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


Summer Gifts
(May 29, 1998)

The mid-year gift giving season is here.

While the scope of it will never eclipse the winter gift giving time (you know, that big holiday in December), May and June is the time for Mother's Day gifts, high school and college graduation gifts, wedding gifts and Father's Day gifts.

If shopping is not one of the great pleasures of your life, I propose a one-stop approach summer solstice gift acquisition plan: Go to a bookstore. Books are easy to carry, easy to wrap and don't cost nearly as much as crystal stemware or microwave ovens.

In addition to this economic consideration, a good book (with a touching inscription, of course) can be a much more personal gift that a fountain pen for the new grad, a toaster for the blissfully wedded or a new tie for dad. Pick the right book and it might last a whole lot longer than one of the more traditional gifts.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? The only catch is this: For a person or couple to appreciate a book as a graduation, wedding or Mother or Father's Day gift they have to be the type who appreciates books in general. There are those folks, sad to say, who might cherish a new toaster more than a good book.

Over the years, futilely playing the role of a literary Johnny Appleseed, I've tried giving books to non-readers. But don't ever expect to hear, "Wow, I stayed up all night reading that book you gave me the other day. I couldn't put it down. Thanks for turning me on to (insert name of author or subject.)" It just doesn't turn out that way.

What does happen is that the person never mentions your gift. It ends up forgotten on some shelf along with high school annuals and mail order catalogs until the next garage sale.

If a person reaches young adulthood without being hooked on reading as a pleasurable as well as necessary activity, I do not believe they can be converted. Getting them to stop smoking would be easier.

Assuming you do have a literate person or couple to shop for, here are some generic suggestions for book giving by category:

The Graduate:

They are sick of reading books they HAVE to read. Give them a fun book -- a good action-packed novel or a collection of jokes or cartoons.

Don't give the newly-graduated a self-help book like, to make up a title, "The Rest of Your Life for Dummies." On the other hand, a book on how to find the perfect job might be helpful. Caution: High school graduates going on to college may ask you for another kind of book -- one containing blank checks.

The Betrothed:

Don't expect those soon to be newlyweds to be registered at one of the large book stores. A salesperson may become puzzled if you ask.

What to get the starry eyed couple? Certain categories of self help books might be of interest, depending on the age and personalities of the couple. If you decide to buy them one of THOSE books, make sure you knew them well.

A safer choice is something for them to read on their honeymoon. They can't spend every moment looking in each other's eyes.

Another idea is some kind of memory book -- his and her diaries, for example. I know one woman who got a Christmas memory book as a wedding present. Every Christmas, she writes how her family observed the holiday and sticks in some memorabilia.

Dear Old Dad:

If your father's a reader, this is easy. A good novel, maybe Larry McMurtry's latest, "Comanche Moon." Or a how-to book for his favorite pastime, fishing, hunting, golf, woodworking.

For each of these major mid-year gift-giving categories, if all else fails and you can't decide what book or books to give, there's always the gift certificate option. And if the recipient happens to get two gift certificates, that's better than getting two toasters.


Books About West Texas
(May 22, 1998)

Not far from the old ghost town of La Norina in Big Bend National Park, five lights moved up a tributary of Tornillo Creek as a near-full moon hung above.

But these weren't ghost lights. Five of us, having rendezvoused for a few days of camping, were out for a walk once the temperature had finally dropped a bit. We could see fairly well by moonlight alone. The flashlights were to check for rattlesnakes, which the park ranger had warned us would be out looking for meals in the nighttime cool.

We made it to Ernst Tinaja without scaring any native pit vipers. The tinaja is a deep hole carved in the rock over the millennia by cascading water.

I had read that animals, including an occasional mountain lion, had been found drowned in the tinaja over the years. Later, perusing the recently-published recollections of Frederick Rice, I learned that some humans may also have drowned in the tinaja, unable to climb back up its slick rock sides.

Rice's Big Bend stories are set out in "My Name Is Frederick Rice and I Was Born Here: The Story of a Real Cowboy in Big Bend, Texas." The title's a little too wordy for my tastes, but the content of this 141-page softcover, which sells for $14.95, is interesting.

The Big Bend National Park, and adjacent state park land, was privately owned prior to 1944. Up in the Davis Mountains, where the scenery is just as pretty as can be found in the national park, the land still is held by descendants of many of the original owners.

In 1897, Andrew Prude bought three sections of land in Jeff Davis County and established a ranch. He moved with his wife Ora into a small log cabin on Limpia Creek three years later. Within two decades, the Prude Ranch had grown to 40 sections.

A year later, in 1921, the Prudes decided there were more ways than raising cattle to make money off land. They began using their property as a guest ranch to capitalize on the nascent Texas tourism industry.

During the Depression, Prude was forced to sell his cattle and most of his land, but the ranch continues to be operated by his descendants as a high country, Western-style resort.

Glenn Justice has done a good job of telling the story of this ranch in "Cattle and Dudes: A Family History of the Prude Ranch 1897-1997." Published by Rimrock Press in Odessa, the 226-page softcover sells for $14.95.

Another Trans-Pecos pioneer was the late Hallie Stillwell, whose book on Big Bend place names, "How Come It's Called That," was republished in 1997 by Iron Mountain Press. The 131-page paperback, co-written with the late Virginia Madison, is available for $12.95.

Hallie, ranchwoman and long-time Brewster County Justice of the Peace, died last October shortly before her 100th birthday.

Her autobiography, "I'll Gather My Geese," is now in its sixth printing and still selling steadily, according to Dadie Potter, Hallie's daughter. A&M Press eventually will be publishing a sequel, "My Goose is Cooked."

"Hallie thought she was through with it," Dadie said, "but her niece is adding some more stories to it. She's still working on it."

What does a West Texas memoir have to do with geese? "I'll gather my geese," is what Hallie told her overly protective father when he protested her decision to go teach school in Presidio back in the days when a six-shooter was as fundamental to a well-dressed young woman's wardrobe as a hat. Her second title, "My Goose is Cooked," is representative of Hallie's well-known sense of humor.

Not everyone thinks as highly of West Texas as the authors of these books. For a different perspective, read Jim Sanderson's recently-released book of essays, "A West Texas Soapbox." Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 123-page hardback sells for $22.95.

Sanderson, a professor of English at Lamar University in Beaumont, spent seven years teaching in Odessa. He clearly does not look back on his Odessa years with much fondness. Though some of his opinions about West Texas and its people seem a bit too generalized, he does raise some interesting points, particularly in his discussion of the clash between a frontier spirit and family values, including religion.


O'Henry Revisited
(May 15, 1998)

A century after departing Texas for good under bad circumstances, short story writer William Sydney Porter continues to be remembered, read and written about.

Porter left as a convicted felon, en route to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. Found guilty of embezzling funds from Austin National Bank, the only kind of teller Porter had any business being was a storyteller. His position at the bank merely had been a day job to support his family while he tried to make it as publisher of a weekly humor sheet, The Rolling Stone.

Emerging from prison after serving 39 months of a five-year sentence Porter -- adopting the pen name of O. Henry -- began his literary production in earnest. By 1910, when he died at 47, he had a national following that would go global.

Though he never came back to the state he lived in from 1882 to 1898 (well, he did spend some time in Honduras after his indictment, but surely his departure for a country with no extradition treaty was to gather story material), Porter still is very much a part of Austin. Hundreds came to enjoy the 21st annual O. Henry Pun-Off at the O. Henry Museum on May 3.

On February 15, the 100th anniversary of Porter's Austin trial in federal district court, he got a second chance in a mock trial at the University of Texas law school organized by the Friends of the O. Henry Museum. This time, a jury acquitted him.

Of course, as presiding judge, retired Texas Supreme Court Justice Jack Hightower pointed out, he had no real jurisdiction over the matter. Former federal prosecutor Jan Patterson, who presented the government's case at the retrial, said the proceeding should have been held in Williamson County.

Porter's defense attorney, Austin lawyer Jim Guleke, said the government simply had not proven, in 1898 or a century later, that Porter actually took any money. No matter, Porter's felony record still stands. But in the court of public opinion, the writer has been somewhat exonerated.

Whether he committed a crime may be debatable, but Porter stands absolutely guilty of purveying humorous writing.

The transplanted North Carolinian even dabbled in book reviewing. The Aug. 25, 1894 issue of The Rolling Stone, the 20th he produced, featured his critical perspective on a couple of familiar titles: Noah Webster's "Unabridged Dictionary" and Morrison and Fourmy's "City Directory."

Porter observed that Webster's book was "quite an exhaustive treatise on various subjects, written in Mr. Webster's well known, lucid style." Tongue well in cheek, Porter continued, "The range of subjects is wide, and the treatment light and easy without being flippant."

The author, Porter noted, had even arranged the book alphabetically.

"If any criticism at all could be advanced," Porter went on, "it would be to suggest that an index to the various articles be added in order to facilitate the finding of a particular subject."

Porter noted the author of the book had quite a large vocabulary and always used the right word in the right place.

"We predict that he will be heard from again," Porter concluded.

Though Porter wrote for fortune, not fame, he no doubt would be impressed by the third annual keepsake publication by the Friends of the O. Henry Museum, David Canright's "O. Henry in Texas Landscapes." The 55-page softcover is available from the museum (409 E. 5th St., Austin, Texas, 78701/512-472-1903) for $10 plus postage.

An outgrowth of research Canright did for a course at UT, "O. Henry in Texas Landscapes" looks at what Porter had to say about this state's cultural and physical geography. It is the third scholarly publication dealing with Porter produced by the Friends of the O. Henry Museum. The booklet has two maps by Canright and one by Porter (drawn when he worked for the General Land Office) plus drawings by Canright and some by Porter.

Canright's look at O. Henry's Texas offers both a good overview of Porter's time in this state and the writing it inspired, as well as insight into the always interesting relationship between place and story.

Porter's humor, however, is universal, as were his themes. In his Rolling Stone spoof of a boring book of names, addresses and advertisements what he said in his critical appraisal of "City Directory" would do for Canright's booklet: "In these days of erotic and ultra-imaginative literature of the modern morbid, self-analyzing school, it is a relief to peruse a book with so little straining after effect, so well balanced and pure in sentiment. It is a book that a man can place in the hands of the most innocent member of his family without fear."


Bedichek's Letters
(May 8, 1998)

"The Roy Bedichek Family Letters" is not a book likely to fly off bookstore shelves.

Not that anything is wrong with it. Bedichek's letters, written over a five-decade period, are delightful reading, more like little essays than traditional correspondence. The problem is, from a book marketing standpoint, someone has to be fairly familiar with Texas letters (as in belles lettres) to have ever heard of Bedichek.

This 464-page book, published by the University of North Texas Press at $32.50 and compiled and edited by Jane Gracy Bedichek (Bedichek's daughter-in-law), illustrates very well the importance of academic presses. Even though three of Bedichek's four books were published by a mainstream New York house, no East Coast publisher would have touched this project today. Those concerned only with the bottom line would have asked that all-powerful business question: Who would buy it?

Before delving any further into this new book of old letters, a short tutorial on Bedichek:

Bedichek (1878-1959) was born in Illinois, but grew up on a farm near Eddy, south of Waco. He went to the University of Texas, graduating in 1903. Both before and after earning his degree, he held a variety of jobs in a variety of places, from law firm secretary to newspaper editor. For 30 years -- beginning in 1917 -- he was associated with the University Interscholastic League. For 27 of those years he was UIL director.

A prodigious reader fond of quoting from the classics, Bedichek was an astute observer of nature and man, and a stimulating conversationalist. Think of him as a more civilly obedient Thoreau with a job. One of his best friends was writer J. Frank Dobie, who encouraged him as he neared retirement to write a book.

Bedichek's "Adventures with a Texas Naturalist," his first and best book, was published in 1947 by Doubleday in New York, as were "Karankawa Country" (1950) and "A Sense of Smell" (1960). "Educational Competition: The Story of the University Interscholastic League of Texas" (UT Press, 1956) rounded out his titles.

Frankly, as I've written before, I don't see Bedichek as one of Texas' literary giants. He was without question an interesting man and a good writer, but what he did in establishing the University Interscholastic League -- and the impact that has had on generations of Texas school children -- far surpasses his books. Several other Texas writers have written more prolifically and better, including, as I also have said before, the late J. Evetts Haley.

But Bedichek absolutely deserves to be remembered as one of Texas' most notable intellectuals of the first half of this century. That alone makes a collection of his letters worth reading.

"Some connoisseurs of the state of culture in the Southwest have for years rated Bedichek the most civilized man in Texas; he has also been called the most natural man," Stanley Walker wrote in the Saturday Evening Post not long after "Adventures with a Texas Naturalist" came out. "Beyond doubt he is one of the most stimulating companions to be found."

So, too, is "The Roy Bedichek Family Letters." This is the second book based on Bedichek's voluminous correspondence, which is held at UT's Center for American History. UT Press brought out "Letters of Roy Bedichek" in 1985. The letters in the book were mostly to Bedichek's long-time friends Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb.

Since the letters in this new book are those written to family members, along with some by family members, the tone obviously is more intimate. Not intimate in the sense of lacking propriety, of course, but in giving an inside look at Bedichek the man -- loving husband, good father, doting grandfather.

Bedichek's correspondence is not a collection of missives reading "Dear So-and-so: How are you? I am fine." His letters had substance. He clearly enjoyed writing and, through that writing, philosophizing. He kept carbons of almost every letter he wrote after 1908 and at some point must have realized he was writing for posterity, using index cards to kept track of the assorted subjects he'd covered in those letters.

One frustrating thing about the book -- though it's certainly no one's fault -- is the one-sidedness of the early correspondence. Bedichek alludes to letters from his wife that are not in the book, though some latter ones are. Presumably her side of their early correspondence has not survived.

The moral here: If you think you're going to be famous some day, save the letters you send and the answers you receive. Of course, letter writing these days is more threatened than Barton Springs salamanders. Very few folks engage in written correspondence any more, at least not via the U.S. Postal Service. Much of what we read from someone today has arrived via e-mail as opposed to what the techies call snail-mail.

Actually, the ease of e-mail may help revitalize letter writing. Maybe we are in a period of epistolary renaissance. Just make sure you print what you send and receive or save your e-mail to a disk.

Given how much Bedichek liked to put his thoughts down, I imagine he would have used a personal computer and electronic mail had it been available to him.

On the other hand, in the first letter in this book (written in 1908), he even apologized for using a typewriter:

"You will have to excuse me for writing on the machine. I have a terrible bone-felon on my pen-finger which makes it impossible for me to use that weapon which Hugo eulogized as having 'the lightness of the wind and the power of the thunder-bolt.'"


From Autocamp to Motel
(May 1, 1998)

Okay, I admit it. I'm old enough to remember when motels were called tourist courts.

The good news is, I'm not old enough to recall the days when accommodations along the roadside were called tourist camps, or, prior to that, when the term "autocamping" had widespread meaning.

One of the more neglected aspects of American cultural history is the development of tourism, particularly the industry that has grown since the advent of motor vehicle mass production. But a book from Johns Hopkins University Press by Warren James Belasco, "Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel," goes a long way (to put it in travel metaphor) toward filling this chug hole in the highway of history.

Belasco's interesting book (212 pages, $15.95 in softcover) traces the development of motels from 1910 to 1945. Motels have continued to evolve since the end of World War II, of course, but by the mid-1940s, the business as we still know it today had jelled.

Ten years into this century, 500,000 Americans owned cars. That seems like a lot of cars, but a decade later, in 1920, the number had increased to 8 million.

I remember my grandfather telling me about how he and my grandmother drove from Corpus Christi to Austin in the early 1920s. There were no motels, no Dairy Queens, no convenience stores -- just mostly unpaved roads through mostly open country.

Roadways back then hardly deserved to be called highways. The notion of having speed limits was not particularly controversial in the early 20s, either. For one thing, there wasn't a Highway Patrol for Texas until 1927.

My grandparents simply drove until they were tired, pulled off the road into someone's pasture and camped out. If they wanted a wakeup call, they had to depend on some farmer's rooster. "Room service" was whatever they cooked over an open fire.

According to Belasco, many Americans considered this a grand adventure and did it for fun. My grandparents were merely trying to get from Point A to Point B, though they later recalled it with nostalgia.

Until 1920, most people traveled by railroad. Trains went into downtown stations and people spent the night in downtown hotels.

But the horseless carriage, once mass production and mass marketing techniques were developed, began to change the way Americans went from one city to another. At first, like my grandparents, the methodology was roadside camping.

Then, Belasco writes, cities began promoting the use of public campgrounds for motorists. City officials figured it was good for local businesses to have travelers pitch their tents in their town. Camping was free, but free meant that undesirables could stay in your park, too.

To cope with this problem, governmental entities began charging motorists for the right to camp in a public area. With money now a factor, good old American capitalism entered the picture. Privately owned campgrounds, which soon became facilities with rentable cabins, sprang up.

By 1925, the process was fairly well commercialized.

Few of the old tourist courts have made it to the waning days of the century they were born. Now the highways, particularly on the outskirts of cities, are lined with places of lodging that are part hotel, part motel. And the distinction between the two is less and less clear.


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