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

Fruitcake, Protein and Pumpkin Pie
(December 19, 1997)

Let's say someone you need to buy a holiday gift for has just moved to Texas from San Jose.

This is not someone you know well enough to buy clothes for and giving them a leaf blower is out of the question. Nor do you feel it appropriate to spend a lot of money on this gift.

Maybe you know a lot of people like this. You'd like to give them a little something, but nothing extravagant. If you do, I'd go buy a stack of a fun new book by Sherrie S. McLeRoy, "First in the Lone Star State." The 250-page softcover from Wordware Publishing costs $14.95 and is a lot more interesting than a new tie or a bottle of homemade salad vinegar.

The book expands on an old idea: the Texas brag. It is a compendium, arranged by category, of firsts, largests, biggests, oldests, last, only, tallest in Texas.

Even a quick perusal of this book shows that while Texas is second to Alaska in geographic size and second to California in population, the state still has plenty to brag about.

A few of these brags are the old standards (tallest capitol, biggest state fair and largest oil producer in the United States), but most are lesser-known but equally as interesting and impressive things to brag about.

For instance:

Of course, this book is the literary equivalent of a fruit cake -- something to nibble on, but not a full meal. If you'd rather give someone a book with some protein, I'd suggest James Hoggard's collection of autobiographical essays, "Riding the Wind & Other Tales." Published by Texas A&M University, the 159-page hardback sells for $19.95.

The title comes from the first piece in Hoggard's book, an essay on the April 10, 1979 Wichita Falls tornado. Hoggard's essays are well written and thought provoking.

Another book of substance is "Texas Iconoclast," a collection of newspaper columns by Maury Maverick Jr. edited by Allan O. Kownslar. Published by Texas Christian University Press, the 298-page book is available in softcover at $16.95.

Maverick is the great-grandson of Samuel Augustus Maverick, a South Carolinian who came to Texas in 1835 and gave the world an enduring word: "maverick."

Maverick owned a lot of cattle, but he never branded them. Eventually, his surname became a noun used to describe unbranded stock roaming the brush of South Texas. Later, the word began to take on additional meaning, particularly connotative of an independent spirit. The noun, in turn, is descriptive of the Maury Maverick Jr. and his father, who was mayor of San Antonio and later a Congressman.

As Texans have become more conservative in their politics, Maverick, lawyer and former legislator, has become even more of a maverick -- an old-fashioned, yellow-dog Texas Democrat. He's practically an endangered species.

His newspaper essays range from reflections on his colorful family history to commentaries on civil liberties and sketches of other notable Texans, including J. Frank Dobie. All the pieces are full of philosophy, including his religious beliefs, something particularly worth considering this time of the year:

"I worship trees and sunsets and the earth and the moon and the sky. I don't believe all that was created just for Moses, or just for Jesus, or just for Allah. The only definition of God that I accept is St. John's: 'God is love.'"

Christmas is not a big holiday for Kinky Friedman, either. But his latest novel, "Road Kill," (Simon and Schuster, $23) is a slice of pumpkin pie after all this protein from Hoggard and Maverick. Friedman's 252-page novel will not be confused with anything ever written by Charles Dickens, but it's fun to read.

Last Picture Show -- Revisited
(December 12, 1997)

If you're old enough to have been watching movies in 1970, you'll remember 19-year-old Cybill Shepherd in "The Last Picture Show."

Peter Bogdanovich's movie based on Larry McMurtry's 1966 novel about growing up in a small town in West Texas (Archer City in reality, Thalia in the book, Anarene in the movie so the producers could use local high school letter jackets on the actors and extras) was the young actress' first picture show. Shepherd, playing Jacy Farrow -- the blond "teen queen" Sonny and Duane lusted after -- also had one of the first full nude scenes in a mainstream film.

For years, the perception has existed in Archer City that one Ceil Cleveland -- a classmate and friend of McMurtry -- was McMurtry's model for Farrow. Now Cleveland has written a memoir cum novel called "Whatever Happened to Jacy Farrow?" Published by the University of North Texas Press, the 321-page book sells for $26.50.

This is one of those currently trendy memoirs where the reader has to figure what's true and what has been fictionalized. For one thing, Cleveland also chooses to refer to Archer City as Thalia. Maybe I'm as old-fashioned as the black-and-white film that made this book saleable, but I still think a memoir should be non-fiction, at least to the extent that someone is capable of writing truthfully about his or her self.

With "Whatever Happened to Jacy Farrow," the reader is left to wonder whether Cleveland, as she reveals herself in the book, is any less a composite character than Farrow. Still, the book is an engaging read, particularly for women who were teenagers in the 1950s and McMurtry fans in general. Speaking of McMurtry, the buzz is that his new novel, "Comanche Moon" (Simon and Schuster, $28.50) is almost as good as his Pulitzer-winning "Lonesome Dove." I haven't read it yet, but intend to take it with me in my saddlebags when I go up on the High Plains this Christmas. But two people whose judgment I trust -- former University of Texas Press publicist and freelance writer Vicki Woodruff and attorney Jim Guleke, both veteran McMurtry readers -- say "Comanche Moon" is McMurtry at his best.

On the basis of that, why not consider a McMurtry package for the literate couples on your gift list, an interchangeable his-and-hers present of both books? Folks still play dominoes in Thalia, I mean Archer City, even though the last picture show burned down some years back.

Okay, I'll admit it. I'm a Texan who doesn't know how to play 42. Checkers, poker, chess, sure, but I don't know a double-six from a double-blank.

And I don't know if I'll ever get around to correcting this heresy, but if I ever do decide to make dominoes a part of my life, I can turn to Dennis Roberson's "Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas." (I thought the national game of Texas was football.) The 146-page softcover from the University of North Texas Press sells for $12.95.

Studying this book would be a very quiet and safe way to spend New Year's Eve.

Seriously, this book and a set of Texas-made mesquite wood dominoes would make a great gift for anyone into this aspect of Lone Star culture.

For those still more interested in football, the University of Texas comes to mind. I'm so old, I remember when UT used to win national championships.

But, there is more to UT than football, of course. For the orange-blooded on your gift list, try "UT History 101: Highlights of the History of the University of Texas" by Margaret C. Berry. Published by Eakin Press, the 124-page softcover sells for $9.50 and would fit into a stocking hanging from the mantle just fine.

What made UT more than just a sleepy Southwestern college? Oil. The same viscous fluid that propelled the state into the 20th century.

It all started on a hill in Jefferson County called Spindletop. Captain Anthony Lucas brought in an oil well on that modest elevation on Jan. 10, 1901. The resultant gusher triggered a boom bigger than the California or Alaskan gold rushes.

No one disputes those facts. But the matter of just who owned the land that Captain Lucas leased -- and the fortune the oil generated -- was a point of bitter contention for more than 90 years.

Roger L. Shaffer tells the story readably and concisely in "Spindletop Unwound" published by Republic of Texas Press. The 265-page book sells for $16.95.

Eight hundred miles west of Spindletop is El Paso, a city which may be the mural capital of Texas. Since World War I, El Paso has been big on murals -- large paintings on interior and exterior walls.

Anyone interested in Texas art will enjoy "Colors on Desert Walls: The Murals of El Paso" by Miguel Juarez with photographs by Cynthia Weber Farah. Published by Texas Western Press, the 264-page large format book sells for $30.00.

The book offers an overview on murals and features 131 color plates of significant El Paso wall art, from Aztec images to a mural depicting outer space. Its text is in both English and Spanish.

I'll have some more gift book ideas next week.

Dead Turkeys
(December 5, 1997)

We were eating hamburgers -- a food product made possible by the demise of a cow -- but we were talking turkey. Well, about turkeys.

"When you go out of town for Thanksgiving," I lamented the day after returning to Austin, "you don't get any leftovers." Some groan at the notion, but I like leftover turkey, dressing and sweet potatoes. A turkey sandwich with real mayonnaise and a piece of pumpkin pie for dessert is fine fare.

The only thing I'd like more than some leftover turkey, I went on to say, would be leftover turkey that I had personally harvested.

"Eeeeuuuu," said one of the two women at the table, making a face.

"What's the difference between a turkey you get at the store and one you shoot on some ranch?" I asked. "They both are dead birds. And you know the wild one isn't full of growth hormones. I can't imagine shotgun pellets in the brain being any more painful than what happens to a domesticated turkey in the processing house."

"I just don't like guns," she said, taking another bite of her hamburger.

"But we're talking about eating turkey," I countered, "not about guns."

Such, however, is the mindset of those opposed to hunting. This was only the most recent conversation of this nature I have had over the years. Anyone who likes hunting has had many similar discussions with others who believe that killing an edible game animal is somehow different than ordering a hamburger or buying a frozen turkey for the traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Setting aside the argument over the morality of hunting as unwinnable either way, surely the two camps at least can agree that Texas has more wildlife than it used to. This is primarily because of conservation efforts paid for by hunters, but in the 19th century hunters also nearly killed off all the game in Texas. A new book from Austin's Eakin Press, "The Explorers' Texas Volume 2: The Animals They Found" by Del Weniger, demonstrates this very well. The 200-page large format hardback sells for $27.95.

Weniger's impressive book will serve as an excellent resource for anyone interested in Texas wildlife, from buffalo to bats, no matter their stand on hunting. The author pored over 360 first-hand accounts by 290 early-day Texas explorers, from the Spanish and French in the 17th Century up to the mid-19th Century, to draw a picture of Texas animal life as it once was.

These accounts were written by the educated -- priests, military officers, gentlemen and gentlewoman travelers -- and the semi-literate pioneer. The one thing they have in common is that they were contemporary observations in letters, journals, reports and books, not later-day recollections.

Putting together all these pieces like a mosaic, Weniger has given us a picture of what Texas was like in its near-wild state. The result is both fascinating and depressing. Fascinating because he reveals surprising patterns, such as reliable observations that manatees and seals once could be found on the Texas coast. Depressing because he shows how unregulated hunting and population growth nearly decimated most major Texas mammals.

We all know that millions of buffalo once roamed Texas, but the accounts surveyed by Weniger seem to indicate the same once was true for antelope and deer. They were everywhere -- all the way to the coast -- and in herds.

By 1900, only a half million deer were left in the entire country. With conservation efforts, Texas' deer population alone is now estimated in the millions. But other indigenous species, including buffalo, bear and elk, are no longer indigenous in Texas. The antelope is confined to the Trans-Pecos and a few Panhandle counties.

One of the more interesting points in Weniger's book is that this depletion happened earlier than most of us would have thought. By 1860, he asserts, most of Texas was hunted out, though there were still pockets of pre-settlement wildlife, including the High Plains ranges of the buffalo and the mountains of the Trans-Pecos. Even these areas, however, were far from pristine.

Texas, of course, is still changing. For years, Carlsbad Caverns had the country's biggest colony of bats. Now Austin does.

With that in mind, Weniger ends his book on a cautionary note: "Are we changing Texas so that not only its original denizens but its immigrants -- and that includes most of us -- can no longer recognize or gain homes in it?"

Book Reviews from Previous Month: (November 1997)

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