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.

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.

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.

What’s on Your Nightstand, Juliet Walker?

History Professor Juliet E.K. Walker knows first-hand the power of a book to shape history.

Earlier this year, the site of New Philadelphia, Ill., a town founded in 1836 by her great-great grandfather Frank McWorter, was named a National Historic Landmark, based on research she published in “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” (1983, 1995).

In the book, Walker documented the historic significance of McWorter’s life and New Philadelphia, which is the first known town platted and officially registered by an African American before the Civil War.

“The search for the reality of a usable African American historic past, as well as assessments that provide insight on the contemporary black experience often propel my book selection,” Walker says.

“As an historian, a continuous search for understanding the slave experience from the perspective of the slave drives my interest in biographies, which often provide a more incisive analysis and greater insight than general historic assessments.”

Here’s what the scholar had to say about the books currently on her nightstand:

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (W.W. Norton, 2008) by Annette Gordon-Reed

The distinguished history professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, “The Hemingses of Monticello” traces the origins of the Hemings, a slave family from 17th-century Virginia, to their sale after the death of their owner, the nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed also describes the 38-year liaison between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings, and her seven children. In part, DNA tests corroborate paternity, previously established by the historical record.

An exciting read and a comprehensive brilliantly researched book that moves the enslaved to the forefront of their lives and experiences, as opposed to being relegated as appendages of history.

The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom” (Atria, 2009) by John Baker

Baker’s expansive and informative “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation,” reviews the lives of the author’s enslaved ancestors and some 274 other African Americans who were also enslaved over time on the nation’s largest tobacco plantation. Located near Nashville, Tenn., the plantation was established by a distant relative of the first American President.

Unlike Alex Haley’s path-breaking “Roots,” based on his family’s oral history, Baker’s 30 years of research in the reconstruction of this community of slaves was based not only on oral history interviews from descendants of both the enslaved and the enslaver, but also on documents including private papers and public records. in addition to assessments from DNA tests results.

The Militant South, 1800-1861” (University of Illinois Press, 2002) by John Hope Franklin

While both Gordon-Reed and Baker’s books move us away from the general amorphous reconstruction of slave life, we must be reminded of the historical reality of the institution in John Hope Franklin’s “The Militant South,” in which he describes the extent to which the enslaved were oppressed in a section of the United States which he described as a “virtual armed camp.”

With American army bases located in the South given constitutional sanction to put down slave rebellions, in addition to state militias, county patrols and municipal police, as well as armed white citizens who could suppress slave intransigence with impunity, “The Militant South” underscores the extent to which there were not too many people of African descent who did not offer challenges to their enslavement.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching” (Amistad, 2008) by Paula Giddings

The violence of African American oppression did not end with the Civil War as African American Professor Giddings reminds us in her highly acclaimed biography “Ida, a Sword Among Lions.”

Ida B. Wells is an iconic historic figure, whose life weaves in and out of black activism at the turn of the 20th century. One of America’s first woman investigative journalists, Giddings’ brilliant assessment provides another dimension of the diversity of historic responses of African American women in their search for African American freedom and equality.

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday, 2009) by Gwen Ifill

By the turn of the 21st century, African American women in journalism had moved into the media mainstream where their assessments now include broad issues in American life, including the recently published “The Breakthrough” by Gwen Ifill, a nationally known newspaper and broadcast journalist. In the book, Ifill’s focus is on a new generation of black political leaders.

While only a 19-page chapter focuses on President Barack Obama, 179 of the book’s 266 pages include information on the new president, as he exemplified various aspects of the new generation of post-Civil Rights era African-American politicians. Based primarily on interviews, the book’s contribution is its synthesis of this new generation and the strategies developed as they skillfully negotiate the nation’s new political arena.

Still, waiting to be read are “A Mercy” (2008), by Toni Morrison, a novel set in the 17th century on the experience of women of various races and class on a Maryland plantation, as well as James Patterson’s novel “Cross County” (2008), where the protagonist is a black psychologist and detective.

Walker is the founder and director of the Center for Black Business History at the university. Her other books include “The History of Black Business in America” and “Encyclopedia of African American Business History.” She currently is writing a book about Oprah Winfrey, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press.

What's on Your Nightstand, Juliet Walker?

History Professor Juliet E.K. Walker knows first-hand the power of a book to shape history.

Earlier this year, the site of New Philadelphia, Ill., a town founded in 1836 by her great-great grandfather Frank McWorter, was named a National Historic Landmark, based on research she published in “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier” (1983, 1995).

In the book, Walker documented the historic significance of McWorter’s life and New Philadelphia, which is the first known town platted and officially registered by an African American before the Civil War.

“The search for the reality of a usable African American historic past, as well as assessments that provide insight on the contemporary black experience often propel my book selection,” Walker says.

“As an historian, a continuous search for understanding the slave experience from the perspective of the slave drives my interest in biographies, which often provide a more incisive analysis and greater insight than general historic assessments.”

Here’s what the scholar had to say about the books currently on her nightstand:

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family” (W.W. Norton, 2008) by Annette Gordon-Reed

The distinguished history professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s book, “The Hemingses of Monticello” traces the origins of the Hemings, a slave family from 17th-century Virginia, to their sale after the death of their owner, the nation’s third president Thomas Jefferson. Gordon-Reed also describes the 38-year liaison between Jefferson and the slave Sally Hemings, and her seven children. In part, DNA tests corroborate paternity, previously established by the historical record.

An exciting read and a comprehensive brilliantly researched book that moves the enslaved to the forefront of their lives and experiences, as opposed to being relegated as appendages of history.

The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom” (Atria, 2009) by John Baker

Baker’s expansive and informative “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation,” reviews the lives of the author’s enslaved ancestors and some 274 other African Americans who were also enslaved over time on the nation’s largest tobacco plantation. Located near Nashville, Tenn., the plantation was established by a distant relative of the first American President.

Unlike Alex Haley’s path-breaking “Roots,” based on his family’s oral history, Baker’s 30 years of research in the reconstruction of this community of slaves was based not only on oral history interviews from descendants of both the enslaved and the enslaver, but also on documents including private papers and public records. in addition to assessments from DNA tests results.

The Militant South, 1800-1861” (University of Illinois Press, 2002) by John Hope Franklin

While both Gordon-Reed and Baker’s books move us away from the general amorphous reconstruction of slave life, we must be reminded of the historical reality of the institution in John Hope Franklin’s “The Militant South,” in which he describes the extent to which the enslaved were oppressed in a section of the United States which he described as a “virtual armed camp.”

With American army bases located in the South given constitutional sanction to put down slave rebellions, in addition to state militias, county patrols and municipal police, as well as armed white citizens who could suppress slave intransigence with impunity, “The Militant South” underscores the extent to which there were not too many people of African descent who did not offer challenges to their enslavement.

Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching” (Amistad, 2008) by Paula Giddings

The violence of African American oppression did not end with the Civil War as African American Professor Giddings reminds us in her highly acclaimed biography “Ida, a Sword Among Lions.”

Ida B. Wells is an iconic historic figure, whose life weaves in and out of black activism at the turn of the 20th century. One of America’s first woman investigative journalists, Giddings’ brilliant assessment provides another dimension of the diversity of historic responses of African American women in their search for African American freedom and equality.

The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” (Doubleday, 2009) by Gwen Ifill

By the turn of the 21st century, African American women in journalism had moved into the media mainstream where their assessments now include broad issues in American life, including the recently published “The Breakthrough” by Gwen Ifill, a nationally known newspaper and broadcast journalist. In the book, Ifill’s focus is on a new generation of black political leaders.

While only a 19-page chapter focuses on President Barack Obama, 179 of the book’s 266 pages include information on the new president, as he exemplified various aspects of the new generation of post-Civil Rights era African-American politicians. Based primarily on interviews, the book’s contribution is its synthesis of this new generation and the strategies developed as they skillfully negotiate the nation’s new political arena.

Still, waiting to be read are “A Mercy” (2008), by Toni Morrison, a novel set in the 17th century on the experience of women of various races and class on a Maryland plantation, as well as James Patterson’s novel “Cross County” (2008), where the protagonist is a black psychologist and detective.

Walker is the founder and director of the Center for Black Business History at the university. Her other books include “The History of Black Business in America” and “Encyclopedia of African American Business History.” She currently is writing a book about Oprah Winfrey, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press.

What's on Your Nightstand, Jim Magnuson?

Since 1993, James Magnuson has directed UT’s Michener Center for Writers, an interdisciplinary MFA program now ranked among the top five creative writing programs in the country.

A playwright and novelist (“Money Mountain,” “Ghost Dancing,” “Windfall,” “Hounds of Winter”), Magnuson also has written for ABC and NBC series television.

Reading could become an occupational hazard for someone faced with plowing through 700-plus manuscripts for MFA admissions each spring, not to mention staying current on dozens of authors who visit the center annually, and the work-in-progress of his own graduate students.

Check out a few selections from Magnuson’s crowded nightstand, and what he had to say about them, after the jump.

“On Chesil Beach” (Nan Talese, 2007) by Ian McEwan

This is a writer at the top of his game. The last four or five books have been magnificent. The fumblings and misunderstandings of a repressed young couple on their wedding night could have become material for farce. In “Chesil Beach,” McEwan turns it into something both tragic and resonant.

“True History of the Kelly Gang” (Vintage, 2001) by Peter Carey, two-time Booker Award winner

Not just one of the greatest novels written without a comma, but one of the greatest novels of our time. Someone has said of Ned Kelly that he was not so much Australia’s Jesse James as he was its Thomas Jefferson. The book purports to be Kelly’s autobiography and the voice that Carey creates for his illiterate narrator is a wonder. The book reads like the wind. Charles Dickens, say hello to Cormac McCarthy.

“How Fiction Works” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) by James Wood

A small gem of a book by a leading critic on the art of fiction. I read it in a night. A couple of things I walked away with that I will now use as my own opinions: first person isn’t as different from third as you think and metaphor is always mixed; that’s the point. Wood seems to have read everything and I loved the quotes he takes from other writers.

“The Savage Detectives” (Picador, 2008) by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer

Who could have guessed that a slangy novel about young, pretentious avant-garde poets in Mexico City could be so moving? But Bolano captures the world of youthful artistic ambition beautifully. These teen-age poets tear into one another’s work, hit on girls, steal books, have grand thoughts, but the author makes us care for them. The book keeps opening up, turning eventually into the search for a lost surrealist poet in the Sonoran Desert. This book is able to wed the detective novel with post-modern fracturing of identities in a remarkable, mind-bending way.

What’s on Your Nightstand, Jim Magnuson?

Since 1993, James Magnuson has directed UT’s Michener Center for Writers, an interdisciplinary MFA program now ranked among the top five creative writing programs in the country.

A playwright and novelist (“Money Mountain,” “Ghost Dancing,” “Windfall,” “Hounds of Winter”), Magnuson also has written for ABC and NBC series television.

Reading could become an occupational hazard for someone faced with plowing through 700-plus manuscripts for MFA admissions each spring, not to mention staying current on dozens of authors who visit the center annually, and the work-in-progress of his own graduate students.

Check out a few selections from Magnuson’s crowded nightstand, and what he had to say about them, after the jump.

“On Chesil Beach” (Nan Talese, 2007) by Ian McEwan

This is a writer at the top of his game. The last four or five books have been magnificent. The fumblings and misunderstandings of a repressed young couple on their wedding night could have become material for farce. In “Chesil Beach,” McEwan turns it into something both tragic and resonant.

“True History of the Kelly Gang” (Vintage, 2001) by Peter Carey, two-time Booker Award winner

Not just one of the greatest novels written without a comma, but one of the greatest novels of our time. Someone has said of Ned Kelly that he was not so much Australia’s Jesse James as he was its Thomas Jefferson. The book purports to be Kelly’s autobiography and the voice that Carey creates for his illiterate narrator is a wonder. The book reads like the wind. Charles Dickens, say hello to Cormac McCarthy.

“How Fiction Works” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) by James Wood

A small gem of a book by a leading critic on the art of fiction. I read it in a night. A couple of things I walked away with that I will now use as my own opinions: first person isn’t as different from third as you think and metaphor is always mixed; that’s the point. Wood seems to have read everything and I loved the quotes he takes from other writers.

“The Savage Detectives” (Picador, 2008) by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer

Who could have guessed that a slangy novel about young, pretentious avant-garde poets in Mexico City could be so moving? But Bolano captures the world of youthful artistic ambition beautifully. These teen-age poets tear into one another’s work, hit on girls, steal books, have grand thoughts, but the author makes us care for them. The book keeps opening up, turning eventually into the search for a lost surrealist poet in the Sonoran Desert. This book is able to wed the detective novel with post-modern fracturing of identities in a remarkable, mind-bending way.

What's on Your Nightstand, Tom Gilligan?

For Thomas Gilligan, recently appointed dean of the McCombs School of Business, reading is like breathing.

“I’m not sure I can think of myself as existing apart from reading—it’s an integral part of life,” Gilligan says. “Reading was a big salvation for me when I went into military service right out of high school. It’s the way I educated myself before I ever went to college.”

Prior to joining academia, Gilligan served as a Russian linguist in the United States Air Force and was a staff economist for President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Keep reading to find out what’s on his nightstand this winter. Continue reading

What’s on Your Nightstand, Tom Zigal?

To kick off the new year, ShelfLife asked Tom Zigal, mystery author and chief speechwriter for UT President William Powers, to share a few reading recommendations.

Zigal is the author of the critically acclaimed Kurt Muller detective series set in Aspen, Colorado. His latest book “The White League” (Toby Press, 2005), explores a coffee magnate’s descent into the political underworld of New Orleans.

Zigal earned a bachelor’s degree in English from The University of Texas at Austin, and a master’s degree in creative writing from Stanford University.

Keep reading to find out what books have recently spent some time on his nightstand.

“The Film Club” (Twelve Books, 2008) by David Gilmour

This is a delightful memoir by a father who allows his sweet but unhappy son to drop out of high school if he agrees to watch three movies a week (of his father’s choosing) and discuss them.

My son is in college now, but there were times when I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to do something alternative to make his high school education more meaningful and rich. We watched movies, too, read books, and went on a trip to Cuba, just like Gilmour and his son.

As his son struggles with adolescence, the middle-aged Gilmour loses his job and also struggles with his own career in broadcasting and film criticism. Movies keep them talking to each other in hard times. This book is one of the nicest surprises of 2008. I liked it so much I’m going to write a fan letter to the author.

“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” (Riverhead, 2003) by ZZ Packer

When ZZ Packer was teaching at the university last fall, I met her at Julio’s, her favorite café, right before the presidential election and found her to be incredibly charming, funny, and fluent in all things political. So I bought her debut collection of short stories, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” and was delighted by her vivid language and the illuminating sensibility she brings to the African American experience in post-civil rights America.

Packer is in her mid 30s and grew up in a vastly different world than her literary predecessors, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. She is concerned with racism and sexism, of course, but as they are manifested in a more evolved society in which black women attend Yale (the title story), teach in inner city schools, and struggle to live penniless in another country; and young men are sometimes not as “politically committed” as the older civil rights generation expects them to be. Everyone who voted for Barack Obama—and everyone who didn’t—should read these engaging stories.

