From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

Life and Death at the DBF

Not everyone understands the ATL. Recently The NY Times invoked our city as a foil, the anti-Portlandia:

“In the wake of the financial crisis, many young college graduates have delayed their lives, put off worries about jobs and houses and families and instead moved to cool cities to wait out the recession, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. During that time, the young and educated abandoned cities like Phoenix and Atlanta in large numbers for places like Austin and Portland. But as job prospects improve, and unemployment shrinks to its lowest levels since the crash, it’s likely that many of the young people who fled to Portland will soon chase their ambitions to less cool places — the ones that people move to when it’s time to become an adult. Then Portland will find out who the true believers really are.”

Well. Many folks of varying degrees of education, employment and coolness from Portland and other distant cities have made their way to Atlanta for a different kind of sojourn. The nation’s largest independent book festival, the AJC Decatur Book Festival in August 2014 attracted 90,000 people. The ninth annual Labor Day event featured over 600 authors (including keynote speaker Joyce Carol Oates), a range of performing arts events, many activities for children, and a new cooking stage where authors demonstrated their culinary prowess. Though competing locally with Dragon Con and other popular events of Atlanta’s Labor Day Clusterfest, the DBF garners ever more national acclaim. In an era blighted by the arrogance of Amazon and muddled by sundry digital distractions, the constant growth of the festival highlights what is unique about Atlanta and promising about American cultures of reading. The twilight of the book is not at hand, at least not yet.


ajcdbf LOGO


 Founded in 2005, the DBF attracts bibliophiles from throughout the nation and beyond. Best-selling authors, important agents, editors, publishers, and ardent book lovers descend on the Decatur Square for a literary festival that doubles as a celebration of Atlanta’s cultural cachet. There is a burgeoning national appreciation for the ATL’s visual and performing arts scene and its culinary arts. If a recent New York Times travel piece can depict a revival in Nashville, Tennessee “driven by local creativity, entrepreneurship, and a D.I.Y. attitude,” this is an even better description of the ATL, especially the vibrancy of its literary scene. As Creative Loafing puts it in its “Best of 2014”:

 On the DIY front, the homegrown proliferation of mass media alternatives spanned the spectrum, from Atlanta Zine Fest, which celebrated its second year, to the digital launch of AB+L Radio. And the Bitter Southerner’s blastoff from free website to for-profit venture has simultaneously redeemed the South and weekly storytelling in a way that does our hearts proud.

As part of the larger festival, this year artBDF synthesized the participation of such influential and innovative local visual and performing arts entities (some long established, others brand new) as 7 Stages, ART PAPERS, Art on the Atlanta Beltline, the Indie Craft Experience, Atlanta Celebrates Photography, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, #WELOVEATL, and Deer Bear Wolf. Even a casual visitor to the festival could scarcely overlook this outpouring, particularly collaborations between artists and authors that combined photographs and other artwork with prose and poems.

Someone has to unite readers with the prose and poetry of the DBF’s authors, and local bookstores do. Naturally, Decatur’s Little Shop of Stories leads the way. In 2014 as in each previous year, LSOS has been a major attraction for many kids and their parents. Certainly this well-curated haven for children’s books suggests a thriving local book market.

Festivalgoers also purchased books by DBF authors from Eagle Eye Book Shop of Decatur (which sold me Kate Sweeney’s American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning just before I heard her reading at the Old Courthouse). Charis Books and More (“The Nation’s Oldest Feminist Bookstore”) did a brisk business at the DBF, including my purchase of Georgia State University historian Glenn Eskew’s compelling new biography, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter For the World, which delighted a packed ballroom on Saturday morning.


What would this NY classic be without the Georgia native's lyrics for "Moon River?"

 What would this NY classic be without the Georgia native’s lyrics for “Moon River?”

You could, of course, buy some of the DBF’s featured books directly from the authors on their own websites (certainly preferable to buying via Amazon) as I did before the festival with Jonah McDonald’s Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out. McDonald’s book is itself exemplary of local culture and the rediscovery of Atlanta’s natural and man-made treasures at dozens of trails “all within 30 miles of Georgia’s Capitol dome.” Beautifully illustrated with maps for those of us helpless without GPS, McDonald’s guidebook should further dispel the hoary stereotype of Atlanta as a big gridlocked, car-bound mess far removed from either nature or culture.



A Cappella Books, the city’s most significant bookstore, has begun a book club in partnership with The Bitter Southerner. Certainly a jewel of the local literary scene, the beautiful website breathes all kinds of new life into the creative process of thinking about “the South.” In this its second year, The Bitter Southerner is attaining such profitability and popularity it has been profiled by Forbes.





When the last book talks of the day ended Saturday, many people headed over to the Bitter Southerner fundraiser, giving the new storytelling publication a DBF center stage. Other local writing groups like Write Club Atlanta also shone that evening. Write Club – whose authors stage monthly “the tenderest bloodsport . . . a lit-kick to the back of the skull” – demonstrated its unique competitive zeal for creativity (“Bare Knuckled Lit”) with “Yell & Oates: Write Club Atlanta Takes on the Classics”:

 2 Opposing Writers

2 Opposing Ideas

7 Minutes Apiece

Audience picks a winner

The two battles: black vs white, and delight vs dismay


In a sense, the vitality of local bookstores reflects a national trend, as indie booksellers seem to be enjoying a “quiet revival,” with increased sales (especially in hardcover nonfiction, where Amazon is a less formidable rival) and new store openings. As an industry leader puts it, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.” The DBF’s successful partnership with local bookstores demonstrates the resonance of print culture in Atlanta, even if there have been recent losses, too (such as the closure late last year of downtown Decatur’s Books Again, a fact made poignant by the spectacle of throngs at the DBF picking through tables and shelves of cheap used books on the square).

With all this happening over one weekend, how do visitors navigate the DBF? Laura Relyea, a managing editor for Scoutmob (that great Atlanta invention founded four years ago) representing Vouched Books, told Creative Loafing that you should look over the festival map and schedule “and have a plan of attack before you head there,” knowing which authors you want to hear. “Brace yourself for the crowds, too.” One might add, brace for the late-summer Georgia heat and the Decatur Square’s abundant temptations. When working up an appetite and thirst next door to one of the nation’s finest beer bars and many other enticing establishments, even the zealous bibliophile wanders.


street shot DBF DBF FB page


Some of my friends – including scholars and published authors – like the festival’s food, drink, and carnival atmosphere even more than they do the book talks and artistic exhibits and performances. It’s easy to understand. This is particularly true for parents whose children at the DBF get playfully exposed to books and experience real excitement about books. The DBF has something for everyone, and its inclusiveness is essential.


 festival and food


For me, the DBF brings books and authors I otherwise might not find. Browsing the DBF schedule and looking up books with intriguing titles and topics has more than once yielded a great discovery (much like those talks you take in an a local bookstore). It’s like perusing the library stacks. You’re bound to come across something overlooked in a computer-generated search.

DBF 2014 delivered both kinds of pleasure. Saturday was mostly about the social fun of the Decatur Square, but Sunday was another matter. I began the day walking with a friend – my colleague and conscience, Brian Ingrassia – at the Decatur Cemetery. I ended it alone at the Old Courthouse at a talk on American death. Most in the audience were (as at nearly all the talks I attended) significantly older than me. How to resist the gloomy recognition of another mid-life reminder of my mortality?


The Books

 Sunday at noon professional book reviewers gathered for a colloquy, “What’s the Point of Book Reviews?” The panel featured local and national critics and writers. As the newspaper industry has retrenched, papers like the festival’s sponsor, the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, have cut or scrapped the once-essential book sections. Many critics now write for such websites as ArtsATL. Though a session like this lacks the aura of the celebrity book talk, it seemed an irresistible place for me to begin a full day of books and authors, since it posits the big questions: what should we read? How do we evaluate books? Where or how should we buy books?

Much of the session was framed in terms of the post-newspaper ubiquity of book blogs. Lev Grossman, a novelist and critic who reviews books for Time, suggested the surfeit of online opinions had rendered uninteresting his and others critics’ personal approval or disapproval of books under review. Instead, a professional reviewer now uses his or her expertise to convey the personal experience of reading the book, and how that book fits into its larger literary landscape.

Then there was the elephant in the room. Only one audience member asked about the literary holy war between Hachette and Amazon, but it elicited an emphatic takedown of the hegemon by Grossman, who powerfully restated the consensus argument of authors, publishers, and independent bookstores that Jeff Bezos threatens to dominate and perhaps suffocate the world of books.

Concerns abound that our culture of reading is being warped. In a recent essay in The New Yorker we find a summary of “the drastic view”:

Culture appears more monolithic than ever, with a few gigantic corporations—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon—presiding over unprecedented monopolies. Internet discourse has become tighter, more coercive. Search engines guide you away from peculiar words. (“Did you mean . . . ?”) Headlines have an authoritarian bark (“This Map of Planes in the Air Right Now Will Blow Your Mind”). “Most Read” lists at the top of Web sites imply that you should read the same stories everyone else is reading. Technology conspires with populism to create an ideologically vacant dictatorship of likes.


Obviously, the DBF encourages us to resist that!

