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


Purple Dinosaurs?
(January 31, 1997)

Won't be long now before Hallie and I will have to have that little father-daughter talk I've been dreading. I can't put if off much longer, because she's already beginning to ask difficult questions.

Oh, not about the birds and the bees. She's too young for all that. About dinosaurs.

The first signs are already showing: She wants to watch Barney in the morning instead of Good Morning America. Recently, in the children's section in one of the big book stores, she said the D-word and pointed toward some stuffed toys and mumbled something that sounded like, "Daddy, buy me one." One evening I walked into the living room and . . . She was supposed to be watching a videotape of "Dumbo." To my horror--we haven't had a D-chip installed in our television yet--instead of a Walt Disney animation Hallie was intently watching a preview for the TV showing of "Jurassic Park."

Something has to be done soon, I know. If I don't step in and assume my parental responsibilities, one of her fellow preschool classmates will. Next I'll be getting a call from the police that represents the worst nightmare of the parents of any toddler: "Sir, your daughter has been found hanging around the tyrannosaurus exhibit at the Texas Memorial Museum. You want to come get her?" Who knows? If she doesn't get the right instruction from her parents, she might fall under the spell of some paleontologist!

Actually, I've already started trying to negotiate this difficult rite of passage.

"See, Hallie, there used to be these giant creatures that roamed Texas and other places millions of years ago," I stammer, fumbling for the right words. "Some of them were bigger than houses and they ate plants, but some of them ate each other. One day, for reasons we still do not totally understand, they all got stuck in the mud or hit by a meteor or something and died and turned into oil. And that's what the sports utility vehicle that daddy takes you to school in runs on."

For other parents worried about The Dinosaur Talk and whether they and their children are ready for it, there is good news. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has prepared, and the University of Texas Press is distributing, a 42-page softcover book called "Learn about Texas Dinosaurs."

I've already told Hallie a few things about dinosaurs, but now that "Learning about Texas Dinosaurs" is right there on her bookshelf along with Dr. Seuss, I feel much better. I've tried to explain there are some places in Texas where you can still see dinosaur tracks, and she says she wants to go see them. But this new book is going to give me a lot more ammunition.

For instance, did you know that some 300 dinosaur types have been identified worldwide, and that fossil remains of 17 of those have been found in Texas. Did you know that there is a dinosaur named the Alamosaurus. (There is no truth to the rumor that Davy Crockett grinned one out of a tree, however.) Or that dinosaur fossils are distinguisable from other reptile bones because only dinosaurs have a hole where the three bones that make up each side of the pelvis come together?

Seriously, "Learn about Texas Dinosaurs" is an excellent book, one that will be useful for parents, great for school libraries and fine for children to read. There are pictures to color, games to play, pronunciation guides for all of the Texas dinosaurs (Panoplosaurus is pronounced PAN-oh-pluh-SORE-us) and plenty of other interesting information, including a lot of things my parents never told me about dinosaurs. Give your child this book, and when you come to them for that too long postponed Dinosaur dialog, they'll say, "Sure Daddy, what do you want to know?"

Well, for starters, how is it that a bunch of overgrown lizards dead for millions of years have so much power over my three-year-old and her fellow kids? And were dinosaurs really purple?


O. Henry Booklet
(January 24, 1997)

You may think personal ads are relatively new to our culture, just another aspect of the licentious post-1960s.

But that would be wrong. Personal ads--often cleverly written notices designed to attract someone with whom the ad author may share similar tastes--have been around for a good while. True, ads today are a bit more specific than they used to be, though they are so heavily encrypted with abbreviations that most of us would need a chart to figure out who's looking for what. (SWM seeks non-smoking SWF, to use a very bland example.)

Writing short, clever pieces was right down William Sydney Porter's alley. In 1905, well on his way to lasting fame as O. Henry the short story writer, Porter the lonely bachelor ran the following ad in the New York Herald:

TWO neighborly "literary fellows," 35 and 30, seek social acquaintance of two intelligent, attractive and unconventional young ladies interested in artistic ideas, with a view to mutual improvement and entertainment. Omar. 116 Herald.

Reading that ad on a rainy Sunday morning was Ethel Lloyd Patterson, a young woman from Texas living in a small, inexpensive flat in Harlem. An aspiring author herself, she did something most proper Victorian ladies would never dream of. She answered the ad.

What followed was a coy exchange of letters between Patterson and O. Henry. Though he signed his second letter with his real name, Patterson did not know she was corresponding with the increasingly popular O. Henry until several years later.

The tale has a mild O. Henry-like twist at the end, but why give it away when you can read the whole thing in the second annual publication of the Friends of the O. Henry Museum, "The Hiding of Black Bill."

The monograph, a reprint of two essays about O. Henry and one of his Texas-based short stories first published in 1914--with a new introduction to place the piece in perspective--can be ordered from the O. Henry Museum at 409 E. 5th St., Austin, Texas, 78701 for $10 plus $1 postage.

The heart of the newly-published O. Henry booklet is "O. Henry and Me," a piece written by Patterson in 1913--three years after Porter's death at 47--and published in early 1914 in Everybody's Magazine. In her essay, Patterson reprints her literary exchange with Porter, which offers interesting insight into his character.

For one thing, a reading of Porter's letters shows that while he may have been a courtly Southern gentleman, he was not above stretching the facts a bit, especially when seeking to meet "unconventional young ladies." In his first letter, written in reply to Patterson's charming response to his ad, he claimed to be a cowpoke from Texas, recently arrived in the Big Apple.

Well, Porter had spent time in Texas--nearly 15 years--and he had lived for a couple of years on a ranch in South Texas before coming to Austin, but he was not 35 years old and certainly not 30 years old. (Who his second "literary fellow" was has never been established. It might have been just a come on to put some young lady at ease, though the other fellow easily could have been one of his drinking buddies.)

In his letters, Porter also forgot to mention that he was an ex-convict, having served more than three years of a five-year sentence he got for embezzling funds at Austin National Bank, where he had worked for a time in the 1890s. Porter never came back to Texas after he got out of prison, but Texans are still talking about him.


Roy Bean Country
(January 17, 1997)

Sometimes it takes a novelist -- someone practiced at kneading the raw dough of fiction into truth -- to put non-fiction writing into perspective.

Wisely, author Jack Skiles sought out Western novelist Elmer Kelton of San Angelo to write the foreword for his new book on Judge Roy Bean, Langtry and the area around it: "Judge Roy Bean Country." (Texas Tech University Press, softcover, 204 pages, $18.95.)

"Most areas of Texas have had their folklore and history documented in row upon row of books and theses," Kelton wrote, "but one area remains relatively neglected: the semi-desert region along the Pecos River."

The literary drought of books on the Pecos and its people has been eased by a veritable gully-washer of Pecos related books -- Skiles' and two others, Midland writer Patrick Dearen's "A Cowboy of the Pecos" (Republic of Texas Press, 266 pages, $12.95) and T. Dudley Cramer's "The Pecos Ranchers in the Lincoln County War" (Branding Iron Press, 214 pages, $22.95).

The land along the Pecos is tough country, and was one of the last areas of the state to be settled. Though isolated and sparsely populated, the Pecos River country (considerably larger than a lot of states and some nations) has seen a lot of colorful history.

But the people who were involved in making that history did not always see it that way. As Kelton wrote, much of that history has "been lost, buried in the graves of people who saw no reason to leave a written record because they recognized little remarkable in the events they had witnessed."

Each of these recently-published Pecos-related books is enriched by interviews of old timers by the authors and others who were farsighted enough to talk to them while they could still share memories. In addition to interviews they did themselves, authors Dearen and Cramer both benefited from the work of the late historian J. Evetts Haley, who in the 1920s, with the industry of a windmill in a thunderstorm, began pumping old timers in West Texas and New Mexico for information. Some of the men Haley talked with had fought Comanches on the Pecos or had known notorious outlaws. Haley's notes are in the Nita Stewart Haley Library in Midland.

All three of these books are as solid as the limestone canyons of the lower Pecos, each focusing on a different aspect of the Pecos story.

Skiles' book deals with the lower Pecos around Langtry, a small community in Val Verde County made famous by Judge Roy Bean, the so-called Law West of the Pecos. Though plenty has been written about Bean over the years, Skiles has turned up new material on the judge. But "Judge Roy Bean Country," like the area it is about, covers much more territory than the Roy Bean story. The book is a thorough local history, which Skiles traces from pre-history through the time of Spanish exploration to the coming of the railroad.

Dearen's book rounds up the lore of the cowboys and cattlemen along the Pecos (though job skills overlap, cowboys were and are the hired hands, while the cattlemen own the livestock). The title of Dearen's well-done book comes from J. Frank Dobie's "A Vaquero of the Brush Country," in which he wrote: "If in the old days a man said of another, 'He is a cowboy of the Pecos,' that might mean many things."

Indeed, a "cowboy of the Pecos" might be a trail-driver or a cattle rustler. Violence was so common along the river that "to pecos" served time as a verb, meaning to murder. Much of that violence involved the commission of what was known as the "pecos swap" -- a theft.

Cramer's book is a detailed look at one aspect of the conflict over ownership of livestock and land that followed the development of the cattle industry like a calf after its mama: range wars.

The Lincoln County War, which raged in the late 1870s along the portion of the Pecos flowing in New Mexico, was one of the bloodiest of these conflicts. One of the war's participants, Billy the Kid, would become one of the best known figures of the Old West. Cramer tells the story of the war by focusing on the Hugh Beckwith family, Beckwith being one of the principals in the difficulty.

All three of these books represent impressive research and are well-written. Each is a welcome addition to that small shelf of books on one of the wildest and wooliest rivers in the West.


Memorable Quotations
(January 10, 1997)

Movable lead type must still have been considered high technology the first time someone printed a collection of memorable quotations. For generations, books of quotations have been a popular literary genre.

Maybe we like to read the sagacious or funny remarks of others because we would like to be as witty or charming ourselves, or maybe we realize there's no hope we will ever pop off quotable quotes like a Winston Churchill and we'll just settle for being inspired or entertained.

Today, of course, we never know for sure if the zingy one-liners we hear from our politicians and celebrities are genuine, off-the-cuff remarks or the carefully crafted work of ghost writers. (I hate to break it to you, but Jay Leno does not write all his own stuff. Neither need Bob Hope.)

Other notable quotations come from magazine articles and books, passages intended to stand out, though they were not spoken first.

Whether they represent spontaneous remarks, scripted sound bites or just plain good writing, the best ones end up in printed collections.

One of the more powerful quotes I've seen in a long time came in the newspaper coverage of the New Year's Day death of Texas-born songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who wrote a couple of classics -- "Pancho and Lefty" and "If I Needed You" -- and many other songs in his 52 years.

According to his publicist, Van Zandt's young daughter came running into a room and said, "Daddy's having a fight with his heart." When friends and family rushed to Van Zandt, the Fort Worth native already was dead from a heart attack.

Whether Van Zandt, a poet to the end, managed to mumble those words of explanation to his terrified and non-comprehending daughter in his final moments, or whether there already is enough of the poet in her to have said something like that on her own -- in that way that children have of making the unexplained seem logical -- we will never know. But however it happened, they are a tremendously memorable seven words.

Now, from Texas Tech University Press, readers with an ear for good music and for good quotes can enjoy "Rave On," a collection of classic Texas music quotes. Compiled by Alan Burton with illustrations by Kent Gamble, the 182-page softcover book sells for $12.95. "Rave On" is the third in a series of books of classic Texas quotes. Earlier books dealt with politics and sports.

"Rave On" is fun to browse through, attractively designed and offers a thorough bibliography of other books dealing with Texas' music scene.

The title of the book comes from a 1958 Buddy Holly song by the same name. The song only made it to number 39 on Billboard's top 100 singles for the year, but was in the top five in Great Britain. "Rave On," according to Burton, has grown into a two-word description of Holly's style.

Fittingly, "Rave On" the book features several quotes by and about Holly, including this statement by the recently knighted Sir Paul McCartney: "At least the first forty songs we wrote were Buddy Holly-inspired." He was referring to the Beatles, of course.

Influence is a powerful force in music, as many of the quotes in the book point out, but there is also happenstance. This from Roy Orbison: "I started using sunglasses in Alabama. I was going to do a show with Patsy Cline and Bobby Vee and I left my clear glasses on the plane. I only had the sunshades, and I was quite embarrassed to go on stage with them, but I did it."

Like a song with catchy lyrics and a good tune, "Rave On" will be a hit with most readers.


Poor Mathematicians; Good Bookkeepers
(January 3, 1997)

Without trying too hard, I can think of at least two friends I've loaned books to who have never returned them.

Since this is a rather depressing avenue of thought for a book lover, I try not to dwell on it. Neither friend, and they still are friends, deliberately intended to keep my books, I'm sure. They just forgot. Then I forgot, at least until I started looking for them. But by then, my book has been on their shelf so long they probably think it's theirs. Which, sadly, it just about is.

If you are a reader, you've probably done it yourself. You're visiting a friend and spot a book you'd like to read on his or her shelf.

"Do you mind if I borrow this?" you ask, honestly intending to return it as soon as you're through with it.

Despite these good intentions, that's probably the last time the original owner will ever see the book. Like I said, there is no criminal intent here. It's just that you never seem to get around to returning the book. After a while, you forget all about it. The book blends in with the rest of your library and there it stays. Usually, the owner of the book also forgets about the loan.

Book borrowing and its usually unfortunate consequence is not a new problem. Once, perusing a collection of old books, I found this faded inscription written in a volume published in 1829:

William A. Clark's
Book April 20, 1840
my honest friends
Steal not this book

The volume in question was a treatise on the Fourth Commandment, though William A. Clark clearly had the Sixth Commandment on his mind when he scratched his enjoinder on the flyleaf.

From "A Treasury of Bookplates" by Fridolf Johnson, two other religiously-oriented anti-theft legends:

Go ye rather to them that sell,
and buy for yourselves
And:
The ungodly borroweth and
payeth not again!

Sir Walter Scott, on his bookplate, was more to the point: "Please return this book; I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers."

In the hand of a more contemporary book owner, I once saw this inscription:

If this book should ever roam
Box its ears and send it home.

Over the years, book owners have tried to protect their bibliographic property by permanently marking them in some way. Like Mr. Clark did more than a century-and-a-half ago, most owners will write their name inside the front cover. Others will use book plates, some very fancy, or a rubber stamp. A person can even get a seal made and emboss a page in his book.

The problem with marking a book in any one of these ways is that while ostensibly protecting it a forgetful book borrower, the owner is seriously diminishing the volume's future value. A collectible book with indelible writing in it is less valuable than a pristine copy. The exception, of course, is the odd book having belonged to Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens, Edgar Allen Poe, Sam Houston, J. Frank Dobie, etc. So, writing your name in a book is only a good idea if you are famous, or have strong reason to believe you someday will be.

The best bet is to write your name in the book in pencil. If you get famous, you can always erase that and brand the book in ink for posterity and future collectors. The downside of a pencil signature, of course, is that it is erasable. But erasing an owner's name in a book implies something more serious than forgetfulness.

Highly organized people could always keep a list of the titles they've loaned and the names of the borrowers, just like the library does. If your book is not returned in a reasonable time, you could start warting the borrower. That still may not do any good, but at least you'll have the satisfaction of knowing where your book is. Still, who has time to run a lending library?

The only real way to protect your library is to take a hard line. An outright refusal to loan a book is the only way to assure that you'll keep it. But saying no is hard to do.

Maybe you could just put up a sign: "Absolutely no books loaned."


Book Reviews from Previous Month: (December 1996)

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