Category Archives: book reviews

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 wordtechweb.com, 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book

Wendy is still on a writing deadline so Jack is standing in again –

Tsunami by Iain MacWhirter

Health warning: this is a book about Scottish politics, specifically the landslide victory by the Scottish National Party in Scottish constituencies during the 2015 UK election.

I have a great deal of respect for Iain MacWhirter, a thought-provoking political commentator who works for the BBC.  MacWhirter has a long and honorable pedigree as an observer of UK and Scottish politics, not to mention the respect of his peers. That’s not to say that he hasn’t penned a few newspaper articles with which I’ve taken issue, just that his  voice carries weight.

Tsunami is a follow up to an earlier book by the author about the Scottish referendum on independence the previous year, Disunited Kingdom.

Regardless of my occasional disagreements with him I recommend both of these books to anyone with an interest in the incredibly fast-moving political scene in the UK right now. Of course the arrival of ‘Brexit’ means that Iain will probably have to write another book about the second referendum on Scottish independence next year.

For those unfamiliar, Scotland wanted to stay in the EU and since there was a vote recently on Scotland leaving the UK, Scottish politicians are ready to take advantage of the mood and the timing to try again. Scottish voters declined to declare themselves independent of the UK, and then pretty much found that the promises made to them if they stayed had been false. As a result, the vote that McWhirter writes about in Tsunami was expected to swing so overwhelmingly toward the Scottish National Party candidates that the leaders of the party began to caution people not to have unrealistic expectations.

Tsunami captures the flow of the various parties’ campaigns in the lead-up to the UK election. A big part of its thrill is McWhirter’s description of the atmosphere in the BBC green room, and the responses of the various spin doctors, that election night, as the SNP finished with 56 out of 59 Scottish seats. Watching the events, I remember one political commentator saying, “This isn’t an election. It’s a rout.”

The book finishes with the overwhelmingly triumphant SNP members of parliament arriving at the House of Commons in London to find themselves disregarded within a parliament of 650 members, despite being the third biggest party there.

MacWhirter captures with humor and insight a strange time in Scottish politics, and sets the tone for the stranger times yet to befall the UK as the full implications of Brexit become clear to all parties.

Better read this before it’s completely out of date; books will be coming out soon on Brexit.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Monday Book (on Tuesday)

Jack is deputizing  for Wendy this week – and still jet-lagged from his annual visit to Scotland.

Hamish Henderson – a biography by Timothy Neat (2 volumes)

Two admissions –

1 – I knew Hamish Henderson, and 2 – I read volume two before I read volume one.

I really wished I’d read the two volumes in order. The second one covers the period when I knew Hamish and when he was much better known generally as the great promoter of the folk music revival in Scotland and founder of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University. The trouble is that anyone who had the slightest knowledge of him during that period is now vying to have been his best friend. I’m not one of these since although I admired him enormously and we were acquainted we were not close friends by any means. I say this because the second volume kind of reads as a personal appeal by Tim Neat to be recognized as not only THE HH authority, but his best friend and associate.  Now that may be true, of course, but I don’t think it needed quite so many reminders.

Leaving that aside, I greatly enjoyed both volumes but particularly the first one, which was a revelation to me. I had only the vaguest idea of Hamish’s earlier life and really no knowledge of his childhood or war career. It may be that because the first volume is based much more on research than personal anecdote there are many more voices present than in the second one and less of Tim Neat’s.

Looking back at what I’ve written I can see that I may have been a bit harsh, but that’s simply because I had such admiration for Hamish. He encouraged my (and many other’s) interest in Scottish traditional songs and ballads, he took on the establishment and he never sought personal recognition or fame.

Perhaps I was too close to the events and history of volume two to be objective in my appraisal.

If, like me you want the complete story of a remarkable life then there are a number of recent books out there and, despite my slight misgivings Timothy Neat’s should certainly be counted among ‘required reading’!

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, reading, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Movie: SPOTLIGHT

spotlight-mv-10I was reading a memoir by a bestselling fiction author, in hopes of making it the Monday Book. But 1) it was the most boring book I’ve read since grad school and 2) I was trying to finish an afghan on a tight deadline so that led to an allnighter with Netflix.

SPOTLIGHT is a movie about the Boston Globe breaking the cover-up of sexual predator priests by the Catholic church, not just in Boston, but internationally. It’s an amazing movie. The journalists are not unbelievable heroes. The tedious build-up of info includes research details I remember from my days behind the desk. I LOVE the scene where they realize they can use annual directories of priests to figure out who is on “sick leave” and other code names.

There’s also an intense moment where the “good guy” reporters confront the “bad guy” lawyer who’s making money off hushing up the scandals, and discover he sent them the names of 20 predator priests five years before, hoping to get off the gravy train and redeem himself. The Globe buried the story. Spoiler alert: the guy who buried the story then is leading the charge now, but not for redemption. He literally doesn’t remember  burying the story.

“Just doing my job.”

Spotlight had me riveted, and now I want to read the books (by the journalists and by Robert Sipe, a psychotherapist who wrote about the problems and was hachet-jobbed by the church). The icky details are handled with sensitivity, and the story of Spotlight centers around how they carefully built the story.

You really want to see this. It deserved its best picture Oscar last year and it is now available on Netflix.

