West Virginia Book Festival

For baseball season, a little “Clemente”

Ten years ago, members of the Charleston Alley Cats Class A minor league team got their initial look at Watt Powell Park. The Alley Cats have since become the West Virginia Power, and Watt Powell Park was torn down in 2005. Photo by Lawrence Pierce

The major league baseball season opens Thursday; high school and college baseball have been going on for a while now, and the minor leagues (including your West Virginia Power) start soon.

I used to read a lot more baseball books than I do now.  I read all of those kid biographies in my grade school library: Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams. I was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so the one about Stargell was my favorite. But then I came across the Roberto Clemente biography, and I was captivated.

Plucked from obscurity by the Pirates in the minor league draft. Led the team to two World Series titles, 11 years apart. Got his 3,000th hit on the last day of the 1972 season — and a few months later, he was dead, killed in a plane crash while trying to help victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That story has everything.

So I was both excited and wary a few years ago when David Maraniss, who wrote lauded biographies of Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, came out with an adult biography of Clemente. Part of me was put off by the book’s grandiose subtitle, “The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero.” I would have loved that kind of thing when I was 10; as an adult, I’d like a little more even-handedness and a little less hero worship. Mostly, though, I think I was worried that the book wouldn’t do justice to the story I loved so much.

But “Clemente” was one of the better biographies I’ve read in recent years, never mind sports biographies. Clemente was a complex guy; as Maraniss writes, “The truth was he had a temper and occasionally did stupid things.” He faced racism and ignorance as the first Puerto Rican baseball star (Maraniss notes that on the 1960 World Series-winning team, the “ethnic” star was Bill Mazeroski — whose father was a coal miner from Wheeling). Clemente’s relationship with the city of Pittsburgh, its fans and its press, though largely positive, had some pretty rough spots. Maraniss doesn’t gloss over them. But Clemente truly was one of those athletes who became a symbol for a people and a nation, and his impact continues. Current Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata has a tattoo of Clemente on his chest.

And now, the story lives on for a new generation, in a new medium:

The graphic novel “21: The Story of Roberto Clemente,” by Wilfred Santiago, will be published on April 12. Early reviews are promising, including one from Alex Belth, who wrote in Sports Illustrated:

The wonder of this book is that is will appeal to kids and adults alike. Even non-baseball fans will fall under its spell. The national pastime has been virtually untouched by the graphic novel genre but if Santiago’s effort is any indication, the marriage of subject and form is nothing short of a grand slam. Santiago has set the bar high, though, and we’ll be all the richer if anyone can approach the artistry and emotional resonance of this memorable book.

A new biography of Gandhi by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author has been banned in one Indian state — and others may follow — over some reviewers’ suggestions that the country’s political and spiritual leader had a homosexual relationship.

“Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India,” by Joseph Lelyveld, isn’t available yet in India, so few people there have read it. That didn’t stop legislators in Gujarat, a state in western India, from voting unanimously to ban it.

According to The Associated Press, Gujarat’s chief minister said Lelyveld should apologize for “hurting the sentiments of millions of people.”

Lelyveld says his book doesn’t say Gandhi was gay or had an affair with Hermann Kallenbach, a German.

“The book does not say that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual,” Lelyveld wrote in an email. “It says that he was celibate and deeply attached to Kallenbach. This is not news.”

“It should not be hard for anyone to determine what it actually says,” Lelyveld wrote. “It’s a pious hope, but I’d say someone might take the trouble to look at it before it’s banned.”

No such luck.

Indian politicians were driven, apparently, by a few reviews that played up the relationship between Gandhi and Kallenbach (although, as Lelyveld points out, that’s not anything new).

The Daily Mail in London headlined their review, in typical understated British tabloid fashion, “Gandhi ‘left his wife to live with a male lover’ new book claims”. A review in The Wall Street Journal also made much of the book’s Kallenbach details (although the “review” appears mostly to be an attack on Gandhi himself, rather than a look at the merits of Lelyveld’s book).

Homosexuality was outlawed in India until 2009, so these allegations are a big deal there. But some Indians say the book should be published — including Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, a researcher at the University of Illinois. In a column for the Hindustan Times, it’s clear he’s not a fan of Lelyveld’s book. Yet he says:

To think of banning the book would be wrong from every point of view, and doubly so in the light of Gandhi’s commitment to freedom of speech. In fact, extreme scepticism too should be welcomed, especially in the case of Gandhi, who wanted to live and die for the truth and wanted his life to be an open book.

Winner of PEN/Hemingway Award announced

“The Madonnas of Echo Park” by Brando Skyhorse was announced this week as the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for a debut work of fiction (not to be confused with the PEN/Faulkner Award announced earlier this month).

The book focuses on Mexican-Americans living in the Los Angeles area.  The Los Angeles Times said Skyhorse’s “careful attention to detail, to a rich past of a place … is thoroughly researched and executed — no easy feat while juggling multiple characters and timeframes.”

J.D. Waggoner in the library at the state Culture Center. Photo by Chris Dorst

J.D. Waggoner, who’s retiring this week as the head of the West Virginia Library Commission, got the retrospective treatment this week from Charleston Gazette columnist Sandy Wells. It’s a good read (as Sandy’s stuff usually is).

Waggoner grew up on Georges Creek, a few miles east of Charleston, and never imagined that he would have a career in libraries, until, as he says …

“The first complete book I read was because my fifth-grade teacher made me. Yet once I discovered reading, it changed everything. That’s why I started out in history. Through reading, I became a Civil War buff. It all ties together.

“When I was a kid, we had a series of Zane Grey books in a bookcase my dad had made. Books were always there. And as difficult as things were financially, the newspaper was always there.

“When my kids were little, it was Dr. Seuss’ book of the month. Some of the best times I remember are sitting in an old platform rocker with my two kids in my lap and reading to them. We don’t do that enough.

Notes on the Virginia Festival of the Book

The scene at the pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville on Saturday, March 20, during the Virginia Festival of the Book.

We took a short trip earlier this month and passed through Charlottesville, Va., while the 17th annual Virginia Festival of the Book was happening, so naturally we stopped to see what was going on. The festival was spread out over several venues and five days, March 16 to 20, and we took in a few of the events and some of the surroundings.

In our admittedly limited experience, Charlottesville is a really nice town. The downtown pedestrian mall has dozens of shops and restaurants that looked like they were doing a good business, and the University of Virginia grounds are a short drive/long walk away.

Among the handful of sessions we attended, a personal favorite was three Virginia writers — Andy Straka, Meredith Cole and Howard Owen — gathered at The Bridge Progressive Art Initiative to talk about Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and the impact it had on their writing.  (That handsome fellow on the left was out front.) We spent a few minutes afterward talking with Owen, an editor at the Free Lance-Star in Fredricksburg, Va., and the author of nine novels (his latest, “The Reckoning,” is his first noir-ish mystery). Straka is a mystery writer and a falconer(!), but confessed he’s more of a Raymond Chandler devotee. Ah, well.

(And I’m pretty sure I passed National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon outside the university’s Small Library on Wednesday, but I didn’t ask to see if I was right.)

On Saturday, a gorgeous spring day, many of the events were in the downtown Omni Charlottesville Hotel, right at the end of the pedestrian mall. It looked like a good crowd, both at the festival and on the mall. The lobby of the hotel was filled up with authors signing their books and booksellers selling them. One of the panels there was moderated by young adult author Fran Cannon Slayton, who is not unfamiliar with West Virginia, and we had a nice chat with her afterward.

A scene from the children's book swap outside Oakley's Gently Used Books.

Several good bookstores in the area; my favorite is Read It Again Sam, in the pedestrian mall. It has a mystery section that dwarfs all other subjects in the store (although those are nice, too).

A special note goes to Oakley’s Gently Used Books, which has hosted a kids book swap as part of the festival for several years. Owner Chris Oakley said the swap has been going on for several years.

All in all, an enjoyable time. If you’re looking for a quick getaway next spring, you could do worse. (And if any of those at this spring’s event are looking for something to do this fall, we’re just a few hours away.)

Mongol warriors and dentistry

Because we brought you the finalists last month, it’s only right that we report that “Managing A Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way” has won Great Britain’s Diagram Prize, given to the oddest book title of the year.

You’re welcome.

In this file photo from The Associated Press, family members walk among the bodies of those killed in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City on March 25, 1911.

One hundred years ago today, 146 people died in a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City. Most of them were women, and dozens of them were teenagers. The disaster helped swing popular opinion — and perhaps more important, the opinion of New York’s political leaders — behind the organized labor movement.

In his 2003 book, “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” David Von Drehle walks the tightrope that authors of the best social histories must walk: he fills in the background of the picture, while keeping his focus on the people at the epicenter of the event.

Von Drehle, a Time magazine editor and former Washington Post reporter, describes how the fire came on the heels of a long and unsuccessful (but ultimately influential) strike by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union — and how the owners of the Triangle factory were among the business owners who eventually broke the strike. He reports that many doors in the factory were kept locked to guard against employee theft, so workers couldn’t escape the fire. He notes that New York’s fire department hadn’t kept pace with the dozens of skyscrapers that had sprung up in the city, so the fire engines called to the Triangle fire had little effect.

But mostly, he talks about the women and girls who worked at the factory — not an easy task; many were recent immigrants, and records of them were scarce.

Because of the anniversary, there’s a ton of reporting about the Triangle fire and its effects out there right now. (As you might expect, since it happened in their town, The New York Times has a mess of coverage.) If you a little about it and are interested in learning more, Von Drehle’s book is a great place to go.

UPDATE: This is the front page of The Charleston Gazette from March 26, 1911, the day after the fire:

We started off this Video of the Week feature with a look at several Diana Gabaldon fans in line at last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival, waiting to get their books signed after her talk.

If you’re a Gabaldon fan and weren’t there — well, shame on you. But to show we don’t hold any grudges, here’s her speech from the festival:


Thinking of Japan

It is bittersweet to write of these two books now.  Rebecca Otowa and James Kerr are both Americans who have lived almost all of their adult lives in Japan.  Both live lives that are bound to traditions that were fading, but now are damaged further.

I finished “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr shortly before the tsunami hit the island nation. Kerr has ties to Japan that go back to his early life, but he went to live their permanently after college. These essays were actually first written for a Japanese audience and were translated to English only after the book won an award. He writes of the lost of forests, art, theater, rural life and more.  His look at the history of Kabuki and the changes as the young don’t understand the symbolism embedded in the older stories is fascinating. His insight in each stand alone chapter makes you think of what is lost in so many places not just Japan.

“At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery,” by Rebecca Otowa, is a memoir of an American/Australian woman who meets and marries a man from a small town in Japan. It is not full of a lot of personal details, but does a wonderful and graceful job of reflecting on life in rural Japan.  I found the information on living in a Japanese house and in a village fascinating. And Otowa has been gifted with the ability to capture the essence of things in her turn of phrase.  It is interesting that she is often more connected to the older women of her village than native Japanese women.  Otowa’s is recounting something that will be gone, if her sons and their families don’t return.

Odds and ends

Been away for a few days (more on that shortly), and missed some reading-related news:

| Sales of electronic books jumped enough in January to push them past sales of both hardcovers and mass market paperbacks, according to the Association of American Publishers.

A couple of tidbits I got from that article that I hadn’t thought about, but that make sense: E-book sales always jump in January, after everyone gets their new Kindles and Nooks and other devices and want to try them out. And the market for mass market paperbacks is declining because the baby boomers are aging and can’t read small type as well as they used to.

| A couple of smaller literary prizes were announced:

Chinese writer Bi Feiyu’s family drama “Three Sisters” was named the winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to the best novel by an Asian writer that’s either written in English or translated into English. According to The Associated Press, organizers said their three jurors praised the novel as “a moving exploration of Chinese family and village life during the Cultural Revolution that moves seamlessly between the epic and the intimate.”

Austin Ratner’s debut novel, “The Jump Artist,” won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The novel is based on the true story of Philippe Halsman, “a man who Adolf Hitler knew by name, who Sigmund Freud wrote about in 1930, and who put Marilyn Monroe on the cover of Life magazine,” according to the news release about the award.

Drew Reeves as Edward III and Mary Russell as the Countess of Salisbury perform in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's version of "Edward III." AP Photo

| An Atlanta stage company claims it’s the first in the world to perform all 39 Shakespeare plays.

What’s that? You didn’t know Shakespeare had written 39 plays? Well, he didn’t. Play No. 39, which the Atlanta Shakespeare Company performed last week, is “Edward III,” which some people believe, possibly, that Shakespeare may have written some part of.

Eh. Color me skeptical (whatever color that is). Just because Shakespeare may have written a few lines doesn’t make the play any more than an Elizabethan curiosity. But it could have been worse. At least all of the Atlanta actors finished the play without getting hurt.