Midsummer roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is featured on NPR’s All Things Considered (“Whatever we call the new American short story, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it”), in Book Riot, and in Mississippi Today. As part of the Buzzfeed guide “58 Great Books to Read This Summer,” bookseller Sydne Conant of Madison’s indie bookstore A Room of One’s Own recommends the title. Philyaw’s book is also among several topics addressed in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article “A Big Book from a Little Press,” which calls WVU Press “a new publishing heavyweight.”

Jim Lewis’s Ghosts of New York is reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where it’s praised as “a collection of connected stories that is so imbued with the city in which it’s set that it could not possibly have taken place anywhere else.”

Chuck Keeney, author of The Road to Blair Mountain, is interviewed in Jacobin and (with Catherine Venable Moore, who introduced our edition of The Book of the Dead) on the podcast from the Smithsonian. Keeney and Moore will be joined by Anne T. Lawrence and Ginny Savage Ayers for the WVU Press showcase “New Books About the Mine Wars,” cohosted with the WVU Humanities Center and Taylor Books, on September 4.

William H. Turner’s forthcoming book is reviewed in Daily Yonder, which says: “One of the oldest and most enduring myths about the Appalachian Mountains is that they are now and always have been overwhelmingly populated by white Scots-Irish. Dr. William H. Turner has written a new book, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, that kills that myth about whiteness and, for good measure, buries several more myths as well.” The piece is picked up by 100 Days in Appalachia.Read More »

Edward Watts discusses a newly discovered novel of nineteenth-century West Virginia

Based mostly on his own experiences, Theophile Maher’s local color novel Cannel Coal Oil Days challenges many popular ideas about antebellum Appalachia, bringing it more fully into the broader story of the United States. Written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and published now for the first time, it offers a narrative of life between 1859 and 1861 in what was then western Virginia as it became West Virginia. The novel’s protagonist, a mining engineer, works closely with a Black family to organize the local abolitionist mountain folk into a Union militia to aid in secession from Virginia.

We talked with Edward Watts, editor of WVU Press’s edition of the novel, which will be published on August 1.

Tell me about how you discovered the manuscript, and about your personal connection to it.

The 390-page manuscript for my great-great-grandfather’s novel Cannel Coal Oil Days, handwritten on a series of steno pads in 1887, was given to my mother by members of another branch of the Maher family. I found it among her papers after her death in 2018. I read it and decided to pursue editing and publishing it, not only as a means of preserving family history, but also because, as a literary historian, I saw its value in the traditions of realism, Appalachian fiction, abolitionist and Civil War narrative, and mining history. My family still owns the Michigan land that Theophile bought, and stay in his daughter’s cottage there.

When people hear “coal” and “West Virginia,” they immediately have certain ideas.  But what’s cannel coal?

Cannel coal is a soft malleable coal found throughout the Ohio River Valley. While its only current use is hand-molded sculpture in arts and crafts, in the middle of the nineteenth century its distilled oil was developed as a replacement for whale oil in lighting American homes. Over-fishing had made whale oil scarce and Victorian-era homes had been fitted with oil burning lamps and chemical and mining engineers such as Theophile set to work on producing safe, clean, inexpensive, and non-odorous oil for that market. Read More »

“Every book is a process and its own story”: An interview with Gillian Berchowitz

Gillian Berchowitz was director at Ohio University Press until 2018, and among other accolades she is recipient of the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award from the Appalachian Studies Association. She talked with Derek Krissoff, director at West Virginia University Press, for the blog.

Tell me about the biggest change you’ve seen in your time as a publisher, and maybe about something that hasn’t changed as much as people predicted it would.

Very broadly, I think the biggest change has been the digitization of every aspect of publishing, but that’s almost meaningless now.

In some ways the publishing process has been democratized and in other ways a great deal of expertise has been lost, and writers find it harder to make a living, which is very undemocratic. Self publishing is no longer stigmatized and that’s all to the good, but the skills that editors, typesetters, text and cover designers, and professional publicists bring to the act of publishing are less—or no better—understood now, it seems, than ever before. The invisibility of what publishers bring to the finished book is elusive for many authors who are starting out and I wish that there were better ways of connecting authors with the many independent publishers that are out there. In the last 30 years or so, university presses, in addition to their scholarly publishing programs, do the work of independent publishers, but many writers don’t know that.Read More »

Early summer roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

In Slate, Nadia Owusu reports on the publishing story behind Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, quoting the author, WVU Press staff, and others. She finds: “This is the kind of acclaim that most books—much less a short-story collection, much less a debut, much less a debut collection published by a university press—never receive.” John Warner comes to a similar conclusion in the Chicago Tribune, saying: “There is no better publishing story this year.” Philyaw appears in Sojourners, Bitter Southerner, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Left of Black from Duke University. She moderates a conversation among debut Black writers for Kirkus.

Ghosts of New York, previously reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, lands in the Memorial Day Weekend edition as one of “10 New Books We Recommend This Week.”

Renée Nicholson’s Fierce and Delicate is excerpted in Longreads, and receives a rave in Library Journal, which calls it “an elegant collection of essays from a dancer’s soul that will uplift all readers.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides teaching tips from Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies, new in James Lang and Michelle D. Miller’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Hrach also appears on the Think UDL podcast, and her book is joined by others in West Virginia’s series by Jenae Cohn, Joshua Eyler, and Sarah Rose Cavanagh in Tophat‘s “Ultimate Summer 2021 Reading List for Professors.”Read More »

“I learned to dress from the skin out”: An excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s American Vaudeville

At the heart of American Vaudeville is one strange, unsettling fact: for nearly fifty years, from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, vaudeville was everywhere—then, suddenly, it was nowhere. This book tells the story of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in the country using lists, creation myths, thumbnail biographies, dreams, and obituaries. A lyric history—part social history, part song—American Vaudeville sits at the nexus between poetry, experimental nonfiction, and, because it includes historic images, art books.

In this excerpt from Geoffrey Hilsabeck’s new book (available and shipping now when ordered from our website), the author conjures Julian Eltinge, who achieved fame as a female impersonator in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Hilsabeck will read from American Vaudeville at White Whale Bookstore on June 16.

The door to Julian Eltinge’s dressing room is painted black. When knocked, it rattles in its frame. He stands in front of a mirror, whitening his face and neck with powder. He’s taken off his clothes (a brown suit hovers against the wall, a pair of brown loafers snug below), his bathrobe hangs loosely off his waist, and he’s dipping a sponge into a cigar box full of white powder and touching it to his skin. He works with the semiconsciousness of an expert. At each touch of the sponge, his body becomes softer, rounder. Curves emerge.

. . . next day decided that I would wear skirts at the entertainment to be given in Reading. Mrs. Wyman became interested, and I worked hard three hours a day for weeks at a time. I learned to dress from the skin out.

All the time he talks, he works away. By now the first layer of powder has stiffened and a second has been loosely applied. He rubs cold cream into his cheeks and forehead, over his nose with two smooth strokes, over his ears and behind them under the little cap covering his hair and then down to his neck, grabs a rag from the dressing table and wipes off some excess cream and then puts more powder on his face with the sponge and on top of that a layer of rouge. “It depends on where you put the paint, not how much you splash on,” he says, not looking at me, focused entirely on the transformation at hand. He rubs blue-black grease paint around his eyes and works it into the rouge and powder, adding contrast to his face, blackens his eyebrows, reddens his lips. Like a painter he dips a sharp little stick into a metal cup, which has been heated over a candle, and transfers beads of a black, sticky mixture to his eyelashes, a little black bead on each trembling lash.Read More »

Mid-spring roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

In widely reported back-to-back wins, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the LA Times Book Prize for first fiction. Author Deesha Philyaw is profiled in the Los Angeles Times, and her book receives mentions in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, as well as coverage in Electric Lit, LitHub, the Morgantown Dominion Post, and elsewhere. Publishers Weekly reports that the title is a pick from Goop, the book club from Gwyneth Paltrow. And the newsletter Notes from a Small Press holds up the “deliriously wonderful publishing story” of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies as an antidote to Big Publishing’s woes. Don’t miss the PEN/Faulkner awards ceremony, with sponsors including West Virginia University, on May 10.

Jim Lewis’s “exquisite” Ghosts of New York gets a rave in the New York Times Book Review, which calls it “a wondrous novel, with prose that sparkles like certain sidewalks after rain.” Lewis’s book is excerpted in LitHub, and he’s interviewed by Ruben Martinez on the podcast from Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

For the third consecutive year, a book from West Virginia University Press has received the Weatherford Award for outstanding nonfiction title in Appalachian studies. This year’s winner is I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis, edited by Luke Eric Lassiter, Brian Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell. It’s praised by the Weatherford judges for setting “a meaningful example from which community-engaged Appalachian studies scholars will draw much inspiration.” Read More »

No more brains on sticks: An excerpt from Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies

Starting from new research on the body—aptly summarized as “sitting is the new smoking”—Minding Bodies aims to help instructors improve their students’ knowledge and skills through physical movement, attention to the spatial environment, and sensitivity to humans as more than “brains on sticks.” Susan Hrach’s book, excerpted here, is the latest title in WVU Press’s series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, edited by James Lang and Michelle Miller. It ships now when ordered from our site. 

What if faculty members required students to sign the following waiver prior to enrollment in a traditional college course?

I understand that over the next 15 weeks, this course will require me to remain seated in class for 37.5 hours, plus an anticipated requirement of 75 hours for homework, to total an anticipated 112.5 hours. Sitting for this length of time has been linked to the following adverse health outcomes, for which I will not hold responsible the instructor or the institution: anxiety, depression, heart disease, breast and colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and back pain.

It may seem unfair to link these conditions directly to taking a single college course. These ailments are linked to sets of other complex factors and may only develop over decades, but the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” feels like an important twenty-first-century reckoning. The widely discussed and unanticipated epidemic of mental illness on campuses coincides with increased sedentary habits and time spent indoors, behind electronic screens. The vaunted human brain is turning out, as neuroscience probes it, to have some evolutionary vulnerabilities that can work against our well-being. We cannot deny our distance from the evolutionary physical conditions that shaped our embodied brains’ expectations for continual daily movement, a natural and varied diet, and sleep patterns regulated by natural light. Our embodied brains are crying for help in “the age of the chair,” as British author and academic Vybarr Cregan-Reid has termed it. In the course of writing a book about how bodies impact learning, it’s been impossible for me to ignore the implications of bodily health. I aim to bring the body into focus with an inclusive vision of wellness in the college classroom for bodies of all types and abilities.Read More »

Congratulations to Deesha Philyaw, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award!

In another first for any book from a university press, Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received the PEN/Faulkner Award, given annually to the best work of fiction by a living US writer. Previous recipients of the PEN/Faulkner range from established luminaries (think Updike, Patchett, DeLillo) to leading newer voices like recent winners Chloe Aridjis and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was one of 419 submissions this year from 170 publishers.

“I’m deeply honored and thankful to receive the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction,” said Deesha Philyaw in her acceptance statement. “I wrote The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters who are all, in some way, striving to get free.”

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies was previously named a finalist for the National Book Award, and it was the first book from a university press (or small press of any kind) to win the Story Prize. Philyaw’s collection is also a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in the first fiction category, with the winner to be announced on April 16, and it is currently being adapted for the screen for HBO Max.

The PEN/Faulkner Award has several connections to West Virginia. John Knowles of Fairmont won the Faulkner Foundation’s original prize, then known as the William Faulkner Foundation Award, for A Separate Peace. And the award in its present iteration was founded by Mary Lee Settle, a novelist born in Charleston whose fiction was often set in West Virginia. The staff at West Virginia University Press are proud to honor and extend this prestigious award’s relationship to our state, and we’re grateful to Deesha Philyaw for trusting us with her extraordinary book.

The PEN/Faulkner Award ceremony will be held online on May 10, with free registration available here. The event’s sponsors include West Virginia University.

First look: Neema Avashia’s memoir of growing up Asian American in Appalachia

In response to the renewed urgency of amplifying Asian American voices after last week’s Atlanta tragedy, we’re proud to share an excerpt from Neema Avashia’s book Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, forthcoming from West Virginia University Press. Please check back for a formal publication announcement and ordering information.

I grew up in West Virginia with one foot in the boom, and one foot in the bust. I was born in a valley with thriving industry and all its associated complications, and graduated from high school in that same valley, now saddled with dying industry and all its complications. The place I call home is the small, unincorporated community of Cross Lanes: population 9,995. A town that doesn’t even warrant a dot on the state map—a string of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and residential developments built in the 1950s and 1960s to house the employees at the burgeoning chemical plants in Nitro and South Charleston. These workers—the children and grandchildren of coal miners—found their way into a more middle-class existence than their ancestors because of the steady pay, union protections, and guaranteed health benefits that work at the plant provided. And my Indian immigrant parents, who arrived from the state of Gujarat to the United States in the early 1970s, capitalized on that same employment to create their own foothold in the middle class. Along with about 100 other Indian families who moved to the Chemical Valley around the same time, we created an Indolachian existence for ourselves, encountered West Virginians who both embraced us and rejected us, and simultaneously both embraced and rejected elements of the culture we found ourselves immersed in.Read More »

Early spring roundup: Reviews, media attention, and author events

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies has received the Story Prize—the first book from a university press (or small press of any kind) to win this recognition as the year’s outstanding collection of short fiction. It has been named one of five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the first fiction category, and also (continuing its remarkable run of awards attention) advances from longlist to finalist status for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The book earns mentions in New York Magazine, the Rumpus, Pittsburgh Magazine, and the bulletin of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and author Deesha Philyaw appears on the podcasts from Storybound, Read More, and Black and Published. Watch for the announcement of the LA Times winners on April 16 and the PEN/Faulkner winner on May 10.

Jim Lewis’s “continuously engaging” Ghosts of New York is reviewed in Booklist, which praises the author as “a master at painting developed characters captured in various moments in time.” Lewis will launch the novel—which is excerpted in Air/Light Magazine—at a free online event with Shakespeare & Co. on April 2. Harper’s magazine will cohost.

Volume editor Travis Stimeling and contributor Paige Zalman discuss The Opioid Epidemic and US Culture at 100 Days in Appalachia. The title is reviewed in the Southern Review of Books, where it’s praised for “bringing awareness to damaging stereotypes and further victimization of those caught in the opioid epidemic.”

Also at 100 Days in Appalachia, Eric Kerl reviews So Much to Be Angry About, praising author Shaun Slifer’s “insightful eye,” and calling the volume “a testament to the ingenuity of our social movements.”

Joshua Eyler, author of How Humans Learn, talks with the Chronicle of Higher Education about universities, grief, and the importance of mourning as a response to covid.Read More »