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Recommended at Texas Book Festival

Capsule reviews

Fri., Oct. 26, 2012

The Fifty Year Sword

by Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 288 pp., $26

Mark Z. Danielewski, hailed in some circles as the thinking person's Chuck Palahniuk, returns to the world of precisely modified letters with this compelling and Eastern-tinted tale of horror. Tinted by its setting in East Texas; by narrative tradition from what used to be called the Orient; by Danielewski's device of color-coded "autumnal quotation marks" that might have come from slightly east of Pluto. Look: There's a seamstress and her nemesis and the betrayal between them; there are five orphans; there is a dark night at a ranch house and a storyteller with a long black box that contains what will certainly sever the calm of their lives. There's the transcribed oral history of all of this maleficent megillah. It's a multivoiced novella, really, perfectly presented in a hardcover volume with embroidered illustrations designed by the author, and who knows what a stitch in time might save? – Wayne Alan Brenner

Lit Crawl Austin

with Mark Z. Danielewski

Saturday, Oct. 27, 8-8:45pm, Texas State Cemetery (909 Navasota)


Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right

by Thomas Frank
Picador, 240 pp., $16 (paper)

Thomas Frank has always been a particularly forward-thinking pundit. His 1997 debut, The Conquest of Cool, is a veritable roadmap to the creation of the fused counterculture/consumerist creature that would come to be known as the hipster; his 2008 The Wrecking Crew documented the deregulation and privatization of government that precipitated the financial crash (it was published ten days before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt). In Pity the Billionaire, Frank looks at the rise of the Tea Party and the success of the wealthy in directing populist anger toward labor and government, rather than management. Frank dismisses the easy outs (racism, culture wars) and looks at how right-wing rhetoric itself has struck a chord among Americans who – as in the historical examples Frank cites – might otherwise blockade roads and overturn trucks to express their displeasure. If not for Frank's dry sense of humor, it might be as depressing as it sounds. – Dan Solomon

Thomas Frank

moderated by Paul Stekler

Saturday, Oct. 27, noon-12:45pm, C-SPAN/Book TV Tent


We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy

by Yael Kohen
Sarah Crichton Books, 336 pp., $27

While the success of Bridesmaids and the creative achievements of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation have helped quiet it for now, the question "Are women funny?" keeps coming up. Those who forget history tend to repeat it, and there hasn't been an authoritative document to easily rebut the question. That's what Yael Kohen's We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy does. Besides telling the story of comics from Phyllis Diller to Roseanne Barr to Amy Poehler, it also tells the well-documented stories of 20th century comedy – the rise of SNL, Johnny Carson's retirement and the comedy club crash, the Nineties alt scene – through the women involved. You can't properly talk about The Tonight Show without talking about Joan Rivers, or about alt-comedy without Janeane Garofalo. The story of women in American comedy is the story of American comedy, and Kohen's extensively researched oral history makes that clear. – Dan Solomon

We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy

with Yael Kohen; moderated by Wolfgang Niedert

Saturday, Oct. 27, 12:15-1pm, Capitol Extension Room E2.014


Ten-Gallon War: The NFL's Cowboys, the AFL's Texans, and the Feud for Dallas's Pro Football Future

By John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $27

Before they were "America's Team," the NFL's Dallas Cowboys were hatched out of spite and one-upmanship: to siphon DFW's soft interest in professional football away from native son Lamar Hunt's Dallas Texans of the upstart American Football League. The expansion Cowboys were interlopers in 1960, when both professional squads debuted and shred the same Cotton Bowl turf for their respective leagues. Eisenberg's captivating Ten-Gallon War rekindles the divergent campaigns of Dallas' Cowboys and Texans to muster enthusiasm for pro football in a region zealous for the college brand. Mostly, though, owner Clint Murchison Jr.'s Cowboys and Hunt's red-and-white-clad Texans wrestled with each other for preeminence. Ten-Gallon War is buoyed by the precision and ease of Eisenberg's treatment – not that the saga necessarily needed a superb telling to arrest a football fan. The shame of it all is how the Cowboys and Texans never settled the ultimate question on the field. – Russ Espinoza

The Football Wars: The Violent Birth of the NFL

with John Eisenberg and Michael MacCambridge; moderated by Mike Hejny

Saturday, Oct. 27, noon-1pm, Capitol Extension Room E2.026


The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books, 288 pp., $23.95

In his third effort, Jonathan Evison follows the tale of Benjamin Benjamin as he befriends Trevor, a shoe- and woman-obsessed patient with muscular dystrophy, and begins a bifurcated journey through the American West and his haunted past. It's a peculiarly paced novel that starts especially slow (the chapter "Liftoff" is almost the halfway point), but Evison's bright, wry writing captivates throughout. Along the way, the boys meet roadside caricatures – like young sass-master Dot, a smoking runaway with daddy issues – made human by their detailed quirks and heartfelt emotions. Meanwhile, Benjamin grapples with flashbacks to the time before a tragic accident splintered his life; it's a raw and gutwrenching take on family dynamics written in digestible vignettes. As the end rapidly approaches, the final pages will feel like those last few hours of a long-awaited vacation – the road back home always feels shorter, does it not? – and you'll wish there'd been just one more day. – Monica Riese

Manning Up: Fathers Out of the Ordinary

with Jonathan Evison, Noah Hawley, and Marco Roth; moderated by S. Kirk Walsh

Saturday, Oct. 27, 10-11am, Lone Star Tent

Literary Death Match

with Bob Shea, Kate Payne, Jonathan Evison, Kambri Crews, and Stephen Tobolowsky; emceed by Todd Zuniga

Saturday, Oct. 27, 12:45-1:45pm, Paramount Theatre


Reinventing Bach

by Paul Elie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512 pp., $30

Paul Elie (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) begins his new book – an ambitious, aslant tale of emergent technology as reflected through Bach's works – with the author's pilgrimage to Berlin to see Bach's personal cembalo. "Amazing: and yet something is lacking," he writes. "Yes, Bach owned it, but its sound is conjectural." Elie pivots between Bach's biography and the stories of some of his most ardent and innovative interpreters – Albert Schweitzer, who made wax cylinder recordings at the church of All Hallows; Fantasia conductor Leopold Stokowski; Glenn Gould, whose Goldberg Variations (both of them) can be found on the record shelves of even classical apathetics. Five hundred pages later, Elie winds down with Auto-Tune and iTunes, and on the subject of the latter: Over the course of reading, I downloaded two albums – supplemental listening to go along with Elie's transcendent descriptions – and unwittingly entered the narrative, too. – Kimberley Jones

Reinventing Bach

with Paul Elie; moderated by James Kunetka

Sunday, Oct. 28, 11-11:45am, Capitol Extension Room E2.026


Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

by D.T. Max
Viking, 368 pp., $27.95

Having never met David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max might seem an underdog to write the man's biography. However, the bio itself is testament to the time Max spent exploring the subject's creative output, researching his past, and interviewing those who knew Wallace best. The end product offers a sugarcoatless picture of an artist struggling with his demons – the same demons that served as muse. The opening chapters elegantly provide details of DFW's early life, offering insight into the physical and emotional journeys that would inform the author's masterwork, Infinite Jest. Those journeys include bouts of depression and addiction that would continue and ultimately contribute to DFW's suicide in 2008. The latter third of the bio loses momentum as it depicts an author maturing but never finding comfort in the creative process and never finishing the novel to follow up the book that defined Wallace's indelible place in the literary world. – James Renovitch

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

with D.T. Max; moderated by Megan Barnard

Saturday, Oct. 27, 12:30-1:15pm, Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004

Lit Crawl Austin: Five Things

with Rosecrans Baldwin, Amelia Gray, D.T. Max, and Charles Yu; moderated by Brittany Callender and Lesley Clayton

Saturday, Oct. 27, 9-9:45pm, Cheer Up Charlie's (1111 E. Sixth)


The Middlesteins

by Jami Attenberg
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pp., $24.99

Like most of us, the Middlesteins have their issues. Basically a "normal" middle-class, Jewish couple living in suburban Chicago, Edie and Richard Middlestein share a 30-year marriage, grown children, adolescent grandchildren, and a supportive circle of friends. The crux of this witty yet psychologically insightful, multigenerational story centers upon Edie's lifelong obsessive eating habits and ensuing obesity. After enduring her perpetual self-destructive behavior and subsequent failing health, Richard sees himself dying emotionally and leaves Edie for a new life at age 60. In this, her third novel, the Brooklyn-based Attenberg utilizes a nonlinear, fluid sense of time and a multitude of perspectives. As dynamics and alliances shift, so do individual perceptions, and the most interesting insights come from those outside the family. Attenberg's delightful, compassionate story is both personal and universal in its depiction of a family functioning in a dysfunctional manner. – Jay Trachtenberg

Is There a Therapist in the House?: Fictional Families Falling Apart

with Maria Semple, Elizabeth Crane, and Jami Attenberg; moderated by Gregory Cowles

Saturday, Oct. 27, 11:15am-12:15pm, House Chamber

Lit Crawl Austin: Austin Bat Cave Presents the Story Dept.

with Jami Attenberg, Lily Raff McCaulou, Emma Straub, and Cheryl Strayed; moderated by Manuel Gonzales

Saturday, Oct. 27, 8-8:45pm, Cheer Up Charlie's (1111 E. Sixth)


The Onion Book of Known Knowledge: A Definitive Encyclopaedia Of Existing Information

by The Onion
Little, Brown and Company, 256 pp., $29.99

The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge attempts to make bulky encyclopedias more bite-sized by deciding what is "necessary." With the Internet putting a dizzying amount of information on display, this might seem a worthy endeavor if the idea of editing down all known facts and figures to the "essential" weren't inherently absurd. Who better to take another stab at that awkwardly overreaching goal than The Onion? Like all things Onion, the real strength of this faux-encyclopedia are the one-liners that offer insight into the absurdity of modern culture. For example: "Supper, what families who punish their kids a little too severely call dinner." Throw in the tried and true infographics and photo captions and you have a collection worthy of The Onion name. Longer entries can drag a bit, but with most pages containing about 10 entries, the editors clearly know their strength is pith. And who knew Craig T. Nelson invented Craigslist? (In addition to the Texas Book Festival appearance, The Onion staff will appear Oct. 26 at the Paramount for live show A Pre-Election Roast With The Onion.) – James Renovitch

The Onion Book of Known Knowledge

moderated by Cindy Widner

Saturday, Oct. 27, 11-11:45am, The Sanctuary at First United Methodist Church (1201 Lavaca)

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