Best Texas Books: Wrestling with writer J. Frank Dobie

At some point, every Texas writer — or serious reader — must come to terms with “Mr. Texas.”

Author J. Frank Dobie. American-Statesman file photo.

To the extent that Austinites today recognize the name of folklorist, teacher and widely published columnist, J. Frank Dobie, they might associate it with a middle school, or a freshly renovated mall at the base of a dormitory tower (despite the fact that Dobie hated high-rises), or perhaps with “Philosophers’ Rock,” a sculptural tribute at Barton Springs devoted to Dobie and his gabbing buddies Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb.

The literary-minded might also think of the Dobie Paisano Ranch, which serves as a writer’s retreat on Barton Creek for Dobie Fellows, or the modest Dobie residence across from the University of Texas Law School, where writing students sometimes meet.

Born in 1888, Dobie came out of South Texas brush country with an abiding interest in cowboy yarns, legends of lost treasure, and tales of conquistadors, cattle drives and desert rats. Dobie struggled at first to find his voice, but struck gold in the mass-market magazine trade that was hungry for adventure stories.

He then expanded those articles, sometimes scantily, into two dozen books. He took up residence at UT and mentored subsequent generations of folkorists and writers. A the same time, he penned a weekly column that was published in dozens of newspapers. He died in 1964.

As Steven L. Davis describes in his superb biography, “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind,” the folklorist’s intellectual journey took him from unreconstructed attitudes toward Mexicans, Native-Americans and African-Americans — as well as a belief in the self-reliance of rough-and-ready Texans — to become one of the most progressive and open-minded columnists in the state, the bane of the postwar Establishment. He also mentored Hispanic and African-American folklorists, although he broke with the social scientists in the field who insisted on undiluted field notes rather than lovingly burnished stories. His motto: “Any tale belongs to whoever best tells it.”

RELATE: Start with this J. Frank Dobie bio.

One can certainly ignore Dobie and still understand Texas. Or one can choose other, better writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, Stephen Harrigan, Americo Paredes, Sarah Bird, Don GrahamAttica Locke or Lawrence Wright to gain your initial insights about the state.

I, for one, avoided Dobie for as long as I could. First, I’m allergic to thickly applied dialect, whether from otherwise great authors such as George Eliot (the unreadable “The Mill on the Floss”) or local heroes like John Henry Faulk (whenever told an extended story in someone else’s down-home voice). Also, Dobie’s tales seemed directed at a youthful audience, let’s face it, mostly boys, and rarely have I been able to reread even beloved adventure stories from childhood with much pleasure in my later years.

So what drew me to Dobie in my sixties? One writer, other than Davis, who got me over the conceptual hump was Bill Wittliff, whose masterful recreation of various Texas dialects in his “Devil’s Backbone” series of picaresque novels is an absolute delight. (A third volume comes out this fall from UT Press.)

So maybe Dobie’s liberally applied Texas dialects might not set my teeth on edge.

Also, I’d recently read the collected works of Porter, who sparred with Dobie over their respective places among Texas writers, and came away with the impression that she is among America’s greats, at her best on par with her near contemporaries William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dobie next?

Davis warned me personally that the seven volumes kept in print by the University of Texas Press were uneven. In response, he recently finished a volume of “The Essential J. Frank Dobie,” a “best of” edition to be valued because Dobie could rise to sustained excellence, as I later discovered. It comes out in Fall 2019 from Texas A&M University Press.

The proximate cause for my deep dive into Dobie, however, was a trip to the still-new offices of UT Press, where all their volumes in print are displayed in the reception area. As a diehard bibliophile, I was dazzled. Then I slipped my fingers across the seven beautifully designed Dobie paperbacks with their vintage-looking covers.

This paperback series, by the way, is kept in print because of a bequest from Dobie’ estate in the 1970s. Someone was thinking ahead to the day when Dobie was no longer a celebrity! Now they are mostly available via “print on demand.”

I asked for all seven. Then slowly read them, sometimes giving up altogether, then winding my way back to the stack.

“Uneven” does not begin to describe the books. Some are barely strung-together anecdotes, the kind you might find in an old-fashioned “general interest” column in a newspaper, stitched together by ellipses. “Rattlesnakes” and “The Longhorns” tend to follow this pattern. Interesting in spurts, but repetitive in an unappealing way.

