West Virginia Book Festival

Mike Whiteford, and how to talk baseball

When I first came to The Charleston Gazette as an intern in the early 1990s, one of the first people I met was sportswriter Mike Whiteford. I often sat back in the sports section, because there wasn’t an empty seat in the news department, and “Whitey,” as everyone knows him, struck up a conversation every time he saw me. We usually talked about baseball.

Today is Whitey’s last full-time day at the Gazette. After nearly four decades, he’s retiring.

I didn’t know until several years after I met him that he had written a baseball primer: “How To Talk Baseball,” part of a series of “How To Talk” various sports books. The baseball book, first published in 1983, shows off Whitey’s style, breezy and informal, yet completely authoritative. He obviously knows his stuff front and back, but he doesn’t rub his knowledge in your face.

Do you know, in baseball lingo, what a “blue darter” is? Or a “cousin”? Or a “parachute”? I didn’t (or I’d forgotten), but all of those terms are found in the “lexicon” section of Whitey’s book. There’s also a pretty sweet series of a dozen profiles of men who have “enriched baseball’s lore and language,” including writer Red Smith, broadcasters Red Barber and Bob Prince, and players Dizzy Dean and Reggie Jackson.

The book is illustrated by Taylor Jones, a national cartoonist then and now. It’s got a foreword by Dick Schaap, back when he was one of America’s foremost sports reporters and before he was best known for hosting ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters.”

The good news is, Whitey’s retirement doesn’t mean he’s done writing. He still wants to do some features for the Gazette; in fact, since he won’t be laying out pages and putting stories on the Internet and performing all of the other chores at a modern newspaper, he might end up writing more than he does now.

And yesterday, I finally got him to sign my copy of “How To Talk Baseball.” I’ve been meaning to do it for years.

Maybe, after coming up with your suggestions for the best science fiction and fantasy books ever, you wondered if there was anything recent that you ought to know about.

Fear not: The annual Locus Magazine Awards for the best sci-fi / fantasy works were announced last weekend. The winner of the Best Science Fiction Novel, Connie Willis’ two-volume time-travel behemoth, “Blackout / All Clear” (which we’ve already discussed here on the blog).

Speaking of behemoths, China Mieville’s “Kraken” (as in, “Release the … !”) won the Best Fantasy Award novel. That caused some consternation among Mieville aficionados, who believe that “Kraken” is not his best. The jury is still out on his latest, “Embassytown.” (I’m a dilettante, not an aficionado, but I loved his second novel, “Perdido Street Station.”)

Other science fiction and fantasy awards announced earlier this year include the Nebula Awards, and awards named after science fiction giants Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick.

Coming attractions

Went to the Kanawha County Public Library‘s annual Street Fair over the weekend, as part of the annual FestivALL celebration. A good time as always, and at the library’s used book sale, I found this:

You know Lee Child is coming to the West Virginia Book Festival this fall, right?

Several library systems in West Virginia are using an iPhone application that allows them to search for books and check their accounts online.

The Kanawha County Public Library system announced earlier this month that it had begun using the BookMyne app. If I’m using the app correctly (and I think that I am), libraries in Putnam, Cabell, Wayne and Lincoln counties are also using it. (All of those libraries share an online catalog under the umbrella of the Western Counties Regional Libraries.)

Among other things, the BookMyne app lets you search your library’s catalog, place holds, see what you have checked out or overdue, and offers book recommendations.

You can also scan the barcode of any book you come across, and see if your library carries it. That’s just cool.

Smithsonian founder, shrouded in mystery

James Smithson. Portrait from the Smithsonian Institution archives.

According to the blog at Smithsonian magazine, James Smithson, the eventual founder of the Smithsonian Institution, died on this date in 1829.

The story of the Smithsonian is a bizarre one. Smithson was a British gentleman-scientist who never visited the United States. He left his wealth — and there was a lot to leave — to his nephew, but said that if his nephew died with no heirs, the money was to be used by the U.S. to create something to promote knowledge, and to be called the Smithsonian Institution.

Many of Smithson’s papers were destroyed in an 1865 fire, leaving him shrouded in mystery. A few years ago, a biography, “The Lost World of James Smithson,” by Heather Ewing, came out. Blog contributor Dawn Miller reviewed it for the Gazette at the time, and that review is below:

The oldest building of the Smithsonian Institution is known as the Castle, for its 12th-century-looking turrets and crenellated rooftop. In the early days of the Smithsonian, that red sandstone building contained the whole collection. Today, it is part visitors center, part table of contents for the sprawling network of museums and galleries, and part shrine.

In the castle’s foyer lie the remains of James Smithson, an English gentleman who never visited the United States, but who bequeathed his fortune to the new nation for the establishment of an institute to bear his name “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Every year, thousands of self-respecting schoolchildren visiting Washington, D.C., hurry past his ornate, Victorian crypt, looking for the mummies, the dinosaur skeleton, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Hope Diamond. But who is that guy in the sarcophagus — illegitimate child of Hugh Smithson, first Duke of Northumberland, mineralogist and contemporary of Ben Franklin and Joseph Priestley?

Continue reading…

Dispatches from the Civil War

I know Ken Hechler is … well, he’s been around a long time. But it was still stunning this weekend to read that his grandfather — not his great-grandfather, but his father’s father — enlisted to fight in the Civil War, when he was 20 years old.

Wow. I mean, my grandfather was in World War II, and that was a long time ago. And that was more than 80 years after Hechler’s grandfather signed up for his war.

That struck me when I was reading Rick Steelhammer’s story about Ken Hechler (former congressman and secretary of state, and 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter); his grandfather, George Hechler; and the letters George Hechler wrote to his sister while he was serving in the Union Army. Those letters have been published in a new book, “Soldier of the Union.”

From Rick’s story:

In September of 1861, 20-year-old George Hechler left his family’s farm, crossed the Ohio River and enlisted in the 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry at its encampment in Parkersburg.

For the next four years, the German-born enlistee took part in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. His vivid descriptions of a soldier’s life, captured in letters to his favorite sister, Kate, form the backbone of “Soldier of the Union,” a new book published by Pictorial Histories Publishing Co. of Charleston.

“My grandfather willed the letters to my dad, and he willed them to me,” said former congressman and secretary of state Ken Hechler, George Hechler’s grandson. …

“This book contains a very complete set of everything my grandfather wrote about his experiences in the military, from the time he enlisted in Parkersburg to when he was discharged in Wheeling.”


Video of the Week: Pearl S. Buck

This weekend is the birthday of West Virginia’s only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you don’t know that I’m talking about Pearl S. Buck … well, you didn’t go to grade school in this state. Everybody here learns about Pearl Buck –born in 1892 in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County; moved to China with her missionary parents and spent much of her first few decades there; won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Good Earth,” a novel about life in a Chinese village; followed that a few years later with the 1938 Nobel Prize.

So for a Video of the Week, I found Peter Conn talking about his 1997 work, “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography,” at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.The book got great reviews; it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle biography award, and the Los Angeles Times said, “Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it’s important today … [he] has gone far beyond merely touting Buck’s literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining …”

The Conn video is an old C-SPAN video, before they branded their weekend book programming as Book TV, and you’ll have to go to their website to see it.

If you want to learn more about Pearl Buck, besides Conn’s biography, you can also check out “Between Two Worlds: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck” by (West Virginia author) Edwina Pendarvis and Christina St. Clair, or you can visit the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro. They’re having a celebration there at 4 p.m. on Saturday, and a “special tour” on Sunday, Pearl Buck’s 119th birthday.

What are the best sci-fi and fantasy books?

Have some favorites science fiction or fantasy novels? Now’s your chance to tell others about them.

National Public Radio is soliciting opinions for their list of the top 100 science fiction or fantasy books of all time.

They’re being pretty narrow in their qualifications for this poll. Young adult novels are out (so Harry Potter doesn’t dominate the list), as is horror (much of Stephen King’s oeuvre is out) and “paranormal romance” (no “Twilight” or Sookie Stackhouse). That’s a good thing, I think; just about everyone knows about those books, but this might be a chance for them to learn about Gene Wolfe or Connie Willis or China Mieville.

Which is not to say there won’t be plenty of well-known authors on the list. I’m sure Asimov, Heinlein and Tolkien will be well represented (although NPR is inviting people to nominate a series as one entry, rather than as individual works, so that should allow for more variety).

I’d been meaning to read some John Fante for years, and finally got around to “Ask The Dust” earlier this year — and found a West Virginia reference just a few pages in. As I’ve said before, I love it when that happens.

Fante is one of those writers whom many people haven’t heard of, and those who have read him aren’t middle of the road; you love him or really don’t care for him (I liked the book a lot). He was born a poor Italian-American in Boulder, Colo., and moved to Los Angeles, where many of his books are set. Four of them, including “Ask The Dust,” feature struggling Italian-American writer Arturo Bandini as protagonist.

Fante had a bad-boy image back in the 1930s and 1940s; there’s some Hemingway-esque macho posturing in “Ask The Dust,” but Fante seems much more aware about it than Hemingway was.  Fante has been called a forefather to the Beat Generation writer, and that shoe fits pretty well, I think.

He got a boost in the 1970s when notorious poet Charles Bukowski helped get his novels back into print, including four that revolve around a struggling young writer, Arturo Bandini. A film version of “Ask The Dust,” starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, came out a few years ago and got pretty good reviews, as I recall.

I digress. The West Virginia reference is fleeting, and I don’t know if there’s anything more to it; Fante doesn’t have any connection to West Virginia that I can find, and he might have just thought the state’s name sounded right. Anyway, the writer Bandini is talking about reactions to his book, The Little Dog Laughed:

One day a beautiful letter came. Oh, I got a lot of letters, but this was the only beautiful letter, and it came in the morning, and it said (he was talking about The Little Dog Laughed) he had read The Little Dog Laughed and liked it; he said, Mr. Bandini, if ever I saw a genius, you are it. His name was Leonardo, a great Italian critic, only he was not known as a critic, he was just a man in West Virginia, but he was great and he was a critic, and he died. He was dead when my airmail letter got to West Virginia, and his sister sent my letter back. She wrote a beautiful letter too, she was a pretty good critic too, telling me Leonardo had died of consumption but he was happy to the end, and one of the last things he did was sit up in bed and write me about The Little Dog Laughed

“A Nickel and A Prayer” by Jane Edna Hunter. Edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas. Part of the series “Regenerations: African American Literature and Culture.” West Virginia University Press.

If you are interested in the history of our nation and the resourcefulness and positive actions of African Americans, I recommend the new and annotated version of “A Nickel and a Prayer” the autobiography of social activist Jane Edna Hunter (1882-1971). First published in 1940, the book’s current edition was edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas, an assistant English professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. The reissue by WVU Press provides an opportunity for Hunter’s remarkable vision and accomplishments to be appreciated by a larger audience.

Born on a plantation, the daughter of a former South Carolina slave, Hunter’s childhood was spent doing sharecropper field work. Despite poverty, discrimination, and lack of access to employment or an education, she became a “trained nurse” in 1905 and followed the job market to Cleveland.

During the Great Northern Migration, as the time is called, African Americans were recruited for jobs in northern industrial areas. In many cities, housing for African Americans was often in slum-like neighborhoods and highly undesirable. Naïve rural women were at the mercy of landlord and pimps.

As Hunter searched for a place to live, she saw job-hunting young women recruited as prostitutes. Sickened by her surroundings, she enlisted friends and church members to join together in prayer and discuss the work and housing issues.  She suggested they begin donating, a nickel at a time, to establish a safe haven and educational supervision for the newcomers.

Jane Edna Hunter

What began as a rescue effort for a few women evolved into a very large house accommodating 22 women. The structure grew to a nine-story YWCA-like structure with 135 rooms overseen by Hunter and an interracial coalition. The effort grew to include job training and recreation, guided by the nickels and the prayers, along with Hunter’s firm management, vision and skills at raising money.

By 1925, this daughter of a share-cropping former slave held a degree from Baldwin-Wallace Law School and was a member of the Ohio Bar. Her activist work led to collaboration with noted educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McCloud Bethune, as well as key figures from many walks of life. She received honors and honorary degrees, including a master of science from Tuskegee (1938).  Perhaps more importantly, she saw her model for housing, training, and recreation replicated in nine other locations.

During a crisis in her organization — and there were many — Hunter wrote her friend Bethune asking for a copy of a poem she had seen framed in Bethune’s home, “Keep-A-Goin’!” This poem by Frank L. Stanton has the same name and may be the poem the two women so admired. Here are some lines from the last stanza. They seem pertinent:

When it looks like all is up,


It concludes:

See the wild birds on the wing,

Hear the bells that sweetly ring,

When you feel like sighin’, sing,


Hunter obviously took the words to heart. Her life was one of struggle. She was not born into material wealth, she was not a member of the upper class, and no one financed her way through a prestigious university. She educated herself and initiated her humanitarian project with no outside financing and no important connections. In an era of civil unrest and rampant racial discrimination, she took the high road and kept a goin’.