Utopia by Heidi Sopinka

Art, gender, love and friendship are all under consideration in this novel of twisted relationships in the 1970s L.A. art scene.

Heidi Sopinka’s Utopia opens at a party with the first-person perspective of Romy, a performance artist, directly addressing her months-old daughter. The evening ends with an unexplained tragedy, and from there the novel jumps forward some months to follow a young woman named Paz, who is now raising Romy’s baby and is married to Romy’s husband, Billy. It is 1978, and Paz, Billy and all their friends are steeped in the Los Angeles art scene, where sex, drugs and free expression are soured by competition, infighting and wildly different rules for male and female artists. Paz attends women’s groups and wishes for a freer life for herself, but many women see her as having taken over Romy’s life in decidedly unfeminist fashion. Romy, the more successful and established artist, casts a long shadow; Paz loves Billy but is perhaps more in love with Romy, whose life and art obsess her. Caring for Romy’s baby, lost in reading Romy’s journals, Paz finds herself in something of a love triangle with a ghost, and begins to lose grasp of her own life and art. And then a postcard arrives, apparently from Romy. It is labeled “disappearance piece.”

Utopia cleverly investigates layers of social issues: feminism and its intersections with race and class; gender roles in life and in art; women’s relationships; the artist’s relationship to commerce and social justice. The central narrative belongs to Paz, but that narrative is always shadowed by Romy, and intermingled with Romy’s voice via her journal entries. “Everything Romy said assumed importance. She lived her life so strongly.” The two women and all they have in common (including an art-star husband and a baby) offer plenty of room to examine questions about art and gender. Paz’s best friend Essa (also an artist and mother) is another powerful character and model for Paz to chart her own path. They are surrounded by other women of the art scene and feminist groups; the novel is populated by strong women questioning norms.

Sopinka (The Dictionary of Animal Languages) excels in characterization and the evocation of the power of creation. In pursuing her predecessor’s mysterious end, Paz must put herself in real danger and explore the very edges of not only art but existence. “She’s driving a speed addict’s car in an inside-out shirt, on painkillers, with a hand wrapped in gauze, on her way to find her husband’s dead ex-wife. If she concentrates hard enough, these things will snap into a logical pattern.” By the time the perspective shifts to that of a third woman near the novel’s conclusion, Utopia has asked that the reader journey through some weighty questions–but all will be rewarded.


This review originally ran in the August 16, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 matches.

The Marsh Queen by Virginia Hartman

Mystery, romance, conspiracy, family drama, natural history and art combine in this excursion into a decades-old suspicious death in the swamplands of northern Florida.

Loni was 12 years old when her beloved father headed into the northern Florida marsh in his johnboat and did not return. At 36, she is working her dream job as a natural history artist at the Smithsonian, ignoring her past and her remaining family as hard as she can, until her younger brother calls to insist she come home to help care for their mother. The Marsh Queen, Virginia Hartman’s fast-paced, compelling first novel, sees the prodigal daughter return to the swamps, the family she left behind, the mystery of her father’s death and the possibility of a fresh start.

“Daddy wasn’t just a visitor to the swamp, he was a part of the place.” Loni’s father, Boyd, was a Fish & Game officer, a fisherman, a devoted husband and father and a most unlikely suicide, although that was the rumored–and covered up–cause of his death. Loni was his usual companion in the swamps, uninterested in fishing but a passionate and talented illustrator of the birds they watched together. As an adult, she’s kept that passion, but grown distant from her brother and especially from her always-prickly mother, Ruth, now suffering from dementia. A serious gardener and herbalist, Ruth struggles with painful secrets long kept from her daughter. Loni’s leave of absence from the Smithsonian comes at an especially stressful time at work, and returning home is always painful; nothing about this trip feels right. But Loni canoes the swamps, discovers family secrets, investigates her father’s death, finds herself involved in fresh intrigues and dangers–and meets a handsome stranger. The Smithsonian, and leaving Florida behind, have always been central to Loni’s life plan, but as she sinks back into the quirks of family and home, she may just find a new way.

Hartman’s descriptive writing and clear passion for her subject are on best display when Loni immerses herself in the natural environment, in her art and in her memories of Boyd. In her contemporary relationships, Loni can be frustratingly obtuse and lacking in self-awareness. As the enigma around Boyd’s suspicious death gets more complex, the plotting can feel a little unwieldy. But the subversion of Loni’s expectations is frequently refreshing; a few secondary characters offer intriguing perspectives, and the novel’s framing details of Florida marshland, ornithology, museum work and fine art are expertly and beautifully drawn. The Marsh Queen is unwavering in its lush, finely detailed, appreciative portrayal of a distinctive natural setting, and ends on a redemptive, even inspirational note.


This review originally ran in the July 1, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 herons.

Watercolor in Nature: Paint Woodland Wildlife and Botanicals with 20 Beginner-Friendly Projects by Rosalie Haizlett

This book was a perfect birthday gift. Rosalie Haizlett is a local/regional artist from West Virginia whose work I’m familiar with (it’s in local coffee shops and gift shops, and I’ve got some of her stickers) and and admire. I’ve done a little painting with acrylics over the last decade or so, but no watercolors since kindergarten. And this instructional book is positively wonderful.

Things I love about Watercolor in Nature: clarity and ease of use. Haizlett opens with very brief (one page) sections on how she became an artist and how to use this book (slow down, breathe, take breaks! and, take it in order: each project builds on the one before). She goes over materials, colors, and basic techniques. And then there are the projects, 20 of them in two groups: ten use pencil and ink and ten are watercolor-only. Each adds a new skill to the painter’s toolbox, so it does make sense to take them in order. And the way she walks you through each is perfect – even the most intimidated learner can do this, because she breaks it into intuitive steps, always with images. If you just follow the directions you end up with more or less the intended outcome – that easy. (I say more or less because these are paintings of nature, which is asymmetrical and changeable, and each individual painting is a little different, as it should be.) I was a little intimidated by Haizlett’s lovely art – and another benefit to this book is that it’s filled with her art! – but she made it super easy and friendly; I was never confused. I am a little tempted to cut out some of these pages and put them on my walls. But I’m making my own art, too.

Totally, 100% recommend this to anyone interested in learning watercolor with natural subjects. I’m extremely pleased. After playing around in this book, I trust and like its narrator completely; I feel like she’s a friend. Delightful.


Rating: 9 wild blueberries.

1000 Perfect Weekends by National Geographic

1000 Perfect Weekends is a beautiful, photo-packed offering from National Geographic, sure to expand anyone’s bucket list. Destinations are grouped into 18 chapters, including beaches, mountains, cities, small towns, wildlife and nature themes, family-friendliness and off-grid options. Explore “kayaks like floating La-Z-Boy recliners” on the Delaware River, coffee tours in Panama and a bee farm in the Philippines, alongside references to UNESCO sites, architecture, dining, adventures and a delightful ode to libraries in the chapter on “Historical Explorations.” Entries are short, punchy and accompanied by mouthwatering photographs and frequent, inspiring top-10 lists (sporting events, theme parks, spas). Adrenaline-fueled, enabled and accessible, pet-friendly: there is a perfect weekend for everyone in this tantalizing book, an obvious choice for the frequent flier and the armchair traveler alike.


This review originally ran in the November 2, 2021 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 6 Instagram moments.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.

The Company We Keep: Drive-By Truckers’ Homecoming and the Fan Community

Continuing with DBT and Wes Freed (see also this review from last week), here’s another big beautiful coffee-table book about the Truckers and their fans. The subject here is more focused than the Truckers generally: it’s about the annual event called Homecoming, a three-night series of shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, DBT’s “home” even as members have moved away over the years. In particular it concentrates on 2018’s Homecoming, when this book was being put together. There’s still quite a bit of band info and history, but the annual event and that ‘fan community’ of the subtitle are front and center.

The Company We Keep was put together as a fundraiser for the incomparable Nuçi’s Space. As such it’s a lovely effort; I’m always glad to give to this cause. As a final product I think it’s less than perfect; I would like to see the fan interviews, in particular, more carefully edited and proofread, that is, both for grammatical errors and for redundancy and long-windedness. Some sections and writers could have used more context or introduction. It can sometimes feel indulgent of the fan community, as if they are talking among themselves and to one another, and I’m welcome to listen in but it’s not really for me as much as it’s about themselves. Ironically, with themes of friendly inclusiveness, the book feels a little exclusive, a little in-group.

Despite being a glossy, large-format production, this book contains quite a bit of text. There are chapters about the rock show itself; opening bands; the club; the town; Nuçi’s Space; the fans; weddings, wakes, and friendships; and more. It’s led by a foreword by Patterson Hood, and I’m always glad to hear from him in any form. I marked a few points that felt like they encapsulated different parts of why I love this band so much. Hood: “Cooley and I have always written songs that used geography as an anchor to hold down some big ideas or stories.” Jay Gonzalez: “[Patterson]’s always trying to break down barriers, to bring people together socially and otherwise.” Gonzalez again: DBT is “a ‘lyric band’… but the music matters too, otherwise there’s poetry for that. And good lyrics are not ‘like poetry,’ it’s about how the music and lyrics work together, and Patterson and Cooley are definitely songwriters [not poets].” Trae Crowder (a comedian who’s opened for them at Homecoming): “My whole life I had never understood why being from the south and speaking with a drawl meant that you had to look and think and act and feel a certain way, and I could tell that DBT were wondering that same thing, and they were doing it out loud. This band was for me, by god, and has been ever since.”

Carter King, of Futurebirds (another opener), contributes an essay I found really well done as a piece of writing, regardless of its content (also sympathetic and hilarious). Reading more about the good work of Nuçi’s, including the Camp Amped Band, is always rewarding. I was thrilled to learn about a fan who’d written his undergraduate thesis about the Truckers; it’s available here. (I went and read it, too, and while a lot of the music theory went right over my head, it’s another well-designed piece of writing, entertaining and with some clear ideas to boot.)

These were high points. I regretted a few details – the need for editing; the in-group feel. But there was good Truckers content, and a good cause means I’d have no regrets even if it had had far less to offer.


Rating: 7 notes.

The Art of Wes Freed: Paintings, Pin-Ups & Possums

I know Wes Freed’s artwork via the Drive-By Truckers, one of my greatest musical loves, and this visual art is inextricable for me from that music. Freed writes, “I don’t separate the drawings and paintings I create from the music I make, or from the music I listen to and love so much.” So there you go. I was an easy sell for his book, which comes in chapters by category of art (of which DBT is the biggest), and with a foreword by Patterson Hood.

I can’t imagine how many DBT pieces Freed has created over the years; this can only be a tiny sampling. Next are rock’n’roll legends, including Hank, Johnny, Gram Parsons, Bowie, the Dead, and more; one of the prints that hangs on my wall, of a scene from a Jason Isbell song, is included. (My Townes Van Zandt is absent.) There’s a chapter of Capital City Barn Dance fliers – that’s a monthly show put on by Freed and his then-wife for years. It was interesting to see the kinds of acts who played those shows, and see how much crossover there’s been between my musical tastes and the bands Freed has worked with – Cracker, Camper van Beethoven, the Supersuckers, Those Darlings, and more. I shouldn’t be surprised! Then there’s artwork from Freed’s own bands, some from a comic strip called Willard’s Garage, and photographs of sculptures and cutouts. I would love to someday own a big, solid Moongal like he makes in three dimensions. (I would also like more Freed-drawn tattoos. Time will tell.)

This is a beautiful, large-format, glossy, full-color production. It contains few words: just Hood’s brief foreword and a still-briefer intro to each chapter by Freed. The rock’n’roll legends chapter includes captions. I guess I’d love to learn a little more, but it’s the art that we’re here for, and I can’t get enough of it. I’d buy another several volumes this size just to see more of Freed’s perfectly recognizable, wacky, intoxicating imagination in action.


Rating: 9 moongals.

If you would like to consider owning some Freed art, too, check out his Facebook page, where he posts new prints for sale. They’re quite affordable and he is nice to work with.

Barbershops of America: Then and Now by Rob Hammer

Barbershops of America is a photographic tribute to a profession, an aesthetic and a community institution. Photographer Rob Hammer documents both “the old timers… like dinosaurs about to go extinct” and “the next generation,” in two distinct sections covering more than a thousand shops all over the United States. Images are only infrequently interrupted by quotations from barbers and their customers, so readers of this coffee-table book will revel most in the visual: elderly barbers and young, tattooed ones; beat-up barber chairs and decades of detritus; colorful signage, diverse clientele and what Hammer recognizes as the soul of these storied spaces. This collection of glossy documentary art is for lovers of culture, local color and traditions passed down across generations.


This review originally ran in the November 3, 2020 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 6 cool vintage chairs.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

A single discovery touches three siblings’ lives in surprising ways in this poignant, gleaming story.

The Boy in the Field is a stunning novel of tenderness, interconnectedness, cause and effect by Margot Livesey (The Flight of Gemma Hardy; Mercury). Matthew, Zoe and Duncan are walking home from school one day when they find him, in a field with cows, swallows, bluebottles: a beautiful young man, really just a boy, bloodied and unconscious. He speaks one word: “Cowrie,” Zoe reports to the police. “Cowslip,” says Duncan. “Coward,” says Matthew. With their discovery, they save his life.

The teenaged siblings are close, loving and very different from one another. Matthew, the eldest, is thoughtful. He hopes to become a detective one day, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of who hurt the boy in the field, and why. He puzzles over motivations. Zoe has “a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.” She worries over her parents’ relationship and explores her own first sexual experiences; she is drawn to the ways in which people come together and apart. Duncan, the youngest, is observant, almost preternaturally sensitive and a gifted painter. Finding the boy will start him toward a discovery about his own life that might be destructive.

