Tag Archives: Carolyn Jourdan

That Ten Books Challenge Thing

authorsOh dear, that book list thing is circulating again, and a handful of people have challenged me.

One chapter of Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap contains a list of eleven books that influenced me. Anyone who’s done this challenge knows that narrowing to ten is hard, so rather than repeat those, here are eight books I swithered over when making that Little Bookstore list, plus a few published since then.

How many Hills to Hillsboro (Fred Bauer) – Published by Guideposts in the 1970s, it sat on a stack of books in my father’s office one day, whence I picked it up randomly and read it….

And read it, and read it, and read it again. Hillsboro started my lifelong affair with wanderlust. I still have that original copy. (I guess my dad never realized he owned it, since I stole it at age seven.) The book is about a family of five who bicycle across most of America. They don’t make it to the California coast before the summer is over, but that becomes part of this charming, gentle story about taking a long road trip together, replete with adventures, enlightenment, and fun.

Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (Wendy Welch)The specifications for this list say books that have stayed with you in some way; this one pretty much changed my life. Since I wrote it, we’ve made friends with and met fascinating people—not superstars, like authors who hang out poolside with the fancy or famous—but very cool, salt-of-the-earth on Facebook types. And gone places and done stuff we wouldn’t have done before.

Jack and I still plan to visit Portugal because of all the lovely people who’ve contacted us from there. People in Poland are sending us letters now. The Korean Minister of Culture sent a congratulatory note after naming Little Bookstore a “Book of the Year” because it “uplifted the human spirit.” And lots of people visit our bookstore and tell us their stories. Which sounds all jet set, but was just a nice thing that happened because we had a story to tell that resonated with people. Yeah, this book stuck with me. :]

Winter in Moscow (Malcolm Muggeridge)Like Grapes of Wrath, this is a book that taught me about injustice, imbalance, politics versus people, and how life just sometimes goes wrong. Yet we can be humane and human in the midst of it.

Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenkey et al)This is an odd book that came out on the 1980s, detailing research on how women acquire knowledge. It lists six stages, running from just “standing in their shoes and looking out” to becoming experts in a field. It’s psychology not so much made feminist as put into an entirely feminine atmosphere. It’s amazing how much can be measured when the people measuring it are the same as the people they are measuring. Women no longer have to fit men’s square pegs into their round holes—heh, no pun intended. This book defines women’s knowledge the way women feel themselves to possess it. It underpinned a lot of my later work in storytelling, and when Brene Brown’s Ted talk on vulnerability went viral, it felt like an affirmation of how women use emotional means as valid ways of learning what they need to know, among other concepts.

This book got me in trouble in grad school, though. I still remember a professor using the term “unnecessary beauty” to describe some artifacts like water pots, etc. that had been decorated even though the objects were “just functional.” Without thinking and without raising my hand, I just shot out, “That is an entirely male construct. Ask any woman in the world whether beauty is useful, or needful, and she can give you a whole new way of seeing how her life is ruled by it—or lack of it. And what’s more, beauty is defined by men.” It all kinda went downhill from there….

Cricket Magazine, roughly 1972-1977These are probably what set me on the road to ruin as a child, teaching a love of storytelling. This was a literary magazine with high quality illustrations, stories, and articles for kids ages 10 or so. I still have my collection. Trina Schart Hyman, Jane Yolen, Shel Silverstein: all the big guns wrote for this publication. Early exposure… there’s no cure for that. :]

A Candle for St. Jude (Rumor Godden)When I made the list in Little Bookstore, I actually left this one off because it was “higher” than all the others. This is about a down-at-heel yet genteel dance school run by an old woman who was a past master, and the relationship between her, her favorite student, and her most talented ones. It explores the human heart as much as the arts world, but particularly human hearts in the arts. Because fairly often, the music (or dances, or stories, or paintings) presented at a festival is more about the politics of who gets to play, than the beauty of the playing. I love this book.

Prayers from the Ark (trans. Rumor Godden)A collection of very sweet animal poems, translated by Godden from a WWII refugee who wrote them in French in a nunnery while recovering from a breakdown. They’re lovely, and thought-provoking and sweet and sometimes the wee bit scary.

Holy Bible (semi-anonymous)Who was it that said, “If the Bible weren’t the Bible, it would be banned for all that sex and violence and anti-feminine rhetoric?” I’m not clear on everything, I’m not feeling called on to have a position statement on everything, and I don’t care to debate stuff ad infinitum. But I read the Bible at least three times a week (which is as good as “every day” actually looks for some of us). Sometimes I’m moved and motivated, sometimes I’m confused, or challenged. That’s okay. There’s that prayer thing, too. It helps.

Now, here’s the thing: authors meet other authors, and we sometimes get a lot out of each other’s books, but if you mention one book and not someone else’s, it all gets a little sad. So at the risk of offending some new authors who are bound to get left off, here are some nice people from AuthorWorld, and their books that I loved:

Saffron Cross (J. Dana Trent) – A female Southern Baptist minister meets a Hindu Monk on eHarmony, and marries him. And they decide not ‘to each his/her own’, but to participate in each other’s worship, dedicating it as their own. Fasten your theological seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

The Murderer’s Daughters (Randy Susan Myers) – a compelling novel about girls growing up in foster care, more or less – but dysfunction was never written with such lyricism.

Heart in the Right Place (Carolyn Jourdan) – Country girl making good in the city returns to the country when her dad needs help keeping his GP MD office open. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue, and some life lessons get learned.

Hooked (Tele Aadsen – she’s not finished yet. Check with Riverhead Press in 2015) Woman fishes for a living off Alaskan shore. Sex, water, salmon, self-discovery.

Second Wind (Cami Ostman) – Outrunning a divorce, she runs a marathon on every continent. And learns some interesting things about herself and other people. And icebergs.

Hiding Ezra (Rita Quillen) – There were lots of deserters in Coalfields Appalachia in the World Wars, mostly because their families really needed them more than their country. This is a compelling story about one such man.


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, bookstore management, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, Scotland, small town USA, Wendy Welch, writing


If you’ve ever tried to write fiction, or a memoir, or even a popular culture book about something that’s not entirely academic in thrust (Once Upon a Quinceanera comes to mind) then the words “Narrative Arc” strike terror and despair into your heart. Unless you’re a really good writer, in which case they probably make you feel smug.

Narrative arc is basically your story line gathering itself on the runway, taking flight, and then coming down again into a gentle (or not) conclusion. There are milestones along the way: set-up, problem introduction, small resolutions, climaxes and final resolutions, also known by many other names. The basic idea is that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that you should be able to read it as a cohesive whole, with the bits that happened first up front, and the lessons learned from all those bits at the back.

For example, here’s a nice narrative arc about a couple opening a bookstore: couple prepares to open bookshop by finding space and inventory; couple opens shop; people start visiting bookshop; couple discovers they lack all skills necessary to running bookshop; couple hastily acquires skills; bookshop hits bump; bookshop rights itself and continues, filling with characters and fun, along its merry way. Bookshop owners sit on front porch, holding hands and reflecting on all the nice lessons running a bookshop has taught them about humanity and life.

That’s what it looks like when you’re finished sorting it out on the page and in your memory. What happens in real life is more like: couple decides to open bookshop; characters fill shop; couple discovers they don’t know how to value books, but before they can learn, more characters are in shop and shop hits crisis of funding; they rush to resolve funding and shop fills with colorful local characters suffering after fires and bereavements and divorces, who want to talk about them; they slowly figure out how to pretend they’re coping with all that but meanwhile they’re learning of new skills they need as fast as they’re trying to acquire ones they already knew they needed a year ago, and the shop is opening and closing, opening and closing, and plans to learn to value first editions are put on the back burner for six months, and people are starting to say nice things about the shop and its effect on the community, but they’re saying them six months apart and in very different ways. Couple winds up sitting on porch, nervous wrecks drinking whisky, trying to figure out what they might need to know for tomorrow.

Rather than one simple line taking neat shape in a half-circle, in life so many lessons are learned simultaneously and on the fly that each arc overlaps and coils back on itself until you’re really looking at something more like a narrative slinky, bumping merrily downstairs, away from you, out of control.

Which is kinda what it feels like while writing it all. Joan Didion says we write to organize ourselves, to make sense of our lives. I’ve certainly discovered, since working closely with my editor on the final draft for The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, just how important another set of eyes is. A story that makes perfect sense to you looks full of holes to someone who wasn’t there, in the storm’s eye. While I’m describing things that whirled and swirled around the edges, my editor is keeping her eye on the center of the story. Just another reason why me-me-me memoirs don’t work; to really get the details, you have to step out of your skin, walk away, and see it from someone else’s point of view.

Or have a really good editor. (Thanks, P and N!)

If you want to read a really good narrative arc, my friend Carolyn Jourdan just got listed as one of the 10 best memoirs to read when learning the craft. Steve Boga, author of How to Write Your Life Stories – Memoirs that People Want to Read, cited her in his book. Carolyn organized her stories by impact: funny, funny, sweet, funny, building on sweet, angering, funny, funny, romantic, and yet the whole arc gracefully rose and fell as characters came and went in completion. No loose threads–well, okay, one, but it helped build romantic tension. And some things are private. :]

Another good one, organized by a different principle, is Sarah Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time. She used a straightforward calendar approach, even when she sometimes jumped forward and backward in time, making each month a chapter with a specific something she learned (how to be happy, how to let go of the past, etc.) from the books she read. My favorite association was when she read James Frey’s (now discredited) memoir A Million Little Pieces during a time when she and her husband were fighting. Nice poetic touch to a prosaic timeline.

And then there are memoirs that just peter out about five chapters in. The story gets set up, you fall in love with the characters, they tell you what they’re gonna do, and then it just… stops. And you read disjointed essay after disjointed essay, cute little character sketches or moments, but they don’t build, connect. They are pearls in and of themselves, just not strung together into a necklace.

These are the books we stop reading about page 87, when we look past them one night at our bedside table, and rake our eyes over the stack of books waiting, full of promise, full of… narrative arcs.

Readers LIKE stories that have a beginning, middle and ending. And we really need that middle to have some sort of path forward–even Paul Coelho fans (The Alchemist or Eleven Minutes). There has to be a visible way out of the forest, or we get claustrophobic staying in it.

All lessons learned from reading memoirs as much as bloody trying to finish writing one. And all fun, despite the angst-edged madness one might sense here. Necessity may be the mother of inspiration, but you and I both know that desperation was her very pushy pimp.

Right. So I’m away to head that slinky off before it reaches the staircase….


Filed under book reviews, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized