Back of the Book

Historical fiction, journalism, oral history and a dose of Mark Busby’s imagination come together in Cedar Crossing, Busby’s latest novel.

When Jeff Adams, a college student, is given an assignment to research family history, he discovers that his grandfather witnessed a mysterious triple lynching in the Trans-Cedar Bottoms area of Henderson County, west of Tyler in northeast Texas. As Adams begins to piece together his family’s recollections, the story becomes more complicated, but at its core it remains a tragic example of Trans-Cedar race relations and area citizens’ inability to accept the love between a white man and a young black woman.

The novel’s setting—East Texas at the turn of the century and in the 1960s—is the perfect backdrop for a story with civil rights and race relations at its heart.  Cedar Crossing gives Busby, a scholar of the American West, the chance to explore how family feuds and the South’s troubled past can turn a historical event into a part of Texas mythology; even today, the Trans-Cedar Tragedy remains shrouded in mystery, despite making contemporary front-page headlines for months. For Cedar CrossingBusby researched original historical documents and, like his protagonist, gathered oral re-tellings regarding the tragedy. 

Busby’s other books include Fort Benning Blues and Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship. He is also a past president of the Texas Institute of Letters.

All in the Lansdale Family

9780316188456Joe Lansdale is kind of like a genre-fiction Ted Williams–he’s been remarkably consistent over his long career, and he’s way out in left field. Lansdale has won eight Bram Stoker Awards, one of the horror genre’s top honors, and has published a nearly endless list of horror, fantasy and mystery novels, short stories and screenplays. He’s also contributed to comic books, cartoons, and just about any other format you can think of that uses words to tell dark, twisted stories. He even contributes to the Observer from time to time.

Lansdale’s work is often… err… unique. Who else would imagine an epic, profane battle between Elvis, JFK, and a mummy named Bubba? But his stories also delve into deeper issues. His Hap and Leonard series, for instance, explores government corruption, racism and poverty in East Texas through the crime-fighting partnership of white, blue-collar Hap and black, gay, Vietnam vet Leonard. Like many of Lansdale’s tales, the duo’s 10-book story is at turns violent and hilarious.

As strange as his work can be, Lansdale has been making moves beyond the sometimes-claustrophobic world of genre fiction. In a New York Times piece last year, Texas Monthly‘s Christopher Kelly held Lansdale up as a writer who can transcend category to capture the attention of a larger audience. According to Kelly, Lansdale is at the vanguard of a trend in which so-called genre writers are garnering increasing critical and commercial validation in the larger literary world.

Lansdale’s creative gifts must be at least somewhat hereditary. His daughter Kasey has a blooming career of her own as a country singer-songwriter, and also works as a literary editor. She released a new album, Restless, back in August, and her latest editorial effort, Impossible Monsters, features the work of her father and notables including Neil Gaiman and Charlaine Harris.

Both Lansdales will be at BookPeople at 7 pm on September 12. Kasey will discuss Impossible Monsters, while Joe will talk about his latest, a suspenseful romp through the early Texas oilfields called The Thicket, which continues his transcendence of the genre label.

OppAt the risk of indulging a bit of log-rolling, we wanted to draw some attention to sometime-contributor (and Fifty Years of the Texas Observer editor) Char Miller’s new review of Observer managing editor Brad Tyer’s recently published book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, an examination of industrial degradation, landscape restoration and environmental justice in Big Sky Country.

In bringing to life this “buried history of Americans’ attachment to progress and estrangement from consequences,” Tyer makes it clear that the “slow death of Opportunity is Missoula’s cost of living,” an unequal power dynamic that has been applied as well to communities surrounding other Superfund sites, among them California’s Stringfellow Acid Pits, Tar Creek, Oklahoma, and New York’s Love Canal.

Miller, formerly of Trinity University in San Antonio, and author of a shelf of books about water issues and environmental science, including the recent On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, is currently chair of the Environmental Analysis Department at Pomona College in California.

Check out the entire review here.

9780896727823It seems like just about everyone loves Austin these days, with noobie residents arriving by the thousands each year and national media crowning it (and crowning it, and crowning it again) among the hippest and most livable cities in the country. (Anti-Austin backlash to the hype is equally well established, further proving the point.)

But in the early days of Texas, Austin was a controversial township that launched some Texas-sized political wrangling. A new book by Austin historian Jeffery Kerr called Seat of Empire (Texas Tech University Press) recounts the numerous difficulties attached to the city’s founding.

