West Virginia Book Festival

“Little Bee” by Chris Cleave. Simon and Schuster, Inc.  2008. 266 pages

This is an advisory: “Little Bee” is not a novel for the escapist reader. The story, set in an oil-rich delta in Nigeria and a British  suburb, took me outside my comfort zone as it explored cultural dissidence and “the disgrace of not discharging a human obligation.”  It is a story of shame, horror, strength, and hope.

The work of London journalist Chris Cleave, the novel combines fiction and well researched facts related to oil-development and related atrocities as well as the skewed British bureaucratic system confronting immigrant and asylum seekers.

Since its publication in England (under the title “The Other Hand”), it gained popularity more by word of mouth than by marketing. Now reprinted in the United States, Canada, and twelve other countries, it is under option as a film and the winner of numerous awards. It is also a best seller. Attempts to describe it without revealing its startling plot could cause it to sound political and insipid. In its own way, it is political. It is definitely not insipid.

The story: two affluent professional writers, an educated British couple who need to patch up their marriage, go to Nigeria on a freebie tourist-board-offered holiday. The wife, recently caught in infidelity, hopes to rekindle the marriage by traveling to someplace “different” and exciting. Both she and her depressed, mistrustful husband are unaware an oil war is raging around the resort. The oil-rich Nigerian government downplays the atrocities and few witnesses survive to tell of the ethnic violence.

On what starts as a romantic interlude on the beach at sunrise, the couple encounters two terrified teenage girls fleeing assassins. The couple must react immediately to a physical and moral dilemma of tragic consequence. Their lives are further shattered when, in a strange circle of events, one of the girls, Little Bee, ends up in a razor-wire enclosed refugee center near their home in England. The story heats up when their lives once again collide.

The novel is well written but heavy on foreshadowing doom. I wanted the author to quit hinting and get on with it. With the exception of two teenagers, Little Bee and Yevette, a Jamaican refuge, there are few likeable characters. I found myself skimming sections not written in their voices. Little Bee’s perspective on life in England, her use and misuse of the English language, and her descriptions of and fondness for the Queen are both telling and humorous. Her observations on “civilized” English life are downright funny.

After finishing the novel, I put is aside a few days, then reread it, this time more deliberately.

Knowing the story’s harrowing outcome, I could read with less dread and more appreciation for the author’s skills.

Until reading “Little Bee”, I thought asylum seekers, like the character Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” were safe once they reached the sanctuary of an established government. I did not question this.

I came away from this courageous novel with a new awareness of ethical global issues and the human obligations we all share.  I continue to think about “Little Bee.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, shows off two of the books that students at Charleston's West Side Elementary School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School will receive, as part of a joint venture between the AFT and First Book. Photo by Chris Dorst.

Hundreds of Charleston students will get a couple of free books, thanks to a partnership between the American Federation of Teachers union and the nonprofit group First Book. As the Gazette’s Davin White reports:

At a news conference on Monday morning, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the West Virginia Federation of Teachers and its partner organization, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, were among five organizations nationwide to receive this year’s AFT Innovation Fund grant.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure there’s books in the library for kids to have, but also books at home for kids to have,” Weingarten said.

Debbie Cannada, the librarian at West Side Elementary, will also receive a $1,000 budget to order books for her students.

The Daily Mail has coverage of Monday’s event as well.

As First Book notes on its website, the majority of low-income families don’t own one book for their children. (Yet another reason why school and public libraries are so critical.) First Book provides 18,000 free or reduced-price books a day to those kids.

Author, Wheeling native Keith Maillard speaks

Wheeling native Keith Maillard was among those at the inaugural Wheeling Arts Festival earlier this month. West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mona Seghatoleslami has an interview with him up on their website, including Maillard explaining why many of his books are set in a fictional version of Wheeling, rather than the real thing:

I didn’t want to call my fictional city Wheeling, because I wanted a little bit of freedom to invent things. The minute I called it Wheeling, I would have to make sure I knew what year they got electricity, and you know…I wanted a little more flowingness than that. But anyone who’s read my fiction will recognize a city that looks a like Wheeling.

I write for a living, and sometimes, when I read a run-of-the-mill story or thriller, I think, “I could do that.”

Then there are novels that I read and think, “Wow, I could never do that.”

“Lord of Misrule” by Jaimy Gordon, winner of the National Book Award, is one of the latter. The description in the book — both of the fictional racetrack in the Northern Panhandle, and the characters who inhabit it — is just remarkable.

I look forward to Gordon talking about the book at the West Virginia Book Festival in October. In the meantime, here she is reading from “Lord of Misrule” at the public library in Kalamazoo, Mich. (where she teaches at Western Michigan University).

This Video of the Week is the second of four from the event available on YouTube. The first video is some introductory remarks from Gordon, so the actual reading begins here:

Some next-door history this weekend

The Kentucky Capitol building in Frankfort, where Book TV will focus its efforts this weekend.

It’s not West Virginia, but it’s right next door.

Book TV, the regular weekend programming for C-SPAN2, will focus on Kentucky history this weekend in a crossover with C-SPAN3’s usual weekend programming, American History TV.

Among the book-related goodness:

| Featured authors and their books include Lindsey Apple, author of “The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch”; and Doug Boyd, author of “Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community.”

| Connie Crowe, manager of the Kentucky Book Fair, will talk about that event, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on Nov. 12.

| Poor Richard’s Bookstore, which is apparently a Frankfort institution, will be featured.

Jaimy Gordon. Photo by Alan Ritch

2010 National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon will present the Settle Session at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 1 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center. The session is named in honor of the grande dame of West Virginia literature, Mary Lee Settle.

Gordon’s fourth novel, “Lord of Misrule,” is set at Indian Mound Downs, a fictitious racetrack in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. In addition to winning the National Book Award, the novel was a Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award (which was founded in 1980 by Mary Lee Settle) and won the Tony Ryan Award for the year’s best book about horse racing. The novel’s authenticity comes from Gordon’s years spent working at racetracks in Charles Town, W.Va., and Green Mountain, Vt.

Gordon’s previous books include “Bogeywoman,” “She Drove Without Stopping” and “Shamp of the City-Solo.” Born in Baltimore, Gordon teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo and in the Prague Summer Program for Writers, but she regards West Virginia as her second home.

Best-selling thriller writer Lee Child, basketball legend Jerry West, former Secret Service agents Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill, and self-help author Dave Pelzer have already been announced as part of the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 22 and 23 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is 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 and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Segal & Davis Family Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, Target, Wal-Mart and Borders Express. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

In 1944, on this date (Aug. 25), Charles de Gaulle spoke from the Hotel de Ville in Paris after the Allies had driven the Nazis from the French capital. The date became a holiday in post-World War II France — and a central plot point in one of the landmark thrillers of the 20th century, Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal.” Earlier this year, readers celebrated the book’s 40th anniversary.

When Forsyth wrote his debut novel, he was a former foreign correspondent who needed some cash. He had thought of the idea a few years before, while covering de Gaulle’s presidency — at a time when it seemed a real possibility that the French leader could be assassinated.

Forsyth sat down at his typewriter and banged out “The Day of the Jackal” in just over a month. Four publishers turned it down before one agreed to print a trial run of a few thousand copies, in the hopes that it might catch on. High marks on that one.

As Charles Cumming wrote in the Guardian newspaper earlier this summer:

It is no exaggeration to say The Day of the Jackal has influenced a generation of thriller writers, from Jack Higgins to Ken Follett, from Tom Clancy to Andy McNab. Before, thrillers were self-evidently works of the imagination. Forsyth changed all that; never before had a popular novelist created a world that seemed indistinguishable from real life. His debut had a documentary sense of realism that all but convinced the public they were reading a work of non-fiction.

Forsyth didn’t have any aspirations to write a great work of literature; his authorial heroes were John Buchan, author of “The 39 Steps,” and H. Rider Haggard, creator of the great Victorian adventure hero Allan Quatermain. Those page-turning influences are apparent in “The Day of the Jackal,” which I read for for the first time earlier this year. It holds up pretty well, four decades later.

A little reading for when the ground is shaking

Workers gather outside buildings at the state Capitol Complex after an earthquake shook the area on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Chris Dorst

Never let it be said that WVBF:TB doesn’t react to current events. We don’t get many earthquakes in these parts, so if you’re looking to extend your earthquake mood with some reading …

| On his blog Bookfox, writer John Matthew Fox compiled a list of some earthquake-related fiction a few years ago after a California quake. I can’t personally vouch for any of it, but any excuse to read some Haruki Murakami is a good excuse.

| In his 2006 book about the country’s best-known earthquake, “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself,” Philip L. Fradkin argues that the devastation would have been much less if residents of the area had been better prepared. The Sacramento Bee called the book “a splendidly researched and well-written history of one of this country’s great urban disasters.”

| I could not begin to tell you what the best basic book on the science of earthquakes is, but I did come across a well-reviewed (and allegedly jargon-free) one from 2002 by seismologist Susan Hough, “Earthshaking Science: What We Know (And Don’t Know) About Earthquakes.” There are, of course, any number of kids’ science books about earthquakes and what causes them.

If you’ve got any suggestions, by all means, share them.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times’ excellent literary blog, Jacket Copy, has republished their list of nine earthquake-related books. Some are repeats from the Bookfox list.

It was eleven years ago today …

Former Gazette reporter Scott Finn reads to kids at the first West Virginia Book Festival. Photo by Kenny Kemp.

Eleven years ago today, West Virginia book lovers received the first official word that they were about to get a book festival. The Kanawha County Public Library announced on Aug. 22, 2000, that the first West Virginia Book Festival would be held the following year.

It was headline news … OK, it was on page 5A of the next day’s Gazette, but still.

And the yahoo who wrote the story (that would be me) forgot to mention the actual name of the festival anywhere in the story.  I blame my editors.


Book lovers, authors and publishers will come to Charleston for the city’s first-ever book festival next year, the event’s organizers announced Tuesday.

“We’re so excited about this, I don’t have words for it,” said Kanawha County Public Library spokeswoman Cindy Miller, who heads the festival’s organizing committee. “This will be great for the city and for the state, and for anyone who loves books and loves to read.”

The festival is scheduled for Oct. 12-13, 2001. Most of the events will take place at the Charleston Civic Center, but some events will connect the rest of the community with the festival, Miller said.

Events will include discussions and seminars with authors and publishers. Miller said authors who deal with Appalachian themes will be featured prominently.

“There’s a great deal of Appalachian literature out there, and it’s a theme that some of the other book festivals aren’t addressing,” she said. “Practically any West Virginia author that wants to be involved will be involved.”

Two nationally known and critically acclaimed authors, Sharyn McCrumb and Robert Morgan, have already agreed to participate in next year’s festival, Miller said.

McCrumb is perhaps best known for her Appalachian historical novels, including “The Ballad of Frankie Silver.” She is the author of a mystery series starring forensic anthropologist Elizabeth MacPherson.

The latest novel, “The PMS Outlaws,” will be published next month. She has also written several comic novels, such as “Bimbos of the Death Sun” and “Zombies of the Gene Pool.” Morgan has been called “the poet laureate of Appalachia” by Kirkus Reviews for novels such as “The Hinterlands” and “The Truest Pleasure.” His latest novel, “Gap Creek,” was published in January, and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey immediately selected it for her book club.

Besides the other events, the Kanawha County library’s annual book sale will be moved to October and will become part of the book festival, Miller said. The sale has been part of the Charleston Sternwheel Regatta for years, but this year’s Regatta has been shortened and confined to Labor Day weekend.

This year’s book sale is scheduled for Saturday at the Civic Center.

Library officials didn’t move the book sale to Labor Day weekend partly because they thought it would be too confusing to move it this year, then move it again next year, Miller said.

The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, the West Virginia Humanities Council and Charleston Newspapers will sponsor next year’s festival.

Hugo Awards announced

The Hugo Awards, often regarded as the top science fiction/fantasy awards, were announced this weekend. The results make it official: Connie Willis’ two-volume time-travel World War II epic, “Blackout/All Clear,” is quite the book. Willis’ opus, which had already won several other top awards, was named the best novel. A full list of the Hugo Award winners is here.