Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

The Monday Book: A STREET CAT NAMED BOB by James Bowen

bobOf course I was going to love this book, because 1) it’s about a cat and 2) it’s an insider’s ethnographic account of a lifestyle most people don’t experience but think we know a lot about. I like almost any book that tells a story about a lifestyle I won’t experience naturally, so long as it’s done without anger or proselytizing. This book did not disappoint on its promise to deliver my two favorite types of non-fiction in one read…..

As an added bonus, Bowen has a nice turn of phrase; he well-read and puns every once in awhile in a fun way (like the title). He also has a great story to tell: how he found Bob on the streets of London, nursed him back to health, and realized he needed to be a responsible adult because he loved something that needed him.

Pretty straightforward things follow. Bowen gets off drugs, takes a job, ups his musicianship game, and sorts out a few loose ends in his life to do with relationships. One kind of expects these, and his simple explanatory prose in their telling made them accessible for those who don’t engage life in the same way. As in this quote:

“I don’t know why, but people seem to be fascinated to learn how some members of society fall through the cracks. I think it’s partly that feeling that… it could happen to anyone. But I think it also makes people feel better about their own lives. It makes them think, ‘Well, I may think my life is bad, but it could be worse, I could be that poor sod.’ ”

But the story doesn’t end with “happily ever after” once Bowen is clean; the things that happen AFTER his re-entry to adulthood (more or less) are as compelling as his cat-induced act clean-up; I was particularly taken with Bowen’s stories of getting moved around because of Bob jealousy from other Big Issue sellers, and also the do-gooder who pretty much insists she is going to take his cat away from him, for his own good- which is a great ending story in a book about how this cat saved his human’s life.

Throughout the story, Bob runs a silent yet larger than life orange character whose personality drives the narrative. A couple of times I swear I felt Bob’s fur brush against me as I read.

A happy book without being sentimental – read it on the beach, read it for a sociology class; it fits in both.

 

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Filed under animal rescue, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: NO I DON’T WANT TO JOIN A BOOK CLUB by Virginia Ironside

I found this at one of the Philly bookstores I visited and loved the title. The novel is about a woman turning sixty with some enthusiasm, dealing with all the things that turning sixty entails.

She is a sassy curmudgeon, the protagonist, with a lot of common sense and a few blind spots. I always say character drives plot, so this book has a great plot. It is written in diary form, which is not my favorite kind of book but does let the writer get in all sorts of silliness for extra laughs.

It’s a gentle read, kind of  haha-ouch stuff if you’re someone headed toward those years, probably a haha, I remember that if it’s behind you. There’s something affirming about finding you’re not alone in the things that happen to us all, yes?

This isn’t a book for everyone; it’s a gentle, light-hearted story, kind of “aga saga for the senior set” or for those who just love character-driven books. Because Marie (the diary writer) really is a character. If this book were food, it would be pudding in a cloud, vitamin-fortified, because there are just enough “stop and think” moments in the fun romp to add savory to the sweetness.

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

wolf hallThis book caused quite a stir when it came out, and has recently been made into a Masterpiece Theater mini-series, so probably most of you have already heard of it. I’m a sucker for historic fiction, but too often that means a thinly veiled bodice ripper in the hands of lesser artists.

Not here. This is a tough, sardonic, wickedly funny underneath and terrifyingly brutal on the top portrayal of one of the most confusing and dangerous times in political history. You weren’t going to get killed in the breakdown of government, but BY the crazy, inhumane government itself.

Hmm, maybe that’s why we in the early 2000s are so fascinated by King Henry’s court, when two almost equally powerful factions were smashing into each other trying to reign, with the end result that no one knew at any time what was right and wrong to be doing in the eyes of the law, or whether they were going to go to work tomorrow.

This book uses sarcastic wit, historic accuracy, and the filling in of a few personalities, to present a novel without heroes, from a time period that might have been the same. Everyone believed in something, but nobody believed in the same thing–unless the king wanted them to, in which case they either did believe it, or died in some horrible way. Ho hum…. The genius of the writing is how well Mantel makes then feel like now: the animals are going extinct; modern times are too fast to keep up with, now the printing press has been invented; the rulers are fickle; the parliament can’t get anything done. Etc.

Mantel’s good at description, and I’m not such a fan of dense descriptive books when it comes to room settings or wooded copses, but she does make you feel as though you are there. And when she gets to describing the tensions in the room at any given meeting, suddenly less is more. She conveys so much through dialogue, you wonder how she manages to write up settings so descriptively well. Usually a writer is better at one than the other, but she’s great at both.

Two hats in the air for WOLF HALL. If you like historic fiction, you’ll love it. If you like politics, you’ll love it. It’s kind of a THRONE OF CARDS game. :] (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, writing

The Monday Book: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

dogwoosI like flower language, and I’m deeply embroiled in a storytelling project involving fostered and adopted children in SW VA right now, so finding this book on clearance at a used books store in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a no-brainer purchase.

It was easy to get into, but perhaps hard to stay with; this literary novel has a weird dichotomy running through its middle. On the one hand, it is about tough, stupid, needy, intelligent Victoria, a child who ages out of foster care and lands hard/soft/hard/soft as the book progresses. She’s hard to love, but everybody around her does. And the only way this tough, I-don’t-care girl can communicate well is by flowers. She uses their Victorian meanings to say what’s on her mind.

So does her 20-something suitor. And her foster mom and FM’s estranged sister. It’s kinda hard to buy. But what was it Isaac Asimov said – that every writer gets one free pass at an unbelievable premise built into his or her story? Diffenbaugh got hers in early on.

Still, as bad as the flowers strewn along this bed of thorns tale of dysfunction are, her characterization of Victoria is compelling. Just Victoria, though: the other characters all kind of serve her, appearing as extensions of what she needs.

This is not a character-driven novel. The flowers are running the show. And if you’re willing to believe that could happen, it’s a good read – compelling forward motion, an underdog to root (ha) for, and some very believable circumstances for the foster kid.

On the other hand, perhaps too much perfume, not enough manure, for the growth the characters show. A mixed review, but I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and only began to think “Hey wait a minute” afterward. It was good escapism, and a pretty good depiction of the inner chaos of a foster child who ages out. Just don’t confuse the elegant narration of this fiction with anything like journalism, and we’ll be okay. Ain’t no foster kids in SW VA giving each other flowers, jobs, or free passes.

(If you would like to see the blog on ADOPTION IN APPALACHIA, it is adoptioninappalachia.com. Go take a look at some real stories and advice on the subject.)

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, crafting, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

Independent Bookstores- there’s a Meme for That!

People from many corners of our round world send memes to our bookstore page. We like it; it’s a fun way to communicate ideas quickly, or share humor.

We do have to admit that, once a meme appears, it tends to appear again and again in rapid succession, because, well, great minds think alike. A shared sense of humor is a wonderful thing.

So here are some memes that have popped up more than a dozen times in the past few weeks, plus a few new ones interspersed. Enjoy!

meme library cake The library birthday cake looked to me like the perfect meme. Not something I would ever have the skill to do, but if it appeared on my doorstep, I’d certainly photograph it before diving in. Then another poster pointed out the fatal flaw: there is no cat on this cake. I’m sure that can be corrected, but isn’t it gorgeous?!

Psst – My birthday is in May, if anyone wants to tackle this. :] Just sayin’.

 

 

meme viking cats Tempting, this. A lot of people know I crochet in order to support spays and neuters for feral and foster cats. But each time I think about making one of these, assessing the time it would take the lacerations to heal (lost crochet time) stops me. Our bookstore cats have little truck with cute clothing, sadly.

meme tankOh, but speaking of vehicles! This one has only appeared once, so far. Argentina has a long history of tanks in sad places, so what better statement than making one into a free bookmobile! If you google Argentine Book Tank, you can see photos of the books being passed out – 900 of them! (And thanks, Alma, for posting it!)

 

meme wrong bookstore

 

This is the most-repeated meme for any bookstore owner. Ever. Yep, funny. It was funny. Was……. although please don’t think me a killjoy to admit it made me nervous, too, the joke being based on someone’s name. (Snopes says this doesn’t exist, btw.) Going through American high school with the name Welch, one empathizes. :]

meme mermaid tailAnd yes, our book friends really get us. Because they keep posting crochet patterns! And this one, repeated about a dozen times, led to a great development. I can’t crochet fast enough to make all the things that cat supporters would buy, so a friend of a friend, Kate Smith, is now making mermaid tails on behalf of Foster Kitty City! I’m concentrating on hats and sandals – the other pattern people keep posting. (Keep ’em coming, and thanks!)

Then there are the book memes – which we love to repost on our bookstore page. These sometimes have great graphics, but this week’s favorite is just text: I’m a hybrid. I run on books and tea.

Yep.

So thank you for the funny, sweet, thoughtful memes (and useful patterns) y’all post to our timelines. Keep ’em coming, as and when.

(BTW, we delete memes or stories that have to do with hurt animals. We understand, but it doesn’t help.)

But oh, how we laughed at the one fellow bookstore owner Tina Hoerauf (Paperback Book Exchange in Neenah, WI) sent. After three straight weeks of snow-turned-into-flooding, this little gem appeared on our timeline yesterday. Thanks, Tina!

meme eeyore

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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Filed under bad writing, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Onward Christian Snowmen – Let It Go!

We’ve been snowed in for 11 days now in Wise County, with a couple of breaks wherein 4WD vehicles went ‘round gathering everyone’s grocery lists to make a provisions dash down the mountain and back. We no longer think snow days are fun.

You have to remember the above fact as the story I’m about to tell accumulates its layers, or you’ll miss the joy of it. And don’t get off the path; the sh—er, snow is deep in some places.

During the first week of snow–or, as we now call it, the light dusting–a nice man named Alex and his friends built a giant snowman: 15 feet! They’re tall guys and they used ladders and put a cross on its chest and a “God’s Got This” t-shirt (from a fundraising and support campaign for local kids with cancer) where its breast pocket would be, like an old-fashioned gentleman’s hankie. Orange solo cups for eyes, a wide stick smile, arms raised to heaven: they surveyed their giant snowman and called it good.

So did the rest of us, when the clouds lifted Saturday and we were able to walk or skid or dogsled to various stores. My friends Elizabeth, Elissa, and I walked to Food City to get a few things, and posed with the snowman along the way. And I blogged the Monday Snowstorm instead of a Monday book.

Barbara, a regular blog reader, sent the photo to the TV station in Roanoke, who displayed it along with a fairly magnificent kangaroo someone else made, and a Marilyn Monroe somewhat the worse for sun.

All fun and games until someone has a weather eye out….

By the time Roanoke News began circulating the photo, we’d been snowed in AGAIN, a whopping 27 inches in just one day. Buildings literally collapsed (including the Wise County Food Pantry for Norton City, with $25K in inventory inside it. The building is a total loss.)

So I don’t blame TCL (The Christian Lady) for being surly. On Tuesday, she reposted the picture Elissa took of Elizabeth and I with this message:

Carolyn

Small towns are amazing places. Kelley and I spent most of yesterday afternoon trying to find houses people had called in to the café, where those who couldn’t get out would appreciate hot soup and a sandwich. Nobody in a small town uses numeric addresses. (“Turn where the old Family Dollar used to be” one lady told me.) Kelley was donated the money to make two vats of soup after she started doing this on her own the day before, and walking it to houses in the neighborhood because no one could drive. With the aid of our 4WD supertruck, we made it all the way to East Stone Gap and back, trudging through sludge and up roads we didn’t know existed. And everywhere we were met with smiling people with snow shovels who helped us get through, drivers who waited patiently in their cars for us to back up after realizing what we were doing, a guy who stuck his head out the window and said, “Y’all need any money to help do this?” and other kind souls.

But we also saw people who were tired—of snow, of trying to stay warm, of being afraid that something in the house would run out, of being alone.

We’re all on edge, pretty much trying not to murder each other with axes at this point. So when TCL posted her “intent-to-shame,” other people jumped her. Understandably, TCL did not like being jumped, and said many things, including that God had told her to post.

As Christians, we are called to be Salt of the Earth. Which would melt the snowman, I guess. Maybe we should just take TCL’s whole approach with a grain of salt.

I contacted the snowman maker to ask if the accumulating flakes of Snowmangate were associated with him. He was unaware until then, but assured me he didn’t have a problem with our picture. In fact, he was proud to know that his Snow Preacher had circulated so widely.

And I felt I had to come clean. Because, far worse than re-enacting an ugly scene from the Bible, Elizabeth, Elissa and I had thought the snowman was a vampire. His smile was down when we came by, no t-shirt. Glowing orange eyes, claw hands raised in menace to the sky, crucifix sunk into his chest (the sun had been our friend that day) – what’s a bookstore owner who sells six paranormal romances per week to think?

And a fairly magnificent vampire at that, waiting for midnight to rise from his frozen bed and take to the streets, looking for the only people out in those conditions: salt truck drivers, EMTs, and police, poor souls. We couldn’t have him picking off the very county workers we needed most, so we prepared to drive a stake through his heart. But he was too tall, and–as Elissa pointed out– already leaning precariously, so we went on to the store.

Alex laughed hysterically online Tuesday night. TCL, however, was not amused. Words that included “fess up and apologize to all her Christian customers and to the people who took the time to build that lovely snowman for all of us to enjoy” finally clued me in.

There’s not much clear here in Big Stone Gap, as we all brace for yet another snowstorm tonight, and everything that can be closed remains so for the eighth day running, but I give you two fundamental principles on which to lay your firm foundation:

1) TCL is probably out of medication because her road is snowed in.

2) Getting hot over a snowman is one of the funniest things this town has seen in a lonnnnnng time – and that’s saying something, because we have collectively survived the scandal over where to put the Farmers Market, the unification of high schools, and updating our ancient town water pipes (causing old houses everywhere to pop their u-joints like champagne corks).

We can weather a little storm on a snow shovel. Onward, Christian Snowman. Let It Go…….

 

BTW if you want to send a donation to help the Food Bank, it’s

The Food Bank of Wise County P.O. Box 2977, Wise, VA 24293.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch