West Virginia Book Festival

Sustenance of all kinds

Nice to know at least one Charleston watering hole has some literature available for its patrons:

emptyglass 002

Yeah, the picture’s a little blurry. Consider it an attempt to simulate the effects of a couple of beers.

In their own words

breachThe lives of the famous don’t appeal to me nearly as much as the lives of ordinary people, which is probably why these two collections —Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders” and “Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats”speak to me so loudly.

Eric Etheridge, the author of “Breach of Peace,” claims he had the best opening line ever as he contacted 1961 Freedom Riders across the country: “Have you ever seen your 1961 mug shot?”  This question opened doors for him and the floodgate of memories for the people he called.  The book is a compilation of memories of the participants and what they have done since.  Freedom Riders came from the north and from the area to be arrested at the Trailway station and challenge segregation. They explain why they chose to participate even knowing they could be sent to prisons like Parchman.

Jean Thompson tells of how her parents always told her the time was coming to challenge segregation.  However it was hard for them to hear about what happened to her in Mississippi and know her sister was going away to be a Freedom Rider next.  Peter Ackerberg told himself at the time, “You know I talk a big radical game, but I’ve never really done anything.  What am I going to tell my children when they ask about this time?” “Breach of Peace” is a powerful set of memories.  And like Ackerberg, the stories made me wonder if I could live up to my ideals, if there were a such a price.

Etheridge updates the Freedom Riders’ lives here.

crowns cover

“Crowns” started as a series of photographs by Michael Cunningham of black church women in their finest Sunday hats. Craig Marberry told him that he was missing half the story.  The joint effort is a magnificent combination of photos of these women and their recollections.

One woman recalls her admiration of the “queen” of hats at her church as a young girl. She tells of the resulting friendship with the older woman and a bequest of hats after her passing.  There are memories of great hats and bad hair, friendships and more.  Nancy Carpenter recalls with pride going to a store after segregation.  As she browses the hats, the staff makes it obvious they think she can’t afford one.  So Carpenter rises to the challenge and pays in cash.  This collaboration makes it clear these hats might just really be crowns.  

Take some time to get to know the people in “Breach of Peace” and “Crowns.” You’ll enjoy the meeting.

Picture books: A is for Appalachia

“A is for Appalachia: The Alphabet Book of Appalachian Heritage,” is not, as I first thought, another installment in a series of books from Sleeping Bear Press (as in “M is for Mountain State” from 2004).

This 44-page book from University Press of Kentucky in November is by Hamlin, W.Va.,  native Linda Hager Pack, who teaches children’s literature at Eastern Kentucky University.

If the book seems a little wistful, or even rose-colored in tone, that is on purpose, as Pack explains in the introduction:

The Appalachia about which I write is of a distant time and place. It is populated with strong people whose ancestors came primarily from Scotland, Ireland, England, and Germany. When our country was young and under English rule, it was our Appalachian ancestors who resisted being governed or taxed by England. Being fiercely independent, they moved west into the mountains where they joined the proud people of the Cherokee Nation. They lived in log homes, grew their own food, made their own clothes, and crafted their own tools. They told haint tales by the evening fire and Jack tales while at work during the day. They sang sad ballads on front porches and danced to lively jigs played on homemade fiddles and banjos. AisforThey worked hard, rested little, and took pride in a job well done. They cared about each other and about their mountains, and they gave thanks to their God. It is this rich heritage that I joyfully share with you.

That soft-focus idyllic subsistence farm on the cover is one of many beautiful watercolors by illustrator Pat Banks, also of Kentucky. It is from the page “F is for farmstead,” where kids who know nothing of food except grocery stores and restaurants will encounter not only a garden, but bees, a sorghum mill and pigpen.

“A is for Appalachia” is mostly, not entirely but mostly,  about the region before industrialization. It touches on quilts, tall tales and one-room schools, but also the Cherokee alphabet, toys, early Christmas traditions and even the zodiac. It would make a nice addition to any school library or social studies class. Appalachian residents will certainly find warm and familiar faces in this book, but as different parts of Appalachia vary, people who have lived in the region all their lives may also encounter old phrases or traditions for the first time.

Attention science fiction and fantasy lovers!  Or readers who have always wanted to try science fiction or fantasy but didn’t know where to start!  Or, just anyone!  Attention!

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have announced the nominees for the prestigious Nebula Awards. (Rad logo, SFWA.)  The nominees for best novel are:

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupinebulalogowhite

The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak

Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman

The City & The City, by China Miéville

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer

I’ve only read The City And The City (loved – if you like mind-bending crime fiction or urban fantasy, try it), but I’ve heard great things about all of these.  Cherie Priest has been on my to-read list for a while now.

The winners are announced May 1.

And just for the heck of it, Locus Magazine just published their list of the best SF of 2009.  Read on, people!

The best mysteries of the year

poeIf you’re ever looking for a good mystery or thriller and don’t know where to turn, a great place to go is the Mystery Writers of America‘s annual Edgar Awards, named after the progenitor of the modern detective story (that guy over on the left). Each year, the MWA comes out with a list of nominations in several categories, and picks a winner later that year.

The second Edgar Award, in 1955, was given to Raymond Chandler for “The Long Goodbye.” More recent winners include some of the most recognizable names in modern mystery-writing: Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, Dick Francis, T. Jefferson Parker.

But it’s not just long-established authors that get recognized. One of the most interesting categories is Best First Novel by an American Author, where readers can find some great stories that they might otherwise have missed. Young adult and non-fiction works also have their own categories.

Of the nominees in the main category this year, I’ve read only deathhustonone: “The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death,” by Charlie Huston. The author is probably best known for the Joe Pitt Casebooks, a pulpy (in every sense of the word) series of noir vampire books. They are not for the faint of stomach, and “Mystic Arts” is in the same vein.  It’s about a guy who works for a company that cleans up horrific crime scenes, so there’s plenty of opportunity for gory detail. If you don’t mind that, it’s a pretty terrific read.

Other nominees for the main Edgar Award are:
“The Missing” by Tim Gautreaux
“The Odds” by Kathleen George
“The Last Child” by John Hart
“Nemesis” by Jo Nesbo
“A Beautiful Place to Die” by Malla Nunn

I’ll probably try to get to a couple of them before the winners are announced on April 29. Anyone read one (or more) of them, and have a recommendation?

What do the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prizes and the West Virginia Book Festival have in common?


That would be Sylvia Nasar, who headlined the first Book Festival back in 2001 as the author of “A Beautiful Mind.” The biography of Bluefield native John Forbes Nash Jr. chronicled his work as a mathematical genius and his struggles with mental illness.

Nash shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics with two other men for their work in game theory. The film version of “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly and (loosely) based on Nasar’s book, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Nasar came to Charleston to deliver the annual McCreight Lecture on Humanities, sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council.

As for the Book Festival, she said earlier this month:

“I have fond memories of the festival which gave me a chance not only to meet scores of avid readers like myself but to have a reunion with an old friend and West Virginian from Antioch College and the University of Besancon, Yvonne Farley.”

Nasar (a former New York Times and Forbes reporter) helps run a business journalism master’s degree program at Columbia University. She says she’s finishing “Grand Pursuit,” a historical narrative about the invention of modern economics, and recently edited “Best Science Writing 2008” for HarperCollins.

Graphic novelist Jessica Abel at Marshall this week

abelThe growth of graphic novels over the past 20 years has been phenomenal. While movie goers have seen the success of films based on iconic characters such as Batman, comic book readers have long been aware of the literary achievements of such masters as Art Spiegelman. In recent years, the academic community has recognized graphic novels as serious literature and designed whole courses devoted to their study. Marshall offers such a course, taught by English professor David Hatfield.

Jessica Abel’s reading this Thursday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. in the Marshall Student Center is the opening appearance of her visit to the area to teach in the Huntington Museum of Arts Gropius Masters series of workshops. For the museum events, she will be joined by her husband Matt Madden, also an accomplished artist and writer.

For lovers of literature and graphic novels, Jessica Abel’s presentation will be a delight. Along with reading from engaging new work full of colorful characters at the edge of society — and sometimes at the edge of the fantastic — Abel will offer visual displays from the stories, along with explorations of her creative process in merging artwork with language. No one interested in the cross pollination of the arts and media should miss her appearance.

Jessica Abel (that’s her self-portrait above) is the first graphic novelist to appear in the Marshall Visiting Writers Series’ 20-year history. Our goal has always been to show the face and the voice of the writer, the character behind the words we read in books. In doing so, the literary arts come alive in the world beyond a book’s pages, a world where breathing humans join the community of storytelling.

laperdidaWhen I opened Abel’s great first novel, “La Perdida,” I did not know what to expect other than words pictures and a large investment of time. To my delight, her story pulled me in immediately. In search of cross-cultural truths, its young heroine is genuine and compelling. The panels capturing scenes from the streets of Mexico City are as gritty and realistic as the mix of English and Spanish that surrounds Carla as her misadventures draw her into the intrigue of shady local figures. The New York Times Book Review has praised her work, saying that it “captures perfectly the expat experience.”

Jessica Abel is an award-winning writer whose career has already begun to shape the future of literary media and engagement.

Biography shows all sides of ‘The Logo’


In case you missed it, Gazette sports editor Mitch Vingle wrote today about a new biography of Kanawha County native, West Virginia University legend and NBA star Jerry West.westbook

“Jerry West: The Life and Legend of a Basketball Icon,” was written by Roland Lazenby, a Bluefield native.  But according to Vingle, it’s not the kind of soft soap one might expect from a book dealing with “The Logo” — West’s nickname because his is the silhouette used as the symbol of the NBA.

Vingle says the book describes “the good, the bad and the ugly of West Virginia’s favorite sports son.” Sounds like an interesting read. The book goes on sale Tuesday.

Does that movie look familiar?

This has not been a great reading week for me as I am suffering from full-fledged Olympic fever.  (What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good montage.)  Of course, watching more TV than usual means I see more commercials, especially those movie trailers.  And I can’t help thinking that a lot of those stories look awfully familiar…



I am incredibly creeped out by Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Shutter Island, which is based on a book by Dennis Lehane.  It looks scary!  On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Dear John, based on the tearjerker by Nicholas Sparks.

And on a completely different spectrum, there’s Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, opening in March.


Is this what Lewis Carroll had in mind for the Mad Hatter?

And!  Did you know The Blind Side is a book by Michael Lewis?  Or that Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is based on a series of chapter books for kids?  Or that another big family movie, How to Train Your Dragon, is based on the book by Cressida Crowell?  Or that A Single Man is based on the seminal novel by Christopher Isherwood (whose book, Berlin Stories, btw, was the basis for the musical Cabaret)?  Or that Up in the Air is a well-altered version of Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name?  Or the upcoming Matt Damon thriller Green Zone is loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2008 nonfiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone?

Well, now you know.  I wonder if I should start a petition to add book trivia to the next Olympics?

Civil War expert James Robertson coming this year

JamesRobertsonsmJames Robertson, author of the biography “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend” will appear at the 10th annual West Virginia Book Festival on Oct. 16, 2010. Robertson was also chief historical consultant on the film “Gods and Generals” from Ted Turner/Warner Bros. [edited to correct details]

Book Festival organizers received confirmation this morning. Robertson will give a talk called  “Quicksand and Land Mines: Writing Civil War History,” at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, in WV Room 105 at the Charleston Civic Center. Here’s the rest of his official bio:

gods_and_generalsThe Danville, Va., native is the author or editor of more than 20 books that include such award-winning studies as “Civil War! America Becomes One Nation;” “General A.P. Hill;” and “Soldiers Blue and Gray.”

The recipient of every major award given in the Civil War field, Robertson is frequently asked to appear in Civil War programs on the Arts & Entertainment Network, the History Channel, C-SPAN and public television. He is presently an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Robertson is also a charter member (by Senate appointment) of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.