Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

dear-committee-membersWarning: Do not drink liquids while reading this book. Laughter makes this dangerous.

Schumacher’s novel is written in the form of letters from a beleaguered professor of English to a cast of thousands. Normally I don’t care for epistle fiction–too cut into bitty pieces–but this one has a narrative arc! And (spoiler alert) a poignant ending. I laughed until I cried.

The attention to detail in these funny, zippy, ripped-from-reality letters is so perfect. I loved the subtleties of how the prof (Jason Fitger) signs each letter, the understated sarcasm interspersed with blow-ups so honest no one in real life has ever done them–but we’ve all fantasized. Oh, how we’ve fantasized.

Among other places, Jason writes letters to assorted entry level places his students will go to work–funny in itself if you were an English major. Food service. Retail. Computer places.

My favorite was his letter for a girl who’d received an F for plagiarism. I’m not quoting it here, because you have to read it in context. But I taught that girl he describes so perfectly – five or six times, under different names in different years. Schumacher’s depiction is flawless.

Here instead is a letter in its entirety:

“October 16, 2009 Avengers Paintball, Inc. 1778 Industrial Blvd. Lakeville, MN 55044 Esteemed Avengers, This letter recommends Mr. Allen Trent for a position at your paintball emporium. Mr. Trent received a C– in my expository writing class last spring, which—given my newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading criteria—is quite the accomplishment. His final project consisted of a ten-page autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses and his (often futile) attempts to control them. He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources. Consider this missive a testament to Mr. Trent’s preparedness for the work your place of business undoubtedly has in store. Hoping to maintain a distance of at least one hundred yards, Jason T. Fitger Professor of Creative Writing and English Payne University (“Teach ’til It Hurts”)”

Now go read the book. If you’re not in Academia, it’s still funny. If you are, it’s funnier than life. And good therapy.

 

 

http://www.julieschumacher.com/writing/novels/dear-committee-members/

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The Monday Book: The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

book-mathematiciansshiva-rojstaczer-cvr-200So if David Lodge were Jewish….

This is a comedy of errors and misfits that isn’t all that funny, but it runs through so many kinds of worlds in its multi-layered unfunniness that sometimes it is. It’s not the way he writes the book but what he writes about that kept me going. On one level it’s about a guy who doesn’t really like his mother although he’s required to love AND admire her because she’s a brilliant mathematician. On another level it’s about what humans want (yes, that broad) and what it means to be in survival mode versus conquer mode. And on another level it’s just plain mean fun about math geeks.

It wasn’t a “can’t put it down” but it was an enjoyable bedtime read. The characters are well-drawn, and we all know I’m a sucker for those. If some of the humorous antics were predictable, well, it was still funny.

The plot premise is that Rachela, the mom who dies at the beginning of the book, has solved an unsolvable math problem, but hidden her papers out of pique. Enter Three Academic Stooges trying to pry up her floorboards.

This isn’t so much dark humor as grey, and if you like math, it’s a bit weak in that department. But if you like comedies of human errors and foibles, it’s fun.

3.14159265359 stars? :]

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Snowed Into a Bookstore

snow roadWhen the all-powerful “They” announced it would start snowing Thursday night and not stop until Saturday evening, I went into supply overdrive. Since I was in Richmond doing the annual advocacy for rural meetings, while I careened down I-81, Our Good Chef Kelley was drafted into buying:

  1. two boxes of wine (don’t knock it until you’ve tried the Malbec)
  2. Three bags grain free cat food, two 32-packs can boxes, and some tins of Ol’ Roy (yes, the dogs are hard done by)
  3. chocolate – dark for Jack, milk for me. Easier on the marriage that way

The rest we could take care of for ourselves. Jack stepped across the street to the liquor store and laid in two bottles of the cheap and one of the finest. You know, just in case company came by. (And no, we didn’t buy this house because it was across the street from the liquor store, but it’s worked out well.)

Then we started trolling the bookstore shelves. For me, eight of the new arrivals I’d not handled coming in, ranging from historic fiction to a couple of memoirs to a cheap romance and one history volume. Plus a couple of recorded books, so I could get some crocheting done.

Jack pulled Scottish politics, a couple of conspiracy theory books on assorted points in history (pick one) and – wonder of wonders – a sci fi. When I pointed that out to him, he frowned, “1663 by Dave Weber is fiction? Never mind, then.” He put it back.

Oh well.

And when we woke up Friday morning, snowpocalypse in full fall, we checked our emails, posted our Facebook cats, put on another pot of coffee, and settled in to enjoy the treasure trove.

Yes, being snowed into a bookstore is exactly what it’s cracked up to be.

Go by, mad world.

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The Monday Book – –

Jack’s guest Monday book post –

We Almost Lost Detroit – John G. Fuller

We get lots of older paperbacks into the store pretty regularly and I often find myself dipping into one or two when I’m looking for something to read.

This caught my eye as soon as it came in because I’ve always had pretty mixed feelings about nuclear power and, of course, it’s not so long since the Fukushima ‘incident’!

The book was written specifically about the building of the Enrico Fermi plant back in the 1950s but really goes much wider and examines the dilemma surrounding the whole subject. I should admit right away that my inclination is in favor of renewable energy – solar, wind, wave and tidal, and I’m proud that my homeland of Scotland pioneered hydro-electric power and is very close to being completely self sufficient in renewable energy. I should also say that I was born and grew up in a coal mining area and live now in another one – another piece of the dilemma!

For anyone who has followed the stories of Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima this book will prove somewhat depressing. That’s because everything that happened in these places is clearly foretold in Fuller’s book. What the book sets out very clearly is that no nuclear power plant is completely safe. They are subject to human error at every stage from design through operation and cannot be completely guarded against natural disasters or malicious attacks.

What I’m actually really surprised about is how even handed Fuller is. He is clear that he believes even the private industry leaders who were pushing forward with plans to build the plants were motivated by the best of intentions. He suggests that they also wanted to balance the fear engendered by the atom bomb with a more hopeful peaceful use for the same source of energy. But he goes on to paint a picture of government and corporations caught up in a self generating spiral involving insurance, construction and power companies as well as the usual very shady politics!

The book details many very scary episodes where mere seconds made the difference between a few deaths and thousands and involving tales of distorted metal rods and poor welds.

Finally – part of this story is about arguments over how much the public could or should be told. Some things never change – – –

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The Monday Book: OUT OF THE WOODS by Chris Offutt

I like Offutt’s writing. He was “discovered” by doing the Charlaine Harris teleplays for her vampire series going onto TV, but he wrote several “educated backwoods guy/fish out of water” memoirs before that, and some fiction.

Out of the Woods is some of his early work, and while you can see how his use of language has improved since, these stories are still tight, terse, compact and hard. Sorta like that series on TV, “Hell on Wheels” – no mercy, just character driving plot.

Except in Offutt’s stories here, the mountain backwoods communities of Appalachia may be the driving character in many cases. In the title story of the collection, a man travels out to Nebraska to pick up his brother-in-law, and the whole narrative is pretty much read between the lines of what people are saying and doing. I love writing like that, where the story is told as much as by what’s not said as by what is.

My favorite is “Barred Owl,” which smacks of autobiography, and is a character sketch. As we all know I’m a sucker for well-drawn characters. With amazing economy of words, Offutt depicts a guy who’s half in, half out of the world he lives in, so finely-drawn he could be one of the owl feathers that decorates his cabin. Every little point and feathery piece is there.

Offut might not be for everyone. Frankly, not much happens in these stories. They’re slow, lazy, calm, and all the action is underneath the words. Kind of like a mountain brook – you have no idea how fast or deep the water is until you step into it, and by then it might be too late. Offut’s writing sneaks up on you.

 

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The Monday Book: THE LONG WALK by Slawomir Rawicz

the long walkI read this book as a child and fell in love with the whole concept of (a) adventure memoirs (b) international relations and (c) cultural clashes. Way too young to be reading it at the time, I missed a lot of the main points of the book. For instance, I didn’t know what a gulag was. Which kinda limits what one can get from this memoir.

Because the story is of seven men who escape from a Siberian prison camp and walk to India over the course of a year. Along the way they meet others who travel alongside awhile, including a teenaged girl who escaped from a work camp, and is one of four walkers who dies along the route. The group is attempting to get outside Soviet influenced areas to a place where they will not be returned to a prison. The things they deal with, coupled with the internal relationships within the group, made the book powerful.

But now, rereading it because a (rather mediocre) film was made of the book, I find that the whole memoir is shrouded in controversy. It seems very likely that the person who is telling the story, Rawicz, the de facto leader of the group, actually took someone else’s story as his own.

That doesn’t change the fact that this is a great read, or that it actually happened – but how does one classify a memoir, told in the first person, ghost written by a journalist working with the storyteller, if the storyteller is actually telling someone else’s story?

I dunno – I just know this is a great read.

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