West Virginia Book Festival

West Virginia Reads 150 in 2013

Just for the West Virginia Sesquicentennial, Kanawha County Public Library is making reading a team activity. But you won’t have to buy special equipment, pay league fees or even raise a sweat.

KCPL is joining the West Virginia Library Commission, West Virginia Center for the Book and other libraries and book stores across the state for the West Virginia Reads 150 reading challenge. This program encourages reading in the community while honoring the state’s 150th birthday.

Form your team of up to 15 members to read a total of 150 books throughout 2013. Choose a team name and select one team leader to keep track of books read by the team. Team members report each book read to the team leader.

All ages can participate – friends, co-workers, book clubs, classmates. Families can use this challenge to promote reading at home. If a team member is too young or unable to read, count the books you read to them toward the team goal.  Books must be read between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2013.

KCPL summer reading clubs will continue as usual, and you can count the books you read for both your summer reading club and the West Virginia Reads 150 challenge. We’ll provide reading suggestions and team updates in various ways throughout the year, including e-blasts to team leaders, newsletters, the KCPL website, Facebook, Twitter and in-library displays. Sign up for our e-newsletter here.

Register your team for the challenge by filling out a registration form, available at any KCPL location or from our website. That’s also where you’ll find program details, frequently asked questions and registration information.

If you live in another area of the state and want to participate, you’ll find more info on the West Virginia Library Commission website, the WV Reads 150 GoodReads page and the WV Reads 150 Facebook page.

A few holiday gift book ideas for kids

This column originally appeared in the Saturday Gazette-Mail on Dec. 22.

Of course, all of your packages are wrapped and ready, so this list of gift ideas for multiple ages couldn’t possibly interest you. Nevertheless, you are welcome to stay while I recall fondly some of the books I spent time with this year:

• On most bookstore shelves this fall is the latest Lane Smith picture book “Abe Lincoln’s Dream.” Poor old Abe is troubled and restless, and goes on a tour around the White House with a little African-American girl.

During the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, during the term of the nation’s first African-American president, with that stunning Lincoln film still playing, it is nice to imagine this child comforting the man who freed the slaves.

It is also good for the spirit to take a break from the problems of the day, both real and imagined, and admire how far the nation has come. This book is short and warm enough for young listeners, but deep enough to engage older readers.

• Another picture book, “Bill the Boy Wonder” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, you may have encountered on West Virginia Book Festival: The Blog. Nobleman was at the Book Festival in October and described how he found and tracked down the forgotten descendants of Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman.

It is a vibrantly illustrated non-fiction tale that appeals not only to Batman fans and comic book readers, but also to anyone with a sense of justice.

“Dead End in Norvelt” came out last fall, won the 2012 Newbery Medal, as well as the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and is by one of my favorite authors. Jack Gantos, a 2005 Book Festival presenter, set his story in 1962 Norvelt, Pa., one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Depression-era settlement communities, where the author actually lived as a boy.

He borrows heavily from his own childhood for this upper elementary/young adult novel about a family and town pulled between their past and future. Jack’s father is a World War II veteran who wants to shake the dust of the dying town and seek his fortune where there are jobs and opportunity. Jack’s mother was a girl in Norvelt during the Great Depression and wants to maintain the caring community people built there. For all the weighty ideas in this book, it is not heavy. I recently read it to 38 fifth-graders, and they laughed all the way through it.

One thread of the plot involves someone buying vacant houses in Norvelt and moving them to Eleanor, W.Va., another settlement community that is growing, not dying, as the character says. I would love to know what people of Eleanor make of some of the book’s characterizations

“Alvin Ho” isn’t new, but it is one of my favorites for kids who are reading on their own and have started to move into longer books.

From the moment in 2008 when I picked up “Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School and Other Scary Things,” I was smitten. Alvin is so scared of school, he is unable to speak there. But at home he is the energetic and vocal Firecracker Man. Alvin’s adventures are full of suspense and action, despite being limited to the world of home, school and the doctor’s office.

• When I picked up “A Coyote’s in the House,” from way back in 2004, I was skeptical. There seems to be no end of well-known adult authors writing kids books that are more about name-dropping than having an interesting and readable story to tell. But with Elmore Leonard, author of gritty, contemporary adult fiction such as “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” have no fear.

Meet Antwan, cool, wild and savvy. He wanders into a Hollywood Hills mansion one day, up to no good, where he meets Buddy, an aging film star who wants to get away, see what he’s missing, fill a void in his life. Did I mention almost all the characters are dogs, except for the coyotes?

