Texana Book Reviews -- December 1996
(by Mike Cox)


Monuments to Texas
(December 27, 1996)

The ancient Greeks and other early civilizations somehow managed to find time to memorialize their gods, triumphs and tragedies in statuary that would for the most part endure for all time.

In Texas, on the other hand, it took about half a century -- longer if you start counting from Texas' days as a Spanish province -- for folks to start putting up sculpture. But as an interesting new book by Carol Morris Little demonstrates, Texas has made up for its slow start since then.

More than 1,200 pieces of outdoor sculpture are included in Little's "A Comprehensive Guide to Outdoor Sculpture in Texas." Published by the University of Texas Press, the 499-page book sells for $14.95 in paperback, $34.95 in hardcover.

Little begins her study with an overview on sculpture in Texas, which had its beginning with the first monument to the Battle of the Alamo, a work commissioned by the Texas Legislature and later destroyed in the fire that gutted the Capitol in 1881. Monument building in Texas was slow until around the turn of the century, but it has been gathering momentum since then. The 1930s, when Texas celebrated its centennial, was particularly bountiful.

In addition to tracing the development of public sculpture in Texas in her introduction, Little profiled Texas' pantheon of major sculptors, a small group consisting of Elisabet Ney, Frank Teich, Pompeo Coppini, Waldine Tauch and Charles Umlauf.

The range of subjects frozen in concrete, stone, or metal in Texas is as diverse as the state itself, from mules to the singer Buddy Holly, from war heroes to writers. The photographs on page 289 of the book prove the point: On the top of the page is a photograph of Stonehenge II and a replica of an Easter Island statue located near Hunt, in Central Texas. At the bottom of the page is a picture of the 67-foot statue, "Tribute to Courage," a concrete and steel figure of Sam Houston. The sculpture, dedicated in 1994, towers over Interstate 45 a couple of miles south of Huntsville. It is the world's largest freestanding figure depicting an American hero.

Even a casual perusal of this book illustrates the diversity of Texas culture, as well as a fascinating collection of stories.

Consider the Jaybird Monument in Richmond. It tells a story, but not the whole story. Erected in 1900, the 27-foot tall monument is a granite obelisk atop a classical pedestal. Perched on the point of the obelisk is a sculpture of a jaybird.

This monument does not recognize this particular avian species just because it is one of God's creatures, but as a symbol for one of the bloodiest feuds in Texas history -- the so-called Jaybird-Woodpecker feud. It would take pages to explain it, but essentially, it was a continuation of the Civil War and the issue of civil rights that left many dead on both sides, the Jaybirds on one, the Woodpeckers on the other.

The feud reached its sanguinary climax in 1889 with a wild gunbattle in Richmond that left five dead. A Texas Ranger was critically wounded in the battle and died several years later of complications stemming from the injury.

Engraved on the base of the monument is this request: "Go, stranger, and to the Jaybirds tell that for their country's freedom they [the members of the Jaybird faction] fell."

The monument was erected by the survivors of the Jaybird faction, so it cannot be considered an impartial memorial. But thanks to Little's book, at least more people will know about it.

Since this guidebook is the first of its kind for Texas, it is a significant contribution to Texas bibliography. The sculptures included in the book are listed by city, with all the artwork listed by title and then by category in an index.

One minor quibble with an otherwise well-done and important book: Why limit the study to outdoor sculpture? Granted, there are a lot of smaller pieces in museums -- too many to list -- but there are some interesting indoor pieces in public places, such as the Texas Ranger statue at Dallas' Love Field. Had these been included, the book would be even more useful as a reference.

Art, of course, is a continuing process. Little's book cannot remain forever as the definitive source of information on Texas sculpture, but it will be an enduring base, strong enough to support future work.


Gift Ideas
(December 20, 1996)

Slightly more than one out of two of us would like a book for Christmas, a recent sampling of American adults showed.

That's the good news for people who cherish the written word. The bad news is, at least from the standpoint of non-fiction writers, educators and general consumers is that the first choice of the majority of that 51 percent would be a mystery novel. Only two percent indicated they would like to receive a book dealing with history for Christmas.

But if the tastes of the people on your Christmas list run to non-fiction, here are some suggested gift ideas:


Christmas Books
(December 13, 1996)

A popular expression among people in the book business, from the writing end to the selling end, is that "the shelf life of the average book is somewhere between milk and yogurt."

Which is to say, not very long.

The shelf life for Christmas books is not much longer than the life span of a Christmas tree. (By Christmas books, I mean that narrow literary genre of books about Christmas, not books sold for Christmas.)

It's hard then, to figure the economics of a publisher bringing out a book as perishable as eggnog. It must be sentimentality. Of course, most retail businesses make most of their annual income during the Christmas shopping season.

At any rate, two Texas publishers have issued three nice Christmas books in time for the holidays: "Christmas Keepers" by Margaret Cousins, "Christmas Memories" by A. C. Greene and "Leet's Christmas" by Elithe Hamilton Kirkland.

All three are small, attractively designed, nicely written books by three writing pros.

"Christmas Keepers" is a collection of eight Christmasy short stories by the late Cousins, a University of Texas journalism graduate who spent most of her career as a New York magazine editor. She was managing editor of Good Housekeeping and McCall's and also a noted children's writer.

Cousins' book, published by Corona Publishing of San Antonio, is a reprint of a 1952 book called "Christmas Gifts." The new book has one additional story not contained in the original book, long out of print. The 230-page hardback, about the size of a paperback, sells for $18.

While "Christmas Keepers" is a collection of fictional pieces, Greene's "Christmas Memories" contains two essays, "The Too Big Christmas Tree" and "Christmas Shopping." Both are easy-going, non-soppy recollections of Christmases past from Greene's boyhood.

His "The Too Big Christmas Tree" was my favorite, and probably will be with most men. It is a funny but touching piece that examines the sometimes strained relations between men and women, particularly when it is a case of one man versus his wife, mother-in-law and her mother. Any man who has ever been told something by his wife, disputed her accuracy in the matter and then proven wrong will identify with Greene's essay, in which his father stubbornly, and against the advice of all the women in the house, tries to get an overlarge Christmas tree inside his home.

Women readers, of course, will say, "Well, he should have listened to his wife, his mother-in-law and her mother" but they would not be viewing the issue from a male perspective.

Published by the University of North Texas Press, the 80-page hardback sells for $16.95.

From the same publisher at the same price is "Leet's Christmas," a 64-page story by the late Elithe Kirkland. Kirkland, who died in 1992, was a Texas journalist and novelist, whose bestseller was "Love Is A Wild Assault."

"Leet's Christmas" is based on Kirkland's childhood Christmas memories and was originally published privately as a gift for her family and friends. With publication by the University of North Texas, anyone can enjoy her look back at Christmas in Texas long ago.

Actually, perusing these books makes it clear why publishers continue to put books like these on the shelves, even if their market life is about as long as a Christmas tree -- Christmas is a time of memories. Reading about someone else's Christmas past rekindles our own holiday memories.


Texas Sayings
(December 6, 1996)

My boss has a great sense of humor. Tells jokes well and seemingly has an inexhaustible supply of amusing, folksy stories to share. Talk with him a few minutes and more than likely, you'll be grinning like a mule eatin' cockleburs.

You'd think working for him was easy as breaking eggs.

The only problem is that sometimes it's hard to tell if he's being serious when he says something. Since he's my boss, and could assign me to clerical duties in Dalhart -- or worse -- with the stroke his pen, the difficulties inherent in this are readily apparent.

If, for example, he were to say, "Coxy, you're fired!" should I believe him or is he just kidding around? Of course, that's an outlandishly hypothetical example, about as likely as grass growing around a hog trough.

But this ain't his first rodeo, and he is wise enough to recognize the potential communication problem that goes along with his good humor. So when he really means something, he will sometimes tell me, after his instructions or comment, "I'm serious as a train wreck."

Now that's serious, just ask Amtrack. So when he invokes the train simile, I know immediately to do what he says quicker than hell could scorch a feather, otherwise there's fixing to be a yellowjacket in the outhouse.

The point of all this is, people raised in Texas and certain other states have a particularly colorful, and effective, way of communicating. More so than other people from certain other areas. Take Bostonians, for example. Can you imagine someone from Massachusetts saying, in endeavoring to communicate that it is time to get with the program that "It's time to paint your [behind] white and run with the antelope?" In Texas, we tend to rely heavily on simile and metaphor in our language. If you doubt this, just pay attention to what the football coaches and politicians are saying.

We speak English, many of us speak Spanish, and we speak Texan. We use this third language to describe and compare. Abstract thought still takes specific words, but there is no doubt that there is communication in the expression, "She was around when the Dead Sea was only sick."

Now, thanks to Austin writer Anne Dingus, those folks who are Texas talk disadvantaged, as hapless in their communication skills as a rubber-nosed woodpecker in a petrified forest, can for $9.95 begin learning how to use witty Texas expressions to say what you really mean.

Dingus has collected 1,404 of these expressions in her new 120-page paperback, "More Texas Sayings Than You Can Shake A Stick At," from by Gulf Publishing. For those interested in expanding their Texas vocabulary, this book is handier than pockets on a shirt, slick as a gut.

Dingus has arranged her Texas sayings by category, from "Acceptable" to "Young," so anyone, even if you don't know split peas from coffee, can use this book as a reference. Imagine the possibilities! Clever proposals to that special someone, "safe" putdowns, bringing laughter to friends and family . . .

Of course, you could be really clever and make up your own expressions. All the ones in this book had to have been said by someone for the first time before they entered the universe of Texas folklore. And judging from some of the entries in the book, the process is ongoing. "His memory bank is overdrawn," clearly is a computer-age creation.

Most of us aren't going to change the way we talk after reading this book, but it's sure $9.95 worth of fun, and a great gift idea. This little book may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but its gooder than snuff and more fun than a packed-pew preacher -- if that ain't a fact, I'm a possum.

This book, incidentally, has one of the most appropriate endings you'll ever see in a book. Can you think of a better way to conclude a book on Texas expressions, compiled by a woman, than to say, "That's all she wrote?" Neither could I.


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