Texas Book Festival 2009
Time again for the Texas Book Festival, an annual event for literary junkies. Two hundred writers and forty thousand readers gather at the state capital building for a weekend. The writers talk. The readers listen. The readers buy more books, and some of the proceeds go to the benefit of Texas libraries.
Here are some notes I took during the sessions I attended. This is what I heard from the writers and the moderators and sometimes questions from the audience. [There are occasional editorial interjections by me in square brackets, such as this is.]
Saturday 10:00: Bryan Mealer, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"
- The story of William Kamkwamba of Malawi.
- What's it like to live on $1 a day in a poor rural village?
- The writer has spent many years in Africa. Was referred to a WSJ article in December 2007.
- The story takes place in Malawi, in south central Africa, at the intersection of Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. Malawi is a poor country. There is no war, just famine due to drought.
- Only 2% of the population has electricity.
- William's family raises 1.5 acres of maize. They also have a small garden for tobacco, which is their cash crop in good years.
- To lower the national debt, the government sold off its strategic grain reserve, which was used to feed the population during droughts. There was none left to use in this drought emergency.
- William's family had no money for school, so he had to drop out. [The school fees are about $80 per year.] But looking around his village, he knew that if he did not get an education, he would live as a subsistence farmer as they had done for generations. To try to keep up with the kids who were still in school, he read books at a local library that had a few hundred books.
He had seen someone using a bike light generator to power a radio, so he knew that making electricity was possible.
- He found a British physics books, plus a (non-technical) dictionary from Chichewa to English, plus "Figure 10" diagrams of dynamos, and another book with pictures of windmills. William spoke no English, could get only a few words. But he thought, "Someone has built that. I can build that."
- He collected parts, an old tractor fan, bicycle frame and wheel, car parts from junkyard. To fashion fan blades, he took pieces of PVC pipe, heated them over a fire, and after they softened, he flattened and twisted them into shape.
- People thought he was a wizard, or a witch, or crazy, or on drugs. Even his mother thought he was crazy. And then the windmill worked, lit light bulbs in their house, and then they thought maybe he wasn't crazy.
- When it was running, some thought that the windmill was a witch tower that blew away the clouds that would have brought rain, that it lengthened the drought, was bad magic.
- The writer (Bryan Mealer) has tried to capture William's language. The kid is very articulate, speaks in metaphor, with humor. They spoke mostly through a translator from Chichewa early on. William now speaks English.
- William has been on TED twice (see ted.com), the Daily Show, many others.
- He pours his money into school fees for many children, including his six sisters. Proceeds from this book are going to his education fund.
- People line up to charge their cell phones on his windmill. Like many third-world countries, Malawi leapfrogged the wired phone era and went straight to cellular.
- William built another windmill to pump water for irrigation. After that worked, some news agency paid for a separate new well hole, and another bigger windmill pumps that.
- Water is pumped as irrigation to the maize fields, which now yield three full crops per year instead of one poor one.
- He built six windmills total, three of which are still running. He's now teaching many others how to do this, and they will teach more. . . .
- One of the early windmills had a structural problem: termites that kept eating the wood structure. Someone donated concrete for a new foundation.
- [This is a story that should be shouted from the rooftops. This young man -- this boy! He was only fourteen when he built his first windmill -- with no resources but with incredible perseverance and ingenuity, is transforming the lives of his family and his community. Get the book. Watch the TED videos. Read his web sites. Look for other videos on YouTube.]
- See www.williamkamkwamba.com and movingwindmills.org.
Saturday 11:30: Parched: Water in the West
Annette McGivney, Backpacker Magazine, "Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West"
- [Many gee-whiz pictures, of the type sometimes called "eco-porn," and repeated statements of "America doesn't need Lake Powell; it needs Glen Canyon." It comes out later that thirty million people depend on the Lake Powell and Lake Meade reservoirs. Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and San Diego would turn back into deserts without the water supply from this basin. Does America need those thirty million people? What would you suggest that they drink during severe droughts like the last few years? True, if the lakes feeding the water supply had not been there, then those people would not have been able to move there in the first place. But that is, you'll pardon the expression, water over the dam.]
- Lake Powell as a reservoir is down 90-100 feet, currently at 32% capacity, exposing many side canyons that used to be flooded.
David Baxter (words) and Laurence Parent (pictures), "Big River, Rio Grande"
- They went down the river in boats for months. Ran into a drug deal in progress the very first day, two power boats exchanging large packages, guns visible. Went past quickly, way on the other side of the river, careful not to make eye contact, hid in the reeds downstream.
- Lake Meade is also at less than 50% capacity.
- Silting a serious long term problem.
Q (from Tom Mason, the manager of LCRA, the Lower Colorado River Authority that controls the local reservoirs and dams in central Texas): If you were the water czar, what would you do?
- A: Stop subsidies for developers that allow them to buy cheap water and use it for housing sprawl. Use it for agriculture instead.
- A: Charge for wasting water on decorative St. Augustine grass. [So-called grass; it's called crab grass up North.]
- A: For the Rio Grande, you'd have to coordinate US and Mexican policies. Set financial incentives to fix behavior, not just regulations.
- A: Private land use affects water drained into the rivers.
- A: There can be no solution until we limit our numbers. Immigration and high birth rates are the root problem, particularly in the Southwest.
- In Texas, the state owns all surface water, but not the groundwater.
Saturday 1:30: WPA Writers Project
- The WPA Writers Project during the Depression fultilled a Mark Twain vision from 1890 of a thousand travelogue novelists.
- Cultural folklore project, too.
- Guidebooks published, many still in print.
- Anadarko is actually a town in OK, named after the Nadaco tribe.
- Books contain many interviews with former slaves, 100K of whom were still alive in the 1930s.
- The first HUAC investigation targeted the writers project for talking about poverty and segregation; run by Texas Congressman Dies.
- There is a documentary movie; trying to get onto PBS soon.
- The books are available on the Library of Congress web site.
- Guidebooks used by Steinbeck, Alistair Cooke, Michael Chabon, among others.
Saturday 2:15: Too Big to Fail
- With Bear Stearns, the government's role changes to "saving companies." That's a quote from a contemporary memo.
- Behind the scenes efforts started in March 2007. A memo outlining the TARP was written April 15th that year.
- No one understood "exotic derivatives" like CDOs.
- Leverage was really the culprit.
- Even banks started buying real estate directly, which was the wrong business for them to be in.
- There is a lot of human drama in the book. [Probably means less economics.] There are no heroes in this story.
- Paulsen was just as focused as Bush: do it my way or get out. Illustrative anecdote: Staff meeting at his house on a weekend, goes on for hours. Wife comes in and asks politely if anyone would like some water or something. He answers, "No one wants any water." She comes back later with water for everyone, anyway. But he was so intimidating that no one touched the water in front of them, for several more hours in this meeting.
Saturday 2:40: The World As It Isn't
[Several authors. I was there only a short time.]
- "A novelist has to live in his world for years. You have to be in it for only a week or two."
- [Neuroscience guy was very interesting. David Eagleman: "Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives"]
- [Very hard to hear in the Senate chamber with echoes and accents. Speakers there should receive some instruction about how to use a microphone in such a venue: speak slowly, distinctly, and loudly into the mike from a short distance. Do not modulate your voice loud and soft for emphasis.]
- How does a novelist achieve realism in writing? Take your own sensory experience and shape it into something else.
Saturday 3:30: Sir Harold Evans, "My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times"
- [A little bio of this man: editor of Sunday Times, then The Times, head of Random House, now head of TheDailyBeast.com. Broke the Kim Philby spy scandal, the thalidomide story, both despite extreme government pressure not to. I don't read memoirs, but this one I will.]
- Childhood story, what was it that got him interested in newspapers in the first place? Family vacation when he was very young. Men on the beach, recovering after being rescued from Dunkirk; very angry at being sent into battle with WWI era weapons, were completely outgunned by the enemy. Their account was completely different from what was being reported. How could the newspapers get it so wrong?
- Journalists should get it right, period. Often not popular. Dick Cheney called journalists in Iraq traitors for getting it right.
- Was put off the Kim Philby story by the Foreign Office, but got it from a dying man with nothing to lose. Was widely denounced for breaking the story.
- Thalidomide story: gag orders prohibited any public statements by the parties involved, or news, or politicians as long as there was a lawsuit in progress. Took almost ten years to come to a head. He was allowed to debate the moral question in print, but not to discuss any legal aspects. Had to run the story repeatedly, for several consecutive *weeks* in the Sunday Times, to get any attention from the public much less from the government.
Sunday 11:00: Kurt Eichenwald, "The Informant"
- Yes, it's the same book from seven years ago. Only now it has Matt Damon on the cover. [Damon stars in the recent movie.]
- Author talked to Mark Whitacre from September 1995 up to as recently as last week.
- Whitacre told someone he was 0014, twice as smart as 007. No, he was 003-1/2. Most appalling example of cluelessness: in one of the price-fixing meetings, he had a tape recorder in a hidden compartment in the top of his attache case. At one point, it started clicking. The attache case was sitting right on the table, and he was concerned that others would hear it. So he opened the case, then opened the secret compartment, and started tapping on the recorder to try to stop the clicking, making no attempt to hide what he was doing. Other conspirators were sitting next to him all this time, but, incredibly, did not notice. Says Eichenwald, "If you don't believe it, go look at the video clip on my web site."
- Whitacre was an incredibly charming guy that everyone liked. Still is.
- Confabulation: not just simple lying ad hoc, but constructing entire stories from a couple facts.
- 90% of the dialog comes straight from the book. Very pleased that the movie was so faithful to it, and was still so interesting.
- Book reveals the story gradually and surprisingly. Gives 90% of the facts and you think you understand the story. Then it gives another 2% more facts and the story changes completely. Then another 2% and it changes again.
- Whitacre actually fell for the Nigerian scam early on. The experience inspired his methods of embezzling: fake companies, fake invoices.
- Yes, Whitacre is bipolar, now on drugs to control it. In his case, he spent 90% of the time in the manic phase.
- Every scene in the movie is straight from the book.
- Wife followed him from city to city as he was transferred from one prison to another. She got a teaching degree, got teaching jobs in various cities. Visited him every weekend for 8-1/2 years.
- ADM got decapitated as a result of the investigation. All the top management gonzo.
Sunday 12:00: Gerald Posner, "Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power--A Dispatch from the Beach"
- Investigative journalist for The Daily Beast.
- First hotels built by virulently anti-Semitic developer Carl Fisher. His hotels advertised, "Always a view. Never a Jew." Ironic now.
- Posner lives in Miami Beach, had all his book parties cancelled because powerful people were pissed about what he wrote. The Herald ran a "Babylon Backlash" piece on the hatred of him, his un-fan club.
- During Prohibition, known to be "the leakiest dry spot" in Florida.
- Black entertainers working at the hotels had to go back across the causeway to Miami to find a place to stay.
- The original Ponzi, after whom "Ponzi scheme" is named: when he got out of jail in the North, he went to Miami Beach to become a real estate broker.
- One of Posner's informants wise-cracked that "the movie Scarface was a documentary" of the drug wars in Miami Beach.
- Incredible cash transactions from the drug trade were common before the $10K bank cash limits (on unreported transactions) were enacted. Cash purchases of houses for hundreds of thousands. Local banks had $250M in cash in demand deposit accounts, not earning any interest, just sitting there. The Fed got curious.
- The police academy class of 1980 was gone by 1990. All had been killed, jailed, indicted, or otherwise cashiered.
- Miami Beach often called "God's waiting room" because of the number of old folks there.
- Investigative journalists have a very warped tolerance for personal risk. It's okay to name a Saudi prince who funds terrorism, or a Miami Beach drug lord, but he doesn't smoke or skateboard.
