Category Archives: book reviews

That Ten Books Challenge Thing

authorsOh dear, that book list thing is circulating again, and a handful of people have challenged me.

One chapter of Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap contains a list of eleven books that influenced me. Anyone who’s done this challenge knows that narrowing to ten is hard, so rather than repeat those, here are eight books I swithered over when making that Little Bookstore list, plus a few published since then.

How many Hills to Hillsboro (Fred Bauer) – Published by Guideposts in the 1970s, it sat on a stack of books in my father’s office one day, whence I picked it up randomly and read it….

And read it, and read it, and read it again. Hillsboro started my lifelong affair with wanderlust. I still have that original copy. (I guess my dad never realized he owned it, since I stole it at age seven.) The book is about a family of five who bicycle across most of America. They don’t make it to the California coast before the summer is over, but that becomes part of this charming, gentle story about taking a long road trip together, replete with adventures, enlightenment, and fun.

Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (Wendy Welch)The specifications for this list say books that have stayed with you in some way; this one pretty much changed my life. Since I wrote it, we’ve made friends with and met fascinating people—not superstars, like authors who hang out poolside with the fancy or famous—but very cool, salt-of-the-earth on Facebook types. And gone places and done stuff we wouldn’t have done before.

Jack and I still plan to visit Portugal because of all the lovely people who’ve contacted us from there. People in Poland are sending us letters now. The Korean Minister of Culture sent a congratulatory note after naming Little Bookstore a “Book of the Year” because it “uplifted the human spirit.” And lots of people visit our bookstore and tell us their stories. Which sounds all jet set, but was just a nice thing that happened because we had a story to tell that resonated with people. Yeah, this book stuck with me. :]

Winter in Moscow (Malcolm Muggeridge)Like Grapes of Wrath, this is a book that taught me about injustice, imbalance, politics versus people, and how life just sometimes goes wrong. Yet we can be humane and human in the midst of it.

Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenkey et al)This is an odd book that came out on the 1980s, detailing research on how women acquire knowledge. It lists six stages, running from just “standing in their shoes and looking out” to becoming experts in a field. It’s psychology not so much made feminist as put into an entirely feminine atmosphere. It’s amazing how much can be measured when the people measuring it are the same as the people they are measuring. Women no longer have to fit men’s square pegs into their round holes—heh, no pun intended. This book defines women’s knowledge the way women feel themselves to possess it. It underpinned a lot of my later work in storytelling, and when Brene Brown’s Ted talk on vulnerability went viral, it felt like an affirmation of how women use emotional means as valid ways of learning what they need to know, among other concepts.

This book got me in trouble in grad school, though. I still remember a professor using the term “unnecessary beauty” to describe some artifacts like water pots, etc. that had been decorated even though the objects were “just functional.” Without thinking and without raising my hand, I just shot out, “That is an entirely male construct. Ask any woman in the world whether beauty is useful, or needful, and she can give you a whole new way of seeing how her life is ruled by it—or lack of it. And what’s more, beauty is defined by men.” It all kinda went downhill from there….

Cricket Magazine, roughly 1972-1977These are probably what set me on the road to ruin as a child, teaching a love of storytelling. This was a literary magazine with high quality illustrations, stories, and articles for kids ages 10 or so. I still have my collection. Trina Schart Hyman, Jane Yolen, Shel Silverstein: all the big guns wrote for this publication. Early exposure… there’s no cure for that. :]

A Candle for St. Jude (Rumor Godden)When I made the list in Little Bookstore, I actually left this one off because it was “higher” than all the others. This is about a down-at-heel yet genteel dance school run by an old woman who was a past master, and the relationship between her, her favorite student, and her most talented ones. It explores the human heart as much as the arts world, but particularly human hearts in the arts. Because fairly often, the music (or dances, or stories, or paintings) presented at a festival is more about the politics of who gets to play, than the beauty of the playing. I love this book.

Prayers from the Ark (trans. Rumor Godden)A collection of very sweet animal poems, translated by Godden from a WWII refugee who wrote them in French in a nunnery while recovering from a breakdown. They’re lovely, and thought-provoking and sweet and sometimes the wee bit scary.

Holy Bible (semi-anonymous)Who was it that said, “If the Bible weren’t the Bible, it would be banned for all that sex and violence and anti-feminine rhetoric?” I’m not clear on everything, I’m not feeling called on to have a position statement on everything, and I don’t care to debate stuff ad infinitum. But I read the Bible at least three times a week (which is as good as “every day” actually looks for some of us). Sometimes I’m moved and motivated, sometimes I’m confused, or challenged. That’s okay. There’s that prayer thing, too. It helps.