The tone of the book review discussion seemed decidedly mixed. Optimism about the potential for a more egalitarian book world and comfort with the pluralism of the blogosphere mingled uneasily with uncertainty and fear of the Amazon leviathan. More importantly, though, the conversation whet my appetite for books and reviewing books, and by day’s end, this quest led to a compelling, inescapable topic: death.

Kate Sweeney delivered DBF 2014’s last book talk at the Old Courthouse. Sweeney, a producer and occasional host for WABE 90.1 FM, Atlanta’s (real) NPR station, is the creator and curator of True Story!, a bimonthly night of storytelling for local writers. Her playful persona – an “aficionado of both black licorice and cilantro (not necessarily together)” – belies the deeply thoughtful meditation she provides on mortality.




American Afterlife has been selected 2014’s best book by an Atlanta author by Creative Loafing and hailed by Paste Magazine as “the perfect story for our time, [written] in the best possible way.” Hyperbole aside, Sweeney offers a shrewd, lively and thoughtful guide to the murky terrain of mourning and memorializing in America. Based on interviews and road trips, the book is as much a travelogue as an essay on death. Although she is a writer who claims no expertise as a scholar, Sweeney’s book has been featured by professional historians in the radio program Backstory, where it fits right in.

The American Way of Death this isn’t. That classic by Jessica Mitford, first published in 1963, shocked Americans with its dire critique of fraudulent and extravagant practices of the funeral industry. Mitford charged “the Dismal Traders” with having bamboozled Americans in “a huge, macabre and expensive practical joke.” Writing in an era that produced such urgent books as Silent Spring and The Feminine Mystique, Mitford’s scathing probe contributed to the gradual American shift from elaborate burials to cremation.



“Is there a Ralph’s around here?”

Sweeney’s book is far less political and eschews Mitford’s tight focus on the funeral industry. Each of her chapters is a concise story about individuals or places poignantly contributing to an overall portrait of American ambivalence. She begins with an informal history of “American Ways of Death” that pivots on her visit to the Museum of Funeral Customs, full of such macabre reminders of Victorian ways of mourning as the “Hair watch fob”:

The fob is flat. It’s as wide as two ordinary watchbands and long as a child’s swimming ribbon, capped with gold-colored clasps, but where’s the hair? Then, lightning-flash quickly, I realize that I’m looking at it. The whole fob is made of more than a dozen tiny braids of hair, interlaced to create one sleek, brown chain. It’s chilling to realize that I’m looking at the actual hair of the dead person. In a way, I’m experiencing the fob as it was meant to be experienced – looking at it and speculating about the person from whom the hair came, now anonymous dust in a grave.


Death in Victorian America


“To Americans, death is an enigma,” writes Sweeney. In a nation where two and a half million Americans die each year, how we send off the dead says much “about us, and about the entire American landscape of mourning.” The varied stories her research produced enables us to “catch glimpses of something bigger – the biggest ‘something bigger’ we can conceive of. A death landscape that’s as deep as it is wide – moreover, the landscape of our lives themselves.”

It’s not all gloomy. One chapter explores Atlanta’s fabled Oakland Cemetery, “the cemetery’s cemetery.” “You can see its sculpture from the street, elaborate statues and obelisks poking out above the tall brick that separates Oakland’s extravagant decay from The World.” Atlantans love “the strange beauty of a verdurous death playground built by our Victorian ancestors,” a masterpiece utterly unlike the golf courses that pass for contemporary cemeteries.


life and death at oakland cemetery


We follow Sweeney’s tour of Oakland’s “forty-eight sprawling and only sort-of organized acres,” as, like anyone else who has visited the cemetery, she stumbles upon discoveries in unexpected spots. Joggers, dog walkers and others delight in the peaceful atmosphere, architecture and botanical spectacle of Oakland, and Sweeney suggests the cemetery is inviting precisely because of its antiquity. “Instead of reminding us too much of our own mortality, Oakland makes us think mostly of mythic anecdotes, of history.” As she puts it in a later chapter, “Walking winding paths surrounded by marble monuments, it’s easy never to consider the reality of actual human bodies a-moldering below one’s feet.”

Other chapters profile eccentric but sympathetic individuals. Sweeney introduces us to a memorial tattoo artist whose work helps her clients grieve and achieve closure; an obituary writer for the AJC who pens incisive, moving portraits of ordinary people; and the writers and avid readers who attend obituary conferences in the U.S. and Canada (or did, before many of the mid-sized newspapers that printed obituaries became casualties of the digital age). With her we tour the “green-burial cemetery” at Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina, which offers a natural alternative to the hyper-cosmetic embalming of the funeral industry. Sweeney found her visit moving, but it is clear that for now, most Americans will not find their eternal resting place in such an environmentally conscious sanctuary.

In a nation where by 2017 cremation will have overtaken burial, the industry remains wedded to the past – and to profits – as a $21 billion a year enterprise redolent of patronizing euphemisms and obfuscation (“closing the gravesite” instead of “burial,” the “cremains” of “the decedent”), “a palliative language meant to create a distance between the living and the experience of death.” Much as Mitford had a half century ago, Sweeney sees a distinctly American view of death. American companies have struggled to spread their much more expensive tastes in Great Britain, where three-quarters of the people prefer cremation as compared with 40% in the United States. While we have moved a long way from the complacent mid-century acceptance of ostentatious funerals, Americans still lag far behind the Brits.

Challenges to the industry flourish online. The Urn Garden and many other online businesses cater to the growing cremation market, offering a vast array of thematic and decorative urns for people and pets. The vogue for jewelry, too, means “we are back to the memento mori of the Victorians, with our ash-containing earrings and pendants and the chains around our necks.” That most of these new memorial accessories lack the religious symbolism of their 19th-century predecessors matters little to the funeral industry, which watches in horror as the new competitors cut into their profits and sense of funerary propriety.

At the DBF, Sweeney eschewed a conventional talk about her book and instead gave a reading of Chapter 7, “With the Fishes.” This part of her book was given a shout by the widely read blogger Andrew Sullivan on The Dish. Sweeney follows a select few bereaved who pay the company Eternal Reefs to blend cremated ashes with cement to make an artificial coral reef – “reef balls” – to be ceremoniously dropped into the ocean. Eternal Reefs’ main interest is using the reef balls to enable real coral to grow as a healthy contribution to the undersea ecosystem. Families experience a celebratory voyage offshore that bears little resemblance to conventional funerals. Sweeney’s conversations with the bereaved reveal their range of emotions and motivations for this elaborate send-off. As for the reef balls, supposedly not even a hurricane can move them once they are lowered, and as they are “designed to last more than five hundred years” they have another advantage over earthen graves.

The chapter entitled “Dismal Trade” profiles volunteer memorial photographer Oana Hogrefe in the book’s most poignant story. When babies lay dying at the hospital, she would be called to capture the last precious moments of their lives. Working discretely but directly with the parents, she sought to preserve for them a memory of the brief but deeply meaningful experience of holding their ill-fated child. Hogrefe’s photos capture this, she explained, “just so they have some body memory of having touched the child. Because to me, that’s part of the grieving.” Such memorial photographs offer parents “a sense of order, at least, a particular kind of memory.”

Overall, Sweeney finds Americans grasping for a wide range of ways to cope with death because unlike our Victorian predecessors – hardened by the greater prevalence of death (much of it caused by the Civil War) and their more comprehensive religion – we find death a shock:

In a sense, death in today’s America is always unexpected. Even when it’s not a literal surprise, it has a power, when first encountered, to deeply jar people who have come of age bathed in the deep unspoken conviction: This is not what is supposed to happen to us. To me.

Americans inherit “no prescribed rules for mourning” (quite unlike the Victorians, who had a morbidly detailed prescriptive literature and fastidiously precise sartorial and emotional expectations for public comportment) “because it takes place outside the rest of American life.”

American Afterlife yields not an overarching explanation of how we are supposed to handle death and remember the dead, but a portrait of the dignity of many ways of coping and commemorating. After reading it, I still do not know how to process my own baroque bereavement at the loss of a dear pet, my beautiful pug Ceci, much less how I will handle the inevitable loss of loved ones (or how I want to be remembered, for that matter). If the book does not have the answers, it does pose the right questions, and it is edifying.


We surround ourselves with the known and the comfortable, our favorite genres and favorite authors, our additions to an Amazon “wish list,” our “likes” and who or what we “follow” on social media. The DBF disrupts this cocoon a bit, giving us a chance to discover something new, something unplanned. As Creative Loafing says of the local coffee shop Karvana, a year-round host of many reading events, the DBF, too, is “a place where you can always count on seeing something special, regardless of whether or you’re familiar with the roster.”

Ultimately, DBF 2014 illustrated our society’s persistent life of writing, indie bookselling and avid reading, and the aesthetic and imaginative lives flourishing in the ATL. This book festival works well as a serious delving into books and as an excuse to party on the Decatur square. Since it lasts two days, there’s enough time to do both, and come next year, I’ll be at it again with tens of thousands of companions.


Special thanks to Michelle Lacoss for many helpful suggestions


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Categorised in: ART&CULTURE, ATL, Miscellaneous, TRAVEL

2 Responses »

  1. Thanks for pointing me to your review. I had a great time at the festival and continue to be inspired by the writers and readers that attend it.



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