Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday TV Programs: Rectify and Bloodlines

mermaids 021So here’s the thing, devoted readers: I’ve hit a dry spell on books. I’ve read like four this past week but none of them really set my mind to positive reviewing – and that includes the latest Philippa Gregory, sadly. The White Princess just seemed like a rehash gone bad.

Tsk.

But as I’ve been  whipping out mermaid tails (to cover cat care costs here at the Little Bookstore) I’ve been clocking TV time. We don’t have an actual television machine (a joke from the Dick Van Dyke Show my friend Jenny always brings up) but we do have Netflix. And over the last two weeks I have watched Bloodlines and Rectify.

I had no idea they were still making good, original drama anyplace. There are REAL PEOPLE in these shows, families with motivations, people whose lives circle central themes but who every once in a while just go crazy. You know, REAL people.

The characters on Bloodlines are caught in old family dynamics that never go away. The statute on childhood trauma doesn’t always run out. Four siblings and their parents at a Florida resort find that out the hard way. This show is one long character study, but it feels short because of the swift action, the amazing ways in which people screw up, and the clever ways in which the writers don’t try to tell you what to think; they just lay it all out there in the grey zone. Amazing writing, amazing characters, amazing show.

One flaw: the f-word is so overemployed that when the characters truly get mad, they have nothing left to fire with. In fact, one of the most inspired acting moments comes when the oldest brother is blue-white-heat angry, but all he says is “Oh, okay” because he hasn’t got any f-words left to conjugate. Brilliant acting, but whoever’s writing should tone it down a bit. Noun, adjective, verb, and I think at one point a pronoun? Dude – overused.

Then there’s Rectify. I am still in the midst of it, and it has some harsh moments, and is a bit overly interested in the sexuality of humans, but for the most part it’s a morality play along the same deep lines as Breaking Bad. It’s like a thinking person’s Clockwork Orange. What if… what if somebody did something horrible, or what if they didn’t but got punished anyway? What if all this happened in the South, where morality and Christianity aren’t always kissing cousins? What if the actors were not trying to stereotype anybody, and the writers knew what they were talking about?

You’d have an amazing two-season run of a Georgia-based series about a guy let off Death Row based on new evidence, and how the community and his family reacted to him. And how he reacted to a new life. It’s really compelling. (As an added bonus, while on Death Row the main character was an avid reader, so lots of lit references get thrown into dialogue.)

I’ve made four mermaid tails so far and have two to go, so it’s a good thing I have all of season two on Rectify to watch yet. And yes, I accept that booksellers recommending TV shows is just a little off plumb, but I’m okay with that. Do yourself a favor and check out these Netflix shows.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Hunger Games, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach

Jack’s guest Monday book review – Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

queen-of-the-desertThis fascinating account, set during the height of British imperialism, follows the life of the remarkable Gertrude Bell. Little remembered until the recent Iraq wars, it was she who sat down in 1919 and quite literally invented the country. She drew its borders, foresaw the difficulties, recommended how it should be governed, and negotiated and politicked until she got her way. That included choosing Iraq’s first King – Faisal – and making sure he was put on the throne.

The book covers her life from the late 1800s through the late 1920s. A strong willed and intelligent youngster, she was one of the first women in England to be allowed to attend a university. She went on to become a noted mountaineer and traveled throughout the Middle-East as an explorer and antiquarian. Oddly for such an ambitious and atypical woman, she was staunchly anti-suffragist, seemingly thinking of herself as an exception. She did expect to get married, have children and play second fiddle to a husband, but never did. (She had two great loves – the first was deemed to have insufficient prospects by her father and the second was a married man who was killed at Gallipoli).

Just prior to the outbreak of the First World War she began to spend most of her time in Mesopotamia and became a kind of amateur spy and agent feeding information to the colonial offices in India and Egypt as well as the UK Government back in London. She operated very much as a lone-wolf, looked down on by the all-male officials and not fitting in with their wives. As a result she spent a great deal of time with the Sheiks and other local leaders, accepted by them as almost an honorary man.

The book was doubly fascinating for me in the way that it portrays the casual arrogance of imperial powers and the patronizing way that they (particularly France and the UK) divided up the region after the end of the war. Most of the Middle East had been part of the Ottoman Empire, but with Turkey defeated and oil now seen to be so important, an undignified series of negotiations took place and the whole vast area split into brand new countries with puppet leaders. Iraq, Persia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were conjured up but poor Kurdistan (that had been promised its own state) is still waiting. Then there was Palestine – –

Finally you may wonder why the subject of this book isn’t as well known as the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who was a friend and contemporary of hers. I think the answer is simply that T. E. Lawrence was a man and she was a woman. He was the acceptable dashing young adventurer who fitted the stereotype and she wasn’t. In fact it was because she was a woman and had to operate ‘under the radar’ that she was so successful.

I just wish Messrs Bush and Blair had read this book – they might have done things differently!

Two enthusiastic thumbs up from this Scottish reviewer. And I’m waiting for the movie starring Nicole Kidman andvJames Franco, directed by Werner Herzog, due out next month on general release.

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The Monday Book: SEE NO EVIL by Robert Baer

spiesWhen I teach Cultural Geography, I sometimes assign the film Syriana as an extra credit option. Inevitably, all but the brightest students turn in something along the lines of “I couldn’t figure out who the good guys and the bad guys were in this movie because everything was so twisted up.”

Yeah. Welcome to the Middle East spy network.

Baer is the “Bob” who inspired the film, and who (spoiler alert) dies in the airstrike he tries to prevent. And if you think Syriana is convulted, try reading this memoir of Baer’s life in the CIA. On the one hand, it is chronological of the guy’s life experiences. On the other, it describes in bland prose some of the most amazing twists and turns. It would be a great spy novel if you didn’t know people had died because of it.

As an example of how Baer lays out the frustration and confusion, he goes to a small Kurdish-held village on the Iranian border to see what the Iraqi official he’s working with has done: one person says he attacked the village; he swears he didn’t. After a four-hour trip in a Toyota truck mounted with gun turrets (which means he pretty much looked like the Taliban, this American CIA operative) they arrive to find the village has been shelled. He calls his Iraqi contact and says “I know what you did.”

As Baer writes, ” ‘You betrayed me,’ was his only response….. only in the Middle East could you betray someone by refusing to accept the lie he had told you in the first place.”

The book is dated as current history, but as a story of why systems continue to fail because of human personality, it’s pretty much timeless. If you’ve ever read The Prince of the Marshes, by British author Rory Stewart, Baer’s is pretty much the American equivalent.

The funny thing is, Baer makes things very clear even though he really can’t write for beans. His prose is flat, sometimes his verbs are suspect, and he never waxes poetic or gets on a soapbox. Perhaps that helps, in a memoir delivering so many mixed messages while trying to hold onto its own main theme: We’re screwed.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, small town USA, Wendy Welch

We Won the Inaugural International Cat Day at Bookstores Award!

In case anyone missed it, Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness did his column on us this past week. Here’s the article and the link. And we LOVED seeing Valkyttie’s picture going national. :]

 

Robert Gray: International Cat Day Bookstore Prize

In case you missed it, last Saturday was International Cat Day, during which “felines take over the internet (even more than usual),” the Telegraph noted. As news-gathering organizations go, our bookstore cat coverage is pretty comprehensive, so we can testify to the clickbait potential inherent in any hyperlink that includes the words “Bookstore Cats.”

See, you just went there instinctively, didn’t you? Welcome back.

Today, I have the honor of both inventing and announcing the inaugural International Cat Day Bookstore Prize winner. From a long list of worthy contenders, the judges (well, me) unanimously selected Tales of the Lonesome Pine, Big Stone Gap, Va., which is currently hosting a Bookstore Cat Adoption Reunion on Facebook to celebrate all of the “forever homes” they have found for their temporary bookstore kitty interns.

“We started in June 2009, and in May of this year we adopted out our 200th cat (named Reepicheep),” said co-owner Wendy Welch. “The bookstore is a great place to get adoptions going because it acts kind of like a pet store window; people interact with the cats, pick them up and carry them, have fun with them. The tactile experience of being around them has increased adoptions, I think. We still have ‘impulse’ adoptions, although we are careful of those. More often now that we’re established we have people contact us after viewing our Facebook photos.”

Tales of the Lonesome Pine has three cat adoption rules, Welch noted: “Let the cat choose the person–they never miss; give the cats timely literary names (we named a group Harper Lee, Scout, and Boo Radley when Go Set a Watchman came out); and write about their purrsonailities on Facebook. After a cat’s been with us long enough to know them, I usually do a ‘if this cat were a woman/girl’ post and for some reason everybody loves these. I also write a lot of ‘cat voice‘ blogs as if the cat were writing it about his experiences at the shop. These get lots of hits and comments.”

Visitors to the bookstore occasionally donate money (“a kitty for the kitties,” as her husband, Jack, describes it), but Welch said, “We don’t have a jar out and in our troubled economic region I would flat not ask people for money; there are people struggling to feed their families here, literally. We’re not interested in taking their cash. In fact, that’s who we rescue for. Some families would love a pet, be good to it, have enough to feed and care for it, if they didn’t have to pay for spaying and neutering. I have friends who can sometimes be called on to ‘sponsor’ a family if they need it, and we let those ‘kitty’ donations add up to spays as well.”

She also crochets for the cause: “It’s a hobby I’ve had since childhood; I’m fast, and if I do say so myself, I’m really good at it. I can make all sorts of fun stuff; in 2013 it was the Spay & Neuter Afghan–a free online pattern called ‘Rows of Cats.’ I put it online with a note that said ‘This is what you get if you don’t spay and neuter: rows and rows of cats.’ And those things sold like hotcakes; I sold them for the price of a neuter. In 2014 I must have sold 400 of these cool little trivets shaped like penguins and chicks and roosters. This year it is animal scarves and hoodies, and mermaid tail lap blankets. People buy these a lot, and they donate yarn so I can sell them at prices everyone can afford, and still make money for the kitties’ kitty.”

Since the 2012 publication of her book The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Welch said many readers “from outside the area have been quick to assist us, or to assist their local cat shelters in our honor. That’s very cool. The farthest away we have adopted cats is Kansas and Massachusetts. Someone agreed to meet the adopter halfway, and off our babies went to life in the big city–or the American plains. Whichever. We adopted a girl recently to a family in Arlington who came to see the shop because they’d read my book and wanted to see it for themselves. And they came with the idea of getting a cat in mind. We love it when this happens.”

Tales of The Lonesome Pine’s official bookshop cat philosophy is summed up nicely in her book: “The whole establishment catered in design and policy to every whim of the two permanent staff cats and the myriad fosters who have found forever homes via the bookstore.”

Sometimes people ask why they do all this. “We do it for the same reason we run a bookstore: because it’s fun, because it’s important, and because it’s compassionate,” Welch observed. “Animals can’t speak for themselves, tell their own story. They need advocates, and when they get them, they reciprocate by being way more fun to watch than Netflix–plus more engaging.” —Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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The Monday Book – The Romance of the Match – Herbert Manchester (The Diamond Match Co. 1926)

Jack’s unusual guest book review – if you want a copy we have one for sale – – –

“How many thousand or hundred thousand years man lived on earth before learning to use fire is unknown.”

How could anyone resist such an opening sentence as that? Well, I certainly couldn’t!

This booklet was published in the era of art deco and Agatha Christie’s introduction of Hercule Poirot. Its amazing cover is a product of those times. Inside one finds a mixture of 1920’s writing style and world-view. This non-fiction book is unashamedly a corporate promotion for the Diamond Match Company, and yet it tells a fascinating story of the use of fire over millennia and the evolvement of the match industry, including many terrible health hazards along the way. It rather surprisingly doesn’t shy away from the economic pressures on the match industry to continue with dangerous chemicals and chemical processes when others were available, despite the toll on the workers.

DSCN0696

Once it has covered the history of the use and harnessing of fire and the development of the match, however, it becomes much more of an outright promotion of the company and a panegyric for the founder W. A. Fairburn.

I found this booklet a complete delight, particularly for its amazingly bizarre mixture of history, art deco design, choice of font and the final page, comprised of a series of statements by the founder of the company, Mr. W. A. Fairburn, including what I assure you is a complete sentence –

“Diamond men have for years led the world in the art of match making; today they lead in the science of progressive invention, in the art of efficient production and distribution, in the inestimable virtues of brotherhood, equity and undying good fellowship, and in the courage and energy that knows no failure and acknowledges no defeat.”

Please note the semi-colon and the Oxford comma.

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The Monday Book: TURNING STONES by Marc Parent

“Mastering the art of good casework is a little like staring into the shuttering eyes of a rabid canine and saying “nice doggie” until you find a shotgun.”

parentSo says Marc Parent, a Wisconsin transplant who got hired by the Department of Social Services as a case worker in child protection in New York City, because he was from Wisconsin. They had a whole unit of Midwesterners.

I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, and it’s very like watching a reality TV show about social work in Brooklyn. The prologue of the book has a wonderful section about people who might read such a dysfunctional childhood book as voyeurs hoping to find out about sex scandals. I’ve never seen a guy deal so well with so few words with such an ugly element of human nature.

And then he dives into the job, including the fact that while he’s saving children’s lives he’s calculating his overtime, fussing about missing supper, and trying not to get stabbed with a kitchen knife. The book is fascinating, nicely paced between “scared to death gotta do this” and bored, paperworked to death “why am I doing this?”

The on-off-humor, the rush and relax nature of the book, make it feel like you’re really there. You can smell the mildew in “The Nursery,” the area where children taken from their parents are looked after until placements can be found. And fed bologna-and-mustard sandwiches by large women who keep themselves separate from the rest of the crew, and tie the kids’ shoelaces.

Parent’s writing is so descriptive with such word economy, you wonder how many times he has had to talk himself out of a corner. (And for the record, I disagree completely with him and with his fellow worker on the issue of pit bulls.)

The only chapter dealing with a sexually assaulted child is handled so beautifully, describing the interactions between police, nurses, the social workers, the child, and an anatomical doll. He writes with great sensitivity, but also great passion, about the night he could not help the little girl caught in trauma.

Parent also has a lovely comment about kids who “slip between the cracks,” saying they don’t; they slip between people’s fingers, because the entire system is made up of people who do their jobs well, or badly, or make mistakes, or go the extra distance. As he writes of one of his first phone calls with a child experiencing a psychotic episode, “Sean may have had his problems, but he was a smart kid – the day’s lesson was not lost on him, I’m certain. It wasn’t lost on me: It doesn’t matter how good you are at flag signals if no one is watching – the distress call is only as good as the person looking out for it.”

Parent ends the book talking about the day he contributed to the death of a child, the follow-up investigation, and his subsequent decisions about his career with great honesty. Blunt honesty that is somehow poetic.

That’s actually a good summation for this book: blunt honesty that is somehow poetic.

 

 

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The Monday Book: SHADOW TAG by Louise Erdrich

shadow tag This was a creepy book. On the one hand, it’s scarier and more ominous than many thrillers I’ve started but never finished. On the other, it’s about marriage. Draw your own conclusions.

If I had to choose one word to sum up this book, ironically enough it would be “Complex.” The complexities of how people exhibit love, whether love and hate really are two horns on the same goat, and what it means to belong to as opposed to live freely beside someone are all explored with some fairly high-concept stressers added. The couple are Native Americans. They are successful artists. They are alcoholics. And whether they love each other or use each other or even like each other is up for grabs in the eyes of the reader.

And get this: she creates that complex effect with simplicity. Her writing, lyrical though it is, is pretty simple. The dialogue where the couple are arguing about love and divorce, interjected with tossing a salad and setting the table, had me weeping with laughter. “You don’t understand love at all. Do you want croutons?”

Also, Irene, the writer, is writing two diaries at the same time to confuse her painter husband Gil, who is reading the one he thinks is real. And she gets confused between them herself. Which is kinda funny, kinda tragic.

What is clear is that chaos creates chaos creates complications, and that the kids are incredibly well-drawn characters in this novel. Your heart breaks over them, and I suspect no two people would read this book in quite the same way. It’s just a jumble of ideas that are strung together in a story line, and sometimes it’s a series of descriptions rather than a “this happened next.”

Which works and adds to the chaotic doomed feeling of the book.

All I can say is, don’t read this book if you’re in a really good mood, or a really bad one. Read it when you have time to think about the complexities, puzzle over the “why did she and why didn’t he” moments, and feel. You’re gonna need a lot of time to feel, and you’re not always going to know why you feel what you feel. At least, I didn’t.

Two head scratches and a thumbs up for this beautiful, scary novel.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction