One name — Michener — was most missed by readers from our list of 53 of the best books about Texas, published recently.
My colleague Dave Thomas and I recommended the titles we thought had most contributed to our understanding of Texas culture. We limited the selections to one book per author and asked readers for favorites that did not appear on the list.
Dozens of readers were generous enough to share their opinions.
James Michener, the prolific and bestselling novelist who lived and worked in Austin before he died in 1997, wrote a serious doorstopper, “Texas,” in 1985. Readers wondered why the 1,472-page epic that spanned more than four centuries of historical fiction wasn’t one of our choices.
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“Dear experts at selecting (the) best, Michener had more than one tome that educated many of us regarding Texas,” writes Dennis Cole. “He would laugh at being omitted. And probably give you credit for it.”
Dorothy Whitten is a “total fan of Texas history” who had read many of the books on our list. Why the absence of Michener’s “Texas”? “I have read and re-read it many times,” Whitten writes, “and continue to learn from it.”
Sid Fisher wondered if we deliberately left out Michener, adding that “although I do not think his later books were as good as his earlier ones, his novel ‘Texas’ is still a formidable work of historical fiction that seems to belong on such a long list.”
Like Fisher, I had admired Michener’s early novels, but I could not in good conscience recommend “Texas,” which felt to me overlong, stale and lugubrious.
Michener was hardly the only author that we underestimated in our readers’ minds.
Elizabeth Crook, whose “Raven’s Bride” we recommended in our short section on Sam Houston titles, has rightly earned plenty of followers, who also endorsed her “Monday, Monday,” and her more recent acclaimed novel, “The Which Way Tree.”
This omission we immediately regretted: Willie Morris’ “North Toward Home,” which offers much insight about the University of Texas in the 1950s and complements Billy Lee Brammer’s “The Gay Place,” which is about roughly the same period in Austin.
In our list, we heartily recommended books by John Graves, Horton Foote, Larry McMurtry, Don Graham and Stephen Harrigan, but some readers preferred different titles by the same writers: “Hard Scrabble” (Graves); “Harrison, Texas” (Foote); “Last Picture Show” (McMurtry); “Lone Star Literature” (Graham); and “Remember Ben Clayton” (Harrigan).
We looked closely at Dan Jenkins’ irreverent novels, but, for various reasons, didn’t settle on one for our list. Jim Dyer suggests “Baja Oklahoma.” “He is one of the great sportswriters of all time,” Dyers writes, “and his description of the UT-Arkansas battle for the national championship in Sports Illustrated is a classic of sports journalism.”
We unknowingly ignored Robert Haggard’s favorite Texas author, Al Dewlen. “He didn’t write many novels but they all have a place of honor in my library,” Haggard writes. “'Night of the Tiger’ is the best kinda, sorta Western I ever read.”
Carolyn Sullivan liked two political memoirs, “Straight From the Heart” by late Gov. Ann Richards and “Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait” by Barbara Jordan and Shelby Hearon, as well as two books by Janice Woods Windle, “True Women” and its sequel, “Hill Country.” Other readers added their voices in support of the portrayals of pioneer life in Windle’s novels. Michael Gould was among the “Hill Country” cheerleaders. He also liked Mona D. Sizer’s “Texas Heroes: A Dynasty of Courage” and Ann Ruff and Gail Drago’s “Outlaws in Petticoats and Other Notorious Women of Texas.”
Similarly, Paulette Jiles’ “News of the World” impressed Karen Werkenthin with its authentic rendition of early Hill Country life. It “is beautifully written and brings to life a period in Texas history we don’t hear much about,” Werkenthin reports. “It’s a gem of a book.”
Ida Jeppeson amusingly sends us to Elithe Hamilton Kirkland’s “Love Is a Wild Assault.” “This sounds like a Harlequin romance, but it is actually a true biography about Harriet Page Potter Ames,” Jeppesen says. “It does read like a novel though. She lived during the Texas Republic. I learned a lot about the time she lived in.”
Sent Visser thought that Philipp Meyer’s “The Son” was riveting. It has been turned into a TV series filmed in the Austin area. For us, its historical treatment of the Comanches is problematic.
Milton Jordan offered two suggestions for corrective views on familiar Texas tales: Paul Carlson and Tom Crum’s “Myth, Memory and Massacre: The Pease River Capture of Cynthia Ann Parker” and Ty Cashion’s “Lone Star Mind: Reimagining Texas History.”
We agree that history rarely sits still.
Elizabeth Jones endorses Noah Smithwick’s “The Evolution of a State: Recollections of Old Texas,” with the warning that “he is pretty hard on Mexicans, which was not uncommon then, particularly after the Revolution.” Jones says, however, “His wry humor and his self-effacing descriptions of being in Texas at pivotal points in early Anglo-Texas history are priceless.”
Ron Borden also likes Smithwick’s book, originally published in the 1890s and republished in the 1980s. Borden also tapped “A Journey Through Texas” by Frederick Law Olmstead, best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park — we’ve only read fragments of it — as well as Clinton Smith and J. Marvin Hunter’s “The Boy Captives” and José Enrique De La Peña’s “With Santa Ana in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution.”
Borden acknowledges that some of these volumes are hard to find. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
Now, pardon us; we have some reading to do.
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