THE MONDAY BOOK: The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Stedman

oceansI really wasn’t sure I’d like this book at all when I read the blurbs on the back. I mean – a book about a couple living on a remote lighthouse – surely nothing much would happen.

But Stedman’s writing very quickly sucked me in. Well crafted lines and beautiful descriptions, including some about the technicalities of lighthouse technology in the 1920s, kept me hooked.

But the real story isn’t about the lighthouse. The real story is about Tom, a First World War survivor, and his younger wife Isabel. After two miscarriages and a still birth, one day a small boat is washed up on the island containing a dead man and a living baby. Tom is determined to report this to the authorities ashore, but Isabel is equally determined to keep it quiet and bring up the baby as their own.

I loved the characterization of both the main players. Tom as the older, somewhat tortured veteran of the war, focusing on the routine of the lighthouse to keep out memories of the battlefield. Isabel – the younger kind of flighty and adventurous non-conformist trapped in a small remote coastal town.

“The log is the gospel truth. Janus isn’t a Lloyds station: it’s not one the ships depend on for forecasts, so once Tom closes the pages on the book, it is unlikely that any eyes will glance at it again, perhaps ever. But he feels a particular peace when he writes.”

“Looking into those eyes was like looking into the face of God. No mask or pretense: the baby’s defenselessness was overwhelming.”

There are many other memorable players in this drama and none of them are treated as ‘bit players’. Stedman gives them all of her best!

I won’t spoil your enjoyment by revealing any more of the story, just say umpteen thumbs up!


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Scotland, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing

Ruth Thinks Certain Things would be REALLY NICE

DSCN0446Hey y’all, I’m Ruth. Yes, I’m a girl. Yes, I’m an orange tabby. Yes, I’m unusual.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, lemme tell you, we’ve got an unusual life here. It all started when we were born, see. My two brothers and I got taken to a place called a “shelter” when we were three days old. I don’t remember that part, or the part about Mom not coming with us. The first thing I remember is this lady bottle feeding us, and then we slept, and then we got more bottle. Which was very nice, and then the stuff in the bottle was in this big plate on the floor and it had this delicious stuff mixed in, called “solid food.” That was REALLY nice!

DSCN0459And then one day she put us all in this box and we went in a car and we got out at this place FULL of books. And other kittens. And the two ladies talked, and we stayed at the book house. Which was also nice, because she had the same food for us, plus there were other kittens there to play with. We all swapped stories – none of them had moms either. Some of the stories were kinda sad, but then the place where we were was nice: clean, bright, all the food we wanted, plenty of toys, and people kept coming in and cuddling us and saying things like we were adorable, and cute, and brave, and all that. That was REALLY REALLY nice!

Then one day the second lady, the one from here, she came in and sat us all down and explained that we didn’t live there forever, that one day we’d get in a car again, but maybe just one or two at a time, and go live someplace else, and THAT would be our forever homes. We all looked at each other; we like playing together! But then, you know, a forever home. That would be REALLY REALLY REALLY nice. So I guess that’s okay.DSCN0476

You should come visit us. THAT would be REALLY REALLY REALLY nice too! We love to snuggle.


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management

Here We Go Again – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post just sneaks past the marriage counselor –

We’ve lived in five different houses in the seventeen years we’ve been married and, despite their very different ages and styles, there’s one thing they all have in common – – the length of time it takes us to work out where things should be located and which rooms should be for what (usually anything from two to five years). The process involves setting things up one way, then completely changing them on an annual basis!

This habit has, of course, continued into our current location and now seems to be co-incidental with my yearly Scottish tour. Most years the bookshelves get shifted around while I’m away and I have to re-learn where everything is as well as help with any remaining outstanding moves.


But this year was a bit different. Wendy had spent my absence not so much moving things as planning how we would together move things upon my return. The focus would be the ‘Mystery Room’ (the room that houses the mystery and detective novels). This also just happens to be the room that houses the littlest foster kittens. Did I mention that there are always more kittens when I return than when I left? We agreed a maximum of six at any one time, so naturally I came back to nine, and I have no idea how many there were while I was away.

