I probably read more — and better — Texas books in 2018 than in any other 12 months of my life.
Next year should prove just as bracing, especially with the arrival of Stephen Harrigan’s highly anticipated history of Texas from University of Texas Press.
In 2018, I caught up with some older Texas titles, too, by John Graves, J. Frank Dobie, Steve Davis, Spencer Wells and other authors.
I have reserved space on my 2019 reading table for 2018 entries that I haven’t yet gotten to, such as Monica Muñoz Martinez’s “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas,” Roger D. Hodge’s “Texas Blood,” Hugh Asa Fitzsimons III’s “A Rock Between Two Rivers,” Harriet M. Murphy’s “There All the Honor Lies: A Memoir” and Tracy Daugherty’s “Leaving the Gay Place: Billy Lee Brammer and the Great Society.”
Herewith are my top Texas reads from 2018 — some of which actually came out in 2017.
“God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State” (Lawrence Wright, Knopf). Rightfully a best-seller, this analysis of Texas and its culture rings true on every page. Of course, if you have been paying attention to the news here over the past decades, you know much of this material already. What Wright adds are superhuman organizational skills, peerless reporting, insightful interpretation and the ability to make even familiar stories feel new.
“Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber and the Making of Legendary American Film” (Don Graham, St. Martin’s Press). Film gossip, literary gossip, gay gossip — they are here in delicious detail, along with a serious history of the making of a movie that will always divide the opinions of Texans. Graham, who has an impeccable reputation for interpreting Texas culture, allows himself an enormous amount of fun with “Giant,” partly because of his sure touch with archival research and personal interviews (so the word “gossip” is perhaps not fair). Every author dreams about finding such an ideal subject and having the power to bring it off.
“Bluebird, Bluebird” (Attica Locke, Mulholland Books/Little Brown). I am late to Locke’s work, but I was converted in the first pages of this detective novel set along U.S. 59 in Deep East Texas. I was born in this country but didn’t really discover it until adulthood. And I certainly could not have invented the twists and turns in a series of racially tainted crimes investigated by an errant African-American Texas Ranger. Like any good mystery, it presents unexpected angles right down to the final paragraphs.
“The Devil’s Fork” (Bill Wittliff, UT Press). Book three in the “Papa Series” is as outrageously entertaining as its predecessors. Set in the brush country south of Austin during the 19th century, these picaresque tales follow a brave youngster, his cowboy amigo and a huge cast of unforgettable characters, all delivered in completely inventive yet authentic dialect, along with peculiar but consistent spellings, capitalization and punctuation. The suspense, violence and crunchy dialogue will not surprise fans of this superb screenwriter, and the spirituality and moral struggles add an ambitious dimension. They might not work in a movie, but, hey, what about a Netflix series?
“The Cedar Choppers: Life on the Edge of Nothing” (Ken Roberts, Texas A&M University Press). By now, you know that I love this book. Roberts, a retired Southwestern University professor, starts his comprehensive look at our own hillbillies with personal experiences as a child and doesn’t slow down until he has documented the clans in each hollow and their relationships to the nearby city and the Hill Country beyond. This is a special gift to lovers of Austin history.
“All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (Michael Corcoran, University of North Texas Press). This collection of profiles, some previously published, will never be more than an arm’s length from my work desk. Former colleague Corcoran has few rivals for following a story to its logical conclusion, then refining it into a seamless narrative. Even the means of reporting become part of the stories. The title is doubly apt: The book is arranged geographically, but the musical styles are all over the map. This is history that will last.
“LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval” (Kyle Longley, Cambridge University Press). The new director of the LBJ Presidential Library came to town with a newly published book that illuminates not only all the big crises of 1968 — too numerous to list here — but also how the president responded to them. People like to say that Americans have never been as polarized politically as they are now, but Longley reminds us how the world seemed to be nearing the end in 1968, a time not quite as polarizing as the Civil War, but close.
“The Last Republicans: Inside the Extraordinary Relationship Between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush” (Mark K. Updegrove, Harper). Pundits have spent a great deal of energy trying to decode the relationship between Presidents 41 and 43. Updegrove, former director of the LBJ Library and now head of the LBJ Foundation, bothered to ask them. And others close to them. Although I sometimes wished Updegrove had held them more to accounts regarding controversial decisions they made in and out of office, my respect for both men grew from page to page.
“At Home With the Armadillo” (Gary P. Nunn, Greenleaf). The book is a blast! Nunn, a tremendous storyteller, brings to rough-and-ready life his hardworking youth in Oklahoma, his early days in music and his career as a highly respected songwriter. As Lyle Lovett said: “If all he’d written was ‘London Homesick Blues,’ that would have been enough. But there’s so much more.” You learn a lot about the evolution of the Austin music scene, and about modern regional history.
“CinemaTexas Notes: The Early Days of Austin Film Culture” (Edited by Louis Black and Collins Swords, UT Press). Put this on your Austin shelf next to Alison Macor’s essential history, “Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids,” and Mike Blizzard’s documentary film “Also Starring Austin.” We were aware that students programming films at UT during the 1970s helped inspire a generation of filmmakers, film backers and, just as important, writers, some of whom would go on to shape our thoughts about Austin movies. Along with a bit of history, we are lucky enough to read in this book the incredibly well-researched — especially for the pre-internet era — program notes from CinemaTexas days.
“Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business & Life” (Gay Gaddis, Center Street). We’ve known Gaddis for years, but not really. This memoir, combined with life advice, opens up her youthful years in Liberty and follows her as she developed into a national leader with her breakthrough advertising company. After reading the advice on navigating the ups and downs of life — which follows the memoir section — anyone might feel like signing up to be a volunteer Cowgirl. And don’t elbow into line; we’ve already started the process of profiling her.
“The Texas White House: A Photographic Tour of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson’s Home on the LBJ Ranch” (Russ Whitlock, Palmetto). We had been waiting for this book for quite some time. Whitlock, the genial park superintendent at the LBJ Ranch from 2006 to 2017, knows the relatively modest two-story house and its surroundings better than almost anyone else. And since the interior was opened to the public on his watch, he notices all the small touches of the Johnsons’ lived experiences.
“The Texas Hill Country: A Photographic Adventure” (Michael H. Marvins, with Joe Holley and Roy Flukinger, Texas A&M University Press). Who needs another picture book about the Hill Country? We all do, if only to remind us why many of us ended up here in the first place. Marvins nails the obvious things, such as wildflowers, swimming holes, ranches and wildlife. Yet he also scratches beneath the surface of the people who have lived here and how they lived. Storyteller Holley and photo curator Flukinger contribute crucial insights.