West Virginia Book Festival

Scott McClanahan’s “Crapalachia”

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In this author-provided photo, Scott McClanahan reads from “Crapalachia” in New York.

The people Scott McClanahan writes about probably wouldn’t read his new book.

“These people don’t read literary fiction,” McClanahan said in a recent interview with the Gazette’s Bill Lynch. “They might read the Gazette. … Maybe.”

That’s all right, because plenty of other people are reading Scott McClanahan’s book. He’s gotten a write-up in The New York Times, where Allison Glock calls his writing “miasmic, dizzying, repetitive” and says that trying to slow it down “would be like putting a doorstop in front of a speeding train.” He got excerpted in the Oxford American. In The Washington Post, Steve Donoghue compares him to Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, which is pretty lofty company. Donoghue writes that “Crapalachia: A Biography of Place” — that’s McClanahan’s sort-of memoir about growing up in southern West Virginia — is “intelligent, atmospheric, raucously funny and utterly wrenching.”

The two largest figures in the book are McClanahan’s cerebral palsy-stricken Uncle Nathan and bigger-than-life Grandma Ruby, who knows death comes for her just like it comes for everyone else, and doesn’t find that frightening in the least. As Glock writes, “McClanahan describes how his grandmother Ruby would manifest a ‘look on her face like something terrible was going to happen to all of us one day. And you know what? It will . . . if not tonight, then the next night.'”

McClanahan, a Beckley resident who grew up in Greenbrier County, got degrees from Concord and Marshall and now teaches at New River Community College. He told Lynch that he doesn’t quite know what to make of all the attention over his book. “They’re always mentioning my accent in interviews,” he said.

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Jon Meacham in 2010. AP photo

One final reminder about Jon Meacham, author, historian, editor, and speaker at the Gazette-WVU Festival of Ideas at the Clay Center in Charleston on Tuesday evening.

The early pages of “American Lion,” Meacham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, find Old Hickory at home in Tennessee, preparing for the trip to Washington after a bruising presidential campaign. Meacham writes that Jackson “knew his election was inspiring both reverence and loathing.”

To illustrate the antipathy Jackson faced in some quarters, Meacham quotes a letter from a Jackson supporter in West Virginia — well, it would be West Virginia in a few decades. Meacham writes:

Some Americans thought of the president-elect as a second Father of His Country. Others wanted him dead. One Revolutionary War veteran, David Coons of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was hearing rumors of ambush and assassination plots against Jackson. To Coons, Jackson was coming to rule as a tribune of the people, but to others Jackson seemed dangerous — so dangerous, in fact, that he was worth killing. “There are a portion of malicious and unprincipled men who have made hard threats with regard to you, men whose baseness would (in my opinion) prompt them to do anything,” Coons wrote Jackson.

Show’s at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. It’s free. Read the Gazette’s interview with Meacham from a couple of weeks ago if you don’t want to go in cold. See you there.

Jon Meacham event in Charleston previewed

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Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who’s written about Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in recent years, is coming to Charleston next week. He’s the speaker at the annual Charleston Gazette-West Virginia University Festival of Ideas event, and the Gazette’s Doug Imbrogno interviewed him for Sunday’s Gazette-Mail.

Among the subjects discussed by Meacham: which of the three American presidents he most admired after writing about them. While acknowledging that Roosevelt and Jefferson were great men who left the word better than they found it, Meacham said Jackson grew in his estimation as he learned more about him, because Old Hickory was a “genuinely self-made” man.

“He came from a part of white society in colonial America where his destiny was not in any way set to become the first president who was not a Virginia aristocrat or member of the Adams family. It required an effort of will on a human level that was deeply impressive.”

Meacham’s book on Jackson, “American Lion,” covers Jackson’s eight years in the presidency. That book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2009. His latest, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” was on several end-of-year best book lists last year. No doubt both will come up during his talk, which starts at 7:30 p.m. on March 12 at the Clay Center, followed by a reception and book signing. Admission is free.

Jon Meacham coming to Charleston

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Hope that after recent months, you’re not getting tired of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers coming to Charleston, because there’s another one on the way.

Jon Meacham — author of last year’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” as well as “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House,” which won the Pulitzer for biography in 2009 — will speak at this year’s Charleston installment of the West Virginia University Festival of Ideas, co-sponsored by The Charleston Gazette. Meacham will be here on March 12 at the Clay Center; the time is still to be announced. The event will be free.

Meacham has also written books about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the civil rights movement and the role of religion in the lives of America’s founding fathers. He’s the executive editor at Random House and used to be editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine.

Truth, justice and fresh picture book bios

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Comic books are notorious for wrestling with themes of justice. Yet a sad vein of injustice seems to run through the lives of many comic book creators.

One is Bill Finger, the subject of Marc Tyler Nobleman’s newest picture book biography “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.” Nobleman will appear at the West Virginia Book Festival at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Charleston Civic Center.

Finger was responsible for much of Batman’s look, his character development and decades of stories. But because of an early contract with artist Bob Kane, Finger’s name is left off every book, film and TV show featuring the Caped Crusader.

While the writer never got official credit, fans and fellow comic book creators started to take notice and spread the word about Finger’s role in Batman starting in the 1960s.  Nobleman’s book builds on their work and rescues parts of Bill Finger’s story that might otherwise have been lost.

Part of what made Batman such an innovative character when he was introduced in Detective Comics back in the spring of 1939 is that he is a flesh-and-bone hero. He is not bulletproof. He can’t fly. He’s not an alien or a god or made invulnerable by radiation. He is a brave, clever, but flawed vigilante made by the world around him.

Nobleman concisely depicts the world that made Batman’s creators from page 1:

After Milton Finger graduated from high school, he invented his first secret identity. In 1933 Jews were sometimes not hired just because they were Jews. Milton was commonly a Jewish name, so Milton chose a new one: Bill.

Vivid panels of illustrations by Ty Templeton complete the story.

This book follows Nobleman’s 2008 “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman,” another story of comic book creators and their difficulties. This time, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of teenagers from Depression-era Cleveland, sold the rights to their creation for $130, and then struggled for much of their lives trying to correct the mistake.

Illustrations again, this time by Ross MacDonald, enrich the experience. The art not only shows the style of dress and cars and pulp mags of the day; the style of painting actually evokes illustrations of the time.

These picture books are accessible to elementary-school readers and listeners, but they are sophisticated works of art and serious research capable of pleasing older readers as well. Both include detailed epilogues and bibliographies for further reading.

A page from “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman” by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, imitates both the art and life of the Depression-era America that give rise to the Man of Steel.

 

Mastering the art of reading about Julia Child

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For someone who hasn’t cooked all that much in his life, I have read a lot about Julia Child.

Child — who was born on this date 100 years ago – was, as most of you know, did more than anyone to teach Americans of the mid- and late 20th century how to seriously cook. She did it with her cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and her PBS television show, “The French Chef.” Child also lived long enough (she died in 2004 at age 91) to see the dawn of the Food Network and a cornucopia of TV cooking shows, and enjoyed something of a renaissance in the public eye.

I’m not sure how I ended up with a copy of her 1997 authorized biography, “Appetite for Life” by Noel Riley Fitch, on my shelf in the early 2000s (I was raiding used bookstores pretty indiscriminately around then). But the Child biography was there one day, and I read it. It was interesting, and I learned a lot about her that I didn’t know before. The key phrase there is a lot; I remember the book being very long, and very dense; it sometimes seemed that names, dates and other information were just being thrown at the reader, rather than being woven into a story.

But I also remember the part that interested me the most: the post-World War II years, when Julia and her husband, Paul, lived in Paris — and Julia learned to cook. So when her memoir of those years, “My Life In France,” came out in 2006, I gave it a shot. Definitely worth it; the book (finished by Julia’s nephew, Alex Prud’homme, after she died) is, as William Grimes said in The New York Times, an “exuberant, affectionate and boundlessly charming account” of her transformation from clueless American in Paris to expert on all things culinary and French. (“My Life In France” also formed the basis for the Julia Child half of the movie “Julie and Julia.”)

That probably would have been the end of my Julia Child reading — except that in late 2010, a collection of letters between Child and one of her great friends, Avis DeVoto, was published. In recent years, I have become fascinated with books of letters (but that’s another post). So I picked up “As Always, Julia,” edited by culinary historian Joan Reardon.

The story of how Julia Child and Avis DeVoto “met” seems like a plot device in a novel. Bernard DeVoto, Avis’ husband, was a columnist for Harper’s magazine. In one issue, he lamented the poor quality of kitchen knives in the United States. Julia, a regular reader, sent him a note and a couple of knives she bought at her local store in Paris. Avis answered the letter. Over the course of several years, the two progressed from polite acknowledgement to soul-baring friendship — despite not meeting in person until years after their first correspondence. (If you’ve seen “Julie and Julia,” Avis is the friend who Julia finally meets in Boston toward the end of the movie.)

For anyone who’s really interested in Child’s life and career, “As Always, Julia” is a must. But it’s also a fascinating look at American political discourse in the 1950s, as seen by two women who were planted firmly on the left side of the political spectrum. Their letters are full of gossip and speculation about Joseph McCarthy, Adlai Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, among many others.

As you might expect, the landmark birthday has prompted a handful of new books. There’s a new biography, “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child,” by Bob Spitz, which is every bit as big as the Fitch biography. Reviews seem good so far; Kirkus Review called it “an engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.” If that’s too much to handle, there’s a 48-page illustrated biography by Jessie Hartland called “Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child,” and a children’s picture book about Julia and her cat, “Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat.”

So if you want to mark Julia Child’s centenary, there are plenty of literary options. Or, you could just opt to make some boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin, or anything else that sounds good. Whatever you do, just remember Julia’s advice, given when flipping potato pancakes on an early episode of “The French Chef”: you have to have the courage of your convictions. Bon appetit.

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For the second year in a row, the West Virginia Humanities Council has nabbed a Pulitzer Prize winner for its annual Betsy K. McCreight Lecture in the Humanities.

Edmund Morris will present the lecture at the state Culture Center on Oct. 25 (about two weeks after this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival).

Morris won the 1980 Pulitzer in biography for “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” the first of his three-part biography on America’s 26th president. In The New York Times Book Review, W.A. Swanberg (who knew something about biography) said the book is “one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.” The other volumes in the trilogy are “Theodore Rex” (2001) and “Colonel Roosevelt” (2010), both of which were largely well-reviewed.

Morris also wrote a biography of composer Ludwig van Beethoven in 2005, as part of the Eminent Lives series from Harper Collins.

But he may have gained his most fame — or notoriety, if you prefer — from his 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan, called “Dutch.” Morris spent 14 years as Reagan’s official biographer, and then inserted himself — or rather, a fictional version of himself — as a narrator in Reagan’s life story. Most people didn’t know quite what to make of the book; many seemed to appreciate the obvious level of research that went into the book, while remaining completely baffled by the choice of the narrator. In a 2007 letter to The New York Review of Books, Morris himself said the book “has been praised as much for its revelations of a very strange man as it has been criticized for its method.”

As the McCreight lecturer, Morris follows Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon Wood, who won the award in 1993 for his book on the American Revolution.

Byrd historian to speak at Book Festival

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David A. Corbin

David A. Corbin will present the Settle Session at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 10 a.m. at the Charleston Civic Center. The session is named in honor of the grande dame of West Virginia literature, Mary Lee Settle.

Corbin’s new book, “The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Ten U.S. Presidents,” will be released in October. Byrd grew up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia to become the longest-serving U.S. senator in history. Corbin examines the Senator’s relationships with each President, from Eisenhower to Obama, and talks about his effect on major events during their administrations.

Corbin worked in the U.S. Senate for 26 years, 16 of which were for Sen. Byrd. Corbin’s work included serving on the leadership staffs of Senate Majority Leaders Byrd, George Mitchell and Tom Daschle. During his last 10 years in the Senate he served as the speech writer/historian for Byrd.

Dr. Corbin earned his bachelor and master’s degrees from Marshall University and his Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland. He has written extensively on American social and labor history and American politics, and has published two books on the southern West Virginia coal miners. He has received state, regional and national awards for his writings.

Corbin joins best-selling urban fantasy novelist Charlaine Harris, West Virginia University music history professor Christopher Wilkinson, and children’s author Marilyn Sue Shank in the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 13 and 14 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, the Friends of The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

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Writing about the Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America last week (full list of winners and nominees here), I dwelled mostly on the nominees for Best Novel and shamefully ignored the eventual winner of the Best Critical/Biographical book award: “On Conan Doyle: or, The Whole Art of Storytelling,” by America’s best book critic, Michael Dirda.

Dirda — who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Washington Post and continues to write for them, as well as the New York Review of Books and the Barnes and Noble Review — has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and can talk about any kind of books and writing you want (although I remember him writing recently that he’s not as up on westerns as he might be). But when he talks about books, he doesn’t sound like some stuffy academic. He sounds (to use an analogy from the Gazette’s writing coach) like he’s talking to a friend on a stool at the neighborhood bar — something he knows about, growing up in the steel town of Lorain, Ohio.

“On Conan Doyle” is simultaneously a biography of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a review of Doyle’s books (Sherlock and non) and a memoir of Dirda’s fascination with Sherlockiana, from his discovery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” as a boy to his membership in the international Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars. (The subtitle of Dirda’s book is a play on Holmes’ never-completed masterwork, “The Whole Art of Detection.”)

I thought I knew a fair amount about Doyle before reading this book. He was a medical doctor who based his most famous creation on one of his professors. He considered his Holmes stories far from his best work, killing off the great detective with relief and reluctantly bringing him back by popular demand. He became involved in spiritualism in his later years, after his son died toward the end of World War I.

And after all, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes. Lots of people still read the stories, as much for the description of gaslight, Victorian London as for the mysteries. The film and TV versions are legion: Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch (that last coming back to PBS this weekend).

But Dirda explains so much more. He talks about Doyle’s “crisp narrative economy” and says he may be the best storyteller of his age. He notes that some of Doyle’s other mysteries and science fiction, which many people relegate to the margins of literary history, have much to recommend them. And he relates Doyle to his time, showing the influence that others had on him — and the considerable influence that Doyle had on those around him, and those who would follow him.

For my money, though, the best parts of “On Conan Doyle” are Dirda harkening back to his early years, remembering how it felt to encounter Holmes and his compatriots for the first time.

In the lowering darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book’s second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. … [Holmes and Watson’s informant] adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man’s or a woman’s? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” I shivered with fearful pleasure, scrunched further down under my thick blanket, and took another bite of my Baby Ruth candy bar, as happy as I will ever be.

A roundup of recent award-winning books

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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.