Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Huck Finn Goes to Pennsylvania

Kasey Cox

Imagine this recipe: you take the tone of a classic story like "Little House on the Prairie"; the voice of a woman like Marty, of Janette Oke's "Love Comes Softly" series; set her down in north central Pennsylvania just as the 1800's become the 1900's. Then, add in a character who just may be the Huckleberry Finn, after several decades of wandering and mellowing, and for a finishing touch, give it just a hint of "Jane Eyre". You just might end up with something that tasted like Larry Kimport's "A Small Harvest of Pretty Days."

The book hooks the reader at the beginning with a plot device unusual for this type of story - Clara, the first-person narrator, describes how the first time she saw the man she came to know as Mr. Finley, she was running for her life. In the opening scene, Clara hints at how she knows, from personal experience, that the man she was running from meant her harm. As she hides inside a fallen tree - and this is a nice touch, since the trees of that era were big enough for a grown person to fit inside - she witnesses a murder. From my perspective, the questions surrounding this murder continue to pull the reader through the story, and change it from just another novel for the historical fiction shelves.

Indeed, Kimport blends the techniques and topics of contemporary fiction with the milieu and voice of a bygone era. The setting of the Twin Tiers (that's northcentral PA and southcentral NY, to those of you outside the area) in the 1890's is effectively woven into Clara's story, using details of the chores of daily life, the discussions on the lumber business heard around the dinner table with important male guests, the descriptions of clothing and tools, the leisure activities of the well-to-do, and the hardships of most travel. Occasionally, this historical setting and the voices of the characters are out-of-sync with the frank discussion of rape and murder that drives the plot. Nevertheless, Kimport is usually able to smooth this over by prefacing these revelations with how utterly Clara's life is devastated by her experience and the community's opinion of her as a result, or by having male characters say, "we shouldn't be talking about this gruesome murder in the presence of women and children."

"A Small Harvest of Pretty Days" is marketed as a fictional love story, and as a "what-if" sequel to Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." While those ingredients are in there, that's not the strongest flavor. I felt the author did a better job evoking rural America at the turn of the last century, and of leaving the "why" of the murder open. I was more intrigued with the information on the railroads coming through the Williamsport area, and the lumber being moved down the Susquehanna River, and the day-to-day activities necessary for running a farm. The development of the love story and the mystery as to whether or not Mr. Finley was Huck Finn were a little obvious to me, although the love story is nice in and of itself. Any fan of Janette Oke or Lori Wick or Judith Pella's Christian historical romances will enjoy this aspect of Kimport's novel. And I did like reading a love story that wasn't all convoluted with war stories, or full of vampires, for once. What kept me reading, however, was wanting answers to the same questions that bothered Clara - why would this seemingly nice man, this Mr. Finley who was so kind and helpful to her, kill a man? And why didn't it seem to bother him? Was he responsible for the other brutal murders that were shocking the entire area?

The answer is a creative one, and doesn't resolve until near the end of the book, in just the plot structure your junior high English teacher explained to you. I found the resolution, as well as the epilogue of Clara's life, ultimately quite satisfying. At 181 pages, and reasonably priced at $12.97, I'd recommend Kimport's book to any reader looking for a good recipe with more to it than expected.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Out of Print if not for the Indies

Kasey Cox

Selling gently used books online is often a maddening, mysterious process. Thousands of wonderful books in near-perfect condition must be priced ridiculously low to compete; but then, some seemingly random book will be worth triple its original cover cost, or more. As my partner and I worked this process, throwing our dice, casting our nets every day by listing books for sale, we wondered what invisible hand is driving the prices sky-high on certain books.

These books have gone out-of-print. They are not, however, the “collector” books one would normally associate with such high prices. Many are paperbacks, published only in the last ten years. They are not necessarily first editions. They are not in pristine condition, nor are they autographed.

I never took a single economics class, but even I can grasp the basic tenet of supply and demand. There are not enough copies of these books for everyone who would like to read them, and this means people must compete to buy them. As a bookseller who cares about my customers, and who loves to see people matched with the books they want, it pains me to explain to people that the third book in the series they were reading now costs twenty-five dollars … or forty … or more.

We have had customers get angry with us when they see the price tag on certain books: “WHAT does this price tag say? That can’t be right!” Unfortunately, it is.

The invisible hand driving books out-of-print is the same hand that is making it increasingly difficult for first-time authors to get published, or for many authors to get re-published. The hand belongs to you, and it belongs to me: every time we reach into our wallets at a big-box, chain store, or pick up a pen to fill out the form for that mail-order book club, we are helping to drive thousands of books out-of-print.

That may sound incredibly harsh, or fanatical, but opening a small, independent bookstore has placed me at ground zero of the sell-or-perish world. I have been able to talk at length with other online booksellers, a high school friend who now manages a Barnes & Noble in the Philadelphia area, long-time book collectors, owners of local independent bookstores, self-published authors, and authors who have had national success.

Watching a recent documentary, “Indies Under Fire”, helped me put together the pieces of these conversations. I have come to see how the big-box bookstores exert considerable control over who gets published, who gets marketed, how long a book stays in print, and even the variety of books available to consumers. The bottom line is this: if a book doesn’t sell a tremendous number of copies, then the big chain bookstores will no longer carry it. Since ordering decisions are rarely made by individual locations of chain stores, discontinuing a book means a huge drop in the percentage of copies ordered, leaving the publishers loathe to continue reprinting that book.

The beloved book, “Flatlanders and Ridgerunners”, by the late (and much missed) local English professor Jim Glimm, has been only one of many books that fell victim to this trend. That may seem to make sense, since “Flatlanders” is a collection of local folk- and tall tales, but it did well beyond the region, often held up as a great example of this type of anthology. The University of Pittsburgh Press finally brought “Flatlanders” back --only after many emails and phone calls, only after their researching how much it was selling for as a used copy online, and only as a “print-on-demand.”

In a recent email communication I had with author Jennifer Egan, she expressed concern that her first novel, “The Invisible Circus” (one of my favorite novels of all time), will soon go out of print. Jennifer Egan’s second novel, “Look at Me”, was a finalist for the 2001 National Book Award; her third and most recent novel, “The Keep”, received a full-page review in Oprah magazine and was highly recommended by the BookSense program. Jennifer Egan is not an author who should have to worry about her books going out of print, but author Barbara Kingsolver echoed this sentiment, saying that she never would have been published in today’s publishing world.

This wild election year is a perfect time to re-consider how your vote counts. The truth of the matter is that we often vote with our wallets, and we vote with our feet. If you want something to stay around, you need to show up. You need to support it. If you want more than the Top 40 books and the same displays in every store, then be sure to check out the indie bookstores tucked away in the little towns and big cities you visit. Of course, I’m biased. But I also believe that variety is the spice of life.

Want to browse or be spoon-fed? Lots of choice or individual voices? Hobo says, whatever you do, vote for his book, “Hobo Finds A Home”. Yeah, he’s been pushy marketing it, but he’s big enough to suggest other books, too. Read about other titles he’s suggested at

Sunday, March 16, 2008

FREE excerpt from "The Royal Roachman"

excerpt from “Royal Roachman” by Joe Parry

The morning of the opener dawned windy as radio promised. Bill, as usual, arrived two hours earlier than instructed. When Joe opened the door at his knocking, there stood Big Bill in the garb of the ultimate flyfisherman, looking as though he’d bought and was now wearing every item Orvis had in their warehouse!
“Mornin’, Billy! What is that stench?”
“Stench? What’s ‘stench’?” Bill questioned with that childish, puzzled look which always melted Joe’s “tough” heart.
“Okay, Bill, stink, s-t-i-n-k, stink! What is that stink?”
“Oh, that? Probably comin’ from where I burned this here vest in the back while tryin’ t’iron on the duct tape.”
“Duct tape? For what?”
“Well,” Bill said, “I hadda sew two vests together since the catalogs didn’t have ‘em in m’size, and not being much of a sewin’ man, I kinda had t’tidy it all up and cover the stitchin’ with duct tape. Daggone stuff don’t take much to ironin’, but aside from that, Little Buddy, how’s your ol’ pardner lookin’?”
“Fine, Bill, ya look just fine! I could probably put a down payment on the Hearst castle with less money than you musta spent on all that stuff! And how, may I ask, are you ever going to remove all those flies from your hat, even though I tied all we’ll ever need this season?”
“Like that arrangement, do ya? Why, there’s four or five dozen of them babies pinned in there. Got ‘em at the Dollar Department Store for ninety-nine cents on the dozen. Ol’ Billy here is a-ready as a Freddy and ‘um gonna knock ‘em dead today, Little Buddy!”
“Bill, the smell of that vest alone ought to knock ‘em dead! C’mon, let’s get rolling!”
At the stream: “Okay, Bill, listen up. I’ll be upstream from you just a’ways. Work those flies deep and strip line to prevent slack, so you’ll see or feel the strikes. Fish ‘em downstream and across like I taught ya and mend your line when it starts to belly on you, okay? And, Bill, pleeeeeze don’t be dropping that hat into the water or we’ll be arrested for chumming! Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it, Joe, except what do you mean ‘mend’? You can see by this vest I hain’t much of a mender!”
“Just fish, Bill, and good luck.”
Joe watched Big Bill at every opportunity. The wind was playing havoc with the leader and after just a couple of hours, and one morsel of a rainbow, Joe decided they’d better pack it in for the day.
“Hey, Billy! Let’s hang ‘er up, Big Buddy,” Joe said as he approached Bill’s position downstream. “This wind is a killer! How’d you do?”
Bill smiled that priceless smile of his and answered, “Shoot, Little Buddy, been done for nigh on fifteen minutes now. Got me eight ‘bows lickety split! How’s ‘bout you?”
Joe said, “Just got one rainbow about the size of your little finger, Bill. That’s about it.” Joe’s eyes watered as he examined Bill’s leader, which had back-to-back knots from butt to tippet. “Bill, look at your leader, fer cryin’ out loud! How’d’ya ever limit out using that thing? Looks like some crazed Boy Scout went on a rampage trying to get his knot-tying merit badge!”
“Why, Joseefus, I had a fine instructor, did I not – get it, knot?”
“Yeah, Billy, I get it. Now I think we’d best head for the Coffee Palace and call it a mornin’, okay?”
As they sat sipping coffee, they reviewed the morning’s activities. “Ya know, Chubby line chucker, I’m right proud of you!” Joe said, patting Bill’s mountainous shoulder. “Why, a limit of trout first time flyrodding? That is great! Tell me, Billy, what pattern were you using all morning?”
“I think,” Bill said, removing his fly-filled hat and scratching his head, “it was a Royal Roachman, Joe. I h’ain’t real sure now, since the daggone fly is still in that last trout I landed. I’ll find it when I clean ‘em up later an’ let ya know.”
“Bill,” Joe said, giggling, “read my lips. Say, Royal Coachman.”
As the pair were ready to leave the Palace, Joe reached into his pocket and came to realize he’d forgotten his wallet. “Doggone it, Billy, I was gonna pick up the tab, but it appears I left my wallet at home. Got any cash with you?”
“Sure I do, Tiny Tightwad, sure do!” Bill reached into the depths of his sewn-together vests and pulled forth a handful of change. A rather muddied tin fell to the floor, which caused the lip to jar open. Out onto the linoleum floor spilled a huge gob of tangled, very juicy-looking and lively red worms! Joe, in total disbelief, eyed the red worms as though they were toxic waste, then looked sternly into Bill’s squinting, guilt-ridden blue eyes.
“Think it was a Royal Roachman, huh, Big Boy?”
Bill, near frantic from fear of being strongly reprimanded, said, “Listen, Joe. I lost ever’ fly you gave me, in that big old tree behind me this mornin’, and I couldn’t free the ones stuck in m’hat. Why, that wind was horrendous, and I couldn’t get my flyline to do anything right! I just hadta use the worms so you wouldn’t think all those lessons ya gave me were for nuttin’. I wanted t’make ya proud of old Billy, so I tied on a snelled number eight and fished my worms. Caught ‘em all on the flyrod, though. Please don’t be ticked with me, Little Buddy, I was just tryin’ to make ya proud of the way ya taught me to handle the flyrod, is all!”

"Of A Predatory Heart" is available at From My Shelf Books in Wellsboro PA, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Aristotle and an Aardvark

Kevin Coolidge

So, I’m playing Texas Hold ‘em with the Pope, President Bush, and Hillary. Obama is too young to play with anything except pennies, so we didn’t invite him, and McCain went to Mexico to buy cheap Viagra. No wonder he’s for NAFTA. The Pope is broke again and trying to convince the rest of us to let him throw his big, pointy hat into the pot, but what am I going to do with it? I could sell it on EBay, but it’d be a pain to mail. Hillary decides to light a Cuban cigar, and crack a joke, “Did you see Barack Obama at that rally surrounded by all those Kennedys? I couldn't tell if he was running for president or bartender.”* Wait a moment. I’ve been handed yet another memo from the legal department. It appears that if I am going to finish this column, I’m going to have to read this disclaimer: Please note that views expressed here are those of the columnist. We neither agree, disagree, condone nor claim that any of his ramblings actually approach reality. Besides, our sources claim that the Pope only plays the nickel slots, and we called Bill, and he said Hillary would take Pennsylvania, but wouldn’t smoke a cigar…

The last time Pennsylvania’s primary actually made a difference was 1976. So you can be sure that we’ll have lots of doublespeak flying our way, and that’s why I picked up a copy of "Aristotle and an Aardvark Go To Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes" by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein. These authors of "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar" aren’t falling for any election year tricky talk or weasel words, and neither should you.
Cathcart and Klein break out some great jokes as well as political cartoons. They explain what politicians are really up to when they state: “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” (Donald Rumsfeld); “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” (Bill Clinton), or even “I am the Flail of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” (Genghis Khan) I find it refreshing to hear an honest politician speak his mind. You can always count on the “Scourge of God “ to tell it as he saw it. No, wait--that was the diplomat, Attila the Hun.

