Byron Crawford's "Kentucky Footnotes"

The book, as they say, has dropped. Well, at least it has dropped into the lap of its author, and soon will be available to the public, including folks who attend the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Frankfort Convention Center. (The fair runs from 9 to 4:30, admission is free.)

Byron Crawford’s Kentucky Footnotes, published by Acclaim Press, is his third collection of columns from The Courier-Journal. You’ll be reading more about it in the coming weeks, and I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, but I will share with you the best introduction to the book that I can provide, which is the one I wrote as the book’s Foreword.

For those who do their shopping online, you can order the book at this link.

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When I first went to work for The Courier-Journal as a clerk in 1992, it wasn’t unusual to have people wander up to me and say, “I’ve worked here for years, but I’ve never met your father.”

Indeed, The Courier-Journal building at Sixth and Broadway in Louisville never was a good place to look for Byron Crawford. He never had a desk there. You were better off heading out of town, finding a little general store somewhere off the main road and asking if they’d seen him. Chances are it hadn’t been too long since they had.

In 1979, Barry Bingham Jr. installed him as the paper’s Kentucky columnist with a great commission — to go therefore into the hills and hollows, the forgotten corners and favorite haunts of his home state, and write about his fellow Kentuckians in his own voice, which was also theirs.

For nearly thirty years, he took his readers into places they lived, or never would have gone. Some days he carried them back in time to a Kentucky as it used to be, or would not continue to be for long. Some mornings, if they were lucky, instead of mountains he would walk them through memories, or his own reflections.

He strived to give his subjects center stage and was reluctant to turn the column toward himself. Yet in compilations like this one, now his third collection of pieces from The Courier-Journal to be published, it is hard to miss his unmistakable voice, his sense of a story told right, his feel for expressing the essence of his subjects.

These pieces do tell us something about him. But perhaps they tell me something more. Growing up, I watched him labor over columns on an evolving series of machines, big bulky computers with screens no bigger than today’s smart phones, lugging them out to the truck for another run through the state.

And I watched him later, when we wrote for the same paper, work with the same effort and care. Most of these stories did not shout from the front page of the newspaper, though some did. But he brought front-page dedication to each one.

I know what his work has meant to the state, if only because one by one, people tell me now and again about the time he came to interview a family member, and how they still talk about that day, or have framed the column, or read a portion of it at the funeral of someone he wrote about. He wondered what the interest would be in another collection of columns. I told him if only his friends bought the book, it could take him through two or three printings. Of course, the appeal of his stories is much wider. They’ve been used in schools and college writing courses, and a while back I even heard of one of his books being used to teach English to students in Greece.

Truly, you never know where his stories will take you, or where they might wind up. I suppose my best lesson in his eye for a story came a couple of years ago. He called me to ask about a member of the University of Louisville football marching band who my mother had seen playing his trumpet from a wheelchair. I told him I didn’t know, that I never watched the halftime show.

While I was focused on writing about what I thought was big news, nationally televised football games, I missed something that he was instinctively drawn to. He called several times to ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to do that story, but I passed.

Shortly after he wrote his column about blind trumpet player Patrick Henry Hughes and the moving story of his father, who not only pushed him through band practice and performances, but to every class, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly graciously emailed my dad to ask if he could take a crack at writing it, too.

Soon, Hughes was on the national morning shows, and then the Oprah Winfrey Show. His story culminated in the network program Extreme Home Makeover completely re-doing the Hughes family’s house, and millions of Americans were touched by this tale that was told first in The Courier-Journal, by its one writer who saw the value in such stories the most and told them best.

It was an inspiration for many. For me, it was one more example of dad taking a small story and doing big things.

In the following pages, you’ll see what I mean.

Book Report: What I'm reading

I walk into bookstores and know that I should welcome the “Nook” and other e-reading devices that stop you just a few feet inside the door; and I definitely know the newspaper industry should be embracing that technology, wherein consumers are already used to paying for content.

But I can’t see myself ever using one of them, unless I went back to school and just needed a way of keeping 15 or 20 books in one place for an extended period.

Then again, I’ve had more than my share of back problems from carrying books around on trips to cover some game or another.  Anyway, I hear people ask each other, “What are you reading?” more often now than I probably ever have, so with my nod to the Nooks, and Kindles, and whatever else is out there, here’s a quick look at what I’ve been reading. (Only mentioning the stuff I like, and bear in mind there is no method to my selection of stuff to read. I grab what I think will be good. Sometimes I’m right.)

