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Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town Paperback
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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."
"As this affectionate memoir shows, small-town folks are much like Americans everywhere."
"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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
If you're from small-town America, this non-fiction book will take you home to those coffee-fueled mornings of gossip in the café, the town festivals where everyone "gets a little crazy," and the dramatic arc of the high school experience where teenagers rub up against the horizons of their futures. But no matter your background, you'll get a glimpse into the still-powerful heart of "one stop light" America.
I devoured this book in my spare time over three days and I'll carry some of its characters in my memory for the rest of my days. When I step back to get the whole picture, I'm amazed. This sensitive, talented writer managed to embed herself in the heart and soul of a small Texas town called Utopia. In the process, she was so charming and respectful that many people took her into their confidence. With raw material like that to use, she has produced a polished diamond.
SPOILER-- some parts of this book will give you chills and may make you head for the coffee pot or stronger liquid refreshment. For instance, I have read the heart-rending part about Kathy learning the news about her solider son's death several times. The five-paragraph salutatorian speech that Kelli, the lone black girl in the high school, delivered is a spare, tightly-crafted gem that should be an example of "how to do it" on the essay portion of the SAT. It gave me goosebumps. (I defy you to read the next to last paragraph and not have the same reaction.) Then there is the romance of Colter and Jamie--two of the most lovable young souls you'll ever come across. Not to mention Morris, Ralph and the other gentlemen who gather at the General Store each morning.
The next time I'm driving through a tiny town, I'll be thinking about some of the people I "met" in Utopia and wonder how they're doing.
Many thanks to Karen Valby for introducing me to them.