Monday, December 11, 2017

Top 12+ Books Read in 2017

This has been a year of extra-intensive reading, the bulk of it for my book in-progress on Far West Texas. Specifically, I've had some catching up to do on the oil industry and New Mexico history (impossible to grok Far West Texas without those subjects). I say this every year but truly, this may have been my richest year of reading yet. I feel so lucky to have encountered these works; each and every one of these authors has my sincere admiration and immense gratitude.

1. The Professor's House 
by Willa Cather
A deeply weird and profoundly American novel. I had been meaning to read The Professor's House for years, and I finally did-- and by uncannily felicitous happenstance, just after visiting Acoma, Chaco Canyon, and Mesa Verde. (P.S. Whoever calls this book flawed I call a puddinghead.)

2. The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek
by Barry Cunliffe
A brilliant book that evokes the ghost of a lost book and the world it came out of so unfathomably long ago. This is one I look forward to savoring again.

3. Tie:

Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850
by Andrew J. Torget

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Slavery in America 
by Andrés Resendiz

I have been reading intensively about Texas, and that includes its fraught ethnic relations, for the past several years, yet with these two books about slavery-- both recent and major scholarly contributions-- by golly, the whole thang just gelled. For U.S. readers I recommend reading first Torget; then, without delay, Resendiz.
> Also recommended: Podcast interview with Andrew J. Torget by Liz Covart
> Also recommended: Podcast interview with Andres Resendiz by Liz Covart

4. Tie:

The Daring Flight of My Pen: Cultural Politics and Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's Historia de la Nueva Mexico, 1610
by Genaro M. Padilla
It astonishes me that so few Americans or Mexicans have ever heard of the epic poem Historia de la Nueva Mexico-- and that would include Yours Truly, until I found The Daring Flight of My Pen. Padilla's book about Pérez de Villagrá's book rearranged all the furniture in the way I think about the U.S., about the Southwest, and about Mexico-- and waxed the floor and put in new curtains, too.

The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest
by Marc Simmons

I recommend reading these two books together, first Simmons; then, without fail, Padilla.

5. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience:
The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister 
by G. Edward White
This is an oldie, originally published in 1968 out of a PhD dissertation from Yale University's American Studies. It may be little known, but it shouldn't be. I'll be referencing it in my own work.

6. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Light
by Paul Bogard
Beautifully written, fully researched, verily eye-opening.

7. Shrinking the Technosphere
by Dmitri Orlov
This book has an important and urgent message, but it also comes with a gamelan orchestra of super-freaky esoteric undertones. In other words, to appreciate the clanging in there, you have to be ready to appreciate it. Not for the pleasantly numbed of Smombiedom.

8. Resist Much, Obey Little: Remembering Edward Abbey
Edited by James R. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee
Its impossible to go far into reading about the American West without encountering Edward Abbey and his works, and in particular his iconic Desert Solitaire. Resist Much, Obey Little, an eclectic collection of essays and interviews, is an adventure in the funhouse of Abbey's mind.

9. Big Batch re: The Oil Patch
Having crunched through a library's worth of reading on the oil industry, herewith a selection of some of the more worthy tomes:

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power
by Daniel Yergin
This one won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out more than two decades ago, and most deservedly. It rewired my thinking about World War II, among many other episodes in the last century.

Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma
by Joseph A. Tainter and Tadeusz W. Patzek
Some years back I had the privilege of being helicoptered out to a working oil platform. It was an unsettling and briskly sobering experience, and I suspect that it primed me to especially appreciate this book.
> Also recommended: Texas Observer interview with Tad Patzek

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
by James Howard Kunstler
So majestically and sometimes hilariously dismal! (I remain a faithful reader of Kunstler's unspeakably-titled blog.)

The Blood of the Earth: As Essay on Magic and Peak Oil
John Michael Greer
Reading Greer is akin to spooning up Swiss chocolate pudding: page after page of smoothly yumsie schoggi. Yes, even if it's got crunchy stuff about oil and-- keep your crash helmets on!-- magic.

When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation
by Alice Friedemann 
This is another one I will be referencing at length when I write about I-10 and I-20, the heavily-trafficked interstate highways that cross the Trans-Pecos.

10. Tie:

Amado Muro and Me: A Tale of Honesty and Deception
by Robert Seltzer

El Paso Days
by Elroy Bode
More about Bode in this post.

11. Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River
by Patrick Dearen
> Read my review about this book for Literal magazine.

12. Books: A Memoir
by Larry McMurtry

13. Abandoned Earth: Poems
Linwood D. Rumney

P.S. My amigas Kathleen Acala and Leslie Pietrzyk offer lists of their top reads for 2017 here and here.

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

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Waaaay Out to the Big Bend of Far West Texas, and a Note on El Paso's Elroy Bode

[ Dr. Cecilia Autrique at the Center for Big Bend Studies Conference,
Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas, November 2017
Her paper is
"American Protestants, Civil Society Organizations, and
Temperance on the US-Mexico Border, 1920-1930" ]
Earlier this month I traveled the loooooooong way out from Mexico City via Houston and then via El Paso to Alpine, TX-- (that latter stretch through the Far West Texas desert, spectacular though it be, not for the caffeine-deprived)-- to participate in the annual Center for Big Bend Studies (CBBS) conference at Sul Ross State University.

I've been working on this book about Far West Texas, which includes the Big Bend, for an age & an eon, so last year, when I was invited to present at the 2016 CBBS conference, I was honored but flummoxed. My book hadn't-- and still hasn't-- been published and, anyway, it's not a scholarly work but, as I have begun describing it, a lyrical and personal portrait of place. No, no, what they wanted was for me to talk about my book published in 2014, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual. I was flummoxed again, for that book about the book by the leader of Mexico's 1910 Revolution has zip to do with the Big Bend!

Well, it turned out that anything and everything about the Mexican Revolution is game for the CBBS conference, which is multidisciplinary and covers subjects relevant not only to the Big Bend but the surrounding regions, which include the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, and northern Mexico's states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.

So last year at CBBS I presented Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution, and I came away mightily impressed-- so much so that I decided to present again this year and I recruited my amiga, Mexican historian Cecilia Autrique, to present her outstanding paper, "American Protestants, Civil Society Organizations, and Temperance on the US-Mexico Border, 1920-1930." (This paper stems from her PhD thesis at the UNAM in Mexico City, which I hope will be published as a book in both Spanish and English, for it provides vital historical context for any discussion of the current US-Mexico border and narcotrafficking issues.)

This year I presented my paper on "John Bigelow, Jr: Officer in the Tenth Cavalry, Military Intellectual, and Nexus Between West and East"-- much of which material will appear in my book in-progress, World Waiting for a Dream: A Turn in Far West Texas.

Look for the paper on my website shortly; in the meantime, for those interested, my blog posts about Bigelow are here and here, and the post about his brother, author, world-traveler, life-long friend to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and pioneer magazine publisher Poultney Bigelow, is here. And the selected bibliography on John Bigelow, Jr. and the Bigelow family, and related subjects, which I handed out at the conference, is here.

Bigelow's relevance to the Big Bend is direct: he was stationed there more than once, scouted all around the region, and indeed, he is an officer already well known to any and all who would study the Indian Wars and the Buffalo Soldiers. I trust I have been able to add new dimensions and insights to his importance for this region, and the West as a whole.


One of the downsides of a bustling conference (indeed, a downside to just about everything nifty in the human experience) is that it is impossible to be in two places at the same time! It can also be a challenge to fit fascinating and vital conversations, such as they pop up, into the precise times allotted for coffee breaks and lunch. Alas, there were talks I am tremendously sorry to have missed or to have had to slink into half way through.

Just a few-- a very few-- of the highlights for me:

Felix Almaraz channeling a Franciscan missionary (and in costume!)

Lonn Taylor's talk about J.J. Kilpatrick of Candelaria, Texas (right on the Rio Grande) during the Mexican Revolution
This is a movie! (Or has it been made already? If not, por dios, ¿porqué no?)
> Check out Lonn Taylor's always fascinating "Rambling Boy" column for the Big Bend Sentinel, and my podcast interview with him, "Under Sleeping Lion: Lonn Taylor in Fort Davis"

Once again, Al González of Chiricuahua Books busted my shoe budget for the year. I took home a biography of Jack Hays and two very rare books by cowboys about Marfa, Texas.

Ayyy, and gigazoodles of postcards!

Steve Black
Who gave a super crunchy keynote
about Eagle Nest Canyon
A keynote speech by lead archaeologist Steve Black about Eagle Nest Canyon at Langtry, Texas
> One of the most jaw-dropping canyons in Texas. Check out my mini-video of the entrance of Eagle Nest Canyon from a visit a couple of years ago here.

(Perchance you wonder, did we see the Marfa Lights? Not this time. But I have indeed seen them and on four different occasions.)


As you might imagine, flying from Mexico City to El Paso via Houston, and back, apart from being a sardine-y experience, was the perfect opportunity to get some reading done.

I have belatedly discovered Elroy Bode!* Doubly belatedly, for Bode passed away only months ago. (See his obituary in the El Paso Times.)

*Pronounced Bo-dee.
I devoured Bode's El Paso Days and got started on In a Special Light. As the blurbs on his books attest, Bode is much-admired and even beloved by many Texan writers and readers of a literary bent, but he remains obscure, not only outside the region but, as my visit to El Paso's Barnes & Noble attests, even in his home town. (Nope, the Barnes & Noble did not have in-store even one copy of Elroy Bode's -- "who? Brady?"-- several books. But for, like, totally sure, they did have, for the man in front of me in the customer service line, Exploding Kittens.)

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye says:
"Elroy Bode is one of the most essential writers the state of Texas has ever been lucky enough to call its own. In a voice that is at once deeply descriptive and eloquently minimalist, he illuminates our corners, dim memories, streets, fields, prairies, hills, hours, and the hardest of days. His no-frills frankness and steady attentiveness have always had a radiant, carifying power."

As I read I tagged so many of Bode's lines but perhaps the best, most representative of all is this one, from "Earth-Life" in the collection of his poetic essays, In a Special Light:

"I need the El Paso countryside. I need to hear the call of redwing blackbirds from salt cedars along an Upper Valley canal. I need to stand in a pecan grove and feel the breeze that moves through it-- a breeze that reminds me of other breezes in other trees in other, almost forgotten times. I need to see stretched of plowed land where, in the distance, humans are reduced in scale and become of no greater importance to the eye than a rooster in a yard, a tractor in a field."

After the CBBS conference I spent an afternoon in the El Paso Public Library's Border Heritage archive where I looked up Elroy Bode and Amado Duro. More about those two caballeros literarios anon.

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