West Virginia Book Festival

Book Festival chairwoman Pam May exits

If the West Virginia Book Festival is to return — and we still hope it does, in some fashion — it will have a new director.

Pam May (right) with Diana Gabaldon at the 2010 West Virginia Book Festival.

Last month, Pam May left her job as marketing supervisor at the Kanawha County Public Library — where her duties included being chairwoman of the Book Festival — to take a similar job at the YWCA Charleston.

Pam had been the Book Festival’s chairwoman since 2008or. Anyone who’s enjoyed themselves at the festival in the intervening years — or even before then, since she also worked with the festival’s original director, Cindy Miller — should thank Pam for the incredible amount of work she did in shepherding the event each year.

After this year’s festival was canceled, I talked with several people who wondered why it was necessary to shut down the event months before it was scheduled to happen. They didn’t understand that the planning process for the Book Festival is practically year-round, and that there was only a small break between the end of one festival before Pam and others would begin planning the next one. (As someone who was occasionally on the periphery of that planning, I don’t fully understand it either; I just know it was a lot of hard work.)

But now, maybe now she’ll get to celebrate her birthday — which always fell around the same time as the Book Festival — in peace.

So bon voyage, Pam. Best of luck, and thanks.

For the past three years, Debbie Null, librarian at Sherman High School in Seth, has taken advantage of Kanawha County Public Library’s annBooks in stack white background2 LoResual offer of free books for nonprofit organizations.

Each year, immediately after the library’s annual used book sale (scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 19, this year), representatives from nonprofit organizations are permitted to comb through the leftover books and use them in any manner that benefits the group’s mission.

Null initially heard about the program from her friend Scott Blake. At the time, she was the librarian for Van Junior/Senior High School, and Blake knew that she needed books for her library. That year she scored about 10 boxes of books. When she moved to Sherman High two years ago, she continued participating in the program to rebuild that library’s collection.

She mostly gets nonfiction because “fiction sells out pretty quickly,” she said. And that works in her favor because “the common core standards have changed, and the new standards place greater emphasis on nonfiction,” she said.

Her trips to Charleston have resulted in a stronger, more up-to-date collection at Sherman, and that helps her students do better work. “Access to better, more current information makes their research more valid,” she said.

Null plans her expedition by evaluating her collection and assessing its weak areas. Then she makes sure to obtain a diagram of the book sale layout so she knows what areas to hit first. For the best results, “you need to do a little research before you get there,” she said.

She gets help in the form of a few teachers and community members. “They know our needs,” she said. And she brings her own truck to transport their finds back home to Seth.

She highly recommends the program to other nonprofit organizations who need books. “In today’s society, literacy is more important than ever. It is critical that people have access to books. The KCPL program has allowed numerous nonprofits – schools, community centers, literacy volunteers, service organizations and even jails –  to build collections that address their patrons’ needs,” Null said.

Nonprofit organizations may participate by calling Sandy Frercks at 304-343-4646, ext. 242. She’ll e-mail you a form, which must be returned no later than Sept. 6. You’ll need to provide a copy of your organization’s 501(c)3 or other proof of your nonprofit status and your own labor to pack and load the books into your vehicle. Additional instructions will be provided once you register.

Kanawha County Public Library cannot guarantee quantity, type or variety of the leftover books. Please note that Collector’s Corner materials are not included in this offer.

Bastille Day, the French national holiday on July 14, seems like the perfect time to mention one of the more surprising things I learned at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival.

At a reception the night before the festival, I was talking with Judy Johnson, wife of Walt Longmire mystery series author (and Huntington native and Marshall graduate) Craig Johnson. She was wearing a very distinctive pair of hand-painted cowboy boots, and I asked if I could take a photo for the blog. She said I could, so here you go:

This led to a conversation about the boots, and after telling me their provenance (which I’ve forgotten; they were from somewhere in Wyoming), she said that when she and her husband go to France, people stop them all the time and ask where she got the boots. “Do you go to France often?” I asked. “All the time,” she said.

In addition to loving her cowboy boots, the French love her husband’s cowboy books. The French translation of Craig Johnson’s debut Longmire novel, “The Cold Dish,” won the 2010 Prix du Roman Noir (according to Johnson’s Amazon.com biography) as the best mystery novel translated into French that year.

In an interview with Cowboys & Indians magazine (for real) that year, Johnson talked a little bit about his books being translated into French:

You know, of all the places I would’ve thought that the books would really take off, France would’ve been one of the last on my list — it’s so civilized — but they have and with a vengeance.

But the French have a longstanding fascination with the American West. In his book “The Greater Journey,” a history of Americans in Paris in the 19th century, historian David McCullough talks about the hugely favorable reception given to George Catlin, who brought an exhibition of paintings of American Indians — along with some actual American Indians — to Paris in 1845. McCullough writes:

It was not only the subject matter of Catlin’s paintings that appealed, but the director strength of his work, the raw color and a simplicity of form verging on naive. The paintings had much the same fascination for the French as the Indian tales by James Fenimore Cooper. This was the America they imagined, “wild America,” and that they found almost irresistible.

This might help explain another thing that Judy Johnson told me last year. She and her husband also visit Spain, where cowboys-and-Indians books and movies are popular, just like they are in France. But in Spain, people root for the cowboys, she said; in France, they root for the Indians.

The incredible staying power of Arna Bontemps

I’ve read Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps to fifth graders before. But this year it was different.

My standard is “Bubber Goes to Heaven,” written in the early 1930s but not published until 1998. That year Oxford University Press brought it out with gorgeous carved and painted illustrations by Daniel Minter. It’s about a poor, African-American kid in Alabama who falls out of a tall pine tree and goes to heaven, where everyone has plenty to eat and all the washer women have plenty of work.

It always pleases the class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. We get to discuss this child’s idea of heaven and what it reveals about his daily life in the rural South during the Great Depression.

It also always connects, despite being so removed in time, place and even dialect. The first year, when it became clear that the boy in the story was awarded a purple ribbon bookmark from Shiloh Baptist Church for learning the books of the Bible, a girl in the class piped up, “I have one of those.” Hers was also an award for scripture knowledge. Another year, a student commented that her church had the same name.

But this year, it sparked its own little Arna Bontemps revival, right there in Charleston, W.Va.’s Piedmont Elementary School. As soon as we finished the last page, the questions came fast.

“Are there any more of those?”

“Is that a series?”

“Is there another story in that book? What are those extra pages?”

It is not a series, I answered. There is another story with a character named Bubber. I had recently learned as much from one of the essays in the “extra pages” in the book. It is not clear whether it is the same character.

“If I can find another book by this author, would you like me to bring it?”

There was a chorus of “Yes.”

So, we all parted for a three-week school break, and I hurried to the computer to track down copies of “Lonesome Boy” and “Sad Faced Boy,” two of Bontemps’ other children’s books. I did not find them in recent reprints, but in older, less pristine forms. When school resumed, I dutifully carried in “Lonesome Boy,” what I considered the better of the two, and more likely to please. It tells the story of an older Bubber who so enjoys playing his trumpet, he plays it anytime, anywhere. His grandfather warns him not to play his instrument absent-mindedly, but always to pay attention to his surroundings. The young man heads off to New Orleans, forgets his grandfather’s advice, and catches himself in some bad and dangerous company.

The students liked it. They immediately spotted the contrast between the heavenly imagery of the first story and the devil imagery of the second. They begged for yet a third Arna Bontemps. So, with some inner reluctance, we read what I thought was the weakest, certainly the simplest, of the three, “Sad Faced Boy”. Three children hop a freight train and head to Harlem, where they stay with their uncle and have child-size adventures that contrast their 1930s rural life with the bustling life of New York City.

The physical volume itself had a story to tell. I’m so glad that someone somewhere along the way taught me not to judge a book by its cover, and so I told the class. Because this old, plain, worn burgundy cover had fraying corners, and it smelled. But we opened it anyway. The pages appeared to be from a first edition in 1937. They were delicate, but whole. The book had clearly been rebound. I pointed out to the students the biggest surprise. On the title page, among the many marks this book had acquired in its long journey, was a stamp from the Rowther Relocation Center in Arkansas. Relocation center? As in Japanese internment camp.

So before we read, we took a moment to understand where this book started out, and who might have read it, and what was going on in their world at the time. We examined some kid’s notes on the endpages — “5×8=40; 5×9=45.” That brought a sympathetic laugh.

And then we read of three boys who get into a parade, who form a band, who find the park, who eat ices. I would have thought the adventures were too quaint, too old-fashioned to impress these young sophisticates, but there was something both strange and familiar about these children leaving home to see the world.

We spent almost the whole term on this author in weekly installments, not by my plan, but by theirs. In the end, most of the 47 students said “Sad-Faced Boy” was their favorite of the three. That might have been because it was most recent in their memory. Or it might have been the intriguing journey taken by the book itself. In any case, after all these years, Bontemps still brings it.

Before the end of class, one student asked me how much the book is worth. Another one made me an offer to buy it. I call that a successful read aloud.

Scott McClanahan’s “Crapalachia”

In this author-provided photo, Scott McClanahan reads from “Crapalachia” in New York.

The people Scott McClanahan writes about probably wouldn’t read his new book.

“These people don’t read literary fiction,” McClanahan said in a recent interview with the Gazette’s Bill Lynch. “They might read the Gazette. … Maybe.”

That’s all right, because plenty of other people are reading Scott McClanahan’s book. He’s gotten a write-up in The New York Times, where Allison Glock calls his writing “miasmic, dizzying, repetitive” and says that trying to slow it down “would be like putting a doorstop in front of a speeding train.” He got excerpted in the Oxford American. In The Washington Post, Steve Donoghue compares him to Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, which is pretty lofty company. Donoghue writes that “Crapalachia: A Biography of Place” — that’s McClanahan’s sort-of memoir about growing up in southern West Virginia — is “intelligent, atmospheric, raucously funny and utterly wrenching.”

The two largest figures in the book are McClanahan’s cerebral palsy-stricken Uncle Nathan and bigger-than-life Grandma Ruby, who knows death comes for her just like it comes for everyone else, and doesn’t find that frightening in the least. As Glock writes, “McClanahan describes how his grandmother Ruby would manifest a ‘look on her face like something terrible was going to happen to all of us one day. And you know what? It will . . . if not tonight, then the next night.'”

McClanahan, a Beckley resident who grew up in Greenbrier County, got degrees from Concord and Marshall and now teaches at New River Community College. He told Lynch that he doesn’t quite know what to make of all the attention over his book. “They’re always mentioning my accent in interviews,” he said.

Louise McNeill exhibit opens Saturday

Louise McNeill. Photo from the West Virginia State Archives, via the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

As we prepare to open the month of West Virginia’s statehood sesquicentennial, what better way than with a salute to a former West Virginia poet laureate?

On Saturday, the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University will premiere its exhibit remembering Louise McNeill during its Friends of Folklife Gala, from 4 to 10 p.m. McNeill served as poet laureate from 1979 until her death in 1993.

It’s fitting that the Folklife Center recognize McNeill. For one, she used to teach there when it was plain old Fairmont State College (as well as at West Virginia University, Concord College and Potomac State College). For another, the West Virginia literary map put together by those at the Folklife Center is titled “From A Place Called Solid” — a reference from McNeill’s memoir, “The Milkweed Ladies.”

Judy Byers, the center’s director, told West Virginia Public Radio’s Ben Adducchio about the choice:

“That is what I think the writers of West Virginia, be they poets, novelists, be they historical non-fiction writers, I think that is one of the strong, thematic undercurrents that you will find in their writing …  A place called solid, a place where the values are rich and sincere. A place where out of struggle, out of friction, out of suffering, has come a great state.”

New Pearl S. buck book coming in October

It’s been more than 40 years since Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, a native of Hillsboro in Pocahontas County and winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for literature, died.

Thus, you would think the chances of reading something new by her would be nonexistent.

You would be wrong.

This week, Open Road Integrated Media announced that an unpublished manuscript, finished shortly before Buck’s death in 1973, will be published in October. The novel’s title is “The Eternal Wonder,” and it was found in a storage unit in Texas and returned to Buck’s family last year “for a small fee,” as The New York Times delicately puts it.

Open Road says the novel is “the coming-of-age story of a gifted young man whose search for meaning leads him to New York, England, Paris and a mission patrolling the demilitarized zone in Korea.”

Buck’s most famous book is “The Good Earth,” a story of Chinese farmers that was a huge critical and commercial success in the early 1930s. That was the second book she had published — and despite writing dozens more over the remaining decades of her life, she never matched her early success. Peter Conn, author of a well-received biography of Buck, told the Times that, with a few exception, the quality of her books started to slip in the 1940s.

So chances are, “The Eternal Wonder” will be a footnote in the Pearl Buck canon. But four decades after her death, that’s still enough to get excited about.

On the blog at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace site, Michael Toler notes that the Kindle e-book version of the new book is already available for pre-order, and that any orders placed through the links on their site benefit the Hillsboro site.

Meet the Author: Dean King

Dean King
Photo © Rachel Cobb

Author and historian Dean King takes a new look at the Hatfield and McCoy feud in his latest book, “The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys.” King’s book breaks new ground with quotes from contemporary newspaper accounts and other information that was not available when Otis K. Rice wrote The Hatfields and the McCoys in 1982. King’s account traces the conflict back to the 1850s when the families intermarried and lived peacefully and shows multiple causes for the vendetta.

King is the award-winning author of 10 books. He will speak at Elk Valley Branch Library on Monday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m., and sign books after the presentation. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from West Virginia Book Company. Refreshments will be served.

This project is being presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any view, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” great?

I’m of two minds about the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” coming out this weekend. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that one of the most notoriously difficult novels of the past century to film is going to be solved by the bombastic Baz Luhrmann. But any excuse to bring one of the few books with a legitimate claim on the title of The Great American Novel is an opportunity worth taking.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” so great? Part of it is how Fitzgerald evokes the setting: the glamorous Jazz Age, in the midst of the post-World War I boom. Even though there aren’t a lot of parties in the book — really, there’s just one completely successful blowout, which Gatsby throws in the middle of the novel — that’s what a lot of readers remember (and that certainly seems to be what Luhrmann is concentrating on, if the previews are any indication).

Which is somewhat strange, because Fitzgerald is no wide-eyed innocent about the era. True, he and his wife Zelda enjoyed the 1920s as much as anybody — but he knew there were plenty of people, like Myrtle and George Wilson in the book, who weren’t having those good times. And even for the fortunate ones, he knew, the good times couldn’t last. At the same time he’s writing about what a great time everyone is having, he’s showing how pointless, if not downright destructive, the whole thing is. Self-made millionaire and bon vivant Jay Gatsby, in many ways, is the living embodiment of the American dream. In the end, it’s not enough.

(And of course, Fitzgerald was right. Four years after “The Great Gatsby” was published, the United States and much of the rest of the world would spiral into the Great Depression.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) and Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway).

None of Fitzgerald’s perception and scene-setting would matter, though, if he couldn’t write. And that’s where “The Great Gatsby” stakes its claim to greatness. I’ve not read many books that are more beautifully written.

In Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like A Writer,” Gatsby is one of the first books she cites for its language — specifically, the “word-by-word gorgeousness” in the scene where Nick Carraway first sees Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker in Daisy’s West Egg home:

The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

There’s so much description packed in the story that it’s startling to realize how short the book really is (that copy that I remember, with the deep blue cover with the disembodied eyes and lips, is only 192 pages long). Every word is so precise, and it’s hard to imagine how too much of that could be conveyed by any filmmaker. (Although I’m sure the novel’s famous last line, which is engraved on the Fitzgeralds’ tombstone in Rockville, Md., will make an appearance: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.)

So maybe that’s the way to approach this latest attempt to film “The Great Gatsby.” Enjoy it for what it is (say what you want about Luhrmann, his films usually aren’t boring). Then read the novel, or read about it; there’s been enough written about it over the past couple of weeks to fill Gatsby’s swimming pool, but I enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Sarah Churchwell, who has a book about Fitzgerald’s writing of the novel coming out next month.

One of the presenters at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival is up for one of the most prestigious awards in her field.

Marilyn Sue Shank’s novel, “Child of the Mountains,” is one of the three finalists in the Christy Awards’ young-adult category. The Christys (Christies?) are given for excellent in Christian-themed  fiction; they’re named after Christian author Catherine Marshall’s best-known work, the novel “Christy.”

Shank’s novel is set in 1950s West Virginia. The awards are announced June 24. Best of luck to her.