Moonlight in old Austin

Resolution someone should make for 2013:  solve the question of acceptable vs. inconsiderate digital multitasking.

Before the term came into being, we felt virtuous when accomplishing things simultaneously.  Haven’t we heard the stories about pioneer women sitting fireside, stirring the soup with one hand and quilting with the other–and rocking the baby’s cradle with one foot?  The other foot was presumably also doing something worthy–perhaps treadling the spinning wheel while someone else spun, sewed, and shelled peas.

More options exist for offending others now.  More of an Appliance Multitasker than a Gadget Multitasker, I’ll start up breadmaker, washer, and dryer and head out for some gardening while listening to a Playaway book.  But the minute I witness someone popping out a cell phone and texting during a live conversation, I become The Judgmental Multitasker.  It’s easy to scroll for information and disapprove at the same time.

However, multitasking books (and/or books that prompt the reader to do so) deserve gold stars–unless the reader was hoping for a restful, non-stimulating literary interlude…

Consider Steven Saylor’s A Twist at the End, the choice for a January book group.  It blends history, politics, true crime, mystery, and easily inferred social commentary.

Saylor’s protagonist is William Sydney Porter AKA O. Henry, famed author of classic short stories (“The Last Leaf“, “The Gift of the Magi“, etc.).  Prior to achieving literary fame, sometime Austin resident Porter was a ranch hand, pharmacist, quartet singer,  illustrator and cartoonist, editor of The Rolling Stone weekly, bank teller–and convicted embezzler.   (Trivia buffs take note: he’s also credited with coining the term “banana republic”).  Set in 1885 Austin, A Twist centers on the sensational Servant Girl Annihilator murders, still unsolved and credited to America’s first serial killer.  Sculptor Elisabet Ney, numerous colorful figures from the Texas legislature and the then-new Capitol building’s “Goddess of Liberty” statue also figure in.

Be warned.  You’ll be torn between turning pages and pausing to seek more historical background.  I found the framed 1895 panoramic map of Austin in my living room to be both a benefit and a distraction.  I kept trotting over to pinpoint whichever intersection or location had just been mentioned.  And, with the internet and Handbook of Texas Online so handy, why not treat myself to more details about moonlight towers, the Texas Capitol, and so forth?

You can order your own historic maps from the General Land Office (where O. Henry was employed for a time).

Note (pg. 221) the reference to Richard Harding Davis as certain to be widely read “a century from now, in 2006”.  Davis, premier correspondent of the Spanish American War, writer of fiction and Broadway plays, magazine editor, and literary influence for Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway (among others) was so dashingly handsome as to have inspired the image of the Gibson Girl’s escort.  His clean-shaven look influenced a generation of men to forego formerly stylish facial hair.  He’s even alleged to have brought the first avocado back to the States.

Had texting-while-chatting been an option back then, he’d have made it look charming.

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