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The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

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Bucket Lists

four leafJack and I lead contented lives. We run a bookstore, rescue cats, live amiably with occasional passionate flairs, and own our house. We don’t have to cook if we don’t want to because we have a cafe in the bookstore; when we want something to read, we amble around looking for it. I have enough money to buy most of the yarn I want and all of the yarn I need, and Jack has a little red sports car.

Yeah, we’re shallow sometimes. :]

The bucket list thing has for the most part passed us by. Jack said once he wished he could pair his black socks correctly before he left this life, and I aspire to get through a whole tube of chapstick. Other than that, go by mad world.

But my friend Cami is a go-getter and a champion back-of-the-pack marathoner, and she is in Chile with her husband. They suggested we come for a visit. Neither Jack nor I have been to the continent of South America, and I admit we used the words “bucket list” to discuss the trip. As in, “It wasn’t on our bucket list, but it seems like a nice opportunity.”

That started one of those in-the-car conversations while driving to Maryland this week. (We went to visit our friend Melissa’s bookstore The Parkville Bookworm, along with her staff cats Stan Lee and Spencer. Eight hours is a long time to listen to NPR talk shows.)

On the drive Jack and I compared bucket list items, big and small. Some of these we probably can’t get, and some we can’t get without help, but hey, it pays to dream. So here it is……

THE JACK AND WENDY BUCKET LIST

Independence for Scotland (Jack and me both)

Find a four leaf clover (I’ve never found one in my whole entire life, except once inside a book, dried and pressed.)

Visit Fiji (Neither of us have been there, and we don’t know anything about it. We just like the name, I guess.)

Tell stories at the Iranian International Storytelling Festival (It’s held every February, this was their 18th year, and they don’t invite a lot of Westerners. But someday….)

Own a Morgan sports car again (I rolled my eyes at this, and Jack informed me that every guy is allowed a secret fantasy.)

Have the bookstore completely organized in a manner that makes sense (Jack says this has to be mine alone as he won’t put something on this list that can’t happen. I pointed out the Morgan thing and he just smiled. Should I be worried?)

 

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Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Half a League, Half a League – – -

jackWhen Wendy and I first met she asked me if I liked walking. “Of course!” I lied. I was smitten and would have said anything.

Ever since, when given the option, she will walk rather than take a bus or taxi when we’re out of town on book or health business. Her preferred enticement for me to join her in this activity is to find an Indian restaurant nearby, knowing I love a curry dinner above most things in life.

“It’s only half a mile” is the usual precursor – -

On pretty much every occasion, however, the ‘half a mile’ turns out to be considerably more. I have learned to ask “a Wendy half-mile or a standard half-mile?”

It’s sometimes been necessary to cross busy highways, garnering strange looks from car drivers who are obviously wondering who these idiots are clamboring over guardrails. Sometimes the Indian place is no longer there, or it’s become a Mexican eatery, or it’s not open for another two hours – or it’s not open on Sundays.

That’s not the point, though – it’s all about the walk – – -

Yesterday we went to the Kennedy Center in DC to see ‘Evita,’ which involved a forty minute walk from the hotel to the Metro station. Because we had extra time, Wendy suggested a walk to the botanic gardens, which of course started with a twenty minute walk in the wrong direction. A suggestion from me that we avail ourselves of the shuttle from the wonderfully named Foggy Bottom station to the Center was grudgingly accepted, as was my later suggestion that we do the same in reverse going back.

Wendy always wins out in the end, though; she was saving the final ‘cherry on the cake’.

We still had a forty minute walk back to the hotel from the Metro.

The view was lovely, but my feet hurt.dc sunset

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The Monday Book: THE LAST KABBALIST by Richard Zimler

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a BIG book. (I like big….. yes, okay.) It came into our shop years ago and I took it upstairs to read, and became engrossed. Read it in three nights. Then I put it back in the shop, and when I started writing the Monday Book blog, I couldn’t remember the name!

Just yesterday another copy came into the shop, and I recognized it instantly, grabbed it, and wrote this for y’all.

This is a GOOD read if you like historic epics intertwined with realistic characters. Richard Zimler’s story takes place soon after Lisbon’s 1506 massacre of “New Christians,” when the powder keg of Muslim, Christian, Jewish interaction ignited. For those unfamiliar, in the late 1400s a lot of Jews were living in Portugal, which had proved the most tolerant of the countries available to them. But in 1497(ish) Jews were hauled en masse to Christian baptism fonts and pretty much converted against their will to Christianity.

That should have kept them safe, but the world being what it is, it didn’t. Zimler’s epic picks up at the point where rumblings have started again.

The Last Kabbalist is a fascinating depiction of the interaction between not only these BIG categories of religions, but the smaller divisions and hidden links between them. Subsets of Jews and Muslims and Christians act independently within their religions, following the threads of their own lives: desire for knowledge, compassion, anger, vengeance.

And human hearts are never simple anyway. Berekiah is a young illuminator (an illustrator) who finds his uncle murdered– his uncle who apprenticed him and is the sole of religious dignity, dead with a naked girl beside him. So there’s a mystery, but also Berekiah needs to survive the riots, he’s in love with a girl, and he’s kinda trying to hold his family together.

At times awful in its depictions of violence, always insightful into how people have helped and harmed each other since history was recorded, Kabbalist is a gripping read. You felt like you could see, smell, taste, and feel the terror, hope, and desperate planning of those trying to survive.

A word of warning: don’t start Kabbalist unless you have time to read for awhile. You’re not going to put it down easily.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

Ah – Valkyttie!

ValkyttieJack guest blogs today on the end of an era, and the Monday book will return next Monday.

She came to us as a tiny kitten, just four weeks old. One of her earliest acts was exploring the backyard in Rosyth, Scotland, where she saw off a big bruiser of a cat six times her size. (He’d had the audacity to use the yard as a shortcut to the field beyond.) “Now would be a good time to be magnanimous,” I shouted as the confused older cat hunkered down to watch Valkyttie–all of six inches long–arch her back and hiss like a little black powder puff. But she held her ground and established her territory.

We should have known then what we were in for. Every day Valkyttie had a fish finger for supper while we ate ours. This kept her from climbing our legs to dive headfirst into our plates.

WENDY&CAT1Later she tried to teach me how to catch mice. When I failed after two or three tries, she went off and returned with a moth, mieowing, “Perhaps you should start with something simpler”?

I knew she’d brought the moth to me because Valkyttie had epicurean tastes and wouldn’t have been caught dead with such a vile supper for herself. Once she jumped onto the table, speared a curried shrimp from my plate, and flicked it over her shoulder. The thing did a perfect splashdown into my glass of white wine. She then fished it out and ate it. I expressed astonishment at her “lucky throw” and she gave me That Look and did exactly the same thing again. Her mieow said, “You should know I prefer my curried shrimp lightly marinated!”pissed off valkyttie

Valkyttie shifted house with us twice. Not content with emigrating from Scotland to England, she persuaded us that we needed to move to America, as she had heard the weather was warmer there. Her final move was to Big Stone Gap, where she oversaw the setting up of our bookstore – first inspecting the building of bookshelves, then supervising the displays of books. Thus established as the bookstore CEO, she quickly assigned ‘greeter’ duties to her arch-nemesis cat Beulah, and then recruited Owen Meany and Nike for more menial tasks.

DSCN0283In her senior years Val took on the role of elderly aunt as hordes of foster kittens paraded through the bookstore, teaching them deportment and table manners and making sure they went on into the world as exemplary citizens. She was not above cuffing them in a corrective manner.

Finally, when her time came she made her own decision, making clear her intent to leave this world Saturday morning. Our beloved vet helped ease her out with no more suffering, and we all cried our eyes out together. Valkyttie left wrapped in the pink fuzzy blanket she loved to lie on and look out the window.

We shall miss her, but we are confident that she crossed the rainbow bridge in a sedan chair with gold leaf, borne by four Corgis. Even now she is greeting other famous bookstore cats, including Anna-Boo, who left this world in April, and Hazel, of this blog fame last year. We like to think the bookshop cats cross into human heaven by day, staff bookshops there (for what would heaven be without bookstores!) and then come home to kitty heaven at night to eat salmon from diamond plates.

Enjoy, Valkyttie. We loved and love you!

WENDY&CAT4

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

We Had some Rantin’ Rovin’ Fun

DSCN1013Big Stone Celtic is now a host of sore leg muscles and happy memories. For its organizers, we’re already busy making lists of stuff for next year. For its attendees, we hope the music lingers in your head as long as the smile stays in your heart.

Enjoy these photos, and hop on over to Big Stone Celtic Day. You’ll find videos of the sheepdogs in action, the dancers in step, and the pipers mid-tune.

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Insiders Watching Outlander

outlanderJack and I joined roughly half of the known world in watching a series called Outlander. We don’t have a television, but a friend recorded it for us and mailed the discs. For those of you who read this blog regularly, that was Susan, aka the late Hazel’s mom.

In addition to Susan’s having gone to some trouble, the music was done by the son of a fellow writer, Laura Kalpakian. (Bear McCrary is his name.) Although time travel romances are not our thing, Jack and I dutifully cleared a night in our pre-Celtic festival schedule and watched episode one.

We had such fun! Couldn’t tell you buggery about the plot, which seems to involve a porcelain doll lady of anorexic proportions and a craggy-faced boy-Scot, but we’ve been playing Spot the City for three episodes now.

The first we found was Falkland. As China Doll gazed wistfully into an antiques shop, Jack nudged me. “Isn’t that the violin repairman’s place, next to the tearoom across from the–“

The camera cut back, showing the “Mercat Cross!” (we shouted together).

Almost every medieval village in Scotland has a Market (“mercat”) Cross, a pole with a symbol atop it, recognized as the central point of the village square.

We identified Kynd Kittock’s Kitchen–oh the cups of tea and millionaire shortbread slices my friend Bun Brough and I have enjoyed there–and the backpacking hostel (bulletin board removed) in short order. We also got a quick view of the Palace before scenes changed to Dunkeld, then to Doune Castle. Only a couple of rooms remain in the ruins, so they kept using the same spaces from a different angle.

In episode three, things really got fun. By this time whasername was thrown back in time to just before the Jacobite Rebellion, and they were filming in various locations. We spotted the side of the cemetery in St. Andrews, the auld Kirk in Dunkeld, and then–

“Hey!” we both yelped, as the heroine bolted from a kitchen door hotly pursued by a broad-chested hairy Scotsman, “That’s Lindsey’s door!”

In Culross lives a dear friend of Jack’s, one Lindsey Portious by name. He’s quite the character – Scotland’s jaw harp champion, if that helps you get a handle on his personality.

Lindsey lived for years with his Mum, sadly now gone from us, in the Tron House, built 1619. He filled this historic home with assorted collections from his interests–popguns, antique musical instruments, heather-crafted jewelry. Lindsey makes bodhrans, those classic Scottish drums, and carves whistles. His home is one big garbage heap of creativity.

But his biggest claim to fame in that wild and crazy house was the kitchen door. Because the village was so old, over time Tron House had sunk as the street levels rose with repair after repair. In consequence, one takes a steep step downwards through the stone lintels of the doorway into the kitchen. Those who forget tend to get a sharp smack in–depending on height–the forehead (me, being short) the nose (for an average person) or the windpipe (basketball players).

It isn’t fun. I still remember the first time I “hit the wall”: stars and singing birdies and exploding dazzles of fireworks lit my brain. By the time I could gather voice to shriek, Lindsey had three Goody’s Headache Powders in a glass for me. My husband led me blindly to the table and put the glass in my hand.

So when we saw the delicate heroine spring like a greyhound from the door, we hooted with laughter. “Wonder how many times they had to practice THAT” we chortled, as the great bruiser of a Scots highlander exited behind her. He was a big man. “Did that guy get hazard pay?”

Quite honestly, we couldn’t tell you a single thing the series is about, but we are very much looking forward to episode four. Who knows where (or who) we might see?! We figure it’s just a matter of time until we spot one of our friends, plaidie wrapped about him, swelling a crowd scene.

 

 

 

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, crafting, folklore and ethnography, humor, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction