General blog posts

All the Things, All the Time

Many interesting artists and organizations live and work in Houston, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it difficult to familiarize yourself with everyone and everything.


Well, don’t worry: We’ll help you meet Houston’s most vibrant creative people. We’re here to make introductions.


Today, meet Spindletop Design and Workhorse Printmakers.




There’s Jenn, and John, and Joe…but also Josh, which I learn when I greet Joe, whom I have met before, by accidentally calling him Josh, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever met his colleague Josh—not sure whether I knew a Josh worked there at all. (There is also Laura, so not everyone's name begins with "J.") Joe’s correction about his name is friendly (“Lots of 'J's, it’s easy to get confused”) but direct, and I recall a recent moment when somebody called me by the wrong name and I simply nodded, happier to ignore the mistake than to make my world incrementally more awkward in the pursuit of accuracy. But Joe, in correcting me, seems undaunted by awkwardness, wanting only to move toward precision.


Spindletop Design (a graphic design firm) and Workhorse Printmakers (a letterpress print studio)—both Houston-based—value precision. The three major players in the firm are the aforementioned Jenn, John, and Joe—or, more formally, Jennifer Blanco, John Earles, and Joe Ross. Through Workhorse, they have dedicated their lives to preserving print, in all its tactile glory, as a viable medium, making beautiful objects on letterpress machines—machines that look ancient (whether or not they are), almost like medieval racks and other torture devices. (They also do branding and website design, including the design of the very website you’re reading right now.)


In 2009, Blanco and Earles, the founders, debuted a stationery product line for Workhorse (then only known as Product Superior) at the National Stationery Show in New York (where they lived for many years). Although they met all the right people that year, they didn’t sign any orders—in part, because of 2008’s disintegrating U.S. economy and its effects on America’s largest city. Blanco and Earles felt that it might be time to consider new things, career- and location-wise, and what initially seemed like a failure was ultimately encouragement to discover what another city would have to offer. “When you first get to New York,” Earles says, “you feel exposed to a lot. But after a certain time, those great things can become limitations for you. Instead of being inspired by people and the city, there’s not enough room for you."


Earles and Blanco moved back to Houston in fall of 2009, during a time of rebirth for the city, as it began, says Earles, “to think of itself as a destination city” due to its economic opportunities and relatively low cost of living—results of avoiding the recession. “The food scene was expanding, the writing scene was expanding, and there were a lot of young people moving here who wanted to be involved in more things.”


Earles, who does not seem like the type of man prone to using car metaphors, says that Houston, for years before 2009, was “the Toyota Camry of big cities: reliable, but not particularly glamorous.” In contrast, “New York’s the Jaguar—it looks great, and it’s exciting, but when it breaks down, you’re left walking for a week.”


Now, in 2014, is Houston a Jaguar?


“It’s getting there,” Earles says. “It’s a Lexus.”




Soon after returning to Houston, Blanco and Earles met Ross, who was working at PH Design Shop (whose retail storefront recently closed) in Rice Village. “I met John and Jenn because we carried their stationery products,” Ross says. “We hired John to do illustration work for some projects with PH. We all three joined the AIGA board and later became friends.” The AIGA—the professional association for design—gave the trio greater access to the design community of Houston. (Blanco is Vice President, Earles is Director of Operations, and Ross is Director of Impact Programming.)


What was the state of the design scene in Houston when these three first got involved with AIGA? Ross, with a smile, is initially shy to say. But Blanco’s words sound like stones hitting the table: “As an outsider, it appeared bleak."


“With the AIGA," Earles says, "we have been able to focus on design advocacy—getting designers involved with community, while also showing the outside world that [graphic design] is something that’s here and valuable.”


Making connections—both within a community and with the “outside world”—is difficult in Houston, an expanse of sometimes random-seeming urban sprawl without a coherent arts neighborhood. Bridging the city’s geographical gulfs can be the hardest part of trying to forge connections between like-minded individuals. “Nobody was communicating with each other,” Blanco says of the design scene in 2009. “You might get wind of somebody doing cool work, but there was no interaction.”


Ross adds, “Houston has been, historically, a city of lack of specialization—especially when it comes to design. Everybody does everything, so everybody else is competition." This has yielded some bad blood between design firms in the city—but how does Spindletop/Workhorse feel? “Let’s just be cool with everybody,” Ross says.


As for battling the Houston sprawl? “I think we have a reputation that extends beyond our geographical location,” Earles says, “but it was really hard work.”


“Continues to be really hard work,” Blanco says.


In this brief exchange, something happens that shows the stubborn success of these people—the fact that they not only recognize how they still have to grow, but that, with Blanco’s word “continues,” they also show a willingness to push each other into more and more precise places.


“We’re friendly people,” Earles says, “but deep down, we’re very uncompromising.”


Blanco adds, “We need this work to be badass.”




If you visit Fat Cat Creamery in the Heights—a boutique ice cream shop—you’ll see one of Spindletop's earliest projects. 


“We were working on [Fat Cat] together,” Earles says, “all three of us, and that was the first project where it all came together.”


Ross adds, “It was the culmination of everything we like to do and everything we can do. And it was an awesome client that makes great ice cream. It was something we could genuinely get behind.”


“That was a project with very few compromises,” Earles says.


The notion of compromises—whether or not they’re made—brings to light another, potentially thorny question: What do Blanco, Earles, and Ross consider themselves? Are they artists?


Here, they pause, turning over in their brains the kind of question that maybe has occupied many late nights that this trio has spent together—a question that involves the sort of self-definition that people who spend their days as problem solvers, bouncing from project to project, sometimes want to avoid.


“I think we manage that tension,” Earles says, “by only taking on jobs that fulfill our artistic tendencies.”


Blanco’s answer is a little different, however. “John [who focuses on the letterpress printing rather than the design] is still more hardcore in the world of ‘fine arts.’ But design is different: There’s no pretense that you’re doing a personal thing. From the beginning, somebody is presenting you with a problem, and you’re trying to solve it.


“If I wanted to make art, I’d go make art,” she adds. “I wouldn’t do Spindletop Design.”




In its present incarnation, the firm has settled into a nondescript location across from a church in a residential portion of the Heights. Despite the presence of computers, the inside of the building seems to exist in a different era. Of course, there are the printing machines themselves, hulking things that, when working, call to my mind images of Charlie Chaplin getting stuck between gears in the now ironically-titled MODERN TIMES. But the building itself feels unfinished, even cluttered, in a good way. It seems like the kind of place where things happen, as though the speed of ideas and the desire to finish projects has left the space itself a work-in-progress. At one point, I glance at the ceiling’s wooden beams, behind which, sloping upward, appears to be black construction paper—an imaginative toddler’s approximation of outer space on a ceiling. “Spray insulation,” I’m told. “Painted black.”


When I ask them about their plans for future products, Blanco’s answer sums up their mission in the most succinct way yet: “We want to do all the things, all the time.”


For them, “all the things, all the time” requires a balance between the personal and the professional. “We do cool, self-authored projects,” Ross says, “which leads to client work, which leads to less time to do cool, self-authored projects.”


One of those self-authored projects is the printmaking the trio does for Brazos Bookstore during its banned books celebration, an event that Spindletop/Workhorse has participated in before, bringing a letterpress (whose original function, they tell me, was to proof newspaper) to the store and printing posters on-site. But for this year’s event (on Saturday, September 27), they’re planning something a little different.


“We’re trying to make [the poster] into this propaganda-style piece,” Blanco says. The posters will include calls to action—text that, when viewed through a bookmark with a 3D-style monocle (also made by Spindletop/Workhorse), will reveal, as Ross says, “secret messages.”


It’s an ambitious project—one that, to me, sounds suspiciously like art.


And in its attention to banned books and the obsolescent-seeming medium of print, Spindletop/Workhorse's mission becomes a little clearer: to preserve some piece of marginalized culture—to hold that piece up, to let the sunlight illuminate it, and to say, See? You need this more than you know.

Read Dangerously

Books get banned every day.

Sometimes the reasons are political. Sometimes the reasons are social. Sometimes books are banned unread simply because of dangerous content they supposedly contain. In our free society, banning books should be unacceptable. But it happens all the time.

To support Banned Books Week (September 21-27), Brazos Bookstore invites you to dig into these challenged texts and decide for yourself about their provocative nature. And mark your calendars for September 27, when we’ll be throwing our banned books party, Read Dangerously: A Day with Banned Books.

In the meantime, enjoy the following banned books, each chosen by a member of our staff.

The Sun Also Rises Cover Image
ISBN: 9780743297332
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Scribner Book Company - October 17th, 2006

This brilliant novel follows journalist and expatriate Jake Barnes during his latest encounter with the twice-divorced Lady Brett Ashley. Book one and part of book two take place in Paris, but the height of the story is the running of the bulls in Spain and the fiesta that surrounds it. Set in the roaring 20s, the Nazis burned all of Hemingway’s writings in 1933 for “being a monument of modern decadence.” The Sun Also Rises was also banned in Boston, MA, in 1930; Ireland in 1953; and Riverside, CA, in 1960 for its language, use of profanity, and central focus on sex.

- Annalia 

Speak Cover Image
ISBN: 9780312674397
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Square Fish - May 10th, 2011

Not only is SPEAK my favorite banned book, it's also one of my absolute favorite book books! It cut straight through my teenage angst to impact me in a profound and empowering way. The book is frequently banned and challenged in high schools because it tells the story of a fourteen-year-old girl's (mostly silent) emotional recovery in the year following her date rape. Despite the premise, it is one of the most hopeful stories I've ever read, and the lessons Melinda learns about herself are universal, beautiful, and necessary.

- Mary-Catherine 

Lady Chatterley's Lover Cover Image
By D. H. Lawrence, Kathryn Harrison (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780375758003
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Modern Library - September 11th, 2001

First printed privately in Italy in 1928, this novel wasn’t published openly in England until 1960. The book soon became infamous for the physical (and emotional) relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of then-unprintable words. The novel is said to have originated from events in Lawrence's own unhappy domestic life, and he took inspiration for the settings from where he grew up. Despite its explicit content, many critics argue that the subject of LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER is not sexuality but the search for integrity and wholeness.

- Mark 

Howl: And Other Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9780872860179
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: City Lights Books - January 1st, 2001

Originally published in the fall of 1956, the book was subsequently seized by U.S. customs and was the object of a long obscenity trial where it was finally decided the book was not obscene. Brutal, unflinching, heavily inspired by both Jazz music and Walt Whitman, the genius of Ginsberg’s poems still rings true today. 

- Mark 

The Satanic Verses Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812976717
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House Trade - March 11th, 2008

A magical and galvanizing novel, THE SATANIC VERSES brought international fame to Rushdie as well as a fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran. The novel mixes the real with the imagined, replete with magnificent imagery and symbolism. Sadly, there were numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings resulting from Muslim anger over the novel. 

- Mark 

Little Brother Cover Image
ISBN: 9780765323118
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tor Books - April 13th, 2010

When its young hacker protagonists are detained by Homeland Security after a terrorist attack on San Francisco, LITTLE BROTHER brings us 1984 for the modern generation (with a more optimistic ending, thankfully). Winston Smith, 1984’s protagonist, might have done better if he could’ve hacked the government with an Xbox like our heroes in this story. Particularly relevant in our era of government surveillance and terrorism paranoia, LITTLE BROTHER is a breakneck-paced, all-nighter kind of read. This June, LITTLE BROTHER was pulled from One Book/One School program in Florida after the school principal worried the book encouraged hacker culture and would teach children to question authority. In response, author Cory Doctorow and his publisher Tor sent 200 free paperback copies of the book to the school.

- Liz 

Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes Cover Image
ISBN: 9781401225759
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Vertigo - October 19th, 2010

Neil Gaiman's 75-issue SANDMAN saga is one of the most celebrated and most challenged graphic novel series of all time. The story of Dream of the Endless (also called Morpheus, the lord and personification of Dreaming) spans ten collected volumes and numerous spin-off tales, earned nine Eisner awards and three Harvey awards, and was the first graphic novel to win a literary award (the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). This sprawling, gorgeous epic is part fantasy, part horror, and all its own brilliant mythology pulled from history, literature, and the collective dreamscapes of the world. SANDMAN has been challenged and removed from libraries across the United States for "anti-family themes," "offensive language," and for being "inappropriate for age group" (most often when it's shelved in the young adult section, despite being released an adult series). Gaiman remains philosophical about SANDMAN's controversies, however, remarking, "I suspect that having a reputation as adult material that’s unsuitable for teens will probably do more to get teens to read Sandman than having the books ready and waiting on the YA shelves would ever do."

- Liz 

The Handmaid's Tale Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385490818
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Anchor Books - March 13th, 1998

When Margaret Atwood published THE HANDMAID'S TALE in 1985, she caused a sensation. The novel imagines a world where the society assigns individuals to their place in the world: men are warriors and lawmakers. Women are domestics and babymakers. When one women dares to oppose this order she unbalances and entire society and exposes the flaws and limitations of tradition. Dangerous stuff, indeed.

- Jeremy

Beloved Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400033416
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage - June 8th, 2004

A vengeful ghost, infanticide, sexual assault (of men and women), and all the unvarnished sadism of slavery. Nobel Prize alum Morrison’s masterpiece is filled with these horrors. And it is because of them that BELOVED has been challenged and banned on numerous occasions. The most recent instance took place in 2011 at a number of Michigan schools. But what are these children supposedly being protected from? Despite its supernatural elements, BELOVED’s power stems from it’s historically accurate portrayal of the dehumanization and brutality inherent in slavery--a system so horrendous a mother would rather kill her daughter than see her reduced to chattel. It is imperative for younger and future generations to understand just how awful this dark chapter of American history was. That is what BELOVED does for its readers. That is the core of its literary value. That is why the freedom to read it is so important. And worth fighting for.

- Keaton 

The Giver Cover Image
ISBN: 9780544336261
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Houghton Mifflin - July 1st, 2014

Banning a young adult novel like THE GIVER reminds us that the books deemed “dangerous” are, in fact, often the exact pieces of literature that just might make young people want to read more. Upon first encountering THE GIVER, I didn’t know books were like that--dark, knotty things that told great stories, yes, but also made you think after the reading was done. I was hooked after that and moved onto more and more interesting and fulfilling works of fiction; that was my path. The thing that scares me about banning books like THE GIVER is: What happens to young people not challenged? How else will they move into maturity without that first taste of the unknown?

- Ben 

Magic for Literature Lovers

THE BONE CLOCKS, David Mitchell’s latest tour de force, opens with the narrator, Holly Sykes, experiencing the typical self-involved agonies of being a teenager: fighting with her mother, discovering her boyfriend has been cheating on her, and running away from home. But on her flight away from her hometown, she has some strange interactions--most significantly, an intense fantastical daymare followed by a forced blanking of her memory for a period of time. Soon, Holly faces another dilemma, although one less typical within the teenage experience: the disappearance of Jacko, her beloved and eccentric younger brother, who had gifted her a labyrinth before she ran away from home, insisting she memorize it in case she ever needed to use it. Before the reader can deduce what has happened to Jacko, the novel vaults several years into the future, with a new narrator and new environment, both seemingly unrelated to the previous pages.

However, in typical Mitchell style, these disparate narratives (which eventually total six) are interconnected, with Holly providing continuity and critical linkage between the sections. For instance, remember Holly’s strange interactions--the daymare and blank memory--from the first section? They wind up priming the reader for later paranormal occurrences, which happen with greater frequency as the novel approaches an epic climactic battle between two opposing factions of immortal souls: the Horologists and the Anchorites. Mitchell is known for mixing fantasy and reality, which, when combined with his colorful characters, makes for an enjoyable read. His new book proves ambitious in scope and rich in detail, managing to find a perfect balance between plotty page-turner, humor, and deep philosophical inquiry. With its magical elements and its sensitive coming-of-age story, anchored by the unforgettable Holly Sykes, THE BONE CLOCKS feels like an adult version of Harry Potter.

Tickets for David Mitchell's September 21 Inprint reading at the Wortham Center are on sale now.

#WritersRead - Bret Anthony Johnston

Early in Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, a teenage boy hides shirts in the back of his closet. He does this as a barrier against parental snooping: he knows his mom will enter his room at some point, unauthorized, searching for young adult contraband. But he hides the shirts not because he shouldn’t have them, but because he doesn’t want his mom to see them. See, the shirts used to belong to his older brother, who disappeared four years earlier. This teenager doesn’t want his mother to see a reminder unexpectedly and break down in tears.

This is a small moment, passed over quickly, but I describe it to demonstrate the remarkable way this novel makes the reader feel, even in the most insignificant-seeming details, the pulse of life in this family--the sly way a young man knows his mother well enough to anticipate an invasion of privacy, and the heartbreaking way he knows to forgive her this trespass and, instead, protect her from harm.

The protagonists in Johnston’s novel--the Campbells--live in south Texas, near Corpus Christi, a sprawling, humid landscape of Whataburgers and HEBs and odd local businesses like a place called Pampered Pets. For years, Eric and Laura have tried to get on with their lives while still searching for their missing son, Justin, but a shocking turn of events--the discovery of the kidnapped boy, alive, living one town over--upends their lives again, delivering a sort of happy ending. Starting with this event, which happens early in the novel, Johnston unpacks the notion of happiness and fulfilled wishes, blending tropes of crime fiction with penetrating psychological realism, showing how the most difficult thing of all might be learning to forgive.

But again, the small moments speak loudly--especially this dialogue between Eric and Laura as they lie together in bed, drawing words with their fingers on each other’s backs:

“He wrote: I’m sorry.

“‘I didn’t get it,’ she said. ‘Write it again.’”

I asked Johnston about his terrific novel and also his habits as a writer and reader in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: How is REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS specifically a Texas novel? In other words, what about the story could happen only around Corpus Christi?
Bret Anthony Johnston: In many ways, my goal was to write a novel that could only happen in Texas, but for it to be more than a Texas novel. I wanted the unique and uniquely oppressive Texas heat to exert itself on the characters, and I wanted the Gulf to become a kind of character in its own right. I always knew that Justin would have been less than an hour away, and I wanted his family to see the same thing he did on a daily basis: the bay. I wanted that knowledge to serve as a comfort and evolve into a kind of torment. Likewise, I wanted the heat to prove inescapable, just as what the family faces is inescapable. And, of course, I’m fascinated by so many of the Texas oddities that show up in the book—the Shrimporee, a stranded dolphin, the reticence of the people down there. Maybe someone could say the storm that comes ashore is specific to Texas, but I was less interested in the storm than what is left in its wake. As a whole, the novel is concerned with aftermath.

BB: You delve into numerous scenes of highly charged (almost suffocating) emotion--Justin's return early in the novel comes to mind. How do you keep scenes like this from tipping into melodrama?
BAJ: I suspect the first twenty or fifty drafts of those scenes were soaked in melodrama, but I took each moment in the book through countless drafts, and in each one, I was often working to rinse the prose of unearned or overwrought emotion. For me, the antidote to melodrama is empathy. In each of those scenes, and in the whole novel really, I worked hard to experience the moments through the characters’ perspectives. I didn’t want to impose my fears or judgments or emotions on their lives, as I think that kind of distance results in what we’re calling melodrama. With every revision of every sentence, I aimed to collapse the distance between me and the characters. If I was able to fully inhabit each of their perspectives, then I trusted that the only emotions left on the page would be the ones the characters had earned, the one the readers would find authentic and rewarding.

BB: Much of the book focuses on the details of Justin's captivity, including some that might surprise readers accustomed to watching lurid news coverage of these crimes (e.g. the aspects of relative normalcy--friends, a girlfriend, a pet--that, in part, defined his captivity). How much did you pull these details from nonfiction accounts of kidnappings versus from your own imagination?
BAJ: I did a huge amount of research for the book—certainly about kidnapping and family reunification, but also about Texas history, dry-cleaning, dolphins, pawnshops, etc.—but the research was there only to build a foundation that would support my imagination. Each of the details you mention was a revelation to me, and those surprises fueled the book. Every time I discovered something new in a writing session, the detail would beget ten more details, a hundred more. Justin’s snake, for example, was a kind of Russian doll that kept offering new possibilities. What if he’d once been afraid of snakes? How long before the snake started to shed? What if the snake escaped? What would happen if someone recognized him buying mice one month? Each of the details offered that same kind of cascade, and when I landed on one, the whole hideous and debasingly difficult labor of writing fiction seemed worthwhile.

BB: What are some of your most memorable experiences in bookstores?
BAJ: There are so many! When I worked in a used bookstore, I bought some books from a woman named Fancy, a name that I couldn’t shake and eventually put in my first book [the short story collection CORPUS CHRISTI]. Another time, I saw the heavy metal rocker Glenn Danzig browsing a religion section. He was wearing a baseball hat, which didn’t do much for his demon-ness. Years ago, I did a reading, and there was a flatteringly long line to get books signed. I’d noticed a man biding his time, waiting until everyone had gone ahead of him. I thought he wanted to share something with me, maybe talk about how much my book had meant to him or some such, but really he just wanted to know if I would tell him the name of the young woman who’d gotten her book signed near the end of the line. He wasn’t buying a book and seemed pretty sketchy, so I lied and told him I couldn’t remember. Incidentally, her name was Virginia.

BB: Can you recommend three other books that might interest fans of REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, or that might better acquaint readers with your personal canon?
BAJ: A few books that I’ve loved recently are: STONER by John WilliamsGOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright, and TRACKING THE CHUPACABRA by Benjamin Radford.

BB: You have no idea whom I’ll talk to for the next installment of #WritersRead, but never mind. What would you like me to ask him or her?
BAJ: Where’s that money you owe me, punk?

Bret Anthony Johnston presents REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS on Thursday, September 11 at 7PM. Reserve your copy of the novel by adding it to your cart right now. Choose Pay In Store/Pick up in Store to retrieve your book at the event.

Remember Me Like This Cover Image
ISBN: 9781400062126
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - May 13th, 2014

A Modern View of an Ancient Nazarene

With so many writings about Jesus already in existence, one has to wonder why Reza Aslan would want to contribute another. However, from the outset, Aslan makes it clear that ZEALOT: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JESUS OF NAZARETH is a study of the historical Jesus--not to be confused with Jesus the Christian icon, who has become a celebrity in his own right.

Aslan's hope? “To spread the good news of the Jesus of history with the same fervor that [he] once applied to spreading the story of Christ.” It’s a big hope, but he is diplomatic in his introduction. He defends the narrative in the book as “the most accurate and reasonable argument” and points readers who are interested in the debate to the back of the book where he has “exhaustively detailed [his] research, and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with [his] interpretation.” (And there is interpretation: Aslan did all Greek translations of the New Testament himself.)

Aside from Aslan's extensive knowledge--which allows him to pivot between time periods, subjects, and perspectives with ease--the main thing that struck me about ZEALOT was Aslan's quest for truth. Take, for instance, a moment in part two when he examines John the Baptist and his role in baptizing Jesus. When Jesus came to John, John was the “superior” figure--a “popular, well-respected, and almost universally acknowledged priest and prophet.” Because John had established himself first, his most loyal followers refused to acknowledge Jesus's legacy, even long after both figures were dead.

So how did the role reversal between John and Jesus come about? Aslan suggests that the gospels “massaged” the story in order to comfort their readers. Mark’s version of John the Baptist is a “wholly independent figure who baptizes Jesus as one among many who come to him seeking repentance,” whereas, in Matthew’s version, John does not baptize Jesus at first, insisting that Jesus should be the one baptizing him; it is not until Jesus gives John permission that John performs his duty. The depictions become more and more conservative until, in the gospel of John (the fourth gospel), John is not a baptist at all. John does not even baptise Jesus. Rather, John simply says, “I have been sent before him...He must increase, as I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).

Aslan uses these discrepancies not only to highlight the contradictions in the Bible but to reinforce that the Bible as a text was never meant to be a factual document. Rather, Aslan argues that writers of the Bible portrayed Jesus to fit the times in which they were writing. Jesus became whatever his audience needed him to be, which is why separating Jesus of Nazareth from Jesus the Christ is so critical--and why Aslan’s work is so necessary.

Tickets for Reza Aslan's September 19 presentation of ZEALOT at Christ Church Cathedral, Episcopal are on sale now. Click here for all the details.

A Love Story Spanning Decades and Continents

Xiaolu Guo's new novel I AM CHINA opens with a cryptic letter from punk rock revolutionary Jian to his “dearest woman” Mu. It is only three pages but contains enough drama for a novel unto itself. Airbound, Jian cannot tell Mu where he is, where he is going, what will happen when the airplane lands, or how long he'll be forced to stay. He recalls the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, regretting that he didn't anticipate his current predicament sooner: captive, alone, seemingly defeated. 

Although this letter, dated December 2011, provides the prelude, the first chapter moves the reader forward one and a half years, jumping into April 2013 in London. There, Scottish-born Iona has been doing freelance translation projects since graduating from SOAS, the world’s leading institution for Asian, African, and Middle Eastern studies. Now in her mid-thirties, she feels unfilled by her translation work. But this changes when she receives her latest assignment: to sift through photocopies of Jian and Mu’s correspondence and diary entries. Their relationship consumes her, and she wants to find out as much as she can about her two new friends (for example, she eats one of Mu’s favorite meals at a local restaurant).

Readers who like unconventional narrative strategies will enjoy I AM CHINA’s epistolary form and its chapters that span decades and continents. However, it is easy to wonder why two characters with such rich history also require a frame story. If this novel is about Jian and Mu and China, who is Iona, and what role does she play?

The answer comes toward the end of part one, when we learn about the day Iona left Scotland to start her college studies. Although she vowed to escape home since she was a child, the experience proves strange and empty when she is finally standing on the boat at seventeen, watching the figures of her parents shrinking in the distance. At the last moment, her father shouts into the wind for her to write home, the only affectionate gesture from him that she can remember. Young Iona puts on a brave smile and watches the waves through her tears until the English coast reveals itself. This is where Jian, Mu, and Iona's stories meet, and where they find the way to discovering one's identity is a journey both public and private, shared and individual.

Xiaolu Guo presents I AM CHINA at Asia Society Texas on Wednesday, September 3. Tickets are available on their website.

Pre-order books to be signed below. Pick your book up at the event or at the bookstore!  

I Am China Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385538718
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Nan A. Talese - September 2nd, 2014

#debooze: Read and Drink Local

Let’s set the scene:


You’re a debut author. It’s the magic hour—that time in the afternoon when the sun has set but light still dusts the sky. After years of struggle, your first book is forthcoming, about to enter the world. Tomorrow, there will be time for more stress—for interviews, for readings, for sleeping on couches as you tour the country and share your work with the world…but for now, take a deep breath, put on some music, and grab yourself a drink. It’s time to relax. It’s time to reflect. It’s time for #debooze.


In #debooze, we ask a debut author to reflect on his/her road to publication, and to also recommend some booze.



My first weekend after moving to Houston some fifteen years ago, a friend introduced me to a friend of his. That friend invited me to meet him and another friend of theirs at The Ginger Man. We managed to find a shaded table on the back patio. It was August—Houston’s most beer-friendly month. I was not even two months removed from my last day as a Children’s Attendant (unarmed guard) at Chicago’s 500-cell juvenile jail, and already, I was aspiring to write about that experience. I hate to admit it, but I probably mentioned these aspirations to my companions. I hope I didn’t say “book,” but, alas, I may have. The more bookless years that passed, the more embarrassed I became for mentioning it.


While I regret what I might have said that afternoon about my aspiring “book” on The Ginger Man’s back patio, what I don’t regret saying was, “Sure, sounds good,” when one of the guys recommended a local beer. Saint Arnold was the brewery. “The Amber Ale,” he said, “is probably their most popular one.” It’s been my most popular one ever since. I’ve yet to taste one just like it. I could pass its blind taste test just like I could tear the cover off some yet unread Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy or Grace Paley or Flannery O’Connor and then identify said author within a few paragraphs because those writers do something no one else does or even can. And Saint Arnold Amber does something no other beer does. It’s my “deserted island beer.” By no means am I its only fan. Saint Arnold Amber has medaled twice at the Great American Beer Fest in Denver. How fitting that the year my book is finally published, Saint Arnold is offering three variations of its iconic (and original) brew by altering the hops—one of beer’s four basic ingredients. In one year, my writing life changes, and so does my beer life.   


The Booze: Houston’s own Saint Arnold Amber Ale

The original uses several hops from the Pacific Northwest. The only way I can explain or quantify this ale as a non-beer biochemist is to say that it’s more hoppy than malty and comes off with a hint of apple cider tartness. Sounds simple, but I know it isn’t, like writing a book isn’t simple.   


Saint Arnold Amber Redux:  Dry Hopping

Three limited release variations of the Amber are out this summer and fall. A different hops is added later in the brewing process, that is “dry hopped,” to ramp up the bitterness and floral aroma. These hop strains are: Liberty, Cascade, and Mosaic. And yes, I am ramping up my literary ambitions once again, not out of hope or an optimistic sense of accomplishment over a first book, but rather the same foolish dream that dared me to write a book in the first place. I’m keeping these ambitions much more secret. For now, I simply aspire to figure out which of the four Saint Arnold Amber Ale incarnations I like best.


Mark Dostert will be in-store on Friday, September 5 to sign and discuss UP IN HERE. Reserve your copy today!

Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago's Other Side Cover Image
ISBN: 9781609382704
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: University of Iowa Press - September 1st, 2014

#Murakamania in Technicolor

Every new novel by Haruki Murakami—Japan’s most significant author—is an event, but COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE seems especially substantial, and not only because we at Brazos have been Tweeting about #murakamania for ages! Rather, COLORLESS follows Murakami’s expansive, bold, and somewhat divisive 1Q84, a novel that seemed, in its scope, like it aimed to be a definitive statement—a summation of a great author’s lifelong themes/concerns.

COLORLESS is a more focused novel—perhaps more “reader friendly” too—but no less ambitious. It zeroes in on the life of Tsukuru Tazaki, a 36-year-old bachelor who has been alone, in one way or another, ever since his four closest friends—a group with whom he grew up—cut him off for no reason when they were all in their early 20s. Prompted by a new girlfriend, Tsukuru decides to track down his old friends and find out what made them turn on him so suddenly. Accordingly, the plot of the book is loose, episodic—imagine Tarantino’s Kill Bill if, instead of bloodshed, the Bride just wanted to chat.

Of course, nothing is straightforward in COLORLESS, and though the narrative framework exists in “the real world,” Murakami suggests deeper mysteries in a subplot involving Tsukuru’s friendship years earlier with a strange young man who once invaded his dreams—hell, who might’ve even been a ghost. These surreal passages shouldn’t surprise any fans of the author: Murakami has never been one to craft easy solutions to his mysteries.

Murakami is 65, and COLORLESS is a book that only an old man could’ve written—a clear-eyed, powerful work about the choices we make in our lives and the alternate potential histories that exist for all of us. Murakami’s vast experience has flowed into this book, and as Tsukuru, still a young man, wonders what the point of life is, Murakami seems to be saying that you never figure it out—but that, at a certain point, you realize the mystery is the best part.

First Symptoms of Murakamania

Two of Haruki Murakami’s slimmer novels are also his most accessible. NORWEGIAN WOOD, the novel that turned Murakami into a reluctant star and literary icon in Japan, is a gorgeous and elegiac book. Toru Watanabe, a 37 year-old businessman, hears The Beatles’ classic song “Norwegian Wood” on a plane and is quickly transported back to his college days. The novel touches on friendship, mental illness and the promises we make to friends that are often impossible to keep. A subtle and moving coming of age novel - often sexy, sometimes sad and consistently brilliant - NORWEGIAN WOOD is a compelling and redemptive tale of the universal search for happiness. A book sure to turn any Murakami novice into a fanatic.

Norwegian Wood Cover Image
ISBN: 9780375704024
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage - September 12th, 2000

SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN is a deceptively simple story that also negotiates the subject of young love and middle age. Hajime and Shimamoto were childhood sweethearts; they held hands, played records and shared secrets. They eventually drifted apart. Now, decades later, Hajime is a father and husband as well as the successful owner of a jazz club. Suddenly Shimamoto is thrust back into his life and Hajime, filled with passion, feels destined to consummate his first love. Shimamoto is as beautiful as she is mysterious, refusing to talk about her life or anything that has happened since they were children. Hajmi feels unspeakably drawn to Shimamoto and is convinced that leaving his family to be with Shimamoto is his destiny.


South of the Border, West of the Sun Cover Image
By Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel (Translator)
ISBN: 9780679767398
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Vintage - March 14th, 2000

Both of these novels eschew the fantastic elements of Murakami’s larger novels but are no less layered and sophisticated. Each story negotiates such subjects as lust, enchantment and first loves. Both deal with the power of childhood experience and how the events in our younger lives ripple into adulthood. In addition, they refuse to arrive at an easy answer and, much like life itself, remain vague and ambiguous.

For anyone wanting to dip a toe into the world of Haruki Murakami, NORWEGIAN WOOD or SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN are great starting points!

Experience MURAKAMANIA first hand on Monday, August 11. Our Midnight Release party for COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE begins at 10PM.

An Interview with Lacy Johnson

When she was twenty-one, Lacy M. Johnson was kidnapped, raped, and nearly murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Johnson's new memoir THE OTHER SIDE is her reconstruction of that time in her life—of the events leading up to and away from that harrowing act of domestic violence. Yet THE OTHER SIDE does something remarkable: Despite its disturbing content, it never wallows in despair. Instead, it becomes a moving, life-affirming work about learning to take control of one’s own story.

Johnson will read and sign books at Brazos on July 24, 7pm. She was nice enough to answer some questions for us in advance of her event.

BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: In an interview you did a couple years ago with PEBBLE LAKE REVIEW, you said THE OTHER SIDE was “a book I must write, and I must write it now, at this point in my life.” What was your motivation for finally writing it?
LACY M. JOHNSON: When I was twenty-one years old, just after I had graduated college, just as I was beginning to think of myself as a writer, I was kidnapped and raped by a man I used to live with. So as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve had this story weighing on me—maybe it’s even why I pursued writing. Over the years, I’ve tried to write about these events many different times and in many different ways—essays, poems, little things here and there. In none of them do I ever even say what happened. Maybe I wasn’t strong enough, or brave enough to tell the truth. Not until very recently. Writing TRESPASSES, in many ways, prepared me for the challenge of THE OTHER SIDE, because I learned very much about myself as a writer in the process—who I am, what I am capable of, what I am willing to say. The story I tell in THE OTHER SIDE is one that I’ve ever only told my very closest friends. On a personal level, I wanted to write it and get it out into the world so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to tell it anymore. As if I could write the story and be rid of it. The irony is, of course, that now I’m touring and doing interviews, so I’m telling the story more than ever, over and over, to thousands and thousands of people.

BB: You spent hours and days conducting interviews and then weeks and months transcribing, sifting, reworking, and filling in blanks when writing your first book, TRESPASSES. THE OTHER SIDE, by contrast, seems to be constructed mostly from memory, sometimes with whole pieces missing. In TRESPASSES, you refer without hesitation to real people by name, whereas you are the only character named in THE OTHER SIDE (everyone else receives nomenclatures like "My Good Friend" and "The Strange Man"). Were these decisions you made in the beginning or something that developed during the writing process? How did the form of the book change between your initial manuscript and its current state?
LJ: I don’t see my methods in the two books as being so very different. In TRESPASSES, I am writing about how public memory and shared memories define our identities. I looked for documents, written records, archives, and newspaper clippings, but none existed. I tried to go to the historical society in the county where my family has apparently lived for the last 170 years, and the place was a nightmare. There were cardboard boxes piled up to the ceiling against every wall in the whole place, and organized in no particular order I could decipher. That seems to me an apt metaphor for the past, which is indecipherable until it is ordered into the narrative of history. I did have my grandmother’s photo albums—stacks and stacks of them—and scraps of letters and journals. I started interviewing family members at first to learn about our family history, but no one seemed to be able to tell me anything more than I already knew. So instead I started asking them about their own lives, and in the process learned very much about where I come from—not only about the place as a geographical location, but also as a culture. I also learned about the relationship of stories to identity, and the role of silence in all of that, since what we won’t or can’t say determines who we are as much as the stories we do share. THE OTHER SIDE picks up this question—about the relationship of story and silence to identity—but it focuses on a single moment in my life when words completely failed me. The primary project of the book was, from the very beginning, to articulate the inarticulable, to speak the unspeakable, to give voice to a part of myself that had up to that point remained speechless.

BB: For TRESPASSES, University of Iowa Press sought you out and requested a manuscript. What sparked your relationship with Tin House?
LJ: My agent, the amazing and talented Ethan Bassoff of Lippincott Masie McQuilken, got in touch with Masie Cochran, a brave and brilliant editor at Tin House, which is a small indie press out of Portland. They also publish a magazine, TIN HOUSE, which I’ve admired for years. At the time we began a conversation with Tin House, we were also in conversations with editors at some of the larger presses. One day I had two phone calls, one with an editor at a large, reputable press in New York, and one with Masie at Tin House. The editor in NY expressed to me that she wanted me to really dial up the sexual tension in the book, like some kind of 50 SHADES gone wrong. I was so offended. I thought, Have you even read my book? But from the very first conversation that day with Masie at Tin House, I felt really impressed with the way she, and all of the folks there, showed their respect and admiration for the work. It was clear from the moment she began speaking that she shared my vision of what the book could be. It took a lot of courage on the part of Tin House to publish a book like this. I get choked up when I try to express how grateful I am to them for it.

BB: Earlier this year, you did a social-media interactive, location-based storytelling project called [the invisible city]. Could you talk more about that? Were you familiar with all the locations prior to the project?
LJ: [the invisible city] is a location-based storytelling platform that was launched during the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts’ inaugural CounterCurrent festival. I collaborated on the project with two other artists, Josh Okun (www.joshokun.com) and Rob Ray (http://robray.net/). The multiple stories in the project are geolocated, and readers have to move around the city to read the work, which can be accessed only from a GPS-enabled mobile device. It’s a sort of mix between the Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook series, which was far more popular in the 1980s than it is now, and early text-based games like Zork. I started working on the project after I had finished THE OTHER SIDE, and really wanted to write something that was lighthearted and fun. I imagined writing a cyberpunk neo-noir novella that would have people running through the tunnels under downtown. I did research and scouted locations, and spent a lot of time drawing plot diagrams. But when I actually sat down and started to write, I found that the lighthearted, fun, neo-noir novella wasn’t the story I felt most compelled to tell about the city. What I ended up writing for the project is an essay called “The Invisible City”, which leads users on an hours-long exploration of Houston’s many social, economic, and political wards. It’s a work about gentrification, and economy, and environmental justice. It’s a very serious essay, and those who follow it to all the locations have a eye-opening, gut-wrenching experience, so it’s not at all the light-hearted palate-cleanser I had originally envisioned. But, my collaborators and I published it anyway as a kind of beta test for the platform, which works beautifully. Hooray! The current plan is to publish location-based stories, essays, games, and adventures twice a year, in April and October. We’re currently reading submissions for our October launch, and I’m really hoping someone will send me a cyberpunk neo-noir novella. We’ll do one more round of stories set only in Houston, and then we’ll start publishing in other locations as well. The format is open-ended, so we could potentially publish a story that takes users all the way around the world.

BB: When you moved to Houston ten years ago, you worried about “passing” as someone who belongs here, deserves to be taken seriously, is more complex than the stereotypes made about her hometown. You took a pilot interdisciplinary art class and now direct the program that offers it every year. How has Houston changed in your mind? What was it like adjusting to life in “the big city”?
LJ: I love Houston—I’ve loved it from the very beginning, when I first moved here in 2004 to attend the Creative Writing Program at UH. And even though I know there are millions of people living here, I’ve never really thought of it as “the big city”—more like an enormous, sprawling cluster of interconnected small towns. One of the things I most love about Houston is that it’s a great art city, though I don’t think outsiders give Houston much credit in that regard. Our art community tends to be tremendously supportive, and I think people who look in from the outside can’t even fathom a rigorous art scene that isn’t cut-throat and viscously competitive. What works in our favor is that we have a robust philanthropic community that gives very generously to the arts, so it never feels (from my perspective anyway) that we’re all competing for the same resources. There are plenty of galleries, and plenty of bookstores, and plenty of museums. Some of my favorite artists and writers are living and working right here in the city—creating brilliant work that garners attention and creates social change on a local and national scale—and as a Houstonian I take a lot of pride in that. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like an impostor here as far as the city goes; I think my worry about “passing” had more to do with graduate school than with Houston itself.

BB: What are your current and upcoming projects, writing or otherwise?
LJ: I’m always working on a lot of things—right now a few essays, some cultural criticism, a bit of art writing. I’ll probably start working on my third book very soon, which will likely be another work of unconventional nonfiction. But it’s hard to even begin thinking about that because I’m not yet finished with the larger project of THE OTHER SIDE. Yes, the writing is done, and the book is nearly out in the world, but now I am touring and giving readings, speaking publicly and learning to do so without fear or shame. What I’ve learned so far in the conversations I’ve had about this book is that there are certain ways our culture reacts when women speak publicly about having been sexually assaulted—most of them are either offensive or unfortunate, and none of them actually change anything. In some ways this is the more important part of the project—the one in which I try to be a catalyst for change. I don’t know what that will look like yet; it’s only now just beginning.

The Other Side Cover Image
ISBN: 9781935639831
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Tin House Books - July 15th, 2014