West Virginia Book Festival

Mastering the art of reading about Julia Child

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.

The Newbery winner and West Virginia

Dead End in Norvelt
In this Newbery winning novel, some residents of Norvelt, Pa., one of the New Deal towns, are upset at plans to sell and move their empty houses to Eleanor, W.Va.

In this year’s Newbery Medal winner, author Jack Gantos borrows from his own childhood in Norvelt, Pa., for a comical and touching mystery.

Gantos himself is the main character, a kid who suffers from frequent, stress-induced nosebleeds. Their town is named for Eleanor Roosevelt, because it is one of the towns that she pioneered during the Great Depression. Throughout the book, Jack is pulled between each of his parents. His mother grows corn and cooks casseroles for the aged widows in the dwindling town. She strives to live and teach the Depression-era values of sharing and helping that she learned as a child in Norvelt. His father, a World War II veteran, zips around in a surplus military plane and has no patience for quiet, struggling Norvelt and a barter economy. He plans to take the family to Florida for a better life.

Jack helps an elderly neighbor whose hands are so arthritic she can no longer write all the obituaries for the original residents, who are “dropping like flies.” She dictates them to Jack instead. One by one a fascinating and touching personal history of the town emerges.

Jack’s dad leaves periodically for construction jobs in West Virginia. He is also among the town residents involved in moving vacant houses from Norvelt to another Depression-era community that is thriving — Eleanor, W.Va.

Of course, this book is not Gantos’ only connection to the Mountain State. He appeared at the 2005 West Virginia Book Festival, where about 60 children and adults gathered and he expertly kept both laughing at the same words, but for slightly different reasons.

Gantos’ Joey Pigza books have long been a favorite of mine and the children I read them to. “Dead End in Norvelt” promises to join that category.

Has anyone else read this book?  I need to talk about it.

I’d heard about it, obviously.  I’ve ordered replacements for worn-out and lost copies at every branch of the library.  I had never read it, though.  I knew what it was about, which meant I knew enough about it to suggest it to patrons, so I just didn’t.

But then I thought, well, he’s coming to the Book Festival, I’ll just read it.

Listen, have you read this book?  It is literally unbelievable.  Maybe I’m just naïve, but I tell you what, I’m grateful that I’m naïve enough to find it difficult to believe that a mother would do the things that are in this book.

But, OK, I’m not here to dispute the veracity of Dave Pelzer’s story.  I just want to talk about the experience of reading A Child Called “It.” It is not a pleasant one!  It’s pretty frigging horrible!  But I still think everyone should read it!

The facts of Dave Pelzer’s early life are probably enough that any type of telling would leave an impression on the reader – the alcoholic parents, starvation, slavery – it gets worse as the book progresses.  What I found effective was Pelzer’s voice – he writes from the perspective of young David.  During the first chapter, when he’s recounting happy times and wholesome family adventures, you think you’re in for a cloying, and, I’m sorry to say, annoying, experience.

Then it shifts.  With no artful, easy transition, suddenly he’s being knocked around the house and sleeping in the basement, when he is allowed to sleep at all.  There’s no attempt to justify his mother’s behavior, or to figure out his father’s truly amazing ability to ignore the problem, and there’s no chance for the reader to take a breath and absorb the harsh reality.  That was what killed me, the complete lack of “why” that would have been a reprieve from the torment.  Of course, I’m just reading the book in my comfortable living room.  Dave Pelzer lived it.Look how normal and well-adjusted he turned out!

As anyone who talked to me in the two days it took me to read the book knows, it is effective and affecting.  It is simply written; it is short.  It is accessible to any adult or teenager, no matter what your reading level.  This, I think, is the real beauty of the book.  Pelzer states that his goal is to tell his story, not to vilify his mother or to exorcise demons, but to shed light on the fact that child abuse happens every day, everywhere, and ignoring it does not make it go away.  He writes completely without self-pity in a universally readable style.  This book will make you sad, and it will make you uncomfortable.  And it will make you want to meet him in person.

(Which you can do when he speaks at the West Virginia Book Festival on Sunday, Oct. 23 at 1 p.m.)

‘West by West’ review, and other notes

My review of Jerry West’s memoir “West by West” is out in the Sunday Gazette-Mail today. It was a much different book than I expected.

Sure, the advance publicity said things like this is unlike any sports biography you’ve ever read, searingly honest, etc. etc., but publicists get paid to say things like that.

In this case, though, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of sports biography, and West is more honest about his insecurities (although that seems too small a word) than any introspective athlete I can remember. As I say in the review, the first part will be of special interest to lots of West Virginians, not just WVU or basketball fans.

West (surely you know this by now) is coming to this weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival, 6 p.m. on Saturday in the Charleston Civic Center’s coliseum. This weekend’s paper has a couple of other Book Festival tidbits as well.

| Bill Lynch interviewed local writer Geoff Fuller about his scary new book “Full Bone Moon,” which will be released at the festival. Bill notes that the book “takes inspiration from two murders in the Morgantown area back in 1970 sometimes referred to as the ‘Co-Ed Murders'” — something I remember well, growing up there.

| Paul Nyden read “The Kennedy Detail” by former JFK Secret Service agent Gerald Blaine, who will be at the Book Festival with one of his former colleagues, Clint Hill.




Author and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., native of Mineral County, turns 61 years old today.

The childhood in Mineral County, specifically in Piedmont, is chronicled in Gates’ award-winning 1994 memoir, “Colored People.” As former Gazette reporter Jack McCarthy wrote shortly after the book was published, “The memoir struck many chords. It was a remembrance of a coming of age. It lovingly portrayed the life of a black family and black community in Piedmont. And it captured a moment – the late 1950s and the early 1960s – in the life of a West Virginia town.”

This week’s Video of the Week, then, is Gates discussing “Colored People” on C-SPAN’s late, lamented “Booknotes” back in 1994. (As with many of the Book TV videos on YouTube, I can’t embed it here, but you can see it there.) And Dr. Gates, if you’re reading this — happy birthday.

Brad Paisley book comes out Nov. 1

Jerry West isn’t the only West Virginia-born celebrity with a book coming out this fall.

Brad Paisley, a native of Glen Dale in the Northern Panhandle (and one of the biggest country music stars on the planet), is coming out with his first book on Nov. 1.

From The Associated Press:

[The book is] called “Diary of a Player” and shows how the guitar gods of country, blues and rock `n’ roll have shaped his life.

Paisley tells The Associated Press he can’t imagine his life if he never learned to play the guitar. His grandfather gave him his first six-string at age 8.

Paisley is the reigning Country Music Association entertainer of the year. He has sold over 11 million albums and charted 20 No. 1 singles, including his most recent duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me.”

The book is co-written with Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild and published by Howard Books, and imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Unlike basketball star West, Paisley isn’t coming to next month’s West Virginia Book Festival. But there’s always next year … and it’s not like Paisley doesn’t know the way to the Civic Center.

Video of the Week: Dave Pelzer

We announced this week that Dave Pelzer, author of “A Child Called ‘It'” and six other books, would be coming to this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival. So who else would we make the Video of the Week?

As an added bonus, if you’re going through Oprah Winfrey withdrawal, you get some of her too. Here’s Pelzer, interviewed by Oprah:


Dave Pelzer

The victim of child abuse, Dave Pelzer was rescued at the age of 12 and raised in a series of foster homes. Now he uses his life experiences to teach others how to let go of the past and use negative experiences to make them stronger when tackling the future. Pelzer will speak on this subject at the West Virginia Book Festival at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 23, in the Charleston Civic Center Little Theater. Pelzer’s appearance is sponsored in part by the Segal & Davis Family Foundation.

Pelzer has written seven inspirational books, two of which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His memoir, “A Child Called ‘It,'” is read and discussed in high schools across the country. His latest title is “Moving Forward: Taking the Lead in Your Life.”

The West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 22 and 23. 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 panel discussions. 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, Wal-Mart and Borders Express at Charleston Town Center. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

This October at the West Virginia Book Festival, two former U.S. Secret Service agents who served on the Kennedy Detail will set the record straight about what really happened on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

Gerald Blaine

Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill will speak at the 11th annual West Virginia Book Festival at the Charleston Civic Center. Their talk, “The Kennedy Detail,” will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, in WV Room 105.

Blaine served three U.S. presidents as a special agent of the Secret Service on the White House detail. His book, “The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence,” for the first time reveals the story of the events leading up to and following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the perspective of the Secret Service agents who were there.

Blaine’s account includes contributions from most of the Secret Service agents who were on the Kennedy Detail, and draws upon the daily reports, expense accounts, personal notes and verbal first-hand accounts from this close-knit brotherhood of agents.

Clint Hill

Hill was in the presidential motorcade during the assassination and remained assigned to Mrs. Kennedy and the children until after the 1964 presidential election. He then was assigned to President Lyndon B. Johnson, then was promoted to Special Agent in Charge of Presidential protection. Later, he was SAIC of protection of Vice President Spiro Agnew, then assistant director of the Secret Service for all protection. He retired in 1975.

The West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 22 and 23. The event is presented annually by the West Virginia Humanities Council, Kanawha County Public Library, The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail. The festival offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. 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 sponsored by Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, Wal-Mart and Borders Express at Charleston Town Center. Visit www.wvbookfestival.org for more information.