Peter LaSalle’s new novel looks at life in the shadows

M song smPeter LaSalle uses a single book-length sentence in his new novel, “Mariposa’s Song,” to tell of a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in the United States without documentation.  Mariposa is working as a B-girl and taxi dancer in a scruffy East Austin nightclub called El Pájaro Verde in 2005, and her story takes readers into the shadowy world that undocumented workers are too often forced to live in due to current immigration laws.

“‘Mariposa’s Song’ is a tragedy that rings distressingly true to the bone,” says novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a prepublication comment, “and never has Peter LaSalle’s prose sung so melodiously.”  And Publishers Weekly notes: “LaSalle’s new novel is brief, but it feels expansive with its continued breathlessness.”

The novel is published in The Americas Series from Texas Tech University Press.  Edited by Irene Vilar and with a national advisory board, the series issues mostly work by Latin American writers in translation—recent releases include Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar—but also the occasional original book on a Latino subject that reflects the series’ stated mission of “cultivating cross-cultural and intellectual exploration across borders and historical divides.”

LaSalle will talk about “Mariposa’s Song” at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27 in a three-author panel discussion on immigration narratives, “Nunca Volver: New Lands, New Lives,” moderated by Melissa del Bosque.  An excerpt from the novel will be featured in the December issue of The Texas Observer.

PeteAs the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at UT, LaSalle teaches in both the English Department’s New Writers Project and the Michener Center for Writers. He’s the author of several books of fiction, including the story collection “Tell Borges If You See Him,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, among many others. A new short story collection, “What I Found Out About Her and Other Stories,” is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

ShelfLife@Texas asked LaSalle a few questions about “Mariposa’s Song.”

Did you do intensive research, or how did you come to know about the lives of undocumented workers?

In recent years I got to know quite a bit about the world of the undocumented. I did so through time spent in the Mexican bars and nightclubs that used to line 6th Street in East Austin and now have all but vanished—almost overnight, actually, in the sudden so-called gentrification of the area. I also spent some time in the home of an immigrant family in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, where I went with a friend who volunteered as an English instructor to new arrivals from Latin America. I think that those experiences, meeting the people I did in the course of it all, made me begin to better understand what it’s like to survive in the United States without documentation.

So you decided to write about it?

Looking back on it, I guess I almost had to write about it.  I remember that I saw a rather absurd locally produced TV show celebrating the supposed urban wonders of downtown Austin.  One sequence showed a group of happy young professionals (does anybody say “yuppie” anymore?) who had just come out of a trendy bar at maybe 2 a.m., guys and girls. They were filmed standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at what they saw as the wondrous beauty of a scene—men working construction on a new downtown high-rise, the site lit up bright in the darkness. I realized that those people, and a lot just like them, had no idea what life was really like for such workers, that there was nothing romantic about their long hours of hard labor, sometimes even right through the night. Having worked a job in construction myself at least one summer during college, I could assure them of that. More significantly, many of those workers were probably without documentation, facing life every day with the added threats posed by our outdated and thoroughly contradictory immigration policies. I don’t know if that was exactly when I decided to start writing “Mariposa’s Song,” but it was one thing that contributed to my decision to use a novel to maybe tell others what I knew about such lives, including those of the young women who worked in the East Austin bars, hustling drinks for the owners or dancing with customers, like the old dime-a-dance arrangement.

And the entire novel is basically a single book-length sentence. Can you explain how that works?

Well, first of all, I hope it does work. I’ve written and published several short stories that use just a single sentence, though this is my first time trying it on something longer. The novel takes place in the course of one Saturday night in a rough East Austin nightclub, where my protagonist—a gentle, pretty, and very hopeful young woman from Honduras named Mariposa—works as a bar girl and gets in a nightmarishly bad situation when she meets the wrong guy at the decidedly wrong time, a smooth-talking Anglo from out of town who calls himself Bill. In starting to write, I soon found that a single continuing sentence captured perfectly the cadence of a night at that club, where the norteño and cumbia music the DJ plays goes on uninterrupted, no breaks between songs, flowing. It also seemed to capture the way Mariposa’s own thoughts meander through her mind, maybe her soothing personal song of herself, very much a music, too.

Well, it certainly seems like a fresh idea.

As said, I sure hope so.

Author Dishes Up Stories of Race, Class, Gender and Place in Southern Food

barbecue1The South has always been celebrated for its food. From collard greens and okra to heaping plates of biscuits and gravy, Southern food is as much a state of mind as it is a matter of geography.

Combining the study of food culture with gender studies, Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American studies, explores the many hidden culinary contours of Southern life below and beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Digging deep into community cookbooks, letters, diaries, and other archival materials, Engelhardt describes the five moments in the Southern food story: Moonshine, biscuits versus cornbread, girls’ tomato clubs, pellagra as depicted in mill literature, and cookbooks as means of communication.

Engelhardt recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss her new book “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which she will be presenting at the Texas Book Festival this Saturday at 11:15 a.m. at the Capitol. Go to this website for more details.

How can the choice of serving cornbread or biscuits say a lot about a woman’s social standing?

As I was finishing my first book on Appalachia “Tangled Roots of Feminism,” I kept running across these references to something called the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.” This was when 9780820340371judgments about Appalachian women were based solely on whether they made biscuits or cornbread for their families. And these judgments extended to a woman’s class, morals, hygiene and even religion. Biscuit baking demonstrated class consciousness, the ability to afford specialized ingredients, marble-top counters and stoves. Cornbread, however, symbolized ignorance, disease and poverty.

What caused this rift between cornbread and biscuits?

In the late 1800s, single women with college educations from the Northeast, Kentucky and other parts of the non-mountain South were coming into Appalachia to build communities and make lives for themselves. One of the sources of tension between the newcomers and the women who had been there a long time was over education reform. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized the women who were coming into that region wanted to start by reforming the food that Appalachian women were cooking.

With the idea of helping the less fortunate, they advocated better cooking standards and public health concerns began to surface about diet-based diseases. Cornbread, which was made from locally milled corn and cooked over an open fire, became a target. Ironically the beaten biscuit recipe, which uses finely milled white flower and very little milk, may have been less nutritious than the cornbread local women were cooking for their families back in the 1800s.

How did Tomato Clubs empower young women back in the early 1900s?

In 1910, Marie Samuella Cromer, a young rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, organized a girls’ tomato club so that the girls would “not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” The tomato clubs and the women who organized them wanted southern food to transform Southern society—but not from the top down.

The girls had to plant one-tenth of an acre of tomatoes, which would provide more tomatoes than they or their families could use in a year. This forced them to learn how to can, market and sell them – and they could do whatever they want with the money. Glass jars were scarce, so they had to use big pieces of equipment to can tomatoes in tin. In order to finish a year in the Tomato Club, they had to write a report about how they harvested, presented and sold their tomatoes. It was a real lesson in technology, science and entrepreneurship.

What chapter of the Southern food story often goes unnoticed?

When we think about Southern food, we often think of abundance. But there’s also a story about lack of access, the absence of healthy eating, the vanished pieces. Back in the 1900s, pellagra – a disease caused by a vitamin-B deficiency – sickened tens of thousands of Southerners in poor communities. Described as the disease of the four Ds: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia and death – pellagra made many of its sufferers suicidal or dangerous. It struck people in the rural South whose diets typically consisted of the “three Ms,” meat, meal and molasses. They were often described as “mill type ” or “white trash.”  Behind the stereotypes hid a hungry, tired and ill version of the South that even today is difficult to understand.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope people leave the book with a resolution to ask family members (however they define family) about their own food stories. And I hope they learn a little about what is behind the final plate on the table, the messages in every meal about who we are as women, men, people of different races and ethnicities, and people of different classes. I hope readers join me in keeping the conversation going about the collective, collaborative and changing southern food stories that are all around us.

Do you have a favorite Southern dish?

Well, it’s early fall, and I come from a county in the North Carolina mountains that is famous for its heirloom apples. This time of year, I find myself most longing for fried apples, homemade applesauce, and apple spice cake. But only if the apples have come from one of those bent, almost forgotten, but still glorious trees on the edge of an old home site, where the fireplace is all that’s left standing but the bees have done their work and the apples are ugly but amazing.

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.

Faculty Authors Showcase their Works at the 16th Annual Texas Book Festival

tbf_logo_brownBook lovers, foodies, artists and scholars will partake in an annual rite of fall here in Austin: The Texas Book Festival. The 16th annual Texas Book Festival will take place in and around the Texas State Capitol and nearby venues on Oct. 22-23.

The lineup includes more than 250 authors, an eclectic mix of top literary names, bestselling novelists, political and nonfiction notables, cookbook superstars, Texas writers, children’s authors and promising newcomers.

The talent pool also includes University of Texas at Austin faculty authors. Here are just a handful of professors who will be presenting their books this weekend:

H.W. Brands, the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History

0292723415“Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It”
Saturday, Oct. 22, C-SPAN/Book TV Tent

In “Greenback Planet” (University of Texas Press, Oct. 2011), Brands recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power – and the enormous risks – of the dollar’s worldwide reign.

030774325X“The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age”
Sunday, Oct. 23, Lone Star Tent

In “The Murder of Jim Fisk” (Anchor, May 2011), Brands traces Fisk’s extraordinary downfall, bringing to life New York’s Gilded Age and some of its legendary players, including Boss William Tweed, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the railroad tycoon Jay Gould. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary of both books.

0820340375“A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food,” by Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies
Saturday, October 22, Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.030

Engelhardt’s “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, Sept. 2011) 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. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary.

1608194809“The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us,” by James Pennebaker, professor and chair, Department of Psychology
Saturday, October 22, Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.016

What do Quentin Tarantino and William Shakespeare have in common? They both write their men like men and their women like men. How can you tell when someone’s being straight with you? They use more verbs, more details (numbers, dates, figures) and more personal pronouns (I, me, etc.). And for the liars: more positive emotion words. These are only a few of the insights found in “The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us” (Bloombsbury, Aug. 2011), James W. Pennebaker’s far-ranging work on the use of life’s “forgettable words” and their many hidden meanings. Go to the Texas Book Festival website for the full summary.

Check out the official book festival website for a complete schedule of book signings, panel discussions, author interviews, cooking demonstrations and more.

Texas Book Festival Begins this Weekend

1197052_texas_gov_house_at_austinUniversity of Texas at Austin faculty and alumni authors will share their expertise on topics ranging from the fate of Savannah during the Civil War, to mapping a career path, to the culture of Texas barbecue at the 2009 Texas Book Festival Oct. 31-Nov. 1 at the Texas Capitol and surrounding areas.

More than 200 writers will showcase their books, including a host of authors from our university. Some of the presenters include:

Author: Jeffrey Abramson, professor of law and government
Book: “Minerva’s Owl: The Tradition of Western Political Thought”
When: Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.028

Author: Oscar Casares, assistant professor of English
Book: “Amigoland”
When: Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.016

Author: Jacqueline Jones, the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and Mastin Gentry White Professor in Southern History
Book: “Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War”
When: Saturday, Oct. 31
Where: Texas State Capitol Extension Room E2.028

Author: Kate Brooks, director of Liberal Arts Career Services
Book: “You Majored in What?: Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career”
When: Sunday, Nov. 1
Where: Lifestyle Tent (10th and Congress)

Author: Lucas A. Powe, Jr., professor of law and government
Book: “The Supreme Court and the American Elite”
When: Sunday, Nov. 1
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.016

Author: Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies
Book: “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket”
When: Sunday, Nov. 1
Where: Cooking Tent

Author: Mark Weston, UT Law alumnus (moderated by ShelfLife@Texas contributor Laura Castro)
Book: “Prophets & Princes: Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present
When: Sunday, Nov. 1
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.014

The Texas Book Festival was founded in 1995 by former first lady Laura Bush to promote reading and honor Texas authors. Sessions are free and open to the public. Proceeds from books purchased at the festival benefit the state’s public libraries.

Visit this site for a full list of festival authors.

Q&A with Warren Buffett Biographer Alice Schroeder

“The Snowball” (Bantam, 2008), by McCombs School of Business alumna Alice Schroeder, is an in-depth portrait of renowned investor Warren Buffett. It currently sits at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction.

Schroeder first met Warren Buffett when she published research on Berkshire Hathaway; her grasp of the subject and insight so impressed him that he offered her access to his files and to himself.

Read about Buffett’s reaction to the book and what it was like for Schroeder to work with “The Oracle of Omaha.”

What do you hope readers will learn from your book?
“The Snowball” tells you, not how to become the world’s richest man, but how to be smarter about managing your own time, money and relationships. It is the story of a man who started out obsessed with money and was nearly hopeless at dealing with people — and who, through experience and effort, became expert at relationships and created a life rich with meaning by giving back to others.

“The Snowball” was your first book. Had a project like this always been one of your goals, or did it just strike you as being the right thing at the right time?
In 2002 Warren started encouraging me to write a book. I’ve always gravitated toward challenging projects that teach me something new. It was nearly 18 months later that I came up with the idea, after another writer approached me to collaborate on a different book. It helped that Warren believed in me — but I also believed in myself. You’ve got to if you want to accomplish much in this world.

You’ve said that Mr. Buffett didn’t have a single edit for you, which seems like quite the endorsement. What has been his response to the book? What about the people you interviewed?
Warren told me to use the less flattering version whenever his version differed from somebody else’s. It was courageous of him. Since then, he has said that the book is good and well-written. But, as would be true of anyone, parts of it don’t match his image of himself, and parts of it were painful for him to read. As one of his friends put it, the book took off all of Warren’s clothes and one layer of his skin. This same friend also gave the book very high accolades. Many of Warren’s friends and family have contacted me to say how much they like the book and how well I captured him.

What advice would you give aspiring authors/writers?
Devoted readers make good writers. And great books are written by people who have something important to say. So if you find your subject of passion, it will help you hone your craft.

Alice Schroeder is appearing at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 1.

Professors Slated to Appear at Texas Book Festival

Professors and alumni from The University of Texas at Austin will share their expertise on topics ranging from the U.S. economic crisis to political figures in American history at the 2008 Texas Book Festival Nov. 1-2 at the Texas Capitol.

“Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”
Author: H.W. Brands
Professor, Department of History
When: Sunday, Nov. 2, 2-2:45 p.m.
Where: Texas State Capitol: House Chamber

H.W. Brands offers an illuminating portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life and career. The biography details FDR’s experimentation with The New Deal and his revolutionary efforts to save democracy during the Great Depression and World War II. Brands is author of “Andrew Jackson, “Lone Star Nation” and “The Age of Gold.” He was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.”

“Dolph Briscoe: My Life in Texas Ranching and Politics”
Author: Don Carleton
Director, Center for American History and J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History
When: Saturday, Nov. 1, 12:30-1:30 p.m.
Where: Texas State Capitol: Senate Chamber

Former Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe tapped Don Carleton’s narrative writing expertise to author his memoir, highlighting his life and career in Texas politics. Briscoe describes his days as Texas’ largest individual landowner and cattle rancher, his years in public office and his education at The University of Texas at Austin. Carleton has collaborated on books with Walter Cronkite and Waco Entrepreneur Bernard Rapoport.

“The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too”
Author: James Galbraith
Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs and Department of Government
When: Sunday, Nov. 2, 12:30-1:15 p.m.
Where: Texas Capitol: Extension Room E2.014

James Galbraith’s compelling, timely work covers hot-button issues, such as the free-market economy, the subprime crisis, economic and social disparities and the future of the dollar. The expert economist dissects conservative economics and conventional liberalism, stimulating debate across party lines about the mistakes made within the U.S. economy. Galbraith is author of six books and contributes to the American political magazines, including Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The Nation, The Texas Observer, as well as op-ed pages of major newspapers.

“Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research”
Author: Thomas O. McGarity, Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law
When: Sunday, Nov. 2, 3-3:45 p.m.
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room, E2.012

Thomas McGarity and co-author Wendy Wagner, Joe A. Worsham Centennial Professor in Law at The University of Texas at Austin, expose how scientific data are distorted by the government, provoking questions about possible poisons that industrial technologies leave in our air and water. The book examines how federal regulatory agencies “bend” damaging research to fit their needs, and offers a case for reforms to safeguard health and environmental hazards. McGarity is a former editor of the Texas Law Review and is the author of “Workers at Risk: The Failed Promise of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” “The Law of Environmental Protection: Cases-Legislation-Policies” and “Reinventing Rationality: The Role of Regulatory Analysis in Federal Bureaucracy.”

“The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched”
Author: Paul Woodruff
Professor, Department of Philosophy and Dean, Undergraduate Studies
When: Sunday, Nov. 2, 3-3:45 p.m.
Where: Texas State Capitol: Capitol Extension Room E2.016

From runway fashion shows to football games, Paul Woodruff examines the definition of live drama. Building the case that humans have an innate need to watch and be watched, Woodruff explains how theater brings together essential human elements, such as love, conflict and justice. Woodruff has translated such classic thinkers and writers as Plato, Sophocles and Thucydides. He is the author of “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” and “First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea.”

The Texas Book Festival was founded in 1995 by former first lady Laura Bush to promote reading and honor Texas authors. Sessions are free and open to the public. Proceeds from books purchased at the festival benefit the state’s public libraries.