West Virginia Book Festival

Book Festival plans from the WVU Press

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For years, one of the mainstays of the Book Festival has been the West Virginia University Press, under former director Pat Conner and his successor, Carrie Mullen. Next month, the WVU Press will again have a ton of stuff going on at the festival, as marketing manager Abby Freeland told me this week.

First, they’re sponsoring one of the opening sessions of the festival, Betty Rivard talking about “New Deal Photography: West Virginia’s Gift to National Books and Museums” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13. Her new book — “New Deal Photography in West Virginia, 1934-1943” — isn’t even available yet, but Abby says it will be at the festival, and Rivard will sign copies of the book at the WVU Press booth (in the marketplace) from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Oct. 13 and 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 14.

Also, Abby says: “All of our latest publications will be available for purchase at our booth, including Lee Maynard’s Crum Trilogy (‘Crum,’ ‘Screaming with the Cannibals’ and ‘The Scummers’), John Antonik’s ‘The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History’ and Karen Osborn’s ‘Centerville,’ a fictionalized account of a bombing witnessed by the author in Ohio during the 1960s. “

Lots of previous WVU Press offerings will be available as well, including John Allen’s “Uncommon Vernacular: The Early Houses of Jefferson County, West Virginia, 1735-1835,” Marie Manilla’s “Still Life with Plums,” Bonnie E. Stewart’s “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster,” and the new series of West Virginia Classics published with the West Virginia Humanities Council.

And then there’s this: All WVU Press books will be available for purchase at a 25 percent discount at the festival. So as they say on the late-night commercials, there’s never been a better time to buy.

“The Art of Fielding” and baseball season

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As a sports fan, I often try to read something related to a particular sport before its season starts, to refamiliarize myself with the game and the thoughts and emotions that surround it. My pre-football season habits have already been documented on this blog, but my baseball habits are more profligate; sometimes I’ll pick up a baseball novel for a re-read, sometimes a biography or history.

So when I kept hearing last year about this baseball-themed novel, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, I filed it away as something to read when spring rolled around. I didn’t quite get it finished by Opening Day (although the local team, the West Virginia Power, opens up at home tonight, so I’m guess I’m still good on at least one count). But I’m done with it now, and it’s a terrific book. Did it satisfy my baseball jones? That’s another story.

Much of “The Art of Fielding” revolves around Henry Skrimshander, a high school shortstop who ends up playing baseball for tiny Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan. Through a combination of hard work and natural gifts, Henry’s a natural on the baseball field — until one day, he isn’t. His troubles affect his teammates, the president of the college and those around them.

“The Art of Fielding” is the debut novel from Harbach, one of the founders of the literary magazine n+1, which might cause some readers (including this one) to approach it a little warily. Not to fear, though; as Gregory Cowles wrote in his review in The New York Times, “Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers … ‘The Art of Fielding’ is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved.” Indeed, it’s a well told narrative that doesn’t go anywhere too fast, and counts as much on its characters and settings as anything that happens in the plot. Its slowness, in fact, reminded this reader of a baseball game.

But you don’t have to like baseball — or even, really, to know baseball — to like “The Art of Fielding.” A few non-baseball fans told me this, and I read it several times elsewhere. (The Guardian of London even encouraged its readers to try the book, even though most of them would know as much about baseball as most of us know about cricket.)

And this, I think, is why I ultimately found “The Art of Fielding” less than completely satisfying. It’s a literary novel that just happens to have a few baseball players at its center. I guess I just wanted more baseball than I got — which is on me, not Chad Harbach and his very good book.

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C-SPAN’s Book TV this weekend will feature Duke University economist Charles Clotfelter talking about his book “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,” at midnight and 4 p.m. on Saturday and (for complete insomniacs) at 4 a.m. on Monday. The book, published last March, “offers plenty of … eye-opening statistics but is perhaps most surprising in its even-handed approach to the subject of major college athletics,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

That may be, but fans of West Virginia’s two major-college athletic programs shouldn’t expect many details from the book. WVU is part of a couple of charts, but it and Marshall only get one mention apiece in the book’s text — and it’s an episode that will be instantly familiar to any fan of either school.

Clotfelter is talking about politicians getting involved in college football rivalries — specifically, encouraging schools within a state to play each other. He mentions that the Alabama House of Representatives passed a resolution in 1947 urging Alabama and Auburn to renew their football series after a 40-year hiatus — and the schools did so, the next year.

He also mentioned failed attempts by Kentucky legislators to force Louisville and Kentucky to play each other, and by North Carolina lawmakers to force North Carolina and North Carolina State to play much-smaller East Carolina (although despite the measures’ failure, all of those intra-state battles have since come to pass).

And then, of course, there’s this:

In 2005 the governor of West Virginia intervened in a similar standoff by urging the state’s two major public universities to schedule an annual football game. West Virginia University, a member of the Big East conference, probably making a similar little-to-be-gained calculation, had been reluctant to play the smaller and less prestigious Marshall University. In fact, it had played Marshall only once in the previous 82 years. For its part, Marshall wanted a scheduled game, but felt it would be demeaning for it to accept a “home and home” arrangement whereby all or most games would be played at West Virginia’s stadium. The governor eventually succeeded in brokering a compromise, saying, “It will be the best time you ever had in West Virginia – legally.”

Two things strike me.

One, Clotfelter (or his editor) doesn’t know what a “home and home” series is; by definition, it involves alternating games between each team’s location, so such an arrangement couldn’t involve “all or most games” at one stadium.

Two, he could have at least name-checked Joe Manchin. As we know, Manchin takes his college football very, very seriously.

Rich Rodriguez’s disaster at Michigan

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It’s been a rough year for the West Virginia University football team. The whole Dana Holgorsen-Bill Stewart coach-in-waiting mess, the conference realignment fiasco … WVU fans have had better stretches, for sure.

But if they want to engage in a little Schadenfreude, here’s their chance:

Later this month comes what’s billed as the “definitive account” of Rich Rodriguez’s disastrous three years at the University of Michigan.“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” by John U. Bacon is the product of the unrestricted access that Rodriguez gave Bacon shortly after he got to Michigan.

Rodriguez, as you probably know, is a Marion County native who led WVU to the brink of the national championship game — and then it all fell apart in spectacular fashion. The Mountaineers blew the final game of the year against arch-rival Pitt, and Rodriguez was soon on his way to Michigan, and the aftermath … well, it’s hard to imagine any earth more scorched.

The first sentence of the publisher’s summary describes Rodriguez as “college football’s most influential coach,” which I find somewhat dubious. Charles Pierce, a terrific writer on sports and other subjects, says that “Bacon’s account of Rodriguez’s epic failure is a cautionary tale for anyone who doesn’t realize that being a major college football coach requires one to be part CEO, part psychologist, part carny barker, and all crazy.”

The book comes out Oct. 25.

Books for Bridge Day

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Members of the III Vision BASE jumping team descend from the New River Gorge Bridge during the 25th annual Bridge Day in 2004. Photo by Kenny Kemp.

One of West Virginia’s signature events comes up later this month, as it does every October.

Well, yes, the West Virginia Book Festival is fast approaching, on Oct. 22 and 23. But this Saturday — Bridge Day — a bunch of crazy people known as BASE (bridge, antennae, spans and earth) jumpers will get together and jump off the New River Gorge Bridge.

If your idea of a good time doesn’t include flinging yourself into space nearly 1,000 feet above a river, but you’d like to know more about people who do, there are a couple of options.

Swedish-born Jevto Didijer wrote a first-person account of his attempts (and those of a couple of friends) to be certified as BASE jumpers in the mid-1980s,. The resultant book, “BASE 66,” details Didijer’s “short but very intensive BASE jumping stint,” as he puts it on his website. Didijer made 15 jumps, including one from the New River Gorge Bridge. He acknowledges that doesn’t sound like many to many modern-day BASE jumpers, but says that “one BASE jump almost 25 years ago was like mounting an expedition to a far away and dangerous place.”

More recently, longtime BASE jumper Matt Gerdes came out with “The Great Book of BASE,” which purports to be “the most complete, informative, and entertaining book ever published on the sport of BASE jumping.” It’s a reference guide with stories, history and photos — including at least a couple of pages on Bridge Day.

But be warned … no, seriously, be warned. There’s a two-page disclaimer at the front of the book that says things like “BASE jumping is extremely dangerous. It is so dangerous that we seriously encourage you to not do it. In fact, we honestly think it’s a bad idea” and “YOU and ONLY YOU are responsible for your actions and for your life. By reading this book, or even opening or barely touching it, you agree to take FULL RESPONSIBILITY for your actions in life.”

Basically, it’s “don’t sue us if you die.” Yikes.

So enjoy Bridge Day, and then come join us next weekend at the Book Festival. The worst that’ll happen to you there is you might get a little jostled at the book sale.

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There’s a review of Jerry West’s autobiography “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” written by yours truly, which will appear in this Sunday’s Gazette-Mail. The book will be released on Oct. 19, three days before West and co-author Jonathan Coleman are scheduled to discuss the book at the West Virginia Book Festival.

Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that “West by West” is far from your usual sports biography in a number of ways. One of them is that West describes himself as a voracious reader, name-dropping Joan Didion and Joseph Campbell, among other authors. He credits one of his English teachers at East Bank High School for that.

West writes:

But Betty Underwood was something else. She was perhaps the first true eccentric I ever knew. She was brilliant but crazy. She often wore two different shoes, and her hair was rumpled, but she instilled in me a love of reading that remains to this day. I had always thought teachers were supposed to look a certain way, but not her. She was different, and I realize now that my love of people who are different and odd and quirky started with her. When I left her class, I felt better in a way that almost defies description, which of course is what a great teacher should make you feel. I remember, as if it were yesterday, coming out of her class and saying, “Holy cow.” She wound up leaving her brain to West Virginia University, and I have often wondered what the research revealed.

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Nicholas Sparks — remember him? — comes out today with his latest book, “The Best of Me.” Judging from the book’s description, Sparks fans will enjoy this one as well:

High school students … fell deeply, irrevocably in love. Though they were from opposite sides of the tracks, their love for one another … unforeseen events would tear the young couple apart … twenty-five years later … neither can forget the passionate first love that forever changed their lives … Can love truly rewrite the past?

I’m guessing yes.

Anyway, today seems like a good time to catch up with the other people who helped make last year’s West Virginia Book Festival a success:

| Diana Gabaldon has the latest installment in her Lord John series, “The Scottish Prisoner,” scheduled for release on Nov. 29. She also a 20th anniversary edition of “Outlander,” the novel that started it all for her, in July. And, she recently announced on her blog that the eighth “Outlander” novel will be called “Written In My Own Heart’s Blood.”

| Carmen Deedy, as we mentioned last month, has a new young adult novel out, “The Cheshire Cheese Cat.” She also has a sequel to her 1994 book, “The Library Dragon,” coming out next April, called … wait for it … “The Return of the Library Dragon.” Michael R. White illustrates the book, as he did the original.

| James Robertson, longtime Civil War scholar, retired after more than four decades as a professor at Virginia Tech. That doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of him. He’s the author of “The Untold Civil War: Exploring the Human Side of War,” which comes out next week. He’s also the co-editor of “Virginia at War, 1865,” a look at the mother state at the end of the Civil War, due out on Nov. 3.

| Meredith Sue Willis released a collection of stories, “Re-Visions: Stories from Stories.” Her newsletter, Books for Readers, remains a great resource for people who love reading.

| Jim Benton’s twelfth in the Dear Dumb Diary series, “Me (Just Like You, Only Better) was published in June. Because each book covered a month in diarist Jamie Kelly’s life, you might think that’s the end of the series. Not to worry, the first book in the “Dear Dumb Diary, Year Two” series is out on Jan. 1. Also, Benton’s Happy Bunny book, “Love Bites,” gets a special edition release on Dec. 1.

| Did you hear Ken Hechler is 97? Come wish him a belated happy birthday at this year’s Book Festival.

| Jayne Anne Phillips continues as director of the Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Rutgers-Newark — she’s reading in the school’s Writers at Newark Reading Series on Oct. 25 — and was featured in “We Wanted To Be Writers,” an anecdotal history of the Iowa Writers Workshop published in August.

| Sarah Sullivan, Charleston children’s book author and longtime friend of the Book Festival, released “Passing The Music Down” to general acclaim in May.

| John J. Fox III, Civil War historian, writes:

My project due out late spring 2012 is about how JEB Stuart became famous – his June 12-15, 1862, ride with only 1,200 Confederate cavalrymen around George McClellan’s entire Union army that threatened to capture Richmond. Stuart only lost one man during the operation, but the intelligence he brought back gave Robert E. Lee the green light to go on the offensive and launch the Seven Days’ Battles that saved the Confederate capital.

| Heidi Durrow had her novel “The Girl Who Fell From The Sky” chosen as the city of Portland’s “Everybody Reads” book for 2012. Durrow, the daughter of an African-American father and a Danish mother, also appeared as part of CNN’s “Dialogues” series, in an event on “The 2010 Census and the New America.” She continues to co-host the weekly “Mixed Chicks Chat,” available on iTunes.

| John Antonik remains new media director for the WVU athletic department, and writes the Campus Connection blog on MSNsportsNET.com.

Lee Child on Derek Jeter

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After one of the most spectacular days in baseball’s long and storied history on Wednesday, the playoffs start today.

What does this have to do with the West Virginia Book Festival? I’m glad you asked. Lee Child, headliner of the festival, is a big New York Yankees fan, and wrote about Yankees captain Derek Jeter this week on the ESPN sports/culture blog Grantland.

Jeter is Child’s choice if he had to build a novel around a member of the Yankees. He knows that “on the face of it, [Jeter] is the blandest man in baseball,” but then says:

Can you imagine the constant, crushing pressure involved in that? The sense of always being onstage? The caution, the paranoia, the relentless vigilance? He’s a Cold War story, a CIA guy undercover for 10 years a block from Checkpoint Charlie. Nerves of steel. Not just for the week of the World Series, but all day, every day, year after year after year. He has to be tough as hell. A weaker man would have collapsed under the strain long ago.

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“Moneyball,” the 2002 book by Michael Lewis about the small-market Oakland A’s and their attempt to compete with the big boys in major league baseball, comes to theaters across the country this weekend, starring Brad Pitt.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, an ex-ballplayer who is Oakland’s general manager. Beane needs to find players on the cheap, so he’s often left with players who nobody else wants. He’s also been exposed to some unorthodox statistical ideas that have been around for a couple of decades, but haven’t gained mainstream acceptance.

For example, Beane thinks hitters who get walks — those who get on base without hitting the ball — are undervalued. So he targets those players. He thinks players who don’t look like great athletes aren’t given enough attention by scouts, even if they hit well. So he targets those players.

By exploiting these “market inefficiencies,” Beane’s teams do pretty well. Although they didn’t win the World Series, the A’s had a great run in the early 2000s, producing good players and winning lots of games on a regular basis. They’ve been less successful recently, partly because many other teams have adopted some of Beane’s methods. He changed the way people view the game and its players.

Much of the book’s conflict comes from the clash of old baseball thought vs. new ideas (and Lewis can go a little far in building Beane up as a super-genius and describing his competitors as dolts). But the whole idea of a fight between traditional scouting and fancy new statistics implies that you have to take one or the other — when, like many arguments, the best thing to do is take ideas from both sides.

One such player, who appealed to both sides, was West Virginia’s own Nick Swisher, a former star at Parkersburg High School who plays a significant role in “Moneyball” — the book version, anyway.

In the 2002 baseball draft, Beane wanted to pick Swisher, then a player at Ohio State, more than anyone else. But Swisher was so good — in traditionally appreciated baseball ways, in addition to Beane’s statistically driven ways — that Beane was afraid Swisher will be gone before Oakland’s first pick. Lewis writes:

Nick Swisher is, at best, the Mets’ sixth choice: the Mets don’t even begin to appreciate what they are getting. The Mets are taking Swisher reluctantly. If Billy had the first pick in the entire draft he’d take Swisher with it. He appreciates Swisher more than any man on the planet and Swisher … should … have … been … his.

But the Mets take someone else, and Swisher falls to the A’s after all — at least, in real life.

According to the “Moneyball” page at The Internet Movie Database, Swisher isn’t in the movie — which is a little disappointing.

Still, Lewis is a great storyteller, and “Moneyball” is a cracking good yarn, and there’s much for baseball fans to learn in there — and as Janet Maslin of The New York Times noted, “You need know absolutely nothing about baseball to appreciate the wit, snap, economy and incisiveness” of the story.

Video of the Week: Jerry West

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Jerry West. Coming to the Book Festival. Video of the Week.