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Texas Reads

Six books we think readers might embrace

A man shot at us our first day on the river. Of course he did.”

How can you not continue reading? Were this a novel, you’d want to know whether the narrator is able to scooch low enough to safely navigate out of shooting range.

But, no, this is journalist Wes Ferguson in October 2010, plugging along with a colleague on the meandering Sabine River in East Texas. He grew up just a couple of miles from the river but had mostly steered clear of it. Sometimes he would hear people say there was nothing in that old brown water but snakes and dead bodies. Is this what they meant?

Ferguson discovers, as do readers of his travelogue, “Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine,” that the Sabine River holds myriad mysteries, including armed loiterers and natural wonders. Most of the encounters on his journey are kinder than the one he describes in the first line of his introduction.

This book is one of six we introduce to readers by way of short profiles. October is a fine time to gather good reading for the shorter, cooler days to come. Fittingly, this month the Texas Capitol yields to literary zeal for the 2014 Texas Book Festival, October 25–26.


The 10 Essential Hugs of Life | Roy Spence

If author Roy Spence had it to do over again, his new book “The 10 Essential Hugs of Life” would add a graphic element: a circle connecting those hugs.

Sitting in a conference room at GSD&M, the Austin-based advertising firm he co-founded in 1971 and now oversees as chairman, Spence traced an imaginary circle in the air, touching chapter titles with his index finger as he spoke them aloud. Hug Yourself First. Hug Your Faith. Hug Your Family. Hug Your Friends. Hug Your Flag. Hug Your Failures. Hug Your Fears. Hug Your Future. Hug Your Firsts. Hug Your Finals.

The circle represents the flywheel of life: Embrace the hugs’ principles, and the flywheel smoothly spins. Violate the principles, and the flywheel starts to wobble.

Yet Spence’s book, his fourth, never wavers in delivering a message of unconditional love: No one should go hugless. But while Spence is a big believer of the physical bear hug, he wrote “The 10 Essential Hugs of Life” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013) as a metaphor for hugging—a model for uplifting oneself to elevate the lives of others.

The book honors Spence’s father, Roy Milam Spence, Sr. As a boy, Spence accompanied his father on trips back to Eagle Pass, the border town where his dad was raised, and across the Rio Grande to Piedras Negras, Mexico. There, “Big R,” as his dad was popularly known, would bend his 6-foot-5-inch frame to hug men, women and children. The introduction of his son, “Royito,” prompted more hugging.

As Spence writes, by the time he was old enough to walk, he was old enough to hug. And hug he did, practicing Big R’s mantra: Anyone worth meeting is worth hugging.

In 2009, a month after his father died at the age of 95, Spence was in Frankfurt, Germany, on business. Sleep eluded the jetlagged Spence in his hotel room as he wrestled with grief: Both of his parents were now gone. But then, Spence writes, he felt a deep hug in his heart. His mom and dad were embracing him. The vision for this book came to him. No one had physically touched him, but he felt healed. Spence typed out the chapter titles. A book was born.

The crisp simplicity of Spence’s writing is easy to digest. But hugging, he says, is about embracing the important things in life without running from them. And that’s hard to do. Therein lies the heart of Spence’s book.

Camille Wheeler is an Austin writer.

Middle-Grade Novel

Revenge of the Flower Girls Jennifer Ziegler

Eleven-year-old triplets Dawn, Darcy and Delany Brewster cringe when their beloved older sister, Lily, announces her decision to marry Burton, who has allergies, hates Presidential Trivia—their favorite game—and looks like an armadillo without a shell. Unlike Alex, Lily’s former boyfriend, Burton practically lives in the library poring over his studies. Worst of all, he doesn’t make Lily smile. And the wedding is only one month away.

The not-quite-identical triplets in “Revenge of the Flower Girls” (Scholastic Press, 2014) struggle to accept that their 22-year-old sister has grown up. They don’t want to lose the Lily who read every single Harry Potter book aloud to them, gets wavy lines on her forehead when she worries about things and always cries at the end of “Toy Story.” Lily will be moving to Chicago as soon as Burton finishes a paper he is writing for his master’s degree so that he can enroll in law school.

Lily asks the triplets to be flower girls at her wedding and scatter fake flower petals (because real flowers make Burton sneeze), but it’s the sight of her wearing Burton’s mother’s old wedding dress and hand-me-down wedding ring shaped like a toilet seat (actually a horseshoe) that convinces the troublesome trio that a bit of sisterly intervention is in order. In a lovingly diabolical scheme to bring Lily and Alex together again before it’s too late, the triplets focus their combined creative genius on preventing Lily from marrying in haste and living unhappily ever after.

“It’s a mystery, even to me, where my characters come from,” says Austin novelist Jennifer Ziegler. “At times I’m aware that I’m borrowing elements from real people, but really, in Texas all you have to do is step outside and walk around, and you’ll meet vibrant, colorful characters who should be in books.”

Martha Deeringer, a member of Heart of Texas EC, lives near McGregor. Her first book, for young adults, was recently published by Fire and Ice Books. ‘Emma and the Cutting Horse’ is available on Amazon.


Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine | Wes Ferguson

Wes Ferguson grew up in Kilgore, outside Longview, and his parents loved to camp. So often the family would head to places such as Caddo Lake or Central Texas and the Guadalupe River.

His greatest adventure, though, occurred on a river he crossed more than a thousand times as a kid, and that led to his first book, “Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine” (Texas A&M University Press, 2014).

Ferguson never held the Sabine River in high regard. It carves its way through Texas for about 550 miles, starting in Hunt County in Northeast Texas and ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. Ferguson knew it only as a murky river near home, with an overblown reputation for harboring mostly water moccasins and dead bodies—until he and photographer Jacob Croft Botter decided to run the river in a borrowed 16-foot motorboat.

“It was absolutely more beautiful than we were expecting,” says Ferguson, 34. “It was a real concern of ours that we would spend four days on the river, and we wouldn’t see anything. We were really surprised to find so much life and activity.”

He and Botter came to know several people—river rats, they call themselves—living almost exclusively in unquestionably rustic riverbank homesteads.

Besides bringing some of the grittiness out of the shadows, Ferguson explains the vital ecological role the Sabine plays. Its heavily forested river bottom serves as a filter for the river, which provides water for several towns.

“Rivers might not seem connected to our everyday lives, but they are in more ways than we realize,” Ferguson says. “They’re vitally important. I had no idea how central this river was to my quality of life.”



My Piece of the Sky | C.L. “Chuck” Heatherly

Look—up in the sky! It’s a … well, it’s a spider. Right there on the wing.

This is one of the many wonders C.L. “Chuck” Heatherly describes from his decades of flying in his children’s book, “My Piece of the Sky” (Lighthouse for Leaders, 2012). Heatherly, a retired teacher and principal who lives in Harlingen, joyfully and eagerly shares his experiences with a sense of imagination that soars across 42 pages of singsong prose.

This is a book that’s meant to be read aloud, with a child on your lap, as all good kids’ books are. So abandon your inhibitions and read this passage aloud:

“Now I’d like to show you some things you might see

If you fly through the sky in my airplane with me.

Mountains and rainbows and spiders and gnats;

Good clouds and bad clouds and puppies and cats.”

He truly wants to share what has been his passion for as long as he can remember.

“I think I was born looking up,” says Heatherly, 84, a member of Magic Valley Electric Cooperative. “I can’t remember a time I didn’t think about flying. I have always wanted to fly.”

In 1980, he bought his first airplane, and he’s been marveling ever since at how rainbows look like complete circles from thousands of feet up, though they’re just as impossible to catch on high as they are on the ground, and how he sometimes sees mysterious lights when he flies after dark.

Finally, a few years ago, he decided to write a book so he could explain to children the adventures of flight. The book uses colorful, dreamlike images as the backdrop for his verse, and for that he adopts the same anapestic meter that makes Dr. Seuss books so fun to read.



Stein House | Myra Hargrave McIlvain

Author Myra Hargrave McIlvain of Austin calls herself a “teller of Texas tales.” History, she says, is best remembered in colorful stories and not dry facts. For most of my life as a native Texan, I’d heard of Indianola, once a thriving seaport on the Gulf Coast until a hurricane barreled through in 1886 and decimated the city. In fact, I own a delicate cup and matching saucer—bequeathed to me years ago by my late grandfather Dudley R. Dobie—that survived the Indianola storm. But I’d never bothered to learn more about the history behind my teacup. Boring, I had (foolishly) assumed.

Then I read McIlvain’s “Stein House” (iUniverse, 2013), a historical novel set in Indianola that chronicles the lives of a fictional immigrant named Helga Heinrich and her four children. As the ship pulls away from the dock in Germany in 1853, her drunken husband leaps from the dock and drowns. Three months later, the family lands in Indianola, where Helga runs the Stein House, a two-story boarding house that hosts a variety of characters.

The idea for “Stein House”—named the 2014 Best General Fiction Book by the Texas Association of Authors—sprang from an interview in 1974 with a 94-year-old woman who shared stories about her ancestors who settled around Indianola. “Her casual mention of a widow whose drunken husband drowned in a German river before setting sail for Texas captured me and stayed in my head,” says McIlvain, who lectures on Texas history at the University of Texas at Austin and blogs weekly on the subject.

Now that I’ve read “Stein House,” I believe I’ll venture next into Brownson Malsch’s detailed book, “Indianola: The Mother of Western Texas” (State House Press, 1977), from which McIlvain gleaned so much of her historical detail about Indianola. Oh, the exciting tales my teacup and saucer could tell!

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, a member of Pedernales EC, lives in Blanco. She is the author of two books, including ‘Texas Old-Time Restaurants and Cafes’ (Taylor Trade Publications, 2000).


Texas on the Table | Terry Thompson-Anderson

Chicken fried steak, barbecue and pecan pie are certainly iconic to Texas, but given its diverse geography, climate and size, the state’s culinary repertoire covers a far broader range. “Texas on the Table” (University of Texas Press, 2014) is a testament to that. In this new book, author Terry Thompson-Anderson shares 150 recipes that represent the flavors of Texas. Recipes are brought to life with photos by Sandy Wilson, as well as the profiles of chefs, vintners, farmers and ranchers whose products you might encounter at a local farmers market or on the menu of a fine restaurant.

Thompson-Anderson explores the history of Texas olive orchards, innovative fishing practices, artisanal dairies and Texas’ role in the game industry, plus looks at the Texas wine industry and creative tactics vintners are using to produce award-winning wines. After learning more than I expected about our state’s culinary landscape, it was time to test some recipes.

First was Herb-Baked Texas Goat Feta with Garlic, Olives and Almonds, which was tied to a story about CKC Farms dairy in Blanco. The result was culinary alchemy. The bold flavor of the melted goat cheese, complemented by herb-infused oil, almonds and Kalamata olives was perfect with a glass of Texas white wine.

My entrée, Maiya’s Flat Steak, was a quick study in Roman cooking. A signature dish at Maiya’s restaurant in Marfa, it’s a ribeye pounded flat and served over a bed of shredded radicchio, olive oil, lemon and Parmesan cheese. The salty, meaty juices and Parmesan tamed the bitterness of the radicchio in a flavor combination that reflected not only Chef Maiya Keck’s Italian influence but also how the town of Marfa has embraced the eclectic.

The Chocolate Lava Cake with Texas Whiskey Sauce was our grand finale and a good choice for entertaining because the batter can be made ahead and poured into cups then baked fresh for dessert. This rendition was particularly good thanks to the whiskey sauce, which was both a conversation starter and perfect partner to the chocolate and whipped cream.

By the end of testing, I was making a list of friends who might like a copy for the holidays.

Food Editor Anna Ginsberg, a member of Pedernales EC, lives in Austin. She is the author of ‘The Daily Cookie’ (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012).