Category Archives: out of things to read

The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: I BELIEVE YOU by Jeanne Grunert

grunertJeanne Grunert requested a review of her self-published book I Believe You, a family crime thriller. Requests to review books are not uncommon, but hers had a nice benefit: she’d send three copies of I Believe You to the bookstore and sales would go to the Appalachian Feline Friends.

Well, heck, yeah….

But then one fears reviewing books on a benefit basis because what if you don’t like it?

Not to worry this time. Unlike many self-published authors, Grunert is a master not only of writing, but of editing and graphic design. Her book is visually pleasing, well-formatted, and lacking in those extraordinary typos that make people want to take pot-shots at self-published authors.

And then there’s the story line…. put a close-knit dysfunctional family into a company business, add the mysterious death of the protagonist’s wife, and go. Grunert has some really nice turns of phrase in the writing, like this:

“Tibor Majek entered rooms like a tornado ripping across the plains.”

But mostly the story is told through dialogue rather than description. It moves quickly, with just enough characterization to make you care but not enough to slow the action. You sympathize with the bereaved David and his sons, get a kick out of his interaction with his sister Eva (who is keeping the house afloat via her maid service) and watch the elusive woman Turquoise slowly land like a butterfly in their midst.

For all that it’s a thriller, the book turns less on unexpected whodunit than on the development of why. You know me, gentle readers: character-driven plots are my thing. So I can totally say I believe in I Believe You.

And we have three copies here if you want one. I probably should have asked Jeanne the price….

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The Monday Book: ENDGAME by James Frey

well-this-sucksOh dear God in Heaven, Frey, you make up a memoir about drug addiction and somebody gives you the keys to a fictitious city????

How many ways is Endgame bad – the writing that has characters doing abrupt turns from their previous hopes and dreams, all in the space of one sentence? The conceit of hiding a treasure hunt inside, along the lines of that golden rabbit buried a couple decades back, and getting people to buy the book so they can do the math and be one of the treasure hunters? The really, really stupid plot device of 12 ancient lines who all know about themselves but not each other, and who have successfully passed this secret from family to family without anybody else knowing? Kids killing each other – wow, where did you get such a great new idea in YA fantasy?

Shall I go on, or do we now have enough reasons to leave James Frey’s book alone? He’s the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces in which he claimed to have had dental surgery without anesthetic, crawled into a crack house within weeks of getting clean in order to carry his girlfriend out and enroll her in a program holding a spot for her, and been taken into the fold of a gangster who treated him as a son during their rehab. At the time I was reading Pieces I was working with addicts in a literacy program, and I remember thinking about halfway through the book, “No way, man. He’s lying.” Which turned out to be what everyone else thought, too.

Give it up, world. There is no taste, no truth, and no future. The Sky Gods are coming for us all, unless we’re one of those ancient lines or found the golden rabbit.

Short version: this book sucks.

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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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Breaking in to Change the Locks

Mollydooker 2012 Carnival of Love Shiraz 2014 Winestate #1 Wine and #1 Shiraz in AUS & NZ (PRNewsFoto/Mollydooker Wines)

Mollydooker 2012 Carnival of Love Shiraz 2014 Winestate #1 Wine and #1 Shiraz in AUS & NZ (PRNewsFoto/Mollydooker Wines)

Many of you know that I own a nice little cabin tucked into a hillside in Tennessee. It is the Writer’s Retreat. About a month ago, thanks to the American NewMedia Education Foundation, I started a six-month mentoring program with two writers in SW VA. We went to the cabin and had a fun time writing and retreating (and eating) and left refreshed. One of the writers asked about going back out to the cabin from time to time. I explained where we hid the key and wished her well.

Last week another friend and I went to the cabin because it was nicer than the hotel offered by a conference we were attending. When I unlocked the door, it was evident someone had been staying there. A moldering cup of coffee on the table, pillows piled on the bed. Lots of canned food gone. A cigarette in an ashtray; I don’t allow smoking inside.

And in a sudden horrific downturn of discovery, the soap in the shower was wet.

“Someone’s been squatting,” said my friend Beth. “This is hobo living.” The peanut butter had been half-consumed by spoonfuls, the canned soups eaten, but in something between a funny and a poignant turn, the Indian ready meals of Saag Paneer and Tikka Masala were lying next to ripped-open boxes, unopened in their pouches.

“He can’t read,” Beth said. “He couldn’t follow the cooking directions.”

Indeed, the guy had used the microwave and coffepot but not the stove, and had in many ways indicated that life needed to be simple. I began to feel protective toward him.

“Maybe we should just leave the door unlocked when we leave. He’s not going to walk in while we’re here. He doesn’t want any trouble, hasn’t taken anything except the food.” As I spoke, Beth looked at me as if I’d grown two heads.

“You’re crazy, and not in a good way,” she replied.

We went back down the hill until we had Internet connection (about a mile from the cabin) to inform Jack of the break-in, in case our bodies were never found. Despite his urging, we stayed the night, and I still thought with sadness of the poor guy who just needed a place to crash. But I also shot a quick question to my writing friend who’d used the cabin last, just in case this was all made up in my head and they’d left things a little untidy.

The next day as the conference wound down, I had a reply from Lizbeth. Nope, it wasn’t them. Did that mean the bottle of New Zealand special vintage she’d left me was gone?

I scoured the cupboards. Nowhere waited a special bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Bastard! I hope he dies!” I shrieked to Beth. “We’re changing the locks tomorrow!”

There’s sharing with those in need, and there’s rare vintage. No more squatters in the Writer’s Retreat. But the funniest part of the story came when we went back yesterday to make good on changing those locks–

–and realized we hadn’t brought a key to get in. So Jack broke in so we could change them to break-in-proof ones. We will be the last people able to B&E my little writing retreat. That will make me feel safe when I’m out there writing.

And drinking good Pinot.

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The Monday Book: The Girl in the Spiders Web by David Lagercrantz

Jack and Wendy started listening to The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz on the way back from Wyoming. They tried to finish it back home. This guest blog by Jack is the result.

I got the distinct feeling that this was an unfinished story by the original series’ author Stieg Larsson that had been finished off by Lagercrantz.

The first two thirds of the book is just as gripping as the previous books in the Lisbeth Salander series, but then it fairly abruptly drifted off into a plotless limbo. I never thought I’d end up forcing myself to finish it simply to find out what happened to one of the characters. And the characters! How many do you need to keep introducing? Reporters, magazine executives, IT experts, gangsters, movie stars, psychologists, US intelligence agents and on and on – – . Many of these appeared as the plot was beginning to lose direction, so thank you Mr Lagercrantz.

Enough, already!

The basic idea of taking something that most people have a vague knowledge of, in this case the genius savant,  and then stretching it to its limits and building a gripping conspiracy around it, got the book off to a pretty rollicking start. It’s just a shame it shifted into neutral and started coasting.

It hasn’t put me off going back to re-read the original books by Stieg Larsson, but I won’t be rushing to buy Lagercrantz’s next epic.

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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.

 

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