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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 inevitably 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

Let it Stop, Let it Stop, Let it Stop!

Jack’s guest blog this week tackles marriage in a snowstorm

The  snow storms of the last few weeks have confined us both to the shop as the campus location of Wendy’s day-job has been closed, along with many other businesses in town. Recently I checked in with our vet, Saint Beth,  and her chiropractor husband TNB, newlyweds also snowed in. TNB (his real name is Brandon) said that, with both his and his wife’s practices closed: “I’m awaiting orders on what we will build, move, clean, or restore next.”

Amen, brother.

With no hiding place I have had to suffer the full glare of my wife’s ever more frenetic plans. Floors have been scrubbed, shelves re-positioned, questions about how (or why) we do (or don’t) do certain things (in certain ways) asked. While it certainly helped that we had very few customers for the same reason we were trapped, what didn’t were the frequent phone calls from folk asking to us to take in freezing stray kittens – – –

Our good friend ‘Saint’ Beth’s animal hospital was also snowed in and she had 8 kittens that needed somewhere warm and safe so they were added to our own 4 kitty employees. Add up the litter tray and feeding requirements!

12 cats and kittens chasing each other over and through the shelves can scatter an awful lot of books. So I imagine you might be getting a picture of the general scene now? Book replacing, shelf re-positioning, floor scrubbing, picture re-hanging, kitten boxes, phone calls about stray cats and all.

Meanwhile the cafe did (mostly) manage to operate as usual thanks to our 4 wheel drive truck that managed to get chef Kelley in from her house each day, but that quickly became an emergency feeding center for the elderly and infirm within delivery distance. Kelley and Wendy delivered meals three days running.

There were times when it was a relief to go out and shovel snow, I tell you. But weather forecasts for next week are good, so we’re all looking forward to better times. And even in the midst of all this chaos, we still managed to have two Friday concerts and adopt out three cats.

It’s not so bad…..

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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

THE MONDAY SNOWSTORM by Mother Nature

snow road I can’t really settle into a book review this week because, well, snow happened. So I offer instead a set of shots showing what happened in Wise County this week, and hope you are all weathering the weather wherever you are, whether or not it’s bad weather.

snow day 004 snow day 005  height snow day 008 fosters in snow 039 snow 1  mosq snow 4

 

 

 

 

 

snow 3

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, crafting, home improvements, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, post-apocalypse fiction, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Heating With Books

books 010Now don’t judge me for what I’m about to tell you. Because every one of us who runs a bookstore has had to face this dilemma at one point or another, and if I do say so myself, Jack and I have found a creative and elegant solution.

Bookstores have unsellable books. It happens. 1970s manuals on why the Rapture will be within the next 10 years – reprinted in the 1980s and 1990s. At which point I assume the preacher died and went to his Heavenly Reward. (I’m not cynical, just have a wicked sense of humor and a healthy disrespect for fearmongering versus “This is God. Get to know God. It’s important.”)

Then there are the Arthur Hailey novels, the 1960s Fiction Book of the Month Club, and Thomas Costain.

Costain works the best for our purposes, because his paperbacks are nice and thick. Still, the book club editions stack well.

books 009Around the walls. We finally sat down and worked out a solution to “What are we gonna do about our heating bills” for this 1903 drafty monstrosity of a bookstore we live in. We needed to insulate better. What did we have to do it with?

Why hel-LO there, Danielle Steel! Steamy heated love scenes? Perfect for under the windows. We lined all the outer walls of our shop with romances, has-been how-tos, hardback fiction that’s been there, done that, and a few copies of  Time Life Big Books.

Thin, those, but nice and tall for the corners.

We got heat, ladies and gentlemen, and those books are getting the dignified retirement they deserve. If someone actually wanted to buy one, I’d have to explain that market value would be determined by the temperature outside, of course. Not that anyone will. These books are elegantly unsellable.books 008

And thick. And weighty. And perfect. We are WARM! Our heating bill is going down. And we culled our shelves. Life is going great in these sub-zero temperatures.

Jack and I live in a house lined with books. Go by, cold world!

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It’SNOW Fair

Jack’s weekly guest post examines bookstore weather issues -

snow_day_008You would think that, coming from Scotland, I’d be used to wintry weather, but actually I lived in the lowlands, where the sub-zero temperatures made snow fairly rare. (One of the great ironies of winter weather isn’t it? In Scotland it’s too cold to snow!)

It was only when Wendy and I lived near St Andrews, by the sea and pretty high up, that we experienced the ‘February week long village cut-off’ and I thought I’d left even that behind when we moved to Appalachia.

But for the second year in a row we’re down near zero Fahrenheit and this time it’s been accompanied by a blizzard. Our front steps and path had to be dug clear on Tuesday morning and our cordon-bleu chef Kelley has been stuck in her house for three days, unable to get here to open The Second Story Cafe.

All this has put us into emergency mode; it’s days like this we’re glad we live as well as work here!

Yesterday we were able to offer free hot coffee and shortbread to hard-pressed town employees (or anyone else that had to be out and about) and we had a few takers (including a neighbor who very kindly cleared the snow of all the vehicles parked out front). Today I’ve prepared my signature veggie curry in case we have any desperate ‘lunchers’ willing to chance it.snow_day_004

For anyone who’s interested – onions, green and red peppers, carrots, mushrooms and golden raisins in a tomato sauce with Patak’s hot curry paste. Onions fried in olive oil, then everything else in and simmer for a couple of hours!

Among the other businesses close by is the local ABC store (Alcoholic Beverage Control – where you buy your liquor) and it’s been closed as well except for a brief spell yesterday afternoon – when it did a roaring trade. The rest of the time there were lots of disappointed folk – who probably headed to the supermarket for the strongest fortified wine they could find as an alternative.

But right now it’s snowing again – – –

I bought my whiskey Saturday, knowing what was coming. And judging by the brisk business we did Saturday before the blizzard started, a lot of smart people did the same with reading material. :]

Go by, mad snowstorm.DSCN1410

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: THE ODD SEA by Frederick Reiken

This was an odd little book – little in that it is short. Odd in that it is about a disappearance that remains unsolved. Rather than taking the thriller resolution or the Doris Day film happy reunion ending, it just…. stops.

Philip’s older brother Ethan disappears, on a random day doing some normal activities. And the rest of the book is about piecing together what the rest of the family can of their lives. And there’s a lot of Catcher in the Rye coming of age bits about sex, too. Ethan was having sex with his girlfriend and a local artist, and both of these things figure prominently in his diary–which his oldest sister, Amy the Angry, finds. She keeps it from the police and press, but Philip traces his brother’s footsteps–almost literally, as he kind of falls for the one girl and is fallen for by the other.

The book explores the darkness inside all of us, but across the surface. It’s more about how Philip deals with all the things he can’t explain around him–including his brother’s disappearance and his emerging manhood.

And the title is one of the best parts; it comes from the youngest daughter demanding that the father distract them all by telling stories to the family on the porch. And he tells them the adventures of the Beaver King and Queen and their son, all through the long hot summer. It isn’t until years later that Philip realizes his dad has beaverized The Odyssey – and done a good job of it. And he begins to think of their lives and Ethan’s disappearance as The Odd Sea.

This is a quiet book, a gentle one, not given to tension so much as exploration. It’s the kind of novel adults like to read about high school times. Two beaver tails up.

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