West Virginia Book Festival

Video of the Week: Heidi Durrow

Heidi Durrow, 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter and author of “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky,” talks about her award-winning book with TV host Connie Martinson. I’m not sure exactly when the interview is from. It’s in two parts; the second part can be found here.

(BTW, does anyone know about Connie Martinson? She bills her show as “the oldest author interview show on national cable television.” It’s a public access sort of thing, and she’s got some really well-known authors, and the whole thing is bizarrely fascinating.)

Londoners work to save Dickens-era building

A dilapidated brick building in central London is seen through a pub's window, where historians believe its neighbor, author Charles Dickens, used the building as inspiration for the workhouse in his novel "Oliver Twist." AP photo

“Please, sir, don’t knock down the workhouse!”

From The Associated Press:

LONDON — It’s a battered brick building behind a high wall in London — austere, overlooked and slated for demolition.

Look closer, and it’s linked to one of Britain’s greatest authors as well as to a shameful period in the nation’s social history.

Two centuries ago this neglected London edifice was a workhouse, where the city’s destitute labored for rations of gruel. Their plight inspired social reformers — including a neighbor, Charles Dickens, who likely used the building as inspiration for his novel “Oliver Twist.”

Advocates hope the newly discovered link to the novelist will help them win their uphill battle to save the building from developers who plan to tear it down and build new apartments and a local lawmaker who has branded it an ugly relic of an inhuman institution.

“We wouldn’t think of demolishing Georgian stately homes, squares and terraces where the upper class lived,” said Nick Black, a historian who is one of the academics and local residents battling to save the structure. “It’s also important that we keep some vestiges of the 18th-century world of the impoverished and the poor.”

I’ve been talking up Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” and the Oscar-nominated film that’s based on the novel for some time now. If you haven’t seen it (or if you want to see it again), it’s the final film in this weekend’s Appalachian Film Festival.

The festival begins this evening with a few short films at the Marshall University Memorial Student Union, and continues Friday and Saturday at the Keith-Albee Theater in Huntington. “Winter’s Bone” is showing at the Keith-Albee at 8 p.m. Saturday.

W.Va. native is knitting author, “rock star”

A West Virginia native has written 21 books and is a “rock star” in her field, according to a story in Wednesday’s Charleston Daily Mail.

Famous knitter Nicky Epstein grew up as Nicoletta Quinones in the Harrison County town of Smelter, Monica Orosz writes.

She was out working at a design firm when Epstein entered a McCall’s Needlework design contest in 1979 – and won, with a sweater design. That launched her design career and Epstein became quite prolific.

“I started out doing colorwork,” she said, a technique that involves using multiple colors of yarn in a design. Ever mindful of what other designers were doing, however, Epstein said she was inspired to constantly challenge herself to come up with something different.

“I just had to keep reinventing myself,” she said.

The latest of Epstein’s books, “Knitting Block By Block,” came out last year. She’ll be at the St. Albans Public Library on St. Patrick’s Day, and doing workshops at the Kanawha City Yarn Company the following day.

Mr. Jefferson’s books

A photo provided by Washington University shows a scrap of paper with Greek notes scholars say was written by Thomas Jefferson and found tucked in a volume of Plutarch’s Lives. AP photos

If you were a library, and you had in your collection nearly 70 books from the library of Thomas Jefferson — wouldn’t you know it?

Apparently not. From The Associated Press:

Dozens of Thomas Jefferson’s books, some including handwritten notes from the nation’s third president, have been found in the rare books collection at Washington University in St. Louis.

Now, historians are poring through the 69 newly discovered books and five others the school already knew about, and librarians are searching the collection for more volumes that may have belonged to the founding father.

“It is so out of the blue and pretty amazing,” said Washington University’s rare books curator Erin Davis of the discovery, which was announced on Presidents Day.

Jefferson’s books were sold a couple of years after his death to pay debts. His granddaughter, Ellen Coolidge, who lived at Monticello for a time, wanted to get any books she could that had personal notations by her grandfather, and it looks like she did.

Coolidge’s daughter and son-in-law were friends with one of the founders of Washington University, and there you go.

In Jefferson’s day, printers would place the letters of the alphabet at the bottom of a book’s pages, to help binders keep the pages in the correct order. One of the ways researchers identified the Washington University books as Jefferson’s was his habit of writing a T before the I at the bottom of a page, forming his initials. (As anyone who watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” knows, J is I in the Latin alphabet.)

It’s stuff like this that makes me think the lost Shakespeare play is out there somewhere. Jefferson’s books were donated to the college about 150 years ago, and almost lost to history. Who knows what literary treasures are in some vault somewhere, waiting for someone to find them?

Sebastian Junger in Charleston on Monday: UPDATED

UPDATE: As those of you know who went, Junger couldn’t make it to Charleston on Monday because of snowy weather and airplane problems in Chicago. (You may recall something similar happened with last year’s speaker, Henry Louis Gates Jr. Maybe we should hold these things in July.) It’s unclear if Junger will be rescheduled; if he is, we’ll let you know.

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In case you’d forgotten, the Gazette-Mail’s Paul J. Nyden reminds us that author and filmmaker Sebastian Junger will speak on Monday at the Clay Center in Charleston as part of the Festival of Ideas, sponsored by West Virginia University and The Charleston Gazette.

Junger first came to national attention in 1997 with “The Perfect Storm,” a tale of New England fishermen lost at sea during a huge storm and the effect on their community. George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg starred in the film version.

Lately, though, Junger has been known for another film: “Restrepo,” an award-winning documentary about soldiers in Afghanistan. (That film will be shown for free today [that’s Sunday] at the Clay Center’s Walker Theater.)

In Sunday’s report, Junger told Nyden:

“I made the movie ‘Restrepo’ and I wrote my book because we are a nation in war. That is a very, very easy thing to forget. Newspapers and network news coverage give the political and strategic aspects of that reality, but not the emotional part.

“My work is focused on that. What are the emotional consequences of being at war? And for the men who fight it?”

Mingo man authors user’s guide to Catholic prayer

Barry Hudock, author of "The Eucharistic Prayer: A User's Guide," stands outside the John XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston earlier this month. Photo by Chip Ellis.

Barry Hudock started out writing an academic thesis on worship in the Catholic Church. Ten years later, he’s got a book put out by a respected international publisher.

Hudock has authored “The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide.” For those who don’t know, the Eucharistic Prayer is the prayer at the center of the Catholic mass (Eucharist is another name for the sacrament of communion, where the priest blesses bread and wine and, Catholics believe, it is changed through transubstantiation into the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

As Veronica Nett reported in the Saturday Gazette-Mail, Hudock said:

“The more I worked on [the thesis], the more I realized the things I learned, they were the things that an ordinary Catholic in the pew could benefit from. … I just kept thinking if all us Catholics [truly understood the meaning behind the prayer] it would make a big difference in our own personal lives, and also in the way we live it out.”

Hudock moved to Mingo County a couple of years ago. He’s the director of two nonprofit groups there: ABLE Families and Christian Help.

Finalists named for odd book title prize

Some things are best presented without comment. In that vein, I offer the following Associated Press story:

LONDON — Metalwork, multicolored mutts and a Mongol warrior are in the running for Britain’s quirkiest literary award, the Diagram Prize for year’s oddest book title.

The six finalists announced Friday include “8th International Friction Stir Welding Symposium Proceedings,” canine personality guide “What Color is Your Dog?” and “Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way.”

Also in the running are organ procurement study “The Generosity of the Dead,” romance novel “The Italian’s One-Night Love Child” and “Myth of the Social Volcano,” a look at demographics in China.

The prize, run by trade magazine The Bookseller, was founded in 1978.

Its rules say the books must be serious and their titles not merely a gimmick.

The winner, to be decided by public vote, will be announced March 25.

The award carries no cash prize, but prize administrator Philip Stone said last year’s champion, “Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes,” saw its sales leap from half a dozen copies a week to 95 copies in the seven days after winning.

“You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” he said.

Other previous champions include “Bombproof Your Horse,” “Highlights in the History of Concrete” and “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.”

AP Photo. This Borders bookstore in Gig Harbor, Wash., is one of 200 slated to close nationwide as part of the bankruptcy reorganization plan for the nation's second-largest bookstore chain.

Anyone who enjoys the feel of a solid book with actual pages in his or her hands, or enjoys a good browse in a bookstore, ought to consider what this week’s bankruptcy of the parent company of Borders bookstores means.

The second-largest bookstore chain in the country (after Barnes and Noble) announced that it would reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and close 200 of its 642 stores nationwide. (Borders has already closed hundreds of Borders, Borders Express and Waldenbooks stores in the past few years; the chain operated 1,329 stores in 2005, according to The Wall Street Journal. Charleston residents may remember a Waldenbooks store in the former Kanawha Mall that closed in recent years.)

(As reported here earlier, none of the five Borders-owned stores in West Virginia are on the closure list filed in bankruptcy court this week.)

So how did Borders get here? Well, like a certain local coffee store turned corporate behemoth, the first Borders store was started in 1971, opened in Ann Arbor, Mich., by two brothers who were University of Michigan students. Starting in the mid-1980s, Borders expanded and opened 21 “superstores” — and earned criticism for driving smaller, local bookstores in those markets out of business.

In 1992, Borders was bought by Kmart (which had also bought the mall-based bookstore chain Waldenbooks eight years before). Kmart spun off all of those bookstores three years later into a separate company, renamed Borders Group. The company has frequently struggled to find its footing since then, culminating in this week’s announcement that the chain would close nearly a third of its stores and reorganize in an effort to stay afloat.

The most obvious lesson from the Borders bankruptcy is the growing power of e-books. An estimated 10 percent of books bought in America are now bought electronically, according to The Associated Press. The demise of Borders stores across the country will only increase that, as people will be less likely to buy an actual book if there’s not a bookstore nearby. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. E-books will wipe out many bookstores in much the same way that digital music downloads wiped out many bricks-and-mortar music stores, and online movies forced the video rental giant Blockbuster into bankruptcy last fall.

Borders has been hit harder by the e-book wave than some other chains. The company has often been criticized for reacting slowly to the online market; after a brief stab at selling books online in the late 1990s, it linked its online site to Amazon.com, and didn’t start selling books online by itself again for several years. It didn’t start its e-book store until last July, several months after Barnes and Noble.

Borders has been particularly good at stocking literary fiction that you might not find anywhere else. Literary agent Ira Silverberg told the AP: “Borders has, from their beginnings, been a consistent supporter of literary and first fiction … Their loss will absolutely be felt in lower projections for first print runs by publishers.”

Even though many authors complain that the big chain bookstores don’t stock as much of a variety as they used to, they still offer a wider range of literary choices than any other store (excluding online, of course). In a blog post at the Wall Street Journal website, author Christopher John Farley says that when he published his first novel, the one place he could always find it was the big chain stores. That’s not the case any more, he says.

Big-box retailers sell books, of course, and Target has drawn some kudos for promoting lesser-known authors. But the space they devote to books isn’t anywhere near the space available in a big Borders store.

Most of the stores on the closure list are bigger than 20,000 square feet; among the stores on the list are what I believe are the second and third stores Borders ever opened — in Columbus, Ohio, and Madison, Wis.

So if there aren’t enough book-buyers to make a Borders superstore profitable, maybe there are enough in many areas to support a smaller store — some potential good news for the kind of small, local bookstores that Borders has been driving out of business for years.

Some people are enjoying a little schadenfreude at the what-goes-around-comes-around angle. Bruce McPherson of McPherson & Co. told the AP that he had stopped dealing with Borders long ago, and was “not going to mourn Borders if it disappears,” because the chain had put so many smaller bookstores out of business. (McPherson, BTW, released Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule,” set in West Virginia and winner of the National Book Award.)

Some analysts believe, though, that a merger between Barnes and Noble and Borders is in the offing — leaving superstores up in many areas, and further lessening competition among booksellers.

There’s only one Barnes and Noble in West Virginia now, at the University Town Center shopping development just outside Morgantown. The third-largest bookstore chain in the country is Books-A-Million, which has more than 200 stores, mostly in the Southeast. That includes four in West Virginia: in Charleston, Martinsburg, Morgantown and Triadelphia.

This week’s video is Jim Benton, who put on a great show at last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival, drawing one of his signature creations, Franny K. Stein: