Hogg Foundation Staff Member to Read and Sign ‘Exit Right’ at BookPeople

Daniel Oppenheimer web squareDaniel Oppenheimer, director of strategic communications at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, will read and sign his new book Exit Right on Friday, Feb. 12, 7 p.m. at BookPeople.  A new voice in political history, Oppenheimer tells the stories of six major political figures whose journeys away from the left reshaped the contours of American politics in the 20th century.

“[Exit Right] is flawed in the particular way that only great books can be. It fails to fully answer the impossibly ambitious questions it lays out, but its insights are so absorbing that it doesn’t matter [and] the prose is so perfect. … This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more. … Oppenheimer began with a book about the origins of political beliefs and ended with one about the literary force of political misgivings. They’re both worth reading.”
—The Washington Post

“Call it natural evolution or ideological midlife crisis, but the figures profiled here … all turned away from the political left, either incrementally or in revelatory bursts. … Brilliant yet fallible, these apostates deserve our attention, Oppenheimer believes. Right or wrong, they ‘reckoned with themselves at the most terrifyingly fundamental level.’”
—The New York Times Book Review

“[A] confident debut. … [Oppenheimer] excels in portraying the personal torments and costs to his subjects in their transitional struggles…. The interplay between large historical movements and personal anguish is well-balanced and skillfully handled throughout. Whether his subjects are viewed as champions or apostates, Oppenheimer’s insightful narrative should inspire some soul-searching among political believers of every stripe.”
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

More about the Author: Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine and Salon.com. He has an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

Save the Date! English Alumna to Read and Sign ‘Out of Darkness’ at BookPeople Jan. 8

image of bookYA Novelist Ashley Hope Pérez will stop by BookPeople to read and sign her new book Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Books, 2015) on Friday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m.

In Out of Darkness. Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people. Read her Q&A for more about the book.

“[This] layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama… A tragedy, real and racial, swallows us whole, and lingers.” – The New York Times Book Review

“The work resonates with fear, hope, love, and the importance of memory…. Pérez …gives voice to many long-omitted facets of U.S. history.” – starred, School Library Journal

image of authorIn addition to Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of the YA novels The Knife and the Butterfly, and What Can’t Wait. She grew up in Texas and taught high school in Houston before pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She is now a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University and spends most of her time reading, writing and teaching on topics from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their son, Liam Miguel.

Before the BookPeople event, she be at the SCBWI Austin lunch with a fellow YA author Cynthia Leitich-Smith on Friday, Jan. 8, 12 p.m. (SCBWI membership required to register). She will also be at a writing workshop at The Writing Barn from 4-6 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 10. In Houston, she’ll be signing at Brazos Books on Saturday, Jan. 9, 7 p.m.

Visit these Facebook events to join in on the online conversation.
Austin-BookPeople:  https://www.facebook.com/events/852434314876257/

Houston-Brazos Books: https://www.facebook.com/events/1649418651976776/


Save the Date! “Invisible Austin” Launch Party and Panel Discussion is this Friday at BookPeople

image of bookYou’re invited to a book launch of Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City this Friday, Sept. 4, 7 p.m. at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.

In Invisible in Austin, the award-winning UT Austin sociologist Javier Auyero and a team of graduate students explore the lives of those working at the bottom of the social order: house cleaners, office-machine repairers, cab drivers, restaurant cooks and dishwashers, exotic dancers, musicians, and roofers, among others.

Recounting their subjects’ life stories with empathy and sociological insight, the authors show us how these lives are driven by a complex mix of individual and social forces. These poignant stories compel us to see how poor people who provide indispensable services for all city residents struggle daily with substandard housing, inadequate public services and schools, and environmental risks. Timely and essential reading, Invisible in Austin makes visible the growing gap between rich and poor that is reconfiguring the cityscape of one of America’s most dynamic places, as low-wage workers are forced to the social and symbolic margins.

Want to know more about the research that went into this sociological portrait of Austin’s rapidly gentrifying landscape? Check out this Q&A with three sociology graduate students who co-authored the book. For more about the book, visit this website: www.othersidesofaustin.com

American Studies Professor Reads and Signs “A Mess of Greens” at Special BookPeople Event

1839856Foodies, scholars and bibliophiles will come together at a special BookPeople event featuring a reading and signing by Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies and author of “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011) at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20.

Special guests will include Carol Ann Sayle, of Boggy Creek Farm, and Stephanie McClenny, of Confituras. Enjoy special tastings inspired by the book along with Saint Arnold Brewing Company beverages.

About the book:
Combining the study of food culture with gender studies and using perspectives from historical, literary, environmental and American studies, Engelhardt examines what Southern women’s choices about food tell us about race, class, gender and social power.

Shaken by the legacies of Reconstruction and the turmoil of the Jim Crow era, different races and classes came together in the kitchen, often as servants and mistresses but also as people with shared tastes and traditions. Generally focused on elite whites or poor blacks, Southern foodways are often portrayed as stable and unchanging—even as an untroubled source of nostalgia.

“A Mess of Greens” offers a different perspective, taking into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women’s increased role in the work force, all of which caused massive economic and social changes.

Engelhardt reveals a broad middle of Southerners that included poor whites, farm families, and middle and working-class African Americans, for whom the stakes of what counted as southern food were very high.

About the author:
Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her other books include “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.

BookPeople is located at 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Visit the BookPeople website for more about the event.

Fore more about “A Mess of Greens,” read Engelhardt’s Q&A.

High Praise From Down Under: UT Alum Nominated for Top Australian Literary Prizes

DomThe accent is still there, made faint by long years away from Australia.

Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.  Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.

After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel,The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.

“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations.  It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.

In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place.  Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies.  The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called  “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France:  impressive on all three counts.”  The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

BrightShoresDomSmithIn his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives.  It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.

“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award.  It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.

Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.

What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?

It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.”  Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum.  The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.

Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?

It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel.  So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor.  Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind.  My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.

You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?

The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.

You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far.  As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?

I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent.  I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp.  I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life.  I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.

Luminous Prose


Alex Shakar

“It’s exciting to meet an author who’s unafraid of heights.”

So writes one New York Times reviewer of Alex Shakar, a 1994 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Department of English graduate program in creative writing and former Michener Fellow.  Shakar, whose newest book “Luminarium” was released from Soho Press last month to critical praise, will be in Austin this week to read and sign at Austin’s BookPeople.  Friends and fans will get a chance to hear new work from a writer who is establishing himself as one of the most daring and inventive social critics of his generation.

Shakar’s debut short fiction collection,City in Love,” published shortly after his graduation, won the 1996 FC2 National Fiction Competition. A reimagining of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” set in an anachronistic New York City of 1 B.C., the stories draw on classical myths to depict isolated urbanites searching for love, artistic expression and meaning in a hard urban landscape. They range in style from the traditionally narrative to the experimental, and in the title story, Shakar employs a prototypical form of hypertext that references links within the story to a secret embedded narrative thread, foreshadowing by some years the ways in which technology alters and informs our reading experiences today.

“City in Love” was followed in 2001 by “The Savage Girl,” in which Shakar again creates a mythical city, built on the slopes of a volcano, where advertising and consumerism rule and trendspotters hungrily troll for the Next Big Thing.   The cultural landscape into which the novel was released in September 2001 was quickly changed by the events of 9/11. “The age of cynicism and anomie that is captured here may have ended in a flash,” a New York Times review said, “but . . . Mr. Shakar preserves them here with a scathing intelligence that transcends the trendiness of any particular moment.”

thumbLuminariumAfter ten years during which Shakar completed a doctorate at University of Illinois at Chicago and joined the fiction faculty at Urbana-Champaign, where he is now associate professor, he has published his second novel, “Luminarium.” This time his razor-sharp eye and wit are trained on the shaky shared ground of technology and spirituality in our cyber age. “Science fiction without the Frankenstein scars,” a Time Out Chicago reviewer notes of Shakar’s genre-bending style.  “Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction,” notes a recent starred Publishers Weekly review.

The reading and booksigning begin at 7 pm on Thursday, September 8, 2011Bookpeople is located on the corner of West 6th and North Lamar Blvd.  Shakar will also meet with students earlier in the afternoon, at 3 p.m., at the Michener Center’s Dobie House seminar room; call 512-471-8444 to reserve a seat.

“Science Secrets,” Author separates fact from fiction in science history

Alberto Martinez. Photo by Judy Hogan, administrative assistant in the Department of History

Alberto Martinez. Photo by Judy Hogan, administrative assistant in the Department of History.

Legend has it Benjamin Franklin ventured out on a stormy day to fly a kite with a lightning rod and a key dangling on the end of the string. When the lightning struck the kite, the powerful bolt charged the metal key. Franklin then touched the key and got zapped, thus proving the electrical nature of lightning.

It is a captivating story. Yet just as Pecos Bill never rode a giant catfish down the Rio Grande River, the venerable Benjamin Franklin didn’t discover electricity with his kite. This famous myth is one of several tall tales in science history that Alberto Martinez, associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, examines in his book “Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths” (University of Pittsburgh Press, May 2011).

Secrets coverFrom Newton’s discovery of universal gravity to Einstein’s belief in God, Martinez analyzes, debunks and demystifies some of the most captivating legends in science. He recently sat down with us to discuss the book and some of its most surprising findings.

Martinez will speak about and sign “Science Secrets” 7 p.m. on Wednesday, June 8 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar.

How did you get interested in studying the history of science?

When I was in college I wanted to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. I could do the math and say the catch phrases but still felt that I didn’t really understand it. So I started reading Einstein’s own writings. I became fascinated by questions of interpretation in physics, which led me to history of science.

What is one of the most surprising myths that you refute in your book?

The Zytglogge clock tower, on the street where Einstein lived in   Switzerland. Writers claim that it inspired Einstein to think of the   relativity of time.

The Zytglogge clock tower, on the street where Einstein lived in Switzerland. Writers claim that it inspired Einstein to think of the relativity of time.

Remember the famous tall tale about Galileo dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Well it’s surprising that a similar story has evolved about Albert Einstein: that he discovered the relativity of time by thinking about Swiss clock towers. This story is told by well-known historians and physicists, such as Peter Galison, Michio Kaku and Hans C. Ohanian. It has also been echoed in books on literature, science literacy, Swiss tourism, economics and politics. But it’s just fiction. In “Science Secrets” I trace how this myth arose and evolved. Writers have also linked Einstein’s theory to his job as a patent examiner in Switzerland, as if he had been inspired by analyzing patents for synchronizing clocks. But that too is just fiction, there’s no evidence that he analyzed any such applications.

What is an interesting fact that is more captivating than a myth?

It is commonly said that Copernicus and Galileo followed the ancient philosopher Pythagoras in saying that Earth moves around the Sun. But actually, there’s no evidence that Pythagoras claimed any such thing. So instead of repeating this myth, I researched the actual historical connections between the legend of Pythagoras, the Copernican revolution and the Catholic Church. I was stunned to discover a major, neglected dimension, that because Pythagoras was the leader of a secretive pagan cult, some Christian writers denounced his “enormous and endless heresies” for centuries: that Pythagoras was a demigod reborn many times, that he worshiped the Sun god Apollo, that he made miracles and magic, talked with the dead in hell, divined the future. In this context, it makes more sense why Catholic churchmen were so very alarmed by Galileo’s defense of “the false Pythagorean doctrine” that Earth circles the Sun.

Did you discover a common thread to these myths?

Sure, there are several. These are inspiring stories about ordinary but interesting individuals who struggled against difficult odds and discovered apparently impossible results, thanks to some trivial thing.

Also, the character of Pythagoras shows up in many fields: astronomy, music, mathematics, alchemy, etc. But most of those stories are just myths. People have such a strong desire to know the past that they often invent it. They posit an ancient “founding father” onto whom they project whatever noble qualities and discoveries seem plausible. Even Isaac Newton, having formulated the inverse square law of gravity, later attributed it to Pythagoras! Why?

A similar pattern of misrepresenting the past has affected how people refer to Einstein. Speculations evolve into alleged anecdotes that even lead to scholarly studies. Laypersons, scientists and history professors are all vulnerable to the charm of “likely stories.”

Four finches from the Galápagos islands: this image appeared in the   second edition (1845) of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

Four finches from the Galápagos islands: this image appeared in the second edition (1845) of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

What is something about an iconic scientist like Darwin or Einstein that might startle your readers?

Many people still learn that Darwin was inspired to conceive the theory evolution by studying finches of the Galápagos islands. But it’s not true. Clear-cut facts about mockingbirds and frogs were better evidence for Darwin.

As for Einstein, writers have contrived reasons why he made his theory of relativity: that his wife was his secret coworker, that he was influenced by patent applications, modern art or mystical beliefs about God. But no, these are all just myths. Surprisingly, there’s more evidence that Einstein was influenced by, of all things, developmental psychology. I’m not saying that this was the most important factor (optics and electrodynamics were far more important), just that it was more important than the factors I just mentioned.

Another example: writers inadvertently misrepresent Einstein’s views on God because they don’t quote certain clear-cut statements he made. This is true even of Max Jammer’s excellent book “Einstein and Religion” and Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein,” which was a New York Times No.1 bestseller.

Is there a scientific myth in particular that you find to be the most fascinating?

I love the story about Ben Franklin’s kite, which is in the book. Regardless of its truth or falsehood, it’s fascinating to imagine this guy having the courage and stupidity to fly a kite in a thunderstorm, and that he used a child’s toy to draw “electrical fire” from the sky. It has the shape of a classic myth: the story of Prometheus, who used a long stalk of fennel to steal fire from the god of sky and thunder.

What new insights can we gain by looking back at famous myths in science?

I think we should debunk historical myths so that when we talk about scientific creativity our claims are based on evidence instead of fiction. We need to discuss myths that appear in science textbooks to replace them with accurate accounts so that readers can think about the ideas, circumstances and processes that really helped the sciences grow. Also, by tracing the evolution of myths it’s amazing to see how speculations become misconstrued as history. When writers use expressions such as “probably,” “she may have,” “he must have,” and so forth, we later get accounts that echo those claims as actual happenings. We see the same kind of problem happening in the news these days: reporters and commentators make too many speculations, rather than getting to the substance, I mean, tell me: what actually happened? What do we really know?

An Incurable Talent

SmSkibellJoseph Skibell, a native of the Texas Panhandle, was an accomplished playwright and screenwriter living in Los Angeles when he joined the first-admitted class of UT’s Michener Center for Writers in 1993.  Switching his emphasis to fiction after a year in the program, he graduated in 1996 with a novella submitted as his thesis, which grew into his debut novel, “A Blessing on the Moon,” published by Algonquin in 1997.  Skibell joined the English Department/Creative Writing faculty at Emory University in 1999, where he now serves as the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

We spoke with him about his third novel, A Curable Romantic,” out from Algonquin this fall. O Magazine calls the book “An irresistible romp about a lovelorn 19th century doctor who falls in with Sigmund Freud—and some dangerously attractive women.”   Skibell will read from the book and sign copies on 7 p.m., Thursday, November 4, at BookPeople, located at the corner of West 6th Street and North Lamar.

How does a Texan, exiled to Atlanta, end up immersing himself in turn of the 20th century Vienna, Freud, and Esperanto?

ThumbCurableWell, I grew up in Lubbock, and as the great wealth and diversity of creative people from Lubbock will attest, a 360-degree horizon seems to be good for the imagination.  I guess I was interested in how different the turn of the last century was from the turn of our century.  In the wake of the 1900 World’s Fair, people really seemed to believe that humanity was on the lip of perfecting itself. The great advances in science, underscored by enlightenment philosophy, coupled with the internationalization of railroad systems and Braille and the codes of weights and measurements, really made people think that war and national hatred was a thing of the past. No one would ever have had similar thoughts in the year 2000. So I was interested in the difference between their naivety and our cynicism. And, of course, the terrible answer to their naivety was the carnage of World War I, which may have something to do with our cynicism.

What interests or obsessions or curiosities fueled such a research-intensive novel? The bibliography, available on your website, is enormous. Did you actually learn Esperanto?

Yeah, I tell people it was a bit like taking a bar bet. You know, write a book that includes Sigmund Freud, Dr. Zamenhof and Esperanto—oh, and the Warsaw Ghetto.  It did require a lot of research, much of it in Esperanto, which I did learn. It’s a beautiful and easy-to-learn language. There’s an extensive literature in Esperanto, including some really marvelous stuff.  There’s an Esperantan poet of astounding genius named Kalman Kalocsay.  In answer to someone who charged that Esperanto couldn’t possibly be a real language because it didn’t contain any dirty words, Kalocsy wrote 50 highly erotic—actually, very smutty—sonnets called La Sekretaj Sonetoj (The Secret Sonnets).

Did you worry about “getting it right” as far as period details?  After all, Freud is a nearly mythical personage to turn into a character, and his life and times are so fully documented.

I felt it was only fair to the reader for me to try to get it right. I remember meeting a playwright once who had written a play about Stephen Foster stealing all his tunes from an unknown black composer. I asked him if this was historically accurate and he said, “Well, no, but white artists have always plundered black culture.” I didn’t want to invent anything in “A Curable Romantic” that skewed the historical truth, and fortunately, the truthful things I wanted to write about—like Dr. Zamenhof’s belief that a universal language would create a universal brotherhood, or Dr. Freud’s good friend Dr. Fliess’ belief that the nose is the center of the human soul and that by operating on it, he could cure neurosis, etc., etc.—were in themselves dramatic enough that they didn’t need tweaking.

As for Freud, I was happy to be dealing with only about a year of his life, even less, really.  There’s so much known about him. Between his letters, the autobiographical sections of “Interpretation of Dreams” and his other work, and what other people have written about him, you could probably draft a day-by-day calendar of sixty years of his life. The hard thing was trying to fit as many little gems I learned about him into the novel without retarding the narrative flow.

Was there any snippet of serendipity that may have either led you to this story or altered your writing of it in some profound way?

There was nothing but little moments of serendipity throughout the writing of this book. For instance, Freud had this “bromantic” crush on Wilhelm Fliess, a total crank who believed all sorts of weird things. He believed that by removing the left middle turbinate bone of the nose, he could cure Emma Eckstein’s hysteria. She was Freud’s first analytic patient, and she’s a major character in the novel. Well, Freud hands her over to Fliess, and Fliess nearly kills her. He left a meter of surgical gauze inside her nasal cavity.  Dybbuks also play a large role in the book and, at one point, the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn and Dr. Freud believe that Fräulein Eckstein’s hysteria might actually be a dybbuk possession. When I started researching the history of dybbuk possession and exorcism, I discovered an account of a dybbuk being exorcized through the victim’s nose. So in the novel, this forms a credible counter-story to the historical account of how Emma Eckstein’s nose came to be destroyed.

Your publisher has brought out a new paperback edition of your first novel “A Blessing on the Moon,” which you began as an MFA candidate at the Michener Center. How do you feel about that book now, 14 years later?

It feels good to have it back in print. I read it not too long ago, because the composer Andy Teirstein and I were adapting it into the libretto for the opera he’s writing based on it.  I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I was impressed by how fearless I was as a young novelist.  I don’t think I’d have the courage to write that book now.

Alumna celebrates belated Quinceañera with debut novel

Belinda Acosta, alumna of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers and longtime columnist for the Austin Chronicle, debuts as a published novelist this month with the release of “Damas, Dramas and Ana Ruiz,” the first of two books she has written for Grand Central Publishing’s “A Quinceañera Club,” a new series which will explore Mexican American life and culture.

What is a quinceañera?  In the Hispanic culture, it’s a girl’s 15th birthday party, a coming-of-age celebration much like a sweet sixteen, but with much deeper religious and social significance.  Belinda, who was born in Nebraska to a mother from South Texas and a father from Northern Mexico, had never attended one before she signed the book contract.  She threw herself into researching the ritual, attending quinceañeras, going to trade shows, talking to other Latinas about their experiences, and reading such books as Julia Alvarez’s “Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA.”

The result is a book that smartly and deftly explores questions of family relationships as well as cultural identity.  Acosta, who regularly reviews TV and other media in her weekly column, found inspiration in such shows as the hit OC, which combines story lines of teenaged characters with those of adult characters and appeals to viewers of widely differing ages.

Set in San Antonio, Texas, the novel tells the story of Ana Ruiz, a working professional and mother of 14-year-old  Carmen. Carmen blames her mother for their father’s recent abandonment of the family, and Ana plans the party as a means to reconnect with her angry daughter, but things go terribly awry. Author Joy Castro lauds Acosta’s deft portrayal of the “psychological tensions that the quinceañera moment provokes in mothers who are forced . . . to face their own aging at exactly the moment they’re supposed to be celebrating their daughters’ beauty and maturity.”  Belinda seamlessly weaves Spanish and Spanglish into her prose, giving the novel a lively and authentic voice.

In addition to her column and freelance reviews, Acosta is also a playwright and essayist whose work has appeared in Poets and Writers and aired on Latino USA.

A book release party is planned on August 18th at Cuba Libra (409 Colorado) from 6 to 8 p.m.—complete with cocktails, cupcakes and dancing, a sort of belated quinceañera for Acosta herself.  On August 25, she will read and book sign at 7 p.m. at BookPeople, on the corner of West 6th and N. Lamar.

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.”