West Virginia Book Festival

Louise McNeill exhibit opens Saturday

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Louise McNeill. Photo from the West Virginia State Archives, via the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

As we prepare to open the month of West Virginia’s statehood sesquicentennial, what better way than with a salute to a former West Virginia poet laureate?

On Saturday, the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University will premiere its exhibit remembering Louise McNeill during its Friends of Folklife Gala, from 4 to 10 p.m. McNeill served as poet laureate from 1979 until her death in 1993.

It’s fitting that the Folklife Center recognize McNeill. For one, she used to teach there when it was plain old Fairmont State College (as well as at West Virginia University, Concord College and Potomac State College). For another, the West Virginia literary map put together by those at the Folklife Center is titled “From A Place Called Solid” — a reference from McNeill’s memoir, “The Milkweed Ladies.”

Judy Byers, the center’s director, told West Virginia Public Radio’s Ben Adducchio about the choice:

“That is what I think the writers of West Virginia, be they poets, novelists, be they historical non-fiction writers, I think that is one of the strong, thematic undercurrents that you will find in their writing …  A place called solid, a place where the values are rich and sincere. A place where out of struggle, out of friction, out of suffering, has come a great state.”

New Pearl S. buck book coming in October

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It’s been more than 40 years since Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, a native of Hillsboro in Pocahontas County and winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize for literature, died.

Thus, you would think the chances of reading something new by her would be nonexistent.

You would be wrong.

This week, Open Road Integrated Media announced that an unpublished manuscript, finished shortly before Buck’s death in 1973, will be published in October. The novel’s title is “The Eternal Wonder,” and it was found in a storage unit in Texas and returned to Buck’s family last year “for a small fee,” as The New York Times delicately puts it.

Open Road says the novel is “the coming-of-age story of a gifted young man whose search for meaning leads him to New York, England, Paris and a mission patrolling the demilitarized zone in Korea.”

Buck’s most famous book is “The Good Earth,” a story of Chinese farmers that was a huge critical and commercial success in the early 1930s. That was the second book she had published — and despite writing dozens more over the remaining decades of her life, she never matched her early success. Peter Conn, author of a well-received biography of Buck, told the Times that, with a few exception, the quality of her books started to slip in the 1940s.

So chances are, “The Eternal Wonder” will be a footnote in the Pearl Buck canon. But four decades after her death, that’s still enough to get excited about.

On the blog at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace site, Michael Toler notes that the Kindle e-book version of the new book is already available for pre-order, and that any orders placed through the links on their site benefit the Hillsboro site.

Meet the Author: Dean King

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Dean King
Photo © Rachel Cobb

Author and historian Dean King takes a new look at the Hatfield and McCoy feud in his latest book, “The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys.” King’s book breaks new ground with quotes from contemporary newspaper accounts and other information that was not available when Otis K. Rice wrote The Hatfields and the McCoys in 1982. King’s account traces the conflict back to the 1850s when the families intermarried and lived peacefully and shows multiple causes for the vendetta.

King is the award-winning author of 10 books. He will speak at Elk Valley Branch Library on Monday, June 3, at 6:30 p.m., and sign books after the presentation. Copies of the book will be available for purchase from West Virginia Book Company. Refreshments will be served.

This project is being presented with financial assistance from the West Virginia Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any view, findings, conclusions or recommendations do not necessarily represent those of the West Virginia Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” great?

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I’m of two minds about the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” coming out this weekend. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that one of the most notoriously difficult novels of the past century to film is going to be solved by the bombastic Baz Luhrmann. But any excuse to bring one of the few books with a legitimate claim on the title of The Great American Novel is an opportunity worth taking.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” so great? Part of it is how Fitzgerald evokes the setting: the glamorous Jazz Age, in the midst of the post-World War I boom. Even though there aren’t a lot of parties in the book — really, there’s just one completely successful blowout, which Gatsby throws in the middle of the novel — that’s what a lot of readers remember (and that certainly seems to be what Luhrmann is concentrating on, if the previews are any indication).

Which is somewhat strange, because Fitzgerald is no wide-eyed innocent about the era. True, he and his wife Zelda enjoyed the 1920s as much as anybody — but he knew there were plenty of people, like Myrtle and George Wilson in the book, who weren’t having those good times. And even for the fortunate ones, he knew, the good times couldn’t last. At the same time he’s writing about what a great time everyone is having, he’s showing how pointless, if not downright destructive, the whole thing is. Self-made millionaire and bon vivant Jay Gatsby, in many ways, is the living embodiment of the American dream. In the end, it’s not enough.

(And of course, Fitzgerald was right. Four years after “The Great Gatsby” was published, the United States and much of the rest of the world would spiral into the Great Depression.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) and Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway).

None of Fitzgerald’s perception and scene-setting would matter, though, if he couldn’t write. And that’s where “The Great Gatsby” stakes its claim to greatness. I’ve not read many books that are more beautifully written.

In Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like A Writer,” Gatsby is one of the first books she cites for its language — specifically, the “word-by-word gorgeousness” in the scene where Nick Carraway first sees Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker in Daisy’s West Egg home:

The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

There’s so much description packed in the story that it’s startling to realize how short the book really is (that copy that I remember, with the deep blue cover with the disembodied eyes and lips, is only 192 pages long). Every word is so precise, and it’s hard to imagine how too much of that could be conveyed by any filmmaker. (Although I’m sure the novel’s famous last line, which is engraved on the Fitzgeralds’ tombstone in Rockville, Md., will make an appearance: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.)

So maybe that’s the way to approach this latest attempt to film “The Great Gatsby.” Enjoy it for what it is (say what you want about Luhrmann, his films usually aren’t boring). Then read the novel, or read about it; there’s been enough written about it over the past couple of weeks to fill Gatsby’s swimming pool, but I enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Sarah Churchwell, who has a book about Fitzgerald’s writing of the novel coming out next month.

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One of the presenters at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival is up for one of the most prestigious awards in her field.

Marilyn Sue Shank’s novel, “Child of the Mountains,” is one of the three finalists in the Christy Awards’ young-adult category. The Christys (Christies?) are given for excellent in Christian-themed  fiction; they’re named after Christian author Catherine Marshall’s best-known work, the novel “Christy.”

Shank’s novel is set in 1950s West Virginia. The awards are announced June 24. Best of luck to her.

Clear your schedule — Free Comic Book Day

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Saturday is Free Comic Book Day. I’m just sayin’.

If you wanted to grab the kid (or not) and head to a local comic book shop, it should be a nice day to reminisce with old friends and make some new ones, both in our actual universe and others. You can check for participating shops by ZIP code at the Free Comic Book Day website. I see stores in South Charleston, Huntington, Beckley, Morgantown, Fairmont, the Parkersburg area and near Wheeling and Martinsburg.

Pretty much everything you need to know about the event at Lost Legion Games & Comics/The Rifleman in South Charleston is in this gazz story. That includes appearances by local writer and filmmaker Danny Boyd (author of the Chillers graphic novel) and Jason Pell (creator of the Zombie Highway comic).

Of course, serious readers of this blog respect art in all its forms, so I don’t have to go into any justifications of comic books or graphic novels as either art or literature.  However, if you want a deeper look at how this art form grew out of the early 20th-century and how the Forces of Darkness moved to suppress it, let me draw your attention to a book from a few years back, “The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America” by David Hajdu.

But you don’t need that book to enjoy Free Comic Book Day.

You also don’t really need to know all the ways comic book reading is good for kids. Reading for fun improves fluency, which comes in handy Monday morning when kids are reading for school. Reading fiction to the point of being absorbed in characters and the story has recently been shown to be beneficial in other ways that have to do with compassion and experience. When teaching and testing young people on reading comprehension, teachers sometimes break stories into sections or panels, so students can identify events and how they relate.

Of course, I don’t tell the kids this, but if there are any reluctant readers in your family, kids who just haven’t yet found a book they love to read, the comic book versions of movie, TV and game characters can ease them into reading for fun.

It’s great that all that happens, but that’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m catching up with my beloved Spidey, or evaluating an issue of Young Justice or Superman Family Adventures for our very young nieces and nephews. I’m enjoying the art, the action, the characters, the humor. I’m mulling over ethical quandries and scientific possibilities. I’m looking backward and forward, inside and out. And having a good time doing it.

Happy Free Comic Book Day.