Other Dobie’s collections present thicker stories, such as the nuggets in “Tales of Old-Time Texas” or “I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Still, the familiar patterns are burned into the narrative leather and you must be patient with them.

Lost mines and buried treasures tickled Dobie’s readers and he really does make the search for them compelling in “Apache Gold and Yacqui Silver” and, especially, “Coronado’s Children,” the book that probably holds up best.

In a special category is “The Ben Lilly Legend,” which benefits from a focused subject — a great American hunter. Dobie pursued this story with relish and persistence. I’d be tempted to recommend it as your first Dobie, that or “Coronado’s Children.”

Actually, do what I did and start with Davis’ “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.” You need it to understand the context for any additional Dobie reading.

Some great old Hollywood movies were inspired by these books. And one can find threads of these stories in McMurtry and Wittliff, who spun them into fictional gold.

Dobie might have been a promoter of a Texas that appears in the rearview mirror of an overwhelming urban and suburban state. And he’s not entirely reliable as a historian, but, darn it, he can tell a tale, especially when he sticks to the subject. And his stories birthed a lot of Texas mythology that still shapes the way we think of ourselves today.

 

Texas White House at LBJ Ranch closed for now

The National Park Service announced Friday that it will close the “Texas White House,” once the ranch home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his family in Stonewall, as well as the adjacent Pool House, until further notice because of health and safety concerns arising from water leakage in various places in the main house.

The Texas White House and pool at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, taken in 2012. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

For decades, these were the most private zones of the ranch, parts of the LBJ National Historical Park that, until 2012, were reserved for the Johnson family and not generally open to the public.

 RELATED: Exploring the inside of the Texas White House

The Park Service said they will remain closed until the service can confirm that the two buildings do not pose safety concerns.

“We don’t actually know what the problem is,” said Susanne McDonald, the national park superintendent. “We are going into an investigative stage to figure out what is happening. We are focusing on weaknesses in the structure that might be causing water intrusion. We have a few areas that have caused us problems, but we haven’t been able to figure out the exact location where the water is coming in. It could be absolutely nothing, but I don’t want to take a risk with our employees or our visitors.”

The modest buildings, preserved in 1960s styles, look less like the headquarters of the world’s most powerful person and more like a relaxing retreat where your beloved country relatives live. That is, until one notices the three attached televisions ready to broadcast the three big networks of the time.

Interiors of Texas White House were first seen by the public in 2012, preserved in their 1960s styles. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

“They just weren’t showy people,” former Superintendent Russ Whitlock said when the buildings were opened to the public in 2012. “The ranch and the ranch house take the Johnsons off the pedestal of president and first lady and make them into people we can relate to.”

In his recent book, “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval,” Ken Longley, the newly named director of the LBJ Presidential Library, describes how the ranch served as a safety valve for the  sometimes volcanic LBJ, especially during his traumatic final year in office. Repeatedly during 1968, the president retreated to the ranch, took a swim, then a ate a snack on TV trays, or a tooled around the Hill Country with family or friends to relax.

All other park facilities remain open to the public. These include the Johnson settlement, President Johnson’s boyhood home, and the park visitor center in Johnson City. The LBJ Ranch driving tour is not affected, and the LBJ Ranch hangar visitor center is open as normal.

UPDATE: The quote from Superintendent McDonald was added after this was first posted.

Best Texas books: ‘The Cedar Choppers’ by Ken Roberts

The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.

Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.

RELATED: Shooting heard “all over South Austin.”

Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.

Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.

(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)

In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.

The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.

Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).

After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.

I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.

Best Texas books: Lead off with this John Graves literary memoir

These new Texas books — plus one minor classic — reminds us how much is worth reading about our state in early 2018.

“Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship.” John Graves. University of Texas Press.

One could effortlessly make the argument that John Graves is among the finest authors Texas ever produced. Yet few readers venture beyond his masterpiece, “Goodbye to a River.” This literary memoir, first published in 2004 and spliced with excerpts from Graves’ journal from the 1950s, explains a lot about how he became who he became. A son of Fort Worth, he was educated in a gentlemanly manner at Rice Institute in Houston. He served in the Pacific Theater during World War II before earning his master’s degree from Columbia University in New York. He came away from that experience with a lingering antipathy toward Ivy League types and wanted to plunge instead into the peripatetic life of an expat writer, much like dozens of other American authors before and after the war. This memoir covers mostly his time in Spain and the Canary Islands and records his drinking bouts, love affairs, manly friendships, jagged interactions with other expats, as well as fishing, hunting and sailing trips. Sound like Hemingway? The great man is always in the background of this book and Graves even spots his putative role model a couple times in Spain. The Graves attitude and style is already well developed in the journal entries, although, as he points out, his return to Texas gave him his subject.

“All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music.” Michael Corcoran. University of North Texas Press.

Advice: Read this book with your favorite music streaming device at hand. You’ll want to listen to every artist described by Corcoran, formerly of the American-Statesman and other publications, in this revised version of his 2005 book about key Texas artists. You learn new things about some of them, such as Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Others are musical pioneers who might sound familiar, but Corcoran, an historian as much as a journalist, has tracked down exactly what you need to know. The backstories about what he could or could not discover are as compelling as his authoritative takes on the 42 artists’ histories and musical contributions. Corcoran has chosen fantastic images for this UNT Press edition, and he doesn’t waste a word. As he did during his Statesman years, he can make other writers wish they’d produced this work. The book will wait at eye-level on my Texas  reference shelves for as long as they are standing.

“Hometown Texas.” Photographs by Peter Brown. Stories by Joe Holley. Trinity University Press.

Like Corcoran, Holley has written for major newspapers and magazines. Also like Corcoran, he writes in a tight, precise and yet sometimes expansive manner. To tell the truth, Holley and and I cover a good stretch of the same waterfront, but it is worth it to read about some familiar Texas subjects because he is such an amiable storyteller. Other pieces, especially those with personal meaning for Holley, were completely new to me. Peter Brown’s photographs of small-town or rural Texas open wide and put the subject matter front and center. Nothing tricky here. His instincts and training lead him to the right image time and again. At times, though, one wishes the images raised by Holley were duplicated by Brown. But that’s another book. I know I will keep dipping into this collection of compelling Texas stories that doubles as a handsome picture book.

“The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk.” Donna Marie Miller. Texas A&M Press.

Donna Marie Miller’s ace in the hole is her generous access to James and Annetta White, who have run Austin’s legendary Broken Spoke honky-tonk since 1964. It’s clear that Miller warmly admires the White family and cherishes their stories. Her delight is infectious. She sketches out the early years — White grew up not far from our South Austin house! — then records how every family member pitched in when the Broken Spoke opened. One might wish for a little more on the background of the country music and dance styles that flourished at the honky-tonk, but Miller more than makes up for that with accounts of the legends of music that played there and the very localized culture that thrived on the east side of South Lamar Boulevard. Put this on the shelf next to Eddie Wilson’s knock-out 2017 “Armadillo World Headquarters.” Then look up Corcoran’s digital “Austin Clubland.”

ALSO READ: The definitive history of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.

“Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas.” Michael Hurd. University of Texas Press.

Another journalist who has become a historian is Michael Hurd, a former sportswriter for the American-Statesman and other publications. He’s seen a lot. And he understands the connections between sports, especially football, and other, often riven cultural expressions of our state. Until the (white) University Interscholastic League and the (black) Prairie View Interscholastic League merged in 1967, teams from segregated high schools in the same towns or cities played in the same stadiums. African-Americans took the field on Thursdays, Anglos on Fridays. Hurd is especially good on his hometown of Houston, which supported multiple black high schools with blazing rivalries. Now director of Prairie View A&M University’s Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture, Hurd soaks up stories from small towns and big cities. He provides accounts of state championship games in his appendices and, crucially, he reminds us that integration also meant the loss of pride and identity for those who attended black high schools that had excelled at academics and athletics. Even the darkened image of players on the dusk jacket affirms that this is a chapter of our state’s history that must come to light.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Late 2017.

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MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Spring 2017.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Fall 2016.

Turk Pipkin interviews Turk Pipkin for Book of Every Other Month Club

This week, Turk Pipkin launches his new Book of the Every Other Month Club on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo. Subscriptions help fund new libraries in Kenya as part of the ongoing Nobelity Project. Since he has enough time to write and publish six new books, I’ve added to his load by asking him to interview himself. So here are five questions and five answers by funnyman Pipkin — a project that only Pipkin would agree to do.

Turk Pipkin: So Turk, why would any writer be crazy enough to write and publish six books in a year?

Turk Pipkin: That’s what I keep asking myself! I’ve been writing the past decade while I was making films and building schools for the Nobelity Project, but only published “The Tao of Willie” (or “The Toe of Willie”, as my co-author Willie Nelson calls it). But these other stories and ideas kept coming. A while back, I sent my new novel “All for Love” to some New York publishing suspects and they all said it would make a great movie. Sure enough, I sold the movie rights in L.A., and I think it would be great if people could read the novel before they see the film.

RELATED: Austinites reflect on visits to Nobelity Project Kenya efforts.

One down, five to go. Are you getting any sleep?

What? Sorry, I dozed off there for a second. Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that “The Sopranos” cast me as a narcoleptic. In answer to my question, I’m considering a tattoo that say, “I’ll sleep when I’m published.” In my defense, I have a great copy editor and six great book designers on the publishing team, and they’re all good at making coffee.

What’s your favorite of the books?

It’s not good to play favorites with your children. But I love them all and whichever one I’m playing catch with at any given time is my favorite. The past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing the copy edit and design for “Moleskin Mystery,” which is a New Orleans love story about a guy who finds a partially written journal and takes over the writing to solve a mystery and shed a little light in his own life.

“Moleskin Mystery” ships to subscribers in time for Christmas, which immediately changes my favorite, “Requiem for a Screenplay,” my second book-child which I describe as my magnificent failures — three original screenplays that went up and down the Hollywood development process without getting green-lit. They never made it to living color, but I think they stand up to the test of the time in black and white.

Next November when the sixth book, “A Christmas Song,” is shipping to subscribers, it will be my favorite. There area a lot of fans waiting for this follow-up to my Algonquin Christmas novel, “When Angels Sing,” and the movie “Angels Sing,” which starred Willie Nelson, Connie Britton, Harry Connick, Jr., and Kris Kristofferson.

Oh, that Turk Pipkin! The Austin entertainer and humanitarian puts out six books soon. Contributed

Are you shipping books all year at the same time that you’re building three new libraries at schools in Kenya?

All I want for Christmas is a direct flight from Austin to Nairobi. Is that asking too much? And yeah, every two months, I’ll be shipping another new book to subscribers. I’ll also be working with our building contractors, and our library book publisher in Kenya to get a beautiful libraries functional for the 1,500 kids at three remote schools. In the U.S., we take books for granted, but access to books for the kids we work with in Kenya and creates a lifelong love of books, improved literacy and higher scores. A new library can be life-changing as it enables kids to achieve their true potential. One for one, book for book, everyone who subscribes to the book club will be making that possible.

RELATED: Feed the Peace or Nobelity Project.

Sounds like a perfect Christmas gift. How does someone buy the series, and—more importantly—how close were you to the lions in those photos?

Turk, you of all people should know that there are links at TurkPipkin.com to buy the series and get the “Moleskin Mystery” before Christmas. The higher subscription levels include canvas prints of my best Kenya wildlife photos. The big male lion with the scars was about 20 feet away and looking right at me. And that’s the real reason I can’t sleep.

Best Texas books: Big Bend nature leads off

We pause during Austin festival season to read up on nature in a Texas national park, the career of a Texas script doctor, the third part of an Old West trilogy by a Texan, a urban Chicano tale from another Texan and breezy book on Texas ingenuity.


“Nature Watch Big Bend.” Lynne Weber and Jim Weber. Texas A&M University Press.

Oh, how have we needed this book forever! Weber and Weber give a seasonal guide to the flora and fauna of our beloved Big Bend with copious drawings, maps, photographs and sidebars. The handy book also includes timely warnings about black bears, mountain lions and other potentially dangerous creatures.  With this in hand, we are not required to tote around separate guides for birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, cacti, succulents, grasses, trees and wildflowers. And it’s worth noting that the uninformed visitor to the National Park often expects one of these sightings at the wrong time of year. I’ve certainly gone hoping for a vermillion flycatcher or a indigo bunting when none was to be had even in the most likely spots. We’ve engaged with plenty of wildlife in Big Bend over the years, stuff not seen anywhere else in Texas, so guide away! It’s almost cool enough to return.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read this time of year.

“Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Warren Skaaren.” Alison Macor. University of Texas Press.

Our colleague, Joe Gross, already reported on this fine biography, written by one of our favorite local journalists and scholars. It never hurts to add another voice of praise. The late screenwriter Warren Skaaren was one of the definitive influences on the early Texas film scene, as well as a top Hollywood script doctor who worked on some of the biggest movies of his time, from “Top Gun” to “Batman.” Alison Macor, whose “Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas” is never far from my desk, excavated Skaaren’s archives in the Ransom Center to find the nitty gritty of not just the writing process, but also the endless give and take behind the scenes in the movie industry. I never knew Skaaren, who died in 1990, but I’d heard about him since I moved to town in 1984. This book fills a huge gap in our understanding, not only of the screenwriter, but of Texas cinema and films in general.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read right now.

“The Cholo Tree.” Daniel Chacón. Piñata Books, Arte Público Press.

This book kept drawing us back into its simple web with its unfussy prose, seemingly familiar settings and yet an unexpected central character. Victor is a teenager who almost everybody suspects of being a cholo or street gang member. Yet he defies expectations almost from the start, helped by observational powers beyond his years as well as artistic talent and some effective champions. Author Chacón is based in El Paso, but his story could be about any urban Chicano landscape.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read straightaway.

“Silver City.” Jeff Guinn. Putnam.

In Cash McLendon, Texas author Jeff Guinn has found a reliably readable character to track through the Old West. As previously revealed in “Buffalo Trail” and “Glorious,” McLendon must escape a brutal assassin, Patrick “Killer Boots” Brautigan, while trying to find and to keep his romantic interest, Gabrielle. This time, he lands in Mountain View, Arizona, with multiple plot complications at the ready. All the confidently unspooled action seems prime fodder for a screen adaptation. All that’s left is the casting and financing. Based in Fort Worth, Guinn is in calm control of all the levers of the modern Western, including the violence that almost inevitably bloodies the pages from the start.

MORE TO TEXAS BOOKS TO READ: Best Texas books to read these days.

“Texas Ingenuity: Lone Star Inventions, Inventors & Innovators.” Alan C. Elliott. History Press.

As jacket art promises, this thin book is just for fun. Nothing wrong with that. The subtitle gives away the project: Elliott puts all sorts of subjects into the category of Texas ingenuity. So you get outsized historical figures such as Sam Houston and Barbara Jordan, but also innovators of a different ilk in May Kay, Oveta Culp Hobby, Howard Hughes and Jack Kilby. Pig Stands and Dr. Pepper compete for space with O. Henry and the Kilgore Rangerettes. Taken individually, these items would make diverting curiosities in a newspaper series. Taken together as a book, they might not hang together, but they provide more than a little distraction.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read nowadays.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read forthwith.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best recent books about Texas rivers.

Best Texas books: Birders alert

Texas birds, Texas musicians, Texas media stars, Texas festivals and a guide to the Texas Capitol stack up on our state shelves this week.

“Book of Texas Birds.” Gary Clark with photographs by Kathy Adams Clark. Texas A&M Press. For some of us, there are never too many Texas bird books. This one might not fit as easily into a backpack as snugly some of the more traditional guides — not to mention its weight at more than two pounds — but the clarity and beauty inside more than make up for its relative girth. It seems manufactured to last, too, another crucial argument in its favor, since it will get a lot of use. Gary Clark’s easy journalistic style — he writes a column for the Houston Chronicle — nicely matches Kathy Adam Clark’s generous images. We plan to keep it handy whenever possible.

MORE ABOUT TEXAS BIRDS: “One More Warbler.”

 

“When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath.” Stuart Isacoff. Knopf. Curious how Van Cliburn mania comes in waves. Texans are particularly prone to flights of fancy about their native son who won the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War in 1958, then was lionized around the world, including a ticker tape parade in New York. He is now the subject of two new books, this one by piano expert Stuart Isacoff, who doesn’t stint on the socio-political context, and “Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How one Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War” by Nigel Cliff. Isacoff is particularly good at describing Cliburn the performer both at his peak and during his declining years. We were lucky enough to hear him several times during that autumnal period. The freshness had vanished, but never the glamour.


 

“It’s News to Me.” Olga Campos Benz. Self-published. One special treat that awaits those who ply Austin’s social circuit is to land at a table next to media savvy Olga Campos Benz. Not only is she a first-rate storyteller, but she’s got ripe stories to tell from her years as a top Texas broadcast journalist and afterwards, when she became one of Austin’s most visible volunteers and activists. She’s met a crazy character or two along the way. This brisk, fluent novel is informed by all that experience. Now, I can’t tell you how much of this story is based on real people — the same is true with Rob Giardinelli’s sweet and recently published society memoir, “Being in the Room” — but I can confirm some parallels between the fictional photojournalist of the novel and flesh-and-blood husband Kevin Benz. This volume confirms the instinct: If you’ve got a novel in you, please write it.

“Cornyation: San Antonio’s Outrageous Fiesta Tradition.” Amy L. Stone. Trinity University Press. Fiesta is one of those singular things that sets San Antonio almost completely apart from its sister Texas cities. One aspect of this annual holds special meaning for the state’s LGBT community. Fiesta itself goes back to the 1890s and, like Mardis Gras, its sprawling celebration is staged by not one, but dozens of local groups. That structure generated isolated pockets of social exclusion, while allowing a broader cross-section of the population to participate in novel ways. Cornyation is a drag spoof of Fiesta’s debutante Coronation of the Queen of the Alamo. It goes back at least to the early 1950s and was embraced as part of the accepted party landscape. Author Amy Stone has fun with this phenomenon, while taking it seriously on a sociological level. The pictures are out of this world!

“Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol”

“Legends & Lore of the Texas Capitol.” Mike Cox. History Press. What would we do without Mike Cox? The journalist and author had published more than 3o books, a great many of them about Texas and its history. Here he delves into the enduring myths and verifiable facts about one the state’s most charismatic shrines, the Texas Capitol. Cox was working for our newspaper in 1983 when a fire that started in the lieutenant governor’s office nearly brought down the building. In response, our leaders lovingly restored the building and the grounds while adding a clever underground extension to alleviate horrific overcrowding in what had become a firetrap. At the same time, almost everything we assumed about the Capitol’s legacy was reexamined. Cox is very good at sorting out the legends and lore, making this an essential read for any Texas history advocate.

MORE TO READ: Best Texas books to read straightaway.

MORE TO READ: Best Texas books to read these days.

MORE TO READ: Best Texas books to read nowadays.

MORE TO READ: Best Texas books to read forthwith.

MORE TO READ: Best Texas books to read this time of year.

MORE TO READ: Best recent books about Texas rivers.

Best Texas books: Start off with ‘The Nueces River’

We’ve learned more about the Nueces River, Texas birding, a standout West Texas Congressman, the King Ranch and Texas swimming holes.

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“The Nueces River: Rio Escondido.” Margie Crisp with artwork by William B. Montgomery. Texas A&M Press. Much admired Texas artist and naturalist Margie Crisp made quite a splash with her award-winning “River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado,” a gorgeously written and illustrated look at the long, ever-changing waterway that runs through Austin. Now she turns her attention to the Nueces River, which she calls “Rio Escondido,” apt since this stream that falls off the southern edge of the Edwards Plateau goes underground during dry seasons until it reemerges at Choke Canyon Reservoir near Three Rivers.  A team project with William B. Montgomery, this book represents an ideal marriage of words and images. One only wishes that Crisp were given several lifetimes so she could do the same for 48 more Texas rivers.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best recent books on Texas rivers.

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“One More Warbler: A Life with Birds” Victor Emanuel with S. Kirk Walsh. University of Texas Press. To say that Victor Emanuel is a god among naturalists is almost an understatement. The owner and operator of one of the world’s most prominent nature tour groups grew up in Houston and has lived in Austin for decades. This memoir, written in close collaboration with S. Kirk Walsh, tells not just about birding adventures, but also looks deeply into the way that habitual observation of nature changes the way we perceive the world around us. Bonus: Emanuel employs a natural literary touch, which Walsh clearly amplifies. You might have read our own profile of Emanuel. We promise a big feature interview about this book before long.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in November 2016.

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“The Swimming Holes of Texas.” Julie Wernersbach and Carolyn Tracy. University of Texas Press. Like our much more adventurous colleague, Pam LeBlanc, we love this guide book. We had to add our tributes. It’s crucial, first, because this information was previously not readily available in such a user-friendly, physical format. Arranged by region — the Austin area counts as its own region — it fully lists addresses, phone number, websites, hours, entrance fees, park rules, camping options, amenities, and swimming opportunities, along with sharp descriptions that could only be acquired through sustained personal reporting. Funny thing: Writing this capsule, my thumb led me to the entry for Choke Canyon Reservoir (see above). Oh no you don’t! Last time we were there, alligators floated just offshore. No swimming for us.  Pam, don’t take that as a challenge!

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in December 2016.

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“A Witness to History: George H. Mahon, West Texas Congressman.” Janet M. Neugebauer. Texas Tech University Press. We must admit up front we have not made a big dent into this biography that runs almost to 600 pages with notes and index. But what we’ve read so far has impressed us enough to place it here. Mahon, a country lawyer, went to Congress in 1935 and served on the House Committee on Appropriations almost he his entire tenure of 44 years. Along the way, he acquired enormous power, which, if this book is any evidence, he used judiciously. A specialist in defense spending, his career spanned World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and almost the entire Cold War. We look forward to digging deeper into this crisp volume when we have more time. A lot more time.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in October 2016.

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“Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranch.” Helen Kleberg Groves. Trinity University Press. Not as many books have been published about the King Ranch as have been about Texas football, rangers, tacos or politics. But it sometimes seems that the vast, daunting South Texas empire of cattle and thorn brush holds writers in an unbreakable spell. This time, the motivation is personal, since this volume was written by Helen King Kleberg Alexander-Groves. It constitutes the memoirs of the only child of the celebrated Bob and Helen Kleberg. At first, it feels like a picture book with historical and contemporary photographs that take you directly into the world of ranching past and present. Yet don’t overlook the words, because Bill Benson has helped Groves thoroughly research and confirm the history, genealogy and other aspects of this quintessentially Texas family tale.

MORE TEXAS TITLES: Best Texas books to read in September 2016.

Best Texas books: Rev up with ‘Miles and Miles of Texas’

This week in “Texas Titles,” we take a very long road trip, scan murals at Texas post offices, seek solutions for the Yogurt Shop Murders, take in more football and dive into a museum’s loaned artifacts.

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“Miles and Miles of Texas: 100 Years of the Texas Highway Department.” Carol Dawson with Roger Allen Polson. Texas A&M University Press.

What a great and necessary book! So much of Texana focuses on the state’s pre-industrial past. Yet Texas is a place of cities and suburbs connected to vast expanses by an intricate modern network of interstates, federal highways, state highways, farm and ranch roads, as well as county roads and city streets. Austin-based writer Carol Dawson and former TxDOT thought leader Roger Polson put together this 100-year history relying partly on the agency’s priceless photo collection, edited by Geoff Appold. We promise to dig deeper into this fine volume to produce a feature story in early 2017. Meanwhile, it makes a terrific coffee table book with as much to read as to see.

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“The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People.” Philip Parisi. Texas A&M University Press.

If ever a regional book demanded a second printing in paperback, this is one. The New Deal sparked an unprecedented outbreak of public art in styles readily accessible to the general public. And where else to place them during the 1930s than at government gathering places that every community patronized? Parisi, formerly of the Texas Historical Commission, first produced this marvelous guide in 2004. It provides 127 images from the 106 artworks — some gone — commissioned for 69 post offices in the state. The images celebrate Texas life and history, with an emphasis on everyday labors. On a side note, Parisi does not mention contemporaneous artist Paul Cadmus, but several of the images are rendered in his unmistakable homophile style.

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“Who Killed These Girls? Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders.” Beverly Lowry. Knopf.

Here’s something to contemplate: The Austin Police Department is still working on the Yogurt Shop Murders case. Yes, still. The four girls were found naked, bound and gagged on Dec. 6, 1991. The late Corey Mitchell’s 2005 “Murdered Innocents” raked up all those terrible memories. Now, distinguished Austin journalist and fiction writer Lowry tells the ongoing tale crime, punishment, reversal and frustration. We’d love to interview the author on the subject, but we’ll have to read it more thoroughly first. That will happen.

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“Pigskin Rapture: Four Days in the Life of Texas Football.” Mac Engel and Ron Jenkins. Lone Star Books.

Recently, we wrote about Nick Eatman’s “Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas: A Year in the Life of Lone Star Football from High School to College to the Cowboys.” Seems like an idea that’s going around. Engel, a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Ron Jenkins, a DFW-based contract photographer, teamed up on this chronicle of a four-day period in autumn 2015. Again, the granddaddy of this form was H.G. Bissinger’s groundbreaking “Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream,” later morphed into a movie and one of the best TV series ever. This volume maintains a playful tone to go along with the lively photographs, which often capture what’s happening off field as well as before and after the games.

