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The Monday Book: DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach

Jack’s guest Monday book review – Desert Queen by Janet Wallach

queen-of-the-desertThis fascinating account, set during the height of British imperialism, follows the life of the remarkable Gertrude Bell. Little remembered until the recent Iraq wars, it was she who sat down in 1919 and quite literally invented the country. She drew its borders, foresaw the difficulties, recommended how it should be governed, and negotiated and politicked until she got her way. That included choosing Iraq’s first King – Faisal – and making sure he was put on the throne.

The book covers her life from the late 1800s through the late 1920s. A strong willed and intelligent youngster, she was one of the first women in England to be allowed to attend a university. She went on to become a noted mountaineer and traveled throughout the Middle-East as an explorer and antiquarian. Oddly for such an ambitious and atypical woman, she was staunchly anti-suffragist, seemingly thinking of herself as an exception. She did expect to get married, have children and play second fiddle to a husband, but never did. (She had two great loves – the first was deemed to have insufficient prospects by her father and the second was a married man who was killed at Gallipoli).

Just prior to the outbreak of the First World War she began to spend most of her time in Mesopotamia and became a kind of amateur spy and agent feeding information to the colonial offices in India and Egypt as well as the UK Government back in London. She operated very much as a lone-wolf, looked down on by the all-male officials and not fitting in with their wives. As a result she spent a great deal of time with the Sheiks and other local leaders, accepted by them as almost an honorary man.

The book was doubly fascinating for me in the way that it portrays the casual arrogance of imperial powers and the patronizing way that they (particularly France and the UK) divided up the region after the end of the war. Most of the Middle East had been part of the Ottoman Empire, but with Turkey defeated and oil now seen to be so important, an undignified series of negotiations took place and the whole vast area split into brand new countries with puppet leaders. Iraq, Persia, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were conjured up but poor Kurdistan (that had been promised its own state) is still waiting. Then there was Palestine – –

Finally you may wonder why the subject of this book isn’t as well known as the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, who was a friend and contemporary of hers. I think the answer is simply that T. E. Lawrence was a man and she was a woman. He was the acceptable dashing young adventurer who fitted the stereotype and she wasn’t. In fact it was because she was a woman and had to operate ‘under the radar’ that she was so successful.

I just wish Messrs Bush and Blair had read this book – they might have done things differently!

Two enthusiastic thumbs up from this Scottish reviewer. And I’m waiting for the movie starring Nicole Kidman andvJames Franco, directed by Werner Herzog, due out next month on general release.

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Food for Thought

Jack’s weekly guest post homes in on gastronomic reminders –

It’s sometimes surprising the connections that can be made in our local supermarket, and I don’t mean the people you bump into.

Our Good Chef Kelley, owner of The Second Story Cafe here above the bookstore, often shops for us when she’s getting in her cafe provisions, and sometimes surprises us with something she thought we’d specially like. Imagine our astonishment when she triumphantly ploncked down two packs of Mull of Kintyre mature cheese in front of us a few weeks ago. – Mull of Kintyre, for goodness sake!

The Mull of Kintyre is a hard-to-get-to promontory in the Southwest of Scotland, within sight of the North of Ireland. It’s most famous for two things: it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, which composed the SW of Scotland and Antrim in Ireland as well as the sea between; and Paul McCartney (remember him?) who owns a house there and wrote what is probably his worst ever song about the place!

Paul’s song is affectionately known as ‘Mulligan’s Tire’ in Scotland, so the label on the cheese is rather clever and subtle (do you get it?)

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And then there’s the San Daniele Prosciutto Wendy came home with from a business trip to Abingdon (a wealthy town about an hour away) last week, which immediately took me back to Friuli in NE Italy where my old group Heritage had such great times playing at FolkEst back in the eighties. We were based in San Daniele and looked after royally by the lovely guy who’s family owned the most respected prosciutto place in town. I love the stuff and was gob smacked when Wendy handed me the packet.

There’s our long-running search for Romanian Pinot Noir, which we fell in love with when we were both working there temporarily, way back in 2002. We were delighted to find when we got back to Scotland that the local Tesco supermarket not only stocked it but it was the very same brand – Prahova Valley. Since moving to Virginia we’ve spent years trying to persuade the local supermarket – – –

I didn’t mention Patak’s hot curry paste, or elderflower presse, or McVittie’s plain chocolate digestives, or, or, – – –

Something about food just transports us back to special places and times, doesn’t it? The good news is, with the exception of the Romanian Pinot, our sweet little local Food City (owned by KVAT) has mostly managed to get in these items. They also try to buy produce from local farmers, regionally specific to each of their stores.

Here’s to supporting the local guys! We really need to send them a bottle of the Prahova Valley next time we find it online…..

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We Won the Inaugural International Cat Day at Bookstores Award!

In case anyone missed it, Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness did his column on us this past week. Here’s the article and the link. And we LOVED seeing Valkyttie’s picture going national. :]

 

Robert Gray: International Cat Day Bookstore Prize

In case you missed it, last Saturday was International Cat Day, during which “felines take over the internet (even more than usual),” the Telegraph noted. As news-gathering organizations go, our bookstore cat coverage is pretty comprehensive, so we can testify to the clickbait potential inherent in any hyperlink that includes the words “Bookstore Cats.”

See, you just went there instinctively, didn’t you? Welcome back.

Today, I have the honor of both inventing and announcing the inaugural International Cat Day Bookstore Prize winner. From a long list of worthy contenders, the judges (well, me) unanimously selected Tales of the Lonesome Pine, Big Stone Gap, Va., which is currently hosting a Bookstore Cat Adoption Reunion on Facebook to celebrate all of the “forever homes” they have found for their temporary bookstore kitty interns.

“We started in June 2009, and in May of this year we adopted out our 200th cat (named Reepicheep),” said co-owner Wendy Welch. “The bookstore is a great place to get adoptions going because it acts kind of like a pet store window; people interact with the cats, pick them up and carry them, have fun with them. The tactile experience of being around them has increased adoptions, I think. We still have ‘impulse’ adoptions, although we are careful of those. More often now that we’re established we have people contact us after viewing our Facebook photos.”

Tales of the Lonesome Pine has three cat adoption rules, Welch noted: “Let the cat choose the person–they never miss; give the cats timely literary names (we named a group Harper Lee, Scout, and Boo Radley when Go Set a Watchman came out); and write about their purrsonailities on Facebook. After a cat’s been with us long enough to know them, I usually do a ‘if this cat were a woman/girl’ post and for some reason everybody loves these. I also write a lot of ‘cat voice‘ blogs as if the cat were writing it about his experiences at the shop. These get lots of hits and comments.”

Visitors to the bookstore occasionally donate money (“a kitty for the kitties,” as her husband, Jack, describes it), but Welch said, “We don’t have a jar out and in our troubled economic region I would flat not ask people for money; there are people struggling to feed their families here, literally. We’re not interested in taking their cash. In fact, that’s who we rescue for. Some families would love a pet, be good to it, have enough to feed and care for it, if they didn’t have to pay for spaying and neutering. I have friends who can sometimes be called on to ‘sponsor’ a family if they need it, and we let those ‘kitty’ donations add up to spays as well.”

She also crochets for the cause: “It’s a hobby I’ve had since childhood; I’m fast, and if I do say so myself, I’m really good at it. I can make all sorts of fun stuff; in 2013 it was the Spay & Neuter Afghan–a free online pattern called ‘Rows of Cats.’ I put it online with a note that said ‘This is what you get if you don’t spay and neuter: rows and rows of cats.’ And those things sold like hotcakes; I sold them for the price of a neuter. In 2014 I must have sold 400 of these cool little trivets shaped like penguins and chicks and roosters. This year it is animal scarves and hoodies, and mermaid tail lap blankets. People buy these a lot, and they donate yarn so I can sell them at prices everyone can afford, and still make money for the kitties’ kitty.”

Since the 2012 publication of her book The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Welch said many readers “from outside the area have been quick to assist us, or to assist their local cat shelters in our honor. That’s very cool. The farthest away we have adopted cats is Kansas and Massachusetts. Someone agreed to meet the adopter halfway, and off our babies went to life in the big city–or the American plains. Whichever. We adopted a girl recently to a family in Arlington who came to see the shop because they’d read my book and wanted to see it for themselves. And they came with the idea of getting a cat in mind. We love it when this happens.”

Tales of The Lonesome Pine’s official bookshop cat philosophy is summed up nicely in her book: “The whole establishment catered in design and policy to every whim of the two permanent staff cats and the myriad fosters who have found forever homes via the bookstore.”

Sometimes people ask why they do all this. “We do it for the same reason we run a bookstore: because it’s fun, because it’s important, and because it’s compassionate,” Welch observed. “Animals can’t speak for themselves, tell their own story. They need advocates, and when they get them, they reciprocate by being way more fun to watch than Netflix–plus more engaging.” —Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

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It’s the Great Cat Reunion of 2015!

Jack and I have wanted to have a cat reunion for ages, but in the present economy travel money is tricky for people.

Plus some people think having a cat reunion is a crazy notion, and although they love the cat they got from us, they’re not going to travel to show it.

And you have to admit, having a bunch of cats in one place and time like that would be like, well, herding cats.

So our friend Elissa came up with a great idea, and created the BOOKSTORE CATS ADOPTION REUNION on Facebook. If you’ve adopted a cat from us (or placed a cat with us) we want to hear your stories, see your videos and pictures, and find out how things are going.

Send us your favorites, and let us do what the Internet was created for: ooh and over cats.

As an incentive, here’s our big boy Mal, who was adopted by David and Susan in North Carolina. Mal had a cleft palate and looked like he was ten minutes from dying. With a serious operation and a lot of TLC afterward, he gained health and vitality – plus weight. Pity he never gained brain cells, but that’s a separate story. mal 1And now, five pictures of Mal showing the transformation love and a little luck can bring. (They go in reverse order, from Mal on David and Susan’s couch to the Sunday afternoon we found him on our bookstore lawn and stashed him in the garage until we could get him to the vet.)

mal 2mal3

mal 4mal 5

 

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SHELVING: THE FORGOTTEN ART

Our shopsitter Emily guest blogs on her shelving experiences

EmilyI like to organize. So in a bookstore where there’s always books coming in and out, daily, I feel these urges to put all the shelves in perfect order – alphabetical, by genre, all in a line, etc. Which has led me to stand in front of the shelves for a few days in a row now, head slightly tilted, sometimes just staring, sometimes repeating the alphabet out loud to myself, looking like a weirdo, trying to figure out what all these words on the spine mean and each bound object relates to each other.

I’ve discovered who Grace Livingston Hill is and that “inspirational romance” is quite popular (I’m going to have to try one, it sounds quite nice). I’ve seen parenting books that start with dealing with your own mommy issues and work through just about every month of the next twenty years of your life. There’s more gender in books than I’d ever realized before – clearly, some books are ladies’ books and some books are gents’ books. I’ve spent most of my time so far among the fiction books, and I’m totally impressed by the number of stories there are to tell in the world.

But one of the coolest parts has been realizing that all (or at least most) of these used books have come from someone else’s home, where they were sitting on someone else’s bookshelves or nightstand or closet floor. They probably all have a story to tell about the home they used to live in and how they got that slightly crooked spine. In my time here, the books on these shelves have already witnessed dozens of friendly faces, new and familiar, a rowdy game night, four cats who got adopted, and a strange lady who keeps staring at them, planning a master plan about how best to move them shelf to shelf to shelf just so they can get adopted, too. If only books could speak, right?

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The Monday Book: SHADOW TAG by Louise Erdrich

shadow tag This was a creepy book. On the one hand, it’s scarier and more ominous than many thrillers I’ve started but never finished. On the other, it’s about marriage. Draw your own conclusions.

If I had to choose one word to sum up this book, ironically enough it would be “Complex.” The complexities of how people exhibit love, whether love and hate really are two horns on the same goat, and what it means to belong to as opposed to live freely beside someone are all explored with some fairly high-concept stressers added. The couple are Native Americans. They are successful artists. They are alcoholics. And whether they love each other or use each other or even like each other is up for grabs in the eyes of the reader.

And get this: she creates that complex effect with simplicity. Her writing, lyrical though it is, is pretty simple. The dialogue where the couple are arguing about love and divorce, interjected with tossing a salad and setting the table, had me weeping with laughter. “You don’t understand love at all. Do you want croutons?”

Also, Irene, the writer, is writing two diaries at the same time to confuse her painter husband Gil, who is reading the one he thinks is real. And she gets confused between them herself. Which is kinda funny, kinda tragic.

What is clear is that chaos creates chaos creates complications, and that the kids are incredibly well-drawn characters in this novel. Your heart breaks over them, and I suspect no two people would read this book in quite the same way. It’s just a jumble of ideas that are strung together in a story line, and sometimes it’s a series of descriptions rather than a “this happened next.”

Which works and adds to the chaotic doomed feeling of the book.

All I can say is, don’t read this book if you’re in a really good mood, or a really bad one. Read it when you have time to think about the complexities, puzzle over the “why did she and why didn’t he” moments, and feel. You’re gonna need a lot of time to feel, and you’re not always going to know why you feel what you feel. At least, I didn’t.

Two head scratches and a thumbs up for this beautiful, scary novel.

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

Getting Away from It All…..

Jack’s guest blog covers the dark side of nature…..

Wendy and I have a log cabin about two hours away that is very isolated, with no telephone, TV, internet or cell phone reception. It’s normally very restful and relaxing to hide away there for a few days. Wendy can get writing done there without distractions. The dogs love it because they can go off and wander to their hearts’ delight and there’s a pond for them to swim in.

And me? I can deal with the repairs and maintenance that are always needed there in our holiday dream home…..

But this time it was hot and thundery – VERY hot and thundery! With no breeze and no air conditioning I found myself becoming more and more lethargic. The dogs hardly moved except to dive into the pond and the only one to expend any energy was our ‘special’ kittie Hadley, who we’d taken as well as a treat.

Despite all that languid pressing heat, I still managed to deal with wasps’ nests, wood-boring bees, a ginormous wolf spider clinging to (Wendy says “carrying off”) a Mason jar in the sink, and get some weed-whacking done. Wendy got writing aplenty done and the dogs got so smelly in the pond they needed a bath this morning when we returned home. So all in all it was a success–at least for everyone but the spider.

Sometimes it’s good to get away. And sometimes, it’s better to get back to air conditioning – – –

 

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Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing