Texana Book Reviews -- December 1998
(by Mike Cox)


Stocking Stuffers--And More
(December 6, 1998)

As we move toward the end of another year, we should take time to think for a bit about Melvin Oehler.

If you've just said to yourself, "Melvin who?" don't feel guilty about it. None of us has ever heard of him, unless you've already read Elroy Bode's fine collection of ruminations in "Home Country: An Elroy Bode Reader" (Texas Western Press, 400 pages, $30.00).

Oehler was a retired baker at the Veterans Hospital in Kerrville. We all occasionally forget where we put our car keys, or can't remember someone's name, but Oehler forgot to live his life. All he did was -- virtually nothing.

Bode writes: "He is not a reader. He does not drink.... He is a seventy-year-old man with no hobbies and no passions, no problems and no concerns--more like a rubber band, a pane of glass, a postage stamp than a human complexity of nerves and urges and memories. He is something that holds a shirt together."

The sketch of Oehler, which ought to be read as a warning label on the box of life, is only two pages long. Most of the other pieces in this collection of Bode's essays are short, which makes this an easy book to wander through, stopping occasionally to think about. As the pace of the lives we live intensifies with the approaching holidays, Bode's book is a nice rest stop and an excellent gift choice.

Another interesting book for as-we-approach-the-end-of-the-millennium-reading is

Don Graham's "Giant Country: Essays on Texas" (Texas Christian University Press, 289 pages, $22.50). This is a collection of 24 previously-published essays, updated to more appropriately fit into a 90s context, on Texas-ness -- from writing to movies. "Giant

Country" is a good gift idea for a die hard Texan worried about whether our culture will survive into the next century or for the newly-arrived Texan who needs to learn what it's all about.

What most Texans know, and neo-Texans soon find out about, is Texas' colorful history. An excellent gift choice is "Texas Past: Enduring Legacy," a collection of striking photographs by Wyman Meinzer with text by Andrew Sansom (Texas Parks and Wildlife Press, 150 pages, $39.95).

Meinzer, who lives at Benjamin, is one of Texas' premier photographers. Some of the pictures in this coffee table-sized book are tremendously powerful, including a shot of three Spanish Colonial spearheads taken against a rugged background in Crosby County, which is where they were found. Another shot that caught my eye was a circle of stones in Armstrong County which the caption identifies as a spot where a Plains Indian tepee once stood.

A warning: "Texas Past" may aggravate your urge to hit the road. Three other books likely to have the same effect are about the Big Bend, a fine place for a holiday retreat.

"Land of the Desert Sun: Texas' Big Bend Country" with photographs and text by D. Gentry Steele (Texas A&M University Press, 133 pages, $29.95) offers an overview of the Big Bend illustrated with black and white photographs.

A book that also will appeal to Big Bend lovers is Ken Ragsdale's "Big Bend Country: Land of the Unexpected" (Texas A&m University Press, 281 pages, $24.95). Ragsdale's well-written and well-researched book offer portraits of some of the Big Bend's notable characters and incidents, from the late Hallie Stillwell to two chapters on the filming of "Giant" in and around Marfa in the mid-1950s.

A third attractive Big Bend book is "Portraits From The Desert: Bill Wright's Big Bend" (University of Texas Press, 164 pages, $24.95 in softcover). This book focuses on the people and places of the area and is a good read.

STOCKING STUFFERS: You'll need a pretty good sized stocking to hang by the chimney with care, but here are some other titles any afficionado of Texana should enjoy: "Jesse James Lived & Died in Texas," by Betty Dorsett Duke (Eakin Press, 208 pages, $21.95), a book that lays out the case that the Missouri outlaw actually lived to old age and died in Texas as James Courtney; "Judgment at Gallatin: The Trial of Frank James," by Gerard S. Petrone (Texas Tech University Press, 222 pages, $28.95), a study of Jesse's brother-in-crime and his trial; "Leander McNelly: Texas Ranger" by Bob Scott (Eakin Press, 222 pages, $18.95 in softcover), a new biography of a Ranger legend; and "Satanta: The Life and Death of a War Chief" by Charles M. Robinson III (State House Press, 235 pages, $27.95).

AND MORE: It's hard to beat a good dog story. And a bunch of good dog stories are even more appealing. "A Dog Called Friday and Other True Tales from Pontotoc" by Lewis Waldon (Woodburner Press, 170 pages, $15.95) is a collection of Hill Country stories from a natural storyteller.

If you or someone on your gift list is interested in books about entertainers, three suggestions are Stephen Opdyke's "Willie Nelson Sings America" (Eakin Press, 488 pages, $24.95), a detailed sourcebook on Nelson's music and movies; "Tex Ritter: America's Most Beloved Cowboy" by Bill O'Neal (Eakin Press, 157 pages, $21.95), a well-done illustrated biography of this American icon; and "Cowboy Fiddler in Bob Wills' Band" by Frankie McWhorter as told to John Erickson (University of North Texas Press, 168 pages, $16.95 in softcover).

A final book definitely worth having or giving is a delightful assortment of vintage passages from old letters, diaries and memoirs collected in "A Texas Sampler: Historical Recollections" (Texas Tech University Press, 158 pages, $14.95). A piece of early Texas art is matched with each excerpt.

The end of a passage on the winter chore of hog killing offers this aside on Christmas: "You children know what a Southern Christmas means, the Yule fires brightly burning, good cheer, good will, good humor pervading every nook and corner.... It is Christmas indeed."


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