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review 2016-04-25 20:56
#Saint George's Day: North Toward Home

This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, where I am a bookseller. 


My first edition of North Toward Home. Willie Morris’ 1967 autobiography is her staff selection for Saint George’s Day.


My first edition of North Toward Home. Willie Morris’ 1967 autobiography is my staff selection at BookPeople for Saint George’s Day.


April is the month of the feast day of Saint George. In celebration of the life of the third century Roman military martyr,  our booksellers have been honoring a centuries old tradition of offering a rose and a book. In fact, all this month, we have been recommending books from the catalogue of our friends at Random House. (You can find my selection, North Toward Home, and other picks from my fellow booksellers on our Saint George’s Day display in our store at the front of the staircase.)




Willie Morris’ North Toward Home is a book that evokes both passion and nostalgia in me.  I discovered it about a decade ago when I was a student at UT, and a reporter for The Daily Texan. I learned that Morris was a legendary editor of UT’s decorated student newspaper in the 50s. His editorials against segregation and the university’s ties with oil and business interests earned him the enmity of UT administration. He earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and went on to become the youngest editor of Harper’s Magazine in 1967, the same year he published his seminal memoir.  


As a writer, I most admire Morris for his ability to evoke the nuances of culture in his prose. His work is striking for how firmly he is able to establish a sense of place. In one of my favorite passages from North Toward Home, Morris has just left his home in Mississippi as a boy of seventeen. It is 1953. He arrives in Austin on a Greyhound and describes stepping onto the University of Texas campus for the first time as an awestruck freshman: 


“It was early fall, with that crispness in the air that awakened one’s senses and seemed to make everything wondrously alive. My first days I wandered above that enormous campus, mingling silently with its thousands of nameless students. I walked past the fraternity and sorority houses, which were like palaces to me with their broad porches and columns and patios, and down “The Drag” with its bookstores and restaurants, a perfectly contained little city of its own. On a slight rise dominating the place was a thirty-story skyscraper called the “Tower,” topped with an edifice that was a mock Greek temple; the words carved on white sandstone said, “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” causing me to catch my breath in wonder and bafflement. That first morning I took the elevator to the top and looked out on those majestic purple hills to the west, changing to lighter shades of blue or a deeper purple as wisps of autumn clouds drifted around the sun; this, they would tell me, was the great Balconies Divide, where the South ended and the West began, with its stark, severe landscape so different from any I had known before…”


There are other reminisces of Austin and UT in this book that are unforgettable. As Morris voyages north to New York, where he breaks into the world of American letters, and then makes a restless and nostalgic return back home, we are given a portrait of a country in transition, entering the civil rights era. Morris was clearly influenced by Richard Wright’s Black Boy, published a generation earlier, and his journey reflects a country still struggling to define itself. He achieves a singular grace with his effort. As Walter Percy put it, North Toward Home is the story of “one man’s pilgrimage.” Fifty years after its release, it stands as one of the great American autobiographies.


This Saint George’s Day, I am happy to share North Toward Home with you. Buy a copy for yourself; buy a copy for a UT student or alumnus, or for someone else in your life who will appreciate it for its mesmerizing beauty, its fierce intelligence, and for Morris’ deeply felt and resonant reflections on the American south and the meaning of home.


Mona has been with us as a bookseller since last fall. Her first book, Turning Points, is a collection of essays from the Austin stuttering community, and is available in our store and online.

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text 2016-02-26 17:41
This Week I'm Reading: 'Children of Paradise'

For the last week of February, I made the following contribution to What Were Reading this Week on BookPeople's blog. Read the full post, which includes other selections by my fellow booksellers, here



Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran by Laura Secor


“Earlier this year, I picked up an advanced reading copy of Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. Of the many great reads in our Middle Eastern Studies section, this new release is especially important and timely given the Obama administration’s historic nuclear deal with Iran. This book focuses on the Iran’s history in the modern era. Through a series of bios of influential leaders and thinkers in Iran as well as ordinary citizens, Secor traces the intellectual and social underpinnings of the revolution of 1979 and the decades that have followed. Reoccurring themes that occur in the book are the Iranian people’s struggle to reconcile eastern and western ideas; modernity and religion; and national attachments that span millennia.


I am only about halfway through this book, and feel a great deal more informed about the events that have shaped where we are now in relations between Iran and the West. It got me looking after other books to open my eyes to our world. (Over the course of reading this book, I also finished Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, an eloquent and indelible portrait of another elusive place that has dominated our political discourse in recent years. It is also one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.)


As for further reading on Iran, I recommend Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books or Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis. The strength of these two books is their great cultural sensitivity in telling the stories of extraordinary Iranian women who lived the events described in Secor’s book.” You can find copies of Children of Paradise on our shelves and via bookpeople.com


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text 2015-09-26 18:14
An Evening with Mary Karr
The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr

This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.


Over the last few years, I have been to a number of events at BookPeople, where I come to grow in my journey as a reader and a writer. Now, as I bookseller, I am thrilled to be even more a part of this community, and a part of the discussions brought to us by acclaimed authors. 


I was delighted last week to see Mary Karr, who came to talk about her latest book, The Art of Memoir.



It was a packed floor of about 300 people, many of whom have a deep affection for her bestselling and critically acclaimed memoirs (such as The Liars ClubCherry, and Lit). I also found many writers in the audience, who, like me, aspire to write a memoir one day. 


I imagine it was the next best thing to taking Karr’s coveted seminar course on memoir writing at Syracuse University. She clearly cares about fostering other writers. She also hopes that through her latest work, her fans will become better readers of literature.


The talk offered valuable lessons about the craft of writing memoir, but also laughter, and practical advice about self-care and the value she finds in daily prayer and meditation. 


I was touched by the authenticity of the evening. We heard from Karr about her chaotic family life as a child, about the first boy that she kissed, and stories from sessions with her therapist. 


These topics became the subjects of her memoirs: over the years, she’s written about discovering her womanhood, her recovery from alcoholism, and the salvation she found in Catholicism. 


What draws Karr to the memoir form is the possibility for self-invention. After all, we become ourselves by telling our stories, she said. For Karr, stories have been a way to bond with people as she’s gone through life. 


I told Karr her talk was especially valuable to me because of where I am in my own journey: I recently found that helping others tell their stories was a step in freeing my own writing voice (my first book is a collection of essays from people who stutter.


Voice is critical to the memoir form, according to Karr. It took her 20 years to develop the voice that she would use in her first memoir, The Liar’s Club. She expects that readers and writers all have “things that have happened in this life that we are trying to make sense of.” 


“I think the most privileged person in this room or any room suffers from the torments of the damned,” Karr said. “There is no way to be alive and not have your heart broken.” 


A strength of memoir is that it allows for self-improvement. 


“The most heartbreaking things for me have not been the bad things that have been done to me, but the bad things I’ve done to other people,” she said. “Those are the things that haunt us, right?” 


And these are the things that keep her writing. 


I was intrigued by Karr’s response when an audience member asked her if she will ever try her hand at fiction. 


It’s not her nature, she said. She believes whatever gifts God has given her, they gravitate toward the nonfiction form. And, she pointed out, very few of the great nonfiction writers she admires are also great fiction writers. 


Memoir gets a bad wrap, often overlooked as “the province of weirdos and film stars,” she said. But there are great memoirs by many of her heroes–writers such as Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel–that endure as literature; these are the kind of books she hopes to see more of as a result of her new book. 


A woman stood up during the question-and-answer portion and said she grew up in the same southeast Texas town as Karr. Karr confirmed the stories that were told about her. She missed 81 days of school in the sixth-grade; she was usually at home reading. At other times, reading was “socially sanctioned dissociation” from what was going on in her surroundings.


Another audience member asked Karr if a formal education is necessary to achieve the success she has. 


“I don’t have one,” Karr reminded the audience. “I never finished college. I’m uncredentialed.” 


She then added, “I think you need a heart.” 


I can’t wait to read Mary Karr’s new book. Signed copies of The Art of Memoir are still available in our store and online.

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photo 2014-11-11 16:31

A manager in my office saved this article for me because he saw me reading in the break room and was happy to meet a fellow reader. This led to a lengthy discussion to the merits of books vs. other entertainment and how the next generation seems to be lacking the magic of books. 


I love finding a kindred spirit. 

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