Best Texas books to read soon

We pause during Austin festival season to read up on nature in a Texas national park, the career of a Texas script doctor, the third part of an Old West trilogy by a Texan, a urban Chicano tale from another Texan and breezy book on Texas ingenuity.


“Nature Watch Big Bend.” Lynne Weber and Jim Weber. Texas A&M University Press.

Oh, how have we needed this book forever! Weber and Weber give a seasonal guide to the flora and fauna of our beloved Big Bend with copious drawings, maps, photographs and sidebars. The handy book also includes timely warnings about black bears, mountain lions and other potentially dangerous creatures.  With this in hand, we are not required to tote around separate guides for birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians, cacti, succulents, grasses, trees and wildflowers. And it’s worth noting that the uninformed visitor to the National Park often expects one of these sightings at the wrong time of year. I’ve certainly gone hoping for a vermillion flycatcher or a indigo bunting when none was to be had even in the most likely spots. We’ve engaged with plenty of wildlife in Big Bend over the years, stuff not seen anywhere else in Texas, so guide away! It’s almost cool enough to return.

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“Rewrite Man: The Life and Career of Warren Skaaren.” Alison Macor. University of Texas Press.

Our colleague, Joe Gross, already reported on this fine biography, written by one of our favorite local journalists and scholars. It never hurts to add another voice of praise. The late screenwriter Warren Skaaren was one of the definitive influences on the early Texas film scene, as well as a top Hollywood script doctor who worked on some of the biggest movies of his time, from “Top Gun” to “Batman.” Alison Macor, whose “Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas” is never far from my desk, excavated Skaaren’s archives in the Ransom Center to find the nitty gritty of not just the writing process, but also the endless give and take behind the scenes in the movie industry. I never knew Skaaren, who died in 1990, but I’d heard about him since I moved to town in 1984. This book fills a huge gap in our understanding, not only of the screenwriter, but of Texas cinema and films in general.

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“The Cholo Tree.” Daniel Chacón. Piñata Books, Arte Público Press.

This book kept drawing us back into its simple web with its unfussy prose, seemingly familiar settings and yet an unexpected central character. Victor is a teenager who almost everybody suspects of being a cholo or street gang member. Yet he defies expectations almost from the start, helped by observational powers beyond his years as well as artistic talent and some effective champions. Author Chacón is based in El Paso, but his story could be about any urban Chicano landscape.

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“Silver City.” Jeff Guinn. Putnam.

In Cash McLendon, Texas author Jeff Guinn has found a reliably readable character to track through the Old West. As previously revealed in “Buffalo Trail” and “Glorious,” McLendon must escape a brutal assassin, Patrick “Killer Boots” Brautigan, while trying to find and to keep his romantic interest, Gabrielle. This time, he lands in Mountain View, Arizona, with multiple plot complications at the ready. All the confidently unspooled action seems prime fodder for a screen adaptation. All that’s left is the casting and financing. Based in Fort Worth, Guinn is in calm control of all the levers of the modern Western, including the violence that almost inevitably bloodies the pages from the start.

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“Texas Ingenuity: Lone Star Inventions, Inventors & Innovators.” Alan C. Elliott. History Press.

As jacket art promises, this thin book is just for fun. Nothing wrong with that. The subtitle gives away the project: Elliott puts all sorts of subjects into the category of Texas ingenuity. So you get outsized historical figures such as Sam Houston and Barbara Jordan, but also innovators of a different ilk in May Kay, Oveta Culp Hobby, Howard Hughes and Jack Kilby. Pig Stands and Dr. Pepper compete for space with O. Henry and the Kilgore Rangerettes. Taken individually, these items would make diverting curiosities in a newspaper series. Taken together as a book, they might not hang together, but they provide more than a little distraction.

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