By the late 1830s, Mirabeau Lamar, second president of the Republic of Texas, had developed a vision for the city of Austin as a triumphant capital rising from the Texas frontier. But Sam Houston, who preceded Lamar as president, and who still held a great deal of clout in the Republic, had other ideas. Theirs was a fight over where the heart of Texas should lie.

Add to this political drama the hazards of the still-wild Texas wilderness, the still-active Comanche Nation, and the Mexican army. It all made for a perilous and epic beginning for Texas’ unlikely capital.

Seat of Empire is Kerr’s third book of Austin history, following The Republic of Austin and Austin: Then and Now. He’ll talk about it at Austin’s BookPeople on Thursday, Aug. 22, at 7 PM.

authorsWhen most people picture Texas, they think big: sweeping vistas, larger-than-life characters, dramatic events. It’s only fitting, then, that a Texas press has embarked on an exceptionally ambitious project to capture the enormous scope of Texas history and myth.

Last week, University of Texas Press announced its Texas Bookshelf initiative, a five-year, 16-book effort enlisting some of the state’s most esteemed writers to tell the state’s story.

“Texas deserves a comprehensive series of books that explores its history and culture,” UT President Bill Powers said in a statement. “A collaboration between our esteemed faculty and UT Press is the ideal way to produce The Texas Bookshelf and to share the rich resources of this campus with the rest of the world.” The effort will be funded partly through the president’s discretionary fund, and partly through ongoing fundraising.

The project’s keystone will be a comprehensive, full-length history of the state to be written by Stephen Harrigan, the award-winning New York Times bestselling author and faculty member at UT’s Mitchener Center for Writers. Harrigan’s book is scheduled to publish in 2017.

Harrigan has already written a number of highly regarded works about Texas, including The Gates of the Alamo, a sweeping historical novel that dramatizes one of Texas’ most famous events, and Remember Ben Clayton, which explores art, family life and violence in the first decade of 20th-century Texas.

“My goal is to make the events of the modern history of Texas—the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, the collapse of Enron—as compelling to read about as the siege of the Alamo or the Comanche wars,” Harrigan said in a statement.

The authors contracted to write the 15 remaining books of the Bookshelf series are similarly accomplished. Cecilia Ballí, a professor at UT’s Department of Anthropology and a contributor to Harper’s and Texas Monthly, will write about the Texas borderlands. Shirley Thompson, associate director of UT’s John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, will write about the African-American experience in Texas. UT journalism professor (and Observer columnist) Bill Minutaglio will pen a book about Texas politics and business.

Additional books on the Tejana and Tejano experiences in Texas, sports, art, photography, architecture, food and other cultural topics will be written by distinguished UT faculty. The project will also eventually include an interactive website featuring author interviews and supplementary materials, as well as public events presented in conjunction with the Blanton Museum, the Harry Ransom Center and the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

 

 

mountain8A little more than a decade ago, a wandering singer-songwriter named John Darnielle released an album under the name of his sometimes-band/sometimes-solo project, The Mountain Goats. The songs are simple compositions, featuring mostly just Darnielle’s slightly nasal voice and acoustic guitar.

That album, All Hail West Texas, was reissued by Merge Records last month after being out of print for years. It’s about as unlikely a hit record as you’ll find, but in a strange way, a hit is exactly what it is. All Hail West Texas was a breakout record for Darnielle, who had been recording as The Mountain Goats since the early ’90s. The album, which has grown in popularity over the years, helped bring Darnielle critical admiration and an ever-growing, intensely devoted fan base. After All Hail West Texas, Darnielle moved on to better production in real studios. Today, his concerts sell out and it’s common to find The Mountain Goats’ music on NPR and other mainstream outlets.

With its tape wobble, unintended distortion, and Darnielle’s unconventional voice, All Hail West Texas touches a nerve that’s both authentic to its namesake and strikingly universal. The album cover promises “14 songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys,” and in this description, so oddly specific and simultaneously vague,  you’ll find a hint about the album’s themes: the tension between freedom and feeling trapped, whether in a relationship, a town, or in pursuit of dreams.

It’s easy to see why Darnielle picked West Texas, with its expansive landscapes and small towns, as the setting for his characters’ struggles. It’s an epic place that’s hatched many outsized ambitions, and where it’s equally easy to feel reined in by isolation. Kids strive to escape external constraints in the album’s first two songs, “Best Ever Death Metal Band out of Denton” and “The Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” The former tells the story of two friends, Cyrus and Jeff, who dream of “stage lights and Lear Jets, fortune and fame,” but who are split apart when Cyrus is sent away to a distant school, where he’s told his dream is impossible.

“When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you,” Darnielle warns, before promising triumphantly, “the best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.”

Darnielle also tells less victorious tales, including “Jenny,” which suggests the arc of a love story that doesn’t seem to have outpaced or outlived anyone. By “Source Decay,” the second to last song, Darnielle is remembering the past through occasional postcards from someone he once lived with. They’re not especially welcome memories, and it’s clear Darnielle wants to escape them. “I wish the West Texas highway was a Mobius strip,” he sings. “I could ride it out forever when I feel my heart break.”

It’s one of many instances in which the Texas landscape, suggesting both freedom and lonely captivity, plays an emotional role on the album.

We never learn exactly who the seven people mentioned on the cover are, but that’s not really the point. With All Hail West Texas, Darnielle constructed an homage that will be achingly familiar anyone who’s ever felt smothered and comforted by the place they call home. With the album’s reissue, it’s a place worth visiting again.

eth_silver_credit_marion_ettlinger_-high_resA career move to law often means the end of the dream for aspiring writers, a time to trade in drafts for briefs. For Elizabeth Silver, however, the legal world was just the beginning of her life as a novelist.

After getting an MA in creative writing in England, Silver decided to follow it up with a law degree. Her first novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, was born from her legal studies in capitol punishment cases and her subsequent job as a judicial clerk  in Austin.

The book explores the complex moral and legal ambiguities of the law’s most life-and-death aspect, but more than that, it traces the human dramas at the heart of a death sentence.

The title character is a 35-year-old woman convicted of murder in Pennsylvania. She’s in prison, just six months from her execution date, when she’s approached by Marlene Dixon, the mother of her victim, who happens to be a high-powered attorney with newfound moral objections to the death penalty. Dixon, along with another lawyer, set about seeking clemency for Singleton.

As the book progresses, we learn more about the two women, the nature of Singleton’s crime, and the strange, intimate connection they share. Silver’s novel unfolds like a mystery, but packs a political and emotional resonance that goes well beyond the average whodunit. The Dallas Morning News applauds Silver for the novel’s nuance and spare, elegant style. You can read an excerpt of the book here, and check out Silver’s blog post about writing it here.

Silver, who grew up in Dallas and credits her legal experiences in Austin for the book’s genesis, will be speaking at BookPeople on Thursday at 7 PM.

Great Texas Wind Rush
University of Texas Press
Great Texas Wind Rush

Few people in Texas know more about the state’s energy promises and pitfalls than Kate Galbraith and Asher Price. Galbraith just left her post as energy and environment reporter at The Texas Tribune for her home state of California, while Price continues as the Austin American-Statesman‘s go-to guy for reporting on the environment.

The two recently teamed up for The Great Texas Wind Rush: How George Bush, Ann Richards, and a Bunch of Tinkerers Helped the Oil and Gas State Win the Race to Wind Power (University of Texas Press). It’s a timely look at one of Texas’ most unlikely energy assets, and a work lauded by The Washington Post for its rich information and compelling storytelling.

Galbraith will return from the Golden State to talk wind with Price at BookPeople on August 10 at 4 PM. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about some of the most important challenges and opportunities facing Texas when it comes to keeping the lights on.

In the meantime, check out the Observer‘s Q&A with Galbraith here.

Andy-Coolquitt-DWR-picture
“DWR Picture,” 2010. Found plexiglass, frame, tape, wood, metal, plastic.

Texas artist Andy Coolquitt makes locally inspired art in the most literal sense. His works are sculptural collections of materials he finds in the streets around his East Austin home, the kinds of items most people would call trash: lighters, metal tubes, discarded bags.

As Coolquitt told the Austin American-Statesman, he sees these items as “residue of human activity, of social interaction.” On paper Coolquitt’s work might seem to make somewhat predictable statements about homelessness or drug addiction (many of the materials Coolquitt has used come from locations where crack cocaine users gather), but his sculptures also suggest a deeper inquiry into the construction of social and domestic spaces.

Coolquitt, a native of Mesquite who has been making art in and out of Texas for 25 years, once spent some time in California designing furniture, and that experience seems to inform his work as well. You could almost mistake some of his pieces for minimalist fixtures in a hip home goods store, if it weren’t for a strange poignancy that takes them  beyond the detached, deconstructed urban chic found in overpriced lofts. The question Coolquitt seems to ask is: how do people arrange otherwise overlooked spaces and materials to humanize them, to make them places suitable for gathering and living?

You can see Coolquitt’s exploration of that question at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, where the artist has a site-specific installation of 60 of his works titled “Attainable Exellence.” The show runs until August 17.

Goodbye to John Graves

John_Graves

Today brings the news that John Graves, the quintessential man of Texas letters, has died.

From Kip Stratton, president of the Texas Institute of Letters:

Dear TIL Members:

I have received the sad word that John Graves died at his home, Hardscrabble, outside Glen Rose, either last night or early this morning. He was 92 and, of course, a giant of American letters, as well as a past TIL President and a TIL Fellow and Lon Tinkle Award winner. I’ll send along more details as I receive them.

This is a dark day.

Kip

Graves, of course, authored Goodbye to a River: A Narrative, one of the undisputed classics of Texas literature, published by Knopf in 1960 and in print ever since. Though lesser known, his short story “The Last Running” is widely lauded as an epitome of the form. Several books of essays (Hardscrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land and From A Limestone Ledge), a couple of memoirs (Myself and Strangers: A Memoir of Apprenticeship and My Dogs & Guns), collaborations with photographer Wyman Meinzer (Texas Hill Country and Texas Rivers) and the retrospective John Graves Reader round out Graves’ narrow but deep bibliography. Works about the work include John Graves, Writer, and John Graves and the Making of Goodbye to a River: Selected Letters, 1957-1960.

Graves never wrote for the Observer, alas, but the magazine has reviewed some of his later published work. To mark his passing, we’ve collected some links to those reviews:

John Graves, Writer

Myself and Strangers

And then of course there’s Larry McMurtry’s famous Observer piece, Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature, wherein McMurtry wrote:

… Graves has to some degree been made heir to the Dobie-Webb-Bedichek tradition, with the surely unwelcome responsibility of keeping that branch of Texas letters vital.

That he is quite restive in this role is constantly apparent in his writing; one of his most frequent rhetorical devices, used almost to the point of abuse, is to undercut himself: questioning a story he has just retold, doubting an observation he has just made, twisting out from under a position. Often he simply reverses his field and abandons whatever line of thought he has been pursuing.

He is popularly thought to be a kind of country explainer, when in fact he seems more interested in increasing our store of mysteries than our store of knowledge. He loves the obscure, indeterminate nature of rural legend and likes nothing better than to retell stories the full truth of which can never be known. If nature continues to stimulate him it may be because it too is elusive, feminine, never completely knowable.

Certainly he is not looking forward to becoming the Sage of Glen Rose. His best writing is based on doubt and ambivalence—or, at least, two-sidedness; he is not eager to arrive at too many certainties, or any certainty too quickly. The persona he adopts most frequently is that of the man who considers. He may choose to consider a goat, a book, an anecdote, or some vagary of nature, but the process of considering is more important to the texture of his books than any conclusions that may get drawn.

Graves’ longevity, along with the unremitting canonization of his work (former First Lady Laura Bush frequently tagged Goodbye as her favorite Texas book, which was a solid choice, if a safe one) also led to some gentle ribbing. McMurtry bemoaned Graves’ apparent preference for farming over writing, and Don Graham, poking fun at the seemingly static state of the Texas-lit pantheon in an Observer piece titled “Deathless Prose,” imagined a future in which Graves’ Olympian reputation only continues to grow:

In 2043, Texas literature was much the same as ever, only more so. John Graves was still living off the fame of his first book, and devotees of the Lone Star State’s greatest writer were still making treks to his hardscrabble ranch to record the latest shavings from his sageness, or taking little homage canoe trips down the still undammed stream that flowed through his beloved book. Texans could not bring themselves to say goodbye to that book. Graves had won all the awards that Texas had to offer, and the awards-givers had started over, giving him all the awards a second time, making him a revered pioneer again. All the schoolchildren in the state (those who could read, and that number was falling) were required to read one book, Goodbye to a River. It took some of them years to finish it.

Still, it was the reputation that came in for mockery, and the reputation is a readerly creation. About the work itself, it would be hard to find an unkind word. As it should be.