Category Archives: writing

The Monday Book: NIGHT JOURNEY by Kathryn Lasky

It stands to reason that, having cleaned out the children’s room, I would have picked up a book or two to read for fun.

What’s really cool is when you start reading, and suddenly you remember a line from the book just before you read it, and you quote it as you read along. Which is how I found out I’d read this book a long, long time ago.

I picked up The Night Journey not because I remembered reading it, but mostly because it had a Samovar on front, and because Trina Schart Hyman illustrated it. She’s one of my two most favorite children’s book illustrators. LOVE her work.

Journey describes a great-grandmother and grandchild reconstructing the elder woman’s escape from pogrom-filled Russia when she was the age of the child to whom she is now telling the story. Filled with finely-drawn characters like Aunt Ghisa (a little bitterness from the unmarried sister who still loves her niece) and Wolf, the tormented loner who escaped an earlier Cossack raid at a cost higher than life. When Rache is first told her great-grandmother’s story, so intense is Wolf’s part in it that she writes it in a letter to be opened on Rache’s eighteenth birthday. The letter being opened is the culmination of the story, and it is intensely bittersweet.

Children’s books aren’t so layered and deep these day, methinks. The dismantling of the Samovar so the family can sneak it out with then, and the protection of the gold coins the family carries, run through the larger historic story like gold threads. It is a very satisfying read.

And fast. Which is fun sometimes, when you just want to spend two nights living someone else’s life from the safety of your pillow.

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The Monday Book: MWF SEEKS BFF by Rachel Bertsche

The trouble with writing a high-concept memoir is that you have to let someone else inside something pretty esoteric without scaring them through detail or boring them with the obvious. They’re hard to write.

Rachel Bertsche, newly moved to Chicago, wants to make friends. And she finally decides to go about it the same way she did dating: literal girl-dates, 52 in a year, to see who she can find out there. She meets a lot of people. She describes meeting a lot of people. Some of the descriptions are interesting, some repetitive. Sometimes it feels like she’s caught in the mechanics of her writing. (She promised to write up every single date.)

And sometimes it’s really funny. Occasionally insightful. What I find most interesting about the book is how much the reader can project into it. “That person she’s talking to now is me.” Or “that’s how I would have reacted to that person,” etc.

Bertsche’s writing is very journalistic, combining pop psych with lived experience. It’s not my favorite style, but she gives it her all and it’s compelling. If you’ve wondered how to meet people, or why people are drawn to each other, you’ll enjoy this book.

Perhaps the thing that frustrated me the most about her memoir is how many women were in Chicago for the same reason as Bertsche, and who met with Bertsche because of it, but never discussed why: they followed their guy to his career-launching jobs, and then had to fend for themselves. In a book full of women self-empowering themselves on relationships, nobody really talked about this. Hmmm…..

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The Monday Book: EVERY HOUSE NEEDS A BALCONY by Rita Frank

This book came into the shop, and I’d seen somewhere online that it had been nicknamed “The Israeli Kite Runner.” So I took it downstairs to our flat and made it my bedside book.

Hmm….. on the one hand, it’s very atmospheric, makes you feel the Haifa poverty and inner city activity of the time period (post-WWII). On the other, translated books have that one-step-removed feel, and this novel has that in spades. It feels like reading from behind a curtain.

The story centers around a woman who decides to marry a guy from Barcelona, both Jewish, different classes, dealing with a lot of the ethnic and economic and political effects of the day. Marriage strains, sick babies, family members who aren’t cooperating, etc. If it weren’t for being set in Haifa, it would be an Aga Saga. But instead, it’s kind of an atmospheric time piece. Maybe even a peek behind the curtain.

I love character-driven books best of all, and this one isn’t. It’s setting-driven, and I have to admit that works really well. I didn’t care about the people, but it was like watching a television instead of reading in terms of the filled-in living details and little tossed-on-top nuggets of unexplained culture. It’s written from the inside, and those of us on the outside can learn a lot just from watching the casualness of the unexplained as it appears.

It’s not a book in which a lot happens action-wise, at least not most of the time, but it’s a great depiction of how time, place, and money can rock a marriage. Any marriage, any time, any place.

Four stars, shall we say?

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The Monday Book: DANCING AT THE SHAME PROM (Ferris and Dexter, eds)

So this isn’t really a book you LIKE. It’s a book I personally read to see how writers handled the subject (a point in your life about which you are ashamed). I wanted to study them, from style to emotion to word choice.

Some of them handled it very well, and others left me feeling like the story they had to tell wasn’t the one they were telling.

This book is a collection of short stories/essays by women who have felt shame for something, ranging from divorce to making fun of people to being bad in school. The stories tend to focus on women who have influence and affluence (discovering her husband was having an affair, one writer lobbied his Emmy at his head, if that gives you an idea).  They’re not “on the ground” stories of not being able to provide, etc.

They’re also not as no-holds-barred as I was expecting as a whole, although in some cases they’re so intense that much is demanded of the reader. I read this book because Seal Press, who published it, have a great reputation for women authors with meat on their wordy skeletons. These women have things to say, and because I was dealing with a point in my own writing where shame came up, I wanted to see how they could do it graciously, conversationally, without justification or haranguing.

Well, some did and some didn’t, but when one reads for instruction and edification, one gets those things. I’m glad I read it, but it’s not a sit-down and feel-good book. In fact, at the risk of sounding demeaning or facile, this is the kind of book one keeps in the smallest room in the house, and ponders piece by piece. To do otherwise might be overwhelming. I found that reading a chapter a night dragged me down, whereas a bit here, a bit there, with time to ponder and piece together ideas and smell the flowers between, was better for my mental health.

So this is less half-hearted endorsement than an upfront admission that I read this for personal reasons, to gain insight into good writers talking about bad stuff, and I got what I came for. If you’re not interested in how shame holds us, or you’re more interested in the inspirational side a la Brene Brown, you may not like this book. But it certainly got interesting.

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The Monday Book: WAFFLE STREET by James Adams

True confession: I found this book from the movie. During my recent writing retreat in Florida, I was looking for “mindless entertainment” to fall asleep by. With my trusty laptop propped on my stomach, I surfed Netflix, and found that people who liked The Big Short tended to watch Waffle Street.

Fair enough; I wasn’t looking for much. What I got was way beyond expectations. The heartwarming story of white guys finding redemption in places they wouldn’t normally hang out (a la that Starbucks saved my life book and all) turned out to be something between a financial handbook for dummies and a quirky character sketchlist for small towns. I loved the film and the book.

A lot of the really good explanations of financial stuff (using chickens and waffles) fell out of the movie, but when you find out that James’ best friend at the restaurant was an ex-con grill cook, you have all the straight man set-up you need for the best lines ever about financial misconduct.

The book is heartwarming, sadly, but it’s also that wee bit unpredictable. Adams’ wife isn’t the sweet supportive pushover the movie makes her out to be. The restaurant owner isn’t a self-made down home boy. Throw in the crazy lady who keeps counting change to buy her favorite waffle, the evil midlevel manager who turns out to be human, and a few other stock characters who don’t quite fulfill their archtypes due to a few surprise moves, and pour syrup over the top – but lite syrup. Neither movie nor book are sticky with sentiment.

I did feel a twinge or two, reading the the book, that Adams was describing without solving. He isn’t saying “fight the system.” He’s saying “wow, look how funny the system is.”

He’s probably right about not wasting energy. Two pancake turners up for Waffle Street. waffle-street

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The Monday Book: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

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This week’s blog by guest Willie Dalton, author of Three Witches in a Small Town.

I had been putting it off for months. I’d seen the book advertised in countless places and endorsed by many celebrities. “You have to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up!”

I thought it sounded interesting and no doubt I could definitely use some decluttering in my life . But  I’d read all the blogs, all the tips, and liked all the Facebook pages about minimizing and none of the advice had ever had a lasting impression. Could this book be that different?  Finally, I caved and bought the book.

To my surprise it is very different from all of the other advice out there. The author’s method is from a lifetime of observing and studying habits and patterns to get it down to a step by step system of what works and what can be maintained. You begin with things of less sentimental value and end with the items that are hardest to sort.  She claims if you do it exactly as she says you will NEVER have to do it again. Sounds good to me!

This method “the KonMari” way of decluttering is also becoming known as the “joy method.” You hold each item and ask yourself if it brings you joy, if it does, you keep it and if not you get rid of it. She emphasizes most people believe items bring them joy just because they did at one time, but if that time has passed you thank it for the joy it brought to you and release it. It might sound silly to thank an inanimate object but I have to admit it made it a little easier for me to say goodbye to some ratty old t-shirts that I once adored.

The goal isn’t to get rid of as much as possible but to focus on surrounding ourselves with things that bring us joy and happiness. She says if we are truly honest about the things that delight us and let go of all the extra “stuff” our homes automatically become more manageable and less cluttered. Of course we all have things that need to be saved for other purposes that don’t bring us anything resembling joy and she has a method for managing that as well.

I’m only getting started in the sorting process but so far I’ve already discarded three full garbage bags of shirts. I have very high expectations of becoming the organized person I’ve always wanted to be now that I have a true system to follow.  But you might want to check back with me in a year….

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The Monday Book: SLOW LOVE by Dominique Browning

I really like memoirs, so when Browning’s came in with the charming title, “How I lost my job, put in my pajamas, and learned to enjoy life” I packed it on a recent flight. (It is also smaller than the average trade paperback.)

Although following a predictable pattern – NYC insider gets the boot because of hard times – what I liked about the book was Browning’s meta-writing: slow, lyrical sentences to illustrate how her life slowed down, picked up on music and gentle living, and added some herbs.

Granted, Browning is wealthy. Even though she wrote about the fear of the plummeting stock market harming her retirement savings, well, she had savings. And another house to move into that she could afford to renovate. Etc. This is a yuppie memoir.

And beautifully written. Her lazy, gentle sentences don’t meander. They are densely packed with words you might have to look up every now and then. Her observations are pithy but not concise. I found myself following her for the way she told the story, not the story she was telling.  Browning is a writer’s writer.

Following my quest to find how other writers handle making the inaccessible (or at least the non-experienced) interesting to readers who don’t share the passion of the book, I read Browning to the end, and enjoyed it. If you like lyrical writing and peeking at others’ strange lives, this is a good one for those of us who don’t live, and don’t care to think about living, in Manhattan.

A full bouquet of home-grown roses for Dominique Browning’s SLOW LOVE.

 

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