Category Archives: Life reflections

Jack’s Monday Book on Wednesday

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Just to confuse everyone, Jack’s Wednesday blog post is the Monday book – –

The first thing to say before I get going is that we already knew that this book is set in the offices of the agency that handled the launching of Wendy’s best seller, ‘The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap’. Although the agency isn’t actually named in the book it’s a very open secret which New York literary agency it is. We are both, therefore, familiar with the rather old fashioned but cozy interior and the amazing collection of books lining the walls.

This is really at least two intertwining stories and I’m not sure that’s done terribly well. One is very much about the culture and characters of the agency itself, while the other is focused more on what’s going on in Rakoff’s life.

The first half of the book is mainly about her success in finding a job at what she refers to simply as ‘The Agency’, discovering how hard it is to live frugally in New York, getting to know her co-workers and being groomed by ‘The Boss’. I have to admit that I found that strand of the book unnecessarily gloomy and dark, as that’s certainly not what we experienced on or visits to the place. Something else that emerges in this early part of her book is the impression that the only famous author represented by the agency is JD Salinger, which is simply not true.

Her main job is to send form letters to fans of Salinger, who refuses to engage with them and is somewhat reclusive. She eventually strikes up something of a relationship with him on the phone and is finally on first name terms with him (Jerry and Joanna).

For me, the book really only takes off about halfway through when we begin to discover what’s going in Rakoff’s personal life. This strand is all about the self-discovery that anyone over the age of thirty will find excruciatingly familiar. It’s all about growing, maturing and making difficult decisions about what you want to do with your life.

The book ends with a jump forward to a married Rakoff with a husband and kids and a successful career as a novelist, poet and journalist.

I didn’t find this book disappointing overall, but I did find the beginning a bit heavy going.

6 out of 10 from me!

PS – it’s The Harold Ober Agency and Wendy’s agent doesn’t work there any more – – –

 

 

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Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

PAUL GARRETT’S MONDAY BOOK

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

maryIt is one of the most iconic photos in American history. You’ve seen it, I’m sure: The black and white image puts the figures in stark relief; A mother holds a baby who is barely visible, bundled in a thick blanket against the wind.  Two of her other children, half Cherokee on their mother’s side, hide their faces as if, like some Native Americans in the 19th century, they are afraid the camera would steal their souls. Their hair shows the results of what was once called a “bowl cut,” wherein the vessel is placed upside down on the head and the hair trimmed to fit the rim.

And there is the mother, exhibiting what approaches the “thousand-yard stare;” the look that appears on the faces of soldiers after long periods of intense combat.

Look closer: See the torn fabric of her threadbare dress? Closer again: Notice the dirt caked around her fingernails? What the photo doesn’t show, can’t show, except for the after effects manifested on her face, are the conditions of her squalid life. She has been in close combat with that immutable enemy, starvation. She is sitting at a “pea camp,” where she came to eke out a few cents a day picking peas. But there are no peas to pick.  A freezing rain wiped out the crop the night before she arrived. They have been surviving by gleaning produce from the ruined fields and eating what birds her children can kill.

She has just sold the tires off her car to buy food.

In her book, Mary Coin (Penguin Group, 2014) Marisa Silver takes a very close look at this woman, whose real name was Florence Owens Thompson, and also Vera Duerr (Dorthea Lang), the woman who took the photo while working in FDR’s New Deal. The photo was colorized for the book cover.

Vera is handicapped, as was Dorthea, with a limp due to a bout of polio as a child. Mary is handicapped by being poorly educated, widowed, pregnant with her sixth child, and left to follow the crops as a migrant worker across the West.

The picture and its provenance form the heart of the story, which closely tracks the real lives of the two women. Not much is made about how their paths crossed. In the book as in life it was more-or-less accidental, or, one might say, providential.

After a somewhat confusing start the story picks up speed in the middle and races to the end with a surprising and somewhat disquieting plot twist.

The book poses questions about what constitutes one’s identity in a technological world, and what a mother may sacrifice for the sake of her children.

Neither Dorothea nor Florence were ever remunerated for the photo. Since Dorthea was working for the government, the picture is in the public domain. When Florence, who spent her life doing menial labor, had a stroke in 1983, her children tried to use her notoriety to solicit contributions to help pay her medical bills. They garnered $35,000. Florence died the same year.

Mary Coin, in the end, is left to contemplate who she is, what she has lost, and what her future holds.

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Fighting Fire with Anger

Several of my friends are high flyers in professions that put them in the paths of stressed-out people. Human and animal doctors come to mind, among others.

Recently a friend (call her Suze) was lamenting that one of her favorite patients “no longer trusted her” because Suze  had delivered hard news that some pundit on the Internet swore could be overcome with homeopathy and divine intervention, not expensive medicines. When the patient died anyway, after a not-insignificant bill and a lot of tears on the part of my friend, the patient’s husband let fly with some fairly unfiltered accusations.

Listening to Suze describe how it felt to lose a patient AND get blamed for it, my mind went back to a conversation I’d held more than ten years ago. I’d been househunting, and a really lovely home was going for cheap after a fire. Both the realtor and the former owner had said with some bitterness that most of the damage was due to “water and fireman” rather than actual flames. I said as much in casual conversation not long after, and the group with which I was conversing shifted uneasily. Two of them were volunteer firefighters.

They told us what it was like to fight fires; you choose to enter a space where you know living beings are dying, and try not to join them while getting them out. You are angry, and you are afraid, and there is enough adrenaline coursing through your veins to literally kill you if it distracts from discerning every nuance of what’s happening all around you.

Intense concentration coupled with high emotion: that anger has to go somewhere. “Joe,” the younger of the firemen, described smashing a window with his axe “only because I was so mad. It has to go someplace, and you’re in what looks like Hell and you know somebody’s in there and you can’t find them. Hell, yeah, smashed windows is the least of it.”

And afterward, when the homeowner has their dog back, or not, and they survey the wreck of what their family nest became, the firefighters find a familiar pattern. “At first it’s ‘thank you thank you’ and then it’s ‘what the bleep did you do to my house?’ Just like us, their anger has to go somewhere. We know that. They yell at us because they’re scared and angry. It’s not personal. We know something about how that feels.”

It is difficult to be the person in a profession that fights literal, medical, administrative, or even social justice fires on a regular basis. It is also difficult to be the victim/person who needs that done. Cutting each other a little slack is a good idea. Suze will deal with survivor anger. Joe will continue to whack a window now and again. The people who counted on them to return their lives to normal will figure out that all the humans were on the same side, fighting a destructive force that has no feelings or plans; neither cancer nor fires are sentient beings capable of personal vendettas.

And perhaps we will try to be nicer to each other. By the way, check your smoke alarm batteries, and get screened whenever possible. Thanks.Fire

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Filed under animal rescue, blue funks, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Scotch on the Rocks – – –

Breaking News – –

Wendy and I have a double cancellation for this year’s Scottish tour. The dates are Sunday June 17th – Friday June 29th. The original price was $3500 per person (excluding airfare) but is discounted to $3000 per person, with room for a total of four. That’s $2K discount if a family takes it! If you are interested full details can be found on the ‘Scottish Tour’ page at www.scottishsongandstory.co.uk . We will be visiting Skye, Lewis, the North 500 road, Orkney, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Fife. Time is short so first come first served! Space for four people in two rooms available. Price covers dinner, bed and breakfast in good mostly traditional hotels, after dinner music on some nights, ferry fares and entry to historic sites. All you need is spending money, and if you want it, lunch money. Most people find Scottish breakfasts keep them going all day.

We will visit castles and mountains, see Hielan coos, the Neolithic sites on Lewis and Orkney, stay in a hotel that used to be a Templar castle, eat the best fish n’ chips in Britain and meander the fishing villages of Fife. With luck at least one of our ferry voyages will have porpoise accompaniment and of course there will be haggis aplenty!

11-Skara-Brae

Skara Brae on Orkney

The maximum number that I set for the group is ten as that fits easily in the minivan we use and the reason I don’t include airfare is because folk tend to come from various parts of the US and some want to use specific airlines. Although the tour starts at Edinburgh on the morning of Sunday June 17th I always advise folk to arrive a day before just in case of delays or missed connections. We deliver everyone back to one of the Edinburgh airport hotels ready to depart on the morning of Friday June 29th.

We are happy to answer any questions you have – jbeck69087@aol.com or 276-523-5097.

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Filed under between books, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, Uncategorized

Mea Culpa – – –

Well – I finally got back to doing a Wednesday post on a Wednesday – –

We all do bad things from time to time. Sometimes by accident and occasionally deliberately (because we have the light and the dark in all of us). We even do bad things for the best of intentions and that’s what I did on Monday!

We learn from these things of course and I’d hoped that, at the age of 76, I had maybe mostly sorted it out.

The story really starts with the death of our beloved black Lab Zora. I had to take her to be sent ‘over the rainbow bridge’ about six months ago which left our terrier Bert as our only dog. They had been best pals most of their lives and poor Bert has been very different since then. They used to run around the yard together all day long but he now spends most of his time in the bookstore at my feet.

bert in chair

But Bert is also getting on a bit (95 in human years) and is showing definite signs of arthritis in his back legs. Our Vet, the ‘Sainted Beth’, has him on a sensible regime of doggie painkillers and that mostly seems to work and we have hopes he can keep going for a bit yet.

But just last Sunday a medical doctor friend was here with his wife for our monthly Quaker meeting and we all saw Bert limping. A general discussion about arthritis resulted in him making a passing comment about Ibuprofen being effective. After everyone had gone I remembered that I had some left over from when I had a bout of sciatica earlier in the year and that’s when it all went wrong!

Of course our doctor friend hadn’t suggested Ibuprofen for Bert – that was just me adding two and two and getting five.

I think why I feel particularly bad about this is because our pets trust us and Bert is no exception. He happily scoffs down pills as long as they’re hidden in a spoonful of peanut butter and I’m sure he never imagines I’d do anything to hurt him. But I gave him an Ibuprofen yesterday morning and another one last evening. Around 11 pm as we were settling down to sleep with Bert between us he stood up, arched his back and spewed his supper all over the bed. We got up and removed the top sheet before anything soaked through and he went out through the dog flap. This went on for the rest of the night until we were reduced to the last couple of blankets and poor Bert was exhausted!

Wendy took him up for an emergency consultation this morning with St. Beth and it looks like he will survive, but I feel very guilty. So what have I learned? Well, obviously – never make any uninformed decisions about medications for your pet, and never assume that what works for humans will work for pets. NEVER give Ibuprofen to your pet!!

I will be going up to collect Bert at the end of the working day at Powell Valley Animal Hospital. The Sainted Beth is smaller than me but I’m scared stiff at what she’s going to do to me!

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Kate Belt’s Monday Book

51YTWanqMVL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Monday Book – My Abandonment

My Abandonment, a novel by Peter Rock, was inspired by a local news story about a Vietnam war veteran and his 13 year-old daughter living off the grid in Forest Park, a huge municipal nature reserve in Portland, Oregon.  Anyone who has hiked this 5,100 acre, 7 mile long park will find the story credible.

When discovered by authorities after off-trail hikers report suspicious traces of the makeshift home, the daughter was found to be highly intelligent, adequately nourished, well-educated having been home schooled, and in good health. She had not been neglected nor abused in any way. After the two are discovered and captured by police, the story turns into an emotional page -turner wondering how it will end. Will child protective services leave the family together? Can they? What will happen to the dad? Will the girl end up in foster care?

This novel is fast paced and heart tugging. All of the characters are engaging and evoke empathy, with everyone doing the best they can and rooting for the best possible outcome for this family.

Last year a movie based on the novel was filmed in Portland, under the title Leave No Trace. After premiering at Sundance a few weeks ago, it has been purchased by both national and international movie studios, so hopefully will be in theaters soon.

Reviewed by Kate Belt

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, reading, Uncategorized, writing, YA fiction

The Sweater

I came to Charlottesville for the VA Festival of the Book and enjoyed my day out, eating excellent foods from distinctive cooking traditions and haunting yarn shops. Yesterday I listened to three writers in two panels discuss their work and how it comes together, and it was good info. My panel is this morning, talking about Appalachia as stereotype and reality in economics, foster care, and history.

IMG_3588But I have been these last ten weeks in Fayetteville, West Virginia, a town with a different ethos. This is what I wore in Fayetteville quite a bit, and people would stop me and say, “I love that t-shirt, and your sweater is beautiful. Did you make it yourself?” I saw one woman cross the street to come talk to me, and the first thing she did was fondle my sweater.

Here in Charlottesville, the city of wealth, people are not lame or demeaning. Don’t get that idea. But they look at my sweater and avoid making eye contact. The night I pulled into the hotel at 11:30 pm, lugging my worldly goods in a laundry basket (didn’t have any luggage with me at the writing residency) the desk clerk said, “May I help you?” When I said “Welch,” she looked at me for a moment, then blinked.

“Oh, you have a reservation.” And her fingers flew. So it was only a second there that she wondered why this road-haggard woman with the dandelion fluff hair and the fuzzy sweater carrying a laundry basket was standing at the counter.

Friday, I went out with my sweater to see the world, Charlottesville style. On the Pedestrian Mall (socks $25, earrings $30) people glanced at my sweater and looked away again. I know what they were thinking, “Gee, I wish I had a sweater that pretty.”

:]

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