Tag Archives: Pamela Malpas

The Monday Book: OFF THE GRID by Nick Rosen

Sorry about not getting a blog up over the weekend. We had a massive group from Berea College visiting because of my new (academic) book Public Health in Appalachia. We had a great time with the team and will be blogging about it later this week. And we’re more or less back on schedule now, and proud of the fact that we fed 42 people in our bookstore all at the same time – a triumph of logistics over space. :]

off the gridUsually I only do Monday Books that I’ve loved, and I admit that this one is kind of a “like.” Rosen’s book is interesting, but suffers from that thing that often happens to researchers who turn their work into a popular narrative style of writing: repetition and lack of a story line.

(Oh, did I just hear my agent giggling? Believe me, the words “narrative arc” come out of that wise woman’s mouth 12 times a day. And gosh darn it, she’s right. We want a beginning, middle, and end that look different from each other, strung together with smaller stories that flow toward a conclusion.)

Rosen writes about people who get off the power grid in the United States, for reasons ranging from dropping off one end after running out of money, to buying their way off the other end as rich, powerful, and/or famous citizens. (A lot of TV and film stars have off-the-grid hideouts.)

In between he covers off-gridders one might not think about, like truck drivers. And of course he includes survivalists and hippies and that controversial Mike Reynolds guy who “invented” earthships. I helped build an earthship in Scotland at a local sustainable farming community; that’s when I learned to make walls from bottles and shoes from tires. Neither of these have served me much in my present career as a bookseller, but I figure if A***on finally does us in one day, I can get great mileage out of my eclectic knowledge base and homemade sandals.

Thing is, Off the Grid, published in 2010, doesn’t so much talk about how to go off-grid as describe how it has turned out for a bunch of people who did, which gets repetitive after awhile, and also starts to skim across surfaces, hinting at conflicts and conspiracies and confusions that don’t get fully explored. (He did write, in 2008, a book that appears to be more how to.)

If you like storytelling in your stories, you may not like Off the Grid very much. I like reading about off-grid lifestyles, so I enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for how-to, try his 2008 book. If you’re looking for how-it-went-for-us, this is a good read. And if you’re into psychology-driven narrative, you’ll have a field day with what Rosen isn’t saying between the lines of what he is.

As a side note for those who have heard me talk about discovering St. Martin’s wanted to publish LITTLE BOOKSTORE on the same day that the last BORDERS bookstores announced their imminent closure, this is one of the two books I bought from BORDERS that day.

 

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ARE THESE INTERESTING QUESTIONS?

Finally, I have done as my wise (and patient) agent Pamela suggested, and written “Questions for book group discussions of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.” Since many minds make smooth sentences, if you have any suggestions, please send them along. I’d particularly like to add a couple on bookshop management, if any other store owners out there have ideas. I kinda hit a blank wall, writing stuff that was too esoteric. Thanks!

1. Have you ever tried to fit into a place you weren’t from or familiar with? What did you find were the joys, the barriers, the unexpected curve balls of doing so?

2. Is there a snake pit in your life? Do you agree with Wendy’s assessment that almost all of us face such job situations at some point?

3. Cats: what place do they have in the lives of bookstores? Have you seen the newest cats and fosters at Tales of the Lonesome Pine (online via Wendy’s blog)? What do you think about the overpopulation problem of companion animals in the United States? What responsibilities, if any, do humans have toward animals?

4. Of all the stories in Little Bookstore, the two that seem to resonate most with people are of Wee Willie, and the Kiwanis letter. People run the gamut, don’t they, from being unpleasant to one another, to being generous beyond imagination. Why do you think these two stories have been the most mentioned by readers? Do you have circumstances in your own life where you experienced something similar?

5. Fire victims replacing childhood books is a poignant expression of loss, love, and memory. What do you think this priority says about us as humans?

6. Reading Little Bookstore, do you see places where people misunderstood each other, misrepresented each other, yet overcame these miscommunications to understand each other? Do these moments have echoes in your life?

7. If you could suddenly change your life tomorrow, start a business, leave your residence or job, whatever…would you? If so, what would you do? If not, why not?

8. What’s the difference between luck and learning fast to adapt? Where did you see these differences in how Jack and Wendy survived their inept start at being bookstore owners?

9. Wendy talks a fair bit about happiness and contentment. She quotes several other authors and how they describe happiness. Does happiness disappear when you look it square in the face, or elude us when actively pursued? Is it true, as Garrison Keillor (an author not quoted in the book) says, that the realization of happiness comes moments after whatever has made us happy ends? Or can we recognize contentedness when we have it?

10. Discuss the role independent bookstores play in reading satisfaction. Is the process of acquiring the book part of the story it tells, or is cheap, fast, and easy what we want in our shopping experiences nowadays? Is it worth paying more to visit a real bookstore (and do you really pay more)?

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The Monday Book: MUD SEASON, by Ellen Stimson

It’s a new era for this blog—well, not that new, but still. In celebration of passing 100K hits, I’m instigating THE MONDAY BOOK.

The first one was given me by Pamela, my agent. She met our train on our trip to NYC earlier this month with a book in her arms. Since our train was late, I asked her if she’d been enjoying it, and she grinned.

“Actually, this is for you.” She handed over Mud Season, by Ellen Stimson, published by Countryman Press. “I begged it off an agent friend, because it’s the antimatter version of Little Bookstore. This family moved to Vermont to get a quieter life, and it all went horribly wrong. Enjoy.”

You know the quote, I think in Catcher in the Rye, where Holden Caulfield says he sometimes wishes he could have lunch with the author of a book? That’s how I felt about Mud Season. Stimson is a successful entrepreneur, someone who has run various businesses well, selling them off for profits. But when she moved to Vermont, she kinda got stuck behind her business acumen, didn’t take local knowledge and expectation into account, and wound up pretty close to literally losing the farm (house).

For all that the premise sounds scary and not that fun, the stories are hysterical in and of themselves, and Stimson’s writing style is funny, funny, funny. She uses footnotes to deliver comedic timing–a better use for them than Academia ever found.

Her family moved to “the country” to get out of the rat race, and found once there that they might more or less be considered the rats. As they try increasingly clumsy attempts to save themselves, their Horribly Quaint Country Store (HQCS) fails slowly, steadily, and for reasons that have a lot to do with them not being from there—although that gas pump thing on page 142 really was not their fault. This comedy of errors has some life lessons floating below the surface, but they are less extracted and analyzed then left for the reader to find between the lines.

Which made me really enjoy the book. I’d love to have lunch with Ellen Stimson and trade stories on running a business, writing a book about running said business, and why “idyllic” will never cross either of our lips again when describing a rural lifestyle. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy re-reading my favorite parts: the parade permit that wasted 300 pounds of lobster;  the day she forgot the historical society was taking a house tour and started cleaning the chicken coup; and yes, the Gas Pump Incident. (Read it and weep with laughter.)

That parade permit chapter, for anyone who has ever lived in a small town, is about the funniest thing on record describing what this “simple” local government activity is like. See Big Stone Celtic’s page on Facebook. We go through this every year.

Next time I’m in Vermont (which will be the first time) I’ll look up Stimson, take her to lunch in a secluded place where no one can hear us, and compare notes. I suspect we will laugh ourselves into comas.

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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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Embrace the Jabberwock

Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! –Lewis Carroll

Everyone finds it hard to make time to write. Sometimes squeezing “butt in seat” moments requires hiding from humanity.

Since publication of Little Bookstore last October–heck, since the February before–my agent Pamela, a diplomatic woman of great gentleness, has been dropping hints. “Working on anything?” She doesn’t push, she just … asks. Every once in awhile.

It’s very effective.

Lest poor Pam bear the brunt, I have WANTed to be writing again. A vague idea has swirled into semi-solid form, and the little pin prickles of desire, of inspiration–of guilt–have grown into claws that reach out to pull my butt back in the chair.

Those of you out there who write know what it’s like: toy with an idea, write a scene, think, daydream. Start to build. Force yourself into the chair and silence your internal critic’s voice: “This is stupid. This is crap.”

Beware the jaws that bite.

Then the half-formed beast of an idea’s claws reach out and pull you in, and you’re dropping social engagements to get another hour with your characters. You never want to leave that chair.

It’s not unlike being in love.

Last weekend I fled to a quiet place for two days of butt in chair and fingers on keyboard. It’s funny how writing begets writing in the same way that exercising exhausts you, then energizes you to exercise more. First your brain goes into a post-writing meltdown where you have nothing to say; every last spark of creativity gone, you curl into fetal position under a quilt. Lying in the dark, you start to think “what if he…” and you’re up again, fingers on keys, butt in chair.

And then you hit a bald patch, or the characters take over and drive you into a corner you can’t see a way out of, and you pout and fume and go back under the quilt, and a mental image comes to you, and up you get, and so it goes.

Perhaps it’s less love than lion taming. You don’t want to completely subdue the beast of an idea, but you can’t let it take over, either.  Partnership rather than dominance; you need it and it needs you.

I’m not sure the chair-quilt swing is a healthy lifestyle, but glory, it’s fun. When it’s going well. Or when it’s over. It’s fun the same way half-way through the marathon is fun (my running friends tell me) even though every step is pain. Sometimes it’s about the moment you’re in. Sometimes it’s about the goal you’re reaching.

But it’s always, always a thrill when those claws reach out and catch you, and you see in your mind’s eye what’s going to happen next, and you’re just waiting for the chance to put your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and hear the roar again.

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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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