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Book gems of 2016, Part 3

June 29, 2016

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Summer is upon us, and the season of leisure is the perfect time for new stories, characters, ideas, and adventures. Throughout the next few weeks, Stillness of Heart continues its occasional series of critical recommendations, from Civil War battle histories to memoirs, and from intellectual histories to photobooks almost as beautiful as the natural world they celebrate.

Read Part 1 of this 2016 series here and subsequent essays in this series here.

This week … a brief look at some of the best works on Texas and Texas history.

Jesus F. de la Teja’s Faces of Bexar: Early San Antonio and Texas (Texas A&M University Press, 240 pp., $40) offers an anthology of essays that together form a biography of one of the most significant cities in North America. San Antonio’s historic importance as a military center, source of political power, international economic hub, and cultural crown jewel is expertly explored and analyzed in this work. The book also includes a vital bibliographic essay analyzing the latest developments in Tejano historiography.

Most history students know about the Texas Revolution, but they know next to nothing about the Revolution’s birthplace. Richard B. McCaslin’s Washington on the Brazos: Cradle of the Texas Republic (Texas State Historical Association Press, 100 pp., $15.95) should be the perfect remedy for that gap in historical knowledge. When the Republic of Texas joined the United States, power and administrative authority was centralized in Austin, and Washington faded into the social and commercial background. It briefly boomed as a port town, but its economic over-reliance on steamboats left it behind as the age of railroads dawned and rail tracks bypassed the town. The Revolution’s centennial in 1936 sparked fresh interest in Texas history, and the town basked in new appreciation from restoration experts and history-loving tourists. McCaslin’s book uses the history of the town to illustrate the larger historical eras of the Texas people, their evolving values, their conflicted identities, and their beautiful multifaceted culture.

Laura Lyons McLemore contributes Adele Briscoe Looscan: Daughter of the Republic (TCU Press, 320 pp, $29.95) to the Texas Biography Series. Looscan made history in 1915 when she became the first woman elected to the presidency of the Texas State Historical Association. The scholar of Texas history made history again when she stepped down in 1925, completing the longest presidency in the Association’s history. McLemore’s biography promises the story of an important intellectual and social leader who guided and enriched historical, political, and business conversations in early twentieth-century Texas.

Timothy Paul Bowman’s Blood Oranges: Colonialism and Agriculture in the South Texas Borderlands (Texas A&M University Press, 412 pp., $43) takes an important and complicated look at the social and economic tensions burning throughout Rio Grande Valley communities in the decades following the Mexican War. Bowman illustrates a brutal twentieth-century process of converting the region from Mexican culture to Anglo-American political and economic control, from a cattle-based economy to an agricultural economy. Racially-minded Anglos built or modified the region’s governmental and legal structures to contain and suppress Mexican-American populations, particularly laborers, who were exploited as they formed the foundation of a major U.S. agricultural industry.

Mark Allan Goldberg’s Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands (University of Nebraska Press, 328 pp., $60) focuses on the same region but with an earlier timeframe and a different focus. Anglo and Spanish colonizers applied their standards of health to the Native Americans and Mexicans they found in the region and subsequently determined that because their European health standards practices were superior to indigenous standards and practices, the Europeans naturally deserved to control the region and its people. They used the network of religious missions or other controlled spaces to enforce European standards on the indigenous people, and they devalued the significance of indigenous understandings of health. For the colonizers, Goldberg’s important work explains, the issue of health became one more aspect of their larger ambitions for control and of the moral calculations made to justify that control.

David G. McComb’s The City in Texas: A History (University of Texas Press, 352 pp., $35) is an authoritative and much-needed analysis of the transformation of Texas from a land of rural and agricultural communities into a constellation of metro centers dominated by glittering skyscrapers, electrical wires, highways, and suburbs. Alan Lessoff’s newest work focuses on just one city with Where Texas Meets the Sea: Corpus Christi and Its History (University of Texas Press, 368 pp., $29.95). Full disclosure: I grew up in Corpus Christi, so I’ll consider pretty much any serious history about the Sparkling City by the Sea to be interesting, at least, but Lessoff’s history is exceptional — serious yet potentially appealing to both tourists and residents, brimming with fascinating stories, and built on solid and extensive research.

Jesse Cancelmo’s Glorious Gulf of Mexico: Life Below the Blue (Texas A&M University Press, 156 pp., $30) takes us below the waves to explore 600,000 square miles of incredible landscapes, vibrant coral reefs, and more than 15,000 different species. Cancelmo wants his readers to fully appreciate the complexity, beauty, and importance of the Gulf’s ecosystems, life cycles, and species. Readers should gain a more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of how the Gulf’s treasures enrich our world and our lives.

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Book gems of 2016
An occasional series
Jan. 3: Antiquity, Civil War, World War II, and space
June 22: Presidents and the political world
June 29: Texas and Texas history
July 6: Latin America
July 13: Slavery and the Civil War era
July 20: World War I and II, science, culture, and literature

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