Texana Book Reviews -- August 1997
(by Mike Cox)

(August 29, 1997)

(August 22, 1997)

Surf Fishing in the Gulf
(August 15, 1997)

It's not even dawn yet, but the pickups and sport utility vehicles are humming down the beach on the wet sand.

These are not folks heading out for a traditional day at the beach -- sunning, surfing or sandcastle-building. No, the drivers of the these vehicles are looking for fish. They are surf fishers, and they start early, when the fish are coming in closer than normal to eat.

Surf fishing is not for those who like their fish meat frozen and out of a box. Fishing in the Gulf of Mexico -- literally -- is as close to man versus fish as it gets. Sometimes the fish even win, especially if there are sharks out looking for the same species you are.

I don't care how many fish you've pulled in from granddad's stock tank or reeled in from your nice boat, standing waist deep in the saltwater and feeling something hit your line hard -- that's real fishing. You and whatever it is that's taken your hook are on fairly equal terms. You're both in the water, you can't see each other and there's always the chance an interested third party will swim into the picture. All the while, the Gulf pulls at you and the sand tries to suck in your feet as if this huge ecosystem had a desire to have you become one with it again and forever.

Reading "Plugger: Wade Fishing the Gulf Coast," I kept wanting to put the book down. Not because I didn't like the book. Because it made me want to go fishing.

"Plugger" contains the piscatorial ruminations of Rudy Grigar, who estimates he's caught more than a million pounds of fish in his life time. Most of those fish he's released, but he still manages to eat seafood at least three times a week, which may have something to do with the fact that the author is 82 years old and still fishing.

W.R. McAfee edited this 201-page book, which was published by land-locked Texas Tech University Press. "Plugger" sells for $24.95 in hardback.

As any good memoir should be, Grigar's is a mixture of information, reflection and wisdom. It is a "how to" book by someone who clearly "has done." "Plugger" is a literary seafood gumbo, a tutorial on salt water fishing with artificial lures, plus everything from safety tips to recipes thrown in. Sadly, the book also is something of a recollection of how things used to be.

When Grigar started fishing the Gulf surf and the Laguna Madre -- the shallow water on the landward side of the barrier islands along the coast -- the fishing was much better than it is today. Of course, the "you shudda been here yesterday" line is familiar to all fishermen, but in the '30s and '40s, fishing was better along the coast for a lot of reasons. There were fewer people, fewer developments, less pollution and a smaller commercial fishing industry.

Grigar favors a new cut, or pass, through Padre Island to allow better flow between the Laguna Madre and the Gulf. This would greatly improve fishing, he believes. In addition, as he points out, there is still much to be done to eliminate pollution. The government is now even suggesting caution in eating kingfish caught in the open Gulf. He also argues for stronger conservation efforts.

There's nothing fancy about the writing in this book--it's as plain as a Gulf fishing camp. But for anyone interested, in becoming a better coastal fisherman, "Plugger" just's the right bait.

Alamo Not Forgotten
(August 8, 1997)

For anyone who thinks time -- and life -- is moving too fast as each second clicks us closer to the beginning of a new millennium and, at some point for all of us, the end of everything, remember the Alamo.

As we race down the information superhighway toward that bridge to the 21st Century faster than many of us want to go, something interesting is happening. We are 161 years and counting past the time of the fall of the Alamo. With so many other things to preoccupy us, it would seem that the memory of this 13-day siege in San Antonio during Texas' revolution against Mexico would be growing more faint, like dying embers of a fire.

But the reverse seems to be happening:

* Three million people a year visit the Alamo.

* Two excellent new books on the Alamo are just out and I know of at least two other Alamo books in progress.

* The Alamo Society publishes a respected scholarly journal devoted to Alamo history, The Alamo Journal. The Alamo Battlefield Association is another non-profit group dedicated to the study of the Alamo and its preservation.

* Several Alamo-related web sites are up on the Internet.

* Finally, the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association plays an active role in keeping the memory of the battle alive.

So, what's going on here? I have two theories: Research continues to turn up new information, just as archaeologists in recent years have excavated artifacts connected to the battle.

Secondly, the senior members of the 80-million baby-boom generation are beginning to reach the point in life (i.e. the 50s) where the past starts looking a bit more interesting than the future. The folks who ran around in coonskin caps swinging a toy flintlock in 1955 are beginning to wonder if the Alamo was really the way it was portrayed on Walt Disney's "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier."

The first new book of Alamo interest is "The Alamo Almanac and Book of Lists" by William R. Chemerka. Published by Eakin Press, the 195-page book sells for $16.95 in paper.

While some super patriots might argue the book trivializes the battle, that would be a knee-jerk reaction. Anyone who browses through the book will quickly find it contains a lot of information on the Alamo they probably never knew. (Quick, name an Alamo courier who fought at San Jacinto and later died of a wound he suffered in the battle. Answer: John Walker Baylor Jr.)

The majority of the book is an A to Z compendium of Alamo facts, from Abamillo, Juan (a sergeant who died in the battle) to ZZ Top, a rock band which once recorded an album called "Deguello," named for the Mexican Army's bugle call signaling no quarter would be given. The list portion of the book includes everything from a description of the scenes missing from John Wayne's movie "The Alamo" to what are, in the opinion of the former curator of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library, the five most interesting unanswered questions about the Alamo.

"The Alamo Almanac" is a fun book to peruse, or an excellent reference work for the sophisticated Alamophile.

A companion book, Ron Jackson's "Alamo Legacy: Alamo Descendants Remember the Alamo," (Eakin Press, 180 pages, $16.95 in paper) is as noteworthy as Chemerka's book.

Jackson's book is one which should have been done years ago, but either no one thought of it or someone had the idea but never executed it. And it is a great idea, and a real contribution to Texas history: Collect and publish the stories that have been told by the descendants of those who actually died defending the Alamo.

Of course, some of the defenders left no direct descendants (Bowie and Travis come to mind) but most had families, and many of the families passed on stories via oral tradition. Though no one lived to recall what the battle was like from the Texas side of the walls, a body of stories did come to exist. Fortunately, many of them have now been captured in this book. Since some of them are based only on family tradition, they may or may not be completely accurate, but they add to the overall body of knowledge about the people who fought and died on both sides.

Crime in Texas
(August 1, 1997)

One of the things that makes a piece of writing good -- no matter if it is a short article or a full length book -- is whether it is interesting. But there are a number of ways a book can be interesting.

From the first paragraph on, is a reader virtually compelled to turn another page? Does this momentum hold all the way through to the end of the book, with an ending as strong and satisfying as the beginning?

A book on cancer might not be very interesting to some people, but if you've been diagnosed with cancer, it might well be very interesting. A book on real estate sounds relatively dry unless you're planning on putting your house on the market.

Based on this news-you-can-use criteria, Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson's "Crime in Texas: Your Complete Guide to the Criminal Justice System" is interesting if you care about crime in your community. Published by the University of Texas Press, the 204-page book sells for $35 in cloth and $12.95 in paperback.

Anderson's book also is interesting on another level: The way it is written and its theme.

"Crime in Texas" is at once a textbook-like overview of crime and punishment for the layman, a semi-memoir and an extended opinion piece. That's an interesting combination, especially coming from an academic press. But it works.

Given the subject matter, Anderson's mother couldn't call a book that delves into things like voir dire and rules of evidence a page turner, but for anyone involved in the criminal justice system -- including crime victims, law enforcement officers, witnesses, people waiting to report for jury duty, prosecutors and journalists -- this book will be interesting and useful. For people in some of these categories, as a matter of fact, it should be required reading.

I know that when I was starting out as a young reporter during the final third of the crazy 1960s, when civil rights was still just a theoretical concept in some small Texas towns and counties, I could have used this book. I had to learn about Texas' criminal justice system by on-the-job training, experience and good editors being the teachers.

From the 60s through the early 90s, despite periodic wars on crime, crime continued to increase. But the system I learned about in the 60s has changed greatly, and for the better, which is one of the major points Anderson makes in this important book: The criminal justice system is working better than it ever has.

It's still not perfect, as Anderson is not shy about pointing out, but crime is down, even if the perception is that living in Texas is more dangerous than ever. Stricter law enforcement, tougher penalties, more citizen and community involvement -- they've worked.

The mini-memoirs Anderson has in the book really add to its effectiveness by illustrating, through some cases he's handled as a prosecutor, a particular point. He writes about the so-called Love Bandit, a con artist who stole hearts as well as women's money, to get his chapter on criminal law off to an interesting start. A vignette on a murder case he prosecuted reads almost like a true crime piece.

Anderson even manages to work in a touching portrait of the late Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a man who helped make the criminal justice system work in his county for 15 years.

"Crime in Texas" is a good book. An interesting good book.

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