This Week’s Book Review – Houston: Space City, USA

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Houston: Space City’ combines history, science and culture

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 2, 2019

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 224 pages, $37

Houston and America’s manned space program are inescapably intertwined. The Manned Spaceflight Center (today’s Johnson Space Center), which runs all of NASA manned missions, is in Houston. The first word broadcast by a human from another planet was “Houston.” The city gives major sports teams space-related names like Astros and Rockets.

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, explores that connection in an extended photo-essay. It arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Viator, a long-time Houston media figure, combines history, science and culture. He starts out by looking at the history of NASA in Houston, focusing on the Apollo 11 moon landing. He goes well beyond that, however. Subsequent sections look at the impact hosting the Johnson Space Center has had on the city of Houston and its environs.

His exploration of space’s impact on Houston isn’t limited to rocket-related activities. He explores the impact of space on Houston’s research communities — institutions of higher education, medical research, and the whole spectrum of science research. He also looks at the impact the Johnson Space Center has had on Houston’s art community and its culture. He shows how Houston has embraced the concept of being Space City into its music, its architecture, and its visual arts.

He underscores his thesis with an eye-popping array of photographs. Many are his own. Some, especially when historical images are needed, come from a variety of other sources including NASA, the Houston Public Library archives or other local photographers.

The book mixes wonder with whimsy. Photographs showing the latest-greatest space technology, prominent figures in space history, reverential monuments and buildings significant to Houston’s space history are placed in proximity to space-themed Lego constructions, larger-than-life space-suited manikins selling stuff, or humorous space-themed murals. Viator also makes use of every opportunity to photograph the moon in proximity to some Houston activity.

Viator wanted to recapture the wonder of the 1960s space program and the sheer amount of fun space has provided Houston and Houston residents over the last 50 years. “Houston: Space City, USA” succeeds admirably in achieving that goal.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Unnatural Texas’ is testimony to the law of unintended consequences

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 5, 2019

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 272 pages, $32

Texas has many species not native to Texas. Some, like the longhorn, are a positive part of Texas’s heritage. Others? Maybe not so much.

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, examine the impact of some of these less welcome imports.

The book looks at around a dozen widespread nuisance species in Texas. Examples include birds, aquatic plants, mammals, land based plants, and insects, all with negative impacts. Some may surprise you.

There’s a chapter on sparrows and starlings. Non-native birds, they were imported from England to eat urban insects and introduce animals mentioned in Shakespeare. Instead they went after farmers’ crops and are crowding out native species.

Water hyacinth and hydrilla take up another chapter. The authors examine their negative impact on southern waterways and the difficulties of eradicating them. Yet in Florida, water hyacinths provide food for endangered manatee, making eliminating them an issue.

There are separate chapters on Chinese Tallow and Tamarisk, two species introduced to improve the landscape, which ultimately had undesired impact. Chinese tallow are destroying Texas’s coastal prairie.

One chapter is devoted to feral cats, and a second to feral hogs. Each provides a menace to native species; cats in urban areas, hogs in the countryside and suburbs. Cats kill birds, while hogs will hunt people. Fire ants are the focus of another chapter.

The authors examine means of controlling invasive species. It’s tricky. Biological controls work best, but (as with carp to control water hyacinths) could themselves become invasive species.

“Unnatural Texas” is testimony to the law of unintended consequences. These nuisance species were introduced with the best of intentions. Sometimes, as with the concept of importing every species mentioned in Shakespeare to North America the intention was crackpot. The book closes by illustrating the conflicting nature imported species with the monk parakeet. Endangered in its native habitat, it adds color to Texas cities, while posing a nuisance by nesting in transmission towers.

“Unnatural Texas” provides food for thought on a complex topic. The authors show that frequently no simple answers exist for environmental problems.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Stanley Marcus

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Texas Calaboose’ a study of small lockups

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 15, 2019

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $35

“Locked up in the calaboose” sounds like a line from a cheesy Western. It was reality for thousands in 19th and 20th century Texas.

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore is the definitive study on Texas’ small lockups.

Moore defines a calaboose as a small jail, typically less than 300-square-feet, with one or two cells. They were intended to house lawbreakers for short stretches; overnight or until they could be transported to the county jail.

Most small Texas towns had one. Usually one of the first buildings constructed after a town incorporated, it was almost always the sturdiest. They were austere: bare walls, minimal amenities, no electricity and no heating or cooling system. A night in the calaboose didn’t coddle, nor was intended to.

They were also homespun, built by locals with materials at hand, and for a minimal cost. Wood, brick, stone, concrete or iron and steel were used depending on availability. Some were simple cages, open to the elements. No two were alike.

Moore became fascinated with small jails, viewing them as markers of Texas society. They were tenanted by the more eccentric members of small-town society. Occasionally, a famous name occupied a calaboose. Bonnie Parker spent a night in the Kemp lockup.

These small jails passed out of use starting in the 1950s. The automobile and better roads made it easier to take lawbreakers to the county jail, eliminating the need for local lockups. Yet because they were sturdy buildings, many survive today. Most are used for storage. Others have become museums. Some are neglected and will disappear. A few have (or had) more eccentric uses, such as a chicken coop and an upscale room for rent.

Moore’s book catalogs all surviving calabooses, small jails and cages in Texas. This includes details and descriptions of their construction: size, footprint, materials used, location, current owner and (when known) date built. He includes photos of every specimen; illustrating these building ran from basic concrete cubes to elaborate crenelated castles.

“The Texas Calaboose” captures Texas’ past in a new and entertaining way.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Sports Makes You Type Faster

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Jenkins shows he’s still in the game

By MARK LARDAS

Sep 18, 2018

”Sports Makes You Type Faster: The Entire World of Sports by One of America’s Most Famous Sportswriters,” by Dan Jenkins, Texas Christian University Press, 2018, 176 pages, $32

Dan Jenkins is a sports reporter. He writes in a way that has made him legendary. If you can name only one sports writer, it is probably Dan Jenkins.

“Sports Makes You Type Faster: The Entire World of Sports by One of America’s Most Famous Sportswriters,” by Dan Jenkins is his latest, which is a collection of original essays.

Jenkins has been a professional sports writer since the early 1950s. This book, demonstrates he is still in the game seven decades later. In many ways it is a retrospective of his career. He touches on all aspects of his experiences; a sportswriter, a child growing up in love with sports, as a student athlete and simply as a fan.

It includes personal reminiscences, pieces on sports history, profiles of famous athletes (many known personally by Jenkins), examinations of different sports, and a lot of short stories. All demonstrate Jenkin’s distinctive humor.

In many pieces, Jenkins may be writing, but others speak: college football recruiter Red Dog Hawkins, the professional football player convinced by his “woke” girlfriend to demonstrate patriotism by burning an American flag in a Texas stadium parking lot; baseball player Big Boo Childers, who cannot figure out how to be the man of the house; and race car groupie Maxine Hubbard making the book tour about her tell-all, among others. Jenkins uses these to skewer the sport’s absurdities. He is equal opportunity in his skewering. At least one piece will leave a reader cheering; at least one howling “no fair.” Jenkins obviously loves sports, yet is unafraid to expose its flaws.

Much of the book is devoted to Jenkins’ favorite sports: college and professional football, baseball and golf. Yet the breadth of the sports Jenkins covers is impressive. Jenkins spends a turn on about everything: basketball, tennis, track and field, winter sports, and car racing. He even has a chapter on air racing.

Those who are sports fans, especially readers who enjoy Dan Jenkins’s writing, will want to read “Sports Makes You Type Faster.” Those who dislike sports will likely still find it an entertaining reading. Jenkins has the knack for writing amusing and entertaining prose.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Battle of the Brazos

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Battle of the Brazos’ a fascinating sports and mystery story

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 29, 2018

“Battle of the Brazos: A Texas Football Rivalry, a Riot, and a Murder,” by T. G. Webb, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 184 pages, $27

Football is often compared to war.

“Battle of the Brazos: A Texas Football Rivalry, a Riot, and a Murder,” by T. G. Webb shows what happens when fans overdo that analogy.

The book relates events from an October 30, 1926, football game between Baylor University and the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (today Texas A&M University). Interscholastic rivalry flared into a halftime riot. One A&M cadet died.

Astonishingly, the game resumed after the riot and was played to completion. More astonishingly, although the fatal assault occurred before thousands of spectators, the perpetrator was never caught. The crime was never officially solved.

Webb examines all aspects of this incident. He opens with a history of college football in Texas. This includes the increasingly bitter rivalry between two of the Texas schools on the Brazos River: Baylor and Texas A&M. The annual matchup soon became labeled “The Battle of the Brazos.” Webb shows how both student bodies took that title too seriously. In the 1920s, incidents of increasing violence accompanied games before the fatal 1926 riot.

Webb provides a detailed study of the 1926 game. He looks at the buildup to the game, taking readers through a step-by-step examination of its events, including the halftime riot. He follows this by relating the aftermath of the riot. He shows how the schools reacted and what both schools did afterward. (He also peels away some myths. Despite many stories there is no evidence the Aggies commandeered a train to take a cannon to Waco to avenge the death.)

Webb also examines the mystery of who killed the cadet, and why the culprit was never caught. He offers several reasons contributing to the crime’s going unsolved. It was suspected the assailant was related to a politically connected Waco family. State law enforcement was primitive. A hired private investigator lacked authority to compel witnesses to speak. He came close to identifying the assailant, but lacked sufficient proof to obtain an indictment.

“Battle of the Brazos” is a fascinating mix of sports history and true crime mystery. Webb’s book offers insight to a bygone era in Texas sports.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Lost, Texas

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Exploring Texas and its forgotten places

By MARK LARDAS

June 12, 2018

“Lost, Texas: Photographs of Forgotten Buildings,” by Bronson Dorsey, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 244 pages, $40

Buildings and towns have lifespans, just like people.

“Lost, Texas: Photographs of Forgotten Buildings,” by Bronson Dorsey underscores that. A photoessay, the book captures forgotten and abandoned buildings throughout the state of Texas.

His photography is stunning. Readers make an extended road trip through Texas exploring forgotten places, buildings and towns. The trip takes readers around the state visiting east, south, central, north and west Texas and the Panhandle.

Dorsey explores the Texas that can be seen off the interstate, on state, county, Farm-to-Market, and Ranch-to Market roads. Small towns, including ghost towns, predominate, but he has a few small cities, such as Palestine and Marshall.

All buildings featured outlived their original purpose. Some, such as the old International and Great Northern Railroad Hospital in Palestine, seem in good shape, abandoned, but capable of revival if a new use could be found. A few, like the Koch Hotel in D’Hanis, are still in use, restored as bed-and-breakfasts or museums. Most, however, are abandoned in various states of deterioration.

“Lost, Texas” charts the rise and fall of both buildings and communities. The reasons for abandonment are many. Entire towns die when bypassed by the railroad, and later the interstate. Changing travel tastes make tourist courts and railroad hotels. Gas stations and stores become uneconomical when new highways bypass them.

Technology matters, too. Mechanization reduced the need for farm labor. As a result, farm communities dwindled, the schools, stores, and restaurants that served the departed community became unnecessary. Industry closings, such as the Sulphur plant at Newgulf or Presidio Mines in Shafter cause communities to whither.

Dorsey captures these trends in his photographs. The book is filled with poignant and sometimes haunting images testimony to dead dreams: A crumbling service station in Pep, the decayed sheriff’s office in Langtry, collapsing World War II bomber hangers in Pyote, a lonely red, one-room schoolhouse on the Panhandle plains in Wayside.

Each set of photos is accompanied by the story of the building captured. They are all different, yet all similar. “Lost, Texas” takes readers into the Texas of yesteryear.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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