Everything is cooler in Marfa, Texas. The small West Texas town at the foot of the Chinati Mountains has long been a hotspot for artists and hipsters, and it just looks like a West Texas town is supposed to look. “Giant” was filmed in the vicinity, as were parts of “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” more recently. Marfa’s is a sparse beauty, but in my book it is definitely beautiful. (If you go, I hope you like landscapes that are thousands of shades of khaki and almost nothing else.)
The minimalist sculptor Donald Judd bought Fort Russell just south of Marfa when it was decommissioned by the U.S. Army in the 1980s. He turned it into the Chinati Foundation, a massive art installation that provided the perfect backdrop for a large collection of his brushed-metal and concrete boxes, along with the works of several other sculptors and painters. It’s probably my favorite place to look at art, and it’s the main reason that Marfa has registered on anyone else’s radar screen. By itself, it created a critical mass of hip art lovers with cashflow–just the sort of folks you’d want around if you opened a great bookstore like this one.
We visited Marfa this past weekend for the first time in about 15 years. It hadn’t changed in fundamental ways since the last time we were there, but there were some obvious transformations afoot. On the downside, the hipsters have driven real estate prices through the stratosphere. But on the upside, they also support the Marfa Book Company.
The MBC has a children’s section that is worlds better than anything available to us in Fort Worth, a city that has, according to my calculations, a population roughly 300 times the size of Marfa’s.
It also has an art and design section that’s better than anything I’ve seen in a bookstore outside of Manhattan. (This amazing book in the photography section captured my attention–how had I never heard of it before?) And the best Texas history section I’ve come across in the last few years. Plus perfectly good standard fiction and non-fiction sections. And a really cool gallery space. And hats and t-shirts for sale. All in all, it’s a remarkable place.
Special double bonuses: Just down the street, you can pick up a great cup of joe and a nice used book at The Brown Recluse, which is owned by a poet who happens to be an FOB (Friend of the Blog). Awesome accommodations in Marfa are available at the newly refurbished Hotel Paisano, whose interiors were featured in “Giant,” and the Thunderbird Hotel, which is owned by the couple that runs the award-winning and way-cool Hotel San Jose in Austin. I highly recommend the Indian Lodge, about 60 miles north in Fort Davis. Marfa is about 90 miles north of Big Bend National Park–so make a week of it. You’ll be glad you did.
The Believer is now accepting votes from its readers for the best books of 2007, which will be published in the May 2008 edition. Timely, eh? In the interest of transparency, here’s my slate of candidates:
The NBCC is also taking votes for its quarterly (?) Good Reads recommendations. I chose the novel How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet as best read of early 2008 (Fiction). The Winter Good Reads recommendations can be found here.
Last night was the second event in the Baby Got Book Reading Series and the last night of Wordsmiths Books at the old post office building. About 50-60 hardy souls braved the unseasonably cold weather (there were snow flurries earlier in the day, for crying out loud) and hung around for over three hours on a Monday night. Zach, the owner of Wordsmiths, had to start turning off the light to make people go home. By all accounts, it was an amazing evening.
Hillary Jordan kicked things off with a reading from her novel, Mudbound. Claire from Hope for Agoldensummer described the novel thusly: “it’s tragic and it’s Southern – my two favorite things.” Amen, sister. After the reading, Jordan took several questions from the crowd, signed books, and hung out while the musicians prepared to do their thing.
The musical accoutrement included the coolest guitar rack ever, on which hung a saw that would later be used for musical purposes.
Wayne and Big Peaches of the Wayne Fishell Experience took the stage. While talking up the band’s local roots, Wayne pointed out that the WFX are “Decatur’s only gay acoustic duo.” That’s HIGH-larious if you know Decatur at all.
Hope for Agoldensummer closed out the evening with a spellbinding set. Their last song was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen performed live. I can’t even describe it. If you weren’t there, you’ll just have to suffer with the fact that you missed it. If there is ever an O Brother, Where Art Thou 2, rest assured that these ladies will be providing the bulk of the soundtrack. (And they played the saw.) See this band live in a non-rowdy setting ASAP.
Mark your calendars now. BGB3 goes down on April 24th. Much more to come on that one, so stay tuned.
“Choke” is a term often used to describe someone who comes up short. In describing Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk (and to quote a phrase used throughout the book), “choke” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.
Palahniuk seems to be somewhat of a counterculture hero (at least according to some folks I’ve heard talk about him), whose most famous book (I think) is Fight Club (a movie a saw and just really didn’t get); he clearly knows how to write for shock value about uncomfortable and disturbing situations.
I read a blurb about Choke and decided to give it a shot. When all was said and done, I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. I didn’t like the main character/narrator/”protagonist”, Victor Mancini; he’s just flat out unlikeable, although that might be the point. The story follows him around with flashbacks to his childhood, as he deals with a strange mother, his own sexual addiction, and some other strange characters that fill out the story. His struggle to find out who he really is becomes the reader’s struggle. And I just didn’t think it was a worthwhile struggle.
The main storyline, or so I was lead to believe by the commentary that induced me into trying this book, was supposed to be Mancini’s scam of pretending to choke in restaurants, getting saved by a good samaritan, and having that person feel a sense of responsibility for Mancini, sending him money on his birthday and otherwise helping him out. But that really was a small thread of the book. The bulk of the book was spent on his so-called sexual addition (complete with — earmuffs, youngsters — more talk of his “dog” and “white soldiers” than I felt like dealing with) and his mother, who was apparently in the final stages of Alzheimer’s while in a nursing home, and who was giving him reason to question who he thought he was.
I’ll give Palahniuk credit for sort of tying things together at the end. It wasn’t perfect, but considering how low the bar had dropped by the time I was two-thirds of the way into the book, he should get a medal for not making me want to burn the thing when I was through with it. And I guess I shouldn’t hold Palahniuk responsible for my own pre-conceived notions about what the book would be like, which were based on other people’s subjective opinions. In fact, Palahniuk starts the book with the following:
If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.
After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.
Maybe I should have listened. Although I made the mistake of thinking that that the narrator was going to shock or disturb me in some rewarding way, rather than thinking he was going to disappoint me with his story and some of his crude sexual references.
And you’re invited.
Tonight at Wordsmiths Books — The Baby Got Books Reading Series, Volume 2 brings you:
Hillary Jordan reads from her brilliant Southern novel, Mudbound! (Read the BGB review.)
The Wayne Fishell Experience play acoustic indie pop!
Hope for Agoldensummer play haunting Southern/Appalachian blues-tinged Avant Americana! (or “junkyard soul” as they call it)
Wordsmiths celebrates its very last night in the “old post office” building before moving to the Square! (You can’t write on the walls or take sledge hammers to the dry wall – I asked.)
There will be food! There will be beverages!
It is all free!
That’s a lot of exclamation points for one evening. If those can’t entice you off of the couch on a Monday night, you may be beyond help.
Is that even grammatically correct? No idea. More items of interest:
- Russ interviews Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound
- Largehearted Boy’s Booknotes features Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton. BGB’s Nitro reviewed the book here, and I finished it on an airplane last night. Excellent.
- What Slate’s reading this month.
- Geraldine Brooks (People of the Book) is interviewed on KCRW’s Bookworm.
- British author banned from entry to US on grounds of “moral turpitude”
- Science Fiction book awards are going literary. The Hugo Awards shortlist includes Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist includes Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (coming soon to the ATL)
Someone used that phrase in an e-mail that I received yesterday, and it cracked me up. I will be using it more or less non-stop for the next two weeks. At least. It’s also appropriate for this round-up of things that I missed over the last week. I found myself in Seattle for work, but my laptop’s power chord stayed home. This left me with three hours of battery time to ration over the week. C’est la guerre. Plus, I was in Seattle. Onward:
- First, please don’t forget that Monday is the second official event in our Baby Got Books Reading Series – or BGB2. Author Hillary Jordan will read from her excellent novel Mudbound, and there will be live music by the Wayne Fishell Experience and Hope for Agoldensummer. Read my review of the book and get all of the details over here.
- The Tournament of Books continued without me. See how your favorites are doing here.
- Visionary Arthur C. Clarke passed away this week.
- You can now be a fan of The Wren’s Nest on Facebook. Neat. They already have more friends than I do.
- There is a work session this Saturday to help our neighbors who were hit hard by last weekend’s crazy tornadoes: “If you can lend a hand, please plan to meet at the Cabbagetown Community Center 177 Estoria, at 10 am. Projects will be lead by the Cabbagetown Initiative. Volunteers will be divided into work groups by street and go house to house.”
Add another great bookstore to the “bookstores we love” collection. The Elliott Bay Book Co. is a fantastic place for books in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Like all independent book stores in the western US (disclaimer: n=2), Elliott Bay Book Co. is a rambling, ramshackle store that hearkens back to our frontier past. It reminds me of The Tattered Cover in Denver’s LoDo district. It has creaky wooden floors, just one more room around the corner with even more fantastic books, and it feels like it has been there forever. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there yesterday, exploring the endless stacks. Seek it out should you find yourself in Seattle.
If you’re a Southerner, there comes a time when you may become weary of the “things go horribly wrong on the farm”-style of Southern Gothic literature. To the authors of these tales, one might even say “Nobody could do it as well as Faulkner, so why are you trying?” Or maybe I’m just projecting.
This happened to me when The Oxford American serialized John Grisham’s A Painted House. That book may be the poorest selling book in the Grisham oeuvre, but I thought that it was pretty good. Once I grudgingly started to read it.
I was given a copy of Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound, and I have to say that I was initially reluctant to give it a shot based on its general description. The novel has won the inaugural Bellwether Prize founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. I wasn’t sure if that was a plus or a minus – was the book going to get all preachy on me? Once I actually started reading though, I was pleasantly surprised.
Mudbound takes place in the years following World War II. A relatively urbane woman from Memphis is forced to relocate her family on little notice when her husband suddenly decides to pick up stakes and begin farming in the Mississippi Delta. Things get off to a rocky start when the house he had purchased in the nearby town is occupied by a couple who also purchased the house from the double-dealing seller. Forced to live in an old shack on the farm itself, the family is cut off from the rest of the town (and the world) when rains cause the adjacent creek to cover the only road.
The family finds that life in the Delta is fraught with inherent hardships: the unpredictable cooperation of the elements, a razor thin margin between profit and financial ruin, unreliable medical care, institutional racism, crippling poverty, and substandard education. It’s a hardscrabble life that is not for the thin skinned or those of questionable resolve. As one character notes, “there is no room for pity on a farm.”
Mudbound takes a close look at a time of change in the Delta. For African-American service men returning from the War, the cat was out of the bag. Having experienced the (relative) equality in Europe, there was no going back to the way things were in Jim Crow South. Having received a steady wage, why return to the vagaries of farming? Having proven themselves in battle, why return to a subservient second-class citizenship in the South? For many, the reason was that the south was Home, and that’s where their families could be found.
The fish out of water farmers, post World War II realities, rural life, and a bitter old man provide the friction that ensures that – well – things aren’t going to go well on the farm. The novel takes some unexpected twists and turns. Other dark clouds in the story are cast over the book from the very beginning. Jordan proves herself to be a master story teller, especially for having converted at least one very skeptical reader. This is an epic story of Southern life that is well told, and it deserves the accolades that is has received.
Shortly after finishing the book, I was presented with the opportunity to have the author anchor the second helping of the Baby Got Books Reading Series. I jumped at the chance. When the Wayne Fishell Experience and Hope for Agoldensummer (who I just heard on Album 88 – that’s some indie street cred right there) were added to the bill, I knew that we had a very special evening lined up. I hope that you’ll join us on March 24th for what has turned out to be the very last night of operation for Wordsmiths Books in their current location. FREE. Details:
Russ has more at the Wordsmiths blog…
Having recently read Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (both excellent by the way), I was in the mood for a good, light-hearted novel. And I found it in Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton.
This book is set in the fictional town of Templeton, which is actually Cooperstown, NY where the author grew up. She snatched the name from James Fenimore Cooper who also wrote his books about Cooperstown but called it Templeton. She also incorporated many of the same characters in her novel that were in Cooper’s: Marmaduke Temple, Chingachgook, and Chief Uncas are just a few. As Groff states in the author’s note, “Fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies.” Now only if all these fake memoirists of the past few weeks could have kept that in mind.
The book’s central character is Willie Upton who returns home to Templeton broken-hearted and pregnant after having an affair with her professor. Willie is infamous in town because she is the last descendant of the founding father of Templeton, Marmaduke Temple who settled the town in the late 1700′s. She returns home to her kookie mother who was a former hippie and had always told Willie that she was a love-child from her days living in a commune. Her mother proceeds to reveal to Willie that her father is actually a Templeton resident and is also a relative within the original Temple family. Her mother leaves it to Willie to research and discover who her father is.
With this premise, the book travels back and forth in time through the many generations of the Temple family. Even though Marmaduke Temple was a Quaker, he had dalliances with his black slave and a Native American girl both of whom bore children. This created quite a complex family tree and through Willie’s research, we learn about the many characters in her family as well as the evolution of the town of Templeton. Of course there are secrets revealed and many scandals uncovered in the course of her research. As Willie grapples with her own identity and eventually discovers who her father is, we witness her transformation from a lost, little girl to a more grounded woman.
As a backdrop throughout the story is the ginormous (I know this isn’t a word, but I always thought that it should have been) monster that has been discovered in Glimmerglass lake which the town borders. Basically, this is a type of Loch Ness monster that has lived in the lake for over 200 years and finally dies and comes to the surface to the astonishment of the citizens. The monster is a symbol of all the dark secrets of the town that had always been hidden under the surface.
Groff’s prose is wonderful and lyrical and her descriptions of the characters are rich in imagery and their individual voice. Each character is so original and authentically portrayed and her choice of words to establish their voice is never random. The book was filled with so many great characters all of whom I wish I could have met. And none more so than the “Monster.” The epilogue is actually the Monster’s voice:
On the day it dies, the Monster thinks of:
………and how it will soon see the people legs kickety-kicking up there in the bright surface and how it loves to watch the legs kickety-kick and how it always hopes the people belonging to the legs forget to go up into the air and begin to sink;……and how sometimes the little dead people would come untethered from the lakeweed the monster had tied them in so they wouldn’t go floating up into the broad air, for even when they turned purple and their flesh fell off, the monster loves them;
I had so much fun reading this book and looked forward to picking it up every day because it took me away to a mesmerizing, magical world.
Last night severe storms and tornadoes hit Atlanta pretty hard. We weren’t given much in the way of warning that all hell was going to break loose. The storms destroyed areas uncomfortably close to Baby Got Books HQ. In addition to pummeling downtown, the Cabbagetown neighborhood and parts of Grant Park took a beating, too. We’re fine, but still checking in with friends and neighbors.
Lain reports that The Wren’s Nest, very close to downtown, survived, too.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao defeated some other book today at the Tournament of Books. Hooray. I’m back to .500.
If you’re near Brooklyn, you must attend Dean Wareham’s book reading/acoustic performance at Union Hall. Free!
Atlanta Lit juggernaut The Duck and Herring Co. have posted their latest podcast:
This podcast edition features excerpts from The Duck & Herring Co.’s Cold Weather Radio Hour, a live reading and music show at Agnes Scott College, hosted by editors Tom Bell, Jamie Allen and Terra McVoy.
Included: a song to Agnes Scott women, an interview with Krazie Kammie about her odd winter running habits, and a report from Iceland by writer Benjamin Black.
After a promising 2-0 start, my bracket has taken a pounding this week in the Tournament of Books. I dropped three straight. Let’s look at the tape.
- Petropolis was dropped by Then We Came to the End. I had read both of these, and honestly I could have gone either way.
- You Don’t Love Me Yet edged out New England White. I guess substandard Lethem is still better than most. I hadn’t read either one of these.
- Shining on the Bottom of the Sea comes out of nowhere to beat Run. I read run, and no one has heard of the other book. Seemed like an easy pick.
A few lucky breaks, and I’d be in great shape. As it stands, I now have a losing record. As of press time, today’s winner hasn’t been announced yet. If The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not chosen, I’ll be shocked. And my brackets will be completely screwed.
Tonight! Wordsmiths has Anthony C. Winkler reading from his latest book, Duppy. Phil Kloer of the AJC says:
You should check it out just to see what that means. Details.
I have a review of Dean Wareham’s excellent new rock and roll memoir, Black Postcards, up today on the Largehearted Boy blog. As a supplement to my longish review, I’ve culled a few songs that are featured prominently in the book. For best results, you might want to get a song going and then open the review in a new window. That’s more of less the way the review was written.
Tugboat – Galaxie 500
Chinatown – Luna
23 Minutes in Brussels – Luna
Black Postcards – Luna
(Subscribers: You’ll need to click over to listen.)
Posting is light today as I’m scrambling to get things done before leaving town next week. I’ll be heading out to Seattle for a work-related conference. I’ll have my evenings free, and I’m looking for suggestions for how to best occupy my time. I’ve already slated visits to the Elliott Bay Book Co., the Roq La Rue Gallery, and the Pyramid Alehouse. What other cultural highlights should I try to squeeze in while I’m there? I’m staying downtown without a car. Thanks!
More to come on the event…
In other Raw Shark Texts news:
In addition to winning the Borders Best New Voices Award for Fiction, The Raw Shark Texts has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Steven Hall reported on his blog yesterday that the screenplay for the RST movie is nearing completion.