Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN by William Kotzwinkle

Okay, I hate magical realism. Why I picked up this book, I cannot tell you, but I’m so glad I did. It is laugh out loud funny. I read so many parts of it out loud to Jack, he finally told me to stop, he’d read it later.bear

Aesop’s Fables meets David Lodge in this book about a bear who finds a novel in a briefcase, and decides to turn himself into somebody. Which means going to New York, becoming the toast of the publishing and talk circuit world, and buying a British title. Also lots and lots of pies, cakes, ice cream, pretzels, and potato chips. He’s a bear. He names himself Hal Jam, because there’s nothing nicer than jam, and he can remember how to spell Hal.

People involved in the publishing and/or cult of celebrity world will shriek with recognition at some of the antics of this bear and his team, but everyone is going to love him on some level. If it gives you any insights, the book culminates in a lawsuit about copyright.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

The bear looked out the window at the city. “Mine,” he thought. Of course he’d need to shit around the perimeter and subdue some females, but time enough for that.

When I wasn’t annoying Jack by saying, “Wait wait, listen to this!” I was laughing out loud, startling the dogs as they lay by the bed. This book is so very, very funny. It skewers the publishing experience and a few other things besides. And it never lets up.

So when I finally realized I was indeed enjoying a magic realism novel, I thought it had to be because the author was such a good writer. Simple, fast sentences with complex nuances, floating between bear brain and publisher brain. He’s good, this guy.

Yeah, well, William Kotzwinkle wrote ET. Yes, that ET.

Two unopposable bear claws up for THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN.

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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: The Girl in the Spiders Web by David Lagercrantz

Jack and Wendy started listening to The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz on the way back from Wyoming. They tried to finish it back home. This guest blog by Jack is the result.

I got the distinct feeling that this was an unfinished story by the original series’ author Stieg Larsson that had been finished off by Lagercrantz.

The first two thirds of the book is just as gripping as the previous books in the Lisbeth Salander series, but then it fairly abruptly drifted off into a plotless limbo. I never thought I’d end up forcing myself to finish it simply to find out what happened to one of the characters. And the characters! How many do you need to keep introducing? Reporters, magazine executives, IT experts, gangsters, movie stars, psychologists, US intelligence agents and on and on – – . Many of these appeared as the plot was beginning to lose direction, so thank you Mr Lagercrantz.

Enough, already!

The basic idea of taking something that most people have a vague knowledge of, in this case the genius savant,  and then stretching it to its limits and building a gripping conspiracy around it, got the book off to a pretty rollicking start. It’s just a shame it shifted into neutral and started coasting.

It hasn’t put me off going back to re-read the original books by Stieg Larsson, but I won’t be rushing to buy Lagercrantz’s next epic.


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The Monday Book: DOCTORS FROM HELL by Vivien Spitz

It’s bound to be Monday somewhere (the Monday book on Tuesday) a guest blog by Jack

I suppose, as a Quaker, I’m always interested in how folk can be persuaded to treat other human beings badly, or even kill them. Of course it usually requires the creation of the ‘other’ – on racial or religious grounds and the application of the state propaganda through a compliant media. It also helps to have a large segment of society that feels hard done by. Then you need a strongly hierarchical society where it becomes particularly hard to ‘buck the system’!

Spitz was a young court reporter at the Nuremberg Trials – specifically the follow-up trials of the doctors and health professionals who carried out a series of dreadful experiments on concentration camp internees and prisoners of war. I’m not sure what I expected, but I was impressed that she didn’t shy away from the fact that the dubious ‘science’ of Eugenics wasn’t pioneered in Germany, but in the US. She also touches on experiments that were carried out without permission in the US after WW2 on some groups as well as by Japan during the war.

I’ve never believed that there was something uniquely different about the German population in the 1930s and 40s that made them somehow different from the rest of humanity. I often wonder how I would have behaved if I had been living there and then.

The main defense that was put forward by the defendants during the trials Spitz reported on revolved around two things. First, that they were fighting a war and were ordered to carry out certain actions and had to comply. Secondly that, as doctors, they believed they were acting for the ‘greater good’ – they could help many by sacrificing a few.

Some of the accused were found guilty and others were acquitted. Of those found guilty some were sentenced to death and others to long jail sentences.

But others who might have been tried at Nuremberg were never brought to trial. Some escaped to South America and others were recruited by the US, the UK and the Soviet Union as useful assets for the next war. Most famously, Werner van Braun became the hero of the US space industry bringing  the expertise he gained on the back of prisoners from the camps who died in their thousands building his V2 rockets for the Nazi cause.

Per Ardua ad Astra instead of Arbeit Macht Frei?

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A guest blog from TWO BEARS FARM

This blog is from Lisa, who blogs at, about her visit to our bookshop. Thank you, Lisa!

A while ago my mom loaned me a book called The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.  A memoir, it sat on my bookshelf for a while before I read it and discovered it was so much better than I ever expected.  I fell in love with the quirky used bookstore in Big Stone Gap, and suggested to my parents (who both enjoyed the book, too) that we go there.

Big Stone Gap is waaaaayyyy down in the deep southwest of the state.  It took us a while to get there.  On the way we stopped at a farm to table restaurant in Meadowview called Harvest Table where I got the best grilled chicken sandwich ever.  I never even knew chicken could taste like that. On homemade focaccia with a remoulade sauce, it was the most tender, most flavorful chicken in existence.  If you are ever out that way (and you probably won’t be), be sure to stop in.

Eventually, we made it to Big Stone Gap, deep in the Appalachian mountains.  The bookstore didn’t disappoint.   The boys had a blast exploring all the rooms and carrying around the six (!) foster kittens in residence.  We all found a few books we needed.

On the way home we took a little detour through Lebanon so I could see the area where my grandfather’s family lived.  I enjoyed seeing his old stomping ground, imagining him as a young boy there with his siblings.

It was a lot of driving for one day, but included unique experiences, and I got to see some beautiful areas of the state I had never seen before.  Plus, that chicken sandwich?  Totally worth seven hours of driving.

Readers – have you ever gone out of your way to see a place from a book or a movie?

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

The Monday Book: SOME GIRLS SOME HATS AND HITLER by Trudi Kanter

This first-person memoir came into our bookstore and I thought the title was intriguing, so took it on holiday with me. It turns out to be a self-published book from the 1950s that went out of print. Someone who worked for a publisher bought it in a second-hand bookstore, and the rest is reprint history.

Girls Hats Hitler is fascinating, because it’s pretty much the first person memories of a woman who expected to have a very normal life–and a fairly vapid one at that. Velvets and dances and moonlight, oh my – but she was Jewish and her husband was Jewish, and in 1930 Austria that changed everything.

What’s so interesting about the book is its sense of play by play, the feeling of wondering “What would I have done” as Trudi has the opportunity to stay in Paris and be safe, then to get out but not take anyone with her, and then to decide how to get out. She isn’t equipped for this kind of decision making, but she learns fast. Being rich helped, too, but more than that, she took seriously what was happening around her. Many of her friends and extended family didn’t.

Perhaps the most devastating part of the book is she’ll recall what happened at a particular party or event, the gestures and looks and petty jealousies, and then she’ll say “He died in Auschwitz. She took poison.” That kind of thing.

The book is frustrating, because there are some parts where she only says “And then we got visas,” not how they got them, who they bribed, what it took, etc. Sometimes, when you think the story is about to get deep, it just stops. She self-published this, and I can kind of see why an editor didn’t want to work with her. On the other hand, when she does let go and tell what happened, you see so clearly what it was like to be just one person caught up in and trying to survive one of the worst things in living memory.

Including the moment when as a Jewish emigree, her husband is interred as a German enemy combatant in London. It’s just plain crazy sometimes, the world in which they lived.

I highly recommend the book, but be prepared to be in parts frustrated, in parts confused, and in parts laughing at how someone in danger of imminent death can be jealous because her husband is flirting with the person who can save their lives. It’s a very honest book when it’s telling the whole story.


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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Hunger Games, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, post-apocalypse fiction, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book

Jack’s Guest post – The Swan Thieves

Wendy and I listened to Elizabeth Kostova’s 17-disc novel as a recorded book to entertain us from Big Stone Gap all the way to western Wyoming and part of the way back. We like big books for big drives, and we cannot lie. Actually, I believe that the voices made a big difference and held our attention well.

As for the story – I thoroughly enjoyed it. The format is the tried and trusted multi-strings that begin as if they are completely unrelated, seem to develop without any obvious connection, and then finally resolve with all loose ends satisfactorily tied up.

The tale opens with a successful artist being arrested for attempting to damage a painting in a New York art gallery and continues through the voices of him, his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, a 19th C. French artist and her uncle, and mainly the opening artist’s psychiatrist.

I’ve often found that this style of book loses me as I try to keep up with the different strands, but this time I had no problem and I felt gripped all the way to the end. The story is set mainly in New York, Maine, N. Carolina and Paris as well as 19th C. Normandy. Among other elements of enjoyment, the author really describes them well.

I suppose if I have any quibble at all it’s that the different threads of the story were rather abruptly brought together at the end, almost as if Kostova. got fed up and decided she’d had enough. I would have preferred a gentler landing perhaps. Then again, a book that entertains for 17 hours of driving is holding its own.

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The Monday Book: OFF THE CHART by Molly O’Dell

OdellWe pause from Jack and Wendy’s adventures in South Dakota/Wyoming to bring you this week’s The Monday Book.

Poetry isn’t really my thing but about twice a year we have a poet’s event in the bookstore. Last year we had Molly O’Dell as one of the poets, and I really enjoyed her work. Accessible, rhythmic, cadenced like local chat, nuanced and perceptive.

Molly sent me a copy of her recently published book of poems Off the Chart. I love pun titles; Molly is a doctor and director of a local health district, so many of her poems are about patient encounters, and her own experience with a mastectomy.

My favorite might be “Appalachian Pearl” and I’m reproducing the first half of it here so you can see how Molly combines the everyday to make things more than the sum of their parts. Punctuation indicates a new line, and where there wasn’t any I’ve used a slash, since WordPress is not conducive to lining out poetry:

I knew her grandmother, first woman down here to run an agency, and her mother, first to divorce. She carries their grit inside/behind her teeth, between the creases. She cuddles her child/like a bag of canning salt pulled off the shelf between vinegar and sugar.

I also loved “After he walks in to make an appointment,” about a guy with a bad rep she treats for a saw wound, after calling her grandmother to see if he’s safe. And the three or four poems about human dignity, often having to do with substance abuse and prescription seeking.

I don’t think you can get Molly’s book too many places, but you can order it from us or from her directly via FB. You might ask your local library to get in a copy; it’s from WordTech Editions, so can be ordered via, poetry editor Kevin Walzer.

And the last one I’ll mention here, a story poem called “First ER Shift,” when the senior resident asks Molly to stitch up someone, and she discovers it’s a woman who’s been slashed by a bottle. She’s a prostitute and the bottle was wielded by an angry client. The poem is less poetry than anger broken into pieces, and yet it’s very gentle in its matter-of-factness. O’Dell demands a lot from her readers, and offers even more. These poems don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what happened and leave the rest for you to piece out between the lines.

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