Best Texas Books: Wrestling with writer J. Frank Dobie

At some point, every Texas writer — or serious reader — must come to terms with “Mr. Texas.”

Author J. Frank Dobie. American-Statesman file photo.

To the extent that Austinites today recognize the name of folklorist, teacher and widely published columnist, J. Frank Dobie, they might associate it with a middle school, or a freshly renovated mall at the base of a dormitory tower (despite the fact that Dobie hated high-rises), or perhaps with “Philosophers’ Rock,” a sculptural tribute at Barton Springs devoted to Dobie and his gabbing buddies Roy Bedichek and Walter Prescott Webb.

The literary-minded might also think of the Dobie Paisano Ranch, which serves as a writer’s retreat on Barton Creek for Dobie Fellows, or the modest Dobie residence across from the University of Texas Law School, where writing students sometimes meet.

Born in 1888, Dobie came out of South Texas brush country with an abiding interest in cowboy yarns, legends of lost treasure, and tales of conquistadors, cattle drives and desert rats. Dobie struggled at first to find his voice, but struck gold in the mass-market magazine trade that was hungry for adventure stories.

He then expanded those articles, sometimes scantily, into two dozen books. He took up residence at UT and mentored subsequent generations of folkorists and writers. A the same time, he penned a weekly column that was published in dozens of newspapers. He died in 1964.

As Steven L. Davis describes in his superb biography, “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind,” the folklorist’s intellectual journey took him from unreconstructed attitudes toward Mexicans, Native-Americans and African-Americans — as well as a belief in the self-reliance of rough-and-ready Texans — to become one of the most progressive and open-minded columnists in the state, the bane of the postwar Establishment. He also mentored Hispanic and African-American folklorists, although he broke with the social scientists in the field who insisted on undiluted field notes rather than lovingly burnished stories. His motto: “Any tale belongs to whoever best tells it.”

RELATE: Start with this J. Frank Dobie bio.

One can certainly ignore Dobie and still understand Texas. Or one can choose other, better writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Larry McMurtry, Horton Foote, Stephen Harrigan, Americo Paredes, Sarah Bird, Don GrahamAttica Locke or Lawrence Wright to gain your initial insights about the state.

I, for one, avoided Dobie for as long as I could. First, I’m allergic to thickly applied dialect, whether from otherwise great authors such as George Eliot (the unreadable “The Mill on the Floss”) or local heroes like John Henry Faulk (whenever told an extended story in someone else’s down-home voice). Also, Dobie’s tales seemed directed at a youthful audience, let’s face it, mostly boys, and rarely have I been able to reread even beloved adventure stories from childhood with much pleasure in my later years.

So what drew me to Dobie in my sixties? One writer, other than Davis, who got me over the conceptual hump was Bill Wittliff, whose masterful recreation of various Texas dialects in his “Devil’s Backbone” series of picaresque novels is an absolute delight. (A third volume comes out this fall from UT Press.)

So maybe Dobie’s liberally applied Texas dialects might not set my teeth on edge.

Also, I’d recently read the collected works of Porter, who sparred with Dobie over their respective places among Texas writers, and came away with the impression that she is among America’s greats, at her best on par with her near contemporaries William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Dobie next?

Davis warned me personally that the seven volumes kept in print by the University of Texas Press were uneven. In response, he recently finished a volume of “The Essential J. Frank Dobie,” a “best of” edition to be valued because Dobie could rise to sustained excellence, as I later discovered. It comes out in Fall 2019 from Texas A&M University Press.

The proximate cause for my deep dive into Dobie, however, was a trip to the still-new offices of UT Press, where all their volumes in print are displayed in the reception area. As a diehard bibliophile, I was dazzled. Then I slipped my fingers across the seven beautifully designed Dobie paperbacks with their vintage-looking covers.

This paperback series, by the way, is kept in print because of a bequest from Dobie’ estate in the 1970s. Someone was thinking ahead to the day when Dobie was no longer a celebrity! Now they are mostly available via “print on demand.”

I asked for all seven. Then slowly read them, sometimes giving up altogether, then winding my way back to the stack.

“Uneven” does not begin to describe the books. Some are barely strung-together anecdotes, the kind you might find in an old-fashioned “general interest” column in a newspaper, stitched together by ellipses. “Rattlesnakes” and “The Longhorns” tend to follow this pattern. Interesting in spurts, but repetitive in an unappealing way.

Other Dobie’s collections present thicker stories, such as the nuggets in “Tales of Old-Time Texas” or “I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Still, the familiar patterns are burned into the narrative leather and you must be patient with them.

Lost mines and buried treasures tickled Dobie’s readers and he really does make the search for them compelling in “Apache Gold and Yacqui Silver” and, especially, “Coronado’s Children,” the book that probably holds up best.

In a special category is “The Ben Lilly Legend,” which benefits from a focused subject — a great American hunter. Dobie pursued this story with relish and persistence. I’d be tempted to recommend it as your first Dobie, that or “Coronado’s Children.”

Actually, do what I did and start with Davis’ “J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.” You need it to understand the context for any additional Dobie reading.

Some great old Hollywood movies were inspired by these books. And one can find threads of these stories in McMurtry and Wittliff, who spun them into fictional gold.

Dobie might have been a promoter of a Texas that appears in the rearview mirror of an overwhelming urban and suburban state. And he’s not entirely reliable as a historian, but, darn it, he can tell a tale, especially when he sticks to the subject. And his stories birthed a lot of Texas mythology that still shapes the way we think of ourselves today.

 

Texas history museum names new director you might know

You might already know the newly appointed director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. That’s because hyper-competent Margaret Koch has already twice served as the museum’s interim director as well as its director of exhibits and deputy director.

The Bullock Texas State History Museum names Margaret Koch as director. Contributed

Koch previously served as director of exhibitions and research as well as exhibition designer at the Missouri History Museum. In Austin since 2013, she has supervised award-winning shows and has widened the museum’s focus to include previously underreported histories.

She has also overseen improvements and renovations, including conversion of the museum’s IMAX theater projection to an advanced laser format, and a multi-million-dollar rethinking of the first floor gallery, to reopen in November as “Becoming Texas.”

RELATED: Museum urges visitors to rodeo across Texas.

The Bullock will become even more relevant as the corridor north of the Capitol is reshaped and a new cultural space — with a still-undetermined focus — opens in a state office tower across the street from the Bullock and the Blanton Museum of Art.

RELATED: Life and death on the Texas-Mexico border 100 years ago.

“Margaret is an experienced and trusted leader,” said Rod Welsh, executive director of the State Preservation Board, the agency that oversees the museum as well as the State Capitol building and grounds, including its statuary, and the Capitol Visitors Center. She “will keep the Bullock at the forefront of best contemporary museum practices as the institution continues to produce new and exciting programs.”

Texas White House at LBJ Ranch closed for now

The National Park Service announced Friday that it will close the “Texas White House,” once the ranch home of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and his family in Stonewall, as well as the adjacent Pool House, until further notice because of health and safety concerns arising from water leakage in various places in the main house.

The Texas White House and pool at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, taken in 2012. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

For decades, these were the most private zones of the ranch, parts of the LBJ National Historical Park that, until 2012, were reserved for the Johnson family and not generally open to the public.

 RELATED: Exploring the inside of the Texas White House

The Park Service said they will remain closed until the service can confirm that the two buildings do not pose safety concerns.

“We don’t actually know what the problem is,” said Susanne McDonald, the national park superintendent. “We are going into an investigative stage to figure out what is happening. We are focusing on weaknesses in the structure that might be causing water intrusion. We have a few areas that have caused us problems, but we haven’t been able to figure out the exact location where the water is coming in. It could be absolutely nothing, but I don’t want to take a risk with our employees or our visitors.”

The modest buildings, preserved in 1960s styles, look less like the headquarters of the world’s most powerful person and more like a relaxing retreat where your beloved country relatives live. That is, until one notices the three attached televisions ready to broadcast the three big networks of the time.

Interiors of Texas White House were first seen by the public in 2012, preserved in their 1960s styles. Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman

“They just weren’t showy people,” former Superintendent Russ Whitlock said when the buildings were opened to the public in 2012. “The ranch and the ranch house take the Johnsons off the pedestal of president and first lady and make them into people we can relate to.”

In his recent book, “LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval,” Ken Longley, the newly named director of the LBJ Presidential Library, describes how the ranch served as a safety valve for the  sometimes volcanic LBJ, especially during his traumatic final year in office. Repeatedly during 1968, the president retreated to the ranch, took a swim, then a ate a snack on TV trays, or a tooled around the Hill Country with family or friends to relax.

All other park facilities remain open to the public. These include the Johnson settlement, President Johnson’s boyhood home, and the park visitor center in Johnson City. The LBJ Ranch driving tour is not affected, and the LBJ Ranch hangar visitor center is open as normal.

UPDATE: The quote from Superintendent McDonald was added after this was first posted.

Best Texas Books: ‘Where Texas Meets the Sea’ by Alan Lessoff

How many observers would have predicted that the finest urban history to date about a Texas city would take as its subject Corpus Christi? Permanently perched on the state’s periphery, Corpus, a city of 316,000 — 442,000 in the metro area — seems always consigned to secondary status.

NOTE: This story first ran in the Statesman June 9, 2015. We’re reviving it for our Best Texas Books series.

In “Where Texas Meets the Sea” (University of Texas Press), Alan Lessoff explains how a place with such sterling advantages — gorgeous beaches, a striking bayfront under a natural bluff, a man-made deepwater port, proximity to Mexico and to the ranching, oil and gas empires of South Texas — has been stuck in virtual neutral for the past 50 years. Despite the current fracking boom, young people still leave in droves, as they did when the glamour spotlight followed other cities in the state: Houston during the space race, Dallas during the run of “Dallas,” and Austin pretty much ever since.

Lessoff is unswervingly fair. He doesn’t point fingers or assign guilt. Yet he makes it clear that Corpus has squandered opportunity after opportunity, especially in those years since an elite group of mostly Anglo businessmen ran the city from the 1920s to the 1960s. A necessary and salutary diffusion of power followed, but consensus has been fleeting.

BEST TEXAS BOOKS: “The Cedar Choppers.”

Preserve historic buildings in context, as Galveston and San Antonio did, or bulldoze them and start over? Run a major thoroughfare along the bayfront, or make it more amenable to tourists and pedestrians? Cluster civic buildings on the bay? Or maybe on the bluff? Or somewhere in between, as urban designers have urged?

Corpus Christians can’t even agree on whether explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda named the bay because he arrived there on the Feast of Corpus Christi. (Lessoff finds no evidence to confirm the popular notion.)

Civic dithering might sound awfully familiar to Austinites, but here a lingering sense of optimism, a sense that problems eventually can be solved, tends to bolster old-timers and attract newcomers — including young people — in multitudes.

Corpus lost the headquarters of H-E-B and Whataburger to San Antonio. It missed out on Sea World. In the book’s most squalid passages, Lessoff describes how the city allowed Spanish-built seagoing replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria — sent on a somewhat tone-deaf diplomatic tour during the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, and intended as tourism supermagnets — to rot. The Pinta and the Santa Maria replicas were quietly destroyed in August 2014.

“They had become a monument not to interethnic pride,” Lessoff writes, “but to the perils of community building through generalized symbolism.”

The city was founded in 1839 — same year as Austin — as an Anglo trading outpost on the disputed border between Texas and Mexico, the Nueces River, by Henry Lawrence Kinney. It was nurtured as a market town, banking center and supply depot for South Texas ranching families. Its Hispanic residents — who finally began to share power after World War II through groups such as the G.I. Forum, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Westside Business Association — were generally descended from rural families long settled in the region.

The town was vulnerable to tropical storms. A 1919 hurricane swept many buildings off its low-lying bayfront. Corpus built a seawall, lower than the one in Galveston, which, after all, juts directly into the Gulf of Mexico rather than resting behind a shallow bay.

Two big things lifted Corpus from backwater status in the 20th century: The discovery of oil and the completion of the port in 1926. A naval air station cemented its longtime military character. As in San Antonio, many veterans chose to stick around after their service.

A few rail lines were added, and for a while it seemed as if Corpus could duplicate the success of Houston or other booming Gulf cities. Its downtown — crowned by hotels and the streamlined Lichtenstein’s department store — seemed as bustling as anywhere in Texas at the midcentury mark. (My father, grandfather and grandmother worked in that grand store.)

Many of those downtown landmarks are gone or remain unreclaimed.

It isn’t as if Corpus hasn’t made big plans: It built the vaulting Harbor Bridge. Another is on the way. Periodically, fabulous developments are planned for the waterfront or the barrier islands. The expanded port continues to boom.

But too often city leaders can’t get it together. Lessoff includes an entire chapter on the symbolic fights over public art. Elites centered at the Art Museum of South Texas — its Philip Johnson building is among the city’s few distinguished pieces of architecture — feuded bitterly with locals who felt that their tastes and their favorite artists were ignored.

Among the few local artists who were able to find backers in both camps was Swedish-born sculptor Kent Ullber, whose “Wind in the Sails” represents “an evocation of the awesome Gulf,” according to Lessoff, and “came closest to providing a symbol for the city.” A statue of Tejano idol Selena gained public acceptance after an uncertain start.

Preservationists find it hard to win any battles. In a halfway gesture, some older structures were moved to a central spot called Heritage Park, stripped of their contexts. The nonprofits housed in the buildings struggled to make a go of it in the odd village.

Lessoff sees a glimmer of hope on the horizon: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi — anchored on a thrice-reinvented bayside campus — imports and trains a creative class for a city that has relied too heavily on services to inland farms and ranches, on energy-hungry industry and on in-state tourism.

One of the most confounding and persistent blind spots for the city: Its relatively weak ties to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Instead, that role in has been usurped by San Antonio, Laredo, Houston and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, an urban agglomeration of 1.2 million residents strung along one smooth freeway. That whole, linear region from Mission to Brownsville seems plugged into the border in a way that Corpus does not.

A buddy who spent part of his youth in Corpus Christi and I recently explored the Valley, which, in the past few decades, has evolved from a rural patchwork into one vast, buzzing, low-rise landscape. We departed the region on a workday morning at what should have been rush hour, taking a “NAFTA superhighway” north to Corpus.

No traffic in either direction. That alone speaks volumes about both urban areas.

Reading “Where Texas Meets the Sea,” one can’t help rooting for Corpus. Despite its lack of collective vision, the city has always been perched on the brink of tantalizing possibilities.

Best Texas books: ‘The Cedar Choppers’ by Ken Roberts

The best Texas book I’ve read of late was “The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” by Ken Roberts (Texas A&M Press). It doubles as one of the most instructive books about Austin’s history and culture.

Roberts, a former professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, knows something about deep research. For this story about the people who once honeycombed the hills west and north of Austin, he talked to survivors and descendants. He scoured the internet for additional material and used Ancestry.com for more than just constructing family trees. He also consulted dozens of newspaper articles and books for historical context.

RELATED: Shooting heard “all over South Austin.”

Roberts grew up in Tarrytown and first encountered hard Hill Country boys on the low bridge over the Colorado River at Red Bud Trail just below Tom Miller Dam. That fraught meeting must have stuck with him. He later read feature stories and columns about “cedar choppers” — as the fiercely independent hill folk were called, not always kindly — by Mark Lisheron and John Kelso in the American-Statesman.

Roberts confirms that these mostly Scots-Irish clans, who arrived as early as the 1850s, migrated down through the Appalachian and the Ozark mountains. They grew small plots of corn for cornmeal that didn’t need milling, for corn whiskey distilled in the hollows, and to feed their roaming livestock. They hunted game and cut native ashe juniper (cedar) for use as fence posts and charcoal. Cedar remained their main cash crop for buying what they could not carve out the hills.

(You catch glimpses of this life in John Graves‘ “Goodbye to a River” and “Hard Scrabble.” And, as riparian expert Kevin Anderson reminds us, in Roy Bedichek‘s “Adventures of a Texas Naturalist.”)

In fact, during some periods, they thrived and fared better than those who tended cotton as tenant farmers on the prairies to the east. Old-growth cedar found in cool, deep canyons rose tall and straight. The red hearts were especially resistant to insects and rot. Hill Country cedar was shipped by rail all over the Southwest and towns such as Cedar Park supported multiple cedar yards, especially in the years after World War II.

The hill folk rarely took part in city activities. Some resisted the Confederate forces, others joined them.

Before Austin spread west and the life of the cedar choppers declined, the clans intermarried and helped each other out. Some also resorted to quick-tempered violence. Roberts does not stint on the crime reporting (see link above).

After reading Roberts’ book, I took a little trip to the Eanes History Center, which happened to throw an open house that weekend (it doesn’t post regular public hours). I learned much more among the old structures where the tiny, unincorporated town hosted a school that grew into the Eanes school district, long before the surrounding land became neighborhoods such as West Lake Hills, Rollingwood, Barton Creek, Rob Roy, Cuernavaca, etc.

I plan to interview Roberts later this summer. We’re not done with this subject by any means.

Austin learns a lot from Larry Wright, Evan Smith and Amy Mills

The Library was the place to be. Not the Central Public Library. But the blue-and-red rectangular meeting room at Hotel Van Zandt.

It was the location for a Toast of the Town salon to support the Neal Kocurek Scholarship Fund for health sciences careers, operated by the St. David’s Foundation. Thirty of so lucky souls were treated to an enlightening public talk between journalist and author Lawrence “Larry” Wright and journalist and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.

Evan Smith and Larry Wright at Hotel Van Zandt for Toast of the Town. Contributed by Matthew Fuller/St. David’s Foundation

The two had met soon after Smith moved to town in the 1992 to join the staff of Texas Monthly. He was assigned to edit Wright’s piece on the chemical castration of sexual offenders. Wright was for it.

Smith went on to lead Texas Monthly and now the Texas Tribune, while also interviewing top minds on “Texas Monthly Talks” and then “Overheard with Evan Smith” on public television.

My nominee for best reporter in Texas, Wright has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since he left Texas Monthly in the early 1990s. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” as well as “The Terror Years: From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State,” “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prism of Belief” and “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.”

If those accomplishments were not enough, he writes plays and screenplays, appears on stage, and basks in the glow of the lauded TV adaptation of “The Looming Tower” now streaming on the Hulu channel.

RELATED: Toast of the Town one of the classiest acts around.

Can you see why I dropped everything for this benefit dinner? Smith devoted his early questions to terrorism and world affairs. Wright believes, for instance, we are ignoring the proliferation of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State beyond their Middle Eastern origins while we are distracted by other crises. He continues to state that the intervention into Iraq was the single worst foreign policy decision in American history.

Smith then moved on to main subject for the evening, Wright’s recent book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. On that field in inquiry, both sharp minds need no urging.

Wright’s editor at The New Yorker had asked him to explain Texas, a big task. He did not rely on the standard reports about the recent changes in the state; he spent a year observing the Texas Legislature. After all, Texas could tell us more about the future of the country, especially if its voters participated in elevated numbers.

He came away from his research with with a volume full of conclusions and an urge to run for governor. Wright thinks that the primary jobs of state government are education and infrastructure. Those needs tended to be ignored while state leaders spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on bathroom rules and sanctuary cities. He lays heavy blame on traditional business advocate Gov. Greg Abbott, who sided late in the session with radio personality Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick against outgoing Speaker of the House Joe Straus, who held together state government against all odds.

Wright has much more to say about state and national politics and culture, but as they say, buy and read the book.

Emancipet Luncheon

One speaker in town who could give Smith or Wright a run for their money is Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, an Austin nonprofit that provides free or low-cost spay, neutering and veterinary care at seven clinics in four cities.

Melissa Levine and Mary Herr Tally at Emancipet Luncheon at Hyatt Regency Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

The early part of its annual luncheon, which has moved gracefully from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin to the larger banquet hall at the Hyatt Regency Austin, was spent on the tasty vegan fare, video stories of clients and statistics shared by eager board members.

The room grew hushed when Mills rose to the stage. After all, she can so cogently and quickly explain a rapidly expanding and sustainable nonprofit, she would likely trounce every other participant at Philanthropitch.

RELATED: What caused all the excitement at nonprofit pitch fest.

That fast-action pitch session from nonprofit leaders was an early-week Austin highlight. (I can’t tell you how many ambitious Austin nonprofits are exporting their great ideas around the world. Just a few decades ago, they didn’t look beyond the Austin city limits.)

Some statistics appeared in the printed program. In 2017, the group provided

• 71,539 preventative care visits

• 33,300 free or low cost spay/neuter surgeries

• 622 heartworm treatments

• 177 special surgery procedures

• $883,930 in free services to Houston-area families affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Mills expanded on the last number. With animal welfare partners, they focused, not on lost pets, but on vet care for families hit hard by the storm. They announced that their clinical services would remain absolutely free for 90 days. As workers arrived the first morning, more than 100 people were in line. Some had never visited a vet before. They saw a total of 6,641 animals.

RELATED: Amy Mills takes Emancipet mission national.

Also in 2017, Emancipet opened its largest clinic ever in Northeast Austin and its first in Philadelphia. It responded to rising vet care costs by seeing 93,576 pets. Just as importantly, they trained 28 vets to take their business model to other markets. They can’t do it all themselves.

Mills saved the most dramatic news for last. Hurricane Maria scattered pets all over Puerto Rico, who then rapidly multiplied. Emacipet with 23 other groups is headed there to spay/neuter 20,000 of them. They will then leave their surgical tools and other equipment there for vets they will train to keep up the work.

Hard to beat Mills. Hard to beat Emancipet.

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.

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Best Texas books: Start with this J. Frank Dobie bio

We’ve revised this series on “Texas Titles.” Instead of blithely summarizing the most recent books published about our state, we are making the selections more carefully. Also, we’re adding some older titles that we think should be celebrated.

We hope to expand on each of these five selections in 2018 with interviews, profiles and feature stories. From now on, if they are worthy of this “Texas Titles” series, they and their authors are worthy of more substantial storytelling.

“J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind.” Steven L. Davis. University of Texas Press.

What to say about “Mr. Texas”? I’ve dodged folklorist and author J. Frank Dobie, who remains to many people just a third of the “Philosopher’s Rock” statue at Barton Springs. Then I decided it was time to tackle all his books, kept in print by UT Press and now available in vintage-looking paperbacks. But first: Steven L. Davis’ necessary 2009 biography. The curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University explains it all — Dobie’s youth in the brush country of South Texas, his inherited racist leanings, his sporadic search for a true and original voice, his steady promotion of Texas folklore and folklorists, including Latino and African-American pioneers in the field, his emergence as the state’s leading literary light and a national celebrity — always in juxtaposition to the more polished expat Katherine Anne Porter — his profound political evolution expressed in his weekly newspaper columns, his tangles with Texas politicians and UT leaders, and his generous mentorships. Thanks to Davis, I’m now prepared to take on the man’s work, flaws and all.

“Esther’s Follies: The Laughs, the Gossip, and the Story Behind Texas’ Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe.” Jesse Sublett. Esther’s Follies.

Musician and writer Jesse Sublett contributed to last year’s headliner book about recent Austin history and pop culture, “Armadillo World Headquarters,” paired with supreme storyteller and Armadillo sage Eddie Wilson. Well, Sublett does it again. “Esther’s Follies,” a project that Sublett took on alone, corrals an enormous amount of disparate material, including dozens of interviews, into one bright, shiny volume about the state’s top sketch comedy troupe. Instead of spinning out a conventional narrative, he develops key themes, such as political writing, magic shows or cabaret material, then captures the jagged, improvisational feel of the troupe through scattered but very cogent snippets. He’s especially good at drawing out the lineage of the troupe’s founders from University of Texas theater days through Liberty Lunch and, after 1977, four high-profile locations on East Sixth Street. He also airs some of the backstage drama, which is something of a Sublett speciality. This is the holiday book for any lover of authentic Austin culture.

“The Grande Dame of Austin: A History of the Driskill Hotel.” Monte Akers. Waterloo Press.

This book has been a long time coming. After all, the Driskill Hotel turned 100 in 1986. Its stories are woven finely into the fabric of our shared culture. Thank goodness for lawyer and prolific author Monte Akers and his publisher, Waterloo Press, which, it must be made transparent, published my first book, “Indelible Austin: Selected Histories,” and goes into production soon with my second, “Indelible Austin: More Selected Histories.” The Driskill is a richly entertaining spot and Akers is a richly entertaining writer. He deals with it all: The big shots, the bumpy ownership and management, the violence, the existential threats to this adored Austin institution. To my taste, he’s also very measured in his treatment of the hotel’s supposedly ghostly guests. We’ll be consulting this volume for decades.

“Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico.” Beto O’Rourke and Susie Byrd. Cinco Puntos Press.

This slender book packs a powerful punch. Beto O’Rourke, now a U.S. senatorial candidate, served alongside Susie Byrd as an El Paso a city representative. In this book, published in 2011, they start with the cartel-driven carnage in Juarez, whose fate is woven closely into that of their city on the American side. After looking at usage patterns, product costs and human tragedy, they conclude that the U.S. drug wars have been a crashing failure, costing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. They use statistics efficiently and effectively, but also share well-chosen anecdotes that illustrate their main argument: At the very least, end the prohibition on marijuana. Since 2011, more and more Americans across the political spectrum have agreed with them at the ballot box. The task will be harder in Texas, so this book should continue to circulate and persuade.

“Stein House.” Myra Hargrave McIlvain. iUniverse.

Long a Texas historian, McIlvain accomplishes one crucial task in this novel: She makes Indianola, the hurricane-smashed ghost town on Matagorda Bay, into a palpable place. She follows the progress of a German immigrant, Helga, and her four children, after the drowning death of her husband just before their departure from the Old World. Helga’s sister, Amelia, provides a safe haven in the bustling Texas port town, where Helga runs the boarding house of the title. One son turns entrepreneurial; one daughter dies young. Helga finds new love, welcomes to the world a grandchild and wrestles with race relations in her new home state. McIlvain, an energetic researcher, relates Indianola’s role for the Texan and Mexican interior from the 1850s to the 1870s, its status during the Civil War and its aftermath, and, of course, the great hurricane that wiped it away in 1875.

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Best Texas books: Big Bend nature leads off

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.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read this time of year.

“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.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read right now.

“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.

MORE TO TEXAS TITLES TO READ: Best Texas books to read straightaway.

“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.

MORE TO TEXAS BOOKS TO READ: Best Texas books to read these days.

“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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Kathy Blackwell named executive editor at Texas Monthly

Kathy Blackwell, most recently editor-in-chief at Austin Way magazine, has been named executive editor overseeing the features portfolio at the venerable Texas Monthly by the statewide magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Taliaferro.

Kathy Blackwell. Contributed by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon.

“She will bring new ideas, new expertise and a great eye to our storied lifestyle and service journalism,” says Taliaferro, who has signaled a fresh emphasis on lifestyles, events and digital reporting at TM. “Kathy has the experience and judgment to meet Texas Monthly’s high editorial standards, and to help us extend our offerings digitally and in live events.”

“It’s a dream to call Texas Monthly my journalistic home,” Blackwell says. “Few publications offer as clear a window into a place, especially one as grand and complicated as this state. It’s an honor to be able to show how Texans live — and to reveal the possibilities for what it means to be a Texan — in a way that complements the hard-hitting, long-form journalism that makes the magazine so vital.”

A native of South Carolina, Blackwell previously served in various reporting and editorial capacities at the Austin American-Statesman, including as senior editor with special oversight over an award-winning features section, while helping to oversee the newsroom as a whole. (Perhaps unnecessary disclosure: She was my editor for a good while.)

Blackwell led editorial efforts on two of the newspaper’s former magazines, Glossy and Real: Authentic Austin Living.

Blackwell is known not only for inventive story ideas and precise editing, but also for staging social events that connect different communities, such as the highly regarded Austin Way Women of Power Dinner at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.

She lives in South Austin with her husband and son.

“Kathy has has been a superhero of lifestyle journalism for as long as I can remember,” says Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune and former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. “As a reader, I’d follow her anywhere. I’m looking forward to seeing how she does for Texas what she did for Austin.”