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Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town [Paperback]

Karen Valby

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Book Description

Dec 31 2035
Utopia, Texas: It’s either the best place on earth, or it’s no place at all.
 
In the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to imagine any element of American life that remains untouched by popular culture, let alone an entire community existing outside the empire of pop. But Karen Valby discovered the tiny town of Utopia tucked away in the Texas Hill Country. There are no movie theaters for sixty miles in any direction, no book or music stores. But cable television and the Internet have recently thrown wide the doors of Utopia. 

Valby follows the lives of four Utopians—Ralph, the retired owner of the general store; Kathy, the waitress who waits in terror for three of her boys to return from war; Colter, the son of a cowboy with the soul of a hipster; and Kelli, an aspiring rock star and one of the only black people in town—as they reckon, on an intensely human scale, with war and race, class and culture, and the way time’s passage can change the ground beneath our feet. 

Utopia is the kind of place we still think of as the “real America,” a place of cowboys and farmers and high-school sweethearts who stay together till they die. But its dramatic stories show us what happens when the old tensions of small-town life confront a new reality: that no town, no matter how small and isolated, can escape the liberating and disruptive forces of the larger world. 

Welcome to Utopia is a moving elegy for a proud American way of life and a celebration of our relentless impulse toward rebirth.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (Dec 31 2035)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385522878
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385522878
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Review

Praise for Karen Valby’s WELCOME TO UTOPIA

"There's nothing "small" about Karen Valby's majestic and life-affirming look at a small town.  With a documentarian's eye and a poet's soul, she unveils the complete and compelling history of not just a dot on a map, but of the human heart and soul.  Welcome to Utopia is a first book like To Kill a Mockingbird was a first book. It is, in the most modest phrasing I can think of, a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction."—Augusten Burroughs

"Slowly, as talented journalists do, Valby won some trust. Her reporting is deep, the tone intimate. Readers are quite likely to absorb the rural Texas pulse from the pages."
–Cleveland Plain Dealer


"There are moments of joy and tragedy, contentment and discomfort. Through personal moments, the book quietly deconstructs much mythology about the Small Town by focusing on this one small town, which has somewhat reluctantly engaged in the uneasy push and pull that comes with change — change being the chosen word because not everyone in Utopia would call it progress."
–Houston Chronicle


"As this affectionate memoir shows, small-town folks are much like Americans everywhere."
–People 


"Valby digs deep into the heartland, reporting tragedy....and documenting the ingrained racism and ignorance with the same clear-eyed sensitivity and passion that she calls on to illustrate the deep family bonds and lifelong friendships she encounters — the way small-town people take care of each other."
–San Antonio Express News

“… a rich portrait of a community, bound by tradition and grief, sickness and success, and most of all, a commitment to one another….[Valby], in turn, has repaid them in kind, as her literary portrait of them sits comfortably on the bookshelf next to other classic works about the culture of small-town America, including Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show. Of course, those works were fiction. This, as the denizens of Utopia would no doubt tell you, is something altogether more powerful and important: real life.”  --Dallas Morning News

“Valby’s rich portrait of several local residents is incredibly appealing for its honest look at the struggles of modern families in small-town America.” BookPage
 
“A deftly executed look at the stereotype of a one-horse town and its residents’ modest aspirations and wearisome realities…Valby eschews a wide lens, zooming in on individuals and trusting that their words and actions will render the larger picture.” –Texas Monthly
 
"The characters, the town, and the landscape in Welcome to Utopia are so perfectly drawn, they seem as near to me as my own neighbors. Karen Valby is a writer of astonishing talent, and she has given us the record of a rich and vanishing world in this book."—Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy

“Entertainment Weekly senior writer Valby…emerges as a sensitive, candid and balanced observer of life in a town that is both everywhere and nowhere. …A compassionate, often wrenching reminder that life is surpassingly hard, even in Utopia.”Kirkus


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Austin, Texas. This is her first book.
 


From the Hardcover edition.