The novel unfolds through alternating chapters from the perspectives of Matthew, Zoe and Duncan. Their parents, Betsy and Hal, are compelling characters as well, less known than the children but multi-faceted, imperfect and endearing. Livesey’s deceptively simple prose renders each sibling as both sweet and complicated. Their shared experience, finding the injured young man, begins for each of them a different kind of acceleration: into adulthood, out of innocence, into reconfigured connections. Matthew gets to know the police detective assigned to the case; his relationships with his girlfriend and his best friends irrevocably change; he notices for the first time that he’s drawing away from his younger siblings. Zoe has out-of-body experiences, breaks up with her boyfriend and meets a young philosopher, and it is Zoe who discovers the chink in their parents’ marriage. Duncan sinks into the paintings of Morandi, gets a new dog and launches an investigation of his own. By book’s end, the three will grow both closer and apart through this shared experience.

The Boy in the Field is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a sharp-eyed examination of individual lives and relationships. Despite the violent crime related to its title and the insecurities that arise for various characters along the way, this brilliant novel offers a sense of beauty and safety in its quiet ruminations.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 brushstrokes.

National Theatre Live at Home presents Barber Shop Chronicles (2018), and weekly internet round-up

This week’s release by National Theatre Live at Home was the London Roundhouse 2018 production of Barber Shop Chronicles, viewable here until this Thursday when they’ll give us A Streetcar Named Desire, which I am definitely looking forward to.

I went into this play (by Inua Ellams) knowing nothing, and it was delightful. It took some time to grow on me, though. Initially it felt like a series of distinct vignettes from this barbershop and then this one and then this one, which was a little hard to get into. But over time I saw the connections form, and it got increasingly satisfying. Also, there are a number of accents and dialects and pidgin forms of English – I definitely recommend subtitles. This probably made it a little more difficult at first, too, but it ended up added to the richness of the final product. There is definitely musicality and character in the sounds of speech. I counsel patience – it will be rewarded.

In six barber shops in six cities – Lagos, London, Accra, Haware, Johannesburg, and Kampala – men grouse and argue and joke and talk shit, and get a little hair cut. Five African cities, then, and the London shop is rooted in African culture as well; this is an all-Black, all-male cast, with several actors playing multiple roles. It’s very much about the African diaspora in some ways. (There is one Jamaican character, who is careful to distinguish himself from “you crazy Africans.”) The play runs the course of just one day, beginning at 6 a.m. when the Lagos barber is awakened by a man begging for a special early morning job, and finishing at 9 p.m. in London when a barber agrees to stay late for a customer with a similar request. Conversations range widely but coalesce around themes of family, especially relationships between fathers and sons; government and nations, with some hint that Mandela and Mugabe were symbolic fathers (for better or for worse) to their countries; and with a hint of football (no, the global kind – soccer) running through, as Chelsea plays Barcelona on the day in question. The football thread isn’t overdone, but it’s a nice note of continuity. I won’t say too much about it, but again, look for connections to tie it all together and make meaning (sum greater than its parts).

Between scenes, there is popular music and some dance as the men rearrange barber chairs to indicate a new set. It’s a vibrant, lively play throughout, full of life, whether cruelty or love, gravity or jest. There’s advice to be had on women, sex, parenting, race and racism, the job market, politics, academics, and philosophy. “In dark times, the barbershop is a lighthouse.” It’s truly lovely. By the end, I was beaming, and sorry to see these guys go.

Another fine offering from NT Live; can’t wait for the next one.


Rating: 8 posters.

In other things that have pleased me online this week… I have come across several of these, but here’s the latest: famous works of art recreated in quarantine. Some are astonishing in their faithfulness to the original, some in their creativity; some are delightfully absurd, some are lovely works of art in their own right. (And then there’s the ridiculous comment on Saturn by Rubens that set everybody off, if you’re into hilariously dumb comments). I enjoyed paging through them and will click on such compilations every time.

Likewise the rate my Skype room Twitter account. I was over the moon about this, spent way too much time (be warned) and laughed out loud. I should have been taking notes for if/when I have to do more online teaching in the future (eek). If you have to Skype/Zoom/etc., pay attention.

I attended another Patterson Hood concert (from his attic to my living room) on Wednesday, and I do love this man. The way he slaps his acoustic guitar to add percussion. The way he whoops and hollers – it must be hard to keep that live-show energy playing to the internet in your attic. The way he counsels us on current events and speaks to my heart. It’s like an embrace from an old friend, and those are in short supply these days. He dedicated an emotional performance of “What It Means” to Ahmaud Arbery and made me cry. Next week we’re promised a family-mythology-themed show, and I’ll be there.

Patterson Hood

Weather’s getting warmer and I’ve been outside a lot in the last week; hoping for more of that, for sure. And I am reading like crazy. Stay tuned!

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