Have you ever heard a politician deliver a speech or press conference and know in your gut that their pronouncements were certifiable BS, but you just couldn’t put your finger on why? Sure, sometimes the speaker fails to make sense simply because they convey a straight-out lie. This book will help you with the subtler stuff. For example, words that have been cunningly crafted to sound like they mean something important and compelling, but that upon careful inspection can be revealed to be bull scatology, which is far more insidious than outright lying, because it can be harder to detect.

Utilizing quotes from Al Sharpton to Adolf Hitler, Hillary Clinton to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield and Genghis Khan, these philosophical comedians help us learn and identify many stratagems. There’s the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, where you shoot a bunch of holes in the barn door and then draw a target around them. There’s “Doublespeak”, such as electronic intercepts NOT wiretapping. And then there’s the good old “So’s your mother” argument, which is misleading by getting personal, “Your Mom wears combat boots”, which reminds me my high school days.

Presidential candidates often seem to cloud the issues saying anything and everything to get elected. Appearing to have said nothing and everything on both sides of an issue all in the same breath. They are speaking another language, and this book can help translate. I found it quick and easy to read, hard to put down, and funny, but the authors have a lot of material to work with. I believe Will Rogers nailed it when he said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” Now, I have to be off. I’m going hunting with Dick Cheney. I hear its open season on Qualye...

*Joke originally told by Jay Leno, much to Hillary’s chagrin. You don’t actually think she’s that funny?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Oh, yeah, I just found the list I'd made for New Year's Resolution reading....

Kasey Cox

You might have wondered, seeing me every week standing here next to this stack of books in my photo, just what titles are on those spines. Well, as everyone keeps reminding us, it’s a new year, so I cleared off the old stack and started a new pile. Here’s a list of some of the books I am definitely hoping to read in 2008.

Let’s see, Kasey’s sister is getting married this coming July, so how does that rhyme go? Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue …. Sounds like a good recipe for a book list, as well….

In preparation for the nuptials, we’ll probably spend some time with a book I saw Kasey grab from the shelf recently – “The Bridesmaid’s Guerrilla Handbook”, by Sarah Stein and Lucy Talbot. Kasey has found this witty but practical guide extremely helpful already. She even shared the suggested “timetable” with her sister as we all snuggled together on New Year’s Eve. Though there are too many books out there on every possible aspect of weddings, this one is a great fit for the first-time bridesmaid – easy to read, funny, well-organized. Sadly, it is out of print, but still easy enough to find.

If it’s out of print, does that count as “something old?” Not necessarily. I think we need to add at least one of the “classics” to the list. Last year, I was mesmerized by both Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake” and the movie that was made from it. Lahiri is one of the few authors ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for a collection of short stories. “The Namesake” is the novel that followed her Pulitzer-winning anthology, “The Interpreter of Maladies”. The young man at the center of Lahiri’s novel is Nikolai Gogol’s namesake. At one point, the father tells his son how one day he will realize that we all come from Gogol’s “Overcoat”. I didn’t understand the reference, because, in general, I haven’t read the great Russian works of literature. Most of these greats are from the movement known as Russian realism – therefore, much disillusionment, pain, suffering, betrayal. I’m sure it’s beautiful writing, but those books have intimidated me, seeming long and full of long-suffering. So, this year, a start: “Diary of A Madman and Other Stories” by Nikolai Gogol. Because it’s time I read some Russians. And I want to know what’s under Gogol’s overcoat, and why Lahiri would form an entire beautiful novel around it.

While we’re on the subject of Indian and Indian-American writers like Lahiri, I’m going to add “something new” to my list. If you haven’t read anything by Calcutta-born-now-Houston-resident Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, you’re missing out. She’s got a new novel being released in February, “The Palace of Illusions”. Check it out, but be sure to look at all of her works, because she’s quite a maestro, spanning novels, poetry, fantasy, and young adult literature.

“Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir”, by National Book Award winner Paul Monette will serve an important place on the list. I read Monette’s award-winning book, “Becoming A Man: Half a Life Story”, when I was in college, when it was shocking that Tom Hanks would portray a gay man in a Hollywood movie, when I thought I’d never met a homosexual, when “no one knew” the real statistics of AIDS. Now we do, and we still are playing ostrich. This book is both a slice of history and a warning, as the numbers of HIV-infected people in the U.S. begin to rise again.

For “blue”, I’m planning on reading “Something Blue”, by Kasey’s fellow Wake Forest alum Emily Giffin. I’d seen Giffin’s books for sale in many places over the last few years, but never picked one up. The reviews, the title, and the WFU-connection have cinched it, though. Sure, it’s chick lit, but that doesn’t mean the girl can’t write!!! And sometimes, girls – even book nerds like Kasey – just wanna have fun. And who says books can’t provide tons of fun? Just look at this year’s reprint of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – in celebration of its 50th year in print, the covers are shiny metallic red and underneath the title, capital letters inform us that we’re holding “THE PARTY EDITION” in our hands. Now that’s a book to keep on hand!

What’s on your New Year’s reading list? Don’t forget to add a second “Hobo” adventure to your list of books to watch for in 2008. If you need to catch up on the first one, or on any older reviews, email me at or go to the Hobo archive at

Cabin Fever Cures

Kevin Coolidge and Kasey Cox

Winter is a disease, and it comes every year – soon to be followed by the dreaded Cabin Fever. Symptoms include a tendency to eat too much chocolate, making flight plans to tropical destinations, and howling at the moon. Cabin Fever happens when you think you can't stand the cold and dark any longer and you just have to get out and do something or you’ll go stark, raving mad. Spring is the cure. Here are some books that will help your symptoms and plan your outside projects.

Tioga County is farming country and most farms in these parts used to have a sugar shack. Vermont might get better promotion and produce more, but there’s nothing better than Grandma’s flapjacks topped with homemade syrup from the farm. If you’ve a hankering for homemade and want to try making your own, then Backyard Sugarin’: A Complete How-To Guide, by Rink Mann will show you how.This book tells you how you can make maple syrup right in your own back yard without having to build a sap house or buy buckets, holding tanks, and other expensive paraphernalia. Think of it as sugar on a shoestring. The author goes over the basics of selecting your trees, homemade evaporators, the boiling down process and includes tips from small-time sugarers from across the country.

The country life is about chopping wood and carrying water, and even those who use chainsaws still need to be familiar with the hand tools of the craft. The Ax Book by D. Cook discusses – obviously – axes, but it is also a book about saws, fuel, wood, trees, forestry, steel, history, morals, and much more. The Ax Book tells you how to use an ax safely and efficiently for every task it can perform, especially in connection with cutting firewood and felling trees. A hundred years ago, the ax was the most important tool in America . It’s still important in these parts. Before the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum reopens in April, get yourself inspired about local lumbering history by reading Robert Currin’s short but sweet book focusing on The Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, a part of Stackpole Book’s “Pennsylvania Trail of History” guides.

Any time we have a warmer day in winter, I begin to dream of spring. Thaw brings the smell of dirt, and with it, thoughts of growing things, playing in the garden, birds tugging worms from soft, sun-warmed soil. Yes, squelching around in giant boots can get tiresome, but reading William Bryant Logan’s new cult classic Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth may just give you the renewed perspective you’re looking for. In poetic, meandering, fascinating mini-essays, Logan teaches about dirt – and history, farming, bugs, water, chemistry, the mysteries and facts of dowsing, the joys of composting, and even some of the beauty hidden in life and death. Reading Dirt brings a new appreciation for the stuff you yell at the kids for tracking into the house.

In preparation for your garden, or just to save on the amount of garbage you put on the curb every week, why not start a compost pile? There’s something quite satisfying about taking the bread crusts and apple cores and leftover salad already rotting in the refrigerator and putting it together to see what happens to it. Remember mixing all the leftovers from people’s junior high cafeteria lunch trays into one bowl and daring someone to eat it? That’s what compost is like – only more socially acceptable and scientifically redeeming. To get started, or to become more advanced, in your – er – science experiment and efforts to be green, try reading Stu Campbell’s enthusiastic book, Let it Rot! Helpful and popular over many years, this user-friendly compost guide is in its third edition.

So, throw on your mud boots, eat your chocolate Easter bunnies, watch the real bunnies in the yard, play Paul Bunyon and Nessmuk, tap your inner sap, plan your garden, and exchange the dreaded Cabin Fever for a full-blown case of Spring Fever!! See you outdoors soon.

How does your garden grow? Stop by, and let Kevin and Kasey know, at From My Shelf Books in Wellsboro, or email them through the website: