New book by Lucas A. Powe Jr. reveals close ties between Supreme Court decisions and politics

Lucas A. (Scot) Powe Jr., a professor of law and government at The University of Texas at Austin, will be at BookPeople this Monday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. to discuss and sign his lastest book, “The Supreme Court and the American Elite, 1789-2008” (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Powe, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1970-71, is a leading historian of the Supreme Court and a First Amendment scholar.

In his new book released this month, Powe provides a revealing look at the history of the Court and the close ties between its decisions and the nation’s politics at the time. He does this by rendering fresh judgments on key decisions, showing how virtually every major Supreme Court ruling suited the wishes of the most powerful politicians of the time. The story begins with the creation of the Constitution and ends with the June 2008 decisions on the rights of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Powe has written three other books including “The Warren Court and American Politics” (Harvard) and was a principal commentator on the 2007 four-part PBS series “The Supreme Court.”

Web Exhibition Explores Work of Depression-Era Writer Sanora Babb

sanora-babbThe Harry Ransom Center has introduced the Web exhibition “Sanora Babb: Stories From the American High Plains,” which highlights the work of American novelist Sanora Babb (1907-2005). Babb drew on the natural beauty of the American High Plains and the difficult conditions of her childhood there to give voice to a people who left little written record of their own lives and who have received scant representation in history.

The exhibition highlights Babb’s accomplishments as a fiction writer and illustrates with historical photographs the plight of Depression-era Americans. Many of the photographs were taken by Babb’s sister, Dorothy.

Sanora Babb’s first novel, “Whose Names Are Unknown,” traces the lives of High Plains families uprooted from their dry land farms and forced to seek work as seasonal harvesters. Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, then broke the contract when John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” appeared, contending that buyers would not welcome two novels treating the same subject. “Whose Names Are Unknown” was eventually published by University of Oklahoma Press in 2004 to much acclaim, including a Los Angeles Times review claiming that Babb’s Dust Bowl novel rivaled Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

H.W. Brands Named Pulitzer Prize Finalist

H.W. Brands, professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, was among the 93rd annual Pulitzer Prize finalists. He was nominated in the category of biography or autobiography for his book “Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

This is the second time Brands has been nominated for the honor. Brands was also named as one of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominees, which will be announced during a ceremony on April 24, kicking off the L.A. Times Festival of Books.

The biography details FDR’s experimentation with The New Deal and his revolutionary efforts to save democracy during the Great Depression and World  War II.

Get Your Sugar and Shakespeare Fix

shakespeare_cake_1 shakespearesonnetpageshelflife

In a special Poetry on the Plaza event in honor of National Poetry Month, the Harry Ransom Center presents a marathon reading of “Shake-speares Sonnets” (1609) at noon on Wednesday, April 22. “Shakes-peares Sonnets” turns 400 this year, and to celebrate, Shakespeare scholars, poets, and others will read from “Shake-speares Sonnets” and “The Lovers Complaint.” Starting at noon, all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the poem “The Lovers Complaint” will be read on the Ransom Center plaza. Readers include Dean Young, the William S. Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry; James Loehlin, director of the Shakespeare at Winedale program; Franchelle Dorn, the Virginia L. Murchison Regents Professor in Fine Arts; and Thomas Cable, the Jane Weinert Blumberg Chair in English. Cable will recite his series of sonnets from memory. Birthday cake will be served at this free event to honor William Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23. This program will be webcast live.

Poet W.S. Merwin to read on campus

Legendary poet W.S. Merwin will read as part of the Michener Center for Writers’ literary series at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, 2009 at the Avaya Auditorium, ACES 2.302, on the corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.

In a career spanning five decades, William S. Merwin has published more than fifty books of poetry, translations and prose. Beginning with the Yale Younger Poets award in 1952 for his first collection “A Mask for Janus,” his work has received the highest accolades the literary world can bestow:  The Pulitzer Prize (in 1970 for “The Carrier of Ladders”), the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Award, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.  His recent collected poems “Migration” has received the 2005 National Book Award.

Seating at the auditorium is limited to 200 and parking is available at the San Jacinto garage, two blocks east of the auditorium.

A Historical Exploration of the Origins of Christianity

In religious tradition Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus. But how well do historical findings match up to the stories Christians have long told each other?

According to L. Michael White, the Ronald Nelson Smith Chair in Classics and Christian Origins, stories of Jesus’ resurrection originated from memories and storytelling by followers who sought to create a unified religion and tell the story of Jesus’s life.

Drawing upon historical evidence and archaeological finds, White reveals new insights into the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity in “From Jesus to Christianity: How Four Generations of Visionaries and Storytellers Created the New Testament and Christian Faith” (Harper Collins, 2004).

Examining the process of the gospels’ storytelling, White contends that each story of Jesus may reflect the influences and concerns that came from the time of the author rather than from the days of Jesus himself.

The book, which won the university’s prestigious Hamilton Book Award in 2006, provides a detailed portrait of Jesus’ world, as told by the people who lived in that world. It is filled with illustrations, photos of ancient art and artifacts, informative sidebars, charts and maps.

White is the director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. He was Featured in two award-winning PBS Frontline documentaries, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” and “Apocalypse!,” for which he also served as principal historical consultant and co-writer. He has published six books and more than thirty articles and book reviews on Christianity and has received numerous awards and honors, including two National Endowment for the Humanities research fellowships.

What's on your Nightstand, Fred Heath?

Fred Heath became Vice Provost and Director of the University of Texas Libraries in 2003.

Six years later, the Libraries have become a proving ground for numerous technology initiatives, from a digitization project with Google Books, the recent launch of its Institutional Repository and the steady transformation of spaces to meet the needs of modern connectivity to almost constant Web 2.0 interactivity trials.

Yet despite these moves away from a traditional library archetype, Heath still finds joy in the centrality of the book in teaching, learning, and research.

Read on as Heath provides a peek onto his nightstand.

Nine books crowd my nightstand, each competing for reading time, some attempting to persuade me they are light enough in argument or heft to warrant a niche in my briefcase for the next airplane round trip and overnight hotel stay. Others are content to wait in queue at bedside. More books camp out on my desk at work, or adjacent conference table. Each has commanded their own fair share of reading time, but may lack the breadth of appeal to earn the attention of readers outside the library profession. To those books a silent salute. You know who you are.

In aggregate, these nine volumes atop my nightstand permit some interesting observations about the book trade, trends in publishing and the libraries at the University of Texas. From bookshelf to the world wide web, things are changing. All of the books, save one, are available in the main campus library, Perry Castañeda; the missing volume can be found at Austin Public Library. All but one of the volumes can be purchased, used, for far less than the initial purchase price. The book that eludes purchase can be read on the world wide web for free, and most are now downloadable on the Amazon e-reader, Kindle.

Calling All Heroes: A Manual for Taking Power” (Plover Press, 1990) By Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth M. de Aguilar, Translated by Ruth M. de Aguilar

The global fascination with the American presidential election and the tumultuous economic times confronting a youthful president with a message of hope and change led me to a re-read of this hard-to-find small novel by Paco Taibo. “Calling All Heroes” is a tale of crushed idealism following the bloody suppression of student demonstrations in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, October, 1968. The story is told through the eyes of a young reporter, Nestor, himself wounded and the object of police investigation as the government tightens its noose around the students. Near death and in delirium, the reporter summons the literary heroes of his youth to the struggle. Against the odds, Sherlock Holmes, the Light Brigade, Doc Holliday and others struggle to reverse the currents of contemporary Mexican history. First published in 1982.

Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason” (Random House, Inc., 2008) By Russell Shorto

Descartes’ Bones” is an entertaining jaunt through 350 years of European intellectual history, told through the audacious assertion cogito ergo sum and the disgraced philosopher who uttered those iconic words. Shorto’s blithe treatment of the little known facts of the indignities suffered by the physical remains of the French philosopher Rene Descartes is a fascinating journey through history. Deprived of patronage and public support by the reactions to the publication in 1637 of “Discourse on Method” which in fewer than one hundred pages declared the ascendency of reason over faith, Descartes died embittered and estranged in Stockholm in 1650. A few years later, his remains were returned to his homeland. Or were they? A forensic investigation and compelling review of European history through the eyes of Descartes, the Catholic Church, rivals such as Blaise Pascal, and voices within revolutionary and Napoleonic France are compellingly recounted. A beautifully written book suitable for airplane or nightstand.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
(Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005) By Roméo Dallaire, Brent Beardsley

Documentation of human rights violations is a core focus of the University of Texas Library. This visceral, heart-rending testimony of a Canadian military man caught up in the vortex of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 explains perhaps better than any single volume why vigilance in documentation is essential. Dallaire’s book is imperfect, ghost-ridden in part. And, as many of us are, he is an imperfect man: mediocre in school, brave in battle, suicidal in war’s aftermath. Why do I admire him so? Perhaps it is because of the cowardice of an American administration still stinging from the disgrace of Blackhawk Down, whose President does not allow his U.N. envoy to acknowledge the term “genocide,” a permission that would compel the U.S. to act. Perhaps it is because he and a handful of African stalwart troops struggle in the face of an inept United Nations whose inaction condemned a people to slaughter. And perhaps it is because this brave French Canadian fought on while France unabashedly sought to shore up a Hutu government responsible for slaughter. A must read.

Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda” (International Federation of Human Rights, 1999) By Alison Des Forges and others. Human Rights Watch.

I never met Alison Des Forges. I never will; she was among the passengers who died tragically in the Buffalo commuter crash at the beginning of the year. Yet, I raise a glass to this woman, who stands at the intersection of advocacy and academics in the field of human rights.

Her book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” assigns to the waste can the Western apologia for inaction in a time of genocide – the assertion that the massacre was “just” a tribal fratricide which did not warrant American or European investment. Read this book. Alison des Forges documents clearly the reality of genocide, the complicity of the West, including the U.S., France, and the United Nations, and the collateral damage that results when a victorious insurgency exacts its own revenge.

This is a big book, not to be taken on the airplane. But you can find it in our libraries and you can read it online courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

The Rebels’ Hour” (Grove Press, 2008) By Lieve Joris, Liz Waters
Translated by Liz Waters

I have not read this book. Yet. The UT Libraries copy is in circulation, and my vendor book order has not yet arrived. But I will read it next. For this novel is about the unrest that now prevails in the Congo, home to a vast migration of Hutus following the Rwanda genocide, the failure of the Hutu government, and the successful Tutsi insurgency. “The Rebels’ Hour,” is written by Lieve Joris, another of the renowned journalists drawn to this dark chapter in man’s inhumanity. The complex character at the center of the story may well be Laurent Nkunda, the rebel Tutsi leader now under house arrest in Rwanda.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” (HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2007) By Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah’s memoir is not about the Grands Lacs area of Africa, but it could just as well be. Rather Beah paints a grisly and unforgettable story of a child soldier for whom the life of an insurgent in a ragtag uniform is the only means of survival in a chaotic Sierra Leone where war destroys his village and his family. There is a history to this conflict involving Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, including the diamond mines in the latter. But Beah paints a literary picture of carnage that just as easily involve coltan in the Congo or oil sands in Darfur. The rescue of Beah at Western hands provides compelling contrast to the Rambo moves that choreograph his and other child soldiers as they wantonly reduce village after village to flames.

To the Linksland: A Golfing Adventure” (Viking, 1992) By Michael Bamberger

This is my sports favorite book, an annual holiday read as spring beckons around the corner. Golf is perhaps the only spectator sport in which the mere mortal can participate alongside his hero, merely by hooking a bag and caddying 18 holes. Michael Bamberger took this fantasy much further, quitting his job in 1991 as a sportswriter, and journeying across the Atlantic to carry the bag of Peter Teravainen from France’s St. Raphael to the Scottish Open in Auchtertarder. Peter himself is a remarkable character whose Massachusetts origins belie his Finnish name, and whose Singaporean residence and embrace of Buddhism only add to the mystique. Teravainen succeeded in making a living on the European golf tour, earning almost 120,000 pounds for the season. Bamberger was on his bag, sometimes riding the caddy bus between tour stops to save on expenses.

Bamberger breaks with Tervavainen after the Scottish Open to achieve his own golfing nirvana with an outing on a little known six-hole course maintained by shepherds at Machrihanish. Golf writing and winter escapism at its best.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” (W.W. Norton, 2007) By Michael M. Lewis

My wife, Jean, stumbled across this sports book on a list, perhaps here – someone’s favorite about American sport. And I am glad she did. “The Blind Side” is another fine contribution to sports journalism, recording the journey of a phenomenal African-American athlete from the poverty of the Memphis tenements to starting left tackle at the University of Mississippi and the prospect of a secure future in the National Football League.

In keeping with the best of sports journalism, this book is partly about the sport itself, and the evolution of the NFL passing game that placed a premium on gigantic, nimble, left tackles who could protect slow-footed quarterbacks from the ravages of an all-out pass rush. It is also about a larger than life sports personality, a 330-pound athlete who could stuff a basketball as easily as an opposing lineman. Enter Michael Oher, now eligible for the NFL draft as a likely first-rounder, whose foster African-American family improbably engineered his acceptance at Memphis’ conservative Briarcrest Christian School, to his equally improbable adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, wealthy franchisers and graduates of the University of Mississippi. Their daughter and a beloved tutor accompanied Michael to Ole Miss, as did his high school coach. All become part of a well-written tale, sympathetically told.

The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight that Changed Basketball Forever” (Little Brown & Company, 2003) By John Feinstein

John Feinstein is another accomplished sport journalist whose best works typically take the reader back to the golf course. “Good Walk Spoiled” and “Tales from Tour School” are outstanding examples of the genre. But this book, which spent a few weeks on the New York Times bestseller list is about a winter sport—basketball. “The Punch” addresses a single split second in the annals of NBA basketball that changed the lives and fortunes of two professional athletes forever. One night in 1977, Kermit Washington of the L.A. Lakers dropped all-star forward Rudy Tomjanovich of the Houston Rockets to the court floor with a devastating blow that left him on the brink of death from brain injury.

Around this singular act of violence, Feinstein chronicles the lives of two individuals as they repair the damage to their personal and professional lives as well as a sports league as it examines the negligence that contributed to the act.

A Reading with Slam Poetry Scholar Susan Somers-Willett

QuiverSusan Somers-Willett (M.A. English, ’98; Ph.D. English, ’03) will read as part of the Michener Center for Writers’ spring series at 7:30 p.m., April 2, in the Avaya Auditorium (ACES 2.302).

Somers-Willett has earned praise not only for her poetry collections, “Roam” (2006) and “Quiver” (2009), but also as a scholar of the slam poetry phenomenon.

A veteran spoken word performer, she is the author of “The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry:Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America” (University of Michigan Press, 2009), a groundbreaking critical examination of slam and its impact on the academy.

A poetry slam is a competitive event where poets perform their work and are judged by members of the audience. Learn more about slam poetry events in Austin at