Tag Archives: Nichole Argyres

The Monday Book: RANDOM FAMILY by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

This is not a happy family book, so you may want to wait until Spring to read it. I ordered it after following its appearance on my friend Nichole’s TEN BOOKS THAT INFLUENCED ME list. We shared a love for eight of the ten, one was A Prayer for Owen Meany (and Nichole is the reason our staff cat has that name; it’s the only Owen that will ever grace our shelves) and one was Random Family. I love ethnographic studies, so I ordered it.

Densely packed, this is the summation of 11 years of work with people floating through – or perhaps drowning in – the justice system. I’m not sure the term “social justice” appears often, but the whole book is an indictment of the idea that poverty is the fault of the poor. And it’s a really ringing indictment. Roaches falling by the dozens into carefully chosen food, men coming up fire escapes into the windows of “free” housing provided a woman with four daughters, the inner workings of a prison hierarchy for education and a future–it’s going to set you back a bit.

Jack liked the book because, as a prison visitor, he’s seen much of what the men go through trying to form outside attachments and secure stability. LeBlanc didn’t use the words “search for security, love, maybe some significance” very often, either, but the whole book is one mad shuffle between family members looking for those things, mostly in that order.

Coco and Jessica, the main female characters, are clearly drawn as real, lovely, flawed, and stuck. One of the questions in the book group guide at the end of this book reminds readers that LeBlanc was in the community for eleven years, part and parcel to all that is described, yet she doesn’t appear as a character.

That’s one of the book’s quirks; LeBlanc has made nothing up, it’s all from interviews and observation. Yet she is invisible, and the book is not so much narrated by an invisible person as scatter pelleted by some unseen weapon. Sentence after sentence, some of them barely hooked together, scene after scene, description after description, and although the whole thing circles a spiral of recurring events, it doesn’t sound the same. LeBlanc writes like a machine gun.

Not everyone will like this book. It’s less narrative arc or journalism than ethnographic description. It doesn’t ask “why,” just tells “how.” I’d like to say it’s haunting, but in all honesty, as someone so far removed from what LeBlanc describes, the word might be daunting. How can anyone make economic inequality going this far wrong, better?

LeBlanc did an interview ten years after the book’s 2003 publication; you can find it here.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, Sarah Nelson, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: WHERE THE MOON ISN’T by Nathan Filer

moonPart of the fun of the Monday book is how a volume reaches me. We can admit that acquisition sets up expectation –a friend you admire recommends a book, and you track it down. You find an intriguing title in the bargain section of a second-hand shop, and you think, “Nothing to lose.” How you get the book starts you down the path.

So I knew I was in for something good when my editor, Nichole, mailed me this one with the single comment: “This book is very close to my heart.” (She edited the American version.)

Published in the UK as Shock of the Fall, this is a book about mental and physical illness. Matt’s brother, a physically handicapped lad, dies tragically, and it’s pretty much Matt’s accidental fault. Matt loses himself, as does his mom, but they cope and recover in different ways.

Matt’s voice is so clear, his character so well drawn, that I found myself in the happy position of looking forward to bedtime each night, so I could see what happened to the poor kid next.

Nathan Filer’s background as a psychiatric nurse really shows in his writing; he knows whereof he speaks. In fact, the book recently won what used to be called the Whitbread Prize (now Costa) in the UK–which is a BIIIIIIG good thing–and one of the repeated phrases of the judges was how amazingly “sure-footed” the writing is for a first-time novelist.

“Sure-footed” encapsulates what captured me about Moon. You totally believe in Matt as a person, have known people like him, but also get glimpses into what it must be like to realize you have a mental illness, to be self-aware and intelligent about it, and yet still be sick. Brilliant, this book was, at making the strange normal and the normal strange.

Just so you know, Nichole has recommended books to me in the past that I didn’t like, so my glowing review is not because she’s our shared editor. As witness, I present the fuzzy picture at the top of this post. That dark blue book is Where the Moon Isn’t. I took it with me on a recent trip to DC while promoting Little Bookstore (the fuzzy beige book below Moon). See that cat in the suitcase? (Yeah, the fuzzy white thing in the middle.) That’s Owen Meany, named for a book Nichole recommended highly in fairly authoritative terms. I hated A Prayer for Owen Meany, and still do. (Heck, call that a plot?)