Now, here’s the thing: authors meet other authors, and we sometimes get a lot out of each other’s books, but if you mention one book and not someone else’s, it all gets a little sad. So at the risk of offending some new authors who are bound to get left off, here are some nice people from AuthorWorld, and their books that I loved:

Saffron Cross (J. Dana Trent) – A female Southern Baptist minister meets a Hindu Monk on eHarmony, and marries him. And they decide not ‘to each his/her own’, but to participate in each other’s worship, dedicating it as their own. Fasten your theological seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

The Murderer’s Daughters (Randy Susan Myers) - a compelling novel about girls growing up in foster care, more or less – but dysfunction was never written with such lyricism.

Heart in the Right Place (Carolyn Jourdan) - Country girl making good in the city returns to the country when her dad needs help keeping his GP MD office open. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue, and some life lessons get learned.

Hooked (Tele Aadsen – she’s not finished yet. Check with Riverhead Press in 2015) Woman fishes for a living off Alaskan shore. Sex, water, salmon, self-discovery.

Second Wind (Cami Ostman) - Outrunning a divorce, she runs a marathon on every continent. And learns some interesting things about herself and other people. And icebergs.

Hiding Ezra (Rita Quillen) - There were lots of deserters in Coalfields Appalachia in the World Wars, mostly because their families really needed them more than their country. This is a compelling story about one such man.

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The Monday Book: THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

wyrmI don’t, as a rule, like enigmatic books, so it’s kinda weird that I liked this one. I also tend to hate books where bad things happen to sweet little fuzzy creatures–but, well, okay, the creatures in Wangerin’s book are not all that sweet, but a lot of them are fuzzy.

What cracks me up is that this book, full of sex, violent, anarchy, anti-christ characters, and really bad things happening to animals, was classed a children’s fantasy novel when it came out in 1978. Because, you know, it’s about animals. Like Animal Farm, or Firmin. So it must be for kids.

Prepare for nightmares, then.

The book is about a pre-human Earth with two countries divided by a river, each run by roosters (yeah, it’s that kind of world) but while one is a strong–if flawed–hero, the other is weak and easily manipulated. This old bird falls for an empty promise made by the evil dragon that lives at the center of the Earth and is always trying to get out and end the world (the plot of about 97 different fantasy novels AND some really scary prophecies handed down by storytellers in multiple cultures; think Armageddon with Satan cast as a worm).

The betrayal of this promise sets off the terrible war that results between the real animals led by Chanticleer the Rooster, and the army of basilisks created by Cockatrice, aka the dragon force-breeding with every breathing thing on the other side of the river.

Children’s book. . . . Yeah, right.

The writing is antiquely beautiful (what some people might call stilted, if you don’t like that kind of thing), and while the book is definitely Christian, it’s less allegory than full of symbolism–like about the dun cow, herself. Here’s a section just before the big battle:

The dark land everywhere held still, as if on purpose before such a ringing, echoing cry. The dark sky said nothing. The Rooster, with not an effort to save himself, sagged, rolled down the roof, slipped over the edge of the Coop, and fell heavily to the ground. Wind and sobs together were knocked out of him; he lay dazed.

And then it was that the Dun Cow came to him….

Horns strangely dangerous on one so soft stood wide away and sharp from either side of her head. Her eyes were liquid with compassion – deep,deep, as the earth is deep. Her brow knew his suffering and knew, besides that, worlds more. But the goodness was that, though this wide brow knew so much, yet it bent over his pain alone and creased with it.

…. Nothing changed: The clouds would not be removed, nor his knowledge plenished. But there was this. His grief had become her grief, his sorrow her own. And though he grieved not one bit less for that, yet his heart made room for her, for her will and wisdom, and he bore the sorrow better.

And one more reason to love The Book of the Dun Cow comes in the form of a depressed dog who, in the trope of tragic fools everywhere, actually gets in the end to do the deed that needs doing. I really enjoyed Wangerin’s work, with its mythological, old-world language feel, its enigmatic storytelling, and its pack of beasts ranging from cute to terrifying. It’s fantasy at its finest.

But I would never, ever, read this book to a kid.

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The Monday Book is on Tuesday this Month….

WRITE COMES TO THE CUMBERLANDS is a busy weekend for all of us, so we’re just getting back on schedule with the Monday Book.

Yes, I know; it’s Tuesday.

cover_pierTHE DIVE FROM CLAUSEN’S PIER by Ann Packer is about a couple on the verge of breaking up, except he has a terrible accident that leaves him paralyzed.

And she still breaks up with him. Because she’s found someone else.

That’s pretty much it, but you can imagine the stuff going on around that. This is a book where most of the action takes place inside people’s hearts.

The details in the book – she loves to sew, doesn’t have a lot of money, carefully parses money to make herself a sexy dress that kind of isn’t because she’s broken up with her boyfriend, but still – are lovely, subtle, not overwhelming, all undergirding the plot and characters.

This is really a character-driven plot, and each person is fully etched. Here’s a random sample of the kind of thing I mean: “Kilroy gave Simon an amused nod, but he crossed his arms over his chest, and some kind of inner turbulence seeped out of him.”

She’s got a nice, almost journalistic, way with her words, and her use of big themes like wealth vs. want, or love vs. lust, is set in almost embossed relief against the small day-to-day details of the lives she’s describing.

It also has a surprisingly satisfying ending, for this kind of book where somebody’s heart is going to get broken, no matter what. Avoiding cliche, it still brings resolution.

 

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The Monday Book(s): Moomintroll Adventures by Tove Jansson

moomintrollsMoomintroll isn’t the name of a book, but the character created by Jansson. Moomin, as the little white hippo-like troll with the tail is known, lives with Moominmamma and Moominpappa in a valley, but the little guy gets around.

The books are full of gentle illustrations of the trolls and their friends, particularly Snufkin and the Snork Maiden (Moomin’s love interest). Although a cheerful little guy, Moomin can be quite moody and wax philosophical over small events–like discovering seashells.moomin2

I loved these books because the trolls were adorable and nothing threatening ever really was allowed to get out of hand, despite the sometimes rather dark story lines and illustrations. As an adult, I go back and read them when times are tough. You just can’t have angst when you’re catching up with the Moominfamily.

If you want to start at the beginning, it’s Moomintroll and the Great Flood. Young Moomin does a fair bit of growing up throughout the series, so it does kinda make sense to start at the beginning.

The Moomins, despite the baby boy’s growing up, can be counted on for consistency in a world of chaos. That’s why I like the books – well, that and the adorable drawings. Moominpapa says things like, “I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!”

What’s not to love? Papa also likes his whiskey. Don’t get the idea that these little guys dance through fields of flowers never saying anything meaningful.  Here’s their take on the arts:

“A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.”

They’re really quite advanced in their philosophy.

moominphilosophyCheck out a Moomintroll. Your library will have them in the children’s section.

moomin3

 

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The Monday Book: OFF THE GRID by Nick Rosen

Sorry about not getting a blog up over the weekend. We had a massive group from Berea College visiting because of my new (academic) book Public Health in Appalachia. We had a great time with the team and will be blogging about it later this week. And we’re more or less back on schedule now, and proud of the fact that we fed 42 people in our bookstore all at the same time – a triumph of logistics over space. :]

off the gridUsually I only do Monday Books that I’ve loved, and I admit that this one is kind of a “like.” Rosen’s book is interesting, but suffers from that thing that often happens to researchers who turn their work into a popular narrative style of writing: repetition and lack of a story line.

(Oh, did I just hear my agent giggling? Believe me, the words “narrative arc” come out of that wise woman’s mouth 12 times a day. And gosh darn it, she’s right. We want a beginning, middle, and end that look different from each other, strung together with smaller stories that flow toward a conclusion.)

Rosen writes about people who get off the power grid in the United States, for reasons ranging from dropping off one end after running out of money, to buying their way off the other end as rich, powerful, and/or famous citizens. (A lot of TV and film stars have off-the-grid hideouts.)

In between he covers off-gridders one might not think about, like truck drivers. And of course he includes survivalists and hippies and that controversial Mike Reynolds guy who “invented” earthships. I helped build an earthship in Scotland at a local sustainable farming community; that’s when I learned to make walls from bottles and shoes from tires. Neither of these have served me much in my present career as a bookseller, but I figure if A***on finally does us in one day, I can get great mileage out of my eclectic knowledge base and homemade sandals.

Thing is, Off the Grid, published in 2010, doesn’t so much talk about how to go off-grid as describe how it has turned out for a bunch of people who did, which gets repetitive after awhile, and also starts to skim across surfaces, hinting at conflicts and conspiracies and confusions that don’t get fully explored. (He did write, in 2008, a book that appears to be more how to.)

If you like storytelling in your stories, you may not like Off the Grid very much. I like reading about off-grid lifestyles, so I enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for how-to, try his 2008 book. If you’re looking for how-it-went-for-us, this is a good read. And if you’re into psychology-driven narrative, you’ll have a field day with what Rosen isn’t saying between the lines of what he is.

As a side note for those who have heard me talk about discovering St. Martin’s wanted to publish LITTLE BOOKSTORE on the same day that the last BORDERS bookstores announced their imminent closure, this is one of the two books I bought from BORDERS that day.

 

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The Monday Book: WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg

Yeah, it’s a classic. And it’s a classic for a reason.

One of the coolest things about Goldberg’s book is, even outdated, it updates itself in your mind. “Think about the pen and notebook you use.” She doesn’t mean a small laptop. She means paper. Remember paper?

But from choosing your tools carefully, through “don’t cross out”–which means don’t edit your first draft, just get it down, get it down, get it down–she’s giving great advice.

In fact, her advice lines up with Anne Lamott’s and Stephen King’s, so there’s an endorsement for you. And I have always loved the way her advice is chunked up into little two-page pieces: be specific, keep a notebook with lists of names of stuff, and use the real names, not just “fruit”; and she deals with the old procrastination trick of “making a writing room” very well. (I have never successfully had a writing room. Jack and I have made four, and I have used none. But I still get my writing done.)

In fact, my only beef with myself for choosing a “how to write” book for the Monday book is that reading about writing may take the place of you doing it. “Just one more how to, and then I’ll be ready.”

Nah. You’re ready now. That’s one of the things I love about Goldberg’s book. She makes sure you know you’re ready now, with advice that lets you know there’s no special fairy with a wand you need to wait for; just do things like “Use your senses as an animal does.” Or the section called “Claim your Writing,” where you’re allowed to believe in yourself ENOUGH TO CARVE OUT TIME TO DO THIS. I think that’s the thing I hear particularly from moms over and over again: I can’t find time; it’s not worth it while my kids need me. OK, but I never hear a guy say that. No, take that back – Neil Gaiman said something like that once. But he’s a nice guy.

The point is, we make time for what we feel we have to make time for: kids, words, whatever. And Goldberg’s very practical yet poetic advice makes it clear that, if we want to, we can not only find the time, but the ideas, the words, and the logistics to get our writing done.

 

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The Monday Book: CALL THE MIDWIFE by Jennifer Worth

Worth imageOne of the nicest things about vacationing in Scotland is that the books landing in charity shops there are completely different from here. I must have counted six copies of Gone Girl and two of Divergent.

Jack and I scored several titles, including one I’d intended to get to since enjoying the series on Netflix. Call the Midwife is actually part of a trilogy of books Jennifer Worth wrote; the others are Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End. (She also did one on hospice nursing later.)

I enjoyed the books, but this is one of the few times I have to say watching the series first helped. I’m not up on 1950s and ’60s medical parlance or practice, and there are details in Worth’s writing that I wouldn’t have understood without seeing them played out in pictures first.

Worth tells her story in simple, straightforward ways. It isn’t her writing that’s attractive so much as the details she gives, her way of understanding how humans are feeling. One might be tempted to use the word “clunky” once or twice on certain passages. She died in 2011, just as the series based on her books was coming to TV. Not having had the chance to meet her, I suspect she’d have proven a great humanitarian rather than wordsmith.

Still, who cares, because the stories in Midwife are fascinating, compelling, and lovely to read after seeing them portrayed. Some were taken straight from the book, others embellished from mere hints and whispers she included in passing. A lot of her descriptions were taken care of with just a couple of camera shots.

Let me say it again: it is the stories and not the storytelling that makes this book a great read. It is a methodical and prosaic capture of a way of life now over: one feels the pavements, smells the odors, and shares the fears and happinesses. Worth writes like a camera takes pictures, presenting snapshots, no corners left dark.

Worth’s life is in itself fascinating. She married in 1963 about ten years after she became a nurse, had two daughters, and left nursing in 1973 to teach piano and voice at a college. And she didn’t start writing until late in life. Midwife came out in 2002, and took five years to reach bestseller status.

Worth reminds me of another favorite book from a British author, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The older of its authors didn’t start writing in earnest until late in life; her book was also post-humous, and a bestseller, and took a snapshot of a terrifying yet exuberant time to be human.

Let that be a lesson to those of us who write; get going. Stories need to be told more than perfected. Think what else these woman could have given us if they’d started earlier.

 

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