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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.

“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


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.


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.

Watchinlewis-blackg Lewis Black’s already-famous takedown of Rick Perry last Wednesday on The Daily Show with some native Texans was a rollercoaster ride that opened apparently chronic wounds from the “Texas vs. New York” culture wars. Warning: the cursing in that link is not safe for work, or anywhere with a Texas flag nearby.

It all started out well enough; when Black says he’s not a huge fan of politicians, we’re right there with him. Then he replayed Perry’s “Oops” moment for the millionth time, and my friends settled in for some good laughs at the expense of the outgoing guv, who is indeed, as Black says, “the gift who has no idea he keeps on giving.”

We all rolled our eyes at Perry’s hare-brained scheme to steal jobs from other states and guffawed at the fact that our governor pronounces the word “escape” with an x. Somewhere along the line, though, the laughter turned  pensive. It stopped altogether around the time Black pointed his finger at the camera and began addressing the entire state of Texas.

What followed was a brutal reiteration of age-old New York triumphalism culminating in a grand finale of middle fingers, F-bombs and crotch-grabs directed at the entire Lone Star State. Cue the stony silence in a room full of normally rabid Daily Show fans.

Yes, Mr. Black, I’m pretty sure Texas can spell “Bhutanese,” considering that the state of Texas takes the second-highest number of refugees from Bhutan of any state, ahead of New York. And while the ability to order sushi pizza at 8 a.m. may be a benefit of life in the Big Apple (I guess?), I’m not sure most folks are willing to pay $2,000 a month to share a cramped efficiency with five of their hippest friends to access that opportunity. As this recent Slate article points out, even if Perry’s job-grabbing caper  is misguided, Texas does have its perks.

I’m not about to mediate this debate—I’m from Ohio, which apparently exists only during presidential elections, and where the official response to slights against our state is a half-hearted shrug. But the whole thing did make me wonder: proud Texans who are nonetheless embarrassed by Perry, what would you tell Lewis Black about Texas to change his mind?

I’m sure there will plenty of discussion on this subject at tonight’s Rangers game. They’re playing the Yankees, after all.



glenn_frankelTexas’ larger-than-life identity is founded on a number of myths, and few are more compelling than the story of Cynthia Ann Parker. In 1836, the nine-year-old Parker was taken from her north-central Texas home by Comanches, who had raided the Parker homestead and killed her family. She lived with them for 24 years, wedding and giving birth to three children, before being recovered and returned to her family by a group of Texas Rangers.

It’s an old trope–the maiden in distress–but the reality of Parker’s story is infinitely more complex. Pulitzer Prize-winner and director of the University of Texas School of Journalism Glenn Frankel seeks to untangle the complex knots of truth and myth in his recent book The Searchers.

Parker’s abduction would inspire countless retellings, most notably Alan LeMay’s classic 1954 western novel The Searchers, which in turn inspired the 1956 John Wood movie by the same name starring John Wayne. With each retelling, the story changed, got bigger, and more symbolic of Texas identity.

Frankel traces the evolution of the Parker story through the pride and politics of Texas’ pioneer era, poring over early retellings of Parker’s abduction, and follows its ultimate journey to the myth-making machinery of the pulp novel industry and golden-era Hollywood. Throughout, he tells the stories of the people behind the myth, from Cynthia Anne  and her son Quanah Parker, who went on to become famous in western lore as “the last free chief of the Comanches,” to filmmaker John Ford and John Wayne, whose legends are as tied up in the story as the Parkers’ are.

Frankel unwinds the story with a delicate balancing act between the facts surrounding Parker’s abduction and return and an appreciation for the mythology that has grown up around them. This isn’t just an attempt to tell the “true story” of Cynthia Ann Parker–it’s an exegesis of the way myths are made.

The book has been getting rave reviews, with The New York Times calling it “vivid” and “revelatory.”  The Washington Post was similarly impressed, as was CNN, which has an interview with Frankel here.

It’s an especially interesting topic for Texas, and one worth hearing Frankel speak about. He’ll be at Brazos Books in Houston on Thursday the 18th at 7 PM to read from the book and talk about how Texas makes its myths.

Since the 1975-64-87_web2012 presidential election, much has been said about America’s shifting demographic makeup and its deeper political and cultural meanings. Texas has seen some of the most dramatic of these shifts, so it’s only fitting a Texas museum would present exhibitions exploring America’s continuously shifting notions of identity.

Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum has put together a double header of sorts on the subject. “We the People: Picturing American Identity” takes a decidedly wide focus approach, surveying painting, photography, sculpture and other media from the 1850s to the 20th century and beyond for insights into four questions: Who is America, Who is the American Woman, Who Shapes America and Who Defines America? The questions are both rooted in history and urgently contemporary, and the works on display provide a kind of visual timeline for our country’s complex, contradictory and always dynamic struggle with its self-conception. “We the People” runs until September 6.

Also at the Carter Museum is “Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” another rumination on identity that is both more tightly focused in its subject matter and ambiguous in its implications. In the late 1970s, Bearden created magnificently-colored, highly-stylized depictions of Homer’s Odyssey with water color and collage, depicting all the characters as black women and men. The work both universalizes the epic poem and presents a  jumping-off point for discussion about the long journey black identity has taken through a world usually dominated by white artists and writers. “Romare Bearden” runs until August 11.

Both exhibits contextualize and complicate debates going on at state and national levels, giving viewers new (and historic) perspectives on America’s ever-dynamic identity crises.