Category Archives: VA

The Monday Book: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim Potok

I discovered Potok in high school, and entered a world very different from my own. (And isn’t that part of why we read, to find the places where things are so very different, yet common threads run through them?) Hasidic Judaism and big cities are neither one familiar to me, and yet the points on which this story turns are accessible because they’re based on human connections. What I read as lovely background, people from other communities and cities would read as familiarity; perhaps Potok’s genius lies in depicting a world so well, people from both sides of the window can see it without distortion.

Potok has a lovely way of just telling his story, and letting you think what you will. He almost writes like a literary television: here is the scene. What, you don’t understand the facial expression on the protagonist? Well, figure it out.

I really, really like writing that gives the reader his/her own sovereignty. Asher Lev is about a brilliant kid who, if you want to put it in simple terms, was kind of born into the wrong family. Except he wasn’t. They love him, but he’s… wrong for their way of life. He’s a very gifted artist in a family that doesn’t even have pictures in the house because of strict beliefs. His genius leads him to create a division in his family that causes all sorts of things, including a betrayal of his religious identity and, ultimately, his parents. He betrays his father by painting his mother, while his whole life is one long, slow betrayal of her, as she stood between the two of them and helped her son achieve greatness. In doing so, she gave him the tools to cut his father to the core. It’s an amazing story.

But the whole story is told from Asher’s point of view, much of it as a child, so it flows past in the background while he concentrates on making art. He’s something between a straight shooter and an unreliable narrator. When his parents won’t buy him paint, he takes him mother’s coffee and cigarette ashes and uses them with pencil to create a color effect, without recognizing what his father sees, watching him do that. Did you see the scene in the film Billy Elliot, where the dad–opposed to his son’s dancing all this time–watches him break into dance in their kitchen, and gives up?

Asher is a sickly kid, but his mom is pursuing a PhD at the behest of the Reb, and his father is deeply involved in politics and even some clandestine missions on behalf of the community. None of which this child cares about. He’s painting. It makes an interesting read, and a conflicting experience as to whether Asher is a heroic protagonist or not.

The story reminds me a little bit of an essay called “The Monster,” about what a horrible person Wagner was and how incredible his music is. Asher Lev is a book sort of like Vanity Fair, one of my other favorites. It has many heroes and none.

 

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, VA

Hedley and Hemingway Explain Things Clearly

DSCN1468Hi – I’m Hemingway and this is my sister Hedley–

I can speak for myself!

An’ we’re waitin’ ta get adopted from the Little Bookstore.

Tell ‘em it’s in Big Stone Gap!

They know that, Hed. Anyway, me ‘n Hedley–

Hedley an’ I

No, you’re Hedley, an’ I’m–

(clamps paw over mouth) OK folks, lemme ‘splain this. Hemingway and I need a home, see. We need one pretty soon, ’cause there’s five of us foster cats here at the bookstore an’ there’s five more waitin’ up at the vet’s for a space to open. An’ Wendy and Jack are leavin’ the country in December, so we gotta get everybody where they’re going. So, come visit and see how adorable we are!

Hdlymcntmll– (bats paw away) Hedley, you can’t tell everybody we’re adorable like that! You gotta be humble! Who’s gonna adopt us if we’re not humble?

Humble? Be serious! We’re the cutest cats here! An’ the youngest an’ the fastest!

(sighs) Anyway, folks, come visit us. We might wanna be adopted together (glances at sister, whispers) although that’s not really essential

Wha’d you say?

That we have to be adopted together. An’ that we both like to be cuddled, an’ that we don’t eat wet food, an’ we’ve had our wormer an’ our flea baths.

(shudders) Baths. That wasn’t fun. But yes, we have. An’ we LOVE to climb in your lap, an’ we like to sleep in your arms an’ be carried around like babies.

Speak for yourself; I ain’t a baby.

(pinching him) Play along, eejit; I’m tryin’ ta get us ‘dopted here.

(rubs bruise) SO as I was sayin’ folks, we wanna be adopted together….

Why are you looking at me like that?
DSCN1420
 

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Filed under animal rescue, bad writing, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, Hunger Games, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

Remember Customer Service? We do.

Little Bookstore is one of several on a list of second-hand bookslingers who trade ideas and share knowledge–including that there’s such a thing as being TOO local. People can take the approach that you must be in this small town because you couldn’t make it in the big city; I’ve just come back from an economic summit where rural town managers discussed this problem.

