Category Archives: reading

The Monday Book: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

This week’s review is by Jack – –

BriefHistoryTime

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this. Probably it’s because I assumed it would be dry, very scientific and heavy going. Instead it turned out to be (mostly) the very opposite!

There were certainly a few places where I had to read and then re-read in order to get my head round some pretty startling and deep stuff. But Hawking leads his readers on a gentle upward slope through history while paying due respect to all his scientific predecessors, colleagues and contemporaries.

We begin with Copernicus and end in a black hole!

In many ways this book is an autobiography as it details Hawking’s developing theories while also occasionally giving brief glimpses of his personal life and its challenges. I loved the part where he gave up his PhD studies following his diagnosis and being told he only had a few years to live, only to get married and realize he had to get a job. So he completed his studies, got a job that became his raison d’etre and lived for many more years.

The writing style is pitched at the non-learned casual reader and is gently humorous throughout.

I particularly liked how generous he was towards others working in the same field – collaborators, colleagues and even rivals.

Finally, and most intriguing of all perhaps, is his frequent reference to a ‘creation event’. He is very careful not to discount the idea of a ‘creator’ with all that implies. He suggests that the more we delve and discover, the more there is to find – – –

All in all, a very well deserved best seller which I can now thoroughly recommend to anyone else who might have been wary, like me!

 

4 Comments

Filed under book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES by Ray Bradbury

The-Martian-Chronicles(picture courtesy of By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31139878)

Sometimes you pull out an old favorite – or to be specific, you’re shelving in the bookstore and it falls off as you’re putting something on the shelf, and you pick it up and that’s you lost the rest of the evening.

But gained so much more. I love Bradbury’s writing, and I’d forgotten how he saw the slow progression of Earth people onto Mars, the many ways he’d envisioned people’s hearts moving through Space and not changing much once they landed in a new destination.

Chronicles is a mishmash of short stories, all centered around the theme of Earth colonizing Mars over time, but each a freestanding piece with few overlapping characters. I LOVE the ones where he explores social justice, as in Black People go live on Mars and when the White People blow up Earth, they have to ask permission to come ashore. I love the one where forgotten scary characters from Folklore take up residence because Earth minds don’t have room for them any more. I love the one, early in the book, where an unhappily married Martian couple wind up being the demise of the first explorers. Think of it: the colonization of another planet, ended by a jealous husband?

Bradbury thought of this and so much more in his Chronicles. They don’t feel dated. Even though he invented things willynilly and didn’t see half of what technology actually delivered coming, Bradbury’s writing feels timeless because it focuses on people: what we want, what we fear, what we crave (which is a little different than wanting) and what we pretend we don’t fear. So very interesting to read in the lyrical prose he pulls together. He’s so quick, like a comic caught in print.

This judge gives Martian Chronicles all the stars.

3 Comments

Filed under book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Monday Book: DEATH ON THE MENU

The Monday Book is reviewed this week by Martha Evans Wiley.

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette

Wendy knows my predilection for cozies and asked61ZCCieFZNL._AC_US327_QL65_ if I would like to review the newest release in the Key West Food Critic Mysteries, published by Crooked Lane Books. Although I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series (there are seven), I soon found that isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.

Hayley Snow, the protagonist, is indeed a food critic who lives in Key West, and the setting is integral to the plot and the characters. Having never been to Key West, this was a vicarious journey through the historic architecture and tropical feel of the city for me.  Hayley lives on a houseboat with an elderly friend and gets around town on a scooter, quirky details that lend an air of authenticity to the overall exotic yet small-town feel of the locale. Along with the sights and sounds of a bustling community, Burdette focuses on the food, itself an important part of the Cuban culture. Whether we’re sampling restaurants with Hayley for a review or watching her caterer mother cook for a crowd, the food is almost as important to the story as Hayley herself – so important that the author includes recipes at the end for all the mouth-watering dishes she refers to throughout the book.

The story revolves around crimes committed during a conference planned to promote relations between the cities of Havana, Cuba, and Key West. There’s a lot riding on this, as anyone who keeps abreast of current events might imagine. Tensions rise, personalities clash, and throughout it all is the lingering pain and legacy of the mass emigration of Cuban refugees to the US in the 1990s, and the parallels to the current plight of the migrants on our southern border cannot be ignored.

Burdette at times gets carried away with filling the story with topical references that can distract from the meat of the tale. Former President Barack Obama makes an appearance, as do Jimmy Buffet and an NPR reporter. More germane to the subject matter are the gone-but-not-forgotten figures of President Harry S Truman, who lived in the Little White House where much of the action takes place, and literary giant Ernest Hemingway, whose legendary status still looms large over the island.

Hayley Snow is a likeable hero, with all the predictable foibles  of feminine amateur sleuths – headstrong, anxious, romantically involved with the local police chief, naive and yet loyal to the end. The characters are believable and for the most part endearing, and as mentioned earlier, Burdette’s descriptions of the Cuban food and the colorful beauty of Key West provide the real enjoyment of the book.

It won’t be long before  winter rears its cold head, and I for one plan to curl up with more of Burdette’s Key West mysteries for a snowy day escape.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, writing

The Monday Book: THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH by Natalie Sypolt

breathThis book is out from West Virginia Press and I received a review copy for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. (I’m their book editor.) If anyone would like to review it for the Journal, please drop me an email or PM.

The short stories in Sypolt’s fiction debut are engrossing character studies. Most have wonderful characters who drive the plots around them. Siblings who see through each other’s deepest weaknesses. Young people who find reasons to stay or go. Nasty and nice Christians. In many ways, it’s like Sypolt took a classic Appalachian problem and wrote a “what if” story about it: what if you were gay and couldn’t tell your parents, but your elder sister knew because you fancied her husband? What if you were young enough to leave home and old enough to know you’d take your upbringing with you wherever you went?

Although you might be able to read the slim volume in a couple of hours, I recommend savoring. The prose is well-crafted, the words backlit with mountain sunsets. If it sounds like these are bib overall hayseed stories, think again. Stereotypes exist to be played with not to make the stories go. For instance, in one story of summer lake holidays, a boy aware of his beloved elder brother’s proclivities to violence suddenly finds himself seduced by the girl he thinks is pure. These are not easy straw characters. A preacher’s daughter finds nothing redeeming in her dad, but the way the story goes down gets complicated. Nobody gets off easy in a Sypolt short story.

If you are interested in Appalachian politics, culture, and families, you will find much to chew on here. If you like short stories that are well-written and character driven, you’ll love Sypolt’s debut. And remember, order it from your favorite local bookstore, not Amazon.

2 Comments

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

The Monday Book: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

contentYes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. YOU try making the buses run on time the week after vacation. *grumps*

Sad thing is, although I really enjoyed reading it, this book didn’t cheer me up at all. I got it from Rachel, our shopsitter, when I went rushing through the bookstore the day before we left on holiday.

“Something to read, something to read,” I muttered, and Rachel almost without looking hauled this baby off the shelf.

“You’ll love it. It’s amazing,” she said, and I grabbed it from her hand and packed it.

And almost lost my mind night after night in the lodgings as I entered a world where chimp and human babies were raised side by side in an experiment that was subject the vagaries of funding, public pressure, and human fickleness. You can see from the beginning (and also the back blurbs) that this is a heartbreaking book. You know from the beginning what’s going to happen; in fact much of the book is tracing back from what happened. I like the way the author says, “I’m going to start my story in the middle, then go back and fill in, but on the way we’ll stop at the ending.” That’s not an exact quote but that’s what she does.

Her depictions of life through the eyes of a narrator you can’t quite trust, of events that seem surreal, among characters you feel you know (remember I’m a sucker for characters, and it is true they drive plot)… amazing work. I kept reading EVEN WHEN I KNEW A KITTEN WAS GOING TO DIE because Fowler writes so matter-of-factly about hearts and feelings and fear and hope. It’s just life, she seems to say. Get on with it.

My guess is that tender-hearted people and CEOs read this book on two different levels, which really interests me. It is hard to get a story going that holds humor and lessons that vary by reader, but Fowler has created a “He said/she said” that doesn’t answer questions so much as ask them: What does it mean to be human? What is our responsibility to each other? Who’s in charge here?

Two opposable thumbs up for We are all completely beside Ourselves.

Leave a comment

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

Day One: Frankfort to Farmington

MaryAfter ensuring Charles and Mary-the-Storyteller had enough AirBorne to save them from our creeping crud, we set off, a-tired and lighthearted to take to the open road. (Sorry, Walt)

Today held a “get some miles behind us” plan because I had to teach an online writing class that required pulling in at our Farmington B&B no later than 5:30 to set up. No sweat. With Barbara and Jack tucked into the back seat making “stay on your own side” noises, Oliver and I would defy speed limits and sound medical advice (this was his worst of the three-day misery plague this bug seems to give most people; I was on the mend and Barbara was almost back to normal) to play “who’s got enough funding to staff the highways” with assorted state patrols.

We blitzed Kentucky and made our way across Indiana and Illinois into Iowa, a happy chain of I-states that left Barbara and Oliver exclaiming over landscapes  and roadside attractions. We hit on the scheme of looking up “10 Interesting facts about [state name]” which was fun, but we had to work quickly in Illinois, given how fast Oliver was driving.

Did you know that gas pumps were invented in Indiana? And that the world’s largest ball of paint is there? Now you do.

We also invented a car game. Since all four of us have musical careers of some variety, any comment touched on song lyrics meant someone would start singing them. The person who could get the most lyrics out without getting shouted down by the others wins–or perhaps loses. No one is sure yet. Since we are all but Jack sick with a virus affecting the throat at this point, keys were declared optional. My rendition of “Downtown” was a personal low note.

We reached Farmington in good time and said hello to Elizabeth and David, owners of Porch Time Bed and Breakfast. It may tell you something of Farmington’s charms to know that drinks at the American Legion Bar are $3, and the bartender is the mayor. She has a list on the front door of people who have been barred, some for a month, some for life. Be warned, Farmington Visitors: do not mess with Mary.David and Elizabeth

We were there because Elizabeth and David had walked into our bookstore a year or so before, out of the blue, and told us how much they enjoyed Little Bookstore. “It’s so like our town, how people reinvent themselves and make things stick when others say it won’t work,” Elizabeth enthused. “If you come visit us, I’ll show you around. You’ll see. You kind of wrote our story, or at least what we’ve been trying to say with our lives, too.”

Elizabeth had escaped a cult life after 38 years, losing a family member in the process but gaining a real life for which she shows more appreciation than most people. She and her husband married later in life and moved to Iowa to start together in a neutral place. As a graphic artist, he was portable, and she soon found steady demand as a substitute English teacher. They became integral parts of Farmington, this quirky little town holding its own by the side of the Des Moines river, offering artistic refuge and tourism options for equestrians, canoeists, and hikers. There is an artists’ co-op there, and an art festival, and about eight painters, several songwriters, a writing group that feeds out from Iowa’s Famous Writers Workshop, and a general feeling that everyone in Farmington is walking around with some level of masterpiece working its way out of them with less angst than enjoyment. These are nice people.Porch Time

The 1860s carriage house renovated into an upstairs flat and downstairs studio, which David and Elizabeth’s friend Anne created, is but one example. Never let anyone tell you what you want to do can’t be done; they did all the work themselves without a mortgage and that building is magnificent. (No photos because dusk was falling as Elizabeth toured me around.)

swimholeThe river offered a local swimming hole away from the tourism end which Oliver and I availed ourselves of the next morning – there is nothing like swimming in live water. Already at 9 am the shallow river was bath-water-warm, portent of the heat to come as we headed across Iowa to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And made an interesting discovery we will tell you about tomorrow.

 

8 Comments

Filed under between books, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Bookstore is Quiet

The bookstore has just passed out of the Eye of Calm between school letting out and the Return of the Natives. Big Stone reserves its biggest tourism influx for Fall, when the mountains explode with color. Right now, we have The Grandchildren. Families who moved away in search of work return (or send the kids) to their roots. It is a time-honored cycle: come back to see Mom and Dad, leave the kids a week or five and go get some work done or have a vacation.

You can see the Grandparents parading their newly acquired temporary children proudly through the grocery store, dressed in clothing that would put Toddlers and Tiaras to shame, little girls who will not hurt themselves if they fall because the skirts will cushion them. Boys dressed as exact copies of grandpa, work boots, denim overalls, and cap.

It is adorable.

The bookstore’s part in all this is to clean the children’s room every day after the cyclone is over. We sell more kids’ books mid-May to mid-July than we do the rest of the year combined. Because the bookstore is where Grampa and Gramma go when they’ve Had It.

Exhausted elderly couples arrive on our porch, the children clambering up the stairs, over the railings, around our reading animal statues. Grandparents haul themselves up the railing of the side ramp, waving the kids: go on, go on, we’ll catch up.

If they can reach the handle, the children work in teams to haul open our heavy screen door – it takes two kindergartners to move – and break for the nearest kittens. The smarter kittens scatter.

Grandpa will plunk himself on our front porch and light up a pipe or cigarette. He sits, looking off into the distance at the cool green and blue layers of the mountains, as Grandma either heaves herself into the bookstore with a sigh, or plunks down next to him and says, “Gimme one.”

We think this means cigarette…..

The children destroy the place, hunting hiding kittens. Occasionally they actually hunt books themselves, but usually this waits until Gran has her soul restored and hears the thudding books and shrieking children. We usually have the front porch window open. I have found that, should other sounds fail, recalcitrant summer guardians can be motivated by saying “Yes, dear, you can have that kitten” quite loudly just behind Grandmother’s head.

It’s summer: the kinder garden blooms. We love it. We clean up after they leave. We wink at the grandparents. We sell a lot of children’s books to straining budget people who are relieved to find they’re getting five books for $3.15.

mother-child-reading-1941526And we love the two most repeated requests the grandparents make: “Could you sell me the biggest chapter book you have? He likes to read and I need him quiet this afternoon for my nap.” Or “She can’t read so have you got one with enough pictures to keep her occupied for five minutes?”

There’s nothing quite like the rhythms of a bookstore.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, reading, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction