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?

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.