The sharp dialogue and the picture-perfect storytelling make this book go.

• Finally, another volume I’m giving this year is “A Tale Dark and Grimm” by Adam Gidwitz, published in 2010. I didn’t realize until I saw the Google doodle that this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

I just know this book to be a crowd pleaser. This volume restores the blood and suffering that had been purged from the original stories to make them “suitable” for children. That makes it sound like a lot of gratuitous violence.

But it’s not. The old Grimm tales have been strung together into a novel about Hansel and Gretel. You’ll encounter old folk tales and characters you may not have known, a chatty, easy style, and a story full of love, mistakes, struggle, sacrifice, forgiveness, redemption and growth.

That makes it a very seasonal choice, indeed.

The end of the world, book-wise

I think I was 11 years old — too young, probably, to contemplate the end of the world.

But there it was, in front of me. I’d been browsing the library shelves at South Junior High School and had stumbled across “When Worlds Collide,” a 1933 tale by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Two rogue planets are discovered rushing toward Earth, and a small group of scientists and others make plans to escape to one of the new planets after Earth is destroyed.

Despite some wooden dialogue and some very unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, I devoured the book. My adolescent mind was blown. They DESTROYED the Earth. It was just … gone.

I was remembering that book recently, as the end of the world approaches — what, you haven’t heard? According to some of our finest scholars, the world is going to end on Friday, 12/21/12. The Mayans said so. (Well, maybe they said so. Hard to tell what a civilization that died out centuries ago was getting at, if they were getting at anything at all.)

But if the Mayans did, in fact, contemplate the end of the world and write their thoughts about it down, they wouldn’t be the first. Ever since they could first write down stories, and probably before then, humans have wondered about the end of the planet and/or humanity. The flood of Noah (and the very similar flood of Gilgamesh), boiled down to its essentials, is an apocalyptic story. So is the Book of Revelation. The Vikings told of Ragnarok, which doubled as an Armageddon tale and a creation myth. More recently, such noted authors as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells have written about the end of the human race.

With its very real threat of nuclear annihilation, the Cold War produced a spate of books about the apocalypse and what comes after. These are the ones that were in libraries and bookstores when I was a kid, so they’re the ones I grew up on: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller; “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank; “On The Beach” by Nevil Shute. Later, I remember getting hold of “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban; “Earth Abides” by George Stewart and “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke, among many others. You can even play the apocalypse for laughs: Douglas Adams began “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” by having the Earth demolished for an interstellar bypass.

But it seems like the end of the world has never been in such vogue in literature as it has been these past couple of decades. Many reasons have been suggested, including the hysteria in some corners about the new millennium and the vulnerability Americans felt after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But for whatever reason, the apocalypse is pretty popular nowadays. If it’s not aliens come to eliminate and take our planet, it’s a comet ready to crash into the Earth and kill us off like the dinosaurs. Disease is a favorite, either wiping out the population altogether or turning us into mindless zombies. Or the vampires will take over, or the machines will grow to resent their human makers, or … well, there are any numbers of ways to bring about the end of the world.

Perhaps ironically, the one recent book that sticks out for me doesn’t actually say what ended the world. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy was a stunning piece of work, the story of a father and son walking across a ruined America, drawn by the faintest glimmer of hope offered by the sea. I read that book when it first came out in late September, when the weather was turning colder and the leaves were falling from the trees. In retrospect, maybe I should have waited until summer. That was one bleak book.

But even the end of the world can become trite, and some watchers of literary and cultural trends believe the apocalypse is about to become passé. How many times can you kill off the human race (or most of it) before it starts to lose its emotional impact? Writers, and readers, will move on — if we’re still here on Dec. 22.


Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: Can it work?

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Photo from Paramount Pictures.

When Lee Child came to last year’s West Virginia Book Festival, the news was still pretty fresh that Tom Cruise had signed up to play Jack Reacher, the protagonist in Child’s long-running series, in a movie based on the novel “One Shot.” Since then, the film’s title has been changed to just “Jack Reacher.” Filmed in Pittsburgh, it premieres in that city on Dec. 15, then goes into wide release on Dec. 21.

Reacher is a former military policeman who, after leaving the Army, has lived as a drifter, moving around with not much more than the clothes on his back. He’s also a physical specimen: six foot five, as much as 250 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. None of these physical characteristics applies to Cruise; he’s five foot seven, with brown hair and green eyes (at least, that’s what the Internet tells me, so it must be true).

For those reasons, many of Child’s readers were less than thrilled with the choice of Cruise to portray Reacher. A couple of people managed to bring this up, tactfully, to Child at the Book Festival. He didn’t seem bothered about it; he spoke glowingly about Cruise, and said he was confident that Cruise could play the part.

Lee Child, who just happens to be six foot five with blue eyes.

Of course he did. What else is he going to say? Tom Cruise is all wrong for Jack Reacher? He’d be sabotaging the movie (to some degree, anyway), and that holds no benefit for him. The only author I remember taking that tack — just savagely attacking the choice to play one of her characters in a movie — is Anne Rice, who went ballistic when it was announced that her “Interview with the Vampire” antihero Lestat was going to be played by — wait for it — Tom Cruise. (She changed her tune after the movie came out, for whatever reason.) So of course, the author isn’t going to bash the actor who’s playing the character, even if the actor is totally unsuitable.

These were some of my (unvoiced) thoughts during last year’s Book Festival. Since then, I’ve come around a little.

Child insists that there’s much more to Jack Reacher than just his size. This is true, of course. In fact, for a character whose physical presence is so overpowering, descriptions of Reacher are pretty rare in the books. As Child told The New York Times in advance of the movie’s premiere: “There’s also the menace, the intelligence, the silent, contemplative nature.” For his part, Cruise said, “The height, the size — those are characteristics, not a character.”

Tom Cruise, Lee Child and Rosamund Pike, in a scene from “Jack Reacher.” Photo from Paramount Pictures.

Cruise wouldn’t be the first actor to take a character and remake it in his image. Humphrey Bogart, as noted before on this blog, doesn’t look anything like how Dashiell Hammett described his private eye Sam Spade — but after seeing “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s very hard to read the book and not see Bogie in your mind’s eye. Also, Sean Connery was certainly more suave and debonair as James Bond than anything Ian Fleming ever put on the page.

And yet … I’m still not sure I’m buying it. If you ask Jack Reacher fans to describe him, words like “big” and “powerful” and “intimidating” are going to come up pretty quick. No matter how good an actor Cruise is, I’m having a hard time seeing how he pulls that off.

I do know one thing: Jack Reacher is a character whose fans have waited nearly two decades to see him on the big screen. I hope he gets the portrayal he deserves.

From ‘Bleak House’ to ‘Great Expectations’

The front of the Charles Dickens Museum, in a house on Doughty Street in London, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839. AP Photos.

In a few days, the Charles Dickens Museum in London will reopen after an extensive renovation, which cost about 3.1 million pounds (just less than $5 million) and took the better part of this year to complete. From The Associated Press (where I borrowed the post’s title as well):

For years, the four-story brick row house where the author lived with his young family was a dusty and slightly neglected museum, a mecca for Dickens scholars but overlooked by most visitors to London.

I resemble that remark. When we visited London in 2009, we made sure to find and stop at the Dickens Museum, located in the novelist’s former home on Doughty Street. Dickens only lived there for two years, from 1837 to 1839, but it’s the only place he did live in London that’s still standing.

Charles Dickens’ study, inside the Dickens Museum.

The experience was — how to put this — let’s just say I wasn’t surprised when the Dickens Museum announced a big renovation. It’s not that it wasn’t a worthwhile trip; there was a lot of interesting stuff in the house, both about Dickens’ life and career and about the era when he lived. But it was dark, and a little dingy, and the exhibits weren’t organized that well.

I just came away with the feeling that there was so much more than could be done with the largest memorial to one of England’s most beloved and well-remembered writers. Apparently, other people felt the same way. Rose Roberts, the 90-year-old president of the Dickens Fellowship branch in New York City, said of the museum:

“When I was there five years ago I said this could be really stepped up quite a bit,” she says. “It did look dowdy, it wasn’t comfortable–seating arrangements and so on–so they had all these years to do it. Why now?

That’s the big question most Dickens scholars and readers had about the renovation: not whether it should be done, but why it should be done in the middle of 2012 — the 100th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, and the year that brought thousands upon thousands of tourists to London for the Olympics, not to mention the 60-year jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

The historical marker on the outside of the Dickens Museum.

But museum officials say that it was precisely because of Dickens’ centenary that they chose to renovate the museum this year. They say there were enough Dickens events and commemorations through London, and England, and the world, that this was the one time that the museum wouldn’t be sorely missed.

Hope it was worth it. The Dickens Museum reopens on Monday.