Celtic Connections

Jack’s weekly guest blog ruminates on the connective threads of here, there, then, and now

Now that we’re back from Wisconsin, things are beginning to get busy around here. And they appear to be taking on a British Isles tinge, I might add.

Yesterday I started teaching a series of five weekly classes on Scottish ballads and folk songs at the Higher Ed Center in Abingdon. This is always enjoyable and I’ve been doing it semi-annually for a few years now.

At the same time I am gearing up for the annual small group tour that I conduct around Scotland every year at the end of June. Everything is pretty much in place as I write this. The tour is another ‘labor of love’ – something I enjoy doing that ends up introducing me to a most interesting and diverse group of people. Since I always go over a few days before the tour starts, I get to catch up with friends and family. This year Wendy will finally be joining me after it ends, something we’ve been hoping for since I started this crazy venture eight years ago.

On top of that, as one of the group that organizes Big Stone Celtic (Sept 26 and 27, so mark your calendars!) I’m beginning to put together the program. For the first time we have an internationally famous headliner, Barbara Dickson, making her debut this side of the Atlantic, so I’m in the throes of applying for her work visa – a steep learning curve! Who knew the American government would require so much paperwork?

Just in case that isn’t enough I continue to put together my weekly radio show Celtic Clanjamphry (known affectionately now as ‘ClanJam’). Now in its sixth year (whoda thunk it, as they say in Southwest Virginia) my ongoing quest is to cover as many of the Celtic Nations as possible via music ancient and modern.

And finally, of course there are our regular bookstore events. Irish storyteller (and our good friend) Liz Weir will be the centerpiece of our evening of Irish stories and food tonight. Second Story Cafe owner Kelley is preparing Beef and Guinness pie, Colcannon and Apple Crumble to complete the Irish feast.

Now, the great thing about all these happenings are the connections between them. Liz attended our wedding in Scotland, and she hosts my tour group every second year. Folk who listen to ClanJam come on the tour and folk who have been on the tour drop into the bookstore and come to our events. Others who attend my classes come to the bookstore, listen to the radio show and will be on this year’s tour. Big Stone Celtic fits right into all that and brings hundreds of visitors to our small town every year. It’s a nice circle, on a background of plaid and emerald green!

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The Monday Book: THE LADY OF THE RIVERS by Philippa Gregory

gregoryI used to think of Gregory’s books as a guilty pleasure, but then I watched (two episodes of) The Tudors on Showtime. God help us all.

If you joined the victims watching Showtime Tudors, you need to know a few things. First, Henry VIII wasn’t a 27-year-old blue-eyed boy for most of his life. He had two sisters, not one. He did not hang an entire county on false pretenses. Fourth–oh, let’s not even try. The only thing accurate about that medieval soap opera was that he had six wives.

But Gregory’s books are fairly amazing in teaching accurate history. She interprets rather than ignores facts. Gregory sets them down as the skeleton around which she builds her stories–”Jacquetta married Richard Woodville in Spring 1440ish”–and then she tries to figure out WHY a woman so powerful would marry a squire. (She comes up with a loving version of lust. Fair enough.)

Gregory’s other books are hit/miss – avoid the Wideacre series: run away, run away! And I didn’t read her Flapper novel. But when she sinks her teeth into the war of the cousins (War of the Roses) or the founding of the Tudor Dynasty by that crafty (and extremely lucky) Owen Tudor, when she writes about “powerless” women moving chess pieces around the courts of kings they may or may not love, she’s got a real way of telling a true story with golden embellishments on why they did what they did.

I have a professor friend here at the college who recommends her novels to those studying England between 1400 and 1600. She really understands how Margaret Beaufort ruled from the rear; she doesn’t think Henry VIII was the most fascinating story of the Tudor reign (because he wasn’t by a long shot – check out Jacquetta and her daughter and grand-daughter, which is what Rivers is about). And she doesn’t try to make sense to a modern ear of the things the courts were obsessed with. She does turn the old language into modern prose, but she still retains a whiff of the times in the words she chooses.

The fact that the books are filled with lust and violence doesn’t hurt, but she’s got that Alfred Hitchcock approach to beddings: “There is no fear in a bang, only the anticipation of it.” You can play around with “lust, sex, satisfaction” and make that sentence your own, if you want to.

She also has that lovely way, like Stephen King and other great writers we hate to admit are, of encapsulating a character in one swift sentence, such as: “When a man wants a mystery, it is generally better to leave him mystified. Nobody loves a clever woman.” Her good guys make mistakes, behave badly; her evil characters are not just black velvet background.

So I’ve stopped thinking of Gregory’s books as a guilty pleasure, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the story of how the Woodville family rose to such power in the Tudor era. Rivers‘ hero Jacquetta is wiser than many of those Gregory has chronicled, her family history and plans for its future subtler than other Rose War women. I loved The White Queen, too, although it had quite a bit more pure fiction in it when it came to assigning motivations and causes for events.

Yes, I know: I’m a plebian. But I’ve really enjoyed The Lady of the Waters and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in English History, or to those who like a good historic novel.

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The Day After Syndrome

Those of you who do any kind of travel for work will recognize this syndrome: you go to where you’ve been invited, do your stuff well and intensely for a week if you’re in a festival or at a conference, or if you’re an itinerant consultant or storyteller, several places over a month or two.

And the last night, post-reception, post-e-mail exchanges with other artists, post-follow-ups on future events you’d like to get contacts for, the last night before you go home, you walk or cab back to the hotel contemplating all the wonderful people the world holds, how glad you are you got to teach writing skills to so many students, how energizing and lovely they were, how happy and blessed you are to do this kind of work.

Entering your hotel room, the evening lies spread before you like a peacock’s tail: will you swim first, walk across to that little Greek diner and get your salad? Check your e-mails? Download and post your photos of the two schools and the festival talk you did that day?

You sit down. And that’s the last time you move, except to pick up the remote to find the latest reality TV show, and sure enough here are a bunch of decorative thirtysomethings all mad at each other for no reason you can discern, but wait, are those dead people? Oh, this is the one your friends have been talking about for the past year, but you can’t follow a thing. Why do they keep killing each other instead of the zombies?

You might also find energy enough to open that ale you bought at the beginning of the week in a fit of localvoreism but didn’t drink yet because you’ve been doing three events a day and chatting with people and you wanted to be clear-headed.

After the zombies, a rerun of a Hollywood talk show will appear. You’ll channel surf, sit through half of something called Game of Thrones–and if you thought the undead-ers were incomprehensible…. If it’s a game, why are all these people screwing each other all the time–literally?

Hi ho the glamorous life. You can get a lot done during the weeknights back at the hotel, high on events that have gone well. Discipline exists for those evenings. But that last night before you go home, just take two aspirin and go to bed hollow, drained, as if the Dump Truck of Art hit you from behind, then sped off laughing while your body lay sprawled on the pavement.

It will pass. By the time you get home, you’ll be raring to get back to your writing schedule, answer e-mails that yes, you’d LOVE to go to the next place. More cool people to meet, fun places to visit, great ideas to explore. Life comes back.

exhaustion photoIt’s okay to take that night off, the day after; regroup, recharge, relax. Just stay off social media and DON’T take any selfies. Trust me on this; no good will come of it. Put the remote in your hand, and don’t touch anything else with an On switch. This, too, shall pass.

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Filed under between books, blue funks, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, writing, YA fiction

Wisconsin Teachers Rock!

Jack’s weekly guest blog

I love singing and telling stories in schools, something I haven’t done in a fairly long time. This week Wendy and I are in Appleton, Wisconsin doing school and library appearances as part of The Fox Cities Book Festival.

DSCN0174Back when we lived in Scotland I used to do quite a bit of song-writing sessions with kids in the upper classes of primary schools, and got a tremendous kick out of working with that age group. The equivalent over here is grade 4 or 5 in elementary schools. It’s my favorite age group because they still have enormous curiosity and enthusiasm, and haven’t yet glimpsed the approaching diversions of the teenage years.

During this week we sang songs with them and told stories, and then fielded a host of wildly different questions – “How many cats do you have? Do you wear a skirt in Scotland? Is a loch something you find on a door? Have you seen the Loch Ness Monster? How many books are in your shop? Etc, Etc – - -

It’s become obvious to us why Wisconsin schools have such a high reputation! The ones we visited were bright and cheerful, with enthusiastic and engaged teachers, artwork adorning the walls, kids controlled and respectful while also cheerful and inquisitive.

And yet, this is the state where “collective bargaining” for teachers turned into AWOL senators, people taking the doors off the Capital’s central chambers, and names hurled with more fury than accuracy on all sides. It might puzzle some people why teachers so maligned in those days remain committed to their profession. Seeing them in action this week, we can say without a doubt that their first allegiance is to the children. God Bless the teachers of Wisconsin! (And the rest of the world, come to it.)

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Filed under Hunger Games, Life reflections, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, writing

The Monday Book: STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher

storm frontFinding ourselves headed 12 hours by car up the road to Wisconsin for the Fox Cities Book Festival, Jack and I put out a plea to friends for recorded books. (We forgot our town library doesn’t open until 1 pm on Saturdays, and we were supposed to leave that morning.)

Several friends brought us books, and the first one we put in as we drove was  Butcher’s introductory mystery of The Dresden Files, an ongoing series about a wizard named Harry Dresden.

The first book came out in 2000, and proved so popular that Volume 15 of the Dresden Files is due out in May of this year.

The writing is a hoot. Think Philip Marlowe meets Charlaine Harris. “Magic noir” is what I called it as we began laughing out loud at some of the great one-liners, sardonic toss-off remarks, and zany plot twists of this book.

The wizard is tall, dark and handsome, an old-fashioned courtly gentleman, a powerful practitioner, and at the same time something of a screw-up. If the book is a bit predictable, sometimes facile, well, you don’t really mind ’cause it’s such rip-roaring fun.

The hero wears a long dark Australian cattle rancher coat. He has a nymphomaniac skull named Bob working for him. His cat doesn’t respect him. Think rescuing damsels in distress, in low-cut evening gowns, in vicious thunderstorms, but with vampires, demons, and drug dealers, oh my. It’s a send-up of every serialized adventure guy-hero genre, ever: part mystery, part swashbuckle.

Jack and I laughed out loud at several lines, but one of my personal favorites was, “I was so mad I could have chewed up nails and spit out paper clips.” It’s overblown high-jinks fun, Butcher’s stuff. And it makes the road much, much shorter. We actually had to turn it off coming through Chicago. I kept swerving from laughter.

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Welcome Tootie, Shopsitter III

Many of you remember Andrew. And Mark and Sally. Now it is time to welcome Tootie to the family.

DSCN0154At Southern Festival of the Book, Tootie came up after my author talk and said, “You mean you let people live and work in your bookstore? Where do I sign?!”

And that’s how we met Tootie. She seemed an energetic bubbly sort, but we didn’t need a shopsitter at the time, so we lamented the lateness of our meeting, and went our ways.

But a few months later, when I hopped over to Winston-Salem for an event with BOOKMARKS (a very active group of literary women over there) who should be attending but Tootie and a friend. And by then we knew that we needed to be in Wisconsin for a week in April, for the Fox Cities Book Festival, and a couple of day trip events later that month.

“Are you still–” I started, and Tootie’s eyes lit.

“You need a shopsitter, don’t you!” she cried.

So that’s how Tootie drove over from Southern Pines, NC last week and spent two days tucked up in the guest room learning the ropes. She and our indoor/outdoor cat Beulah have taken a particular shine to one another, so Beulah has decided to come back inside and help Tootie with the shelving.

Tootie, who recently retired from a career in sales, quickly figured out the shop’s daily regime, and was “pure dead brilliant” with customers, as Jack said. She also got the full whack in one day. Our bookstore rejoices in a few “oddballs,” what we like to call colorful local characters. One young man is schizophrenic and obsessed with “getting a PhD in guitar.” Tootie, hearing him talking to Jack, told him what a great career choice he had made. “Music makes the world turn!” I’d never seen this guy look so happy.

For her part, Tootie brought along a copy of Little Bookstore and started pointing out landmarks to herself. Very META. She also identified the staff cats correctly based on the book, calling them by name on first meeting–which impressed Valkyttie, and that’s not easy to do.

I read the first (but only the first) of the Left Behind books on the flight between London and Chicago that opened the action. That kinda gave me the willies, but Tootie says she likes “being inside the Little Bookstore‘s covers, literally.”

Tootie will be working the shop from today through next Saturday, so if you’re in the area, come over and say hello. She’s got a great sense of humor. And Valkyttie likes her. You can’t say that about just anyone.

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DOG HOUSE

Jack’s guest blog this week offers praise where it is long overdue: to the staff dogs of the Little Bookstore.

...inter-staff relationship maintenance...

…inter-staff relationship maintenance…

We blog often about our menagerie of cats, but rarely write about our dogs. When we moved from Scotland to ‘The Snake Pit’ (as Wendy describes it in The Little Bookstore) we brought our cat Valkyttie and dog Rabbie with us.

Sadly, we lost Rabbie just as we were moving to Big Stone Gap – he got out of the yard at The Snake Pit (we hope not with help) and we never found him, though we tried everything. Towards the end of the search we got a phone call from a guy who thought he’d found him, which is how we were adopted by Bert. Bert is a ¾ size version of Rabbie.

About eight months before we lost Rabbie, Wendy had found a black Lab pup wandering the roads, and that’s how Zora became part of the family. As Senior Executive Dog, Zora taught Bert everything he knows. But of course, Zora was trained by Rabbie, who taught her everything from food-specific begging eyebrow movements to a stock vocabulary of menacing growls. It’s quite odd to see Bert exhibiting Rabbie tendencies he learned from Zora!

image004I always describe Zora as an earth mother with Eeyore tendencies. One hundred percent placid and never excited, she will happily yield the right of way to the smallest kitten, and in fact cuddles some of the orphans who foster here. She has a dog bed beside ours and when we retire of a night and she plods round our bed end, if she sees little Nike already curled up there in the plush, she will turn and head back to the less comfortable fireplace rug. Sometimes in the night we hear Zora emitting a low growl akin to a purr, which signals Owen is home from his rounds and bunking down with her. She all but tucks him in under her tail.

All our animals have bookstore duties and Zora is our human resource manager. Bert is the polar opposite, and takes his job as security manager VERY seriously. At the slightest incursion to bookstore territory (which he considers anywhere within his hearing) he will emit strident warnings and race out to the yard to launch guided missiles at the garbage men, the airplane flying overhead, the leaf that had the audacity to fall into the yard. Zora generally raises herself onto one elbow and yawns.

Those are our dogs, God bless ‘em. They put up with a lot from the cats around here, and never let it get them down. I suppose it was seeing Zora looking at the Portuguese version of Wendy’s book, which arrived yesterday. It features Valkyttie on the spine and flyleaf. Valkyttie is also slightly less obviously on the US and Korean editions – which doesn’t help at all. Zora never says much, but it was clear that she felt the wee bit hurt at receiving no recognition, so we thought a blog wouldn’t go wrong. The dogs are an integral part of our bookstore, after all; they just don’t have as good an agent as the cats.

www.clanjamphry.com

www.bigstoneceltic.com

http://wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com/

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