Books

What the World Needs Now… Is Rod McKuen

Barry Alfonso, a writer living in Swissvale, has produced a book we didn’t know was needed. Chances are, if you remember Rod McKuen, you’ll know his popular image: a 1960s California pop singer-songwriter who also churned out best-selling volumes of poetry that non-best-selling poets considered the equivalent of Muzak. Indeed, Alfonso cites the assessment of …

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A Template for a Life of Learning and Art

I am a sucker for process. my favorite part of the Andy Warhol Museum has always been the top floor, where Warhol’s wispy childhood sketches hint at his expert ability to replicate reality and also his interest in amplifying his favorite parts of it. When I look at those early pieces, I am reminded that …

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Varied Characters, Settings Lift Robert Yune’s “Impossible Children”

In the creative writing classes I teach, scene often becomes an early point of emphasis, especially when it applies to fiction. Hemingway’s classic “Hills Like White Elephants” stands as an exemplar, as the brief story relies on little more than setting and dialogue. According to Nancy Pagh, author of the thoughtfully written “Write Moves: A …

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Three Pittsburgh Poets, Three Distinct Voices

Poetry can mean different things to different people. For some, it’s celebrating the glorious music found in the end-rhymes of Robert Frost. For others, it’s a love of language poetry or blunt confessionalism. For Pittsburgh’s Sam Hazo, former Poet Laureate of Pennsylvania, it’s the “visionary” poetry of T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney. Hazo, in his …

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A Graphic Look at Pittsburgh

Frank Santoro’s “Pittsburgh” is a loving portrait of his Swissvale family, a rich evocation of Pittsburgh’s recent past and a complex exploration of how memory informs the present. After years in California and New York, Santoro now lives in his late grandparents’ home in Swissvale. Internationally revered by his peers, he is one of the …

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Bridging Ayn Rand and Pittsburgh

While conducting research for “Atlas Shrugged” during a cross-country train trip in 1947, Ayn Rand wrote in her journal what she saw when she came upon Pittsburgh while traveling east: “From the parkways, to the old, vertical houses on steep hillsides, to the slums, with narrow, cobblestone streets—then the sudden view of the river and …

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Appalachian Reckoning: An Antidote to Hillbilly Elegy?

Tasteless jokes abound on the internet, including one I recently read: “Did you know the toothbrush was invented in West Virginia? Anywhere else and it would have been called a teeth brush.” I chuckled before considering the misguided notion that it’s still OK to trash poor whites. Writing for NPR’s “Code Switch,” Leah Donnella explains …

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Short Takes: “The Secret History of KGB Spy Cameras,” “Threads Around the World”

Deep in a secret location cloaked by trees and rolling hills—well, to be precise, inside a home in the leafy suburb of Upper St. Clair—exists a notable collection of Soviet spy equipment. It belongs to Michael M. Hasco, a former Heinz executive whose interest in photography blossomed into full-fledged expertise in the history of espionage …

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An Uncommon Life in an Ordinary Place

It would be a shame if this strange and glorious book set in Greene County becomes pigeonholed as “a voice from the heartland” or “a rare glimpse inside the Other America.” Sarah Elaine Smith, a Greene County native now living in Pittsburgh, has surely drawn on observed experience for her first novel. But the Carnegie …

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Close to Home: Local Poets Get Personal

If all politics is local, perhaps all good poetry might be considered local, as well. Consider how setting and description flavor the Homestead poems of Robert Gibb and the Detroit poems of Jim Daniels. In his seminal essay collection on poetic craft, “The Triggering Town,” poet Richard Hugo asks writers to ground their work, saying …

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Short Takes: “Imagining the Modern,” “The Best Seven Years of My Life”

“Imagining the Modern” is a gorgeous book about a period that not everyone thinks is beautiful: the postwar design of Pittsburgh. It is a truth universally acknowledged that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and the popular consensus holds that East Liberty, the Hill District and a key part of the North …

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A Meditation of Life in Twilight

Certain Pittsburghers could read Stewart O’Nan’s “Henry, Himself” just for the satisfaction of having their world described by a masterful writer. The Pittsburgh native’s novel, his 17th, takes place largely in the pleasant precincts of the East End, from well-tended houses in Highland Park to the Phipps Conservatory Flower Show in Oakland, Calvary Episcopal Church …

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Poetic Mission

With its deep pool of talented writers, Pittsburgh punches well above small-city status, especially among poetry circles. Reasons for this embarrassment of riches include the exposure many local poets receive for work that wins them awards, ample workshops, university writing programs with strong reputations and a vibrant scene that features readings nearly every night of …

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Treating Patients As People

Healthcare often gets treated as if the only issue is economic: Health insurance-Goliaths Highmark and UPMC are in a coverage standoff; a “Medicare-for-all” bill that could cost up $32 trillion is unveiled in the U.S House of Representatives; insurance rates tick upward. But what about the emotional plight of flesh-and-blood patients facing uncertain outcomes while …

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Short Takes: “Engineering Pittsburgh,” “American Dinosaur Abroad”

Without civil engineers, our world would fall apart. They are hidden brains behind what we civilians take for granted—all the marvelous methods for getting us from here to there, safe and sound. To observe its 100th anniversary, the Pittsburgh section of the American Society of Engineers has produced an indispensable survey of what has been …

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An Eye-Opener About Living Black in Pittsburgh

Damon Young recently bought a rather nice house a block away from me. Yet I don’t expect to be invited over, although I am about to lavish praise on his brave, incisive and witty memoir about growing up and living while black in Pittsburgh. Even a blurb-ready assessment—Damon Young is not only the city’s most …

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Short Takes: “Thank Your Lucky Stars” “Asia Ascending”

The pleasures of “Thank Your Lucky Stars” are doubled in the re-reading. The 50 stories tucked into 189 pages encourage a binge. Most are short short, sometimes just a few paragraphs; about 10 are traditional-length short stories (if size matters). But when you return to browse through the collection, images and phrases bust out like …

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The Bad Old Days

You won’t get depressed by reading Richard Gazarik’s “Wicked Pittsburgh.” The retired Tribune-Review reporter does not seek to darken the name of our fair city. He merely wants to gather, in one handy and readable volume, key stories of corruption, crime and skulduggery stretching back to the turn of the 20th century. The cumulative effect …

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Dear Mr. President

My stepson worked in President Obama’s mailroom when he was in college. He referred to it as the “mailroom of the free world,” which made Jeanne Marie Laskas burst out laughing. She had never heard anybody say it that way. Though my knowledge of the minutiae of my stepson’s days there is scant, Laskas wants …

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An Elegy of the Marcellus Shale region

When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler visited Pittsburgh on October 24 last year, his first order of business was to visit a Range Resources well-pad outside Washington, Pa., announcing that the EPA would continue “removing regulatory barriers and leveling the playing field for American companies.” Politicians, billboards and commercials on local TV …

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Terrance Hayes Tackles Current Life in “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin”

“Prismatic” is how the late poet Wanda Coleman once described her smart, resonant American sonnets in a 2002 radio interview with writer Paul Nelson. The impetus of her avant-garde style was to approach the old form in a new way, making it a more stimulating way to express anger and satire, allowing her to reach …

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Pursuing Crime from Pittsburgh to Eternity and Back

“The Gone World” by Pittsburgh novelist Thomas Sweterlitsch is about nothing less than preventing the end of world as we know it. As is often the case in real life,Western Pennsylvania is at the center of the story. Key events take place in faraway realms. Covert U.S. military forces zip there via time travel, untold …

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