West Virginia Book Festival

West Virginia Day — that’s today — is, by its very nature, a chance for residents to reflect on the history of their state. The West Virginia University Press and the West Virginia Humanities Council have joined forces to preserve some of that history.

Last fall, they published the first two volumes in the West Virginia Classics series: “West Virginia” by J.R. Dodge and “The Shenandoah” by Julia Davis, both with new introductions.

What is the West Virginia Classics series? The WVU Press is glad you asked:

The West Virginia Classics series republishes editions of treasured literary and historical works. This rediscovery of classic texts reveals the culture and diversity of West Virginia while speaking to a new generation of readers who desire to explore the story of the Mountain State.  The highly designed editions of West Virginia Classics clear a delightful path to the past, helping citizens of all ages discover and rediscover the history, culture, and diversity of West Virginia.

“Highly designed” may sound like some fancy sales pitch, but I’ve got the first two volumes in the series, and they’re some nice-looking books.

| “West Virginia: Its Farms and Forests, Mines and Oil-Wells” by J.R. Dodge, the first statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the introduction by Kenneth Bailey, professor emeritus and former dean at WVU Tech, the book’s genesis came after information about the “agricultural status and prospects” of the newly formed state was published by the USDA in 1864. Bailey says the report “stimulated a huge demand for more information,” which led to Dodge’s book, first published in 1865.

Dodge’s book contains several lists and tables, which are no doubt of use to serious historical researchers, and of passing interest to many general readers. But the real pleasure for many West Virginia readers will be the glimpse of the state as it first coalesced. He gives a survey of the state’s various regions: residents, history, topography, industry, natural resources.

It’s far from dispassionate history; it was the end of the Civil War, after all, and there’s no shortage of that flavor from Dodge, a New Hampshire native and a civil servant in the Lincoln administration. (On his very first page, Dodge writes of the “humbling of the pride of Virginia secession.) But that only adds to the period atmosphere of the book. Dodge’s snapshot of West Virginia as it became a state is often fascinating.

| The second of the West Virginia Classics — “The Shenandoah” by Julia Davis — was originally published as part of another series: the landmark “Rivers of America,” which spanned decades and relied on authors and poets, rather than historians and geographers, to tell the story of the great rivers of the United States.

Davis — the daughter of John W. Davis, West Virginia’s only major presidential candidate — was the author of more than two dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. She was recommended to write about the Shenandoah River (and Valley) by poet Stephen Vincent Benet, one of the editors of the Rivers of America series, according to the new introduction by nature writer, poet and former Shenandoah Valley resident Christopher Camuto. As Camuto writes:

The heart of “The Shenandoah” is Julia Davis’ engaging account of the role the Valley played in American history from early European exploration in the late seventeenth century through the tragedy of the Civil War and the pains of reconstruction.

In October (just in time for the West Virginia Book Festival), the third book in the series will be published — and like “The Shenandoah,” it’s a section of a larger series that is particularly germane to West Virginia.

“History of the American Negro: West Virginia Edition,” by A.B. Caldwell, was first published in 1923. Caldwell edited and published seven volumes of the series, consisting of biographical sketches of prominent, and sometimes not-so-prominent, black citizens of the day. The first two volumes focused on Georgia; future volumes encompassed South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. West Virginia was the seventh and final volume of the series.

According to the description at the WVU Press website:

In a statement printed in the first volume of this series, Caldwell wrote that his intent in publishing this collection was neither “comprehensive nor exhaustive,” yet he was determined to shed light on the  “successful element unrecorded” of black Americans in the United States. … A resource for genealogists, historians, and citizens alike, this history provides a detailed account of the often overlooked lives of ordinary men and women.

The introduction for the new volume will be by Joe Trotter, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and author of, among other works, “Coal, Class and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-1932.”

Who knows what the next part of the West Virginia Classics might be? Well, maybe you do. The WVU Press is soliciting suggestions for the series. So if you remember a book from your youth that taught you something about West Virginia’s history, let them know. And come to the marketplace at this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival, where the WVU Press has been a mainstay for years, and pick up a couple of West Virginia Classics.

Harry Potter visits Lewisburg? What?

Sure, J.K. Rowling announced the title of her first adult novel on Thursday — “The Casual Vacancy,” which the Guardian calls “a ‘blackly comic’ tale about an idyllic town ripped apart by a parish council election.’ It’s due out in September.

But if you’re not quite ready to let Rowling’s earlier work go — you remember that boy wizard, right? — you still have a chance to get your fix in an unexpected place.

Until April 21, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg is hosting an exhibition titled “Harry Potter’s World: Renaissance Science, Magic and Medicine.” It’s put together by the National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. According to the WVSOM website:

Muggles of all ages are invited to discover how the Renaissance traditions of magic, alchemy and natural philosophy that shaped the Harry Potter series have also influenced Western science and medicine.

The Harry Potter’s World exhibit incorporates works of 15th and 16th century thinkers and the Harry Potter story to explore the history of science and medicine while considering important ethical issues.

In the first Harry Potter book, the owner of the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, in the original British) is Nicolas Flamel. In real life, Flamel was a 14th-century alchemist who allegedly searched for the mythical stone. He lived into his 80s — no mean feat in the Middle Ages — and his former home is the oldest stone building still standing in Paris.

Others in the exhibit (at least, they’re in the illustration on the website) are Conrad Gesner, one of the founders of modern zoology, and Ambroise Pare, a surgeon to French royals in the 16th century. Want to learn more? You’ve got until April 21.

Connie Willis, cats and unintended consequences

Connie Willis, this year’s winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Award, is best known for her series of novels and stories about time-traveling historians at Oxford University in the mid-21st century.

I was reminded of one of those books this week: “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a part-comedy, part-thriller about a couple of historians who fear they’ve changed Victorian history so badly that the Nazis will win World War II. But as it turns out, Willis inserted a relatively minor detail in her story that — if it ever happened — could be pretty devastating as well.

In “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” the characters are based in the year 2057, and cats — all cats — have been wiped out by disease. Sad? Undoubtedly. A disaster for humans? Not in the book. But it could be, if you believe the report from LiveScience.com this week. According to their speculation, the feline apocalypse would mean a significant increase in food eaten or destroyed by rodents:

A 1997 study in Great Britain found that the average house cat brought home more than 11 dead animals (including mice, birds, frogs and more) in the course of six months. That meant the 9 million cats of Britain were collectively killing close to 200 million wild specimens per year — not including all those they did not offer up to their owners. A study in New Zealand in 1979 found that, when cats were nearly eradicated from a small island, the local rat population quickly quadrupled.

And if the rodent population shot up, this would of course trigger a cascade of other ecological effects. On that same island in New Zealand, for instance, ecologists observed that, as rat numbers increased in the absence of cats, the population of seabirds whose eggs rats preyed upon declined. If the approximately 220 million domestic cats in the world all bit the dust, seabird populations would likely fall worldwide, while the populations of non-cat predators that prey on rats would be expected to increase.

Maybe that’s the next story in Willis’ time-travel series?

Eh, probably not.

A little reading for when the ground is shaking

Workers gather outside buildings at the state Capitol Complex after an earthquake shook the area on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Chris Dorst

Never let it be said that WVBF:TB doesn’t react to current events. We don’t get many earthquakes in these parts, so if you’re looking to extend your earthquake mood with some reading …

| On his blog Bookfox, writer John Matthew Fox compiled a list of some earthquake-related fiction a few years ago after a California quake. I can’t personally vouch for any of it, but any excuse to read some Haruki Murakami is a good excuse.

| In his 2006 book about the country’s best-known earthquake, “The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself,” Philip L. Fradkin argues that the devastation would have been much less if residents of the area had been better prepared. The Sacramento Bee called the book “a splendidly researched and well-written history of one of this country’s great urban disasters.”

| I could not begin to tell you what the best basic book on the science of earthquakes is, but I did come across a well-reviewed (and allegedly jargon-free) one from 2002 by seismologist Susan Hough, “Earthshaking Science: What We Know (And Don’t Know) About Earthquakes.” There are, of course, any number of kids’ science books about earthquakes and what causes them.

If you’ve got any suggestions, by all means, share them.

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times’ excellent literary blog, Jacket Copy, has republished their list of nine earthquake-related books. Some are repeats from the Bookfox list.

The most expensive book in the world

If you know someone who likes birds — I mean really likes birds — here’s a great Christmas present.

A copy of “Birds of America,” by famed 19th-century naturalist John James Audubon, is going up for sale at the Sotheby’s auction house in London on Dec. 7. The book contains 1,000 paintings of birds, all done by Audubon, who would shoot the birds and then hang them on wires to paint them.

So if you’ve got at least $6 million or so to spend …

That’s right, $6 million, probably more. “Birds of America” is billed as the most expensive book in the world. A copy sold at Christie’s in New York in 2000, the most ever paid for a printed book.

Why is it so expensive? Mostly because it’s so rare.

There are only 119 complete copies in the world, and almost all of those — 108 — are in museums and libraries. Audubon printed his book in England and sold it only to wealthy subscribers, hence the few in existence. The copy for sale in December is Book No. 11, which was sold to paleontologist Henry Witham. Sotheby’s values it between 4 million and 6 million pounds — that’s between $6.2 million and $9.2 million.

Also in the December auction at Sotheby’s is a nearly complete First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, which is expected to fetch a mere 1 million pounds, or more than $1.5 million. Both books come from the estate of the second Baron Hesketh, who died in 1955 and, according to The Associated Press, was an “aristocratic book collector.” Where do you apply for that job?

A preview of coming attractions

Missed it last week, but Publishers Weekly came out with their list of books expected this fall, both hardcovers and trade paperbacks. It’s a little hard to read in places, but you can browse through there and find some interesting stuff, whether you’re looking to buy or just want to get to the head of the hold queue at your local library. A few things that caught my attention:

Jane Leavy, who wrote a great biography of baseball legend Sandy Koufax a few years ago (and a pretty good baseball novel before that), returns with “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.” Mantle’s story is a fascinating one, and I love baseball books, but I’ve grown more leery of the ones that talk about how much better things used to be. Still, it’ll go on the to-be-read list.

Rolling Stones co-founder and modern medical miracle Keith Richards has an autobiography coming out, called “Life.” (Well, that about sums it up, I guess.) Ought to be a few good stories in there.

Frederick Exley is the author of the cult classic quasi-memoir “A Fan’s Notes,” which I read when I was too young to get half of it and probably should try again. Anyway, Brock Clarke’s third novel, “Exley,” is about “a boy [searching] for a person who can save his father, writer Frederick Exley.” Hmmmmm. I really enjoyed Clarke’s previous novel, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England,” so I’ll check this one out.

I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention that West Virginia Book Festival headliner Nicholas Sparks has a new book coming out, “Safe Haven” — including “one woman’s choice between loyalty and love.” Also, Book Festival author Diana Gabaldon is coming out with “The Exile,” a graphic novel version of the first book in her “Outlander” series, told from a different character’s point of view.

Just a few fish that I noticed in a big, big sea. There are, of course, too many books by familiar authors to count: John Grisham, James Patterson, Stephen King, David Sedaris, Patricia Cornwell, Joseph Ellis, Richard Reeves, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child … really, it’s amazing (and a little mind-numbing). But somewhere in those lists is a novel, or a collection of stories or essays, or a history or biography, by the next Grisham or Evanovich or Sedaris. Go find it.

Civil War history: A blend of old and new

Plenty of images from the time, such as this print of a Civil War balloon, help to make “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War” a book that enables young people to discover knowledge of history on their own.

From my earliest discoveries about American Civil War history, I have been fascinated by the overlap of old and new technologies — new rifled gun barrels that spun bullets straighter and farther than the old West Point generals anticipated, armored ships, submarines, “high-speed” telegraph communications and mass troop and supply transport by rail, for example.

At the same time, Civil War soldiers were still facing each other in the kind of formations Napoleon used, and dying in the face of these more deadly weapons. Medical care had not advanced as far as gun technology, so soldiers died of disease or infection, if not directly from their wounds.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War,” Thomas B. Allen and his son Roger MacBride Allen expertly explain these contrasts for young readers, although grown readers will find plenty here to expand their own understanding.

The book tracks technological developments throughout the war and their effects on the fighting armies and navies. It starts with the years of scientific discovery leading up to Civil War and follows innovations as the war drags on to involve the total population.

As you might expect from a National Geographic book, it not only reads well, it looks great. Designers set aside from the main text relevant chronologies and brief backgrounds on specific topics, such as photography and habeas corpus. This makes the book easier to browse, particularly for young readers. Almost every page contains an image from the time that allows readers to “discover” historical knowledge on their own. For example, you can see cannon dents in the sides of the U.S.S. Monitor, bent railroad ties that had been wrapped around trees and the columns of the White House wrapped in black after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Thomas B. Allen has won a number of commendations for his earlier young adult non-fiction, including “George Washington, Spymaster,” and “Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.” His son has written science fiction in the past. This is their first book together.

I found this book on the new shelf at the Kanawha County Public Library. It deserves a place in every elementary and middle school collection. It is exactly the type of book young, curious readers can browse again and again, picking up new details and understanding each time.  Though it is easy to follow, it is not dumbed down. It has a complete bibliography and list of works cited, a good index and a substantial page of online resources.

Where Are They Now: Sylvia Nasar

What do the Academy Awards, the Nobel Prizes and the West Virginia Book Festival have in common?


That would be Sylvia Nasar, who headlined the first Book Festival back in 2001 as the author of “A Beautiful Mind.” The biography of Bluefield native John Forbes Nash Jr. chronicled his work as a mathematical genius and his struggles with mental illness.

Nash shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics with two other men for their work in game theory. The film version of “A Beautiful Mind,” starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly and (loosely) based on Nasar’s book, won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Nasar came to Charleston to deliver the annual McCreight Lecture on Humanities, sponsored by the West Virginia Humanities Council.

As for the Book Festival, she said earlier this month:

“I have fond memories of the festival which gave me a chance not only to meet scores of avid readers like myself but to have a reunion with an old friend and West Virginian from Antioch College and the University of Besancon, Yvonne Farley.”

Nasar (a former New York Times and Forbes reporter) helps run a business journalism master’s degree program at Columbia University. She says she’s finishing “Grand Pursuit,” a historical narrative about the invention of modern economics, and recently edited “Best Science Writing 2008” for HarperCollins.

‘Every crystal a masterpiece of design’


As I write this, huge tufts of snow drift past my office window. A few land on the sill outside, and the flakes are so large that, just before they melt, I can see their individual branches and the dense opaque white of their center clump of molecules. Inside, just landed on my desk is “The Secret Life of a Snowflake,” a beautiful book that is part art, part science.

Kenneth Libbrecht, a physics professor at California Institute of Technology, goes out in the snow, captures an individual flake on a paintbrush, shines colored lights on it and takes its picture.

snowflakebook.jpgThe results are stunning. Libbrecht explains water’s changing state and why snowflakes have six sides. Pull a penny from your pocket for reference. Libbrecht blows the penny up to the size of a dinner plate and then shows snowflakes to scale, almost as large as Lincoln’s head or almost as small as the B in “LIBERTY.”

Did you know that snowflakes can also be rod-shaped, like six-sided pencils? Or that snowflakes can be spool-shaped, with flakes on the ends of rods? He shows broken, lop-sided flakes, and simple flakes he grew in his lab. (The image above is one of his, courtesy of Voyageur Press, an imprint of MBI Publishing Company.)

This book is ideal for an elementary school classroom or library, and a fascinating browse for everyone else. Libbrecht posts more photos and updates at his site, SnowCrystals.com

Like another man a century ago, Libbrecht preserves for future appreciation a kind of natural performance art.

snowflakebentley.JPGThat story, of Vermont farmer Wilson Bentley, is told in “Snowflake Bentley” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. It won the 1999 Caldecott for illustrations by Mary Azarian and was just reprinted in December. It is a fine picture book biography of a self-educated farmer  who rigged up a camera and microscope to photograph an individual snowflake for the first time in 1885. He took thousands of photos.

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others,” Bentley wrote in 1925. “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

msnowflakes.jpgIncidentally, some of Wilson Bentley’s antique snow photos (left) recently went on sale in New York, where the weather forecast today was simply: blizzard.

On Virginia Street in Charleston, the wind has picked up. The flakes are smaller now and whizzing by too fast to perceive individually.