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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Utopian Perspective June 17 2010
By Travis Sutherland - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a descendant of multiple generations of Utopians, and I enthusiastically approve of this book. I eagerly waited for over a year to see what Karen took from my hometown, and was not dissapointed after reading it in three days.
It would have been easy for an outside observer to produce an superficial overview of a tiny hick town, full of racism and ignorance, stubbornly stuck in the past.
However, Karen wasn't content with being a detached observer, instead choosing to embed and immerse herself into the town, taking genuine interest in its residents. She took notice of the details of the history, settings and customs that make Utopia special.
What she produced was an honest, affectionate, surprisingly thorough account of a community at a crossroads. I find the timing of her arrival interesting, as she did find the town in an unprecedented state of transition. She did a great job of portraying the proud traditions, the generations clinging to them and the angst and yearing of the younger generation.
While one reviewer stated that her conclusions were neither surprising nor original, I don't believe that she was necessarily intending them to be. She merely wanted to depict a community and lifestyle that is more foreign to most city folks than she was to the old timer coffee drinkers. And so she did.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars strikes a sweet, melancholy chord Feb. 27 2012
By Susan Buentello - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was surprised to see the Publisher's Weekly negative review of this book that spoke to me so movingly that I could not put it down. Maybe you have to be able to recognize this small Texas town in your heart and soul in order to connect strongly to the book, but whatever the reason, I was frequently moved to tears by it. In my imagination I was there with the author, interacting with the "coffee drinkers", and I could hear them speak, hear their accents and see the lines on their faces and the dust on their boots. My own father could easily have been the model for Ralph or any of the other older men who provide so much of Valby's introduction to small-town Texas. I saw my mother, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins in the pages of this book as well. For a non-Texan, Valby did an amazing job of painting a picture that a native Texan could relate to.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where Everyone Knows Your Name May 16 2011
By William J Higgins III - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Author Karen Valby transports the reader through the ups and downs of one particular small town in America...Utopia, Texas.
Valby follows the lives of four notable individuals together with their close-knit circle of family and friends.

We nurse coffee every morning with disgruntled old men who abhor change, listen to the dreams and aspirations of young folks who can not wait to put Utopia in their rear view mirror, others who are hesitant of a culture change and just want to linger in their home town as did their parents and grandparents, then there are some who are totally fuddled and not sure what to do.

In a way we all live in a small town...that being ourselves.
Giving each other support, fighting our own demons, tentative of change, how we mesh with one another, it's all here.

Well conceived and written.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utopia Meets The World Oct. 21 2010
By Dave Mulryan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Karen Valby has placed herself in the middle of nowhere to find out where we as Americans are at. Working from an assignment at her day job at Entertainment Weekly, Ms. Valby chooses to try and pierce the mysteries of the small town of Utopia, Texas, for an article, and finds the issues and the people so compelling that she expands the article in to a book, moving for a time to the small town to study it residents, their history, and the town itself.

Many Americans have sprung from these small towns, and many of them will recognize the usual cast of characters here. What makes Ms. Valby's book to compelling is that she manages to look at the town and its people as part of a larger picture, and manages to place Utopia in modern America, even if the town itself does not. Like many of the small places, the military looms large, annually harvesting its young men and sending them off to war. When the town endures deaths from far away and unknown places, the town itself becomes the main support for the family of the fallen. Of course, that is really the enduring strength of these places, and we get to see how the reaction of the town ultimately makes if possible for the families to recover, and for Utopia to keep encouraging its young men and women to fight in far away places.

Ms. Valby originally looked for a town that had no culture, by perusing the subscriber list from "Entertainment Weekly" to see where they did not have a reader. Although I am sure that Time Warner feels they have covered the country with their magazines, Utopia was selected. Ms. Valby ultimately comes to understand that Utopia, although not on the radar of New York based magazines, is ultimately tied to America in a different way. She treats the prickly subjects intelligently, with humor, and ultimately sees that even if publishers in New York and politicians in Washington might be quick to dismiss these folks, they do so at their peril.

Ms. Valby does not use the cliched quote that these towns might not survive. These towns have survived everything the world can dish out, and will ultimately survive, intact, watching New York and Washington with a wary eye.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving and beautiful portrait June 3 2010
By TallDrinkofTexasWater - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After reading NPR's review I decided to order the book. I was pleased to find I agree, it absolutely "reads like a book length New Yorker article--compulsively readable and deeply affecting." It shows small town life as it really is, unfiltered through literary or citified pretensions. The characters stay with you long after the read is over.

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