West Virginia Book Festival

“Robert and Ted” and the Senate

Robert C. Byrd, who died in 2010 after nearly 60 years in Congress, lives again (sort of) today at the University of Charleston.

As Doug Imbrogno reported in the Sunday Gazette-Mail, West Virginia author Denise Giardina has taken the relationship between Byrd and another lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, and fictionalized it in her play “Robert and Ted.” The play is still a work in progress, but Giardina will read from it at the UC Builders Luncheon today.

The first encounters between Kennedy and Byrd in the early ’60s did not go so well. Each was a young senator, but the different worlds they came from might as well have been Mars and Venus.

“Byrd was in his first term and Kennedy was elected in a special election not long after JFK was elected,” said Giardina. “Kennedy was from a wealthy family in Massachusetts and Byrd came up hard in the coalfields of West Virginia. He felt Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and got all the committees handed to him. Byrd knew that was not going to be the case with him.”

If you’d like to go … too bad. Doug says registration is closed. But there will be a full reading of the play at this summer’s FestivALL event in Charleston.

A roundup of recent award-winning books

It’s awards season when it comes to books (actually, one thing I’ve learned since doing this blog is it never stops being awards season). We talked a couple of times about Newbery Medal winner (and former West Virginia Book Festival headliner) Jack Gantos, and here’s a few honors that we didn’t mention when they happened.

| Earlier this month, the National Book Critics Circle came out with their annual awards, and one of the winners was profiled on this blog last year. Dawn Miller wrote about “Liberty’s Exiles” by Maya Jasanoff (the NBCC non-fiction winner) as part of an Independence Day weekend look at those colonists who stayed loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution.

Other NBCC awards included fiction winner Edith Pearlman for her short-story collection, “Binocular Vision”; biography winner John Lewis Gaddis for “George F. Keenan: An American Life”; and poetry winner Laura Kasischke for “Space, In Chains.”

| Pearlman was also a finalist for The Story Prize, one of the nation’s foremost prizes for short fiction. On Wednesday, that award went to Steven Millhauser, a former Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the great writers living today, for his collection “We Others.” (You know how we hear about Herman Melville’s failure as a writer during his lifetime, or how Vincent van Gogh couldn’t sell a painting to anybody, and we wonder how contemporary people could have been so dumb? In 100 years, people are going to wonder how everyday audiences of the late 20th/early 21st century didn’t give a lot more recognition to Steven Millhauser.)

BTW, Millhauser is also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, to be announced next week. The other finalists include some literary heavyweights: Don DeLillo, Russell Banks, Kiran Desai and Julie Otsuka. Of course, we here at WVBF:TB have a soft spot for this award, as it was founded by Mary Lee Settle, the “grande dame” of West Virginia literature.

| Teju Cole, who was a finalist for the NBCC fiction award, won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, given to a debut novelist, for “Open City.” The book is an open-air rumination by a Nigerian medical student as he wanders around New York City.

| Two books of regional interest to West Virginians were named co-winners of the Gilder Lehmann Lincoln Prize, given each year for a book (or other work) about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. One of them, “Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union” by William C. Harris, talks about Lincoln’s efforts to keep the border states, including Kentucky and Maryland, in the Union during the first three months of the war.

The other winner, “Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally” by Elizabeth D. Leonard, is a biography of Joseph Holt of Kentucky, who served as judge advocate general in Lincoln’s administration. Holt was, according to the book, a staunch Unionist surrounded by secessionists and a slave-owner who came to support emancipation.


Have a Seuss-tastic weekend!

If you’re a Dr. Seuss fan, this is the weekend to be in Charleston. You’ll have a few chances to get your Seuss fix.

On Thursday evening, Read Aloud West Virginia is having its second-ever Seuss-A-Palooza fundraiser. It’s a big cocktail party from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at BrickStreet’s building at the Charleston Town Center Mall. (And not to worry; WVU’s game in the NCAA tournament doesn’t start until 7:20, so there’s plenty of time to do both.)

Speaking of WVU basketball, Jerry West will be among those at the event reading the Dr. Seuss classic “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” (West recorded his reading when he was here for last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival.) Others who’ll be reading Dr. Seuss include country music star and Glen Dale native Brad Paisley, author and McDowell County native Homer Hickam, and “America’s Got Talent” winner and Logan native Landau Murphy.

If you’re wondering how that works, here’s the video from the first Seuss-A-Palooza, with people reading “Green Eggs and Ham”:

You say you want more Dr. Seuss? On Saturday, the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra will present a “Celebrating Seuss!” concert at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Clay Center in Charleston. The Clay Center will also have a series of Seuss-inspired activities throughout the day, including science exhibits, art projects, and — of course — storytime.

Coming up: The Virginia Festival of the Book

The Virginia — that’s Virginia, not West Virginia — Festival of the Book is coming up later this month. A larger event than ours, it runs for five days and holds events all over the city of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.

It’s mostly free, but there are a few sessions that you have to pay to get into; one of those features former West Virginia University basketball great Jerry West (who, I am compelled to mention, was presented free a few months ago at your West Virginia Book Festival).

Other presenters from past West Virginia Book Festivals include mystery writer Sharyn McCrumb (one of our early headliners) and Affrilachian poet Frank X Walker. There are several events that might be of interest to regional historians, including a couple of programs tied to Charlottesville’s 250th anniversary and one called “Moonshine, Mountaineers, and Motorcycles: On the Crooked Road Then and Now.” That last includes Charles Thompson, the author of “Spirits of Just Men,” a book that tells the story of moonshine in 1930s America through the lens of Franklin County, Va. — which is about 50 miles southeast of Monroe County, W.Va.

Unlike last year, I won’t be going to the Virginia event. If I were, the one event I would not miss is the one that includes Chad Harbach reading from his debut novel, “The Art of Fielding” (which I’m partway through now).

The Virginia Festival of the Book runs from March 21 to 25. If you love reading and writing and you’re looking to spend a day or two in a beautiful city with like-minded people. I highly recommend it — just like I’d recommend that denizens of the mother state take a day or two in October and come check out our event.

“A Princess of Mars”: The John Carter saga

When I was a kid, right around 10 or 11, I would have loved “A Princess of Mars,” the first book in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I didn’t know about the series; I didn’t even read any of Burroughs’ best-known series, the Tarzan books.

With the big film version, “John Carter,” coming out today, I thought I’d give the book a try. It’s the story of a man who, just after the Civil War, heads out west to prospect for gold and then is mysteriously transported to Mars. How? Who cares? (It actually reminded me of the plot catalyst in Stephen King’s latest, “11/22/63.” Big strange thing happens, and the protagonist just goes with it.) Because of the lighter gravity, Carter gains all sorts of powers, finds love and adventure, and transforms Martian society.

For a first novel that’s nearly 100 years old (Burroughs released it in novel form in 1917, but it was published as a serial a few years before), it’s a pretty good read, but it feels like Burroughs was trying out everything he could think of. Carter is, apparently, immortal. He also learns that all Martians are telepathic. Both of those could be, you know, significant factors in the story. But they’re mentioned in a matter-of-fact way and then hardly brought up again. It’s like the author decided he had enough going on with the whole super-powered alien story, and didn’t need any of the other stuff.

There are other issues with Burroughs, who possessed some pretty awful ideas about non-white, non-American peoples. In his review of the Burroughs biography from John Taliaferro, “Tarzan Forever,” Washington Post critic Michael Dirda writes of Burroughs’ “shoddy treatment” of Africans, Germans and Japanese, and his “enthusiasm for eugenics coupled with an undisguised horror of miscegenation.” There’s not a lot of that in “A Princess of Mars,” although Indians are called “red savages,” among other things. (It may not be chance that John Carter, Burroughs’ first hero, is a Confederate Army veteran.)

As for the “John Carter” movie, which hits theaters today, I’ve read a couple of reviews which essentially say, it’s a big dumb movie, but at least it’s fun, and the filmmakers seem to know that it’s a big dumb movie. The screenplay was written by, among others, author Michael Chabon, who’s no stranger to “genre” fiction. His works include the alternate history “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Final Solution,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” chronicles the early days of the comic book industry. So it’s got that going for it, at least.

Back to the book: I’d be hard-pressed to recommend “A Princess of Mars” to anyone who wasn’t curious about its historic value — but that historic value is significant. As Dirda notes in his review, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of the storytellers for several decades in the early 20th century, and this is the book that started him on his way.

If you’d like to read “A Princess of Mars,” it will cost you exactly nothing; besides the usual option of your local library, the book is free (legally) all over the Internet.

Nitro High School student Bruce McCuskey (center) poses after last weekend's Poetry Out Loud finals with hosts Chris Sarandon and Amber Tamblyn. Photo courtesy W.Va. Division of Culture and History.

Bruce McCuskey, a Nitro High School student, went old school to win West Virginia’s Poetry Out Loud competition last weekend.

At the annual poetry recitation contest, McCuskey read “Preludes” by T.S. Eliot, “The Last Laugh” by Wilfred Owen and “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerald Manley Hopkins. He takes home $200, and his school gets $500 for poetry books. He’ll also represent the state at the national Poetry Out Loud finals May 13-15.

This is the second year in a row that a Kanawha County student has won the state prize. South Charleston High’s Anthony Braxton won last year.

Another Kanawha County student, Capital High School’s Dayja Legg, was the runner-up. She gets $100, and Capital High gets $200.

The West Virginia finals of the Poetry Out Loud competition — the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation — will be this weekend at the Culture Center in Charleston.

The event merits not one, but two stories in the Gazz section of Thursday’s Gazette. Amy Robinson talks with actor and Beckley native Chris Sarandon, who’s coming back for his fifth year of hosting the event, and clearly seems to be enjoying the duties.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he said. “Unless I’m working, I’ll be there. It’s an extraordinary event.”

Sarandon also notes that since he started coming to the state finals, more young men have been taking part. Last year, South Charleston High School student Anthony Braxton became the first male student to win the state event.

Chris Sarandon and Anthony Braxton after last year's West Virginia Poetry Out Loud finals.

A newcomer to this year’s event is actress (and published poet) Amber Tamblyn, and Bill Lynch talked with her. She tells him she’s been a fan of poetry for a long time:

She started writing poetry when she was 9 years old and began publishing while in her teens. She did not make a huge splash on the literary scene, but that was never the point.

Amber Tamblyn

“My mom used to take me to Kinkos,” she said. “I would publish chapbooks and sell them at school for a dollar.”

Better than whatever money she made was holding those books in her hands, Tamblyn said. She loved to see the hard copy of what she’d done.

This weekend’s event is hosted by the state Division of Culture and History. The early rounds of the state finals are at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday at the state Culture Center Theater. The finals are at 1 p.m. on Saturday.