What We’re Reading Now:

Becka Oliver, Executive Director  

Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan
University of Texas Press
October 1, 2019

I can remember moderating a panel discussion at the LBJ National Historical Park featuring Stephen Harrigan during which he talked about his then current project, a comprehensive history of the state of Texas. That was in February 2015 and, truly, that project – the 925-page Big Wonderful Thing – has been worth the wait. I’m not sure which I admire more – the unbelievably exhaustive research that must have gone into this book or the brilliant and beautiful prose that brings that research and the Lone Star State to life. As Harrigan so eloquently puts it in the Prologue, “Texas has a history that is of consequence not just to itself, and not just to the nations it was once part of or the nation it briefly became. It sits at the core of the American experience, and its wars, its industries, its presidents, its catastrophes, its scientific discoveries have never stopped shaping the world.”

Michael Noll, Program Director  

The Spectators by Jennifer duBois
Random House
April 2, 2019

When you spend years writing and reading like a writer (mentally analyzing passages and figuring out how you might do something like them in your own work), you can sometimes believe that you’ve lost the sense of magic that good writing holds. You see the smoke and mirrors, the trap doors, and diversions. And so when the wondrous sense of impossibility of a great passage hits you, the impact is even stronger. You understand the mechanics of good writing, and you still get a thrill from seeing it done at a level inaccessible to you.
That’s how I feel about Jennifer duBois’ writing, especially her dialogue. For so many of us, we’re happy if we can write dialogue that doesn’t include some version of “he said, looking at her.” But duBois turns those little physical descriptions between lines of dialogue into some of the most enjoyable phrases in a book.
In this passage, Cel, a young woman working for a Jerry Springer-like reality talk show must tell a guest that the episode has been canceled because it would juxtapose uncomfortably with news of a school shooting that day:
   “Oh, hey!” Cel says, and the devil-boy looks stricken. “I almost forgot!”
   She dashes to her office and returns, triumphant, with a gift bg.
   “Here you go!” she says–in someone else’s voice, possibly someone else’s lifetime. The devil-boy looks cheered, though he really should not; there is nothing good in the bag–just a Mattie M pen and beer cozy and T-shirt, always extra large. Cel cannot imagine anyone wanting it, and after six months with the show, she can imagine a lot of things.
   “Thank you,” says the devil-boy. According to his bio, he is from suburban Connecticut.
   “Sure,” says Cel. “So, Sara will be by in a minute and—“
   “It’s horrible.”
   “I’m sorry?”
   “It’s horrible.” The devil-boy is still staring into the gift bag, and Cel wonders if he’s talking about the beer cozy–or, just possibly, addressing it–but then he looks up at her, eyes shining.
   “It’s a tragedy.”
   Not the gift bag, then.
   “It is,” says Cel.

Neena Husid, Leadership Austin Fellow 

Girl Paper Stone by Laurie Filipelli
Black Lawrence Press
June 15, 2018

This review begins with a pair of disclaimers. The first owns that the author of Girl Paper Stone, Laurie Filipelli, once hired me for a job I adored. Disclaimer number two should be embarrassing but it’s not. Though I’ve done my time studying, reading, writing and criticizing prose, I’m significantly unschooled in the particularities of poetry. And, I kind of like being a form and function idiot. It allows me to take in verse in the same way my uneducated art eye absorbs gallery and museum displays-objectively, viscerally, ignorantly. For me, page after page of Laurie’s book was a dance of ideas and images that moved me in a delirious sway of nostalgia, understanding and surprise that may or may not have been the writer’s intent. But who cares? The joy of experiencing word paintings guaranteed to take you both inside of and beyond yourself is sublime and necessary. The smart, clear-eyed poems of Girl Paper Stone evoke a laconic urgency that’s both prescriptive and addictive. Long after I completed this little book I kept flipping back through, revisiting drugstore bikinis, claw-bottomed slippers, continents of cupcake stickers and the innards of paper scraps. I just needed more uninterrupted, uneducated time to continue feeling a heart inside a heart  and the uncertainty that’s uncertain like that.

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