“Out Stealing Horses” (Picador, 2007) by Per Petterson

This novel, translated from Norwegian and the winner of numerous accolades, came highly recommended by two of my writer friends who rarely steer me astray. I was not as dazzled as they were.

“Out Stealing Horses” is the story of a man in his late 60s who returns to live in an isolated cabin in the deep woods near the Swedish border in order to spend his final years pondering his boyhood there. He ponders a lot. And walks his dog in the snow. Makes breakfast, chops wood. Ponders more, usually with a dose of self-pity and longing to understand his father.

To be fair, Petterson’s technique of weaving three different time periods (1945, 1948, and the present) is quite effective. I just wished I cared more about this solitary man and his gloomy ruminations. By the end of the book I wished I knew exactly what had happened to his father and the married World War II resistance woman who loved him. In all the Nordic darkness and wintry claustrophobia, a ray of clear narrative light would have helped.

“City of Refuge” (HarperCollins, 2008) by Tom Piazza

There have been numerous excellent nonfiction books and survival memoirs about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, but few novels (James Lee Burke’s “The Tin Roof Blowdown” comes to mind), perhaps because the unbelievable incidents that actually took place do not require fanciful acts of the imagination to explain them.

In “City of Refuge,” Piazza does an excellent job of capturing the sights and sounds of the hurricane winds and massive flooding, especially as it destroyed the Lower 9th Ward. He follows two families through their travails and subsequent relocations to Houston and Chicago.

I found the Williams family (a black family who moved to Houston), far more compelling and sympathetic than the Donadlsons (a white couple who moved to Chicago), as they bicker about whether to return and raise their children in New Orleans. The Donaldsons’ struggle comes from a place of comfort and privilege, with fallback options, whereas the dispersed Williams family members struggle to find each other and stay together, make a living, and keep the faith in a difficult new environment. Kudos to Piazza for his thoughtful depiction of one of the greatest tragedies of our time.

What’s on Your Nightstand, Tom Staley?

Thomas F. Staley leads the renowned Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also is a professor of English and holds the Harry Huntt Ransom Chair in Liberal Arts.

A scholar of modern literature, Staley has authored or edited 13 books on James Joyce, Italo Svevo, and several other modern British novelists.

ShelfLife recently caught up with the avid bibliophile to pick his brain for winter reading recommendations. Staley reads fiction widely as director of the Ransom Center, and his other favored genres include history and biography.

So, what’s on his nightstand this December? Keep reading to find out.

“Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) by Donald Hall, U.S. poet laureate.

“Hall is a great poet and I wanted to learn more about him, what shaped and formed him, his reading and his thinking—and I haven’t been disappointed,” Staley says. “The other good thing is it’s fairly short. So many books coming out these days are tomes.”

“A Most Wanted Man” (Scribner, 2008), the latest thriller by John le Carré.

The novelist is perhaps most famous for “The Constant Gardner” (Scribner, 2001), which was made into a feature film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. “I’ve read nearly all of his books, and there are some good ones,” Staley says. “I just love his writing.”

“The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine” (Bloomsbury USA, 2005) by Paul Collins, which Publishers Weekly proclaimed “quixotic, mischievous and often hilarious.”

“I’ve always wanted to learn more about Paine and the Federalist papers,” Staley says. Paine is best known for the pamphlet “Common Sense,” which helped ignite the American Revolution.

Current issues of The Week and The New Yorker.

“The Week is a magazine I read religiously and it’s the best in the country,” Staley asserts. “It’s a digest of the whole week—politics, culture, national and international news. They also pick an author and ask him or her ‘what are your five favorite books?’ and I love reading that. And of course The New Yorker is essential.”

Stay tuned for future “What’s On Your Nightstand?” entries, a new monthly feature at ShelfLife@Texas.