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 as a *starred review* 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?

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