West Virginia Book Festival

Odd title? Maybe, but not that original

One of the literary world’s greatest prizes was handed out last month, and I think the result was a travesty.

The Diagram Prize, given to the book published in 2011 with the oddest title, was awarded to a Thai cookbook published in Australia and titled “Cooking With Poo” — Poo, apparently, being the nickname of author Saiyuud Diwong. It topped some pretty good titles, including “Mr Andoh’s Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge,” “The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria” and “Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World.”

Fine, fine. But the travesty? “Cooking With Poo” isn’t even the first book published with that title.

Last year was the first time we — well, I — had heard much about the Letters About Literature program (largely because the program’s director, Catherine Gourley, was part of last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival). The program, presented by the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book and the affiliated state programs. According to the program’s website:

Young readers write to an author describing how that author’s work somehow changed the reader’s view of the world or himself/herself. Readers respond to the book they’ve read by exploring the personal relationship between themselves, the author and the book’s characters or themes.

The winners of West Virginia’s program from 2011 are here; the winners from 2010 are here. According to the West Virginia Library Commission’s website, there’s an event scheduled for May 10, where the winners for this year should be recognized.

At least one entry from West Virginia, though, has definitely made an impression on the national program. A letter from Rachel Doss, a language arts teacher at Crum Middle School in Wayne County, adorns the front of the Letters About Literature website. She writes:

“I cannot express how much the Letters About Literature program has impacted not only my classes, but also our entire school. Last year marked the first year my students participated in any writing contest. Being our first attempt, we did not expect to hear that we had received any awards.  But . . . parents began calling the school . . . informing us of award letters their children had received.

Excitement buzzed in the air. Once we discovered that more than nine letters had been recognized for notable mention, the school was bursting with pride! You could see the absolute joy and shock on the students’ faces . . .

The WV state award ceremony recognized each student for their incredible talents and dedication. Whether a student received notable mention or a top honor, they were all treated as dignified winners.

After already feeling as though they had won Olympic Gold, they listened to a genuine author who demonstrated that reading and writing can take them to more places than our students had ever imagined. Their ability to meet and speak with the author sparked a fire deep within them.

After all students in our state had been recognized, the WV state center called the Crum MS students to the stage and recognized our school for the amount of awards received. For myself, it was a moment of sheer pride as I watched our students, who haven’t experienced very much success in the past, beaming with joy.  It brought tears to my eyes to see what a little acknowledgement can do for a writer.

The remainder of the year, they wrote like authors proud of each piece they created.


Rachel Doss, 7-8 Language Arts Teacher

Edgar Award winners coming this week

Later this week, the Mystery Writers of America will announce the winners of their annual Edgar Awards. The list of nominees, announced in January, is one of my go-to places to find some quality mysteries for future reading.

For once, when the nominees for Best Novel came out, I’d already read a couple of them. One, “1222” by Anne Holt, is another in the series of Scandinavian mysteries that has dominated the mystery scene over the past few years. It’s a good one; a twist on the locked-room mystery, involving some very quirky characters and a train crash at a remote Norwegian resort in the midst of a historic blizzard.

But I’d like to see “Field Gray” by Philip Kerr get the nod. It’s the latest in his series featuring Bernie Gunther, a policeman in 1930s Germany who, when the Nazis take over, finds himself as a private investigator. The first three in the series were published between 1989 and 1991, and were republished as a collection called “Berlin Noir.” (I was sorely tempted a few years ago to blow way too much money on first editions of the originals at Read It Again, Sam in Charlottesville.)

When the series resumed in 2006, Gunther had moved on after World War II, and those books (in my opinion) didn’t measure up to the earlier ones. But with “Field Gray,” while the action jumps around over a span of 25 years, Kerr returns Gunther to the war years in a big way — it’s 1940, and Reinhard Heydrich dragoons him into the SS.

(I will also say that last year, I noted that the latest from Frank Tallis’ Max Liebermann series had been nominated, and said I’d been meaning to read him. Well, I didn’t get that done — and this year, once again, the latest book by Tallis is a finalist in the Best Paperback Mystery category. I can take a hint. Maybe.)

The winners will be announced on Thursday at the annual MWA banquet in New York City. It’s preceded by a day full of panel discussions (including one on memorable characters that includes 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter Diana Gabaldon).

The annual Grand Master award will go to Martha Grimes, author of the Richard Jury mystery series and several other novels. Grimes, I recently learned, has a couple of connections to the region: she was born in Pittsburgh and spent much time growing up at the Mountain Lake Hotel (which her mother owned) in Garrett County, Md., just across the state line from Preston County.

In one city, today is the Day of the Book

Today is a big day in book circles. April 23 is the death date of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, and also Shakespeare’s presumed birth date (although that’s less certain). Because of that, April 23 has been chosen as World Book Night as well.

But the residents of Barcelona have another, but still bookish, way to celebrate.

In this photo from the behostels.com website, people throng the book stalls in Barcelona on St. George's Day, also known as the Day of the Book.

April 23 is the day of St. George, the patron saint of Barcelona (and other places, including England). For centuries, it was tradition for men in Barcelona to give women roses on this day.

In 1923, though, Barcelona bookseller Vincet (or Vincent) Claver Andres decided that people in his city weren’t buying enough books. I’m not sure there’s ever been a bookseller that hasn’t felt that way. But Vincet, showing true Catalonian ingenuity, did something about it. Noting that Cervantes and Shakespeare had died on St. George’s Day, he decided that in return for Barcelona women getting roses from men, they should give the men books in return. (Maybe I’m unromantic, but it seems like the men get the better of that deal.)

Apparently, the idea was a complete success — and remains so. Each year on this day, book stalls are set up throughout Barcelona to satisfy the demand. According to one source, an estimated 400,000 books are bought in Barcelona each April 24 — making up 10 percent of the annual book sales in Catalonia each year.

That is a seriously awesome tradition. Take an existing holiday, and make giving books part of the tradition. Why doesn’t someone do that with a holiday in this country?

Oh, wait … someone is.

I recently read Bruce Coville’s adaptation of “William Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” to 46 fifth-graders, not the first time I’ve used this book in my role as a Read Aloud volunteer. Still, I was thrilled when shortly into the story, one student asked, “Why is the picture blurry?”

What a great question. What could artist Leonid Gore be trying to convey with the illustrations? The class kicked it around for a couple minutes.

“It’s dark,” one student offered.

“It’s foggy,” said another.

“Scary things are happening,” said a third.

“Hamlet is confused,” summed up another.

I almost sang out, I was so pleased. What a wonderful volume this is, so accessible, and yet with just enough of the original Elizabethan English that you get the beauty and flavor of the language. Hamlet dithers about, conflicted and confused, for three hours in that play. That student put her finger on it in the first page.

Shakespeare often gets a reputation for being snooty. It’s not deserved. The 400-year-old language is  certainly difficult for our ears, although it gets easier with practice.  While the settings and social mores may be foreign to us, the stories hold up over the centuries because the people, their failings and their aspirations, are not.

From “Hamlet,” we went to “Romeo and Juliet.” Students were stunned at Juliet’s age — just 13 and thinking of marriage. They enjoyed recounting to me references to Shakespeare they now recognize — the film “Gnomeo and Juliet,” Lisa Simpson cast as Ophelia.

We needed a break from tragedy, so the third week, we tried “Twelfth Night.” As I expected based on a previous reading, Shakespeare’s comedy was not so universal. The children enjoyed it, and they laughed at the mistaken identity and mixed up lovers. But much of the humor passed them by. They accepted Hamlet’s ghost without a blink. They had no trouble relating to Hamlet being confused about the right thing to do, or the grief at losing a father or a sister. They shook their heads at the tragedy of so many deaths. But in “Twelfth Night,” they struggled to understand why poor shipwrecked Viola had to dress as a boy to go work for the duke. Why couldn’t she just go as herself? They thought it beyond belief that anyone would fail to notice she was a young woman just because she changed her clothes and hair. Having not yet suffered the pangs of that first romance, they were not distracted by the comical love story. The more confused and farcical the plot became, the more logical the questions. Didn’t her voice sound like a girl?

It’s just like the actors say. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

Ohio River Festival of Books happening right now

We should have mentioned it earlier, but the every-two-years Ohio River Festival of Books is going on right now in the Huntington area. Events are taking place through Thursday .

Several names will be familiar to devotees of the West Virginia Book Festival, including Sarah Sullivan, Mark Crilley and Jane Congdon. Huntington native and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Julia Keller was there on Friday, and novelist and essayist William Vollmann will be at the Huntington Museum of Art on Thursday evening.

Besides Huntington, authors will be all over the area — Barboursville, Guyandotte, Salt Rock. Head out and see one (or more) of them.

World Book Night in West Virginia

On Monday, West Virginia joins the rest of the country — as well as the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany — in celebrating World Book Night. Started last year in the UK, the American event “is a celebration of reading and books which will see tens of thousands of people share books with others in their communities.”

In practical terms, that means people who signed up as “givers” will be giving away copies of one of 30 books chosen for the event. Lori Kersey talked to several local participants for a story in Thursday’s Gazette, including Rev. Nancy White of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, who will be passing out copies of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.”

“I think [reading] can be a lost art in a way,” she said. “Some people are just not reading anymore… I just like picking up a book, and I hope that other people will develop that same passion for reading.”

The 30 books selected as options for World Book Night run the gamut, from kids’ books (Kate DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn-Dixie”) to mystery (Sue Grafton’s “Q Is For Quarry”) to horror (Stephen King’s “The Stand”) to sports (Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights”) to science (Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”) to … well, you get the idea.

One of the books chosen will be especially familiar to West Virginians: “The Glass Castle,” Jeannette Walls’ memoir of growing up dirt-poor in McDowell County (and elsewhere).

Taylor Books in Charleston and Coffee Beans & Books in Beaver are taking part in World Book Night, and I’m sure there are other bookstores around the state as well. And if you wanted to hand out some books, but didn’t get the chance … there’s always next year.

“A Tisket, A Tasket, A Literary Basket”

One of the annual events that helps fund your West Virginia Book Festival is taking place this weekend.

The Friends of the Library Foundation (that’s the Kanawha County Public Library) are holding their annual “A Tisket, A Tasket, A Literary Basket” fundraiser on Friday at 6 p.m. at the NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage building, at 1700 MacCorkle Ave. S.E. in Charleston. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 at the door.

Attendees will have the chance to bid on dozens of prize baskets, all with a (usually literary) theme. That cornucopia on the right is part of a basket built around the “Fancy Nancy” books, as featured in a story by Rosalie Earle in the Gazette last month, with photos by Lawrence Pierce. Other baskets include tickets to various events, sports memorabilia, CDs and DVDs, hotel stays … really, something for everyone.

The event helps fund plenty of programs at the Kanawha library, not just the Book Festival. So if you want to help out, you know where to be.

Charlaine Harris, best known for her series of Sookie Stackhouse supernatural mysteries – the basis for the hit HBO series “True Blood” — will be the headliner for the annual West Virginia Book Festival, scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center.

Harris is the first presenter announced for the event, and continues the festival’s recent tradition of getting a major author to headline the event. Nicholas Sparks was the featured author in 2010, and Lee Child headlined the festival last year.

“We have a meeting each December and we look at some of the more well-known authors who we think would draw a big crowd,” said Pam May, the Book Festival’s chairwoman. “She was high on our list, and she was available, and we’re very excited about that.”

Harris, a native of the Mississippi River delta, has been writing for more than 30 years. Her early work consisted largely of poems about ghosts and teenage angst, but she began writing plays when she attended Rhodes College in Memphis. She then switched to novels, with “Sweet and Deadly” published in 1981.

In 1990, Harris published “Real Murders,” the first in her lighthearted eight-book series starring Georgia librarian Aurora Teagarden. In 1996, she began her Shakespeare mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth Lily Bard, a karate student who cleans houses. That series ran for five books, ending in 2001.

That same year, Harris began her Sookie Stackhouse series with “Dead Until Dark,” which won the Anthony Award, a prestigious mystery award, for Best Paperback Novel. The series, set in the fictional northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps, follows Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress, in her adventures with vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures. The 12th book in the series, “Deadlocked,” will be released next month.

The award-winning “True Blood” television series, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is in its fifth season and counts Charleston native Sam Trammell among its stars.

May said the connection with the TV series was one of the factors in bringing Harris to the Book Festival. “We’re excited because of the connection with ‘True Blood,’” she said. “We know that’s crazy popular, and we believe that may bring in some people who wouldn’t normally come to the Book Festival.”

Harris has written four mysteries about another protagonist with strange powers. Harper Connelly, who can tell the cause of death of any body, debuted in 2005 in “Grave Sight.”

Harris’ appearance at the West Virginia Book Festival is set for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the coliseum at the Civic Center. May said announcements about other authors at this fall’s festival should be coming soon.

“We don’t have any contracts signed yet [other than Harris], but the schedule is pretty much in place, she said.

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.

Harry Potter visits Lewisburg? What?

Sure, J.K. Rowling announced the title of her first adult novel on Thursday — “The Casual Vacancy,” which the Guardian calls “a ‘blackly comic’ tale about an idyllic town ripped apart by a parish council election.’ It’s due out in September.

But if you’re not quite ready to let Rowling’s earlier work go — you remember that boy wizard, right? — you still have a chance to get your fix in an unexpected place.

Until April 21, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg is hosting an exhibition titled “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine.” It’s put together by the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. According to the WVSOM website:

Muggles of all ages are invited to discover how the Renaissance traditions of magic, alchemy and natural philosophy that shaped the Harry Potter series have also influenced Western science and medicine.

The Harry Potter’s World exhibit incorporates works of 15th and 16th century thinkers and the Harry Potter story to explore the history of science and medicine while considering important ethical issues.

In the first Harry Potter book, the owner of the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, in the original British) is Nicolas Flamel. In real life, Flamel was a 14th-century alchemist who allegedly searched for the mythical stone. He lived into his 80s — no mean feat in the Middle Ages — and his former home is the oldest stone building still standing in Paris.

Others in the exhibit (at least, they’re in the illustration on the website) are Conrad Gesner, one of the founders of modern zoology, and Ambroise Pare, a surgeon to French royals in the 16th century. Want to learn more? You’ve got until April 21.