Category Archives: Downton Abbey

A Walled Garden

19206160_1634797773197947_1339798747_nIn the city, space is a commodity. I’ve always thought of cities as incongruous lonely spaces – so many people, so little humanity interacting.

But we are staying with friends in downtown Edinburgh, not a mile off Princess Street (downtown) and they have a walled garden…..

I love walled gardens. Your own little bit of marked off territory for just sitting, thinking, being quiet and contemplative with a book and a cup of tea, or loud and boisterous with instruments and a bottle of wine and a handful of mates.

In the middle of the city, you can find the greenery and the fountains and the people who actually live in the cities, whose lives are rooted like the gardens they plant in their little secret places.

Perhaps my fondness for gardens stems back to the day after Jack’s mum died, and I was away from home in Ayrshire, in Wigtown, Scotland’s book city, and had nowhere to go to be by myself and have a good cry. And I spilled my guts to say as much to one of the bookshop owners, at Ceridwin’s Cauldron, and she took me back to her garden and brought me tea and told me to stay as long as I wanted. I spent an hour back there composing myself and being nothing but alone. Ever since then, walled gardens have been a special space.

The garden here at Barbara and Oliver’s has been a jolly place, shared for music and reminiscences and politics and the mystery of the noise coming from somewhere nearby. (Jack cracked that; it was a two-note sound not unlike the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS alien five-note theme, and he found the sewer pipe in the apartment next door was letting off gas, one note opening, the other closing. A farting building, in essence.)

Walled gardens are lovely, and every city has such little tucked-away spaces. Explore them when you can, with friends when you can. They are the heartbeat of humanity.

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Filed under between books, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, home improvements, Life reflections, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, small town USA, VA, writing

The Monday TV adaptation of a book: JOHNATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

Eddie MarsanSo when this book came to me as a pre-publication edition, sent to several bookstore, I couldn’t get into it. Timing probably had a lot to do with this, but I didn’t give the fantasy novel a second shot.

The other night, in a weird frame of mind, I was looking for something to crochet by on Netflix and saw “Season 1” of the BBC adaptation. And thought, “Why not?”

It’s so much fun, watching this. I’m sure the special effects of written magic have something to do with it – reading about sand horses and ships made of rain only works in some writing styles, but watching them appear? Oh yes, very nice.

For those unfamiliar (the book was a bestseller, after all) this is a novel about two magicians bringing magic back to England during the Georgian era. They play fast and loose with history timelines, but oh they’ve got the fops and pageantry down. The series is a visual feast with lots of cultural insider jokes and brilliant acting moments. The story that I found clunky on the page comes alive in cinematography.

Not that Clarke doesn’t write well, just to each their own. The plot is character-driven. Mr. Norrell is afraid of his own shadow. Johnathon Strange is two degrees off a nitwit. And all their supporters and detractors are very well drawn. There aren’t any paper thin people in this production.

So if you are inclined, pick up the book or tune into the series, whichever suits you better. Read about the King of Lost Hope, the would-be musicians who decide to open a lunatic asylum and wind up with more than they bargained for, the enigmatic Childermass, and the other unexplained mysteries of a world bound by rules that suddenly gets to break them all.

It’s fun.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky

The Monday Book falls on a Tuesday this week due to Celtic Festivals and kitten spays.

suiteIrene Nemirovsky was a Ukranian-born Jewish woman who lived in Paris and enjoyed a successful writing  career. She planned five short novels to be part of a book titled Suite Francaise, but she had only written two and drafted the third when she was rounded up, deported, and murdered.

What’s amazing about the first novel “Storm in June” is how accurately it describes something ongoing. Nemirovsky never got the luxury of time to contemplate what she saw, so her characterizations of the upper class family, the pompous writer, the sweet middle-class couple, and the nasty antiques dealer fleeing (or trying to flee) Paris sprang almost fully formed as she watched it unfold in front of her. I wonder who (or how many) of her colleagues she skewered in the darkly hysterical portrait of the famous author and his mistress as they flee, first in pomp and style, then with whatever diminishing wits they can gather about them.

Then there’s “Dolce,” from which a film is/has been made. It’s more of an expected war story: women whose husbands are prisoners in Germany house German officers as occupiers; add community sentiment and stir. It’s fairly predictable. But “Storm in June” is amazing in its details of what human hearts turn into when combined with fear, breakdown of social order, and a few sudden chances to change everything. Nemirovsky saw through a lot of veneers.

The manuscripts were finally published in this century, when her daughter opened the suitcase and read them, realized they were novels rather than journals, and sent them to Denoel, a large publishing house. “Storm in June” is pretty much genius, making you laugh and sob at the same time.

How many people did we lose in that storm, who would have made us laugh or cry today?

 

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

To See Ourselves…

Jack and I have done a lot of festival receptions over the years. Usually attendees are divided into two groups: those who are just so super-excited to be there, and those who are not.

The fun part comes when you have these two types meshed into one person, working the room but pretending to be bored with the whole thing. As we did awhile back, watching two female authors at a reception duke it out for “Queen of the Room.”

They were wearing similar dresses, for a start—which is never a good start. But things were unequal, because the California blond had on high heels, and sunglasses atop her head holding back her hair, Classic Hollywood style.

Since we were in North Carolina, the look was somewhat different from the rest of the room, but it worked for her. Still, the piece de resistance was her watch, a double strand of pearls in its band, diamonds shimmering from the face. She turned it to catch the light as she spoke to everyone who came near the wine table (which she’d strategically claimed as the location of her court on arrival) flopping an insouciant hand to accent a point tossed off as she dominated her conversation clutch.

The clutch consisted of a male sponsor, a female fan, and the second would-be-queen—who was working hard to wrest the conversation from California Girl because she had been the first to position herself at the wine table, and CG had cleverly turned her by speaking as she poured herself a glass, claiming the coveted conversational dominance spot. But Queen II was older, and therefore able to rely more on wit and treachery than spiked heels. As the fan asked CG a question, face turned adoringly upward (everyone has to look up to someone wearing 8-inch heels) Q2 took a step forward and broke the circle. Suddenly FanGirl was looking at Q2 who blithely gave a smiling answer to the question as she wedged back into the wine table hot spot, forcing FanGirl back a few inches.

The male sponsor, sensing a chance to close in, moved across to stand on the other side of CG and she had to turn her head to answer him. Two new conversations formed, but CG was visibly sore about this. As FanGirl continued to enjoy her conversation with Q2 and Mr. Sponsor moved in for the kill, CG, who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the room, flashed a bright smile at a cute guy in a polo shirt, who’d stopped to score some cantaloupe from the table.

Fruit forgotten, he turned and began speaking to CG. Q2, observing, opened her profile with one deft grapevine step, and voila, FanGirl, CG, Polo Cutey, and Q2 were now in a line of conversation that excluded Mr. Sponsor. The dueling queens each turned half profile to Cutey, and FanGirl wandered off as Cutey—who may or may not have known anything about the fiction these women had written—did his best to hang on for the ride. Which was short, for the two queens, perhaps tired of the dance of passive aggression, now began to speak to one another. In honeyed tones. With fluttering eyelashes and much pressing of hands to bosoms. I’m sure their lips read “bless your heart” at one point—which didn’t really work for CG, but hey, who’s to judge? Cutey, his task completed, buzzed away like a drone driven from the hive after mating season.

Now lest you think this vignette harsh, remember, I’m an ethnographer who people watches for fun.  The whole evening felt like watching a television show in which I also played a role. Someone watching me would have seen a woman with frizzy hair in too-casual clothes cheerfully standing in the corner sipping a glass (ok, two) of the (very excellent) red wine provided for the occasion, soaking it all in. The ambiance, not the wine.

The room was crowded with authors making pitches, marketers who came up to talk to me because I own a bookstore, sponsors floating like butterflies among the guests, pouring wine and inquiring whether we were having a good time. The queen-women were just doing their jobs as authors, and if a bit of competition entered the body language, it’s only to be expected. They were oblivious to all else in the crowded room, and pretty much the rest of the authors were working too hard to notice them. I don’t know who they were. But Burns was right: it would be a true gift to see ourselves as others see us.

A toast to authors and receptions everywhere please. *raises glass*

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Old World, New World, My World

It’s often only when you’re pulled away at short notice, with many loose ends left dangling, that you realize how many real friends you have. When my sister’s funeral summoned me to Scotland, I was worried that even with Internet availability and my trusty laptop, there were chores that folk at home just wouldn’t know needed to be dealt with, things the bookstore required that wouldn’t get done.

With the evidence of over a hundred messages of condolence and many more FaceBook ‘likes’, and with a high proportion from around here, I should have known better. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

Of course Wendy bore the brunt of it and cheerfully juggled duties while also dealing with a writing deadline and the current exceptional stress of her day job at GMEC–not to mention grabbing the opportunity to ‘launder’ a fourteen count kitten rescue through the store while I was away. I could also depend on the usual emergency cover by the heroic James, Kelley, Kody, Elizabeth and Mark and my exceptional ‘soul-mates’ Tony and Anne.

This core group of people that are a kind of loyal bookstore family (Wendy is family, of course, but you catch my drift) each rallied round and in whatever way they could. This reduced my panic to a bearable level and let me concentrate on family and friends at a time that, although predicated on sadness, also involved a lot of reconnecting with family and friends.

My final evening in Scotland before returning home was an invite for dinner with one of my oldest friends. My former singing partner Barbara had asked me to her and her husband Oliver’s new apartment in Edinburgh along with another couple of friends and her son Archie, who did the catering. Despite having just moved in and with only half the rooms habitable, we all sat down to a relaxed and memorable meal, punctuated with lots of memories of the folk and jazz scenes in Dunfermline, where we had all grown up. In the middle of the evening Barbara began to describe her visit to Big Stone Gap two years ago with her husband Oliver when she headlined our Celtic festival. She spoke of Kelley and Sam and their kids, describing Kelley as “a kind of female rugby character, someone you felt you should not mess with but who has a kind heart.” She depicted life in the bookstore (“kittens everywhere, all adorable”) and reminisced on their visit to Carter Fold (“the dancing, such a community”) I realized that I’m exceptionally lucky. Because I have another extended family back in Scotland, some of whom have visited here and made the connection. I consider myself doubly blessed!

My dearest wish would have been for ‘Big Sis’ Margaret to come over, visit with us and become part of that bigger family, just like my niece Vicki and her daughter Elle.

I had been plotting, but it wasn’t to be – – – Time waits for nothing. Enjoy your family, biological and chosen, while you have them. They are a blessing.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Because Nothing Clears the Air like a good Murder

May 2016 murder 054Last fall when Big Stone was going crazy on itself, we got a nasty letter from the town council saying our lawn was out of order with town order and we’d be fined if we didn’t fix it. Jack called the town planner out, and the poor lad looked things over and said, “Well, this is embarrassing. The part that’s out of order is the part we were supposed to be cutting.” The next day some guys came and cut the verge.

But a couple of days later, a town councilor who shall remain nameless visited the bookstore for the first time in our ten-year-history and offered town resources to cut our herbarium and wildflowers down. “At no cost to you, and they can be here in ten minutes.” We explained again that the seeds had been a wedding present from the Quakers in Scotland, and the unplanned look was deliberate. The councilor left graciously–perhaps unconvinced, but graciously.

May 2016 murder 012Garden Gate, as we came to call it, was silly. Not malicious, just silly, involving misunderstandings about heirloom seeds and personal choice and English wooded gardens. So never mind about that. The fun part was planning a murder mystery based on it.

Heh heh heh.

Fourteen gardeners gathered last night to provide The New Bookstore Lawn, paid for by Big Stone’s new tourism fund. Unfortunately, half were Baptist and half Methodist. Plus we all know what happens when John Bach’s bookstore has more than a dozen people in it at a time…..

Sure enough, Paxton face planted into her salad, and the whodunnit was on. Perhaps it was the hats, or the cupcake-fueled sugar craze, but the attendees were never more in character, and the one-liners flowed faster than red wine. Poor little Girl Detective Margaret Bach coped with her helicopter mom and a room full of flower power as best May 2016 murder 019she could, while Swinger Jimmy begged her to smell his hands, and Grand Mother of Snap Dragons Peony Overbloom snarled at church lady Joy Abounder, “No shit you’re having an affair with my husband! Who do you think engineered it? He’s the most boring man I’ve ever known and you bedding him gives me more time in my flower beds!”

It was that kind of night. Hippie Hannah pepper sprayed people with No Terra oils. Town bimbo Poppy Upster sold secrets on Facebook. Halfway through, the murderer–confused by improvisation rather than scripting–confessed. The undaunted steel magnolias continued unearthing a blackmailing, secret bigamist marriage, and church funds embezzlement before the murderer was finally allowed to repeat her confession, backed by the olfactory powers of No Terra oils.

We blow off more steam this way, and it’s so fun. But bad news, good people of Big Stone: the toilet stays. It’s postmodern ironic. And full of petunias. The rest of us, we’re full of belly laughs from last night.toilet flowers

 

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