I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.

Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land by Helen Thompson and Casey Dunn

A gorgeous display of modernist architecture and interior design that’s particularly Texan.

Author Helen Thompson and photographer Casey Dunn, the team that created Marfa Modern, offer another stunning display of Texas architecture and design with Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land. Multipage spreads of beautiful photographs depict 19 houses, inside and out, along with Thompson’s discussion of their individual histories. A foreword by architect Lawrence W. Speck and Thompson’s introduction put this project in perspective. Older and newer structures alike fit into a tradition that is particularly Texan, where modernism–as defined by glass, steel, load-bearing columns and open floor plans–intersects with what is special about the Lone Star State. Texas’s climate, topography, local materials and culture all play a role in the design of these homes, which are as attuned to their natural settings as anything by Frank Lloyd Wright. A house in Wimberley highlights sliding doors at both ends which, opened, transform the house into “a big, happy breezeway.” Another in Mill Spring showcases glass walls that open to the air, allowing residents to rely solely on natural ventilation “except in extreme conditions.”

Sites range geographically across the state (with a focus on Austin, Dallas and the scenic hill country of central Texas), and there is a definite emphasis on interior design alongside architecture: at least half the photographs display indoor spaces, and captions are devoted to the designers of rugs, furniture and knick-knacks. Fans of architecture, design and Texas will appreciate this beautifully presented art book, and its insight into a singular modernist tradition.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 loggias.

Lost Restaurants of Houston by Paul and Christiane Galvani

Another in the vein of Wednesday’s post. In a word: I loved the content, learning about the culinary history of my hometown. (Food and Houston: these are a few of my favorite things.) The book? I’ll be brief and just rehash some of what I wrote the other day about the Guy Clark bio. This was more pamphlet than finished monograph. The early material, on the history of Houston restaurants in general–history of the city, its ethnic makeup, and a few of the early businesses along Main Street, for example–seemed promising. The writing is lackluster, more emphasis on listing of facts than any care to the construction of sentences for their charm. This feature became much more pronounced when we moved into the restaurants themselves. Each entry read like a exhaustive catalog of every fact dug up in source materials, not so much constructed into sentences and paragraphs, let alone an artful narrative, but rather a list in paragraph form. By the end it was painful to read.

Again, as with the Clark bio, it was nice to see my familiar and loved hometown show up on these pages. But it was downright hard to read in many spots. I am frustrated.

This would make good source material for the neatly put-together history of Houston food which is still waiting to be written.


Rating: 5 oysters, generously, again with credit given for subject matter.

Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Extra brief today, and then you can get back to your Wednesday and I’ll get back to some better reading.

This book got away from me a little bit, in that I waited too long after finishing it to write this review. But that’s okay, because of my reaction to the book itself: I think it will be an easier-than-usual review to write. In a word, I love Guy Clark, and enjoyed learning more about his life and music. But as a book, I’m not blown away.

Tamara Saviano is a co-producer of the two-disc album This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, for which I’m very grateful, and she’s made other contribution to Clark’s and other musical legacies. But I feel that this authorized biography fell into the trap that they tend to fall into. It’s overly praising of its subject, and not critical enough, in the sense not that I want Guy criticized but that I want him critiqued. I want to know the finer points, the rough edges, the ambiguities and the anecdotes that don’t fit into the picture that we fans have developed of him. I wanted to find a Guy Clark who was more Hemingway or Hefner–more complicated, contradictory, and intermittently less-than-likeable–and less a saint.

I’m a big Guy Clark fan, and I loved seeing views of him at different ages, through his life: helping to repair boats in Rockport, meeting guests at his grandmother’s hotel in Monahans, playing music in my old neighborhood in Houston, meeting Susanna under the worst of circumstances. It was good to learn more about his life (and the lives of Townes and Susanna, each of them inextricable from the other two). It felt nice to sort of roll around in Guy Clark while I read this book. I loved the pictures. And I especially reveled in the details that tie Guy’s life to my own: the Montrose neighborhood in Houston where his music career got started and where I lived in high school and for some years after; the cancer hospital where I worked, and where he spent a summer working on a National Science Foundation award; the southeast-side neighborhood where he recorded “Cotton Mill Girls” just down the road from my childhood home. I used to ride my bicycle down that street, where the recording studio was. I’ve said it before: there is nothing like a strong sense of place, especially when the place in question is real and matters to the reader, to make a story feel authentic and important. These ties to Guy Clark mean the world to me.

There was value here, clearly, but it felt more like reading a lengthy pamphlet produced by the late artist’s estate, than a book with artistic value for its own sake. Maybe I’ve been in creative nonfiction for too long and forgotten how to appreciate “straight” biography. I wonder what I’d find if I reread Mr. Playboy or one of the Hemingway biographies I’ve enjoyed in years past. But I really think the problem here for me was the stance taken on the subject: that this is a fan’s authorized biography, and not a close and clear look at a multifaceted human being. In the end, while I enjoyed some aspects of what I found, I’m disappointed.

I marked this line, attributed to Guy by Roseanne Cash: “You have to throw out the best line of your song if it doesn’t serve the rest of the song.” Fine advice for a writer. This book feels like it tried to serve Guy Clark’s memory more than its own song.


Rating: generously, 6 fifths of Palomino Whiskey, if I give credit for the subject matter.

reread: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.)

I will repeat myself (from Wednesday’s review of The Art of Memoir) that one of Mary Karr’s greatest strengths is her voice. Her personality sings or laughs or screams off the page, vernacular and colorful, wise and confused, approachable and authentic and believable. Her story is wild. If it weren’t told in such convincing fashion and with such human wonder by its narrator–in other words, if I tried to tell you here about some of the things that happened to young Mary, less artfully–you wouldn’t believe it. But in this memoir, you do.

Karr grew up in a little east Texas coastal refinery town (here under a fictional name), with a short spell spent in Colorado. Her family was troubled, and gave the neighbors some entertainment (or opportunity for self-righteous head-shaking). But this is not a simple story of hardship and woe. The Karrs are also fiercely loving and loyal, with a capacity for humor. Karr’s narrative voice seeks answers and knows how to criticize, but she loves her flawed people; she’s not out to get them. (This is one of the key tips of The Art of Memoir: write out of love, not hate. Additionally, though this sounds even harder, “as Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, ‘If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.'”)

From a craft perspective, I suppose I will start by examining the rich inner world Karr relates here, as for example on pages 148-157. In this eventful chapter, Karr’s mother creates a massive bonfire of most of her children’s–that is, Mary and her sister’s–belongings, before threatening their lives with a butcher knife. This scene is described in great detail, meticulously, so that it takes pages for moments to pass. Alongside the scene we get little Mary’s coping mechanism: her imagination supplying parallel events to explain or counter those she is witnessing. There is a backwards-looking perspective provided by the adult Mary writing these lines, but also much of young Mary’s real-time daydreaming. There are flashbacks. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and she uses a similar strategy elsewhere, in other such horrifying, dramatic, traumatic scenes. I know one reader who finds the lengthy, meticulous description of trauma difficult; but I think it’s actually a remarkable way to put us in the scene, as well as paint the child’s surreal experience. (Also, it’s difficult. But there is no way to read about rape that is not difficult. It should be difficult.)

My remarks here just scratch the surface of what The Liars’ Club has to offer. I’m a little confounded by the reviewers who didn’t love this memoir. The “best” criticism I saw was by a reader who believes that memoirs should teach a high moral lesson or reveal an important, famous person’s life. This book perhaps does neither, but I disagree with the premise; and so, thankfully, does Mary Karr.


Rating: 8 electric can openers.

Oxford American, issue 87: Texas Music Issue (winter 2014)

oxford-american-texasThey’ve done it again. This is my favorite magazine.

Actually, lest you think me totally partisan, the Georgia Music Issue might have been even better. Let’s start with the included musical cds, which make this very fine magazine even more desirable. I’m really enjoying the Texas cd, which includes tracks by Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Rick Trevino, The Texas Tornados, Bob Wills, Freddy Fender, Kimmie Rhodes with Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark and Janis Joplin (whew). But I do notice that there’s not much here that bucks a traditional idea of Texas music – that is, country and Tejano. Contributions by Ornette Coleman and Spoon take a few steps off that path. But I thought the Georgia cd did a much better job of showing the wild variety available in a state prone to stereotypes. And it’s not because Texas doesn’t have the diversity available. Likewise, the text accompaniments to these musical tracks were a frank disappointment after reading the Georgia version. Rick Clark’s text is a just a little more basic, which is not to say I would have been let down, if only I hadn’t read that other one, in which each Georgia track was brought to life with storytelling unto itself that made me need to go back and listen again. Here, I’m listening again and again because the music is good, but not because a whole narrative world was opened to me. Perhaps tellingly, the write-up of the Texas cd is located at the back of the mag, not at the front.

But there’s something there, too: the cd and liner notes read a little better, feel a little fuller, after taking in the magazine as a whole. Joe Ely, Doug Sahm and others get attention in shorter articles, while features include Margaret Moser’s groupie diary (which I really enjoyed) and pieces on Guy Clark, Paul English (Willie’s drummer and bodyguard/door guy/gunslinger) and DJ Screw. The latter finally provided what I was looking for: a feeling that Texas music is as broad as its state lines suggest. I especially liked Amanda Petrusich’s commentary on the extreme localness of Screw’s reign – and here I am being partisan – in Houston’s rap scene, shortly before the internet blew the world wide open and, as she says, offered

more opportunity for cross-pollination, but less opportunity for the kind of place-specific identity-making that Screw wrought for Houston. The membranes are too permeable now.

Other highlights, for me, included the quirky perspective in Rachel Monroe’s “That Drifting Place,” where she examines Roy Orbison through the lens (excuse the pun) of his iconic dark glasses. “Texas Calling”, by Joe Ely as told to Alex Rawls, was a fun one to read: a bunch of recollections about playing with the Clash – with no real plot to hold them together, but it felt all the more like realistic recollecting that way. A very short piece of fiction by Bret Anthony Johnson provided an interesting departure – I don’t recall any fiction in the Georgia Music Issue. And I was thrilled to read Aaron Alford’s interview with Amanda Shires. She says,

When I bring people there [West Texas], they find it very odd, but they eventually love it. It’s unique in the way that it looks, and the people are so hospitable there, friendly. You have to be if you’re in a place that has a lot of prairie dogs.

Which is perfect, of course, and funny, and I can just hear it in her sweet drawl.

All in all? A different piece of work than the Georgia version was. Another very fine cd, more good writing, and again I learned a lot. Keep ’em coming.


Rating: 8 outlaws.

The After Party by Anton DiSclafani

The particular culture of 1950s Houston high society is the setting for this disturbing story of friendship and secrets.

after party

Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party opens in the 1950s in Texas in the world of the oil-rich. Narrator Cece has a loving marriage and a baby boy. Her best friend, Joan Fortier, lives the night life, although at 25 she is nearing the end of her prime in this glittering culture of money, power and conformity. In flashbacks, Cece reveals the way the Fortiers took her into their home and–almost–their hearts, and Joan’s mysterious vanishing acts.

Cece has always been deeply committed to serving the needs of Joan. She may rankle at being called a handmaiden, but she can’t help it: Joan has that effect on her. The girls have been best friends since kindergarten, and when Cece is left parentless as a teen, she moves into the Fortier estate, in the closed community of opulent River Oaks, an exclusive neighborhood in Houston.

Cece is obsessively devoted; Joan is carelessly, selfishly wild; and River Oaks is chilling in its regimentation: “We all served the same pimiento sandwiches, from the same recipe, at luncheons.” DiSclafani’s (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls) depictions are impeccable. Readers familiar with Houston will recognize landmarks like the legendary Shamrock Hotel, and note DiSclafani’s pitch-perfect rendering of River Oaks. The After Party is a puzzle with carefully modulated tension; Joan’s disappearances and carefree disdain for luxury perplex Cece, and the reader, until the final pages. Characterization, strong sense of place and the painful riddle of friendship form a novel that is vibrant, sensitive and suspenseful.


This review originally ran in the May 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 high dives.
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