So that cat is the only way Owen Meany will ever grace my personal bookshelf, Nichole, but you were right about Moon; it will stay in my heart and mind for a long time.

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THE MONDAY BOOK: Global Girlfriends by Stacey Edgar

The first time I got this book was from my editor, Nichole Argyres, as a present. While visiting in 2012, she saw me grazing her NYC office shelves and asked what looked good. I pointed to Global Girlfriends, and her face lit up.

“It’s a great story, so inspiring, and really worth telling,” she said, thrusting the book at me. I planned to read Global Girlfriends after leaving NYC, but we went straight to an event in Northern Virginia, where the lovely and accomplished Carolyn Frahm had invited me to speak to her book club about my newly-published memoir. While there, she saw Global Girlfriends in my bag and asked if I was enjoying it. Carolyn’s book club was comprised of women who looked for ways to use their financial well-being to help others–the hosting house’s daughter was recently back from Pakistan, where she and her husband ran a clinic for pregnant women–so I gave Carolyn the book. I’d only read the opening chapter, but some books are just meant to be in the hands of certain people at the right time.

This year, visiting Nichole’s office again, I told her how I’d “lost” Global Girlfriends and asked her if she had another copy. Her face lit up again. “It’s such an important story,” she said, scanning her shelves. “Ah. Here. This is a book I’m really proud of.”

ggWith good reason. Edgar tells the story of how she took a $2,000 tax return and leveraged it into a for-profit company dealing in fair trade goods crafted by women in disadvantaged countries. The story of creating her enterprise is bounded ’round by short stories of the women she works with internationally.

Think of a mirror in a hand-crafted frame, each shiny stone set as part of a pattern into gilt. That’s pretty much what this book is like; each story is self-contained but collectively they reflect back what GG does. And the central story reflects “us”: that is, women of comfortable lifestyles in a wealthy nation. The side stories reflect the lives of women we could have been, had we been born in another country. One of the nicest elements of this book is that it neatly sidesteps that “poor unfortunate souls” crap so many “welfare” programs unwittingly propagate. Stacey talks about looking at begging girls in India, and seeing her two daughters; holding meetings with administrators in run-down offices, and seeing in them her friends, the sisterhood of women who cope with what life throws at them.

There’s an interesting life theory that social workers–Edgar is trained as one–often come up against (as do public health workers, ministers, and just about everyone else; we just don’t name it). The JUST WORLD THEORY says basically that if something’s gone really badly for someone, it must be because they deserve it; blame the victim, for letting themselves become a victim.

We don’t need to talk about the arguments against that theory; Edgar pretty much smashes them without a backward glance as she describes each country more through the lives of the women than the stats that she tosses casually into the narrative.

People interested in social justice, or in the mysterious ways in which women form bonds where men tend to create wars, will love this book. I’m not sure others will be able to sink their teeth into it. It doesn’t start with “why,” but “how.”

I’m very glad, now, for losing my first copy and gaining this second one. Thanks Nichole for getting this story out there, and thanks Stacey Edgar for writing it.

And if you want to go buy something from Global Girlfriends – the women they work with make incredibly beautiful and sturdy items, avoiding what Edgar tactfully calls “the carved giraffe dilemma”- here’s their online store:

http://www.globalgirlfriend.com/store/ggf/site.

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ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY

Jack’s guest blog this week discusses the family of booksellers, from NYC to BSG

Our second NYC visit, to meet up with Wendy’s editorial team at St Martins Press and her agent Pamela, has been great. We were a little more confident about surviving in the Big Apple this time, even able –with the assistance of ‘shop-sitter’ Andrew–to navigate our way around the subway system and cross streets without getting knocked down.

Another reason for being there was an event Jess (our lovely publicist) had organized at Word Up Books, on Thursday evening. Organizer Veronica met us at the door and immediately said how much she had been looking forward to welcoming us as she had read ‘The Little Bookstore’ with growing recognition of everything Wendy had written about pertaining to their store. “Been there, done that”!

What impressed me most about ‘Word Up’ was how it met our paradigm of what a bookstore should be – truly a community center in its neighborhood. Started a couple of years ago as what was meant to be a very temporary ‘Pop-Up’ store lasting for a week in an empty building, it was so successful that the locals demanded it stay on. First it was a month, then another couple of months and finally a permanent institution. It had to eventually move to different premises and ‘crowd-funded’ the necessary $70,000 opening costs in just a few weeks!

Run entirely by volunteers, Word Up provides a space for all sorts of activities, and always have coffee on the go as well. They keep their costs down by getting donations of used books, plus support from the publishing industry itself in the form of seconds, overstocks, and even editors slipping in a few books to handsell—a win-win for authors, publicists, and sellers alike.

We learned that a neighborhood in New York can also be a ‘small town’ just like Big Stone Gap and has the same needs. This neighborhood had a mix of Spanish speakers from all over the world, plus the usual NYC melting pot and the bookstore specializes in Spanish language reading, but also caters for those other cultures

Finally – our event felt like a real family affair as Wendy’s agent Pamela and Pamela;s assistant Michelle, editor Nichole with her assistant Laura, publicist Jessica, shop-sitter Andrew and his significant other Ali, plus Veronica, store owner Gio, and a phalanx of small business owners from the community joined shop regulars. They made us feel like celebrities, but even more fun, we got to talk books and business, and the business of books, with people who live and breathe it as we do.

Woo Hoo – –

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Another Cuppa Pee, Luv?

When Jack and I first visited my NYC editor Nichole and agent Pamela in 2012, we landed as two country mice, tails tucked and whiskers quivering, eyes big with wonder. This year, we rolled into Penn Station, pulled out the iPhone, and started texting. Pamela picked us up, hailed a cab, and off we drove to our cheery Inwood hideaway for a cozy cafe dinner and a catch-up.

The next day we met our old shopsitter Andrew Whalen for a fun day hiking Central Park and shopping for overpriced duvet covers in trendy Soho. Yeah, we know how to live large in the Big Apple; we bought housewares.

Back to the flat for a post-dinner glass of wine and catch-up with David and Nichole, whose place we were crashing. We cracked open a bottle of red and Jack’s ubiquitous single malt as Nichole launched into a story….

Up until recently, David (an opera singer by trade) was the president of the apartment building coop, housing some 30 families of various eccentricities. There’s Mrs. M downstairs; “she’s 140.” There’s the dour Bulgarians. And there’s the lady who sublet her second bedroom to a succession of roommates, all of whom were “okay guys, because they’re friends of my boyfriend.”

That ringing endorsement kept the truth from surfacing at first, when a guy on the fourth floor complained to David that the pile of old wood left after a renovation was attracting neighborhood dogs. The urine smell forced him to leave his windows closed.

David asked the super to move the stuff, but a week later the smell was back. And the tenant smelling it said, “Weird. I hear ‘splat’ and then the odor wafts up.”

As David and the pee-smelling man sat discussing the problem, a Dixie cup went flying past the window–followed by a splat and a smell of urine. “CHOCKS AWAY!”

David went to the super and explained what he’d seen. He had a hard time explaining it, because he was still having a hard time believing he’d seen it. “No, seriously with my own eyes, a Dixie cup and it was pee, I’m telling you, it was pee, from the fifth or sixth floor!”

One can only imagine the poor super’s response: “You takin’ the piss?”

Meanwhile, Nichole –who had been working some pretty long hours that month–put two and two together to reach five. She deduced that the odd man in 6C was holding his wife’s parents hostage in the smaller bedroom. “We never see them, and Mia’s looking so pale and wan these days. That must be it!!” She began planning an intervention that may or may not have involved Kevlar.

Meanwhile II, the building super–who’d really had it with the flying pee stories, but was just flat alarmed by the request for a battering ram–went and sat in a tree across from the apartment in question with a pair of night vision goggles and a black light. And waited.

When the pee flew, it came not from the flat with the weird man Nichole “just knew” was holding his in-laws hostage, but from the one with the string of successive roommates. When confronted, Subrenter denied everything, but the super hadn’t spent the last five hours in a tree to put up with more crap. Subby got voted out by the building’s coop members.

As we collapsed with mirth around the coffee table, Nichole admitted to feeling guilt over her preparations to storm the sixth floor. Would the family have been sitting, drinking tea, when the intervention team barged in? “Oh, hello there. Cuppa, anyone?”

Amid the general hilarity, Nichole, choking on a giggle, added, “I know people in other places think we have these big grand lives, but this is what it comes down to: little, and busy, and problems to solve!”

Big, little, and in-between, we had a grand night discussing the best place to buy a cheap duvet cover and the fastest way to evict a guy who flings pee out the window in Dixie cups. And it just goes to show, the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. Of course it is; the fool in 6F has been fertilizing it.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, publishing, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, writing

Critic on the run after trashy Review

photo (2)Fur is flying after numerous catty responses to the handling of a recent book. (For the full review from Lucy, pictured at left, please visit yesterday’s blog post.)

“I trusted my instincts and did what came naturally,” insisted Lucy, the literary agent in the doghouse. “Yes, I trashed the book, but that’s part of my job.”

Not so, said well-known publicist ValKyttie (shown here with the book in question). “What would a bitch like that know about good writing? Crap. That’s all she produces, is crap.”valkyttie with her cover

Speculation has arisen that ValKyttie, who is CEO of the book’s subject (a second-hand book store in a small town somewhere in SW VA), may be personally motivated in her criticism. However, several other voices have joined the caterwaul of protest.

Tallulah, a Southern Literature expert, dismissed Lucy’s comments with a sniff. “This is nothing more than a dogged determination to leave her mark. But I tell you one thing, that pup has ruined her career. This review will dog her every step from this day forward. Her boss will shriek protests if she so much as approaches another book this year.”tallulah

Tallulah is currently visiting The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap with her children: (from top) Clyde Edgerton, Amy Clark, and Silas House.

clydeAmy Housesilas house

Of the trio, House was most sanguine. “Meh,” he was overheard to say.

When she heard of House’s dismissive remark, Lucy suggested they meet face to face to settle their differences. House has not yet responded.

Perhaps the final words on this dog-eat-dog saga belong to Starbuck, a veteran newshound from Richmond, VA. Those who follow the literary world’s movers and shakers may remember when Starbuck made news herself by becoming the first dog under the age of six months to learn to read. starbuck

The Buckster howled with delight when told the story, then sobered to growl, “Lucy better be careful. Biting off more than one can chew is dangerous. These young pups,” she said, shaking her head and returning to her drink. “You try to train ’em, but…”

Editor’s Note: Louise Malpas, normally all ears regarding reviews of Welch’s book, is vacationing in the Hamptons and could not be reached for comment. Friends suggest she would have bounced with enthusiasm at the publicity.

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(updated) Young Pup Literary Critic Savages Author’s Latest Work


a note from Jack: We normally put a blog up on Saturdays, but we’re waiting until Sunday today, for two reasons:

1) there’s been an outpouring of sympathy over the latest review of Wendy’s book (see below) and we want everyone to have a chance to weigh in; and

2) we are doing a Scottish festival this weekend and have time off Sunday, but not Saturday. So we’ll fill you in on the fun Sunday. Meanwhile, if you can add any puns to the report below…. well, you’d not be barking up the wrong tree!

IMG-20130119-00001-1

My editor Nichole sent her friend Laura Yorke, who happens to be a literary agent, a copy of my book, just for Laura to have something to read on vacation. Laura has a new puppy at home. The rest, as they say, is history.

excerpt from CRITICS DIGEST—NYC, NY 25 Jan. 2013

In one of the most brutal attacks yet witnessed in the NYC literary scene, a young agent sank his teeth into a first-time author’s work and left no sentence unshredded.

“It’s the worst thing I’ve had in ages,” barked the agent. “Absolutely tasteless. Made my hackles rise.

“He just ripped it to pieces,” said Laura Yorke, another agent who witnessed the reviewer at work. “Page by page, he tore through the whole thing with such obvious glee. I mean, he was practically frothing at the mouth.

The agent in question is just a young pup on the scene, but has already developed quite a reputation regarding his keen nose for writing–not to mention his signature tooth-and-claw style. No doubt he will work many more writers over in this spineless fashion.

The author could not be reached for comment, but her husband said two bottles of red wine were missing from the liquor cabinet, and their bathroom door was locked from the inside.

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