Down the center of the mystery room were the two biggest, heaviest and most solid bookcases in the shop. They took up more space than was needed and cut down on the natural light from the windows. So the plan was to move them to the garage where the current narrower shelves had been passed along to our good friends David and Felicia. Then we would re-position some ‘Jack-builts’ in place of the heavyweights while afixing a couple of cheap store-bought shelf units against the walls (still with me?).

Of course this had to be done immediately I returned, was still seriously jet-lagged and re-adjusting to temperatures around 25 degrees higher than Scotland. There’s no half measures with Wendy and once you start there’s no going back or stopping until it’s done!

As we were fixing the last wall mounted shelf unit in place she said “do you think this works”? “Why of course dear – it’s a great improvement” I responded (I sure as h*ll wasn’t going to say anything else)!


But the kittens thought the whole exercise was great fun – particularly helping to identify all the new places they could get trapped or just hide from us!

“Welcome home, Honey”


Filed under Uncategorized

The Monday Book: THE POOR HAD NO LAWYERS by Andy Wightman

poorEvery year when I run my small group tour of Scotland I try to find a book for the times it’s my turn to guard the luggage on the bus while the group are visiting an attraction or having lunch. Of course, having a continuing interest in Scottish politics, I often seek out books about such matters.

This year my choice was ‘The Poor had no Lawyers’ by Andy Wightman.


This fascinating and very well researched book traces the scandalous story of what can only be described as blatant theft, all the way from the Reformation to the present day. It tells the story of land-owning Lords sitting in the non-elected upper chamber of the UK parliament deliberately sabotaging any attempt to modernize the law; of plucky crofters and islanders taking them on and winning; of the recently re-constituted Scottish parliament finally having the time and inclination to make changes that the House of Lords can’t block.


What I should also make clear is that the book mainly deals with the ownership of very large areas by a very few people with often highly dubious legal claims.


In case this sounds terribly serious and parochial, there’s a great deal of humor and not just from Wightman. Some of the official reports produced down the years by serious minded researchers are hilarious in places! There is also much comparison with land ownership in other parts of the world – particularly de-colonized countries in Africa and Asia.


What really sticks out is that the separate legal professions in England and Scotland are both tied tightly into the ruling (and land-owning) establishment and, rather than offering a means to redress the obvious injustices, tend to ‘circle the wagons’ and protect their own interests.


I found this book completely absorbing, eye-opening and revelatory. For anyone with even a passing interest in Scottish social history or politics this is a ‘must read’!

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

We Found Three WWII Letters in a Book…

In honor of the Independence Day holiday, we offer the text of three letters we found in an old book. They were written in 1944, 1945, and January 1946 by a soldier deployed to France.

June 2, 1944

Mari Darling –

Sorry I haven’t written sooner darling but no time. Was out on a problem last night so I have this morning off. I thought of you all the time I was out last night. Once as I was laying on the ground looking up at the moon through the pine trees I actually forgot where I was. I was thinking how nice it would be if we were together looking up there. Of course not in Louisiana but somewhere far away from everybody and everything. We’ll do that someday though, darling.

I heard from Mike recently and he’s getting ready to go over. He is now taking his basic training again and then he’ll be ready. Quite a few of the boys have shipped out of here lately to other branches of the service. I’m still hoping and praying to get back in the air corps. Three of my pal (sic) went to artillery last week and I tried to get on the list myself but no soap. Starting this Monday I’m going to go to radio school every morning. It’s only supposed to last three weeks but that’s better than nothing.

I haven’t been doing too much walking lately. We’ve been going on the range about four days each week and firing all sorts of courses. That’s not bad ’cause I usually go off in the woods and play. Of course the boys give me a “bad time” then.

Have been into town the last few weekends with some of the boys. Not much to do there bit it’s better than staying around camp. However this Sunday is a regular duty day for us so no time off at all during the weekend. Isn’t that nice of them. I’ll finish his letter tonight honey, I have to go eat chow now.

Oh yes before I leave I’m still waiting for that picture and also a letter. I’ve practically read the writing of (sic) the pages of your last letter. In fact I almost have it memorized by now.

Here I am back from chow and still living. Not much more news from here, darling, so I’ll sign off. Do write soon I love you and always will and will go nuts if I don’t see you again real soon. Be a “gooder” and say hello to everyone for me.

All my love always,


March 3, 1945 (letter has a photo of a young girl)

Just a short note to let you know that everything is ok. This letter has been sent by a friend of mine who is in the merchant marines and on the ship with me now. He is going to mail it form the states when he gets in. This is the only way I can avoid censorship.

I’m now in Le Havre, France. We haven’t left the ship yet but will tonight after dark We’re going to a camp about forty five miles from here where we’ll stay a while. We’ve been in the harbor here for two days and all’s well. Sorry I couldn’t even get to talk to you from Boston.

We left California exactly three weeks ago today so you see how fast we got to France.

We had plenty of protection all the way across. From what I’ve seen of this town from the ship it’s a wreck. All the docks shipyards buildings etc. are ruined. The people in most of these French towns in this vicinity are hostile to our troops. We aren’t allowed to go anywhere by ourselves. If we go to town we can’t eat or drink anything for fear of being poisoned. Great spot eh! I’ll write as often as possible darling try and write more often yourself ha ha. All my mail will be censored so don’t be surprised if you don’t get much information.

Tell the family you heard from me and keep an eye on the kids. Don’t worry about me darling I’ll be home soon. I love you with all my heart darling and always will. I’m thinking of you all the time and miss you terribly. Be good and take care.

All my love,


January 6, 1946

Reimes, France

Mari Darling,

Yes I’m still alive but have been traveling around France for the last few days trying to found out which outfit I’ve been transferred to. Have been down to Nice again for a rest. Ha ha. Arrived there on the 22nd and left the 2nd. I guess it was as good a place as any to spend the holidays over here. The Christmas I’m looking forward to is the next one when you and I can be together again.

It was nice and warm at Nice – of course nothing like Christmas but better than being up here. It’s a little chilly up in this part of the country now. I wouldn’t mind it though if I had my love to keep me warm.

I was expecting to be home in March ’till I saw the paper today. According to that I’ll be lucky to make it by June. Looks like I’m officially in the “close out force” now. One thing for sure, darling – I’ll be home by Christmas. Ha Ha. Isn’t that encouraging? At least I should hear from you by then.

This outfit I’m in now is just sitting around doing nothing so I can’t complain about that. Don’t know what they’ll have me doing yet. We’re living in barracks which were built for the French. They aren’t too bad but a little crowded at present. The chow here is the best I’ve had since I left the 86th last May. We are about eight miles from Reimes now and have to take a truck into Reimes to take showers.

At present there are about five big arguments going on here in the barracks. All about the same thing – the point system. Men with fifty points and above are supposedly frozen from one to three months. Also the paper said the men would no longer be discharged by the point system. They say that they can’t get replacements from the States fat enough. It looks like things are rough all over. What really burned most of the guys up today was Paterson’s statements. According to him he didn’t even know the point system stopped as of Sept. 2. He thought the men were still getting points added on to their score each month. How are the GIs supposed to know what’s going on when the Sec. of War doesn’t even know himself.

Now if you’d break down and write a letter maybe you could give me a better outlook on life. In fact I know you would Hope you stayed sober on New Years but I suppose there were plenty of bug times on the first peace time New Year in five years. I can remember way back when I used to spend New Years with you. How long ago was that fifty years? You know sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve been kept away from you for so long.

Well, Darling, guess I’d better knock off. Take care of yourself for me and stop over to see the family often. You know I love you terribly and miss you even more. The truth is I’ve loved you so long now that I can’t remember when I didn’t. That’s been quite some time when we used to play hide and seek at Derkams. I used to hide with you so I could maybe put my arm around you and no one would notice me. You probably don’t even remember that far back do you?

Good night, darling, drop me a line and let me know if you still love me. I keep telling myself you do but I’ve much rather hear it from you.

All my Love Always,




Filed under Big Stone Gap, Downton Abbey, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap


Jack’s weekly guest blog comes from Scotland this time, as Jack finishes leading his annual tour of Scotland and Ireland.

doune-castleIt’s always interesting to be in Scotland with my annual tour group. The group almost always includes new folk, folk I already know, and ‘returnees’ from previous tours. This year is no exception – David and Susan are both old friends and returnees, while our newish friend Joe came with his fiancee Amy (who I hadn’t met and is delightful). The newbies in every sense are Phil and Wanda, who heard about the tour from my radio show.

The tour started strong, as what might have been a disaster was averted by our new booking agent. We found that there was going to be a ferry strike on the day we were booked to sail to Mull, where were booked to spend the night in Tobermory. At very late notice the redoubtable Irene, travel agent genius, got us booked into a hotel in Oban and our ferry booking moved to the next morning; all was well!

The weather proved kind and we had hardly any rain, even quite a few bright sunny days. We were able to see Castle Stalker and Doune Castle – both settings for ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (Doune is also the setting for ‘Outlander’) and then retire to fabulous hotel food at night.

I was able to find most of the requested items to bring back with me for friends back home, ranging from whisky to flat caps. My old friends Liz Weir and Pete Clark did us proud representing the music and story culture of Ireland and Scotland. As I write this another old friend, Doli McLennan, is preparing to welcome us to her home in Edinburgh on our last night, and waxing lyrically on Facebook about the prospect.

For logistical reasons, I had more opportunity to catch up with friends and relations before the tour started this year, about a week longer than usual. That was great, but I ended up feeling a bit homesick for Big Stone for the first time. Very strange!

But it’s great to see my homeland through other people’s eyes each year and be reminded what a beautiful and remarkable country I came from.

For information on Jack’s annual tours, contact him via Pictures from this year will be available later at a site yet to be named.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: ENTERING THE SILENCE by Thomas Merton

capI picked this up in Philly at Neighborhood Books, run by the kind colorful local character Curtis. I didn’t know at the time it was a near-famous book; I was writing about silence and thought it would be interesting as research. But it’s actually the second volume of Thomas Merton’s surprising bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton became a Cistercian (Trappist) monk and wrote a lot about his spiritual journey. In Silence, he wrote about visiting two other orders, and how he decided to join.

The book is in three sections, each dealing with an order. One is the hardworking Trappists, who Merton says pretty much consider prayer, work, and hardship as all under the umbrella of prayer. When he asks one of the monks what it feels like to be part of such an order, the monk asks, “Have you ever been in love?” When Merton affirms, the monk says, “Well, like that.”

The first description will speak to writers, because it’s as much about Merton–who has come to the silence of the monks to get away from distractions and allow himself to write–discovering he is distracted by the silence. He needs to fill it up, get away from it, silence it. He almost fears it. And it doesn’t help him write, not until he gets to a new idea of time and commitment and passion (which is very eloquently described).

The next two descriptions are more just depictions of the living Trappists and the deceased Capadocians, where he visits the little caves that used to be their homes and pretty much comes out of that description thanking God it isn’t a choice anymore, or he might have felt compelled to make it. (That’s them in the photo at the top.) This isn’t a book with a story, more like getting inside someone’s head for an hour. If you’ve ever read A Grief Observed, it kinda reads like that – completely different subject matter, but just “here, and that’s all I have to say.” Yet said with such thoughtful eloquence.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing