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.

Journey to Texas, 1833 by Detlef Dunt, trans. by Anders Saustrup, ed. by James C. Kearney & Geir Bentzen

Detlef Thomas Friedrich Jordt was born in the Holstein region of Germany in 1793, and in 1833 immigrated to Texas. He was motivated by a letter from an earlier immigrant, Friedrich Ernst. Although the two were not acquainted, the letter had circulated widely in the region, with an explicit message: that others should join Ernst in a land of promise and opportunity. Jordt’s own experience led him to publish in 1834 a book titled Reise nach Texas, under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt. The first English translation of this travelogue/travel guide was published in 2015 as Journey to Texas, 1833.

This is a varied and informative compilation, including not only Jordt’s original text but significant supplementary material. A translation of Reise nach Texas was found among the papers of the late Anders Saustrup, a recognized scholar of German immigration to Texas. James C. Kearney and Geir Bentzen then took on the project. Their introduction covers Jordt’s family history; the social, political and economic circumstances in Germany that pushed so many to emigrate; the significance of the Ernst letter; and commentary on Jordt’s writing. The translation of Reise nach Texas makes up a little more than half of the volume…

This is just a stub: my full review of Journey to Texas was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link.

I’d just like to add that this was an extra fun read for me personally, because I know quite well the area that’s covered in these pages. For many years my parents owned a ranch just a few miles from where Dunt/Jordt is believed to be buried. It felt a little like coming home.

Rating: 6 small towns I used to ride my bike through.

movie: Heartworn Highways (1976)

heartworn highwaysOh, man, what a treat. This 1976 documentary showed at the Pickford a few weeks ago, and Husband and I really enjoyed it.

We were not expecting such a departure from the documentary as I know it, which tends to splice in interviews, voice-overs, text captions to identify players, and the like. Instead, this was just 90 minutes of footage strung together. Which is not to say that it wasn’t artful; transitions felt natural and it was edited, of course, but there was no guide to the experience, which is different from what I’d imagined. So we were just bystanders to the action: Larry Jon Wilson records “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in the studio; Townes van Zandt takes the camera on a tour of his home in Austin and chats with Seymour Washington; David Allen Coe road-trips to the Tennessee State Pen and performs there; Gamble Rogers gives an outstanding spoken-word performance between songs at a bar; Charlie Daniels plays a high school gym; a teenaged-looking Steve Earle sings around a table with Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and others. As you can just imagine, it’s all very atmospheric, alternately very funny and touching. Guy Clark’s “Texas Cooking” really got to me.

I had no idea Townes van Zandt was such a riot, and now I want to see Be Here to Love Me. This was great. If you’re a fan of “outlaw country” or regional flavor, check it out.

Rating: 8 holes.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir by Etta Koch with June Cooper Price

lizards burrosThanks to Fil for another hit. (Still don’t give me any more books, though, I tell you I’m swamped.) Reading this memoir about a place I love was engaging, amusing and comforting.

Etta Lindeman was born in Ohio in 1904. She was an active youngster but sickly in her young adulthood, when she married Peter Koch. One recommendation to help her breathing troubles was to move to a warm, dry climate. This, combined with Peter’s professional ambitions, took them on a trip cross-country that was to wind up in Arizona, where they would settle and continue to raise their three daughters. Peter was a newspaper photographer who wanted to make nature films and travel the country giving accompanying lectures; the National Parks Service helped by engaging him to promote several parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and eventually… Big Bend. The Kochs drove their 23-foot trailer (“Porky the Road Hog”) from Ohio to the Smokies, through Louisiana, where Peter filmed the wetlands’ water birds, and into Big Bend through Marathon, Texas. As Etta relates in this journal-like memoir, her family’s adjustment to the West Texas desert near the Mexican border was not without challenges. She was initially leery: “Texas had always been for me a movie set… A place of flimsy barrooms people by six-footers with six-shooters.” But eventually it wins their hearts and they settle permanently. The three Koch daughters have remained in Texas. The eldest, June, is co-author here, having done her own research, pulled together her mother’s papers and a first draft and seen them through to publication.

Etta’s voice is charming. She is not a professional writer, and her prose is perhaps not artful; I think of the term “outsider art” – but surprisingly lovely in moments, too. I liked her evocative descriptions, and these lines:

Nearby is a weeping juniper that is so strange. At first I thought the tree was wilting and perhaps ready to die but was told it is a dejected tree by nature.

Her style is mostly reportorial, but with a brisk, conversational tone. The chapters generally cover episodes or events: the surprise birthday party Pete throws her; a trip to Hot Springs; Pete’s trip down the Santa Elena canyon in a homemade boat. She has a sense of humor, too, a sense of fun (despite describing herself as the scaredy-cat of this active family). My favorite part must have been the final chapter, “Kaufman’s Draw,” which describes an adventure driving across the desert: it reminded me of Abbey’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” that story in The Journey Home that I loved so much.

I found the Big Bend I know and love in this book, although earlier, cleaner. When Etta writes,

I didn’t know the sky was so big… so blue… but as we traveled west I discovered that although the earth grew whiter and vegetation sparser, the sky grew more intense, more brilliantly blue.

I recognize this precisely. I have yet to find the scientific explanation for it, but the light out there is different: sharper, brighter.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door is also a fine primary source on the work of community building, which is part of what it means to pioneer or homestead: as the Park Service’s settlement (in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains) grows in population, Etta – who had home-schooled her children since arriving in Big Bend – teamed up with other wives and mothers to provide schooling and cultural activities. The community puts on dances, has potluck dinners and cooperates in living and raising kids in such a remote spot.

Simply told but with unmistakable personality, this first-person account of roughing it in far West Texas won my heart. It will get extra points with readers who love the place, like I do, but there is certainly something here for everyone who likes history, memoir, and the romance of simple living.

Rating: 7 murals.

Teaser Tuesdays: Planet of the Bugs: Evolution and the Rise of Insects by Scott Richard Shaw; and Texas State Things

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.


Yes, we just teasered this one last week. I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it. (This is just a segue to talk about the great state of Texas, anyway.)

Several times I have run across the concept, in this book, of a state fossil. For example,

The state fossil of Maine, Pertica quadrifaria (an Early Devonian land plant), provides a nice place to start. This is a rare and distinctive state fossil, compared to others that we’ve discussed so far.

Others discussed so far include the state fossils of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (two different trilobites).

I had never encountered the idea of a state fossil before; how interesting! Of course the first thing I did was go looking for Texas’s state fossil. According to The Paleontology Portal:

Texas does not have a state fossil, but it does have a state dinosaur, as well as a fossil for its state stone (petrified palm wood). Pleurocoelus was a large herbivorous sauropod dinosaur that lived during the Early Cretaceous (~ 140-110 million years ago).

Which just sent me searching further. And what did I learn! We all know about the state flower (Texas bluebonnet), state tree (pecan), state mammal (small) (the armadillo), and state motto (“Friendship”). But who knew we had an official state cooking implement (the Dutch oven)?? or a state tartan (Texas Bluebonnet tartan)?? And a state molecule, no less! I wonder how many other states have a state native pepper as well as a state pepper (other). And on and on. Yes, I used Wikipedia. And I am fascinated.

Thank you, Planet of the Bugs, for this side-venture.

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

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (audio)

marieWhat a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad & relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernandez, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.

Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

book beginnings on Friday: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros

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.


I cannot say enough nice things about this short piece of beauty by Sandra Cisneros. It begins:

The day Marie and Rosalind arrived on a visit from Tacoma was the day Marie ran off. It had taken three days of driving to get to San Antonio, and Marie had cried the whole way.

You will be captivated. Do check it out.

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