1. The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. Probably my favorite work of fiction over the past several years. Fans of Mitchell, an almost unfairly talented writer and storyteller, might be disappointed in his more conventional approach here, but this is a good, old-fashioned story, expertly told. It is set in a Dutch trading colony off the coast of Nagasaki in 1799, thereby taking readers to a time and place with which most have no familiarity. It’s the book I have recommended most this year.

2. The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. I was a little late reading this one, but it was worth waiting for. Pamuk, even in translation, is extremely rich. Here, he takes on the subject of an engaged Turkish man who falls in love with a young distant relation. The echos of Nabokov are unmistakable, and if you enjoy Nabokov, never a bad thing.

3. Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. This is a major piece of work, and I must admit I’m just about three-quarters of the way through it. But I didn’t have to get that far to tell that this was an exhaustive work of research, complimented by writers of high narrative power. Probably the most groundbreaking part of this work is its portrayal of Clay’s wife Lucretia, whom I had never read about in such detail. I daresay this will come to be known as the definitive Clay work, and must-reading for any Kentuckian who wishes to truly know about the state’s most influential political mind and life.

4. The Fiddler in the Subway, by Gene Weingarten. The two-time Pultizer Prize-winning feature writer for The Washington Post collects some of his best pieces in this book, which I had to do some searching to find in Louisville (no, I didn’t want to give in and order it online). I finally found it at a Borders, mis-stocked in the Fiction shelves. It’s easy to understand. Weingarten’s stories are crafted like good fiction — though they’re wonderfully real. The title story, a Pulitzer winner, is well-known, about a concert violinist who agrees to play in a subway terminal just to see who notices. But Weingarten also includes his favorite piece, “The Great Zucchini,” the story of a children’s party entertainer that goes much deeper than his act. I like reading how really good newspaper pieces are put together, and this book could be a primer on newspaper narrative and storytelling.

5. Mentor: A Memoir, by Tom Grimes. This autobiographical work is a tribute to Pat Conroy, whose friendship with the author dates back through their teacher-student relationship in the Iowa Writers Workshop. It not only provides a warm and insightful look at Conroy, but a bit of an inside look at one of the most influential writing programs in the U.S.

6. The Poetry Lesson, by Andrei Codrescu. This little novel takes the reader through the first day of a creative writing course through the eyes of its all-over-the-board professor. Just one excerpt. Here, he lists for his students …

THE TEN MUSES OF POETRY

1. Mishearing
2. Misunderstanding
3. Mistranslating
4. Mismanaging
5. Mislaying
6. Misreading
7. Misappropriating cliches
8. Misplacing objects belonging to roommates or lovers
9. Misguided thoughts at inappropriate times, funerals, etc.
10. Mississippi (the river)

7. Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson. Haven’t read much poetry recently, but this tiny volume carries some heavy subjects, and was a winner of The Pulitzer Prize. Late Wife is an autobiographical portrait of her marriages, the first as it dissolved, and the second to a man who had list his first wife three years prior. Those subjects would be easy to take over the top. Emerson takes them places you don’t expect her to. One of the shorter poems:

EIGHT BALL

It was fifty cents a game
beneath exhausted ceiling fans

The smoke’s old spiral. Hooded lights
burned distant, dull. I was tired but you

insisted on one more, so I chalked
the cue — the bored blue — broke, scratched.

It was always possible
for you to run the table, leave me

nothing. But I recall the easy
shot you missed, and then the way

we both studied, circling — keeping
what you had left me between us.

.

Sports books

Just a few sports titles, all of them anthologies:

1. The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting From The New Yorker. I like to think of David Remnick penciling in the order of these pieces the way a manager would fill out a lineup card. No surprise, he has Roger Angell leading off, then A.J. Liebling followed by the ever-versatile John Updike. But batting cleanup he brings in film critic Anthony Lane, and that signals that this is no ordinary collection of sports writings. It is rich and varied, and well worth the time. My only complaint is that Remnick did not call his own number at least once. His biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best, and it would’ve been nice to see him step up to the plate at least once.

2. Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. As big a fan as I am of The New Yorker, I have to confess that I enjoyed this compilation more. It leads off with a fantastic 1968 piece from Tom Cartwright titled, “Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter,” then follows with the great George Plimpton. By the time you’re finished you’ve heard from Tom Wolfe, Rich Cohen, Shirley Jackson and Mark Twain.

3. Sports Illustrated: Great Baseball Writing. The SI collection of Fifty Years of Great Sportswriting is the one in this series to have, but baseball lends itself to the written word, and this collection is everything you’d expect: Frank DeFord, Plimpton, Steve Rushin, Roy Blount Jr., Gary Smith, Bill Nack, Rick Telander, Tom Verducci, Rick Reilly, Roger Kahn and even the poet Robert Frost.