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“Seeing Texas History: The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.” Edited by Victoria Ramirez. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

What a matched pair: Two handsome books tied to the state’s history museum. The first lays out the artifacts borrowed by and displayed by the Bullock. The texts are minimal but essential and exacting. All is organized by periods such as “Empires,” “Struggle for Independence” and “Modern Texas.” The second books goes with an extremely powerful exhibit that includes local contributions from Austin’s Phillipson family collection. You can read more about the first book here, and more about the second book here.

Best Texas books: Picture the Rio Grande

This week in “Texas Titles,” we follow a riverine journey, a myth busting gang, the career of a Texas historian, a ship named “Texas” and a Texas modern artist finally receiving her due.

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“Río: A Photographic Journey down the Old Río Grande.” Edited by Melissa Savage. University of New Mexico Press. This slender, exquisite paperback volume collects silvery gray images of the Río Grande from the 19th and 20th centuries. Editor Savage arranges them by themes, such as crossings, trade, cultivation, flooding, etc. This is no mere picture book, however, and each page reveals a lot about particular places and people. William deBuys, Rina Swentzell and Juan Estevan Arellano are among those who contributed the accompanying essays. One can find any number of books about this great river, including Paul Horgan’s two-volume masterpiece, “Great River.” Yet few are as beautiful or as evocative as this one.

RELATED: DIP INTO BOOKS ABOUT TEXAS FOOTBALL, SAN ANTONIO, AND, YES, OVETA CULP HOBBY

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“Texan Identities: Moving beyond Myth, Memory and Fallacy in Texas History.” Edited by Light Townsend Cummins and Mary L. Scheer. University of North Texas Press. Texas is awash with mythology. This collection of academic essays attempts to sift through them to review the state’s shifting and enduring identities. The Alamo and the Texas Rangers, for instance, are ready targets for myth busters. The editors, professors at Austin College and Lamar University, have already produced multiple books on on the statae’s history that have examined the roles of women and others who have often been ignored by the keepers of our shared memory. Mary L. Scheer, Kay Goldman and Jody Edward Ginn are among the contributors, while distinguished Texas State University professor Jesús de la Teja provides the trenchant foreword.

RELATED: LBJ, FOOTBALL, DEVIL’S SINKHOLE AND MORE HOT TEXAS TITLES

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“Archie P. McDonald: A Life in Texas History.” Edited by Dan K. Utley. Texas A&M University Press. McDonald specialized in East Texas. Molded from oral interviews, this biography, edited by Texas State History historian Utley  attempts to recover the career of the late teacher and leader who died in 2012. For decades, McDonald headed the East Texas Historical Association and edited the East Texas Historical Journal. His hand touched many other statewide groups, including the Texas Historical Commission. This book might seem like “inside baseball” — and to a certain extent, it is — but too often this kind of institutional remembrance is lost in the shuffle.

RELATED: SEVEN TEXAS TITLES TO SAMPLE AT SUMMER’S END

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“The Battleship Texas.” Mark Lardas. Images of America. We love the “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing. Compiled in template form, these small books offer scores of singular historical images, along with tightly composed captions and chewy introductory essays. (Since these books are not rigorously edited, always check the facts.) This one covers the 1914 dreadnought battleship that served the U.S. Navy in World Wars I and II. Throughout my lifetime — I grew up not far away from its final berth near the San Jacinto Monument — the ship-turned-museum has been under enormous physical stress. Lardas, who writes about maritime and Texas history, pulls from numerous sources to produce black-and-white pictures of the U.S.S. Texas in peace and war, including the charismatic jacket shot of the crew assembled on deck for a USO show starring — it would seem to me — Rita Hayworth, or someone who looks a lot like her.

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“The Color of Being/El Color del Ser: Dorothy Hood, 1918-2000.” Susie Kalil. Texas A&M University Press. Texas Monthly has already done a terrific job of telling the almost forgotten story of Dorothy Hood, a respected and distinctive abstract painter who has finally received the kind of treatment she deserves, including a vast retrospective at the Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi. After 1941, the Houston native spent most of 22 years in Mexico City working alongside the greats of the day. Following time in New York City, she returned to Houston and, despite her promise and prolific output, never became famous. She died in 2000. The Corpus Christi museum ended up with her archives and now curator Kalil has righted an artistic injustice by making Hood’s case to the world. Makes you want to take a road trip to Sparkling City by the Sea.