West Virginia Book Festival

Amy Greene’s “Bloodroot”


Just finished “Bloodroot,” the debut novel from Amy Greene. The title refers to a medicinal plant and also to the fictional mountain where protagonist Myra Lamb spends much of her life as a child and a young woman.

Greene was born and raised, and still lives, in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. The color of the region suffuses her writing; she has said that she had to dial down the regional dialect of her narrators so non-Appalachians could understand it. And there are plenty of narrators, six in all.


In some ways, Greene has combined two stories. One is a slightly supernatural tale: Myra’s grandmother talks about family members having “the touch”; one relative was a water witch; another would put curses on people. But the more compelling story is the everyday journey and hardships of Myra and her children.

It’s odd to see Myra, this golden child with the “haint-blue eyes,” who seems more like an elf or sprite that a little girl, dragged down so easily into a cycle of poverty and misery. But maybe that’s the point.

The book is short — only 219 pages — and if you’re a fan of Southern or Appalachian fiction, it’s worth your time.

Christians and Muslims look for “A Common Word”

Years ago, perhaps over 40 of them, a young woman sat across from my wife and me talking seriously about returning to Turkey. “I can no longer raise my son in this culture”, she said.

Her husband was a physician, they lived in a very nice upper middle class house, and were well received in the small coal mining town in which they, and we, lived. Other than her husband, she was one of the few Muslims in town. There was no mosque. At least one Muslim gentleman attended the Presbyterian Church on occasion. Or the Methodist one. It made no difference to him.

Her minority status and lack of familiar social, religious and cultural surroundings were painful to her.

She did leave our community with her small son, but maintained a friendship with at least one person, the wife of another physician in the town.

commonwordWould this new book “A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor” have been of help to her?

I must say, no. She was not so much interested in philosophy or theology, but with the daily life of a Muslim mother seeking to educate her son in the ways of the Prophet Mohammed.

The book consists of a discussion by Muslim and Christian theologians of issues raised in a 2007 letter from 138 Muslim thinkers, addressed to the Christian community, and most especially to its theological and biblical scholars. This letter, called “A Common Word Between Us and You” generated a response from Christians in various places. Most notably, a conference at Yale University explored a variety of Christian responses to a document that took as its theme “love of God and love of neighbor”.

In his foreword, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, commented that an understanding of this “Common Word” was of crucial importance. Noting that Christians make up 55 percent of the world’s population is a necessary component in making the 21st century work more humanely, and the earth a better place.

This is not an easy work to read. The presence of quotations (some from the New Testament, or Christian Scriptures) in Arabic can be discouraging to someone who does not read that language.

Why this work is important is that it does not seek to address questions of practice, such as the wearing special clothing, dietary issues and the basic differences between Christians and Muslims as they relate to Jesus Christ. The book makes clear that the document “A Common Word Between Us and You” is centered only around the thesis that Muslims and Christians, by way of their prophets and teachers, seek to practice love and unqualified regard in relationship to those with whom they may have religious and spiritual differences.

With this understanding, say many of the respondents, people of widely varying faiths can work together for a better world. This is much like the common response to human need seen in our own community as Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and others working together to build Habitat houses for those who need shelter. Hunger and cold have no religiously divergent names.

Who might use such a difficult and demanding book? First of all, the academic communities in our area could bring together Christian and Muslim thinkers to consider the “Common Word” document. An agreement would be made not to talk about the Crusades or 9/11. This would be hard to accomplish.

Christians such as me have very little understanding of Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an. As I read this work, I was surprised at the knowledge Christian scripture demonstrated by Muslim thinkers. Some quoted that central text in the Gospel of John (3:16) in which God loves the world to the extent that God gives an only son as a sacrifice so that all who put their trust in Christ will obtain eternal life. In some cases, the Christian theologians who responded seemed rather preachy.

An exception was the Harvard Baptist theologian Harvey Cox, whose words would be acceptable in many places where Muslims and Christians are in conversations.

Another venue for this book might be as adult church school classes approach the daunting topics contained in this volume, with open hearts and minds.

In any case, this is a book of great importance that the uneven style cannot take away.

This review will also appear in the Perspective section of the March 28 Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Local bookstores: An endangered species


When I was a kid growing up in Morgantown, I loved going to bookstores. Some of my best memories are of Stilwell Book Shop, on the corner of Pleasant and Chestnut streets. I used to spend hours there, talking with the owner, Geoff, and talking myself in and out of buying something. But I remember lots of others – the Bargain Bookshelf, later just the Bookshelf, under the Suburban Lanes bowling alley; Wolf’s Head Books (later Abshire’s and Books Books Books), at the foot of the South High Street bridge; Trans-Atlantic on Fayette Street.

As a little kid, I even enjoyed the old Coles chain store at the Mountaineer Mall. Before that (yes, I remember when Morgantown didn’t have a mall), I used to love going to the Middletown Mall in Fairmont to check out the chain store there (was it Coles? Waldenbooks? something else?).

When I first moved to Charleston, I would spend at least one lunch hour a week in Trans-Allegheny Books on Capitol Street, with those fantastic spiral staircases.

With the exception of the Bookshelf in Morgantown (now relocated to Greenbag Road), all of those places are gone. For the past couple of decades, it’s become increasingly difficult for small, local bookstores to survive — as we saw again earlier this month with the demise of the physical location of Frog Creek Books at the Capitol Market in Charleston.

Amazon.com, of course, pioneered a completely different way to buy books. The rise of giant chains like Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and Borders means local booksellers face the same economic pressures that other local merchants face from Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe’s and Home Depot. And the rising popularity of electronic books has frightened even those huge chains and led to doubts about their survival.

I’m not saying the new ways are all bad, or that I’ve never ordered a book online — just that local, independent bookstores have become harder and harder to find.

So here on WVBF:TB, we’re going to look at some local bookstores throughout West Virginia. I’ve already got a few lined up, and some more planned after that. If you’ve got any suggestions, let me know. We may find a few that we didn’t know anything about.

Look for the first installment in a few days.

deedyChildren’s author Carmen Agra Deedy is slated to speak at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 16, 10 a.m. at the Charleston Civic Center.

Deedy has been writing and telling stories for almost 20 years. Born in Havana, Deedy immigrated with her family during the Cuban Revolution to Decatur, Ga., near Atlanta.

Her latest book, “14 Cows for America,” is an elegant story of generosity that crosses 14cowsboundaries, nations and cultures. Kimeli Naiyomah returned home to his Maasai village from New York City with news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His story prompted the villagers to give a heartfelt gift to help America heal. Deedy and illustrator Thomas Gonzalez bring Naiyomah’s story to life with pithy prose and vibrant illustrations.

Deedy’s previous book, “Martina the Beautiful Cockroach,” re-tells an old Cuban folktale. The book was simultaneously released in English, Spanish, and bilingual audio versions in 2008 and has garnered many awards, most notably the prestigious Pura Belpré Honor and martinathe International Latino Award for Best Children’s Picture Book. It was also named an Odyssey Award honor book.

Deedy’s other notable books include: “The Library Dragon,” “The Yellow Star: The Legend of King Christian X of Denmark,” “Agatha’s Feather Bed: Not Just Another Wild Goose Story,” “The Last Dance,” “The Secret Of Old Zeb” and “TreeMan.”

Deedy is the third author announced for this year’s Book Festival, joining best-selling novelist Nicholas Sparks and Civil War historian James Robertson.

Comfort books

All of us have comfort foods.  If I’m stressed to the max, I’ll have tapioca cooking on the stove in a heartbeat.  Many readers also have a comfort book, which we re-read from time to time.  It might be a book from childhood, a book reminding of us of a time in our lives or a book that for some reason strikes a cord with us.   I have a couple – “Miss Buncle’s Book” by D E Stevenson and “Fool’s Puzzle” by Earlene Fowler.

buncle coverD E Stevenson of Scotland is less known today, but sold 70 million novels in her heyday. One of my favorites is her comedic tale of Barbara Buncle, largely ignored spinster.  Miss Buncle has relied on her small inheritance to keep things going, but her dividends are shrinking away.  She is considering two choices to supplement her income – chickens or becoming a novelist.  As her old nanny, Dorcas hates chickens, it must be a novel.   And what a novel it is. Not knowing what to write about our naïve and sheltered authoress picks her village, but then something takes over and she shakes things up.  Who will save our heroine when the neighbors realize the book is about them and try to find out who John Smith, her pseudonym, is?  This is a funny, but gentle read that will appeal to Mitford fans.  Both Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married can be found together in Miss Buncle.  (And yes she is a Stevenson of the Lighthouse Stevensons and Robert Louis Stevensons.)

fools cover“Fool’s Puzzle” is the first mystery featuring Benni Harper.  Earlene Fowler originally wanted to use the title “Drunkard’s Path” as the title, but bowed to the publishers and chose the alternate name for this quilt pattern.  However, Drunkard’s Path is more apt.  Benni has recently lost her rancher husband, who was driving drunk. She has moved to town for her new life and new job as manager of a local art co-op. When one of artists is killed, Benni can’t keep out of the case to the aggravation of Gabe Ortiz, the acting police chief.  This is a good mystery, but it is the characters that make this a comfort book.  After reading these mysteries over the years, I feel like I would recognize Benni, her meddling Grandma Dove and all the others, if I passed them on the street.  A good comfort book should be like visiting with friends.

So what is your comfort book?

Bob Schwarz on books for the garden

SCHWARZ1Now that my grandparents are gone, Bob Schwarz knows more about gardening than anyone I know. Dr. Schwarz (as I like to call him), the Gazette’s longtime garden/arts/religion/weather/all sorts of other stuff reporter, moved to Arizona a couple of years ago.

As spring is upon us, I asked him for some recommendations of garden books. He did not disappoint:

farmcityAs it happens, I have recently read “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer,” a delightful, sometimes funny book about a woman who raises, meat birds, then rabbits, then two pigs in an empty lot behind the house she rents in downtown Oakland. Along the way, she becomes an expert dumpster diver, first in Chinese fresh-food markets, then at an upscale restaurant, where she ultimately learns how to make dry-cured aged meats from the owner-chef.

botanydesire_cover2For anyone interested in how things work in agriculture, I recommend Michael Pollan‘s “The Botany of Desire,” about the co-evolution — in the company of humans — of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis. The book is at once scholarly, entertaining and delightful. It goes back in history on each of the four chapters.

OmnivoresDilemma_medPollan’s greatest book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” explores how food comes to our supermarket and table. It traces how four meals come to our tables. Along with the way, we meet growers of corn and hunters of wild boar. We find out how difficult it is to make a living growing corn, and we learn the impact Monsanto has had on the lives of corn farmers.

secondnature2Pollan wrote an earlier book about his gardening experience in Connecticut, before he went out West to teach journalism at Cal-Berkeley. “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” is good — but not as good as the other two — and is more of a gardener’s book. At the outset, he tells a great story growitabout his father, who had better things to do than mow his suburban lawn.

I enjoyed Richard Langer’s “Grow It!: The Beginner’s Complete Organic Small-Farm Guide,” when it was new in the early 1970s and it appears to still be available in more recent editions.

Also, current Gazette writer Sara Busse has a couple of her recommendations:

“McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container: A Container Garden of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits, and Edible Flowers,” by Rose Marie Nicols McGee and Maggie Stuckey, with illustrations by Michael A. Hill.

bountifulcontainerThis has been called the “container gardener’s bible” and it is well-organized and informative. In a day when so many people have very little garden space, it’s a great guide for novices and experts.

welltendedAnother favorite: “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques” (Expanded Edition) by Tracy Disabato-Aust.

I met Tracy and found her to be very down-to-earth (no pun intended) about gardening. Her book is devoted to planning and plant selection. She stresses year-round interest. Many of the gardeners who write to me ask for “no-maintenance” gardens. Tracy’s suggestions are geared to that gardener — while there’s no such thing as “no-maintenance,” good planning can make a garden “low maintenance.” It’s pretty basic, but it answers a lot of questions for the new gardener.

The Commitments

The library is sneaky – in a good way.  I was returning a few things the other day, when their display of Irish books caught my eye.  While waiting at the desk, I flipped through the first pages of a little book called “The Commitments” by Roddy Doyle.

On the second page, I read this sentence:

“Outspan, Derek and Ray’s group, And And And, was three days old; Ray on the Casio and his little sister’s glockenspiel, Outspan on his brother’s acoustic guitar, Derek on nothing yet but the bass guitar as soon he’d the money saved.”

Suddenly, I had a new book to add to the stack I was carrying to the library desk.  I wanted to know what happened when this group fell under the influence of Jimmy, the music fan who “knew what was new, what was new but wouldn’t be for long and what was going to be new.”

“The Commitments” seemed like a perfect book for me commitmentsto find now, since I’m teaching an American Music class at West Virginia State University.   I thought it might help me understand the influence of American music in other countries (at least that’s what I told myself as I thought about whether I had time to read for fun right now). The character Jimmy reminds me of producer John Hammond (whose biography I’m also reading now).

But “The Commitments” is not exactly a musicological study of the impact of American music on Irish youth, nor is it a book that you have to be Irish to relate to the characters.  It’s more universal and more fun than that.

This short, funny novel that captures all the excitement of putting together a band, thinking that your music is different and better than everyone else’s music (ever), and that playing a few bars and maybe recording a few songs would change, if not the world, at least your place in it.

I think it also would be fun to read even if you haven’t picked up an instrument or tried to start a band. Ever had a favorite song that meant the world to you?  Ever had a different favorite song just a few weeks or days later?  Then you’ll understand.

An assassin in West Virginia?


It’s always — well, usually — kind of cool to unexpectedly come across some reference to West Virginia in new fiction, as I did recently while reading “The Anarchist” by John Smolens, a novel of the events surrounding the assassination of President William McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901.

The assassin, Leon Czolgosz (pronounced SHOL-gosh) is in a Buffalo jail after shooting the president. A doctor has come to interview him:

Doctor: “Some reporters say you married a woman in West Virginia.”

Czolgosz: “Never even been there. Newspapermen make these things up. You know that.”


I had other reasons for noting this Mountain State reference, besides the usual curiosity.

Back at the turn of the 21st century, the Gazette did a series on West Virginians who had an impact on the previous century. My late colleague Tom Searls wrote about Czolgosz and his alleged history in the Mountain State.

According to the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, Searls wrote, former workers at a nail mill in Kanawha City recognized Czolgosz from newspaper accounts after he shot czolgosz.jpgMcKinley. While here, he called himself Fred Nieman (Nieman was his mother’s birth name), an alias that he uses throughout “The Anarchist.”

His former co-workers said he was “an assiduous reader of Hearst’s yellow journals” and was “a believer in some sort of obscure radicalism,” according to the encyclopedia.

What they remembered most, though, was his marriage. According to the encyclopedia, a pregnant German teenager from Parkersburg came looking for Nieman, and they were married with a Charleston constable as witness.

There is a Kanawha County marriage license from Jan. 14, 1900, for Fred Nieman, 23, and Emma Wisemki, 17, Searls wrote. This does not match up precisely; Czolgosz would have been 26 on the date in question. And of course, it doesn’t match up at all with “The Anarchist.”

I e-mailed Smolens some time ago, to find out what research led to him putting the West Virginia reference in the book, but haven’t heard back.

(Incidentally, McKinley also had a history in West Virginia. He was part of the 23rd Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War, and according to the encyclopedia, his regiment patrolled Fayette, Raleigh, Nicholas and Greenbrier counties. The biography at the McKinley Museum Web site says his first battle was at Carnifax Ferry, in Nicholas County.)

As for the book itself, The Washington Post called it a “smart and compelling historical thriller,” while Publishers Weekly calls it “plodding” and says “the narrative’s slowness is crippling.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I did find myself thinking in a few places that a story of such a combustible time in American history ought to be a little more fiery. Still, an enjoyable read.

Shakespeare for kids


Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
— “The Tempest,” Act III, scene ii

The sounds and sweet airs of Shakespeare’s words will bring delight to audiences at the Kanawha County Public Library’s Main Library in Charleston on Tuesday, March 16, as The Hampstead Stage Company of Barnstead, N.H., brings their production of Shakespeare for Kids to life in Children’s Services.  Performances are at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., recommended for kindergarten through high school students, but all fans of Shakespeare will be welcomed.

For families curious about introducing Shakespeare to children, a quick browse through the library shelves will uncover a collection of titles.

dkDK Eyewitness Books has an overview, “Shakespeare” by Peter Chrisp, that looks at the life and times of the famous playwright.  Photographs of historic items and modern actors illustrate the past with small nuggets of information for which Eyewitness books are known.

globeChildren’s author and illustrator Aliki also tells this history in “William Shakespeare and the Globe.” Aliki’s familiar cartoon-like drawing and easy text also includes bits of information about Sam Wanamaker, the driving force behind the reconstruction of the Globe Theater that stands today.

For those who want an overview of the plays, a variety of talesfrom2books are available.  Marcia Williams introduces seven Shakespearean plays in each of her two books, “Tales from Shakespeare” and bravo“Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!” Williams’s distinctive style retells the 14 plays in a graphic novel format with a running commentary explaining the action of the plays.  The art and jokes in the margins add to the humor of Williams’s interpretation. These details make it a good book to enjoy alone or with a child, but not the best choice for read aloud to a group.

For a larger group of young Shakespearean scholars, several authors bring romeoindividual plays to life in picture books.  “Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet” by Michael Rosen and illustrated by Jane Ray, and “William Shakespeare’s The Tempest” by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Lynn Bywaters are enjoyable selections.  Author Bruce Coville teamed with a variety of illustrators to help introduce seven Shakespearean plays to a new audience.  Best know for his juvenile science-fiction books, Coville recreates these plays:  “William Shakespeare’s Macbeth;” “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet;” “William Shakespeare’s The Tempest;” “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream;” “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet;” “William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night;” “William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.”

Continue reading…

Too sweet for words?

The world some days is too cruel and you need to lose yourself in sweetness.  “Candyfreak” by Steve Almond or “Peeps: A Candy-Coated Tale” by Mark Masyga and Martin Ohlin might be just what you need.

sky bar image

I fell in love with the book “Candyfreak” in 2004, but have been in love with the sweet stuff my whole life.  While I have been trying to taper off on my candy stashes, Almond admits to having between three and seven pounds of candy in the house at all times, which makes me feel more virtuous about my efforts.candyfreak

Before I read Almond’s ode to regional candy, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a stocking fee to be on the store shelf.  It is this stocking fee that means the big three candy manufacturers reign and the small guy scrambles.

“Candyfreak” is a loving journey in search of the small guy.  The crazy candy making machines they built, the characters who run them and the local fans who don’t want them to vanish. Almond roams the U.S. and samples it all – Valomilk, GooGoos, Idaho Spuds, Five Star Bars, Abba Zabas, Twin Bings and many more.  Almond admits of his tour “What I really wanted to do was to visit these companies if any still existed and to chronicle their struggles for survival in this wicked age of homogeneity, and, not incidentally, to load up on free candy.”

After reading “Candyfreak,” you’ll never settle for something as ordinary as a Hershey bar again.  Re-reading it makes me want to hunt down a Sky Bar.

peep image

My other candy vice is just coming into season.  Stale Peeps.  Yes, stale Peeps.  I want them to be yellow, shaped like a chick and stale. I am not alone in my affection for Peeps as any search of the internet will reveal.  There are tons of peepsPeeps fan pages – parodies, science experiments with peeps, etc.  In April the Kanawha Public County Library will be sponsoring exhibits around the county, where patrons will be displaying their own book themed Peep dioramas.  (The Dunbar and Elk Valley libraries will be hosting Peep diorama workshops later this month.)

So it must have been about time for Peeps to have their own book.  “Peeps: A Candy-Coated Tale” is a piece of fluff, but what you would expect with marshmallow chicks as your lead characters?  Masyga and Ohlin have written a parody of celebrities and tabloid journalism using some of the biggest airheads in the candy world.  Check it out for a quick chuckle.