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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.

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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.

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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.

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Takuwe, Wounded Knee, Little Bighorn

Early in the trip, we went to Takuwe (translates as “why”) which is a temporary art and narrative exhibit in South Dakota dedicated to helping people understand what happened at Wounded Knee (the first time mostly, although the second is mentioned). Then we went to the actual site. This is an intense thing, because the exhibit is beautiful and full of recordings and written words from survivors and eyewitnesses. The site itself has only what the indigenous people put up because the US government keeps reneging on a promise to build a national monument and park there. Graffiti told white people to stay out of the cemetery until promises about the land were kept, and sage had been burned and left in a bundle at the entrance.

At Little Bighorn (aka Greasy Grass, aka Custer’s Last Stand) an actual battle took place in which a WHOLE lot of white people died, whereas Wounded Knee was a full-on massacre with soldiers shooting into a ravine full of unarmed women and kids.

Both started with the the kids, though, because when Custer was sent to round up the Indians who had decided to not move to a reservation, he was expecting about 500 people; he didn’t realize the riverbank camp held more than 7,000, many of them Cheyenne Warriors because they and the Sioux were camped together as allies.

Also, the cavalry troop sent around to the South was probably drunk, because the commander (Marcus Reno) pretty much started the whole thing by ordering his men to form a skirmish line and rush the South end of the camp mowing down little kids and elders. Which went really badly for the soldiers because it set the torch paper to the dry wood of fury among the people who already felt crowded out and endangered. You hit someone else’s kid, you get what you deserve, and several of Reno’s men died badly.

It’s a site you should visit in person or online, because the whole story is too hard to tell, but there were two very poignant things to me. One is that the government eventually put up tombstones of red granite for natives and white marble for incomers  wherever they found bodies. Many of the white tombstones only say “a soldier of the seventh cavalry fell here.” And they start in a clump in fortifications on top of hills or behind valleys, and they end in pairs, backing up the hill. Which means that the guys killed their horses and used them as barricades in a circle, then when they ran out of ammo, they paired off and stood back to back fighting with their hands.

Custer went into the battle not thinking it would be a fight; he would round up the Indians who had refused to go to the reservations, and the Black Hills they had been promised, which held gold, would be sold by the elders to the US Government and opened for settlement. How far into the battle was he before he realized several mistakes meant he’d killed not only himself but  more than 250 men? Most of these were immigrants, about 40% Irish, a handful of Poles and others alongside. They’d come to the West to get rich. But the Indians had always been in the West, and the killing of the seventh cavalry became a symbol as well as an actual victory.

Those tombstones in pairs on the hills made me swallow hard.

After the battle Sitting Bull took everyone who wanted to go North into Canada. They lasted five years before harsh winters forced their surrender-versus-starvation to the US government.

In the battlefield museum was a picture of a Lakota woman taken in 1880, four years after Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass and ten years before Wounded Knee. She’s kneeling, holding a baby at the entrance to a teepee, the baby looking out with happiness and excitement at something unseen in the distance. The woman is looking at the baby, and in her face is captured every mother’s wish for her child: to grow up safe and happy, to have a sweet life doing things with their dad and grandparents; to become someone who does good while walking softly through the world. And underneath it, fear: what was her child’s life going to be now?

That was when I started crying.

You can see much better pictures online than these. I was in the moment and didn’t take many or very good ones. The guy in the bright shirt is Leland, our battle site guide.

 

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Filed under between books, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Day whatever: Custer to Cody

We planned two days of beaches and buffaloes at Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park. And God laughed. The first peal of thunder as a black cloud appeared from the western side of the lake sent parents and children floundering toward shore in a rolling wave of  overweight humanity. It was kind of adorable to watch; it would have been sad had the temperature not dropped so fast that no one wanted to swim any more anyway.

Did you know it hails a lot in South Dakota in the summer? Tourists like us driven by rain toward doing the Wildlife Loop, in hopes of observing happy woodland creatures cavorting in the drizzle, were suddenly inundated with baseball-sized ice from heaven, some of it big enough to dent hoods and take out tail lights. People were startled but cheerful as they pulled off into park service areas, dashing in shorts and sandals to buy up the CUSTER STATE PARK hooded sweatshirts. The temperature dropped about 30 degrees in an hour; park restaurants began a brisk trade in hot coffees to go.

The park was eerie and beautiful because the narrow asphalt roads, hot from the sun an hour ago, steamed upward as the hail came down, creating a mist that rose from the ground and a fog that descended from the clouds. We started watching weather instead of buffalo–although we still saw several white-faced antelope with curly horns, who seemed to be enjoying the ice as they ate leaves. Perhaps hail turns salads into mojitos.

As evening turned to dusk, we decided to drive back “the shortest route” along the Needles Highway, eleven miles of mostly single track with four tunnels between us and the lodge. It was just after we’d committed to this that the heavens cracked open with pink-white lightning and rain came down in sheets of water rather than individual drops. Visibility at about four feet in front of us, we negotiated up the mountain switchbacks and hairpin curves to our hotel. Funnily enough, we were the only people on the Needles Highway that night. But it was all right; Jack and Barbara began to sing rousing campfire songs to keep our spirits up–which had the unfortunate element of backfiring when I laughed so hard the car jerked once. That shut them up for a bit.

Everyone got into clean underwear and gathered in B&O’s room, lights off, to watch the lightning–which was ever so much prettier now it wasn’t directly overhead as we passed through rocks. Really quite the show.

The next day we drove through Tensleeps Canyon, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and ensconced ourselves in Cody with time to spare for making the evening gunfight. As Quakers, Jack and I might not have done this, but it was cheesy and community and fun, and Oliver the dignified English gentleman with the handlebar mustache turned into a five-year-old fanboy with a beer, laughing and hooting as Butch and Sundance (who according to the town’s merchandising department did not die in Bolivia but returned and lived quiet lives into the 1920s just outside Cody) went up against Wyatt and Virgil Earp. A good time was had by all, including Butch, who delighted the children by giving them money he stole from the bank, and taking about ten minutes to “die” amid various leg kicks and one-liners.

All very incorrect for Quaker non-violence practices, but the Sangria was good and the town needs the money, so what the heck. B&O had the time of their lives. Nothing like a good gunfight before bed.

Once again, just stringing the photos here as you can tell which is what.

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

Day Seven: Buff Steals the Show

Still at Sylvan Lake, soaking in water and woods by day, and cocktails by night. Because the wifi is hard to get, I’m putting all the photos and video at the bottom in a string again.

When you’ve seen a six-foot male buffalo kick up his heels in a dirt bath, you know the definition of “party animal.” These massive creatures turn into eight-hundred-pound puppies, legs waving in all directions as they wriggle on their backs like worms. It’s like watching the Pope go swimming: one minute plodding along all dignity and grace ignoring the tourists with cameras, the next doing a high dive yelling “Bonsai!”

Thoughtfully, the buffalo had aligned himself about twenty feet beyond a sign describing the American bison, so the braver tourists dashed three feet from their cars to take a picture of Buff the Bather gamboling about like a prairie dog, just beyond the interpretive plaque depicting him as the symbol of Prairie Dignity.

In the car, Oliver, Barbara, Jack and I agreed: Buff had drawn the afternoon shift. While all the others were hiding out from the heat at the local watering hole, buying each other rounds, he had the high-traffic entertainment shift. Hence his need for a party piece, the ol’ hof-waving, back-wriggling, kick-’em-up high routine. Packs the house every time.

About an hour later, leaving the Wildlife Loop Trail, we passed the Custer State Park office. Barbara indicated it with a nod of her head. “That’s where they collect their weekly wages. Buff is the highest-paid, because of his dirt dance routine, but he’s training twin calves to take over next year so he can retire.”

It is a sign of how far we have traveled together that the rest of us nodded agreement, Jack adding, “Took him two years to work his way up from night shifts.”

None of the crew are as interested in the antics of the prairie dogs, though, and I have had to resort to trickery to get my daily fix. While Oliver very much enjoys the charm of the wildlife and the beauty of the Black Hills, he tailgates the person ahead until they pull over, then races on. Even a rare sighting of an antelope failed to stop his drive to, well, drive. So the next time I saw a particularly cute prairie dog village, I shouted, “Look there!” Oliver practically put us into a ditch, swerving to the side. I snapped the dogs, and since we now had to let all the people we’d passed pass us, Oliver scanned the horizon for what I’d been pointing at. Turned out to be a dying Black Hills Spruce. (The beetles are doing for them, 95,000 acres damaged). Oh dear, so silly of me to mistake that reddish tree for a buffalo/coyote/antelope/mountain goat. Well, let’s press on, shall we?

Tomorrow, I drive….

 

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Day 5 and 6: Parade of Animals

Note: I skipped day four in Rapid City to go back later and hook it to some other cultural activities. Today let us tell you about the Badlands and the amazing wild(ish) animals we saw there. You may have to expand some pictures to see what we were seeing; I only had my phone for taking them.

Oh, the animals! Oliver and Barbara were mad keen to see a buffalo, and I am a prairie dog geek, so we took them around the Sage Rim Road (unpaved) of the Badlands, and saw four sets of buffalo. Jack sat in the back and clung to the armrest with white knuckles. My beloved does not care for “unimproved” roads, but he knew how badly the rest of us wanted to see Robert’s Prairie Dog town and the Buffalo Wallow.

We were not disappointed. The first buffalo was far distant, available only with the binoculars, and walking away from us. Still, B&O were happy: they had now seen one. We drove around a corner (note to self: do not let Oliver drive the wildlife loops because he turns into the guy who wants to Get There, even when there is no There to Get to) and nearly careened into a male and two females wandering aimlessly across the grasses.

Buffalo are majestic but when they’re walking, it’s like watching an animal cracker move. They’re such odd shapes as they amble, like a pushme-pullme of Dr. Doolitte fame. It takes a bit of practice to tell which end is front.

Replete with buffalo, we started up again and hadn’t gone a mile before I saw something in the grasses moving the opposite direction. It took a second to realize, but when I yelled “OMIGOSH a COYOTE!” Oliver threw us onto the roadside and was out of the car before the rest of us could get our seatbelts off.

The coyote, a very large male, walked along the side of the road less than a quarter mile from us for a few miles, so we started driving along, getting a bit ahead and watching him coming. So long as we didn’t get into the grass, he didn’t care. He was in fact much more interested in the prairie dogs who were very interested in what he decided to do next. He must not have been hungry, because he didn’t do much more than stare at one in a “do I want salad or protein” sort of way.

He finally ambled off into the morning rain (which is why we were seeing so many animals; the drizzle had cooled everything nicely in a pleasant blue half-daylight.

We figured it didn’t get any better than this until we climbed a peak and saw an enormous deer below. Mule deer it turned out, but I shouted Moose so Oliver would stop. I wasn’t sure “deer” would cut it.

And in reaching the top of the peak to watch the deer watch us, we discovered why the Badlands have so little water. The hard rock hills we’d climbed the day before were now so soft, we gained five pounds in shoe clay and had a nasty moment when we all thought we were sinking. Now I know why they warn through hikers in the Badlands that you’d better know what you’re doing, not just about the water, but about climbing the rocks. They’re not really rocks, but porous clay cliffs waiting for unsuspecting people to sink into them.

But we made it out, cameras full to the brim, went around the corner, and found a herd of long horn sheep resting, including one baby who wanted quite badly to cross the road and meet us. We had to shoo him back as the adults lay there, placidly chewing in the drizzle. It’s hard to get good child care these days, but he finally understood he should stay there.

A coyote in the wild, four herd of buffalo, a second mule deer when we reached Sylvan Lake, and all the prairie dogs in the world–it was a good two days.

I’m just going to string the pictures below here because the Internet is hard to use in the Lodge and it may go out again any moment.

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