Texas Book Festival: 2019

The annual Texas Book Festival was held in and around the Texas State Capitol this past weekend. Sessions took place inside the Capitol building and under huge, white tents on 11th Street, Colorado Street, and Congress Avenue. Nearby church sanctuaries were also used for the most popular authors. Since the Paramount and State theaters were being used for the Austin Film Festival, the most popular authors spoke in nearby churches.

Again this year, the Texas Book Festival featured a stellar schedule of authors. Most of the sessions were free, except for those with John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, chef Sean Brock, and comedian John Hodgman. Wristbands (free with book purchase) were required to see Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who was publicizing her children’s book. While I didn’t see any of these folks, I did attend some interesting sessions…

A Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific author, perhaps best-known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Set in Botswana, he said those books are a love letter to that country. He explained that his characters are leading a life in his imagination. He believes that an author needs to like his characters, and therefore he finds it difficult to write villains. When writing, Smith thinks first of place, then characters and plot. He especially likes to describe the sky. Smith finished with his poem called On the Bedside Table

Creative Calculations
Authors: Catherine Chung and Karen Olsson Moderator: Juli Berwald

This session focused on women and mathematics. The main character in Catherine Chung’s novel, The Tenth Muse, is a mathematician. Karen Olsson wrote The Weil Conjunctures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown about sibling mathematicians Simone and Andre Wells. The authors had read each other’s books, which made for a more interesting discussion. Both were math majors in college, but are not employed in that field now. They observed that girls who are good at math are often good at humanities as well, so they are not usually encouraged to pursue math.

Information Wars: The Battle against Disinformation
Author: Richard Stengel Moderator: Evan Smith

Richard Stengel’s most recent book is Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It. His story begins with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. As an Under Secretary in the State Department during the Obama administration, he had tweeted about the situation and was hit by Russian trolls. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Stengel and ask him to address this. Of course, he nows sees the irony in this request.

Stengel explained that disinformation is intentionally wrong and misleading. Misinformation is not deliberate. He said that Russia has a well-coordinated strategy for disseminating disinformation. He noted that Russia did more on Instagram than Facebook during the 2016 election and that now Russian actors are even renting unused Facebook ids. According to Stengel, the US had considered doing something similar, but decided this wasn’t consistent with our country’s values. He believes Facebook and other companies should be held libel for the information on their platforms. In his view, the US doesn’t have a fake news problem, but rather a media literacy problem: people need to be educated to understand what news is reliable.

The High Drama—-and Harrowing Hubris—-of Big Tech
Author: Mike Isaac Moderator: Suzi Sosa

Mike Isaac is the author of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. This book traces history of Uber, starting with their initial focus on Uber Cab and ending with the ouster of the founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick. The book‘s title was taken from one of the company’s values. Isaac noted that shady and sometimes illegal steps were taken to build the business. After sexism and harassment complaints surfaced in 2017, the Uber board and investors finally ousted Kalanick. 

Cook Once, Eat All Week: Affordable and Fast Dinners

Cassy Joy Garcia demonstrated a few recipes from her new cookbook, Cook One, Eat All Week. Her goal is to make healthy and quick dinners using a few ingredients (plus some shelf staples) that can mostly be prepared ahead of time and then used for three meals. In this session, she made a cauliflower casserole, followed by a chicken and cauliflower sheet pan meal, and then stuffed avocados. Alas, no samples. 

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA
Author: Amaryllis Fox Moderator: Katy Vine

Amaryllis Fox began her clandestine work along the Thai-Burmese border when she was 17. She received degrees from Oxford and Georgetown. Her book, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA, documents her experiences while working for the CIA. She refused to speak about CIA operational details, referring to her book for those questions [I’ve since read that the CIA was not happy about this book]. She is married to Robert Kennedy III. Some Fox quotes: “We cannot prevent violence through violence alone.” “We underestimate the power of humiliation to fuel violence…and to quell violence.”

Truth Worth Telling: A Conversation with Journalist Scott Pelley
Author: Scott Pelley Moderator: Kathleen McElroy

Scott Pelley’s first book, Truth Worth Telling, is an anthology of short stories organized by virtues such as valientry and perseverance. Pelley was a CBS correspondent and CBS Evening News anchor, and is now a correspondent on 60 Minutes. He said his book contains small stories about seismic events, and that this is also the secret to the success of 60 Minutes. Some Pelley quotes: “Everyone has a story, but not everyone can tell their story.” “People see the same story, but they see it differently.” “I think the fastest way to destroy democracy is to poison the information.”

American Moonshot: Kennedy and the Great Space Race
Author: Douglas Brinkley Moderator: Thomas Queen

Before this session, I had already read Douglas Brinkley’s excellent book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. Brinkley said that his interest in the moon race began as a young boy growing up near Neil Armstrong’s hometown in Ohio. He briefly explained that, except for Robert Goddard, the US had little expertise in rocketry until after World War II, when Wernher Von Braun and his team were spirited out of Nazi Germany to the US. President John Kennedy and Von Braun became friends, and during the 1950s, Kennedy taunted Eisenhower for not funding Von Braun’s projects. NASA was created in 1958 during the Cold War. In 1961 during a speech at Rice University (where Brinkley is a professor), Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. After Kennedy’s assassination, his wife Jaqueline had one request of then-President Lyndon Johnson: to continue the space program.

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