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


Summer Reading
(May 31, 1996)

The Federal Column Writer's Act, which mandates that columnists produce particular types of columns at certain times each year, requires that summer reading be discussed today.

Or so a person might think.

Just watch the newspaper op-ed pages and the weekly news magazines. Within the next few weeks, virtually everyone who writes a column will put politics and other issues aside to do a piece recommending good books to read this summer. It is as if summer were the only time of the year it is possible -- and proper -- to read a book.

Granted, with school out and the weather hot and dry, the pace of life in America does slow. On days when the ozone count is high, we literally experience those "lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer" popularized in song back in the early 60s. Reclining in the shade or in air-conditioned comfort, reading a book is a great way to while away the heat of the day.

Since most us take our vacations in the summer, I guess it follows that we should also take time to read a book. But not just any book. The annual summer reading columns generally concentrate on recently-published popular fiction, as if summer is the only season we are allowed to relax with our imagination.

Don't get me wrong. Summer is a wonderful time to take it easy with a good book, or, for that matter, any kind of reading matter. Back in the summer of 1957, the first time I went to South Padre Island, I remember buying a Donald Duck summer vacation comic book for the trip. This was a king sized issue which sold for a quarter as opposed to the usual dime. Down on that then pristine isle, armed with the still inky-smelling new comic book, I didn't think life got any better.

But my problem with the obligatory summer reading column is the perception that you can't read unless you're at the beach or up in the mountains. The truth is that any time you have time is the best time to read, whether it's summer, fall, winter or spring.

So, unlike some of my column-writing colleagues, I will not presume to suggest what books you should be reading this summer. I will assure you, if you have not been in a book store lately, that there are plenty of titles to choose from. More, in fact, than any of us will ever have time to read, even if summer were endless.

What I also will do, like a good nutritionist, is suggest a balanced diet. Read a trashy novel if you feel like it (you don't have to worry about smudging the pages with sun screen), but supplement those empty literary calories of sugar and fat with the protein, vegetables and fiber of a good work of non-fiction. A well-written biography can read as well as any novel. A collection of essays can entertain while providing insight.

Don't take this as a slap at fiction. Nothing's better than a finely-crafted novel. Quality fiction can offer as much as non-fiction. I am only proposing moderation and balance. Unlimited chocolate cake, however delicious, is too much. Someone who buys paperback romance novels or mysteries by the grocery bag each week is not getting all they could out of books -- and probably, life.

I like to switch back and forth in my reading. I prefer my non-fiction in the morning, with my coffee, when I'm fresher and more inquiring. In the evening, semi-brain dead after a long day at the office, I like to wind down with fiction when I can. I'll even read what other columnists have to say about summer reading.


County and Local Histories
(May 24, 1996)

All politics is local. So is history.

The broad sweep of history is made up of what happened here and what happened there.

A local history book is like one piece of a patchwork quilt. It doesn't tell the whole story, just like one scrap of cloth doesn't cover the whole bed, but both represent a starting place.

Books on Texas counties and cities range from amateurish efforts to scholarly works, but I've never flipped through a local history where I didn't find at least something interesting between the covers.

Texas has 254 counties, from tiny Rockwall in North Texas to state-sized Brewster in the Big Bend. Most of these counties have been the subject of at least one history.

How these counties evolved is an interesting story well-told in "Texas Boundaries" by Luke Gournay. Published by Texas A&M Press, the 152-page book sells for $29.50.

With 51 maps, the book demonstrates the evolution of Texas' political subdivisions, from 23 counties when Texas became an independent republic in 1836 to the present arrangement, which has been unchanged since Kennedy County was created in South Texas in 1921.

Gournay's book is an excellent source for anyone doing research on Texas, from genealogists to cartographers.

One of Texas' counties is Taylor, created in 1858 from Bexar and Travis Counties, but not organized until 1878. A place called Buffalo Gap was county seat.

Austin's Eakin Press has recently brought out a revised edition of Abilene historian Juanita Daniel Zachary's "A History of Rural Taylor County." The 325-page hardback, first published in 1980, sells for $29.

Despite the title of the book, its first 72 pages relate the history of all of the county. A second section covers all its communities, from Audra to Wylie.

Most of the other placenames in the county were just farming communities, but Buffalo Gap for a time had been a wild and wooly frontier town.

Another book by Zachary, "Buffalo Gap Historic Village," also published by Eakin Press, covers the history of this community and its later development into a village of restored vintage structures. The 128-page book sells for $26.95.

An excellent city history is "Pasadena: The Early Years," by C. David Pomeroy Jr. Published by Pomerosa Press, the 484-page book sells for $30.

Pasadena, in southeast Harris County, began as an agricultural community. But with the development of the Houston ship channel and the petrochemical industry, Pasadena went from rural to urban.

In this thoroughly-researched book, Pomeroy carries the story of the city through the 1930s. He plans a second volume which will cover Pasadena's war time and post war boom period.

Another interesting recently-published local history is "Border Cuates: A History of the U.S.-Mexican Twin Cities" by Milo Kearney and Anthony Knopp. Published by Eakin Press, the 331-page softcover sells for $19.95.

Actually, as the title implies, this book is a collection of local histories, a look at border communities and their Mexican counterpart along a 2,000-mile axis from San Diego to Brownsville.

All of these books are just pieces of history, but there wouldn't be a whole without them and others like them.


Coyotes
(May 17, 1996)

Howling coyotes never sound quite like I think they should.

In the movies and on television, coyotes seem to have deeper voices, more resonance.

But when I hear them out in the middle of nowhere, some place like a ranch on the Pease River -- an area little changed since Texas Rangers rescued Cynthia Ann Parker from the Comanches there in 1860 -- their howl to me seems high-pitched and other-worldly.

On this ranch last December, as a big campfire blazed at dusk, the coyotes started howling. A member of our hunting party grabbed his rifle and a store bought coyote call and walked to the edge of the darkness. As soon as he began making what he believed to be coyote-attracting sounds, in an attempt to lure the serenading coyotes within shooting distance, they shut up. Coyotes, though prone to chattiness, are not stupid. They don't talk back to strangers armed with a plastic call and a gun.

Once you have heard coyotes, you aren't likely to forget the sounds they make. Actually, I learn from writer-photographer Wyman Meinzer's excellent book, coyote communication is called vocalization. Still, the old refrain, "Bury me not on the lone prairie, where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free" has a bit more strength than if the lyrist had chosen to say "where the coyotes vocalize."

Coyote talk and other aspects of this cunning canine species are covered in Meinzer's 128-page "Coyote," published by Texas Tech University Press. The book sells for $37.50 in hardback, $19.95 in softcover.

"Coyote," is not the definitive book on canis latrans, but it doesn't claim to be. It is a fine overview, covering in an informal way the major aspects of the coyote story, from its status as a demigod to Plains Indians to its socializing and vocalizing habits.

According to Meinzer, "the adult coyote auditory repertoire consists of about eleven vocalizations. Some overlapping occurs, making exact patterning difficult at best."

Coyotes yip, bark, cry, howl . . . it takes a good set of ears, nearly as sensitive as a coyote's, to distinguish the different vocalizations. Why are coyotes so expressive, compared with other mammals? One theory is that coyotes use howling to regulate population density -- they are warning other coyotes to keep traveling, that there are already enough coyotes at this particular place. More would put pressure on the food supply.

The word portrait that emerges in Meinzer's book is a sympathetic one. Coyotes aren't as bad as some of their folklore would have it, and they are darned adaptive, doing just fine in suburban Los Angeles, rugged West Texas, and even the Bronx.

The book also features more than 100 color photographs by Meinzer, ranging from scenic shots of coyote country in Northwest Texas, to candid shots of coyotes eating, fighting, mating, snarling, howling and just plain mugging the camera.

And while "Coyotes" is not intended as a children's book, by way of added endorsement, I can report that two-year-old daughter Hallie enjoyed very much looking at Meinzer's coyote pictures.


Old Fort Griffin
(May 10, 1996)

History is what happened in the past, but it is not static.

The first two books dealing with old Fort Griffin on the Clear Fork of the Brazos -- military post, buffalo hunter rendezvous and cow town -- were published in 1908 and 1909. Another book came out in 1956 and another in 1992.

As author Ty Cashion says in the latest book on Fort Griffin and environs, "Time . . . rather than dimming memories further, has become an ally in illuminating dark corners . . . . Through the years, descendants of former pioneers have shared letters tucked away in old family Bibles and found other treasures in dust-covered trunks and long-forgotten shoe boxes and bureau drawers. Historians, too, have continually ferreted out fresh information."

Relying on considerable fresh information, Cashion has done a good job of illuminating dark corners, in telling the story of a U.S. Cavalry post and the county that developed around it in his "A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887," (University of Oklahoma Press, 366 pages, $xx.xx.) True to its dust jacket copy, the book clearly is the result of the study of primary sources "and sensitive to recent historiographical trends . . ."

That's why a stack of these books in a book store in Albany, the county seat of Shackelford County and the closest town to Fort Griffin, sat earlier this spring under a handwritten sign noting that it was a "controversial new book."

What local residents view as controversial in the book is easy to see. "A Texas Frontier" focuses on what actually happened in and around Fort Griffin during its heyday and not what assorted yarnspinners have claimed to have happened over the years. Also, the author pulls no punches in describing the vigilantism that occurred in the county in the 1870s, when local folks in masks lynched a score or so of suspected horse and cattle thieves in what politely could be called "extrajudicial proceedings." The descendants of some of the people who were involved in this bloody episode still live in the area.

And while this was one of the worst cases of frontier Texans taking the law into their own hands, it was not the only such outbreak. Cashion also demonstrates that while murders did occur in Fort Griffin, a lot of the wild stories associated with the place were the product of sensationalizing journalists, liberty-taking book and magazine writers and garrulous oldtimers not above "stretching the blanket" a little in recalling their experiences.

"A Texas Frontier" is a soundly researched and well-written book. But like an inexpertly cured buffalo hide, it covers a lot of area while not being quite perfect. The author is a history professor, and in a few places, his narrative either assumes outside knowledge on the part of the reader or he or his editor simply forgot to use a first name, such as this sentence: "The Democrats, back in power with the election of Franklin Pierce, threatened to sweep out Fillmore's appointments." Obviously, he is talking about Presidents Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore, but there is nothing in the context to indicate this and some readers might not recognize the names of these lesser known Presidents.

That said, those omissions do not detract from the overall readability of the book or its message that Fort Griffin, while once populated by colorful characters and the scene of a terrible outbreak of vigilantism, probably was not as wild and woolly a place as it has been "remembered" by some.


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