The Monday Book: TOGETHER TEA by Marjan Kamali

together-teaWhen this book came into the shop, I knew it would hit my reading list. I like books about Eastern culture, particularly latte lit. (Novels that have female protagonists dealing with general life, are smart, and don’t devolve into cooking lessons, is the best definition of latte lit I’ve heard.)

Kamali’s book has a couple of clunky bits where she just wants you to believe certain things about her characters without developing them. However. her sharp, sassy writing style makes up for it. She’s like a sweet cynic when she gets hold of words. The novel’s premise is that the mother and daughter in an Iranian family that fled after the Revolution decide to go back for a visit. They go because of love interests – Mom has picked up one she doesn’t one, and the daughter has rejected one Mom picked out for her.

At one point Mina (the daughter) describes herself as balanced on the hyphen between Iranian-American. It’s a lovely passage. In the course of the visit, the depiction of one mom dealing with her family’s everyday pressures compounded by a country flipping itself upside down in a near-civil-war is fascinating. This isn’t an intense political book; it’s one family’s experiences. And its power lies in the way Kamali writes more than the plot or characters.

Here are some examples of the little gems Kamali drops in her writing:

Explaining to her ten-year-old daughter why she now has to wear a hijab to school when a month ago the Shah’s guard were snatching scarves off women’s heads if they wore them:

It’s always through the women that the men express their agenda. Cover up so they can feel like they’re in power.

Iranian hospitality (which is Southern hospitality to the power of 10) requires you to beg the guest to eat and the guest swears it will kill them to do inconvenience you. On round three of one such exchange, Mina, returned to Iran after 15 years in the states, loses it in this gloriously subtle way:

Mina: Would you like some nuts.

Guests: Oh thank you, no, may your hands not ache.

Mina: Please take a nut.

Guests: No, No.

Mina: In God’s name, take a nut.

Her humor is understated like that.

When the family arrives in America, the mom, a quiet, sweet, simple woman by American standards, buys a box of red hair dye and colors herself. When¬† she comes out of the bathroom, her husband claps and then goes in and cleans up what looks like the scene of an ax murder. The mother turns to her daughter and says they’re going for a walk. Which they do, the daughter much cowed by Mom’s new hair. And Kamali writes this:

Was freedom just tiny movements like this? Simply knowing that no one cared if the sun shone on your hair? …. But dominating all the new colors was the jarring red of Darya’s hair, an unfamiliar defiance that screamed silently at the start of their American life.

And as the book comes to its predictable wedding conclusion, Darya (Mom) looks at the chaos of Iranian-American wedding traditions and messiness around her and reflects:

Real life was messy. It would never add up. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t need to be.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

Not Quite a Diva

So the Celtic Festival is upon us, which explains why neither Jack nor Wendy can get a blog post out between getting the flags and signs to each venue, handing out towels to musicians overflowing the bookstore – I don’t even know the names of the guys sleeping in the Science Fiction section – and feeding the foster cats. dickson

Actually, herding the cats and herding the musicians is much of a muchness……

It’s all bedlam and bagpipes right now, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but the cat rescue¬† still needs to be looked after. Appalachian Feline Friends is primarily a foster organization, but has a small place where we hold cats between leaving the local shelter and entering foster or forever families. AFF had an unexpected and urgent opportunity to empty four cages from the shelter, so in the midst of all the musical mayhem, when a fellow cat lover was able to pull them, I needed to figure out how to get the kitties into the holding tank by myself, since Jack was up to his eyebrows in parade plans.

Enter Barbara Dickson, singer-guitarist extraordinaire and this year’s festival headliner. She and Jack are old friends, from their shared hometown of Dunfermline, Fife. When I called the bookstore from the vet’s office to see if anyone had ten minutes to spare, I was told “Barbara will meet you out front.” She marched herself into the car, settled one of the carriers on her lap, and said, “Right, we’re off.”

At the holding tank, I warned her that there might be a certain catishness to the place, and she waved a hand. When I opened the door, she took a sniff and said, “Right. Where’s the broom and the mop bucket?”

For the next hour and a half, as I fed and watered and cuddled kitties, Barbara swept, mopped, and cleaned up suspicious stains. We had a blast. When I thanked her profusely, she said, “Pff. I love cats.”

And the next day, Barbara put on a dress, put up her hair, and delivered a standing ovation concert to open the Big Stone Celtic Festival.

She’s a woman like that.

You can hear one of Barbara’s Friday night songs here: Big Stone Celtic Day.


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

The Monday Book: THE LAST MORTAL MAN by Syne Mitchell

deathlessSo I’m not the world’s biggest SF fan these days, but when THE LAST MORTAL MAN came into our shop, I was in a mood and needed a book in a hurry. I packed it in my bag and raced for my plane, train, or car pool, whatever it was.

Ironically, I soon discovered that I had picked up a novel that was one long futuristic chase scene. This book never stops, people running hither thither and yon getting disintegrated despite being immortal (which hardly seems fair) and willing their no-longer-human flesh into weapons and dropping buildings on each other while operating a mind-melding Facebook equivalent called Gaia-Net.

It is HBO’s animated wet dream, this book.

THE LAST MORTAL MAN is driven by violence and nano-science rather than characters. That said, Mitchell has a great imagination. (Well, hey, she’s a weaver. You can check our her fiber art stuff by googling her name.) She can find ways to kill people who have made themselves immortal and create landscapes with their brain. Also, underneath the VERY fast-paced killing and tech-willing, you find pieces of humanity-and-social-justice-oriented plot that could have been something special had they been developed. (Her series was cancelled after the first book. Which might explain why so many things obviously being set up were left unfinished; she expected to have more time later.)

The premise of the book is that the world is so full of tech, when you create tech that destroys tech, the only people left will be little kids and the Amish. Yep, there are Amish people in this book, and – wait for it – one of the girls is the love interest. Yeah, I about died laughing. All those Christian Amish romances, and it comes to this?

That sounds like I’m making fun of Mitchell’s work. No, just that it had a lot of potential that seemed to fall apart in the urge to write ever-faster hard-rock chase scenes where Immortal Girl in black rubber body suit wills her arm into a blade and defends little kids from big bad assassins sent by the Deathless Cartel because they’re mad at the Godfather of Immortality – whose henchman came up with the tech that kills tech.

It all runs faster from there, mostly downhill.

I wanted to like this book, and finished reading it because it was so…. silly. All plot and no people. No one you wanted to root for, and when it comes down to the finale the world is saved or doomed by a Siamese kitten and her girl, who are paired to be the perfect killers/saviors by releasing tech each of them holds half of. I like Siamese cats. I really do. But….

Normally I don’t review books I didn’t like, so you’re wondering why I did this one? Well, truth is, I did like it. It was so bizarre it amused me. Like every once in awhile, instead of getting chocolate cake, you choose Jello, just because.

This book is Jello. Flavorful, rainbow jello with sprinkles. And killer kittens.

Leave a comment

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Hunger Games, Life reflections, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, writing, YA fiction

It’s that time of Year Again

pipersThere are certain events that mark the calendar year for our bookshop, a literary liturgical year. We have the Epiphany Service gathering community churches in January, followed by the annual Burns Supper, the February Dreadful Date (ghostly love stories) and the St. Patrick’s Day Ceilidh Dance. Then we set aside events as the summer season picks up. Throughout those “quiet” (ha!) summer months, we’re in planning mode for the Celtic Festival, always the fourth Friday evening and all day Saturday in September.

As summer progresses, planning increases, and now we are in full final get-er-done mode. Jack has barricaded himself behind book boxes to finalize the parade planning, while our ever-faithful chairwoman Darinda makes a final round with the indefatigable Rhonda, who heads the merchants association. Elizabeth is figuring out where to put the many vendors who will be selling stuff with us, and Randy has the bagpipe band tuning.

It takes awhile to tune bagpipes. :]

A lot of work, a lot of stress, but every year when the band strikes up and the seven Celtic Nation flags fly, and the Breton association at the school dance in their black and white costumes, it’s worth it. I get a lump in my throat as the people on the sidewalk wave at the people in the parade. Because it’s more than a festival. It’s a town, coming to together to celebrate its past and its future. It’s a whole lot of cooperation and believing in a world that’s short on both. It’s a small town that’s proud of itself.

And that’s no small thing.

For a schedule of events Sept. 23 and 24, visit Big Stone Celtic Day on Facebook. The sheepdogs and Barbara Dickson’s concert are not to be missed!

1 Comment

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

The Monday Book: AMERICAN DERVISH by Ayad Akhtar

american-dervishI like character-driven books, and I like books that explore culture clashes, so this was a win-win. Hyat Shah, a teen in the pre-9-11 world of American Islam, is discovering himself through a combination of religion and lust that feels pretty authentic.

Told through his eyes is the story of his mother’s best friend Mina, who falls in love with a Jewish man. Hyat is directly involved with how this does (or doesn’t) go and all through the book you get no sense of agenda, just skilled descriptions of real people trying to live their lives one non-surefooted step at a time.

Hyat himself is a fascinating character, a Muslim Holden Caulfield trying to step with care through the world, but usually putting his foot right into the middle of the muck. Perhaps deliberately, sometimes. His mother and father don’t much like each other. Hyat’s got the hots for his mother’s best friend but can’t admit it. He also thinks her son is a spoiled brat but as a teenager has to share everything with this six-year-old.

It’s a typical American family, these Shahs.

The ultimate (not really a spoiler here) inevitable break-up of Mina and Nathan isn’t really the point or climax of the book; it’s the building action of these wondrously drawn characters, people who are just people, that makes 375 pages fly by in minutes. You can’t put this down, even if it is a little voyeuristic – akin to watching people you like board the Titanic.

Lose yourself in some excellent writing that asks many more questions of its reader than it answers. Pick up AMERICAN DERVISH at your local bookshop or library.

1 Comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing

Breaking in to Change the Locks

Mollydooker 2012 Carnival of Love Shiraz 2014 Winestate #1 Wine and #1 Shiraz in AUS & NZ (PRNewsFoto/Mollydooker Wines)

Mollydooker 2012 Carnival of Love Shiraz 2014 Winestate #1 Wine and #1 Shiraz in AUS & NZ (PRNewsFoto/Mollydooker Wines)

Many of you know that I own a nice little cabin tucked into a hillside in Tennessee. It is the Writer’s Retreat. About a month ago, thanks to the American NewMedia Education Foundation, I started a six-month mentoring program with two writers in SW VA. We went to the cabin and had a fun time writing and retreating (and eating) and left refreshed. One of the writers asked about going back out to the cabin from time to time. I explained where we hid the key and wished her well.

Last week another friend and I went to the cabin because it was nicer than the hotel offered by a conference we were attending. When I unlocked the door, it was evident someone had been staying there. A moldering cup of coffee on the table, pillows piled on the bed. Lots of canned food gone. A cigarette in an ashtray; I don’t allow smoking inside.

And in a sudden horrific downturn of discovery, the soap in the shower was wet.

“Someone’s been squatting,” said my friend Beth. “This is hobo living.” The peanut butter had been half-consumed by spoonfuls, the canned soups eaten, but in something between a funny and a poignant turn, the Indian ready meals of Saag Paneer and Tikka Masala were lying next to ripped-open boxes, unopened in their pouches.

“He can’t read,” Beth said. “He couldn’t follow the cooking directions.”

Indeed, the guy had used the microwave and coffepot but not the stove, and had in many ways indicated that life needed to be simple. I began to feel protective toward him.

“Maybe we should just leave the door unlocked when we leave. He’s not going to walk in while we’re here. He doesn’t want any trouble, hasn’t taken anything except the food.” As I spoke, Beth looked at me as if I’d grown two heads.

“You’re crazy, and not in a good way,” she replied.

We went back down the hill until we had Internet connection (about a mile from the cabin) to inform Jack of the break-in, in case our bodies were never found. Despite his urging, we stayed the night, and I still thought with sadness of the poor guy who just needed a place to crash. But I also shot a quick question to my writing friend who’d used the cabin last, just in case this was all made up in my head and they’d left things a little untidy.

The next day as the conference wound down, I had a reply from Lizbeth. Nope, it wasn’t them. Did that mean the bottle of New Zealand special vintage she’d left me was gone?

I scoured the cupboards. Nowhere waited a special bottle of Pinot Noir.

“Bastard! I hope he dies!” I shrieked to Beth. “We’re changing the locks tomorrow!”

There’s sharing with those in need, and there’s rare vintage. No more squatters in the Writer’s Retreat. But the funniest part of the story came when we went back yesterday to make good on changing those locks–

–and realized we hadn’t brought a key to get in. So Jack broke in so we could change them to break-in-proof ones. We will be the last people able to B&E my little writing retreat. That will make me feel safe when I’m out there writing.

And drinking good Pinot.

1 Comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Music Hath Charms – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

We just had a weekend away and enjoyed a great time with musical friends in Williamsburg VA. We went to join the farewell party for Mick and Neva Mikula who are headed permanently to Florida. Mick is an ex-member of a great Celtic rock band called Coyote Run who split up a couple of years ago and the company was composed of other ex-members and associates of the band.

At the last minute I discovered that there was to be a wedding on Sunday and I was invited to contribute to the musical accompaniment. To my astonishment I encountered a fine fiddle player who launched into Niel Gow’s ‘Farewell to Whisky’, which confirmed for me that behind the kilts and leather gear favored by ‘Coyote Run’ lay an unusually deep (for that particular musical scene) appreciation and understanding of real traditional Celtic music.

We first encountered the Coyotes a number of years ago at the Sycamore Shoals festival in Elizabethton TN, where Wendy and I had started to MC the main stage. We found that we shared a mutual quirky sense of humor and over the succeeding years our paths continued to cross. In their final year we were able to book them as headliners at Big Stone Celtic. I was always impressed by their combination of musicianship, stagecraft, visual effects and sheer exuberance. By comparison with the other regular and much shallower bands on the circuit they clearly had listened to the ‘right stuff’ and that was reflected in their repertoire.


Over the weekend, in conversation with the fiddle player (Paul Anderson) and Mick and the others I was astonished to find how much overlap there was in the singers and musicians we all admired.

However, there was another amusing occurrence before we headed home. Wendy went on a shopping spree with the others as I recuperated from a very late night and found a bookstore – Mermaid Books. She happened to be wearing one of our bookstore tee-shirts and the owner asked her if she’d ever visited Tales of the Lonesome Pine. She said that she had. He said that there was a great book about it that he really enjoyed, to which Wendy said “I’m the author”. Cue much hilarity and exchanging of bookstore stories!

A final big thank you to our hosts, who I suspect didn’t originally intend to have so many house-guests just as they were about to box up their possessions ahead of their departure. They treated us and the other ‘lodgers’ like royalty and we were fed delectable Indian and Middle-Eastern delicacies, not to mention haggis for breakfast.

it’s a hard life over here – – –

Leave a comment

Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, Uncategorized