West Virginia Book Festival

“Pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk, and pancakes”

Today, Feb. 28, is National Pancake Day — at least, according to IHOP.

Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent, has long been known by some as Pancake Tuesday, because people couldn’t eat dairy products during Lent, and making a bunch of pancakes allowed them to use up their eggs, milk and butter. In 2006, IHOP started its own spin on the holiday; participating restaurants give away a stack of free pancakes, and ask customers to make a donation to a worthy cause in exchange. For example, the IHOP in the Shops at Trace Fork, just south of Charleston, is asking for donations to the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals program at West Virginia University Children’s Hospital.

As promotions go, I’ve seen a lot worse. But I can’t help thinking someone is missing a chance to cross-promote with one of my favorite literary detectives. Not Sherlock Holmes, or Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe — but the grade-school gumshoe hero of Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s children’s series, Nate the Great. And as anyone who’s read those books knows, Nate the Great loves him some pancakes.

The Nate the Great books (illustrated by Marc Simont) are written in a clipped. staccato style that accomplishes two things. The short, declarative sentences are ideal for a child just learning to read. And Sharmat also uses those sentences to create a kids’ version of the no-nonsense prose of hard-boiled detective novels that’s sure to amuse any adult fan (including this one) of that genre.

Nate’s love of pancakes is apparent from the first page of the book that kicked off the series, “Nate the Great”:

Let me tell you about my last case:

I had just eaten breakfast.

It was a good breakfast.

Pancakes, juice, pancakes, milk, and pancakes.

I like pancakes.

But no sooner does Nate finish his breakfast than he’s called onto the case by his neighbor, Annie. When Nate gets to her house:

She was eating breakfast.


“I like pancakes,” I said.

It was a good breakfast.

William French, 1932-2012

Readers of the blog will know that I am a Shakespeare fan. One of the people who helped me kindle and nurture that love died last weekend.

Bill French, my professor for two Shakespeare classes at WVU, died on Feb. 18 on a cruise off the Florida coast, according to his obituary in the Dominion Post. His visitation and funeral are Saturday. He’d been retired for more than a decade, but still taught a class on a different play each term at WVU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, according to the obituary (which I encourage you to read; that is an obituary that anyone would be proud to have).

The class of his that I remember most was a look at Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of performance. Before that, I’d seen two or three Shakespeare performances, but most of my exposure to the Bard was on the printed page. Dr. French’s class involved a lot of reading, but also a lot of watching productions of various Shakespeare plays, classic and modern, traditional and experimental.

He showed us the Paul Scofield version of “King Lear,” which remains one of the most haunting things I’ve ever seen on film. At the end of the class, students were required to put on a performance themselves, which ended up with me, in the role of Malvolio in “Twelfth Night,” wearing a green leisure suit and an Afro wig. (Don’t ask. No, seriously.)

The other course that Dr. French taught me was a survey Shakespeare course, required of all undergraduate English majors at the time. As any college student knows, survey courses are a hit-or-miss affair. You’ve got people who would never set foot in the class if they didn’t have to, and there’s usually a lot of material crammed into a short time. If you end up with a teacher who doesn’t give a damn, the class can be close to worthless. Dr. French gave a damn. It wasn’t my favorite class at WVU, but I still looked forward to it every time.

Coincidentally, the last time I talked to Dr. French, it was about required Shakespeare courses. Not long after I started at the Gazette in the late 1990s, some colleges created an uproar by striking Shakespeare from their list of required courses. I called Dr. French (and a counterpart of his at Marshall) to get their views on the subject. We must have talked for about an hour. I enjoyed it immensely.

Dr. French pointed out that WVU had dropped the Shakespeare requirement once already, during the height of student unrest in the early 1970s. But he also talked about the re-emergence of Shakespeare into popular culture, and how he believed that even if the requirement were dropped, Shakespeare classes would still be full.

Let’s hope so. Unless I’m misreading these course requirements, as of the 2010 fall semester, WVU students can get a bachelor’s degree in English literature without taking a Shakespeare course of any kind. Instead, they have to take one course about a “major author,” which can be Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or a “major author” course in which “authors will vary.”

The de-emphasis on Shakespeare seems like a shame. But I’m glad that when I was at WVU and learned about the man and his work, Bill French was there to teach me.

The Newbery winner and West Virginia

Dead End in Norvelt
In this Newbery winning novel, some residents of Norvelt, Pa., one of the New Deal towns, are upset at plans to sell and move their empty houses to Eleanor, W.Va.

In this year’s Newbery Medal winner, author Jack Gantos borrows from his own childhood in Norvelt, Pa., for a comical and touching mystery.

Gantos himself is the main character, a kid who suffers from frequent, stress-induced nosebleeds. Their town is named for Eleanor Roosevelt, because it is one of the towns that she pioneered during the Great Depression. Throughout the book, Jack is pulled between each of his parents. His mother grows corn and cooks casseroles for the aged widows in the dwindling town. She strives to live and teach the Depression-era values of sharing and helping that she learned as a child in Norvelt. His father, a World War II veteran, zips around in a surplus military plane and has no patience for quiet, struggling Norvelt and a barter economy. He plans to take the family to Florida for a better life.

Jack helps an elderly neighbor whose hands are so arthritic she can no longer write all the obituaries for the original residents, who are “dropping like flies.” She dictates them to Jack instead. One by one a fascinating and touching personal history of the town emerges.

Jack’s dad leaves periodically for construction jobs in West Virginia. He is also among the town residents involved in moving vacant houses from Norvelt to another Depression-era community that is thriving — Eleanor, W.Va.

Of course, this book is not Gantos’ only connection to the Mountain State. He appeared at the 2005 West Virginia Book Festival, where about 60 children and adults gathered and he expertly kept both laughing at the same words, but for slightly different reasons.

Gantos’ Joey Pigza books have long been a favorite of mine and the children I read them to. “Dead End in Norvelt” promises to join that category.

Cormac McCarthy novel gets filmed in W.Va.

Actor/director James Franco (right) was in Pocahontas County earlier this month, filming an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God." Photo by A. Jiordano, The Pocahontas Times.

A movie version of a book by one of America’s foremost novelists is being filmed in West Virginia, The Pocahontas Times reported last week.

James Franco (Oscar nominee for “127 Hours,” star of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Spider-Man”) is directing the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God.” The movie was filming in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County, last week, and apparently moved to Greenbrier County this week. Angelo Jiordano reports:

According to Franco, the old-time feel of Hillsboro’s architecture and roads are what attracted the crew.

“The story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, but when one of the producers went and scouted that area, she found that it had been too developed since the 50s, when this story takes place,” said Franco. “We wanted a place that had both rural and urban environments, that looked like they were from that period.”

“Child of God” is Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, published in 1973. The title refers to Lester Ballard, a Tennessee resident who is the kind of man your mother never warned you about, but only because she never dreamed such a debased individual could exist. He’s on the fringes of society at the beginning of the novel, and things don’t get any better. Necrophilia is just one of his charming attributes.

This is one of the McCarthy novels I haven’t read, but on the Cormac McCarthy Society’s website, Dianne C. Luce says “Child of God” is “McCarthy’s most extreme challenge to the limits of propriety, perhaps outdoing even ‘Blood Meridian’ in its chronicling of individual depravity.”

Which, I mean … wow. “Child of God” outdoes “Blood Meridian” (which is a great book, just not one to be undertaken lightly)? Then again, this is not unfamiliar territory for McCarthy readers; it can be seriously argued that “The Road” is one of his happier novels — and it’s about the end of the world.

As for the movie, it stars Scott Haze, Jim Parrack (Hoyt from “True Blood,” I’m told) and Tim Blake Nelson (the short convict in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) The release date seems a little uncertain; The Pocahontas Times says next year, and various sources online put it at either 2013 or 2014. (If it is released next year, it’ll join another Franco vehicle based on a book; he’s starring as the man who becomes the wizard in “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” L. Frank Baum’s prequel to “The Wizard of Oz.”)

“Possession”: A romance, and much more

For the past two years, I’ve relied on my female colleagues here on the blog for a Valentine’s Day post. So I guess it’s my turn — but honestly, I’ve never read a lot of romance, and I wasn’t sure what to write about.

But while scanning our bookshelves for inspiration, I came across “Possession,” the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s a romance; it says so right on the cover: “Possession: A Romance.” It’s also a mystery, and a work of historical fiction, and an academic satire, and — well, it’s a fantastic book.

The novel opens with second-rate scholar Roland Mitchell in the library, finding heretofore unknown letters from the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Mitchell figures out that the letters were written to proto-feminist poet Christabel LaMotte, so he enlists the aid of LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey in discovering the truth, which could rewrite everything the world knows about the eminent poet Ash.

The most remarkable part of “Possession” is the way Byatt creates two love affairs that are totally believable, and mirror each other in many ways, but are completely products of their age. The brief, passionate romance between Ash and LaMotte is Victorian in every respect: their conduct, their letters, and their adherence to the societal mores that eventually keep them apart. Bailey and Mitchell, meanwhile, fall haltingly into their own modern relationship. We know the first romance didn’t work; will the second?

When it came out in 1990, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda gushed about “Possession” like he has few other books. He began his review, “Critics are paid to offer informed, careful judgments, full of erudition or good sense or both, but sometimes all we really want to say is ‘Wow!'” He ended his review by exclaiming, “What a love story! What a book!”

What better book to pick up for Valentine’s Day?

Exhibitors sought for this October’s festival

The Festival Marketplace is the heart of the event

Organizers of the 12th annual West Virginia Book Festival are seeking exhibitors and vendors to participate in the event, which is scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The festival, which attracted about 7,000 attendees in 2011, is presented annually by the Kanawha County Public Library, West Virginia Humanities Council, The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail.

One major component of the event is the marketplace, where attendees shop for books and other merchandise at the booths of regional publishers, book sellers, sponsors, individual authors and other vendors with a literary mission.

“Individual authors are welcome to band together to rent a booth,” said Pam May, festival chairwoman. “Please keep in mind that we generally sell out in late July or early August, even though the deadline for contracts is Aug. 15.”

The festival offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will participate in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Previous headliners include Nicholas Sparks, Lee Child, Diana Gabaldon and Jerry West, among others. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

A vendor packet is available for download at www.wvbookfestival.org. Visit the website or call 304-343-4646, ext. 246, for more information.

C-SPAN’s Book TV this weekend will feature Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter talking about his book “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,” at midnight and 4 p.m. on Saturday and (for complete insomniacs) at 4 a.m. on Monday. The book, published last March, “offers plenty of … eye-opening statistics but is perhaps most surprising in its even-handed approach to the subject of major college athletics,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

That may be, but fans of West Virginia’s two major-college athletic programs shouldn’t expect many details from the book. WVU is part of a couple of charts, but it and Marshall only get one mention apiece in the book’s text — and it’s an episode that will be instantly familiar to any fan of either school.

Clotfelter is talking about politicians getting involved in college football rivalries — specifically, encouraging schools within a state to play each other. He mentions that the Alabama House of Representatives passed a resolution in 1947 urging Alabama and Auburn to renew their football series after a 40-year hiatus — and the schools did so, the next year.

He also mentioned failed attempts by Kentucky legislators to force Louisville and Kentucky to play each other, and by North Carolina lawmakers to force North Carolina and North Carolina State to play much-smaller East Carolina (although despite the measures’ failure, all of those intra-state battles have since come to pass).

And then, of course, there’s this:

In 2005 the governor of West Virginia intervened in a similar standoff by urging the state’s two major public universities to schedule an annual football game. West Virginia University, a member of the Big East conference, probably making a similar little-to-be-gained calculation, had been reluctant to play the smaller and less prestigious Marshall University. In fact, it had played Marshall only once in the previous 82 years. For its part, Marshall wanted a scheduled game, but felt it would be demeaning for it to accept a “home and home” arrangement whereby all or most games would be played at West Virginia’s stadium. The governor eventually succeeded in brokering a compromise, saying, “It will be the best time you ever had in West Virginia – legally.”

Two things strike me.

One, Clotfelter (or his editor) doesn’t know what a “home and home” series is; by definition, it involves alternating games between each team’s location, so such an arrangement couldn’t involve “all or most games” at one stadium.

Two, he could have at least name-checked Joe Manchin. As we know, Manchin takes his college football very, very seriously.

Connie Willis, cats and unintended consequences

Connie Willis, this year’s winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award, is best known for her series of novels and stories about time-traveling historians at Oxford University in the mid-21st century.

I was reminded of one of those books this week: “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a part-comedy, part-thriller about a couple of historians who fear they’ve changed Victorian history so badly that the Nazis will win World War II. But as it turns out, Willis inserted a relatively minor detail in her story that — if it ever happened — could be pretty devastating as well.

In “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” the characters are based in the year 2057, and cats — all cats — have been wiped out by disease. Sad? Undoubtedly. A disaster for humans? Not in the book. But it could be, if you believe the report from LiveScience.com this week. According to their speculation, the feline apocalypse would mean a significant increase in food eaten or destroyed by rodents:

A 1997 study in Great Britain found that the average house cat brought home more than 11 dead animals (including mice, birds, frogs and more) in the course of six months. That meant the 9 million cats of Britain were collectively killing close to 200 million wild specimens per year — not including all those they did not offer up to their owners. A study in New Zealand in 1979 found that, when cats were nearly eradicated from a small island, the local rat population quickly quadrupled.

And if the rodent population shot up, this would of course trigger a cascade of other ecological effects. On that same island in New Zealand, for instance, ecologists observed that, as rat numbers increased in the absence of cats, the population of seabirds whose eggs rats preyed upon declined. If the approximately 220 million domestic cats in the world all bit the dust, seabird populations would likely fall worldwide, while the populations of non-cat predators that prey on rats would be expected to increase.

Maybe that’s the next story in Willis’ time-travel series?

Eh, probably not.

Irene McKinney: 1939-2012

As many readers of this blog already know, Irene McKinney, West Virginia’s poet laureate for nearly 20 years, died over the weekend at the age of 72. Several others have already given tributes and said what Irene meant to them, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t remember her as well.

Irene was part of a few West Virginia Book Festivals over the years. That includes the 2010 festival, where she was one of the featured presenters and, according to several people in the room, really gave a powerful performance.

Thanks to friend of the blog Vic Burkhammer, who shot video of the event, and posted it to YouTube, you can see part of the event for yourself.

Several of Irene McKinney’s poems are available online, including one with a sadly appropriate title: “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia”:


Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead
at once, I listened to my father’s urgings about “the future”


and bought this double plot on the hillside with a view
of the bare white church, the old elms, and the creek below.


I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading out
in the middle of a big double bed. —But no,


finally, my burial has nothing to do with marriage, this lying here
in these same bones will be as real as anything I can imagine


for who I’ll be then, as real as anything undergone, going back
and forth to “the world” out there, and here to this one spot


on earth I really know. Once I came in fast and low
in a little plane and when I looked down at the church,


the trees I’ve felt with my hands, the neighbors’ houses
and the family farm, and I saw how tiny what I loved or knew was,


it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs
at a distance and nothing I could do about it. But I wanted


to reach down and pat it, while letting it know
I wouldn’t interfere for the world, the world being


everything this isn’t, this unknown buried in the known.