 

5 Comments

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: THE RETURNED by Jason Mott

 

the returnedMy friend Susan and I were tooling through a yarn crawl in Asheville, North Carolina, and came across a library book sale.

ZIP – I was in the doors almost as fast as Susan. They had a cart of free books you could just take, and on it sat Mott’s The Returned. I watched a French television series about Revenants a couple of years ago during a crocheting jag, and sort of liked it. It was half intellectual “what if,” half horror. I’m not a big fan of horror, but those what ifs will hook me every time.

I wondered if it were the one from which the series was made, and in fact the author blurb in back said it was being made into a series. So I took it to compare the French (and later a really crappy American series) to the book.

Would it surprise you to know the book is much better? Also, that the French series was based on a novel of the same name, much more horror-esque, by Seth Patrick. Stephen King once said about really good fantasy writing, “You don’t have to answer all the questions. You have to tell the story.” More or less. And that’s why I like Mott’s book better. He’s not trying to scare you or shock you. He just wonders, what if?

What if your dead loved ones, or unloved ones, returned, not flesh eating or hell bringing, just walked back in and sat down to dinner and said, “Why is everyone else older? Where have I been?”

It’s an interesting book because it follows one family whose little boy drowned, but intersperses it with one-chapter vignettes of other Returneds. Like The Grapes of Wrath with the Joads and the rest.

The book is really slow getting started. About 1/3 is set-up, 1/3 is build-up and then 1/3 takes the action back down. Slowly. For a “thriller” it’s gentle.

I loved it. The writing is very poetic, casual, calm. The subject matter is weird. The conclusions are startling. And it hooks you right from the first page.

Who could ask for more from a ghost story that is pretty much literature?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, out of things to read, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: THE DISAPPEARING SPOON by Sam Kean

thedisappearingspoonMy publisher and agent are constantly warning all their authors against books that lack a narrative arc. (In other words, the book is a series of short stories or anecdotes that don’t build into one big story.)

And I like these kind of books, although per their advice I’m trying not to write them. So I LOVED The Disappearing Spoon. It’s a series of anecdotes connected by the periodic table’s geography: the column of noble gasses, to one side of them the alkalis, to the other the acids, each bent on negating the other.

Kean makes explaining how atoms are put together simple, like Venus Flytrap once famously did on the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. He explains their layers, how they all want eight neutrons (I think it was neutrons) in their outer layer and every action they take is designed to make that balance happen. How these actions are interrelated to the rest of the universe, making stuff go or stop.

And then there are the funny stories about the scientists: bitter, driven, sweet, under-rated, over-rated: the people who discovered the stuff, and whether it made them happy or not. LOVE the people stories.

Then there are the the little bits like the title anecdote, about lab assistants making spoons out of gallium (which melts at 84 degrees) and serving tea with them. (Wonder how many wives, mothers, and girlfriends got gallium poisoning in the early 1900s? Wonder if there’s such a thing as gallium poisoning?)

But my favorite thing about this book is how he uses the periodic table columns to show how related elements are grouped, and how they are grouped next to things that are either very like or so opposite that they are inevitably paired in life and in our minds. It’s fascinating to dip into.

This is not a narrative you read in one sitting, but a bedside book you dip into. I’ve even read fluffy books between chapters of Kean’s denser, yet not frighteningly so, stories. He makes the ideas accessible, and the explanations simple. Like sitting down for tea with your favorite 9th grade science teacher. Just don’t use the spoon he gives you.

117 stars for The Disappearing Spoon, although a few of these have swift half-lives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, post-apocalypse fiction, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: UNWIND by Neal Shusterman

So yeah, most readers have a secret fondness for at least one area of YA fiction. Mine is dystopians and fantasy. And frankly, as far as I can tell, these days all YA fantasy IS dystopian.

I picked up UNWIND by Neal Shusterman to shelve it, from a box that came in for trade. And got intrigued with the premise on the back cover, about the last American war (The Heartland War) being fought over reproductive rights. And how now life begins at conception but from 13-18 a child can  be “unwound,” body parts farmed out for all sorts of operations for all sorts of reasons. It’s a boon to the economy and really a good deal for everyone except the Unwound Kids.

And it all goes from there. The book follows three kids, one whose parents give up on him, one a ward of the state, and one a tithe, from a family who has ten kids. Shusterman actually begins the four sections of this novel with quotes from ebay, denying someone the right to sell his soul (because if it doesn’t exist it’s fraud, and if it does exist it’s body parts, which they don’t allow), another about Ukranian orphans being organ harvested in 2003 (mass grave found outside the orphanage and shut down after outrage) and a third about Einstein and consciousness.

Shusterman’s book is intended to be more terrifying than gross. It goes for the jugular. And of course it has parts that just don’t hold up, but one really needs to enter this dystopia with a little willing suspension of disbelief, or what’s the point? And once you have, it’s a lot like reading Sheri Tepper. The exquisite sarcasm crafted so carefully in the words of those who escape Unwinding, reflecting back the odd slogans about bodies and rights, is funny. Dark, but funny.

It’s a creepy book, but well-plotted, with solid characters that don’t just serve as straw men. You know the people in this novel, which makes it all the more disturbing how some of them meet their end.

Two thumbs up (both still attached, thanks) for UNWIND.

2 Comments

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction