Category Archives: Uncategorized

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?


Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The People in 306

Every year, Jack and I emcee the Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival, in gratitude of which they give us a small stipend and a big room in a grand hotel.

For the past four years it’s been the Carnegie, a nice place in JC that features huge bathrooms, glorious hallway chandeliers, and paper-thin walls. Last night Jack and I settled into our room with the requisite Indian take-out meal from Sahib’s, mid-term grading for me and Scottish political sites for Jack.

About half an hour later, we glanced at each other. Strange noises were coming from the hallway. It sounded as though a child were throwing up.

“No, that’s the room beside us,” Jack said, as I started to open the door leading to the hall. He indicated the wall with a flick of his head.

I stood at the point where the noise seemed loudest and listened again. The soft, ah-ah-ah gasps escalated to something like crying.

“This kid is in pain,” I said to Jack. “Do you hear an adult in the room? Should we knock?”

At that moment a male voice said, “Good girl, do it again” and my whole assessment of the situation shifted. Jack and I shot back from the wall as though, well, shot.

The voices continued, rumbling, mumbling, giggling, and that high, heated shrieking the gasps had turned into. There were sounds of spanking, and choking. “Are you all right?” “Oh yeah, that was amazing!”

Jack and I glanced at each other, at the clock by our bed (10:45), at our empty, neatly made bed, and busted up laughing. At some point marriages turn into “Let’s get a good night’s sleep” instead of “I’ll have what she’s having.”

And that’s okay. Don’t get the wrong idea; sex shared with the right person has no equal. But it also has no need of broadcasting. Sex just doesn’t sound like much fun at all when you’re not the one having it. Erotic asphyxiation is definitely off my list. She sounded like a poodle with asthma.

So is the Carnegie Hotel, perhaps. Next year we’re asking for the Comfort Inn. Fare-thee-well, paper thin walls that bring more than someone else’s TV into your life.


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

Memories are made of – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

I recently received a ‘blast from the past’ in the mail. It was a CD of music by an old friend who had recently passed on. Alan MacDonald was a late new recruit to my old group Heritage and he brought a very different set of musical insights. He was a big fan of American music including mountain fiddle tunes and rags and we hit it off and recorded some stuff. To my delight the CD included some of these pieces with me providing back-up guitar.

So – many warm memories; which got me thinking!

As I approach the unbelievably ancient age of seventy five, I wonder if we enhance some memories and bury others? The last  twenty years of my life have been shared with Wendy and they are front and center along with the amazing folks I’ve met along the way. My life revolves around the bookstore and all the spin-offs from that, not to mention the more recent storytelling and musical friends.

The Little Bookstore book encapsulated much of that, but was written four years ago, so there are already more stories to be told.

But going back in the other direction, there’s an enormous part of my life that was neither shared with Wendy or written down to be shared more widely. Some of it she has stumbled across as old friends are re-encountered and once again become part of our circle. But there other parts that I seem to have just erased from my memory. They seemed important at the time, but are no longer. Is that normal?

I wonder if we re-write our history to suit ourselves?

When old half remembered or half forgotten times are suddenly dropped on our laps do they also chink open a door to a part of our life that we somehow erase?

No matter – Alan wasn’t just a fine musician, but a highly regarded educationist . A quirky guy who wound up as the Head of a small elementary school that pioneered child-centered learning when it was still possible to do such a thing. He was very highly regarded by his professional peers and I was happy to be his friend.

Maybe I’m just getting old – – –

1 Comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Life reflections, Uncategorized

The Monday Book: THE FRIENDLY PERSUASION by Jessamyn West

You know how you start thinking about an old friend, and then look them up, and find they were thinking of you? This book is like that.

west-persuasionWest wrote it (and its companion volume Except for Me and Thee) more than 75 years ago, but it’s still just as funny and sweet, mostly because it’s about humans. Just humans, and how they interact, living on a farm in the Midwest as Quakers.

Well, there’s that Civil War bit, and their brush with the Underground Railroad, which is somehow more intense now reading it in these troubled years. So much should have changed by now…..

Not much has changed in human courtship, either, and the stories around love affairs (would be or actual) are as hysterical as they are accurate. If you want to just escape into a world that pre-dates Jan Karon but echoes our own modern troubles, this is a good one.

The author was a woman ahead of her time. She wrote two of my all-time favorite quotes about writing: “Talent is helpful in writing but guts are absolutely essential” and “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”

That kinda sums up The Friendly Persuasion. One of the reasons people will still be reading it years from now is its poignant accuracy in describing human interactions.




Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing, YA fiction

Numberless Blessings – –

 Jack’s Wednesday guest post finally managed to get out on Wednesday –

I used to joke that I must have been frightened by a math teacher as a child, because I’ve all my life had a problem with numbers. Not basic arithmetic, I hasten to add; I’ve never had a problem with that and it has been enough for me to get by – mostly.

I left primary school at the age of eleven with a perfectly confident attitude to numbers based on my excellent score in the ‘qualifying exam’ that put me straight into the top class at the local high school.

That’s when the problem started. Algebra raised its ugly head and each year I dropped further down the range of classes. It was math that was skewing everything else I was doing and I finally left school at the age of sixteen with no qualifications at all, despite enjoying English, French, Art and History.

During the ensuing five years of a painting and decorating apprenticeship I attended the local college, where I found that I could attend evening classes to get the qualifications I’d missed out on at high school. So I finally got Higher English and – wait for it – Arithmetic.

Skipping along a good few years, I went on to teach construction calculation to generations of painting apprentices, which only required facility in arithmetic. I developed a particular ability to ‘connect’ with students who had also experienced the same difficulties as I had. All went well until a few years before I retired, when I was prevailed upon by the college Principal to study for an MBA. Because I had no previous degree level qualification I had to sit two entrance tests – one in verbal reasoning and the other in math. I got the highest score they had ever recorded in verbal reasoning and a measly 30% in math! They allowed me in, but with misgivings about my ability to handle the math.

There I met my old enemy algebra again. Worse, his obsessive-compulsive second cousin dominated the course: Statistics – STATISTICS!!

I finished the whole program in time to retire (taking Stats twice along the way) and then Wendy and I moved to the States and opened a bookstore.

So now I do percentages, and tax equations and amortizations and – wait for it – market share statistics for the bookstore, our Celtic Festival, Wendy’s cat rescue, and other fun life events. It’s different, somehow, when it’s about real life. Not just numbers in a classroom. That’s precisely how I taught calculation to my painting students, come to think of it.

What were the odds that I would end up using all that math I learned? Actually, I know how to calculate that….




Filed under bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized

The Monday Non-Book: THE KEY to LIFE

cat-swimOkay, here’s the truth. I haven’t read a book in three weeks. Yep. Revoke my bookselling license.

I went from Boston to the Tidewater to attend back to back conferences and do my rural schtick. Meanwhile Jack and his team ran the Celtic Festival without me and the bookstore turned into command central. I STILL don’t know the names of the guys who slept in the Science Fiction section. But they had towels, and that’s the important thing.

My dad’s heart scare turned into open heart surgery which started the day the conference I actually run started, two days after the conference in Tidewater ended. No pressure. With the excellent assistance of my friend Beth and her minion Mindy-the-amazing, we pulled that off. We even managed a really nice tie-in featuring Barbara Dickson, from our Celtic festival, as the entertainment at the historic Lincoln Theatre for the conference attendees.

Holding my annual board retreat three hours after the conference ended, in the same resort, was one of those ideas that seemed good at the time. I had even pre-packaged folders for each board member and left them in a box in my car. With a couple of hours of down time between the attendees leaving and the board convening I figured I’d move the folders to the meeting site, then have a nice leisurely lake swim. I’d be headed to my parents’ after the board meeting, so a chance to relax sounded good.

Arriving at the lake behind the rest of the leisure-seekers post-conference, I found mhy husband Jack sunbathing on the pier and asked him where our car was parked. “Oh,” he says, “Barbara and Oliver took it to the boat docks so they could rent a canoe. They’ll be out on the water by now. And the car will be locked. They said they’d be gone all afternoon. Why? Did you need something from it?”

I stared at him. Looked out at the lake. And saw Barbara and Oliver stroking into view, headed upriver to the Great Unknown.

Without hesitation I dove off the pier, leaving Jack somewhat startled behind me. And wet.

Making for the canoe with all the speed a lifetime of lifeguarding had taught me, I shouted “I need the car key!” (I was doing breast stroke by then so shouting didn’t make me drown.)

A bit nonplussed, the pair heaved to alongside a floating dock in the middle of the lake. Oliver hauled out the electronic key and gave me a dubious look.

“We can’t bring the canoe to shore in the swim area, and you can’t get this wet. How are you–?”

I opened my mouth. He sighed and placed the key. I fought the urge to cough as I swam back to shore, bobbing above the waves, not thinking about 20 feet of dark water below me and what would happened if I sneezed.

As I reached shore, the onlookers clapped. I handed the key to Jack, who trotted off to fetch the board folders. I swam for another hour, threw my blazer, blouse, and fresh black trousers on over the damp suit, and dashed around the front of the restaurant to meet the first of my board members. We had a lovely time setting strategy for the coming year, and ended in a timely manner with good vibes all around. No one commented on the fact that my clothes were slowly showing dark patches of water.

So no, I haven’t read a book in three weeks. I rather look forward to getting back to it. Meanwhile, let the Stupid Key Swim of 2016 stand as a metaphor for all the moments when we act with desperation rather than thought–and it works.


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

Should Auld Acquaintance – –

 Jack standing in for Wendy with some reflections on the last few weeks.

The blog has been a bit quiet over the last few days as both Wendy and I have been dealing with a host of distractions including – cats, a Celtic festival, a medical conference, a Barbara Dickson concert and her father unexpectedly requiring open-heart surgery.

Her Dad is through the surgery and back home now, being his usual curmudgeonly self, which is a sure sign of rapid recovery. But Wendy is spending this week with them and providing support to her Mom.

Meanwhile I’m trying to catch up with the backlog of stuff that’s built up. Bills to pay, emails to answer and a blog post to write – –

We had my old singing partner Barbara and her husband Oliver staying with us for the last two weeks and that culminated in them joining us at Hungry Mother State Park where Wendy’s annual ‘Head for the Hills’ medical conference was taking place. Also joining us were our chef Kelley, her wife Sam and their two youngest kids, Asher and James. Barbara did a concert at the gorgeous Lincoln Theater in nearby Marion on Friday night when she excelled herself, got a standing ovation and a well deserved encore from an audience that mostly had never heard her before.

However the stand-out moments for me were seeing Oliver become the kindly uncle to Asher and James as he showed them how to throw horseshoes, swam with them in the lake and took them out in canoes as their joint birthday treat. Then there was the late evening bonfire on the area between our cabin and the lake when we all sat round and harmonized songs, told jokes and reminisced about the previous couple of weeks.

When Barbara and Oliver first visited with us two years ago they were the ones going through some family trauma and we were pleased to offer the opportunity to relax and get away from that. This time round it was us dealing with lots of stuff and they were the ones who rolled up their sleeves and waded in – shopping, cleaning and generally picking up the slack. We’re already missing the ritual of Oliver’s breakfast porridge.

So we are delighted to count them as part of the extended family of the bookstore and the cafe!

On the final evening before they left we were not completely surprised they were looking at houses for sale in Big Stone Gap – – – –


Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized