Sunday, August 19, 2018

Eeeeeeasyyyy Geeeeeermaaaaan

Sometime in 2019 I'll be blogging more about adventures in learning German; suffice to say I am very ooohsoooveeery slowly but steadily doing the drills and more for this language that oftentimes feels like it's all elbows. One resource I've stumbled upon of late is the Easy German Youtube channel. German is not, actually, at all easy; nonetheless I find what works brilliantly for me is to play the Easy German videos at half speed so that I can follow the captions in both German and in English translation. Everyone sounds stooooned. It's hilarious. But effective. Hats off to you, Easy German! Google says the translation of that would be Hüte weg zu Ihnen. I am not so sure. Ich bin nicht so sicher. Bye! Bis dann!

German Breakfast (to play at half speed, click on the YouTube icon, once on the Youtube page, on the video's lower right hand corner, click on the tool icon. A menu will pop up; click on speed and select half speed.)

Monday, August 13, 2018

Diction Drops & Spikes

As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

Thanks to the Battle of Hastings of 1066! Because it is a blend of languages, mainly Anglo-Saxon and Norman French, English offers unusual facility for diction drops and spikes, and you, dear writerly reader, if you care to dare, can employ these for a richly dazzling array of effects. Irony, comedy, sarcasm, intimacy, poignancy, revelation, poetry, punch, sass, shock... it's a long list and I'm sure that you can make it longer.

Here, taken from a few favorite books and blogs, are some examples of diction spikes-- that is, a sudden rise in the level of formality of vocabulary and syntax(wherein it all gets very elliptically Latinate)-- and drops-- gettin' funky with the grammar and using short, sharp words.

See if you can spot the spikes and drops. I separate them out for you below the quotes.

"What then, does one do with one's justified anger? Miss Manners' meager arsenal consists only of the withering look, the insistent and repeated request, the cold voice, the report up the chain of command and the tilted nose. They generally work. When they fail, she has the ability to dismiss inferior behavior from her mind as coming from inferior people. You will perhaps points out that she will never know the joy of delivering a well-deserved sock in the chops. True-- but she will never inspire one, either."
-- Judith Martin, Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

SPIKE: "What then, does one do with one's justified anger? Miss Manners' meager arsenal consists only of the withering look, the insistent and repeated request, the cold voice, the report up the chain of command and the tilted nose."
DROP : "sock in the chops"

"Department of Transportation engineers explained that aluminum highway signs bore a chemical film which kept them from oxidizing. And that the film over time formed a halo effect, a light-purple tinge which migrated to stress points on the metals' surface. The regional maintentance engineer didn't think the sign looked a bit like the Virgin, by the way. You must of had to use your imagination. Though maybe, he admitted, he was unenlightened. The manager of the plant that supplied the aluminum sheets assured everyone that they weren't treated by monks or anything. It was done by a bunch of folks in Alabama."
-- Philip Garrison, "La Reconquisita of the Inland Empire"

SPIKE: "Department of Transportation engineers explained that aluminum highway signs bore a chemical film which kept them from oxidizing. And that the film over time formed a halo effect, a light-purple tinge which migrated to stress points on the metals' surface."
DROP:  "...didn't think the sign looked a bit like the Virgin, by the way. You must of had to use your imagination..."
SPIKE:  "The manager of the plant that supplied the aluminum sheets assured everyone..."
DROP: "...they weren't treated by monks or anything. It was done by a bunch of folks in Alabama."

"As I thought about composing a new blog post over the past couple of weeks, I resisted the idea of writing about wildfire, even as the topic claimed a growing share of mind day after day. For one thing, I've touched the subject before. For another, yet another blog bemoaning the lack of precipitation seemed tiresome. Plus, well, geez: fires are such a downer."
-- Andrea Jones, "Out of the Background" in "Between Urban and Wild" blog, July 4, 2018

SPIKE:  "...bemoaning the lack of precipitation seemed tiresome."
DROP: "Plus, well, geez: fires are such a downer."

"When I was a young man in the 1970s, New York was on its ass. Bankrupt. President Gerald Ford told panhandling Mayor Abe Beame to "drop dead."Nothing was being cared for. The subway cars were so grafitti-splattered you could hardly find the doors or see out the windows. Times Square was like the place Pinocchio grew donkey ears. Muggers lurked in the shadows of Bonwit Teller on 57th and Fifth. These were the climax years of the post-war (WWII) diaspora to the suburbs. The middle class had been moving out of the city for three decades leaving behind the lame, the halt, the feckless, the clueless, and the obdurate 'risk oblivious' cohort of artsy bohemians for whom the blandishments of suburbia were a no-go state of mind. New York seemed done for."
-- James Howard Kunstler, "The Future of the City"

DROP: "...New York was on its ass."
DROP: "drop dead."
SPIKE: "These were the climax years of the post-war (WWII) diaspora to the suburbs. The middle class had been moving out of the city for three decades leaving behind the lame, the halt, the feckless, the clueless, and the obdurate 'risk oblivious' cohort of artsy bohemians for whom the blandishments of suburbia were a no-go state of mind."
DROP: "New York seemed done for."

P.S. More resources for writers on my workshop page, including "Giant Golden Buddha" and 364 More Five Minute Writing Exercises.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Greek Music, Ground Flow, Bowie Calls the Internet a Creature, Moda en CDMX, Hablemos Escritoras (Mexican Women Writers)

Rediscovering Ancient Greek Music

30 Minute Practice Ground Flow

Jeremy Paxman interviews David Bowie
(I admit it's not the most fascinating video unless you're a big Bowie fan, and the shots of Paxman listening are kind of strange-- actually, there are a lot of strange things about this interview--however, it quite struck me what Bowie said about the Internet):

La moda en CDMX (a video by my godson):

And for aficionados of Mexican literature, writer and literary scholar Adriana Pacho Roldán is hosting an excellent podcast of interviews with Mexican women writers, Hablemos Escritoras. Listen in! Prepare to be charmed and surprised!

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Q & A with Lynn Downey: "Research Must Serve the Writer, Not the Other Way Around"

Starting this year, every fourth Monday I post a Q & A with a fellow writer. This month's Q & A is with Lynn Downey, my fellow Women Writing the West member, apropos of the news that her book Life in a Lung Resort will be published next year by University of Oklahoma Press.


Lynn Downey
Lynn Downey is a widely-published historian of the West, with degrees in history and library science from San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley. She has published books and articles on the history of jeans, the treatment of tuberculosis in California, American art pottery, and the history of Arizona. She was the Historian for Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco for twenty-five years. Her biography of the company’s founder, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2016, and won the 2017 Foreword Reviews silver INDIE award for Biography. Her next book, Life in a Lung Resort, is the history of an early 20th century women’s tuberculosis sanatorium in California where her grandmother received treatment in the 1920s.  In 2012 Lynn received a Charles Donald O’Malley Short-Term Research Fellowship from the Special Collections Division of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied the history of tuberculosis treatment. Lynn now works as a historical/archival consultant and exhibition writer, and is also a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright Marin County Civic Center Conservancy. She lives in Sonoma County, California. 

C.M. MAYO: On organizing research: Any lessons learned from your previous book? And lessons learned from this one? Also, are there basic mistakes first time writers oftentimes make in organizing their research? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Organizing research materials -- whether for fiction or non-fiction -- is a very personal thing. And I think it depends on your life and educational experience. I'm 63 years old, and I loved researching and writing history from my very first term paper in the 5th grade. I'm also an archivist, so I like to keep paper files for the most part, and that has worked for me on all the books I've written. 
Read more about this book
My last book, Levi Strauss: The Man Who Gave Blue Jeans to the World, posed the greatest challenge because it was the longest and most detailed book I've ever written. I used to organize my research materials by chapter-- just throw all notes, copies of articles, etc. into files by chapter. But that ended up being cumbersome. So I started keeping files by subject or topic, and also kept a running list of what topics would go into each chapter. I could then put my hands on a subject easily. 
But again, when it comes to research, I don't know of anything first time writers could do that would be called a "mistake." The best way to organize research is to find what works for you. That might mean doing down a few paths that lead nowhere -- like I did -- but as long as you find a method that helps you write, that's the important thing. Research must serve the writer, not the other way around. 

C.M. MAYO: On research files: What happens to them when you are finished with the book? How do you store them? Do you give them to an archive? (Do you have any related advice for other writers with books that required significant original research?) 

Get this book from amazon
Or, better yet from
the Seminary Co-op
LYNN DOWNEY: I keep my research materials for quite awhile after a book is published, because I sometimes need them again: for interviews, for follow-up articles, etc. All of my files for the Levi Strauss biography will go back to the company eventually. I was the Levi Strauss & Co. Historian for 25 years and did all of my research while I was on the job. I wrote the book after I retired but the materials actually belong to the company and they will go back there once I have a moment to throw them in my car and take them to San Francisco. Once I no longer need the research files I used for my book A Short History of Sonoma I will give them to the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. My advice is to not jettison your files too quickly after you finish a book. They can still come in handy. ​ 

C.M. MAYO: What were some of the more interesting books you read in the process of writing your book? (And would you recommend them?) 

LYNN DOWNEY: My book is a history of the Arequipa tuberculosis sanatorium for women in northern California, where my grandmother was treated in the 1920s. It was in business from 1911-1957. In addition to doing a number of oral history interviews with former patients, I read a lot of books about the history of TB treatment, how a cure was finally found, and about San Francisco history. The sanatorium's founder was a male doctor named Philip King Brown but his mother was Dr. Charlotte Brown, one of San Francisco's first female surgeons. She taught him to value women's health, and most of the doctors who treated the patients at Arequipa were women. I did read some extraordinary books to prepare to write. 

A Rare Romance in Medicine: The Life and Legacy of Edward Livingston Trudeau, by Mary Hotaling, is a great biography of the man who pioneered sanatorium treatment for tuberculosis. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine by Regina Morantz-Sanchez is a fascinating look at how hard it was for women to break into medicine. Sheila M. Rothman's Living in the Shadow of Death: Tuberculosis and the Social Experience of Illness in American History was a true grounding in the topic. I recommend all of these books to anyone interested in the history of medicine.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Can you talk about your working library? 

LYNN DOWNEY:​ I have a bookcase in my office where I keep all the books needed for my current project. Sometimes I have to pile them on the floor too, but at least they are all in one place! When I finish a project they get moved to one of the five other bookcases I have in my house, and the books for the next project go into my office. I also have filing cabinets in my office for my working files: the subject files I mentioned earlier. Sometimes I have more than will fit in the cabinet and that means I have banker's boxes on the floor, too.​ 

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

LYNN DOWNEY: ​The best thing about the digital revolution for a historian like me is the availability of historic newspapers online. Sites like,, and the Library of Congress Chronicling America site have fully searchable databases. These are the only places that have a "siren call" for me. I have spent many hours in my pajamas in front of my computer following a research rabbit hole on these sites! 
The other digital distractions really don't get to me. Maybe it's because I'm older and did not grow up with the instant availability of communication and information that we have now. After years of doing research and writing I am able to focus easily and not get distracted. I really don't know how to advise someone how to do that, though. Like research, finding a method to stay on track is very personal. Some people I know keep a timer by their computer, and they can't check email or social media until they hear the bell after an hour is up. 
There's no single fix for what society throws at us, and what society expects us to do. Which I think is part of the problem. We're supposed to be constantly checking up on everyone who wants to communicate with us. But my work and my time are important. I'll check email now and then while I'm working, and if there are no emergencies I go back to what I've been working on. 

The joy of research, of writing, of getting the best words on the page far outweighs the need to have a constant connection in cyberspace. ​ 

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing this book, and if so, how did you break through them? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Honestly, I don't really get blocks. That was especially true with Life in a Lung Resort because it's a personal and family story as well as a work of history. I spent decades working full-time and commuting and only had weekends to do my writing. Blocks were not an option, and they also just didn't arise. I was so happy to be at my desk working on projects I loved.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

LYNN DOWNEY: Do you mean writing longhand instead of on the computer? I did both with this book as well as all my others. Sometimes when I couldn't get a topic to gel while writing on my laptop, I would switch to a pen and paper. This uses a completely different part of the brain and it always works. Once I was really stuck trying to get a difficult chapter started. I live 20 minutes from the ranch where writer Jack London lived (it's now a State Park). So I went to the ranch, sat on a picnic table near London's house, took out a pad of paper and a pen and started to write. Forty-five minutes later I had my chapter opening and a good start on the rest of it. 

I also collect vintage typewriters and I have one that I use now and then; again, to work another part of my brain to keep my writing from going stale.​ 

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail? 
LYNN DOWNEY: I haven't yet found a good way to keep in touch with readers, but I give a lot of lectures about my books and often keep in touch with people who have come to hear me speak. I am working with my website designer to make it easier for people to communicate with me, and I hope to do more when Life in a Lung Resort comes out. I am happy to hear from readers any way they like: email, social media, whatever. ​

C.M. MAYO: What enticed you to join Women Writing the West?
LYNN DOWNEY: ​Women are often seen as the second-class-citizens of western writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. The West is so often portrayed as a male domain but women have so much to say about this region! When I heard about Women Writing the West I joined up right away. We have to stake our claim here, girls.​ 

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Literal, Shoshana Zuboff, Marc Demarest, Andrea Jones, Neil Postman, Colette Fu, Ollie

My review of Claudio Saunt's splendid West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, originally posted here, is now live on Literal.

P.S. Check out Liz Covart's interview with the author for Ben Franklin's World Podcast here.

Global Warming Ate My Life by Shoshana Zuboff
The pivot as antidote to the error of predictability.

Andrea Jones' poetic, charming and informative Between Urban and Wild blog covers bluejays

Marc Demarest on how to know when the computer is coming for you: "The biolectric union between man and silicon"-- as seen in 1997.
> And see the Chasing Emma blog. (I was intrigued to find this since Emma was the editor of Art Magic, a book I found in Francisco I. Madero's personal library. You can view a first edition of Art Magic on High octane stuff in there.) Be sure to click the tab to view the blog in "magazine" format, not "classic." In an earlier post he writes, "Why bother with another thesis on George Eliot, or another humdrum book on Aleister Crowley, when virtually the whole of Victorian occultism lies fallow in the noonday sun?" I say, here, here.
> And his page on Richard Dadd.

Ye Prophet of Yore Neil Postman on "The Surrender of Culture to Technology":

The Sociological Eye on Shutting Down the Internet in Time of War
"The core problem is communication overload; the presence of information technology everywhere results in a situation that one general described as 'we’ve gone from network-enabled, to network-enamoured, to network-encumbered.'"

Soothingly beautiful popups by artist Colette Fu:


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, July 08, 2018


As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing. 

Jaron Lanier's 
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
If you know who Jaron Lanier is you will understand why he, and probably only he, can get away with such a title for a commercially published book, a title that most people today, and that would include writers with books to promote, would consider hoot-out-loud humbug.

But perhaps they would not if they more fully understood the perverse and toxic nature of the machine Lanier terms BUMMER.

BUMMER = Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made Into an Empire for Rent

Writes Lanier:
"BUMMER is a machine, a statistical machine that lives in the computing clouds. To review, phenomena that are statistical and fuzzy are nevertheless real."
And more:
"The more specifically we can draw a line around a problem, the more solvable that problem becomes. Here I have put forward a hypothesis that our problem is not the Internet, smartphones, smart speakers, or the art of algorithms. Instead, the problem that has made the world so dark and crazy lately is the BUMMER machine, and the core of the BUMMER machine is not a technology, exactly, but a style of business plan that spews out perverse incentives and corrupts people."

BUMMER sounds like science fiction. But alas, as Lanier explains, the business plan behind social media, and the use of proprietary algorithms to hook users into addiction and subtly distort and shape interactions among users, is both real and seriously icky. You've probably read or heard something about FaceBook's shenanigans, but in Lanier's Ten Arguments you're getting a far broader, more detailed analysis and argument, in a wierdly charming package, and not from some random TED pundit, but from one of the fathers of the industrial-cultural complex now known as Silicon Valley.

As Jaron Lanier states in his acknowledgements, the title Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is inspired by Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. I, too, consider Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television a personal inspiration and a masterpiece. Call me a pessimist: I doubt that Lanier's book will have any more influence on the general public's social media habits than did Mander's on television watching, which came out in the late 1970s. But perhaps such works may assist you in marshaling your attentional power for your creative endeavors, as they did for me, and for this reason I enthusiastically recommend them to you, dear writerly readers.

Carpe diem.


I have deactivated some social media (FB back in 2015) and essentially abandoned others (Twitter, LinkedIn,, but have not (yet) deleted my few social media accounts.

While I agree with Lanier's argument that social media is BUMMER, perverse and and toxic, and I sincerely wish that I had never signed up for FB and Twitter in the first place, the fact is, I did, and because of that existing online record, I am not ready to hit the delete button. Moreover, I am still digesting some parts of his argument (in particular, I do not accept his hypothesis that the problem is merely what he terms BUMMER).

And by the way, yes, I know, this blog, on the Google platform, blogger, belongs to BUMMER. A better and paid platform is on my to-do list.

As for using Google search-- definitively BUMMER-- I switched to Duckduckgo as my go-to search engine a good while ago.

What's the specific strategy that would be right for you? I would not presume to say.

But what is clear-- and we don't need Mr Lanier to inform us on this simple point-- is that if you want to write anything substantive, and you don't have the abracadabradocity to summon up more than 24 hours in each day, social media can be a lethal time-suck. The years will scroll by, as it were... and funny how that is, though you Tweet #amwriting often enough, you never wrote what you planned to write... What's more, the visibility you can achieve with social media, and the sense of "community," albeit intermediated by proprietary algorithms of a corportation, are Faustian bargains: you will pay in the end, and on many levels.

I always welcome your comments by email. You can write to me here.

P.S. For those who have the inclination and/or sufficient cootie-proofing to handle esoterica, I can also recommend philosopher Jeremy Naydler's splendidly researched and elegantly argued In the Shadow of the Machine: The Prehistory of the Computer and the Evolution of Consciousness-- also just published. You might find it worthwhile to keep in mind, if you read In the Shadow of the Machine, that in his Ten Arguments Jaron Lanier mentions (oh so briefly, blink and you'll miss it) Waldorf schools. (More about that connection here.)

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980): Some Notes by Way of a List of Books, Videos, and More

As I mosey along with my book about borderlands Far West Texas I have become increasingly fascinated by the interweavings of the imaginal realm and the real, that is, how novels, television shows and movies are inspired by and in turn shape our ideas about this place, its people, and its history. (See my previous post, "Thirteen Trailers for Movies with Extra-Astral Texiness.") I have also been pondering the ways in which the digital revolution has transformed the experience of travel itself, conflating, multilayering, and pretzeling time and space. (See my post on "Literary Travel Writing: Notes on Process and the Digital Revolution.") And I've been noodling on technology (see "Notes on Wolfgang Schivelbusch's The Railway Journey.")

So no surprise, I have ended up, willy by nilly, crunching through the ouevre of Marshall McLuhan.

For anything to do with media, Marshall McLuhan is your superstar go-to guy. He's wild, brilliant, cryptic until you realize just how very brilliantly inside-out brilliant, and spookily prophetic. His famous saying was, "the medium is the message." His arguably most famous book, however, is titled The Medium is the Massage.

An excellent introduction to his work is this video on the Marshall McLuhan Speaks website. It opens with his cameo in the Woody Allen film, "Annie Hall," then goes to an approximately 20 minute introduction by Tom Wolf.

> Listen in to Terrance McKenna on Marshall McLuhan for another richly interesting, yea verily, psychedelic introduction.

> For an official biography see the  Marshall McLuhan official website. This official webpage includes the head-shaking "McLuhanisms."

Selected works by Marshall McLuhan:

The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

The Gutenberg Galaxy

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (with an introduction by Tom Wolf)

by Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers
The Global Village: Transformations in World Media in the 21st Century

by Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan
Laws of Media and the New Science
Media and Formal Cause

by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects


Lectures and Panels


On the Global Village and the Tetrad
Lecture at Johns Hopkins University, 1977

This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message


On the last lecture by Marshall McLuhan's son and collaborator, Eric McLuhan: Media Ecology and the 21st Century

@mmreadsbooks is of notes by McLuhan found by grandson
Andrew as he took inventory of McLuhan's working library
(Hmmm this note reminds me of reading Thundersticks...)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Notes on Tom Lea and his Epic Western, THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY

This year I've been posting a Q & A with a fellow writer on the fourth Monday of the month, and while I have every intention of continuing to do so, this Monday instead herewith some notes on the epic novel by the artist who, back in 2001, passed over to the Great Beyond: Tom Lea.

> Tom Lea biography
> Tom Lea's artworks in El Paso

"It is part and parcel of your culture and I think you should cherish it," says Italian art historian Luciano Cheles of the surprisingly little-known works of El Paso, Texas painter and writer Tom Lea. And encouraging that is precisely what Adair Margo has been doing with great verve for the past many years with the website and educational programs of the Tom Lea Institute. I had the immense privilege of attending Margo's talk about Tom Lea at the Bullock Museum in Austin back on October 15, 2015. (And by felicitous happenstance, I sat next to Luciano Cheles.) More about that anon.

Here is the must-see 5 minute video with what Cheles has to say about Lea's artwork:

For more on Lea's and The Wonderful Country's place in the canon, see Marcia Hatfield Daudistel's majestic anthology, Literary El Paso (TCU Press, 2009). 

Get the TCU Press paperback edition
from Seminary Coop
et al


This post is prompted by my work-in-progress about Far West Texas (...stay tuned for more podcasts...)  At long, belated last I have tackled Tom Lea's epic historical novel of El Paso

I am happy to report that The Wonderful Country is wonderful indeed, a masterpiece not only of works set in El Paso, but in the genre of the Western, and indeed in all of American fiction.

These days most literary readers, and especially those out on the coasts, tend to turn their noses up at Westerns. Dear curious and adventurous reader, if that describes you, be assured that to overlook reading The Wonderful Country is to miss out on something very fine in U.S. literary heritage. The Wonderful Country was popular in its day, back in the 1950s, but it is not a typical commercial novel; it has a high order of literary quality; morever, its treatment of Mexicans and Mexico is unusually knowing and sensitive. (What would I know about that? Start here and here; my books are all here).

Set in post-Civil War El Paso, that is, the latter part of the nineteenth century, the first days of the railroad and the last of the free-roaming Apache, and published in the pre-Civil Rights era, Lea's The Wonderful Country forthrightly portrays many of the still painful tensions in the border region. While he writes with an unusually open heart and mind, Lea is scrupulous in rendering accurate period detail. The "N" word appears! (In the mouth of a character.) There is no lack of roastin' 'n stabbin' n' shootin' n' scalpin' and our hero is the son of a Confederate from Missouri. Vegetarians and those with flea-trigger hot-buttons, be forewarned.

From the catalog copy, TCU Press, 2002:

"Tom Lea's The Wonderful Country opens as mejicano pistolero Martín Bredi is returning to El Puerto [El Paso] after a fourteen-year absence. Bredi carries a gun for the Chihuahuan war lord Cipriano Castro and is on Castro's business in Texas. Bredi fears he will be arrested for murder once he is back across the Rio Grande. Fourteen years earlier-- shortly after the end of the Civil War--when he was the boy Martin Brady, he killed the man who murdered his father and fled to Mexico where he became Martín Bredi.
"Back in Texas, other misfortunes occur to Brady. First he breaks a leg; then he falls in love with a married woman while recuperating; and, finally, to right another wrong, he kills a man.
"When Brady / Bredi returns to Mexico, the Castros distrust him as an American, and Martin is in the intolerable position of being not a man of two countries but a man without a country. 
"The Wonderful Country is marvelous in its depiction of life along the Texas/Mexico border of a century-and-a-half ago. Lea brings to life a time that was wild, a time when Texas and Mexico were being settled and tamed. Lea knows the desert region of his birth as well as anyone who has ever written about El Paso and the great nation that borders it to the south."


You should be able to scare up a first edition over on, and power to you if you want to shell out the clams for a fine first with intact dustjacket and an autograph. The copy I read is the paperback reprint of 2002 available from TCU Press (and most online booksellers) which includes afterword by John O. West, a noted US-Mexico border scholar. For West's afterword I would recommend the TCU Press paperback as your best buy (unless your main goal, buck for buck, is to beat the stock market).

As far as I know, all editions include the elegant and evocative drawings Lea made to head each chapter.

John O. West argues, and I concur:
"The story of Martin Brady is that of Thomas Wolf's You Can't Go Home Again, of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; the setting in the desert Southwest gives it particular realism, but the theme makes it speak beyond the region where it grew."

West also provides some illuminating background on the inspirations for the novel. My additional notes below.


Tom Lea's "El Puerto" is based on El Paso; Fort Jefflin, clearly inspired by Fort Bliss.
The 1962 edition of WW Mill's
Forty Years at El Paso illustrated
by Tom Lea is now a collector's item

El Paso pioneer W.W. Mill's memoir Forty Years at El Paso, 1858-1898 was Tom Lea's major inspiration. A first edition is pricey! But it is out-of-copyright now so you can read a  digitalized edition for free online.

In 1962 the El Paso-based fine art printer Carl Herzog brought out an edition of W.W. Mill's Forty Years at El Paso illustrated by Tom Lea. Last I checked, autographed copies in good condition run upwards from about USD 125.


> Check out the excellent El Paso Museum of History. If you ever visit El Paso, don't miss it.

W. H. Timmons' El Paso: A Borderlands History (Texas Western Press, 1990). Back in the 1960s, Timmons served as Chairman of the History Department at the University of Texas El Paso.

> Fort Bliss official website
Fort Bliss actually moved around the El Paso region quite a bit in the 19th century, but you can visit the current Fort Bliss, which has an adobe museum and a modern museum-- the latter perhaps of most interest for WWII aficionados. The historic parade grounds, surrounded by stately houses for senior officers, are well worth a visit.

Some of the characters in The Wonderful Country are inspired by (or mighty similar to) some real people, among them:

Joe Wakefield, mail carrier
> See the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) Handbook on The Butterfield Overland Mail
> TSHA on William "Bigfoot" Wallace
> See Greg Sample Ely's The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail

Ludwig Sterne, merchant
> See TSHA Handbook on Ernst Kohlberg

Cirpriano Castro, Chihuahuan cattle king
> Luis Terrazas

The pioneer trader MacBee
> See the Magoffin Home History
> See my post on Susan Magoffin et al, "The Harrowingly Romantic Adventure of US Trade with Mexico"
> A biography I can warmly recommend is W. H. Timmons' James Wiley Magoffin: Don Santiago El Paso Pioneer (Texas Western Press, 1999).


Recent biography of Victorio
by Kathleen P. Chamberlin
Fuego, the Apache chief
> See TSHA on Victorio and the Chiricahua Apache Nation official webage

Both the U.S. Army and the Mexican Army went after the Apaches, and in some instances, U.S. forces chased Apaches into Mexico. In general such US Army forays seem to have been welcomed by the Mexicans, but communications in these remote areas were dicey and resentments still very raw after the US-Mexican War. Many historians writing in English about border history have not had the wherewithall to research Spanish language sources, and vice versa, so there is some low-hanging fruit here for those historians with cross-border cultural and language skills. The Apaches also have something to say about it. One recent biography of note is Kathleen P. Chamberlain's Victorio: Apache Warrior and Chief (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

Another, more contemporary, take on this period is Gary Clayton Anderson's The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005), a book that, back in 1950s, when Lea was writing The Wonderful Country, might have been unimaginable to Lea. Or so it would seem to me. I don't know; Lea is no longer here to ask.

See also Dan L. Thrapp's Conquest of Apachería and Eve Ball's In the Days of Victorio: Recollections of a Warms Springs Apache.


Post-Civil War El Paso politics were brutal and bloody; Lea's novel does not exaggerate. In addition to W.W. Mill's Forty Years in El Paso, see Paul Cool's recent and excellent book about the El Paso Salt Wars, Salt Warriors.


Paperback reprint
available from
The Seminary Coop
et al
The hero of The Wonderful Country becomes a Texas Ranger. A crucial source for Lea, writing back in the 1950s, was James B. Gillett's 1921 memoir, Six Years with the Texas Rangers: 1875-1881, from which Lea takes the epigraph and his title:

"Oh, how I wish I had the power to describe the wonderful country as I saw it then."

> Check out Gilett's page at the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas. Gillett ranched south of Alpine and upon moving to Marfa helped found the West Texas Historical Association. He died in 1937 and is buried in Marfa.

For those interested in the history of the Texas Rangers, a recent work of note, and that provides a better sense of why the Texas Rangers are so controversial-- heroes to many, yet feared and even loathed by others-- is The Texas Rangers and the Mexican Revolution: The Bloodiest Decade, 1910-1920 by Charles H. Harris III and Louis R. Sadler (University of New Mexico Press, 2004). 

(The Texas Rangers made up a more heterogeneous group than some too easily conclude. See also the 2014 book by historian Cynthia Leal Massey, Death of a Texas Ranger. An interview with Massey is here.)


Marcos Kinevan's biography
of Lt. John Bigelow, Jr.
of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry
The Wonderful Country has a number of characters who serve in the Tenth U.S. Cavalry. The Tenth was famed for its African American "Buffalo" soldiers, and its exploits in fighting Indians, especially in Texas and then Arizona.

> See TSHA on Col. Benjamin H. Grierson

Less famous, but undeservedly so, is Lt. John Bigelow, Jr., who is the subject of a forthcoming paper I presented at last year's Center for Big Bend Studies Conference. His younger brother, Poultney Bigelow, who published his series of articles on trailing the Apaches, was a great friend of artist Frederic Remington who illustrated many of the articles. Their father, John Bigelow, was an accomplished editor (at one point editing the New York Times), he served as President Lincoln's ambassador to France, and had much to do with the founding of the Republican Party, the New York Public Library, the Panama Canal, and promoting Swedenborgianism. Bigelow, Sr also entertained literary celebrities including Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. My paper explores some of the family's rich and varied social and political connections, John Bigelow Jr's reports for Poultney's magazine, his role as a nexus between the Eastern establishment and the West, and his importance as a military intellectual who anticipated the profound changes to come in 20th century warfare.
> See my Notes on John Bigelow, Jr. and
> Further Notes on John Bigelow, Jr.

... Reminds me of that old joke about the goats out browsing on a hill in Hollywood. They find the can with the reel of film, they kick it open, and they start munching... The one goat says to other, well, whaddya think? The other goat chews some more. "Eh," the goat says, "I liked the novel better."

One of the African American "Buffalo soldiers" is played by baseball star Satchel Paige. Tom Lea himself has a cameo as the barber, Peebles.


The go-to resource is the webpage for the Tom Lea Institute.

Tom Lea: An Oral History

Lea could be very self-depreciating. From Tom Lea: An Oral History:

"Writing is a kind of burden to me, which painting is not. I sweat and stew and fight painting, but I am not overwhelmed... by problems like I was with writing. I taught myself to write and never had any kind of a mentor or formal course... I taught myself to write by reading, reading good stuff."

On The Wonderful Country:

"...I wanted to do something that ad been on my mind since I was a kid: Write about this borderland and the people on both sides of the river."

"When traveling down in Mexico I never carried anything more than a little notebook because I was trying to train myself to hear rather than to see. I was trying so hard to be a good writer, you know... The hardest chapter in that book was where Martin goes with Joe Wakefield across the river in the springtime. I was trying to tell how much this fellow felt about both sides of the river. I remember I struggled and struggled for some way to express springtime and I settled it by saying, 'A mockingbird sang on a budded cottonwood' or something like that. I had to watch myself about using the big word. I always chose the shortest way if it could say exactly what I wanted."


In my workshops I often discuss what it means to see as an artist and the importance of using specific details that appeal to the senses. Lea does this so beautifully. A few examples:

"A gust of wind sished sand against the one small windowpane." (p.16)
"They ate in the light of tallow dips, a dozen men in soggy leather, laughing and chewing, with the rain sounding on the roof, and cold drops leaking through." (p.250)
"Slowly, under the winking high stars, they came to where they saw beyond the paleness of the sand the darkness of the brush that lined the river, and they rode toward it. They worked across a dry flat of alkali white in the starlight, with the hooves scuffling the crust in the windless silence. " (p.306)


From Tom Lea Month 2012, Nick Houser on Lea's Cabeza de Vaca picture

In my opinion, Lea's masterwork is his 1938 mural "The Pass of the North" which is in El Paso Historic Federal Courthouse Building.


Lea's father was Tom Lea (1877-1945), who served as mayor of El Paso during the Mexican Revolution. (Alas, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans do not remember Mayor Lea fondly;  this is one reason why.)

A cousin was Homer Lea, an advisor to Sun Yat Sen.
> See Lawrence M. Kaplan's biography, Homer Lea: American Soldier of Fortune

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.