West Virginia Book Festival

A murder story at The Greenbrier

OK, officially, the story isn’t set at The Greenbrier. But it is, in all but name. One of the most famous fictional detectives in American history solved a murder and barely escaped death himself in a setting that’s obviously modeled on the resort.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe made his first appearance in 1934’s “Fer-de-Lance.” For the next four decades, he appeared in a new novel about once a year. The Wolfe mysteries followed many conventions of the hard-boiled genre, but there were several differences – including Wolfe’s extreme reluctance to leave his home in New York City. He sent out his right-hand man, Archie Goodwin (who narrates the stories), and other operatives to gather information and bring people to him, and then usually solved the cases while sitting in his office chair in his brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan.

So it was a big deal in “Too Many Cooks,” the fifth Wolfe novel, published in 1938, when Wolfe gets on a train and heads to the Kanawha Spa, a world-famous resort in West Virginia.

Famous resort in West Virginia … hmmmmm.

One of the few things that can get Wolfe up and moving is the promise of a good meal. Call him a gourmand, or a gastronome, or an epicure. The fact is, Wolfe is fat. Really fat. He loves rich food, and usually drinks several bottles of beer a night. He employs a personal chef, Fritz Bremer, and refuses to interrupt his meals for business except in extreme emergencies.

But when Wolfe is invited to be the guest of honor at the annual meeting of Les Quinze Maitres, an association of the finest chefs in the world, he can’t decline. So, off he goes to West Virginia.

Stout places the Kanawha Spa in Marlin County, which of course doesn’t exist. Might he have gotten the name from Marlinton, the county seat of neighboring Pocahontas County?

Nero Wolfe fans are so confident that The Greenbrier was the model for the Kanawha Spa that the Wolfe Pack, a very serious Nero Wolfe appreciation society, spent a weekend in April 2007 at The Greenbrier. They talked about the book, of course, but also enjoyed a series of meals patterned on those in “Too Many Cooks,” including a breakfast featuring saucisse minuit – the mythical sausage dish that Wolfe lusts after throughout the story.

An interesting footnote, in light of this weekend’s golf tournament at The Greenbrier: “Too Many Cooks” was serialized in The American Magazine before it was released as a novel. As part of a promotional tour, the magazine sent Stout and golfer Gene Sarazen, along with other writers, actors, models, etc., on a promotional tour across the country. Ten years earlier, Sarazen had played a well-publicized exhibition match at The Greenbrier against another famous golfer of the era, Walter Hagen.

At each stop on the promotional tour, Sarazen and Stout would play a round of golf. According to John McAleer’s 1977 biography of Stout, they played 216 holes on the tour, and Stout won eight — and earned every one. “Gene made no concession to duffers,” McAleer wrote.

Another slight West Virginia connection for Stout, which doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I found it, so here you go:

In the early 1800s, one of his ancestors, Bathsheba Ambler Lanum, packed up her 10 children and traveled from Virginia to Ohio, “crossing Virginia and the western regions of the state through the Kanawah Route,” McAleer wrote. That route followed the course of the Kanawha River, ending at Point Pleasant on the Ohio border.

Bathsheba’s husband, Robert Lanum, urged her to get out of Virginia after his death, fearing that the issue of slavery would tear the country apart. Stout, who was born to Quaker parents in Indiana, was proud of several ancestors who worked on the Underground Railroad. In “Too Many Cooks,” Wolfe questions black staff members at the resort with respect and treats them with dignity, which was much noted in the book’s reviews.

The taste of memories

Growing up, my family couldn’t always remember all we did on a vacation, but could always tell you what we ate. At home, dinner would be eaten at the table.  It was that shared bond of eating together that drew us closer.  This may explains my love of food-related memoirs.  Here are a few you might want to savor.

“A Homemade Life” – Molly Wizenberg does a charming job of telling the story of her life through recipes. From memories of her father, falling in love in France and with France to finding true love while in Seattle, Wizenberg ties it all up with the memories of shared meals.

“Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning” Debby Bull, former Rolling Stones writer,  is searching for a way to work through her depression after a break-up.  In this memoir she muses on life and cans.  There is a lot of jelly being made on her way to nirvana and the recipes are included.

