren’t from North America.

Best of all, he inspires readers to think outside the “flower” box, with everything from images of a garden made just of topiary, to coverage of color in gardens and plants as visual walls or screens. Must-have topics are also included, such as selecting garden styles to fit your personality and site, water features and plants’ need for moisture and sunlight.

“Designing with Plants” by Piet Oudolf with Noël Kingsbury (Timber Press Inc., 2009)

As in Gavin’s book, Oudolf and Kingsbury focus on the artistic side of designing a garden, but with more emphasis on the plants themselves and on gardens with a natural style. They spell out what it takes to compose a garden with strong visual appeal, highlighting the impact of color and other elements in a less conventional, more visceral way. Beautiful images fill the book. It also covers unusual topics, such as how to consider the dominant shape of a plant and how that blends with other plants, creating a mood in a garden and breaking unnecessarily rigid design rules.

“It’s Easy Being Green” by Crissy Trask (Gibbs Smith, 2006)

This guidebook for creating an eco-minded lifestyle suggests useful small changes in many areas of your life that help make the world a better place. It’s an easy read, chock-full of tips done as bullet lists, and includes a handy debunking of myths that hold people back from making lifestyle changes. Trask organizes information into helpful categories for considering the foods you eat, how you clean, what you do at work and other topics. The beginning of each chapter includes cute sketches of the new “you” with your environmentally friendly lifestyle on display.

“A Child’s Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children” by Molly Dannenmaier (Timber Press, 2008)

Gardening can be a great way to sneak in learning experiences for children while helping them connect with nature. Dannenmaier’s book isn’t a How To, but provides a good way to consider fun garden features you might not have thought about otherwise. It’s geared toward pre-teens, but some garden features would work with older children or kid-at-heart adults. The book covers make-believe elements, nurturing features, refuges and six other elements to inspire or stimulate children. Photos illustrate the ideas, including novel suggestions such as providing unstructured play areas for digging or picking flowers, putting peepholes in fencing, creating a sundial, and providing places where children can hide, such as a giant nest of willow.

Telling the story of plants

James Mauseth, professor in the Section of Integrative Biology, has published the fourth edition of his textbook, “Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology.” Daniel Oppenheimer, a writer in the College of Natural Sciences, talked to Mauseth about the book and the interview is excerpted below. For the rest of the interview, click here, and click here to see a slideshow about cactus, Mauseth’s research interest.

Daniel Oppenheimer: What pushed you to write the textbook in the first place?

Dr. Jim Mauseth: I was teaching BIO322, the Structure, Physiology, and Reproduction of Seed Plants, and was unhappy with the text I was using. It was all terms and definitions. It wasn’t explaining why it was important to learn the material. What I realized is that there are stories to tell the students about why plants are the way they are. Why does a particular plant evolve this way, and not that way? Why does this tree have simple broad leaves but this other one has compound leaves with tiny leaflets?

I always teach my students, and I’ve tried to get this across in the textbook, that the two most important questions are: What are the alternatives? And what are the consequences?

Exploring Literary Backgrounds in Traditional Irish Storytelling

On St. Patrick’s Day, millions of Americans celebrate the life of the patron saint of Ireland by dyeing their rivers green, wearing “Kiss me, I’m Irish” buttons and drinking green beer.

But the true essence of Irish culture is the fine art of storytelling.

Alan Friedman, the Arthur J. Thaman and Wilhelmina Doré Thaman Professor of English and Comparative Literature, explores this distinctly Irish tradition through the works of two of the 20th century’s most notable Irish writers in “Party Pieces: Oral Storytelling and Social Performance in Joyce and Beckett” (Syracuse University Press, 2007).

Examining storytelling styles, such as hearthside oral narratives, music and dance, Friedman illuminates how social performances shaped the literary output of James Joyce’s fiction and Samuel Beckett’s plays. With a particular focus on Joyce’s great tome “Ulysses,” and Becket’s play “Waiting for Godot,” he reveals how traditional Irish narratives were steeped in the writers’ most prolific works.

Friedman is author of “Fictional Death and the Modernist Enterprise” and editor of “Beckett in Black and Red: The Translations for Nancy Cunard’s Negro.” He has taught at universities in England, France and Ireland, is the coordinator of the annual residency program, Actors from the London Stage, and faculty adviser to the student organization, Spirit of Shakespeare.

Do you know the history behind your favorite St. Patrick’s Day tradition? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

What's on Your Nightstand, Joanna Hitchcock?

Joanna Hitchcock is director of the University of Texas Press. She is a former president of the Association of American University Presses and a founding member of the Texas Book Festival Advisory Committee.

UT Press publishes more than 100 books a year in a variety of fields for scholars and students throughout the world, as well as books on the history, arts and culture of Texas.

“Because I am involved professionally with the publication of scholarship, most of the books I am recommending here are intended for lighter reading, suitable for air travel or literally for the nightstand,” Hitchcock said.

“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood” by Alexandra Fuller (Random House, 2001)

I learned about Alexandra Fuller’s recollections of growing up in central Africa from the scintillating talk she gave at the Texas Book Festival. This sharp, gritty, funny memoir is suffused with the sights, sounds, and smells of the African bush, where the author and her sister, the only two survivors of five siblings, were raised by a tobacco-growing father and a hard-drinking mother, along with their pack of dogs, dairy cows, “expensive” bulls, and the snakes, leopards, apes and wild pigs that shared the land with them. “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring … hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling” (The New Yorker).

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (The Dial Press, 2008)

Without giving anything away—how the author came to visit a group of people in postwar Guernsey, who they were, how the Germans had treated them, how the literary society got its name, and how the plot develops through a series of letters—I can recommend this book for its poignancy, characterization and historical accuracy. It shows British wartime humo(u)r at its most whimsical. Reminiscent of 84, Charing Cross Road and even Jane Austen, it will appeal to book-lovers, letter-writers, World War II buffs and Anglophiles, as well as to the eavesdropper in us all. It is the perfect choice for your bookclub.

“Pariah” by Thomas Zigal (The Toby Press, 1999)

I came across this mystery novel after its author and I served as fellow judges of a literary competition–I wanted to see if his own fiction was as good as his criticism of others’ work. It is. Set in Aspen, this book grabs you immediately and keeps you twisting and turning through a series of fast-paced events as the hero-sheriff tries to discover how a sad but seductive heiress, accused of a murder 20 years earlier, meets her own death one evening minutes after he has left her mansion. The author uses words sparingly, but each character is fully rounded and sharpened, and the plot keeps the reader off balance. One keeps thinking one knows where the story is going, only to find one’s expectations foiled. But the unexpected ending is psychologically satisfying.

“Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (Penguin, 2006)

This book is an adventure story with a real-life hero. It had a personal resonance for me because one of my ancestors was a pioneer climber in the Himalayan range in which Greg Mortenson climbed and worked. On his descent from an almost successful attempt on K2, Mortenson came to a remote village where he saw children scratching sums in the cold soil. “Climbing K2 suddenly felt beside the point,” he writes—and he said to the headman, “I’m going to build you a school.” Despite enormous obstacles, he did—and then built 55 more. By providing children in Pakistan and Afghanistan with a balanced education rather than leaving them to be recruited by the madrassas, Mortenson demonstrates that education, not war, is the answer to 9/11.

“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

War and Peace is on many people’s life list, but short of retirement, a life of leisure, or a spell in jail, how can an ordinary person get through it? Taking advantage of the two-week holiday break, I plunged into “the most famous and …most daunting of Russian novels,” as one of the translators puts it in his introduction. Immersing oneself in nineteenth-century Russian society, following Tolstoy’s precise descriptions of elegant soirées and disorderly battles seen through the eyes of his immense cast of characters, induces a feeling of peace that transcends the gruesome material. I find that it is possible to read this book in the course of normal life, provided one savors it slowly over a period of time.

Persian poetry exhibition attracts international coverage

rubaiyat_identityThe Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition The Persian Sensation: The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the West has recently garnered coverage in multiple Arabic and Persian news outlets.

The exhibition has been mentioned in the Tehran Times, Payvand’s Iran News, MehrNews.com, Persian Journal, Press TV and Aaram News.

The U.S. Department of State has also published information about the exhibition on its website in English, Persian and Arabic.

The Persian Sensation is on display at the Ransom Center through Aug. 2. The year 2009 marks the 150th anniversary of Edward FitzGerald’s landmark translation of the poetry of the medieval Persian astronomer Omar Khayyám. These gemlike verses about mortality, fate, and doubt became an unprecedented popular phenomenon in England and America but have since fallen into obscurity. Featuring 200 items from the Ransom Center’s extensive collections, the exhibition narrates The Rubáiyát’s history through such items as Persian manuscripts, miniature editions, and illustrated parodies.

Alumnus Offers "Color" Commentary on Writing for Kids

Chris Barton is a University of Texas alumnus and Austin-based children’s literature author who will be previewing his book The Day-Glo Brothers as part of the University of Texas Libraries’ “Books for Kids” program on March 7.

In addition to writing fiction and nonfiction for young readers, Barton has blogged at Bartography for the past four years.

The Day-Glo Brothers is being published by Charlesbridge Publishing and is set for release this summer.

Barton took some time out of his schedule to provide a peek into his influences, motivations and craft.

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As an alumnus of the University, do you have any fond memories of your time as a student you’d like to share?

Chris Barton: I graduated in 1993 with a B.A. in history, but what brought me to UT was the opportunity to work for The Daily Texan. Seriously – because of the Texan, which I discovered while visiting the campus while a sophomore in high school, UT was the only college I applied to, and I’ve never regretted it. My fondest memories are of the camaraderie I shared with other student writers, not just in the Texan basement, but also in Professor John Trimble’s English 325M expository writing class, and with the writer and fact checker I married 13 days after I graduated.

When did you discover your love for writing?

CB: As early as elementary school, I was writing stories and scripts and comic strips, a lot of times collaborating with one of my friends. All the way through middle school and high school, I’d team up with someone on parodies of this and that – Howard Cosell, superheroes, Dallas. I think my favorite was our mashup of Three’s Company and Sophocles, called Janetigone. And in high school I started writing for the student newspaper, and that really got me going down the path of writing for a living in one fashion or another.

You’ve written for a much different audience in the past. What made you take up youth literature?

CB: Well, I spent most of my 20s knowing I wanted to write something, but not really having a clue what subject interested me, or which audience, or even which medium. So, I was that much more open to inspiration, whenever and however it happened to strike. And it struck in the form of my near-two-year-old asking me over and over to tell him the story of how I had installed a smoke alarm, complete with drill sounds and alarm sounds. I still remember the morning I realized that if I could make him happy with that story, maybe there were others…

What are the differences you’ve come to realize between writing for an adult audience and writing for kids?

CB: I have a nonfiction book on the way for a teenage audience, and the differences there aren’t as stark, but definitely in the case of picture-book nonfiction like The Day-Glo Brothers, you can’t make the same assumptions about what a reader is likely to already know as you can with an adult reader. For an adult audience, in writing about daylight fluorescent colors, I could have just said, “Andy Warhol used them,” but in my book I had to provide at least a little context: “Artist Andy Warhol used them in his famous paintings.” That adds to the word count, of course, which is another big difference where picture books are concerned. It’s as much a visual medium as a textual medium, and big blocks of text don’t work so well visually. It took me a while to figure that out – my early drafts were over 6,000 words long, with lots of tangents, but the final book is much more streamlined, and closer to 2,000 words. And that’s still pretty long by picture-book standards.

How did you come up with the concept for The Day-Glo Brothers, and what about this subject did you feel would appeal to the younger audience?

CB: I had seen Bob Switzer’s obituary in The New York Times in 1997, and the story of how he and his brother had invented daylight fluorescent colors had these unlikely elements – a magic act and a terrible accident involving ketchup bottles – that made it unforgettable. It was another three years before I started writing for children, but when I did, the Switzers’ story stuck with me, and all I could think of was how cool a picture book printed with those colors would look. The day my publisher sent me the first pages printed with Day-Glo ink, I knew I’d been right.

Now that you’ve got the first book pretty much squared away, what plans do you have for the future?

CB: To keep writing. I’ve got another picture book – a completely silly one – coming from Little, Brown next year, and the year after that Dial will publish my young adult nonfiction book about impostors and others who faked their identities. In between revising those and supporting The Day-Glo Brothers, though, I’ve got several nonfiction ideas I want to pursue. I’ve done lots of my previous research at the PCL, and I suspect I’ll be spending quite a bit more time there in the months ahead.
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“Books for Kids,” will feature Chris Barton and area authors Brian Anderson, Jane Peddicord and Liz Scanlon providing readings and presentations of their work as an extension of The University of Texas’ “Explore UT.” For more information and a complete schedule, visit http://www.lib.utexas.edu/books4kids.html.

Decoding the Origins of Speech

The simple act of talking comes to us automatically. But did you know that we use 225 muscles in the chest, larynx, throat, mouth and face in each second when we speak? According to Peter MacNeilage, the extraordinary complexity of speech is an invisible miracle.

Using a Darwinian approach, MacNeilage, professor of psychology, deconstructs the miracle of human language in “The Origin of Speech: Studies in the Evolution of Language” (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Piecing together a mixture of linguistic and nonlinguistic sources such as evolution theory, psychology, animal behavior and neurobiology, MacNeilage assembles a thought-provoking overview of how our powerful communication system originated and evolved.

Challenging Noam Chomsky’s theory that speech is naturally hardwired in brain patterns, MacNeilage explains how it changed in response to evolutionary pressures for more efficient communication. His proposals include the observation that speech formed from bodily movements, such as chewing, smacking and swallowing, which paired with vocalized syllables, transcended into language.

This book is a good resource for readers interested in cognitive and evolutionary science – and to anyone with a curiosity about their language, where it came from, and how it morphed into its present state.

MacNeilage has published more than 120 papers on the topics of neurobiology, language and evolution. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral and Social Sciences.