John Dean, historians discuss the Nixon tapes at Texas Book Festival

The Texas Book Festival started with a lively panel at 10 a.m. Saturday in the C-SPAN tent on the thousands of hours of Richard Nixon’s White House recordings.

John Dean and Douglas Brinkley


Former White House counsel John Dean, author of “The Nixon Defense,” a look at the Watergate-era Nixon tapes, joined Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, authors of “The Nixon Tapes.”

After moderator Robert Draper offered a brief tribute to the late Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee,  Brinkley called the disgraced president “diabolically pragmatic,” noting that his opening of China was as much about punishing the Soviet Union as anything else. He and Nichter’s book involve a multitude of conversation that did not pertain to Watergate and both men noted Nixon’s “hyper-involvement” in foreign policy.

“Nixon liked hardball, bloodletting politics,” Brinkley added, a trait he shared with his absolutely ruthless aide Chuck Colson.  “He was an all-purpose insulted of all peoples of the world,” he said, explaining some of the rather unfortunate invective that would come out of Nixon’s mouth. “Except the Chinese. Go figure.”

Nicheter, who spent a lot of time digitizing the tapes, said that the Nixon archive continues to fascinate because we will never have something like this ever again. “Everything is being picked up,” Nichter said of the taping system.

Dean was the quippiest speaker, recalling that he was once approached by a man who said, “Didn’t you used to be Dick Cheney?”(cue roars of laughter from the assembled.)

He later added that the men in his family start to go deaf in their 70s (Dean is 76), and he needed some grad students to help him go through the hundreds of hours of tapes. “God forbid the last voice I hear is Richard Nixon,” he said.

Dean reiterated the working theory that while Nixon didn’t know of the break-in, attorney general John Mitchell approved of G. Gordon Liddy’s plan. “They (meaning Nixon’s staff)  gave him hints,” Dean said. But they didn’t really explain that the White House was deeply involved.

Liddy has sort of portrayed himself as a James Bond figure,” Dean said. “In fact, he’s not quite a Maxwell Smart.”

Texas Writer Award: Sarah Bird

Lois Kim, executive director of the Texas Book Festival, presented the Texas Writer Award to Sarah Bird Saturday afternoon in the House Chamber. The award recognizes writers who are “at the absolute top of their game,” Kim said.

Bird has long been regarded as one of Texas’ finest authors. Her novels include “Alamo House,” “The Boyfriend School,” The Mommy Club,” “Virgin of the Rodeo,” “The Yokota Officers Club,” “The Flamenco Academy,” “How Perfect Is That,” “The Gap Year” and her newest novel, “Above the East China Sea.”

She was delighted with her award: a pair of custom-made cowboy boots emblazoned with the Texas Book Festival logo. Bird donned them immediately and then modeled them as she joked, “They fit perfectly –– does this mean I don’t have to go home and scrub the hearth before my ugly stepsisters get home”

“Boots are so significant to me because I married a handsome Texan gave birth to a handsome Texan. I always felt a bit of a fraud … but now, boy howdy, do I feel Texan!”

She then went on to thank Texas writers Stephen Harrigan, James Magnuson and Lawrence Wright. Then she mentioned Molly Ivins. “If she were here today, I’d give her these for all of the women’s suppression right here in Texas.”

From there, Bird talked about “Above the East China Sea.” “It takes writers a long time to understand why we write a book. I didn’t understand it until last Friday when I attended a funeral and felt this incredible longing for those who are gone and nostalgia for worlds that have been lost. That’s the true origin for where this book came from.”

Bird’s own family had been stationed on an Air Force base in Okinawa while she was growing up. “I had a cohesive family of six children in this tight little unit. They were my security blanket as we moved around again and again. I asked, what would it have been like if I had only one sibling and that sibling was taken from me?”

When the Japanese took over Okinawa, Bird says, they basically obliterated the country’s vibrant culture and social structure. “Above the East China Sea” examines the situation through the lens of Luz, the child of a single mom whose sister has just died. Luz hangs out with a group of  kids called  the Smokinawans, who proclaim, “We’re not racist, but we’re rankest” –– because everybody knows the rank of their father.

To research Luz and the Smokinawans, Bird initially thought she would have to revisit Okinawa. “Then the reality of that is that if show up in Okinawa in my old lady glory, I’d be about as successful as when I was researching ‘Virgin of the Rodeo,’ thinking I need to touch cowboys.” But it was YouTube to the rescue, when she discovered a channel called Planet Okinawa featuring Smokinawans.

On the other hand, she had to do research to get to the heart of the other story she tells in the novel, of 15-year-old Tamiko, which is set during World War II, right after the Americans have invaded the islands. Even though she didn’t travel to Okinawa again to research the book, she cited UT’s Perry Castaneda Library for helping her understand Tamiko. “I couldn’t unlock that character until I came upon translations of modern Okinawnan literature. That’s how I came to connect with her.”

Bird confessed to feeling an obligation to tell the story about Okinawa because Americans don’t know much about it.  “More lives were lost during the invasion of Okinawa than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Why didn’t I know that? Those kind of questions aren’t things that fuel a novel, though. For me, it was the emotional things about family, about loss.”

Joyce Carol Oates at the Texas Book Fest

Joyce Carol Oates drew one of Saturday’s largest crowds in the House Chamber during the Texas Book Festival. She started by reading the beginning of “Mastiff,” one of the stories from her new collection, Lovely, Dark, Deep” and then presented a look into the thought process of assembling a book of short stories.

Overall, Oates said, her writing is informed by relationships. “I believe in sudden, almost radiant accidents between people. My stories are about characters and relationships rather than settings.”

When asked what advice she had for aspiring writers, she said, “Young writers and young artists of any kind don’t take advice. But just to be polite sometimes, they should take advice.” Then she switched to what she really would advise: “Doing a lot of reading and reading obsessively and happily. Travel to someplace that you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Your brain is actually working much harder when you’re in a different situation.”

Perhaps the most moving revelation of the session was when she was asked about her mother’s being adopted. Oates had no inkling about that until she was in fifties and her mother finally told her about it. Oates then went on to write the novel “Missing Mom” –– “ It was a little sentimental, but I thought why not?”

She closed with the story behind the story that got her into trouble: the Robert Frost story, which is the titular story of the collection. “I wrote a story about an old man who was nasty but kind of funny and a genius.” People at the Robert Frost estate were not happy and fired off some pointed letters. But as it turned out, she had received letters from people who knew Frost who said, “That’s exactly how he was!”

Charles Blow at the Texas Book Festival

Charles Blow, author of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” discussed his searing memoir about the abuse he suffered as a child and college student and said that he was driven to write the book after reading about two 11-year-olds who hanged themselves after suffering bullying by homophobes.

“Children don’t have the language to explain their feelings, and I have that language,” said the New York Times columnist. “So the book could be seen as their swan song, their eulogy. … If they can’t say it, maybe I can.”

Blow said that suicides were “the kind of thing that will never die unless someone shines a light on it.” Still, he said he was initially fearful about making his life an open book and revealing his sexual history.

The title of Blow’s book comes from a passage in the Bible, where Jeremiah complains that he suffers reproach for his beliefs. In the King James version of the Bible, the appropriate passage is: “I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”

Martin Amis at the Texas Book Fest

By Cyndi Hughes, via Charles Ealy

Slate’s review of Martin Amis’ new novel, “The Zone of Interest,” starts:  “Every review of a new book by Martin Amis must, in some way, be a review of Martin Amis — a reflection on the State of Amis.” Amis himself delivered a brief master course on the State of Amis in his Saturday session in the House Chamber during the Texas Book Festival.

He started by observing, “It’s nice to be here –– It’s always an adventure to be in Texas.” Then he turned to the matter at hand, puzzling out the Holocaust through “The Zone of Interest.” In the end, Amis said, “The whole project of the Holocaust makes no sense on any level. It really is the most anomalous stretch of events.”

Even though Hitler is only peripherally mentioned in the novel, he looms large. “Hitler is sort of a singularity. … I’m not trying to be frivolous or simplistic about it, but part of it is that he’s a void sexually. When a character arrives on center stage in one of my novels, I always know about their sexuality. There is no evidence either way” about Hitler. Amis went on to enumerate the three schools about Hitler’s sexuality: normality, asexuality and perversion.

At that point, moderator Greg Cowles of The New York Times Book Review commented, “This is far afield from what I had in mind, but keep going.”

So Amis obliged. “What I can’t accept is normality. Can you image Eva Braun having a cigarette while Hitler towels himself down?”

Then he returned to the Holocaust itself.  “I don’t think they were constantly aware of this massive crime they were committing. They were fulfilling quotas, and this was going on in the background. … You can’t justify the Holocaust. The German nation in 1933 was the most advanced educationally that had ever been. And this is what came out of that.”

As for the forced complicity of Jewish prisoners like “The Zone of Interest’s” Szmul, who cooperated with his captors by processing corpses to stay alive, he said, “They worked out a patina of deception, welcoming the evacuees and saying ‘You’ll begin with a light disinfection then you’d be transferred to the guest house.’ The real mystery is that the evacuees went like lambs to the slaughterhouse, then they put on the rubber gloves and walked away.”

Yet, they would occasionally save a life. Szmul, for instance, tells a couple to hand their baby to the grandmother, which means that the husband and wife would survive, since the Nazis were killing anyone with a child.

When Cowles asked about the comedic label being applied to the novel, Amis said, “I object to the word ‘comedy’; satire is what it is. It’s a protean response, laughter. The laughter, to the extent that there’s any in this book, is bitter.

“I wanted to bring everything I’ve got to this subject. I can’t switch off that part of me. I dread becoming sepulchural and hushed. … You have to find some sort of distance from it, and a satirical viewpoint helps you with that distance.

For the Slate review, go here.

Author Martin Amis.
Author Martin Amis.

Book on Jefferson’s relationship with Islam Among UT’s Hamilton Award Winners

UT  history professor Denise A. Spellberg was named the $10,000 grand prize winner of the 2014 University Co-op Robert W. Hamilton Book Awards for her work “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.”


The Hamilton Awards are among the highest honors of literary achievement given for UT Austin authors. This year’s winners were announced Oct. 15.

The awards are named for Professor Robert W. Hamilton, the Minerva House Drysdale Regents Chair-Emeritus in Law, who served as chair of the board of the University Co-op from 1989 to 2001.

Four other UT Austin professors received  $3,000 runner-up prizes:

Desmond F. Lawler,  a professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering, for “Water Quality Engineering: Physical/Chemical Treatment Processes,” co-authored with Mark Benjamin, University of Washington (John Wiley & Son)

Huaiyin Li, a professor of  History, for “Reinventing Modern China: Imagination and Authenticity in Chinese Historical Writing” (University of Hawaii Press)

Allison E. Lowery, professor of  Theatre and Dance, for “Historical Wig Styling: Volumes 1 and 2” (Focal Press/Taylor and Francis Group)

Mark Metzler, professor of  Asian Studies, for “Capital as Will and Imagination: Schumpeter’s Guide to the Postwar Japanese Miracle” (Cornell University Press).

The University Co-operative Society also announced winners for its research awards Wednesday. Click here for the full slate.






A few cancellations and one addition to the Texas Book Festival.

Eleanor Davis, Lev Grossman, Laura Lacamara, Greil Marcus, Todd Miller, and Hampton Sides have all had to cancel their appearances at the Texas Book Festival, representatives for the fest announced Wednesday.

However, talks show host and writer Tavis Smiley has joined with “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year.”

"Death of a King"
“Death of a King”

TBF is posting other changes at

Kirkus announces finalists for the first annual Kirkus Prize

 Kirkus Reviews today announced the six finalists for the first annual Kirkus Prize in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction and Young Readers’ Literature


Winners in the three categories will receive $50,000 each, making the Kirkus Prize one of the richest annual literary awards in the world.

Writers become eligible by receiving a rare starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

Panels of three highly regarded judges, composed of a writer, a bookseller or librarian and a Kirkus critic, select the Kirkus Prize finalists and winners from among those starred books.

Kirkus chose this year’s finalists from all titles that earned a Kirkus Star with publication dates between November 1, 2013 and October 31, 2014.

The judges chose from 1,007 books total: 266 fiction; 225 nonfiction, 446 children/teens; and 70 self published Kirkus Star titles.  

Kirkus will announce the winners at a ceremony in Austin Oct. 23, a few days before the Texas Book Festival kicks off. (Kirkus editor Clay Smith was for many years the Texas Book Festival’s literary editor, a position now held by Steph Opitz.)

 The finalists for the 2014 Kirkus Prize are:


 ·    ” The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster)

·     “Euphoria” by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)

·     “All Our Names” by Dinaw Mengestu (Knopf)

·     “Florence Gordon” by Brian Morton (Houghton Mifflin)

·     “The Remedy for Love” by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books)

·     “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead)

The judges for the 2014 Kirkus Prize in fiction are: author Kate Christensen, Stephanie Valdez, co-owner of Community Bookstore and Terrace Books in Brooklyn, and Kirkus critic and author Marion Winik.


 ·     “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

·     “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch (Yale University Press)

·     “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Holt)

·     “The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science” by Armand Marie Leroi (Viking)

·     “Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty” (Harvard University Press)

·     “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson (Spiegel & Grau)

 The judges for the 2014 Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction are: Sarah Bagby, owner of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, KS, author Sloane Crosley, and Kirkus critic and author Gregory McNamee.


Picture Books:

·     “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesauru”s by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet (Eerdmans)

·     “Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual” by Kate Samworth (Clarion)

Middle Grade:

·     “El Deafo” by Cece Bell (Amulet/Abrams)

·     “The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza” by Jack Gantos (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Young Adult:

·     “The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim” by E.K. Johnston (Carolrhoda Lab)

·    ” The Freedom Summer Murders” by Don Mitchell (Scholastic)


The judges for the 2014 Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature are: Claudette S. McLinn, executive director at the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature, author Linda Sue Park, Kirkus critic and children’s librarian John Edward Peters.

Lawrence Wright to get Lon Tinkle Award

Austin writer Lawrence Wright will receive the Texas Institute of Letters Lon Tinkle Award for an outstanding career in letters. The award will be presented at TIL’s annual spring membership meeting on the weekend of April 10-11 in Houston.

Wright was selected by TIL’s council and past presidents at its recent meeting in Austin. Lon Tinkle was a longtime book editor at the Dallas Morning News, professor of comparative literature at Southern Methodist University, and prominent member of TIL.

Wright won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his 2006 book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” He will also be honored this year with an Illumine Award from the Austin Public Library Foundation. His most recent book is “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David.”

Wright has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992.

TIL’s meeting in Houston will be at the Hilton Hotel on the University of Houston campus. The annual awards banquet will be held on the evening of  Saturday, April 11, at which more than $20,000 in prize money will be presented to winners of the TIL literary contests. More information can be found at