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movie: Urban Cowboy

Husband was dismayed to learn that I hadn’t seen Urban Cowboy, set in my hometown and rather iconic; it stars the nightclub Gilley’s and is mentioned in one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. My excuse is (as usual) that I’m not real good with pop culture; also, this movie is older than I am.

winger

So we put it on. Urban Cowboy is set at the beginning of the 1980′s, when young Bud Davis leaves his family on the farm and heads into Houston (actually, Pasadena, a dirty oil-refining suburb) to look for a job. He starts off by staying with an aunt and uncle; the latter works at the refinery and gets Bud a job. They also take him to the local, Gilley’s, a honky-tonk nightclub that was at the time the largest nightclub of any kind in the world (according to Guinness, says the Texas State Historical Society and others). There he immediately falls into the kind of lifestyle his mom back home probably worried about: drinking hard every night of the week and showing up to work hungover; and meeting Sissy, a beautiful, flirtatious youngster with whom he is quickly entangled. They drink, fight, get married. She wants to ride the new mechanical bull set up at Gilley’s, but he doesn’t want her to. So she goes behind his back and learns to ride it from a dangerous ex-con.

Bluffing, out of spite at one another, and both hoping the other will blink, Bud and Sissy take up with other people: she with the ex-con bull rider, he with a rich girl from “the city” of Houston with a fetish for “cowboys.” (One notes that Bud doesn’t really qualify, as he works at an oil refinery and like Sissy, rides only a mechanical bull, not the real kind.) The big “rodeo” at Gilley’s will culminate in Bud versus the ex-con on the bull, and will put back together again the couple we’ve been rooting for.

I have mixed feelings. The iconic Houston skyline (minus many buildings I know) and time-and-place details, not least Gilley’s itself (famous, but like this movie, before my time), were great fun. Bud and Sissy have a certain Sid-and-Nancy ugly rightness about them that feels good in some twisted way; they’re a symbol of good Southern cowboy coupledom that some part of me responds to. But the misogyny was too much for me. Sissy gets hit, only a little by Bud (the “good” guy) and a lot by her ex-con; then Bud comes in and saves the day, because he hit her less often and less hard and so we should… feel good about this? Yes, another time (and culture), I get that; but there’s only so much wife-beating I can stomach and still come away calling this a feel-good film.

For visuals, including Sissy’s shockingly sexy bull ride, I’d give this a better-than-average score, if only for its historic and cultural value. For its actual values, it loses points for the pit it put in my stomach. John Travolta and Debra Winger are nice to look at, though.

travolta


Rating: 5 rides.

Houston Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Bayou City by Ronnie Crocker

If you know anything about me, you should realize that Houston + beer = I will read your book. I am so enthused about my hometown, and about beer, and about my hometown beer (that is experiencing a huge boom as we speak – more on that to come, obviously), that all you would have to do to gain my undivided attention is write a book about Houston + beer. Even poorly written and sloppy. Luckily, I can say that this book goes a step further and does it properly.

Ronnie Crocker writes for the Houston Chronicle, and blogs for same under the name Beer, TX. His book is slim – under 150 pages – but not lightweight; he did his research, and uncovers new details about the history of beer in Houston. This is a surprisingly undersung (and under-researched) topic, apparently.

Beginning with the beginnings of the city (see my earlier teaser), Crocker studies us as a drinking city, and those who have served our thirst. Like many cities in this country, we had something of a boom going before Prohibition, and struggled to make a comeback after that failed experiment. We were a Bud town for a while, and Anheuser-Busch (in its new InBev-conglomerate form) still brews in Houston today, to the tune of …so many millions of barrels that it boggles the mind, and I can’t hold numbers that big in my head. [For more on the AB-InBev merger, check out my review of the excellent Dethroning the King.] Fast forward still more, and we’re seeing a veritable, and delightful, renaissance: the long-standing Saint Arnold Brewing Company (hey, seriously, 18 years is a long time in this business in these parts) joined by a promising handful of new brewers. My favorite is Karbach, of course, but I give a head-nod to Southern Star, No Label, and Buffalo Bayou, too. And I’m still anxiously awaiting the announcement that Yard Sale is in business!

Crocker’s book is admittedly reluctant to criticize; it leans towards the positive, even approaching boosterism. And it ends strangely, with an exhortation to support (i.e. buy from) your locals. But I’m with him! I, too, am excited about Houston beer. So, perhaps Houston Beer isn’t impartial journalism – but it’s an invaluable, unique history. I found it enjoyable, just what I wanted and no, never poorly written or relying on my devotion to the subject to keep me engaged. And it was great fun to see a number of people I know pictured, as a bonus!


Rating: 5 pints.

The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez

A starkly honest memoir of growing up on the Texas-Mexican border in the 1970s and ’80s, with a wry twist.


Domingo Martinez was born in the early 1970s in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexican border. His youth was marked by violence and family drama; he grew up wanting only to escape, but unsure how to do so. The Boy Kings of Texas introduces readers to Martinez’s embarrassing, philandering father; his terrifying, work-obsessed grandmother; his older sisters (two of whom successfully pose for a short time as rich white girls); his generally forgotten mother; and centrally, his older brother, Dan. (There’s also the passed-down story of his grandfather, who died young–a Mexican criminal celebrity recalled as the Brer Rabbit, the Billy the Kid, the Rhett Butler of his day.) Martinez describes in glaring, painful detail his drug-dealing friends and family–one time, he bought pot from two local thugs who turned out to be his uncles but who didn’t recognize him through their drug-induced haze–and his gradual, excruciating withdrawal from Texas and the life he’d always known.

The Boy Kings of Texas eventually follows Martinez to Seattle and his agonizing attempts at starting fresh there, handicapped by a misguided childhood whose dominant lesson was machismo at the expense of all else. While a final, happier ending is hinted at (“but that is another book”), this memoir is concerned with the deep distress of a bordertown kid unclear on his place in the world. Martinez’s story is heartrending and uncomfortable, but he maintains a surprising sense of humor that keeps his reader cringing and rooting for him.


This review originally ran in the July 3, 2012 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 5 tortillas.

Teaser Tuesdays: Houston Beer by Ronnie Crocker

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

What? A book about beer in Houston? I’m sold. Here’s a teaser for you that provides a quick sketch of my hometown:

By 1838, a deputy constable could count forty-seven establishments selling alcoholic drinks in a city of probably fewer than two thousand residents; the first church wasn’t built until two years later. Despite the city’s first Abstinence Society meetings in February 1839 and what has been described as a “wave of temperance” activity three years later, Houstonians never lost their thirst for strong drink.

Yep, that’s us. I’m excited about the subject of this one.

Houston: It’s Worth It

I came across a book the other day that I found charming. The whole concept of “Houston: It’s Worth It” began as a discussion amongst friends and then become a website, here, that gained in popularity; then there was an exhibition of photography; and eventually, this book. It is mostly photographs, interspersed with brief quotations in extra-large text – perfect for coffee table browsing – communicating that tagline theme. Houston: it really is worth it.

The concept is to say that this city has a lot going for it despite what they call “the twenty afflictions” (they list, for example, the heat, the humidity, the hurricanes, the flying cockroaches, the mosquitos, the traffic, the construction, the sprawl…). You can get a pretty good idea of what they’re trying to do with the website, the book, the whole HIWI franchise, at their about page. As alluded to in my review of The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic, I am rather a Houstonlover myself; and this is just my brand of cheerleading: a little self-deprecating (hey, it IS humid here), a little tongue-in-cheek, but at heart, appreciative of the awesome facets to my hometown.

The photographs are outstanding, and all citizen-contributed. They show nature, architecture, landmarks, food, drink, weather, and people. I think they show a great deal of diversity – of people (ethnic, religious, cultural) as well as lifestyle and cuisine – and diversity is always at the top of my list of what’s great about Houston.

In short, this is a great little coffee table book that shows why Houston is SO worth it in pictorial as well as text form; it’s attractive, well put together, and not too serious for its own good. I’m glad it happened across my desk.


Rating: 6 taco stands.

book beginnings on Friday: The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


The Boy Kings of Texas is a memoir by a man who grew up in the barrios of the Texas-Mexico border. It begins:

They were children themselves, my mother and father, when they started having children in 1967 on the border of South Texas. Dad had just graduated from high school and in a panic asked my mother to marry him because he wanted to avoid the Vietnam War draft. Mom had eagerly agreed, in order to escape something even worse.

And so we get right into it. While not necessarily a comfortable book, it feels authentic to me, and I’m enjoying it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic by Kinky Friedman (audio)

This is an odd book, that somewhat defies definition. If you don’t know Kinky Friedman, I should definitely start there. He’s a country music singer/songwriter, mystery author, politician (he ran for Governor of Texas a few years ago, didn’t win), Jewish cowboy, and general personality. Last I heard, my mother was a fan of his. He has a reputation for being politically incorrect. This was my introduction to his work. The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic is a whimsical musing on Austin, Texas, Friedman’s adopted hometown. It is part travel guide, part history lesson, and large part tongue-in-cheek, self-aggrandizing, stereotyped Texas-style humor.

My reaction was mixed. I should share that we down here in Texas have something of a Houston-Austin… not rivalry, necessarily… maybe it is a rivalry. The cities are quite different and trade blows, each claiming superiority. I live in Houston; it’s my hometown; and while I think Austin has many charms, I have a somewhat typical Houstonian response to Austin’s shameless self-promotion: I get a little defensive. Austin’s pretty cool, but Houston has its advantages, too – in fact I prefer my hometown to the so-hip Central Texas college town – and I get quickly tired of the typical Austinian eye-rolling and patronization, so. I have a dog in this fight, is what I’m saying. Full disclosure.

So, when Kinky brags on Austin, I have to suppress an knee-jerk impulse to say “but!” – which is a good thing to suppress, because there is some funny stuff in this book, and some history lessons that I truly appreciated, not being as familiar with my iconic state’s history as I should be. Snippets of history and Texas trivia I can appreciate. There is a fair amount of Kinky’s own personal musings on the state of our culture today, which are a mixed bag, in my opinion, varying in value. I think maybe he thinks of this book as more strictly travel guidebook than I found it. I double-checked and yes, my edition is unabridged, so. There are travel-guide-like sections on restaurants, famous residents (and their grave sites), and places of interest. Perhaps it was just the audio format; who listens to travel guides on audio?? (No one, I’m fairly sure.) But this is not strictly a travel guide. It’s a glimpse into Kinky’s personality and oddities – and let me tell you, eccentricity is part of the Kinky brand, and a part he’s playing up. So, will you like this book? Answer: as much as you like Kinky Friedman himself. Me, I’m on the fence. I think Austin does all right without his “everything is bigger here,” chauvinistic (he thinks it’s funny), bombastic help.


Rating: 3 bars on 6th St.

book beginnings on Friday: The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic by Kinky Friedman

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Here’s an odd little nonfiction mashup, if I can say that, by an odd Texas personality. It is subtitled, “a ‘walk’ in Austin,” and it begins:

Time, they say, changes the river. Time changes the city, too. Over the years, many people have helped Austin to shine in the spotlight, bask in the limelight, and skinny-dip in the moonlight.

Welcome to Austin, Texas, which has birthed the Republic of Texas, Janis Joplin (okay, she was born in Orange, but Austin helped bring her up), Willie Nelson, and (shudder) George W. Bush. Kinky Friedman is an appropriately eccentric guide. What are you reading this weekend?

what I love about living in Houston

Just because I love lists and bragging on my underrated hometown, I’m riffing off Katie again. Thanks for the prompt Katie! (Go read what she loves about Boston too.)

what I love about living in Houston:

1. It’s such an international city. I love that there is such a diversity of languages spoken and cultures represented in my melting pot port city.

2. …and spinning off #1… ethnic food! Restaurants specialize in Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Jamaican, Cuban, Greek, Moroccan, French, Spanish, German, Belgian, Brazilian, Turkish, Malaysian, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Thai, Korean, Mongolian, Peruvian… And if you want to cook, local grocery stores sell all the exotic ingredients necessary to cook ethnic foods, too. (Although you should make your own paneer fresh; it’s quite easy and delicious!)

3. This one’s qualified: when it’s not (ahem) summer, the weather’s pretty friendly. You can play outside (whatever that may mean to you!) year-round here. The summers will challenge your tolerance for heat & humidity, but during the winter you’ll be happy to wear shorts.

4. What we call “culture” is well represented: we have world-class symphony, ballet, and theatre companies; Broadway comes through regularly; and your band of choice is likely to play here if they’re on tour. (And if not here, definitely Austin, which is just 2 1/2 hrs away.)

5. Memorial Park! Almost double the size of New York’s Central Park at 1500 acres, Memorial Park offers tennis, golf, road cycling, running, swimming pool, fitness center, mountain bike trails, an arboretum with nature and birdwatching tours, sports fields and playgrounds – and it’s central. I feel incredibly lucky to have a park of this caliber right smack in the middle of my hometown – which is why I give money to the Conservancy and volunteer there doing trail maintenance.

6. Strangely, the cycling scene. Despite (or perhaps in part because of?) our notorious reputation for unfriendliness to bicycles, we have a great local community. In 2007, I was in the unique position of at least peripherally knowing many different cycling circles: I worked in a bike shop and so knew customers who were roadies, mountain bikers, charity riders, even spin-class-takers; I raced road, track, and cyclocross; I was a commuter and a former bike messenger. When I had my bad wreck that year, an amazing variety of cyclists contacted me to show support in various ways. I’ve been a member of several really awesome teams. It’s an inspiring local scene.

7. Proximity to Mexico and Central America! This gives us great access to vacation spots – and means we have plenty of Mexican food here at home, yum.

8. Low cost of living (and cheap gas), especially when compared with other big international cities. Win-win. Unemployment stays relatively low here, too. I certainly count myself very lucky (although hopefully it wasn’t all luck) and grateful to have gotten a great job right out of grad school in the fabulous economy of 2008.

9. There’s a beach nearby! I can’t imagine being one of those millions of people who live hours upon hours away from the nearest ocean – and they make up most of our country’s population. I like to be near the sea.

10. It’s in Texas. :)

What about you? What do you love about YOUR hometown?

Two for Texas by James Lee Burke

Another good one from James Lee Burke; and such a quick read, too.

Son Holland and Hugh Allison escape together from a prison in Louisiana in an opportunistic and unplanned series of events that includes killing a prison guard. With Son struggling to recover from a gunshot wound, they flee into Texas, where the Mexican army is skirmishing with General Sam Houston’s troops, and various Indian tribes make up a plurality of fighting factions. It’s a lawless land, whose chaos does help Son and Hugh stay lost, but the brother of the murdered prison guard is on their trail. The older, more experienced Hugh (a friend of James Bowie) acts as a big-brother figure to the younger Son, who’s had his share of violence and hard times but retains some innocence and some righteous virtue, both for better and for worse. The two pick up an Indian woman, Sana, along the way, who will turn out to be an ally.

Son and Hugh decide to join Houston’s army as a defense against being recaptured and thrown in prison. Even if the tortures of their earlier incarceration weren’t unbearable enough, a return would mean certain slow, painful death. They catch up with Houston and spend several fateful months in the General’s camp, and are there during the battle at the Alamo, as well as Houston’s final defeat of Santa Ana’s Mexican army at San Jacinto.

My little paperback copy of this novel does not include any notes from Burke to tell me how much of this story is fiction. I surmise that Son and Hugh are entirely fictional characters. Certainly, the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto are a part of history, as are the many big names Burke drops: Houston, Austin, Fannin, Milam, Bowie, Crockett, and more. But I think the story of these two men is Burke’s creation.

I enjoyed this quick read. At only 148 pages, it took me about a day in my free moments. It offers Burke’s usual fine descriptive writing, and I thought both of the main characters were well drawn: they had personality; they felt real; I was invested in their personal outcomes. The battle scenes and the rough edges on the soldiers, Houston’s ragtag troops, and the outlaw character of Texas at the time were all visceral and (in my embarrassingly limited knowledge) true to history.

An easy read with poignant characters and a good, readable (if cursory) history of the Texas Revolution, in Burke’s usual fine writing style.

[If you're concerned: there is some blood-and-guts in the battle scenes, to be sure (how could there not be?) but it's fairly conservative.]

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