Being too local is a problem anytime of year, but at Christmas, people can also eschew specialty businesses because they believe making a mad dash through the discount warehouses will be “cheaper and more convenient.”

(Yeah, and the shortcut is always faster….)

Small Business Saturday and the Christmas season tend to be a special challenge for bookstores because much of our unique charm lies in our handselling technique; a proprietor knows his or her customers, and has developed a relationship of trust, of not trying to just sell, sell, sell but to match. We take pride in matching the correct book to the right person. Trust is the foundation of customer service, trying to help the customer rather than meet an imposed quota.

Everybody sells books at Christmas, but who can greet you by name, ask how your niece liked Divergent, suggest a new detective series because they know you like mysteries themed around food? Or, who can meet you for the first time, listen to a list of the last five books your dad read and what he thought of them, and then suggest the perfect present based on that information? How much time will you save with that kind of service?

That’s what we do, and what our friends in the bookselling business do. Because we are our businesses; we don’t just work for them. We believe in selling you what you want, not what you’ve been told you need. And we believe you are your own person.

Visit your local bookseller this holiday season–be it Paperback Book Exhange in Neenah, Wisconsin; Al’s Books out in Kansas; maybe that sweet little Country Bookshop in North Carolina; or one of the other 2,500-or-so used book shops across America. The coffee will be hot, the chairs comfy, the kittens purring, and the proprietors ready to listen, serve, and smile.

 

 

 

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, shopsitting, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: FREE GIFT WITH PURCHASE by Jean Godfrey-June

godfreyPublished in 2006, Free Gift with Purchase: my improbable career in magazines and makeup sat on our shelves in the shop awhile. One day I picked it up, realized it was a memoir that had been misfiled in fiction, and headed across the shop floor. But I opened it and read a random section–

–and started laughing. I don’t wear make-up, or move in fashionista circles, but the book drew me in. The fun of reading is living someone else’s life for awhile.

Godfrey has a wicked sense of humor, balanced by a strong grounding in the fact that her life is about something halfway between silly and essential. I loved her opening explanation establishing why beauty is important–war zones doing a roaring trade in black market cosmetics, e.g.–and that everyone has some sort of beauty regime, whether it involves “product” or not. She seems to have a healthy respect for the the American consumer, pointing out that about half of “advice” is really “sales pitch” and it’s up to the purchaser to discern the difference.

Then she just starts telling stories, interspersed with advice. Most of the advice sailed over my head, but I devoured her funny, wise stories, like how networks (and careers) are formed and lost by a single ill-timed giggle. How those glam parties full of celebs are really the trading floor, everyone working hard without daring to sweat into silk OR admit they’re working. (If you look like you’re networking, you’re doing it wrong.) How you need to know yourself before you let anyone at a makeup counter touch you, or you wind up looking like a man in drag, and the woman behind the counter may revel in this because you didn’t buy anything.

This isn’t a cohesive story with a narrative arc, and I liked it for that reason, dipping in of an evening to relax before bed. This is a sweet, alluring book, with a little more depth than expected, if one comes to it with a healthy disrespect for the lines between which Godfrey-June colors. Underneath her writing runs a sense of “we’re not curing cancer, but we’ve made women with cancer feel better by giving them prettiness.”

Spots of name-dropping and elbow-rubbing with the insider crowd decorate her prose (like glitter in eye shadow? teehee) but aren’t the focus. Those with journalism backgrounds might particularly like the “vapid meets intensity” moments when people who write for a living have to come up with something meaningful to say about perfume that doesn’t involve “sweet” or “fruity.”

Not setting the world on fire, but adding a bit of color, this fun, cheerful book.

 

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Planning of Cat Parties is a Difficult Matter….

The naming of cats is a difficult matter/It isn’t just one of your holiday games….–T.S. Eliot

cat-feeding-circleJack and I have finally crossed the line between “cat people” and “those crazy cat people.” We’re hosting a reunion for all who have adopted cats from us. With an unprecedented ten adoptions in the last two weeks we now have 110 fur babies running around happy–and spayed or neutered–out there in the world. We look forward to seeing how many of their parents can make it to the reunion.

Here’s the plan: mark March 13-15 on your calendar. Friday, March 13 is our regularly scheduled ceilidh dance to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. What better way to kick off an event than by, well, kicking off? Ceilidh dances are lots of fun, lots of movement with catlike grace. Lots of kicking. And we teach the dances as we go.

Saturday we’ll have lunch for cat adopters, and everyone will bring a photo of their fur baby. Those who want to can share stories in the circle. And that evening, a nice dinner, followed by a Murder Mystery themed around Cat Rescue! (Ohh, the puns and jokes we will have. It’ll be the cats pajamas. Sorry.)

Sunday will be a brunch for those who want to attend. We’ll need to charge a nominal weekend food fee to cover things for Our Good Chef Kelley. Also, since about half of our adoptions have been local, we can round up spare rooms for those who don’t want to add hotel expense to their travel. For those who want more privacy, there’s a lovely B&B in town, Carousel House, operated by Donna Ball–three blocks from the bookshop. There’s also the Comfort Inn (chain operated, a mile and a quarter away by car) and the Country Inn (a local establishment, about 4/10 of a mile and easy to walk). And there’s the Jessee Lee Campground, with a charming creekside walking path covering the .75 miles between them and us.

So if you’re a cat adopter, let us know if you want to bunk in with someone local; otherwise we suggest making a reservation soon at one of these fine establishments. There aren’t that many rooms in Big Stone Gap. :]

If you haven’t adopted a cat but want to attend, you are very welcome as a “Friend of Cats” member.

Yes, we have gone crazy. But this seems like a nice way to celebrate the rescue of 110+ cats. Especially when we think about the ones who didn’t get rescued. As the Chinese proverb says, “It is better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the dark.”

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

The Monday Book: THE SILVER TATTOO by Laura Treacy Bentley

tattooDark literary thrillers are not my thing; I got this book in the post from the author who requested consideration for the Monday Book. We like to support regional authors (and she’s in WV) so while prepared to be optimistic, I worried I’d not have much to say about it.

But I totally loved Bentley’s writing. She has a great way with details and scene-setting. Her characters are not driving the plot; the plot drives the plot, specifically the psychotic weirdness of the stalker after her protagonist Leah. Bentley paints the slow, steady suspenseful rise with increasing depictions of violence or madness that pretty much verge on poetic. In the background hover tributes to Irish folklore that add nice atmosphere.

Bentley’s writing reminds me of two fantasy authorities: Ray Bradbury (one of her writing heroes, so it stands to reason) and Stephen King. She has that playful sense of poetry that Bradbury has, and like King she eschews explanation and too-obvious depictions of what’s going on inside the person’s head– a la King’s “he did it because he did it” writing.

This is a scene-by-scene book, and some of the scenes are quite intense. If you like plots that are less twist-and-turn than finely drawn, if you like to figure out for yourself why someone is behaving as they are,  or if you like Irish mythology, you’re going to love The Silver Tattoo.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

WeHaveAlwaysLivedInTheCastle“A pretty sight, a lady with a book.” –Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The problem with being a big reader in school is that by the time you get to classes where the teacher is passing out big books (or even big concept stories) you’ve seen that theme/archetype/trope/chestnut already in something else.

Our high school English teacher made us read “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for Halloween. Lame. And old hat. Ursula LeGuin in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” or even Tam Lin and the sacrifice to Hell were better deals.

So when I picked up Jackson’s Castle, I wasn’t expecting much.

That’s how the best things happen.

Aside from first learning of the wonderful name MerriCat for Mary Katherine, this is the book that teaches many writers about untrustworthy narrators. The story is basically two sisters, MerriCat and Constance, living alone in an old house, young girls, and slowly but surely you come to find out why. And then everything goes to Hell on the point of a knife, but it’s a good ride. Here’s another quote, just to give you an idea:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

Yeah, she’s a beaut, that Merricat. Jackson’s writing style is so cheerfully prosaic as she pushes out lines of such blood-curdling creepiness, you think, “Who WRITES like this?” For instance, when MerriCat idly comments: “I wonder if I could eat a child if I had the chance.’ ‘I doubt if I could cook one,’ said Constance.”

If you want a post-Halloween scare, read this atmospheric, quirky, Poe-as-a-woman-with-a-semblance-of-feminine-understanding masterpiece.

If you read it before bed, you might want to leave the light on. And stop taking sugar in your tea.

Why this book this week: I read this book years ago, and picked it up again when some bookseller friends and I were discussing online what we were currently reading.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing