Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Texas books we love: Concluding 2017

Michael Barnes

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 soon 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 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 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.