Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

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

Getting Away from It All…..

Jack’s guest blog covers the dark side of nature…..

Wendy and I have a log cabin about two hours away that is very isolated, with no telephone, TV, internet or cell phone reception. It’s normally very restful and relaxing to hide away there for a few days. Wendy can get writing done there without distractions. The dogs love it because they can go off and wander to their hearts’ delight and there’s a pond for them to swim in.

And me? I can deal with the repairs and maintenance that are always needed there in our holiday dream home…..

But this time it was hot and thundery – VERY hot and thundery! With no breeze and no air conditioning I found myself becoming more and more lethargic. The dogs hardly moved except to dive into the pond and the only one to expend any energy was our ‘special’ kittie Hadley, who we’d taken as well as a treat.

Despite all that languid pressing heat, I still managed to deal with wasps’ nests, wood-boring bees, a ginormous wolf spider clinging to (Wendy says “carrying off”) a Mason jar in the sink, and get some weed-whacking done. Wendy got writing aplenty done and the dogs got so smelly in the pond they needed a bath this morning when we returned home. So all in all it was a success–at least for everyone but the spider.

Sometimes it’s good to get away. And sometimes, it’s better to get back to air conditioning – – –

 

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Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

kings mtnJack’s weekly guest blog

 

So – Last night was one of “speak to a group about living in Appalachia” talks. It happens often; this time it was to the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a team of young folks from various ‘airts and pairts’ in the US who have come down here to take part in a variety of practical projects.

I began by explaining where I’m from and how I came to be here. I always start that way to help them tune in to my accent. It’s not just accent, of course, it’s much more than that. Vocabulary, grammar, figures of speech – after 12 years in the country one thing I’ve discovered is that my particular form of English is far removed from the American variety, and I’ll never get it completely covered!

Once their faces began registering they could actually understand me, I explained a bit about Scotland and my earlier life there. Despite the strong awareness around the world about things that are ‘Scottish’ (kilts, whisky, golf etc.) I always find a quick geography lesson helps establish reality in the midst of Nessie stories.

From there I moved on to how I came to be here – which sums up pretty much as “I met this girl….”

Finally to the meat of the evening – Appalachia and my remit to point up the parallels that I’ve encountered between it and Scotland. The culture of course – fiddle tunes, folksongs and ballads – but more than that, the stereotyping I’ve encountered as a Scot and my Appalachian friends equally. As a Scot I’m mean, wear a kilt all the time, am red-haired, fight everyone I meet, hate the English, and on, and on – I’m a ‘Jock’ or a ‘Sweaty’ (Jock = sweaty sock). It’s very hard, I explained, when a stereotype has been long established, to counter it. Here, my Appalachian friends are often considered toothless, wear dungarees, are under-educated, and on, and on – – –

I explained what the Battle of Kings Mountain was really about – something pretty mislabeled in true history, and a real overlap between Appalachian and Scots culture.

Finally, I commended the ASP students for having the enterprise to go out and see for themselves how other folks live and how our folks might not conform to any popular image. I suggested that there are minority cultures all over the world that have their identity thrust upon them, so they shouldn’t believe everything they hear, but go and see for themselves. It was a very nice night.

 

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

The Monday Book: THE POOR HAD NO LAWYERS by Andy Wightman

poorEvery year when I run my small group tour of Scotland I try to find a book for the times it’s my turn to guard the luggage on the bus while the group are visiting an attraction or having lunch. Of course, having a continuing interest in Scottish politics, I often seek out books about such matters.

This year my choice was ‘The Poor had no Lawyers’ by Andy Wightman.

 

This fascinating and very well researched book traces the scandalous story of what can only be described as blatant theft, all the way from the Reformation to the present day. It tells the story of land-owning Lords sitting in the non-elected upper chamber of the UK parliament deliberately sabotaging any attempt to modernize the law; of plucky crofters and islanders taking them on and winning; of the recently re-constituted Scottish parliament finally having the time and inclination to make changes that the House of Lords can’t block.

 

What I should also make clear is that the book mainly deals with the ownership of very large areas by a very few people with often highly dubious legal claims.

 

In case this sounds terribly serious and parochial, there’s a great deal of humor and not just from Wightman. Some of the official reports produced down the years by serious minded researchers are hilarious in places! There is also much comparison with land ownership in other parts of the world – particularly de-colonized countries in Africa and Asia.

 

What really sticks out is that the separate legal professions in England and Scotland are both tied tightly into the ruling (and land-owning) establishment and, rather than offering a means to redress the obvious injustices, tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own interests.

 

I found this book completely absorbing, eye-opening and revelatory. For anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish social history or politics this is a ‘must read’!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

FRIENDS OLD AND NEW

Jack’s weekly guest blog comes from Scotland this time, as Jack finishes leading his annual tour of Scotland and Ireland.

doune-castleIt’s always interesting to be in Scotland with my annual tour group. The group almost always includes new folk, folk I already know, and ‘returnees’ from previous tours. This year is no exception – David and Susan are both old friends and returnees, while our newish friend Joe came with his fiancee Amy (who I hadn’t met and is delightful). The newbies in every sense are Phil and Wanda, who heard about the tour from my radio show.

The tour started strong, as what might have been a disaster was averted by our new booking agent. We found that there was going to be a ferry strike on the day we were booked to sail to Mull, where were booked to spend the night in Tobermory. At very late notice the redoubtable Irene, travel agent genius, got us booked into a hotel in Oban and our ferry booking moved to the next morning; all was well!

The weather proved kind and we had hardly any rain, even quite a few bright sunny days. We were able to see Castle Stalker and Doune Castle – both settings for ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (Doune is also the setting for ‘Outlander’) and then retire to fabulous hotel food at night.

I was able to find most of the requested items to bring back with me for friends back home, ranging from whisky to flat caps. My old friends Liz Weir and Pete Clark did us proud representing the music and story culture of Ireland and Scotland. As I write this another old friend, Doli McLennan, is preparing to welcome us to her home in Edinburgh on our last night, and waxing lyrically on Facebook about the prospect.

For logistical reasons, I had more opportunity to catch up with friends and relations before the tour started this year, about a week longer than usual. That was great, but I ended up feeling a bit homesick for Big Stone for the first time. Very strange!

But it’s great to see my homeland through other people’s eyes each year and be reminded what a beautiful and remarkable country I came from.

For information on Jack’s annual tours, contact him via jbeck69087@aol.com. Pictures from this year will be available later at a site yet to be named.

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

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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