“Walking on Walnuts – Nancy Ring is determined to succeed in the tough world of New York restaurants.  She weaves together her life in the professional kitchen and her time in the kitchen with the strong women of her family. The family recipes that made it through their immigration from Russia or survived the Holocaust pepper the memoir.

“On Rue Tatin: Living and Cooking in a French Town” – Susan Loomis combines memoir types – the fix-up-an-old-house-abroad and cooking.  Loomis came to France to study cooking, but settles in a small town in Normandy with her husband.  They fix up an old convent and work to become part of the community.  She shares recipes of the region.

“Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” Perpetual office temp, Julie Powell’s memoir became the basis of a popular movie, but before the big screen she was an unknown writer taking her popular blog to the printed page.  Powell’s life is not going as she planned at all and she decides to cook her way out of the slump, an interesting approach for a non-chef.  She being in at the beginning with Julia Child’s famous “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She works her way through as her internet audience grows with each success and disaster. [Must admit that I couldn’t get into her second memoir, “Cleaving.”]

“The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove – Cathy Erway lives in New York City, often considered the ultimate city for eating out.  However, it is also an expensive place to live.  Erway decides to challenge herself to a year of cooking at home.  She also explores various food groups in the city and traveling feasts.  She takes a class on looking for wild edibles in Central Park. Basically everything but a restaurant.  Will she dine out at the end of a year?  You’ll have to read to find out.

“The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City” Baker and cookbook author David Lebovitz is still mourning the death of his partner and flees to a new beginning in Paris.  Now he just needs to learn all the ways of the Parisians, which are a little different from back home.

“Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes” – Elizabeth Bard fell in love over lunch in Paris and so she stayed. While she belonged with her husband, she wasn’t sure Paris was  home.  The markets of Paris, the food of her in-laws all come together in finding her roots in a new land.

Try not to graze too much as you read.

Taylor Books, turning 15 years old: UPDATED

Photo by Lawrence Pierce, taken in 1997

When I first came to Charleston almost 15 years ago, one of the first places my friends took me was Taylor Books. It was just about a year old then, new and spiffy and still something of an oddity around here. A bookstore and a coffee shop, together? What?

I met Ann Saville, the owner, not long afterward, with what the kids called her Mary Poppins accent (and what the kids today no doubt call her Harry Potter accent). As most Charleston residents know, she was one of the driving forces behind the revitalization of Capitol Street. I’m not saying downtown Charleston is the most vibrant place you’ll ever see now, but if you didn’t see it in the early to mid-1990s … trust me, it’s a vast improvement. The Town Center Mall had pretty much killed downtown, and Ann led the fight to bring at least part of it back to life. She and her husband Paul (and canine companions Jackson and Leo) became civic fixtures.

Rare was the day that I didn’t go through those doors, whether for a coffee (especially a mocha latte on cold winter days), or to pick up a book I’d ordered, or just to browse the shelves for a few minutes. I bought enough last-minute birthday and Christmas presents and cards there to fill several good-sized stockings. My mother and my wife-to-be met there for the first time. (That was some scary stuff.)

When Trans-Allegheny Books closed its store on Capitol Street, some people wondered how much longer Taylor Books would last. When other coffee shops opened downtown, they wondered the same thing. When Books-A-Million opened just south of town on Corridor G, they wondered again.

But Taylor Books is still here, turning 15 years old. Charleston is a better city for it.

There are several events to mark the anniversary. They start Saturday, July 24, with a book signing by Doug Gladstone, author of “A Bitter Cup of Coffee,” a look at hundreds of baseball players who had an all-too-brief run in the major leagues. He’ll be joined by Dave Augustine, a West Virginia native who played parts of two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970s. They’ll be at Taylor Books from 1 to 3 p.m.

Well-known local author Denise Giardina will be there from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday to sign copies of her latest, “Emily’s Ghost.”

Events continue throughout the week, including a read-aloud session on Monday with Ann Saville, local author Sarah Sullivan, and one of the contributors to this very blog, Dawn Miller, board chairwoman for Read Aloud West Virginia. Check out the full schedule here.

UPDATE: Gazette reporter Paul Nyden wrote about Taylor Books’ anniversary in Monday’s editions.

Papa’s birthday

Ernest Hemingway was born 111 years ago today. Celebrate the man’s birthday. Have a drink, or two (but not this one). Plan a vacation to Paris or to Key West. Find a six-toed cat and pet it. Or write something, and follow his advice: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Every West Virginia kid learns that Gen. Thomas Jackson and his men were observed standing like a stone wall at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas 149 years ago today (July 21, 1861).

Stonewall Jackson’s nickname stuck. He achieved celebrity status in his lifetime, and he became one of those famous western Virginians, passed down through the generations like a treasured quilt, an acre or a name. For West Virginians since his time, Stonewall Jackson is a claim to fame, a source of pride, proof of importance and accomplishment.

After someone becomes a household name, it is easy to forget, or never learn, what caused the person to be elevated in the first place.

In the case of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, he was brilliant at leading and inspiring his relatively small group of soldiers. They harassed a bigger army, picked off its weakest segments and unnerved the larger force. He drew intelligence from the surrounding countryside and transmitted it up to his superiors. He was also deeply Christian and quirky, even to his contemporaries.

This Jackson comes through clearly in James I. Robertson Jr.’s very readable “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend,” published by MacMillan back in 1997.

Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech, will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival. His talk “Quicksand and Land Mines: Writing Civil War History,” will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010 in WV Room 105 at the Charleston Civic Center. The Book Festival is free and open to the public.

Robertson undoubtedly admires his subject. But the details of Jackson’s life are difficult not to admire. Jackson’s grandparents were convicted of grand theft in a London court in the 1740s and banished to America for seven years of forced labor. They married and settled near Buckhannon. The grandfather, along with his sons, fought in the American Revolution.

The story of young Thomas Jackson’s life is a tour of what is now West Virginia. After the death of his father, his impoverished mother remarried, left Jackson’s Mill and moved to Ansted. His sister was sent to live with relatives in Parkersburg. Tom and his brother Warren set out for the Ohio River, where they heard a relative was making good money selling wood to steam boats. The trip was a miserable, literally sickening, dangerous failure.

At age 15, Jackson started having stomach problems, then called dyspepsia. By 18, the only surviving member of his immediate family was his sister Laura in Parkersburg.

Continue reading…

Volunteers sought for Book Festival

Organizers of the West Virginia Book Festival are seeking volunteers to assist with the event.

The Book Festival will be held October 16 and 17 at the Charleston Civic Center.

Volunteers will help in a variety of ways, including set-up, break-down, assisting authors and presenters and assisting with the used book sale, Festival Marketplace, children’s programs, crafts and information tables. The deadline for volunteers to apply is Aug. 16.

The festival will offer something for all age groups. Several authors are scheduled to participate in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs, crafts and more. The Kanawha County Public Library system’s annual used book sale will be held both days. Admission to the festival is free.

Volunteer applications are available online, or call 304-343-4646, ext. 246, for more information.

The West Virginia Book Festival is an annual, two-day event celebrating books and reading presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail.

The daughter of an African-American enlisted Air Force man and a white Danish woman, Heidi W. Durrow is the author of “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky,” a poignant and haunting coming-of-age story set in the 1980s that explores biracial and bicultural identity. Inspired by true events, its heart-wrenching narrative and emotional honesty have earned raves from many writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Hettie Jones, Joan Silber, Whitney Otto, George Hutchinson and Susan Straight.

Durrow will present a talk, “Writing about Race, Social Change and Identity, at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 16, 1 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center.

“The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” is the 2008 winner of the Bellwether Prize, which recognizes serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. The prize is awarded to a previously unpublished novel representing excellence in this genre. “Durrow’s book is a thoughtful look at race and racial identity presented in a very readable manner,” said Jennifer Soule, chairperson of the festival’s author selection committee.

A graduate of Stanford University, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and Yale Law School, Durrow has won the Lorian Hemingway Short Story competition, the Chapter One Fiction Competition and the Lois Roth Endowment Award. She has received grants from New York Foundation for the Arts and the American Scandinavian Foundation, and a Fellowship for Emerging Writers from the Jerome Foundation. Durrow is co-founder and co-producer of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival.

In addition to Durrow, the West Virginia Book Festival line-up includes, among others: New York Times best-selling authors Nicholas Sparks and Diana Gabaldon; Civil War historian James Robertson; children’s author Carmen Deedy; and E. Lockhart, author of books for teens.

The West Virginia Book Festival is an annual, two-day event celebrating books and reading presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Grandpa and the Lone Ranger

Photo by Chip Ellis

In last Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, Sandy Wells wrote about Don Striker, the federal parks superintendent at the New River Gorge. She talked about his upbringing, his career and his plans for the area.

So why am I talking about it on a blog about books?

Because of this:

“My two grandfathers shaped my life. Grandpa Striker … created and wrote all the scripts for ‘The Lone Ranger,’ ‘Sgt. Preston of the Yukon’ and ‘The Green Hornet.’

“I was a voracious reader from a super-early age. We had a fifth-grade teacher who would reward how many pages you read. A buddy and I were competing. We had already read ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the three-volume set. Then I started on my grandfather’s books, ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘Tom Quest.’

The man’s grandfather practically invented the Lone Ranger. Sweet.

OK, much of what Fran Striker wrote was radio scripts, not books. And the books aren’t great literature. And some of the Lone Ranger books that have Fran Striker’s name on them were written by other people; Striker’s name was one that people recognized from the radio broadcasts.


Fran Striker wrote books for kids about the Lone Ranger. Wow.  (He also wrote several books about science adventurer Tom Quest, according to his grandson. I don’t remember anything about Tom Quest, but this guy has put together a pretty good website and speaks highly of the series.)

These kind of books weren’t new when I was growing up. But the library at First Ward Elementary was stocked with them, and I loved them. The Hardy Boys (and maybe some Nancy Drew; come on, Nancy was hot). Chip Hilton (written by Grafton’s own Clair Bee, but that’s another post). Bronc Burnett … man, those were some silly books in places, and I read all of them. Bronc’s best friend was named Fat Crompton — seriously, his name was Fat — and another boy was named Peedink Harrell. I could live to be 500, and I will not forget that name.

A preview of coming attractions

Missed it last week, but Publishers Weekly came out with their list of books expected this fall, both hardcovers and trade paperbacks. It’s a little hard to read in places, but you can browse through there and find some interesting stuff, whether you’re looking to buy or just want to get to the head of the hold queue at your local library. A few things that caught my attention:

Jane Leavy, who wrote a great biography of baseball legend Sandy Koufax a few years ago (and a pretty good baseball novel before that), returns with “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” Mantle’s story is a fascinating one, and I love baseball books, but I’ve grown more leery of the ones that talk about how much better things used to be. Still, it’ll go on the to-be-read list.

Rolling Stones co-founder and modern medical miracle Keith Richards has an autobiography coming out, called “Life.” (Well, that about sums it up, I guess.) Ought to be a few good stories in there.

Frederick Exley is the author of the cult classic quasi-memoir “A Fan’s Notes,” which I read when I was too young to get half of it and probably should try again. Anyway, Brock Clarke’s third novel, “Exley,” is about “a boy [searching] for a person who can save his father, writer Frederick Exley.” Hmmmmm. I really enjoyed Clarke’s previous novel, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” so I’ll check this one out.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention that West Virginia Book Festival headliner Nicholas Sparks has a new book coming out, “Safe Haven” — including “one woman’s choice between loyalty and love.” Also, Book Festival author Diana Gabaldon is coming out with “The Exile,” a graphic novel version of the first book in her “Outlander” series, told from a different character’s point of view.

Just a few fish that I noticed in a big, big sea. There are, of course, too many books by familiar authors to count: John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, David Sedaris, Patricia Cornwell, Joseph Ellis, Richard Reeves, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child … really, it’s amazing (and a little mind-numbing). But somewhere in those lists is a novel, or a collection of stories or essays, or a history or biography, by the next Grisham or Evanovich or Sedaris. Go find it.

On Byrd and the Bard

One more Robert C. Byrd post and I’m done.

In The New York Times over the weekend, Esquire magazine columnist Stephen Marche wrote about the felicity with which our late senator quoted Shakespeare. In the commentary (from which I shamelessly lifted the headline), Marche wrote, “scholars will no doubt agree that [Byrd] was the greatest Shakespeare-quoter in American political history.”

While Robert Byrd’s love of Shakespeare did not necessarily make him a better man or a better leader, his rich understanding of the greatest writer in the English language did represent a last link to a politics based on text, and to the humanist tradition. … His deepest anachronism, among many, was that he believed in a community of language rather than images.