Friday, January 7, 2011

Memorable Texas Books of 2010

About this time every year I offer my thoughts on the 10 best Texas books I have encountered in the past 12 months.

The problem, invariably, is that I have missed some of the better books produced by Texas writers. Their publishers didn’t send me review copies, or somehow I just overlooked them. So I’m changing it up just a little this year and offering, not a top 10 list, but rather a few of the more memorable Texas books you might want to consider reading or giving this holiday season.

Highest on my list are two coffee-table books that particularly impressed me: “Texas, A Historical Atlas” and “Whooping Cranes: Images from the Wild.”

The atlas, published ironically by the University of Oklahoma Press, was written by A. Ray Stephens with more than 175 full-color maps by Carol Zuber-Mallison. The 430-page book ($39.95) includes short essays and maps on 86 topics, ranging from early to modern eras.

The whooping crane book (Texas A&M University Press, $45) features the photographs of Klaus Nigge and is a majestic tribute to a magnificent bird. The cranes winter in Texas before heading north to their Canadian home and breeding ground. Nigge captured incredible photographs of the whooping cranes in both habitats.

A third big book that I like this year is “Encyclopedia of Texas Seashells” (Texas A&M University Press, 524 pages, $50), full of color photos of hundreds of seashell varieties. Each shell gets a fourth to a third of a page description, with front and back photos.

I know it is an emotional selection, but Elmer Kelton’s final novel makes my list of memorable Texas books. Kelton, the beloved San Angelo western novelist who died in 2009, had completed two novels that were published after his death. The last one, “Texas Standoff” (Forge, $24.99 hardcover), came out this fall. It brings to a conclusion Kelton’s nine-book Texas Ranger series, which he launched in 1999.

It’s not a Texas book per se, but several Texans figure prominently in “Escape from Davao” by John Lukacs (Simon & Schuster, $27.99) and it features a Texan on the cover -- Edwin Dyess of Albany, for whom Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene is named. The book details the horrendous suffering of American POWs in the Philippines during World War II and the daring escape of 10 of them from the Japanese prison camp at Davao (da-VOW). It is a gripping, gruesome, yet heroic story of inhumanity, survival, and sheer courage.

Two heart-warming, inspirational Texas books on high school football and faith were published in 2010 -- “Remember Why You Play” by David Thomas (Tyndale, $14.99 paperback), which I wrote about last week, and “Brother’s Keeper” by Al Pickett and Chad Mitchell ($14.95 paperback) about Abilene High School’s football championship team in 2009.

Pickett also teamed up with Emory Bellard, inventor of the wishbone offense, to write Bellard’s memoirs, “Wishbone Wisdom” (State House Press, $19.95). After the book came out, Bellard was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Several coffee-table tributes to the Dallas Cowboys were published in 2010 in observance of the Cowboys’ 50th anniversary, and my friend Carlton Stowers wrote a very readable biography of one of the greatest Cowboys of them all, perhaps the greatest – Roger Staubach.

A new book about Texas women in the twentieth century – “Texas Through Women’s Eyes” (University of Texas Press, $24.95 paperback) – makes the list as an important and compelling addition to the literature dealing with modern Texas.

Of course, two memoirs by Texas authors drew a lot of attention – Laura Bush’s “Spoken from the Heart” and George W. Bush’s “Decision Points.” I haven’t yet had a chance to read Rick Perry’s recently published book, “Fed Up,” but plan to before the year is over.

S. C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History” (Simon & Schuster, $26 hardcover) and Leila Meacham’s epic novel set in Texas, “Roses” (Grand Central, $24.99 hardcover), garnered a lot of national and statewide attention as well.

John Erickson brought out numbers 55 and 56 in his popular Hank the Cowdog series – “The Case of the Secret Weapon” and “The Coyote Invasion.”

He doesn’t write about Texas in his blockbuster young adult novels, but San Antonio’s Rick Riordan has certainly hit the big time, first with his Percy Jackson series, and this year with two new series for young adult readers. “The Red Pyramid” kicked off the Kane Chronicles in May, and in October “The Lost Hero” launched the Heroes of Olympus.

Farm woman's essays recall simpler times

For more than 20 years, Nellie Witt Spikes wrote a newspaper column, “As a Farm Woman Thinks,” for several West Texas weeklies in and around Crosby County, east of Lubbock – from 1937 at age 49 until 1960.

Selections from those columns have been collected into a delightful book edited by Geoff Cunfer and published by Texas Tech University Press under the title “As a Farm Woman Thinks: Life and Land on the Texas High Plains, 1890-1960” ($34.95 hardcover).

The columns are grouped into several categories, such as Settling the Llano Estacado, Small Town Life, Drought and Dust Storms, Women’s Work, and A Poetry of Place.

In the short, descriptive, conversational essays, Cunfer notes, “we find ourselves sitting next to Nellie on a friend’s porch, strolling down a dusty small-town Main Street, or trudging behind a rattling covered wagon across endless rolling prairie.

“Her articles,” Cunfer adds, “provide the reader with a window into life in a place and a time that has passed, but that established the cultural foundation of the modern southern plains.”

Nellie really had a way with words and a subtle sense of humor. A few random examples:

On drought and dust storms (1945): “This day, the twentieth of May, has been a regular March sandstorm. Our feelings seem as wilted as the things in the garden. No prospect of rain is in sight, and we farm people wait and hope and wait and hope; each day takes more toll on the moisture that was left deep in the ground.”

On modernization of farm life (1941): “My husband does not think he can shave unless his shaving things are on the dining table in the kitchen, although we have had a bathroom for over two years. We become creatures of habit about ordinary things.”

On the birth of a grandson (1938): “If I fill this space too much with news of the baby, I know the mothers will think it is all right and I hope the rest of you will excuse me.”\

On the beauty of autumn (1941): “I thought the president called in all the gold and it was buried safely deep in dark dungeons, but I have found this not true. Someone has hung gold leaves on the apricot tree, and I see gold dollars, fresh from the mint, hanging on graceful poplar and spreading cottonwood trees.”

And this one, published on March 30, 1939, on spring’s arrival in West Texas: “Spring is coming to the prairie country. Not with a breathtaking parade of beauty as she does in the timbered country, but shy as the antelope and the blue quail. She spreads a cover of pale green on the pasture and starts the wildflowers; gives the haze on the canyon hills a deeper blue; entices the killdeer back to call ‘dee dee dee’; swells the buds of the cottonwood trees, promises them millions of tiny fans. She waves her wand and peach trees are dressed in pale pink, pear trees in white satin; gives the freshly turned furrows a fragrance dear to folks on the farm; pins a corsage of sweet wild plum blossoms on her brown dress.”

The 288-page book is filled with piece after wonderful piece of lyrical prose about bygone days, accompanied by more than 40 black and white photos. What a treasure.