The Texas Book Festival is back for its 25th year — not, perhaps, in the way organizers had hoped, with a happy return to the sprawling celebration in and around the state capitol that Texan book-lovers thrive on.
But the festival excels at conversations, and since the majority of the sessions are virtual this year (with a weekend of in-person events at the Austin Central Library and Symphony Square), attendees will, at least, have front-row seats to every exchange.
And this year’s hybrid festival has a breadth of content that’s true to form, with programming that ranges from big names, big publishers, and hot topics of the moment to newer writers, smaller presses, and complex, interdisciplinary works that run alongside and above the mainstream.
Here are five picks from this latter group that promise to bring readers something new to think about. All recommended events are free though registration is required.
Fabulist and Absurdist Fiction with Edward Carey and Ethan Rutherford
7 p.m. Oct.25, virtual, sign-up at crowdcast.io/e/i2rrabjr/register
Austin’s Edward Carey creates small, fantastic worlds — or sometimes only fragmentary, telling glimpses into them — in fiction, plays, and illustrations. His most recent novel, “The Swallowed Man,” riffs on the story of Pinocchio to imagine the two years that Geppetto, the wooden boy’s adopted father, spends inside a whale. Carey often illustrates his own work, and has been making a drawing a day since returning home to Austin at the beginning of the pandemic. His thoughts on what to do with a confined life will surely strike a chord for readers. Carey will appear in conversation with Ethan Rutherford, a fiction writer whose second book of stories, “Farther South,” explores disquiet and fantasy within ordinary lives. The conversation is moderated by Austin author Deb Olin Unferth.
Art World Biographies with Daniel Oppenheimer and Claudia Fontaine Chidester
10 a.m. Oct: 27, virtual, sign-up at crowdcast.io/e/vahsgba8
Anyone who’s opened a copy of the art critic Dave Hickey’s “Air Guitar,” a book of essays published in 1997, can attest to the charm of his prose: conversational and irreverent, yet heady, and full of sudden vistas on beauty, re-drawn in words from life and art. The Austin-based journalist Daniel Oppenheimer takes stock of the critic’s life and achievements in the biography “Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art,” out this year from UT Press. The festival brings Oppenheimer in conversation with Claudia Fontaine Chidester, whose book “Trusted Eye: Post World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate” portrays another complex life in and around the arts — that of the author’s mother, whose life in postwar Germany with her husband, the painter Paul Fontaine, produced an archive of letters and photographs that document this complex moment in social and art history.
Small Publisher Showcase: Flowersong Press
10:45 a.m. Oct. 27, virtual, sign-up at crowdcast.io/e/muxxfn9r/register
A remarkably large group of small presses call Texas home — and they’re not just based in the big cities. Hailing from McAllen, in the southernmost part of the state, Flowersong Press specializes in books that engage with “the borderlands,” a concept linked both to geopolitical reality and to the space of ideas. Flowersong’s showcase highlights verse, with mostly poets on the panel, including Edward Vidaurre, Benito Pastoriza Iyodo, Mauricio Novoa (currently an Austinite), and Sonia Gutierrez (whose featured work at the festival is actually the YA novel “Dreaming with Mariposas”). This conversation between the four poets and a debut novelist, Marisol Cortez, promises to explore issues of linguistic, generic and physical boundary-crossing in the context of a body of work that is varied and deeply invested in the interplay of languages and cultural identities.
A Poet and a Historian Talk About Freedom, with Maggie Nelson and Louis Menand
2 p.m. Oct. 27, virtual, sign-up at https://www.crowdcast.io/e/v2ojbblm
Prolific and hard to categorize, the poet, critic and essayist Maggie Nelson has earned the attention of readers who are interested in the ways that shifts in culture require shifts in language — not merely in pronouns, but in syntax, imagery, and further out to text forms themselves. 2007’s “Bluets,” an extended, freewheeling and emotionally fraught meditation on the color blue, contains its ideas with prose poems that present as miniatures on the page and an intensely private tone. Nelson’s best-known work, “The Argonauts,” combines autobiography and theory to reflect on the formation and transformation of identity in the contexts of family and desire. Her most recent book, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint” bends genres, too, but with a theme more explicitly geared toward collective notions of identity. TBF will bring Nelson together with her former teacher, the historian Louis Menand, to discuss “On Freedom” as well as his 2021 book “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War.” It should be fascinating to hear Nelson and Menand tangle with a concept as public as “freedom.”
2020 Award Winners from the Texas Institute of Letters
10 a.m. Oct. 31, Austin Central Library, in-person and virtual.
In-person RSVP and health protocol: eventbrite.com/e/texas-book-festival-at-austin-central-library-tickets. Virtual sign-up at crowdcast.io/e/ayfzvwri
For a change of mode, check out the slate of in-person events for adults at the downtown Austin Public Library on Oct. 31. Many of the conversations on the roster concern current events, so the Texas Institute of Letters award winners’ event will be an outlier, a three-part reading as well as a conversation between two fiction writers and a poet, all with Texas roots. Probably the best known author in the trio is Christina Soontornvat, an Austinite whose middle-grade novel, “A Wish in the Dark,” won a Newbery Honor this year in addition to the award from TIL. The other two writers received TIL’s honors for their debut works, both published by small Southwest presses. Marisol Cortez’s novel “Luz at Midnight” comes from Flowersong Press. David Meischen’s first book of poetry, “Anyone’s Son,” was issued by 3, a small press out of Taos, New Mexico. A former Austinite and veteran high school English teacher who made his way over many years into full-time writing, Meischen writes powerfully about his experience as a gay man before and after coming out. To see his work so publicly lauded reflects his journey out of secrecy around the identity that he explores in the book’s precise and moving poems.
The full Texas Book Festival schedule is at texasbookfestival.org/2021-festival-schedule/