West Virginia Book Festival

Bastille Day, the French national holiday on July 14, seems like the perfect time to mention one of the more surprising things I learned at last year’s West Virginia Book Festival.

At a reception the night before the festival, I was talking with Judy Johnson, wife of Walt Longmire mystery series author (and Huntington native and Marshall graduate) Craig Johnson. She was wearing a very distinctive pair of hand-painted cowboy boots, and I asked if I could take a photo for the blog. She said I could, so here you go:

This led to a conversation about the boots, and after telling me their provenance (which I’ve forgotten; they were from somewhere in Wyoming), she said that when she and her husband go to France, people stop them all the time and ask where she got the boots. “Do you go to France often?” I asked. “All the time,” she said.

In addition to loving her cowboy boots, the French love her husband’s cowboy books. The French translation of Craig Johnson’s debut Longmire novel, “The Cold Dish,” won the 2010 Prix du Roman Noir (according to Johnson’s Amazon.com biography) as the best mystery novel translated into French that year.

In an interview with Cowboys & Indians magazine (for real) that year, Johnson talked a little bit about his books being translated into French:

You know, of all the places I would’ve thought that the books would really take off, France would’ve been one of the last on my list — it’s so civilized — but they have and with a vengeance.

But the French have a longstanding fascination with the American West. In his book “The Greater Journey,” a history of Americans in Paris in the 19th century, historian David McCullough talks about the hugely favorable reception given to George Catlin, who brought an exhibition of paintings of American Indians — along with some actual American Indians — to Paris in 1845. McCullough writes:

It was not only the subject matter of Catlin’s paintings that appealed, but the director strength of his work, the raw color and a simplicity of form verging on naive. The paintings had much the same fascination for the French as the Indian tales by James Fenimore Cooper. This was the America they imagined, “wild America,” and that they found almost irresistible.

This might help explain another thing that Judy Johnson told me last year. She and her husband also visit Spain, where cowboys-and-Indians books and movies are popular, just like they are in France. But in Spain, people root for the cowboys, she said; in France, they root for the Indians.

The incredible staying power of Arna Bontemps

I’ve read Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps to fifth graders before. But this year it was different.

My standard is “Bubber Goes to Heaven,” written in the early 1930s but not published until 1998. That year Oxford University Press brought it out with gorgeous carved and painted illustrations by Daniel Minter. It’s about a poor, African-American kid in Alabama who falls out of a tall pine tree and goes to heaven, where everyone has plenty to eat and all the washer women have plenty of work.

It always pleases the class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. We get to discuss this child’s idea of heaven and what it reveals about his daily life in the rural South during the Great Depression.

It also always connects, despite being so removed in time, place and even dialect. The first year, when it became clear that the boy in the story was awarded a purple ribbon bookmark from Shiloh Baptist Church for learning the books of the Bible, a girl in the class piped up, “I have one of those.” Hers was also an award for scripture knowledge. Another year, a student commented that her church had the same name.

But this year, it sparked its own little Arna Bontemps revival, right there in Charleston, W.Va.’s Piedmont Elementary School. As soon as we finished the last page, the questions came fast.

“Are there any more of those?”

“Is that a series?”

“Is there another story in that book? What are those extra pages?”

It is not a series, I answered. There is another story with a character named Bubber. I had recently learned as much from one of the essays in the “extra pages” in the book. It is not clear whether it is the same character.

“If I can find another book by this author, would you like me to bring it?”

There was a chorus of “Yes.”

So, we all parted for a three-week school break, and I hurried to the computer to track down copies of “Lonesome Boy” and “Sad Faced Boy,” two of Bontemps’ other children’s books. I did not find them in recent reprints, but in older, less pristine forms. When school resumed, I dutifully carried in “Lonesome Boy,” what I considered the better of the two, and more likely to please. It tells the story of an older Bubber who so enjoys playing his trumpet, he plays it anytime, anywhere. His grandfather warns him not to play his instrument absent-mindedly, but always to pay attention to his surroundings. The young man heads off to New Orleans, forgets his grandfather’s advice, and catches himself in some bad and dangerous company.

The students liked it. They immediately spotted the contrast between the heavenly imagery of the first story and the devil imagery of the second. They begged for yet a third Arna Bontemps. So, with some inner reluctance, we read what I thought was the weakest, certainly the simplest, of the three, “Sad Faced Boy”. Three children hop a freight train and head to Harlem, where they stay with their uncle and have child-size adventures that contrast their 1930s rural life with the bustling life of New York City.

The physical volume itself had a story to tell. I’m so glad that someone somewhere along the way taught me not to judge a book by its cover, and so I told the class. Because this old, plain, worn burgundy cover had fraying corners, and it smelled. But we opened it anyway. The pages appeared to be from a first edition in 1937. They were delicate, but whole. The book had clearly been rebound. I pointed out to the students the biggest surprise. On the title page, among the many marks this book had acquired in its long journey, was a stamp from the Rowther Relocation Center in Arkansas. Relocation center? As in Japanese internment camp.

So before we read, we took a moment to understand where this book started out, and who might have read it, and what was going on in their world at the time. We examined some kid’s notes on the endpages — “5×8=40; 5×9=45.” That brought a sympathetic laugh.

And then we read of three boys who get into a parade, who form a band, who find the park, who eat ices. I would have thought the adventures were too quaint, too old-fashioned to impress these young sophisticates, but there was something both strange and familiar about these children leaving home to see the world.

We spent almost the whole term on this author in weekly installments, not by my plan, but by theirs. In the end, most of the 47 students said “Sad-Faced Boy” was their favorite of the three. That might have been because it was most recent in their memory. Or it might have been the intriguing journey taken by the book itself. In any case, after all these years, Bontemps still brings it.

Before the end of class, one student asked me how much the book is worth. Another one made me an offer to buy it. I call that a successful read aloud.

New Pearl S. buck book coming in October

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.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” great?

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.

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.

Susan Maguire, novelist

Susan Maguire, aka Sarah Title, and her novel “Kentucky Home.” Photo by Chip Ellis.

I don’t mind telling you, it’s been a little gloomy here on the West Virginia Book Festival blog lately. So it is a real, unalloyed pleasure to report some good news.

Readers of this blog may know one of our contributors, Susan Maguire, for her love of Judy Blume, her completely different love for Jack Reacher, or her always interesting and often hilarious thoughts on any number of subjects.

As of this past Thursday, you can know her as something else: a published novelist. Her first book, the romance novel “Kentucky Home,” has been published by Kensington Books under Susan’s nom de plume, Sarah Title.

Elizabeth Gaucher interviewed Susan for the Sunday Gazette-Mail about her “double life: mild-mannered librarian by day, steamy romance writer by night.” (About that: I wouldn’t say I know Susan well, but mild-mannered is not the first adjective that comes to mind.)

Anyway, Susan talks about her book, and being a romance novelist — and the difference, or lack thereof, between that and being a novelist in general:

“There is sort of a dismissal of all kinds of genre fiction — that it’s predictable and it’s not meaningful. I don’t like to compare it to literary fiction because I think that makes both kinds of writing come out losing. I think all kinds of reading are valuable,” she said.

“People are attracted to the romance formula because it’s comforting. But, in the right hands, it’s also interesting because you know you have to get from point A to point B, and there are a lot of different ways to get there.”

Book awards, nominees and other news

A bunch of book award news lately:

| The most storied award in children’s literature, the Newbery Medal, was awarded on Monday to “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, a story for children ages 8 and up about a gorilla whose contented existence in a cage is upended when he’s joined by a baby elephant. According to the review in School Library Journal, the story is “a poignant, quietly powerful tale that sheds light on animal cruelty.”

| Also Monday, the Caldecott Medal for the top American picture book went to “This Is Not My Hat,” which was illustrated (and written) by Jon Klassen (who seems to be making a career of writing about animals and hats). School Library Journal said that “the brilliantly spare digital artwork conveys a parallel narrative with tiny telling details revealing that crime does not pay.”

Both the Newbery and Caldecott are awarded by the American Library Association. A list of runners-up for both awards, as well as honorees for several others, can be found here.

| Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” has garnered more than its share of awards already. It won the Man Booker Prize, and it ended up on year-end best books lists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and many others. Mantel added to her haul on Tuesday, when “Bring Up The Bodies” won the Costa prize (and the 30,000 British pounds that come with it) on Tuesday.

The book is the second part of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the clergyman and minister who helped bring about the English Reformation before (spoiler alert!) losing his head at the Tower of London in 1540. The first installment of Mantel’s trilogy, “Wolf Hall,” also won the Man Booker Prize.

“Bring Up The Bodies” was unanimously awarded the Costa (which was called the Whitbread Prize until 2005), becoming the first book to ever win both that prize and the Man Booker Prize.

| The annual list of nominees for the Edgar Awards, from the Mystery Writers of America, should be required reading for mystery fans. Besides the overall mystery category, there’s biography, first novel, young adult, etc. — including TV teleplay, where you’ll find the pilot episode of “Longmire,” the A&E television series based on the novels of 2012 West Virginia Book Festival presenter Craig Johnson.

| There’s also some news about book awards that doesn’t have anything to do with actual books. The National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards, is changing the process by which the winners are chosen. The judging panel will be expanded, and both a longlist and shortlist of finalists will be announced.

If that sounds familiar, maybe it’s because the Man Booker Prize is awarded in a similar fashion. National Book Foundation people say they want to integrate the award more into popular culture, and they want to goose sales not just of the eventual winner, but of the books that make the shortlist as well.

Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains, 113 pages

Edited by Cat Pleska and Michael Knost

Woodland Press, 2012; $14.95

“Fed from the Blade” is an engaging collection of 28 crisp stories, tales, and poems fresh from the imaginations of authors of West Virginia, all members of West Virginia Writers Inc.

As a longtime member of the group, I searched out a copy in the vendors’ arena at last fall’s West Virginia Book Festival. As I purchased a copy, I learned 170 submission were culled before the collection took shape. The result is an enjoyable variety of prose and poetry with an intriguing title.

The title was a sticking point until the co-editors, Pleska and Knost, attended a poetry reading and heard poet Sherrell Wigal read her powerful poem, “I Am the Daughter.” One of the poem’s phrases, “fed from the blade,” resonated with them and a title was born. Wigal’s poem opens the collection and sets the scene for a baker’s dozen of eclectic poems. The anthology closes with the poignant poem, “New Choir Choice,” by Ethan Fisher.

Sandwiched among the poems are stories and tales of all descriptions. “Pee Wees’ Playhouse,” by Belinda Anderson, provides a wry humorous touch. If you’ve ever tried to outwit a persistent bird or yard critter, this story will bring back memories of the perks and quirks of living close to the craggy mountains and their abundant wildlife.

Maybe it’s the fog or the hollows but whatever the reason, West Virginians do spooky stories really well. Some of the tales in the collection are downright hair-raising scary. “Hallowmas” by Edwina Pendarvis offers a startling twist and ranks right up there with “The Tell Tale Lilac Bush,” a classic West Virginia ghost tale. “Splinters,” by G. Cameron Fuller, and “Puddles,” by Karin Fuller, are haunting tales in the style of Davis Grubb.

No West Virginia collection would be complete without well-told stories of families, tributes to coal miners, buzzard watching, rock climbing and caving. The anthology offers these and more.

“Fed from the Blade” is sure to find its way into classroom and living rooms. There it will showcase talented contemporary writers of West Virginia. Hopefully, it will encourage even more writing right here in the mountains.

The book is available from the Woodland Press, local book stores and and via the Internet.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Hobbit.”

Last month’s release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the latest film by Peter Jackson based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, was another chance to remember one of the cooler things put out by the West Virginia University Press.

Nine years ago, just after Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy brought Tolkien into the popular consciousness in a way he hadn’t been in decades, the WVU Press began publishing an annual collection of academic studies on Tolkien’s works. The first edition came out in 2004, and subsequent editions featured, among other things, a “major essay on Tolkien’s Elvish languages” (which is awesome).

The arrangement began under the original director of the WVU Press (and my freshman adviser), Patrick Conner, who understands that some people don’t understand why Tolkien is a subject worthy of scholarly study. Conner notes that Tolkien also wrote about the great medieval Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf. As Diane Mazzella of WVU Today wrote:

Conner, a medievalist, has studied Tolkien’s connection with Beowulf. In fact Tolkien published one of the most influential essays on the topic.

“He challenges the prevalent notion held then that medieval stories filled with various unworldly events were, in fact, stories for the nursery,” Conner said. “He understood these stories to be studies in very real human feat and conflict.”

In a way, Tolkien was rescuing the discussion about the first epic written in the English language from being solely about the language it was written in.

“His detractors often cannot get past the machinery of little hobbit people and dragons and wizards, but I’m not sure that should be harder to get past than what much of modern literature demands of its readers,” Conner said. “It’s just that Tolkien’s machinery all too quickly is thought to have come from the nursery. It didn’t. It came from his study.”

But why the WVU Press? What’s the connection between Tolkien and the Mountain State?

Well … there isn’t one. But as current WVU Press Director Carrie Mullen pointed out to Mazzella, the Press focuses on West Virginia, but not exclusively. And “Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review” was the first of its kind when it started, and has garnered WVU Press some international attention.

So it’s very cool. But be warned, it’s probably not something that your average Tolkien fan will pick up; for example, the first article in the latest review, by Dallas Baptist University professor Philip Irving Mitchell, is titled “Legend and History Have Met and Fused: The Interlocution of Anthropology, Historiography, and Incarnation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-stories.’” Maybe it’s better to just go read “The Hobbit” again.

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.