- [I almost never read this sort of book, but this one I will.]
Sunday 12:45: too crowded.
All sessions in the small rooms were overbooked. Fives sessions full, one cancelled. Staff standing outside the doors not letting people in.
Sunday 1:30: Texas Mystery Writers
Jay Brandon, "Milagro Lane"
- Book was serialized in a newspaper as he wrote it. Bad idea. Does not allow you to go back and edit in or out details that hint about the future. Once early chapters are printed in the paper, they're concrete.
Kathryn Casey: "Blood Lines"
- Mainly true crime writer.
- With true crime, you never know exactly what happened; the victim can't talk and the murderers don't always tell the truth.
- Sara Armstrong series.
- San Antonio-ism "knock off" = expose someone as being stoned (on drugs).
- San Antonio-ism "Sometimes even a blind squirrel finds a nut."
- "True crime is hard. You have to get your facts right. I'd much rather make stuff up."
- Q: "Will you write a serialized novel again?" A: "I doubt it. Will there be any newspapers?"
- Texas-ism: "ranch brother" who can't get along in town, so manages the family ranch. When he comes to town, something embarrassing always happens. Every prominent family has a ranch brother or cousin or nephew. Well, many do.
- Using real places vs fictional ones: the Sara Armstrong series is set in Tomball, TX, a small suburb northwest of Houston. And people have been driving around looking for her horse ranch.
- Question to an autopsy "diener," (a term for a morgue assistant) a former medic in Vietnam: "Why do you stay with this job." Answer: "Because I like working with people."
Sunday 3:30: Barbara Ehrenreich, "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America"
- Intro by Sarah Bird included, "Her calling is the calling of bullshit, regardless of whose sacred cow produced it." [The newspaper Monday printed the quote without disguising the wording.]
- She was on "The Daily Show" last week. Look for clip on YouTube.
- Against *mandatory* positive thinking.
- Had breast cancer eight years ago. Did not like the experience of the culture surrounding it.
- Exhorted to be cheerful, expected to embrace the disease (cancer). You won't get better unless you mobilize these positive thoughts. . . .
- BS about positive attitude boosting your immune system, and this will help you recover. Well, she has a PhD in cellular immunology and disagrees. There is no evidence of such a link. And, by the way, the immune system is designed to fight off invaders; cancer = yourself.
- The positive thinking movement infantilizes the patient. A New York support group gives every new breast cancer victim a bag with a pink teddy bear and a box of crayons in it. She asked the Cancer Society why the crayons. Answer: in case you want to write down some of your thoughts or feelings. Her response: I'm a writer. I don't write with crayons.
- Not afraid of dying. Terrified of dying with a pink breast cancer teddy bear under her arm.
- Positive thinking, motivational speakers, exploded in the 80s, not coincidentally the dawn of downsizing.
- Fire the negative employee. Expel the breast cancer victim from the support group if her cancer has metastasized, because that negativity might spread to the group.
- Megachurches tend not to have crosses or images of Jesus on the cross, because, man, it's, like, a downer.
- Delusion is always dangerous. Negative thinking is just as delusional as positive thinking. Why not try realism?
- Q: "Do we damage children by raising them in an over-positive environment." A: "Well, it's not a problem with *my* grandchildren, who are perfect in everything they do."
- Glad to have a president who accepts incoming information, for a change.
- Bush was the embodiment of positive thinking: a cheerleader in college, and now a motivational speaker.
- Story about an employee survey. Question on the survey: "What is your favorite kind of humor?" Woman answers, "Irony." The boss tells her that this is not an acceptable answer to the question. "If you want a career here, change your sense of humor."
- What do we do with people who have heard no news but Fox News for the last ten years? With children who have grown up on Rush Limbaugh and Fox? This is estimated to be about 30% of the population of Texas.
- There is some truly crackpot thinking along these lines, but very popular. "If you think the right way, then money will be attracted to you." The tsunami victims must have been sending out tsunami-like vibrations, and their thoughts attracted the wave.