Best Texas books: Lead off with this John Graves literary memoir

These new Texas books — plus one minor classic — reminds us how much is worth reading about our state in early 2018.

“Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship.” John Graves. University of Texas Press.

One could effortlessly make the argument that John Graves is among the finest authors Texas ever produced. Yet few readers venture beyond his masterpiece, “Goodbye to a River.” This literary memoir, first published in 2004 and spliced with excerpts from Graves’ journal from the 1950s, explains a lot about how he became who he became. A son of Fort Worth, he was educated in a gentlemanly manner at Rice Institute in Houston. He served in the Pacific Theater during World War II before earning his master’s degree from Columbia University in New York. He came away from that experience with a lingering antipathy toward Ivy League types and wanted to plunge instead into the peripatetic life of an expat writer, much like dozens of other American authors before and after the war. This memoir covers mostly his time in Spain and the Canary Islands and records his drinking bouts, love affairs, manly friendships, jagged interactions with other expats, as well as fishing, hunting and sailing trips. Sound like Hemingway? The great man is always in the background of this book and Graves even spots his putative role model a couple times in Spain. The Graves attitude and style is already well developed in the journal entries, although, as he points out, his return to Texas gave him his subject.

“All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music.” Michael Corcoran. University of North Texas Press.

Advice: Read this book with your favorite music streaming device at hand. You’ll want to listen to every artist described by Corcoran, formerly of the American-Statesman and other publications, in this revised version of his 2005 book about key Texas artists. You learn new things about some of them, such as Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Others are musical pioneers who might sound familiar, but Corcoran, an historian as much as a journalist, has tracked down exactly what you need to know. The backstories about what he could or could not discover are as compelling as his authoritative takes on the 42 artists’ histories and musical contributions. Corcoran has chosen fantastic images for this UNT Press edition, and he doesn’t waste a word. As he did during his Statesman years, he can make other writers wish they’d produced this work. The book will wait at eye-level on my Texas  reference shelves for as long as they are standing.

“Hometown Texas.” Photographs by Peter Brown. Stories by Joe Holley. Trinity University Press.

Like Corcoran, Holley has written for major newspapers and magazines. Also like Corcoran, he writes in a tight, precise and yet sometimes expansive manner. To tell the truth, Holley and and I cover a good stretch of the same waterfront, but it is worth it to read about some familiar Texas subjects because he is such an amiable storyteller. Other pieces, especially those with personal meaning for Holley, were completely new to me. Peter Brown’s photographs of small-town or rural Texas open wide and put the subject matter front and center. Nothing tricky here. His instincts and training lead him to the right image time and again. At times, though, one wishes the images raised by Holley were duplicated by Brown. But that’s another book. I know I will keep dipping into this collection of compelling Texas stories that doubles as a handsome picture book.

“The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk.” Donna Marie Miller. Texas A&M Press.

Donna Marie Miller’s ace in the hole is her generous access to James and Annetta White, who have run Austin’s legendary Broken Spoke honky-tonk since 1964. It’s clear that Miller warmly admires the White family and cherishes their stories. Her delight is infectious. She sketches out the early years — White grew up not far from our South Austin house! — then records how every family member pitched in when the Broken Spoke opened. One might wish for a little more on the background of the country music and dance styles that flourished at the honky-tonk, but Miller more than makes up for that with accounts of the legends of music that played there and the very localized culture that thrived on the east side of South Lamar Boulevard. Put this on the shelf next to Eddie Wilson’s knock-out 2017 “Armadillo World Headquarters.” Then look up Corcoran’s digital “Austin Clubland.”

ALSO READ: The definitive history of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.

“Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas.” Michael Hurd. University of Texas Press.

Another journalist who has become a historian is Michael Hurd, a former sportswriter for the American-Statesman and other publications. He’s seen a lot. And he understands the connections between sports, especially football, and other, often riven cultural expressions of our state. Until the (white) University Interscholastic League and the (black) Prairie View Interscholastic League merged in 1967, teams from segregated high schools in the same towns or cities played in the same stadiums. African-Americans took the field on Thursdays, Anglos on Fridays. Hurd is especially good on his hometown of Houston, which supported multiple black high schools with blazing rivalries. Now director of Prairie View A&M University’s Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture, Hurd soaks up stories from small towns and big cities. He provides accounts of state championship games in his appendices and, crucially, he reminds us that integration also meant the loss of pride and identity for those who attended black high schools that had excelled at academics and athletics. Even the darkened image of players on the dusk jacket affirms that this is a chapter of our state’s history that must come to light.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Late 2017.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Fall 2017.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Summer 2017.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Spring 2017.

MORE TEXAS BOOKS WE LOVE: Fall 2016.


View Comments 0