West Virginia Book Festival

Where Are They Now?: Josh Weil

The highlight of the 2009 West Virginia Book Festival (for me) was listening to Josh Weil, author of “The New Valley”, talk about the three novellas in that collection, and about the novella in general. Josh is a terrific speaker (and was very generous with his time after his program), and “The New Valley” is a great book. Among the glowing reviews was one from Publishers Weekly:

Weil’s debut is a stark and haunting triptych of novellas set in the rusted-out hills straddling the border between the Virginias. …  All three pieces, despite their somber tones, offer renewal for their protagonists. Taken individually, each novella offers its own tragic pleasures, but together, the works create a deeply human landscape that delivers great beauty.

Josh’s next project, he told me earlier this month, will be somewhat different. “This new book is set in northern Russia, in an alternative present,” he said. “It’s the story of two brothers, once very close, who are pulled apart by the pressures of modern life, and of one brother’s attempt to bring them back together again.”

As for his memories of the Book Festival: “I remember the spirited discussion during that novella panel, and being sorely tempted to lay down some serious cash in the book sales section for some travel accounts from the age of exploration in Africa, and walking to Shoney’s that morning to load up before the festival.” (Shoney’s; hmmmm, I guess he really is from Appalachia.)

Josh is also the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University in Ohio this semester, and he’s speaking Monday night at Denison University, just outside Columbus, Ohio.

This week’s Video of the Week is West Virginia children’s author Anna Egan Smucker, reading from her book “Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Apple Story.”

Smucker’s book was chosen by Appalachian Power as the featured book for 2008’s Read to Me Day. This copy of the video was posted by Read Aloud West Virginia. (Smucker was also a featured author at the West Virginia Book Festival in 2008).

Emily Dickinson show comes to Tamarack

“The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show about the life of poet Emily Dickinson, comes to Tamarack on Friday and Saturday. Admission is $5.

Dickinson is portrayed by Pamela Chabora, an instructor and performer with Mountain State University and Theatre West Virginia.

According to the website:

Drawing largely from Emily’s poetry and letters, The Belle of Amherst is a breathing autobiography of a true nonconformist. For years, scholars have theorized that Emily Dickinson had some form of mental illness. This play gives Emily the chance to answer those scholars in person. Using a stream of conscious flow of poetry and musings, Emily Dickinson is brought to life before the very eyes of her audience.

Photo by Mandy Cunningham for National Public Radio. Indian schoolgirls look for autographs at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

The West Virginia Book Festival isn’t the only one that had its most successful event recently.

Five years ago, the Jaipur Literature Festival in India was just getting started, with 16 presenters and a small crowd of attendees. This week, the five-day festival drew dozens of world-renowned writers and thousands of fans. In a few short years, it’s become the biggest book festival in Asia and one of the biggest in the world.

Unlike many of those big festivals, the Jaipur event is free (just like ours!) and it’s first-come-first-served and aggressively egalitarian. In their coverage, National Public Radio says that Julia Roberts was kicked out of an aisle by an usher, and famous Indian author Vikram Seth had to eat seated on the ground after all of the event’s tables filled up.

The Los Angeles Times notes that India is the third-largest market for English-speaking literature in the world, after the United States and Great Britain. But the book market in India is growing about 15 percent per year, compared to 2 percent in the U.S.

Of course, success brings its own set of problems. Before the festival, an Indian commentator decried what he called Indian writers’ need for “British approval,” and the festival’s organizer hammered him in response, noting that the majority of writers at the festival are South Asians.

Video of many of the sessions is available on the festival’s website.

In this image made available Wednesday Jan. 26, 2011, by the University of East Anglia, Donald Hartog and J.D. Salinger, right, pose together in London in 1989, when they met for the first time since 1938. AP Photo/Salinger Collection, University of East Anglia

A year after his death, America’s most famous literary recluse, J.D. Salinger, is still in the news.

The University of East Anglia in Great Britain announced this evening that it has 50 letters and four postcards written by the author of “The Catcher in the Rye” to a London friend, Donald Hartog. The two met in 1938 in Vienna, sent by their parents to learn German.

According to The Associated Press:

Chris Bigsby, professor of American studies at the letters’ new home, the University of East Anglia, said they challenge Salinger’s image as a near-hermit holed up in his New England home.

“These letters show a completely different man,” Bigbsy said. “This is a man who goes on (bus) parties to Nantucket or Niagara or the Grand Canyon and enjoys chatting to people along the way.

“He goes to art galleries and theater and travels to London to see (Alan) Ayckbourn and (Anton) Chekhov plays. He was out and about.”

No doubt, Kenneth Slawenski would have liked to see those letters. Slawenski spent eight years on his biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” which came out in the United States this week. The general consensus among American reviewers so far seems to be that Slawenski’s book is solid, but doesn’t break much new ground.

(National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm aired an interview with Slawenski earlier this week. Slawenski also maintains Dead Caulfields, a J.D. Salinger website.)

Salinger died a year ago Thursday. More biographies will no doubt emerge in the next several years, as more discoveries like the Hartog letters are made. There’s a Salinger documentary slated for release this fall. Rumors remain about finished but unpublished works that Salinger may have had in his New Hampshire home, where his widow still lives .

He would, no doubt, hate all of it.

Organizers of the 11th annual West Virginia Book Festival are seeking exhibitors and vendors to participate in the event, which is scheduled for Oct. 22 and 23 at the Charleston Civic Center. The festival is presented annually by the West Virginia Humanities Council, Kanawha County Public Library, The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail.

One major component of the event is the Festival Marketplace, where festival goers may shop for books and other merchandise at the booths of regional publishers, book sellers, sponsors, individual authors and other vendors.

The festival offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

Exhibitor contracts are available online at http://wvbookfestival.org/vendorpacket2011.pdf. Visit the website or call 304-343-4646, ext. 246, for more information.

The teams in next month’s Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers, are two of the most storied teams in the National Football League. So it’s not surprising that two of the greatest books about pro football were written about those teams.

“About Three Bricks Shy Of A Load” by Roy Blount Jr. chronicles the Steelers’ season in 1973. Blount, a Sports Illustrated writer at the time, spent the entire year with the team, from training camp to the playoffs. As I mentioned last summer, it’s one of my favorite books, and I read parts of it before every football season. Blount is funny and smart, and has much to say about 1970s America in general, viewed through the lens of pro football. But it’s a football book through and through.

Blount’s book, though, might not have gotten the green light if not for the success of “Instant Replay,” a diary of the Green Bay Packers’ 1967 season. All-pro lineman Jerry Kramer spent the year making observations into a tape recorder and sending the tapes to sportswriter Dick Schaap, who compiled and edited them. The Packers won the second-ever Super Bowl that year, and Kramer played a key role. His biggest moment came when he threw a key block on a last-minute touchdown in the next-to-last game of the year, known as the “Ice Bowl” because of the subzero temperatures in Green Bay.

In a foreword to the 2006 edition of “Instant Replay,” Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley said the book remains “the best inside account of pro football … no book matches the immediacy of Kramer’s or its intimate knowledge of the game and the punishment men undergo to play it.”

Once the Steelers and Packers made their way to this year’s Super Bowl, I went back to both books to see what, if anything, each team said about the other back then.

There’s not much about the Steelers in “Instant Replay.” Although Green Bay played Pittsburgh twice in 1967, once was an exhibition game, and once was the final game of the year with nothing on the line for either team. Kramer doesn’t have much to say about the Steelers, although he notes that they played hard. But one Steeler earns his enmity:

I kept looking for No. 50, Bill Saul, the linebacker who’d grabbed me and thrown me to the ground — after the play was over — during our preseason game. I was really looking to blast him. But I got only one shot at him and it wasn’t a very good one …

I still drove him back about five yards. He looked at me kind of oddly. I don’t think he remembered what he’d done to me in the exhibition. He didn’t have a tooth in his mouth; he was gummy and evil-looking.

Gummy and evil-looking. OK then.

In “About Three Bricks Shy,” Blount had somewhat more to say about Green Bay. The Steelers played a preseason game there, and Blount (a down-home Southern boy) was taken with the small-town charm of the place and the degree to which the city identified with its football team.

In an attempt to find a corner of town with no signs about the Packers, no copies of the Packer newspaper and no Packer postcards, I went up a flight of stairs into a suitably musty used-book store and found there, amidst volumes of Schopenhauer, Halliburton, Jerome K. Jerome and Herbert Read, the proprietor eating his lunch off a napkin that said “Go Pack.”


As “The Star Spangled Banner” was being played before the game by the Crown Point High School Marching Band … [Pittsburgh Press sportswriter Phil Musick] said to me, “We are in the heart of America,” and we were glared at for talking. I think it would be a shame if the NFL were ever to stop playing games in Green Bay.

Oscar nominations and their literary beginnings

The Oscar nominations came out today, and as is often the case, many of the major honorees started life as books.

Just about everyone knows about “True Grit,” which was a novel by Charles Portis before John Wayne and the Coen brothers got hold of it.

Some of you may remember that we discussed Daniel Woodrell on the blog last year. “Winter’s Bone,” based on a Woodrell novel, is up for several awards. Like many of Woodrell’s books, the story is bleak and unsparing, but starkly beautiful in places, and the dialogue of his country characters is spot-on.

“The Social Network,” about Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is based on Ben Mezrich‘s book “The Accidental Billionaires.” And “127 Hours” was the title of Aron Ralston’s first-person account of his hellish six days in the Utah desert, before James Franco played him in the film version.

Other literary progenitors of  films nominated today include Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland,” based on Lewis Carroll’s classic, which received three technical nominations. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” got two of those. I’m sure there are others as well.

More thoughts on award-winning children’s books

West Virginia Book Festival presenter and Charleston children’s author Sarah Sullivan had a few thoughts in last Sunday’s Gazette-Mail about the recently named Newbery and Caldecott award winners.

Among Sarah’s thoughts on the Newbery winner, “Moon Over Manifest” by Clare Vanderpool:

Vanderpool works … history into her story. Using newspaper articles, letters and the diviner’s stories, Vanderpool weaves a complex tale that alternates between past and present. Abilene is a smart and sympathetic protagonist and her journey to find out what “home” really means will charm readers and keep them turning the pages.

More award nominees announced over the weekend; this time it’s the National Book Critics Circle awards, with awards in fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism.

It’s interesting to look at the differences between these lists (voted on by book reviewers) and those for the National Book Award (voted on by authors). As Hillel Italie of The Associated Press points out, none of the nominees for the National Book Award, including eventual winner “Lord of Misrule” by Jaimy Gordon (set in West Virginia), were even nominated for the Critics Circle awards.

Among the better-known authors nominated by the National Book Critics Circle: Jonathan Franzen, Christopher Hitchens and Jennifer Egan. A full list is here.