Texas House Chambers
What a great weekend!
I thoroughly enjoyed two full days of roaming the grounds of the Texas capitol, even to the point of sitting at the desks of state senators and representatives to enjoy presentations by some of my favorite writers.
It all started in the House Chambers where I listened to a presentation on the "War Over American Ideals" that was moderated by one of my favorite historians, Douglas Brinkley. I can't say that I agreed with everything said during the session but it was a good start to the day.
From there I moved on to a Capitol Extension room where Michael Dirda discussed his new book, Reading the Classics for Pleasure. The room was absolutely packed - so much so, in fact, that Dirda invited the last few arrivals to sit in the empty chairs next to him and moderator Ed Nawotka. This was the first time I've heard Michael Dirda speak and, I have to admit, that he showed a whole different personality than the one I expected. He was very personable and friendly, showed a nice sense of humor and seemed happy to be at the festival. Dirda's description of his personal library reminded me of the complaint so many of us have made about our own - books in piles, mounds, boxes and on shelves to the point that he might know that the particular book he wants is somewhere in the house but he cannot always find it. He also mentioned that, of current writers, he believes that Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson have the best chance of being widely read 100 years from now.
Next was a session in the same room with David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife, a book I finished last week and will be reviewing here on November 14, the last day of Ebershoff's "blog tour." It was fun to listen to Ebershoff and Amanda Eyre Ward (author of a novel I really enjoyed called Forgive Me) discuss the origin of the book and the research that went into it. For those not yet familiar with the title, this is the story of Brigham Young's 19th wife, the woman who sued him for divorce and dedicated her life to ending the practice of polygamy in the Morman faith. It is first-rate historical fiction and the book is cleverly constructed and filled with memorable characters - more later.
From there I went back upstairs, this time to the Senate Chambers for a session with Roy Blount, Jr. and NPR's Peter Sagal. I found their discussion of the NPR radio program they have worked together on for ten years to be interesting but, unfortunately, most of their humor fell pretty flat. The sound system was not great during this session and that might explain why the jokes did not get a huge response.
The morning began back in the Senate Chambers where, thankfully, the sound system was working much better, for a session with William Least Heat-Moon about his new book, Roads to Quoz. The book was just released on October 29 so it was new to me. It sounds fascinating, though, especially since it's been so long between books for this author. I love travel books of this type where the author seemingly wanders around almost randomly collecting stories, meeting people, and learning about the people and places he sees. That is exactly the way that I enjoy vacationing (when I have the time) and I love the fact that Heat-Moon claims that he has been inside every county in the United States now - that's a huge chore even for the state of Texas because I believe there are 254 counties in this state alone. He also described his drive to Austin by having his wife hold up the atlas he used for navigation so that he could avoid highways he had already driven at some point in his life.
The second Senate Chambers presentation was on "Character Driven Fiction," a general discussion between four authors: Francine Prose, Ann Packer, Andrew Sean Greer and Ann Cummins. I have to admit that all four of these were new authors for me but, after listening to them give their thoughts on characters in their novels I'm going to be looking for something from each of them in the coming weeks.
Next, in the House Chambers, came my favorite session of the two days, a whole hour listening to Robert Caro discuss his multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (as moderated by another favorite of mine Stephen Harrigan). Caro is just brilliant; it's as simple as that. He seemed particularly pleased to speak (and accept an award) in the very room in which LBJ watched his father represent the state as a member of the Texas House. Caro said he could easily picture LBJ as a thirteen-year-old boy standing at the back of the room watching the sessions. He did not say when the fourth volume of the biography will be finished.
Last up, again in the House Chambers, was T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who is determined to help America wean itself from foreign oil once and for all. You may have seen his commercials all over the television networks in which he is promoting wind energy and natural gas as the best ways for this country to go in the short term. Pickens has spent about 50 million dollars of his own money (he is a billionaire) promoting the plan and would love to work with the new president in order to help ease our energy problems. The man is 80 years old now, so he wants to get a firm commitment to his plan in the first 100 days of the new term. Pickens comes across as very modest, but very confident that he has THE plan, and he has little faith that Obama or McCain have a clue about this country's energy future.
The Pickens session was packed, while just across the floor in the Senate Chambers television star Mike Farrell, of Mash fame, was promoting his own new book. I sat in on about 25 minutes of Farrell's presentation and found him to be a very sincere and soft-spoken man. He very much wants to see the abolishment of the death penalty and I found it ironic that he was speaking to that issue on the floor of the capitol of the state most active in using the death penalty. I felt badly for Farrell that so many people left his session to go over to the Pickens one that started 30 minutes into Farrell's - but I joined them.
I was sorry to find that my camera was broken when I tried to take my first background picture but I did make some nice audio recordings of the sessions, so I won't complain too much. I came away with some great recordings and even better memories.
Overall, this was a real treat and I'm looking forward now to November 2009.