book reviews

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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The Perfect Winter Blend

I loved reading “The Plot to Scapegoat Russia” by Dan Kovalik, a lawyer with United Steelworkers of America in Pittsburgh, even though I disagreed with just about every page of it. We all benefit from hearing sustained arguments by serious people who challenge our beliefs and assumptions. In the end, Dan did not change my …

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Summer Reading List

The forces of the universe have a dark sense of humor. Just weeks before the publication of The Schenley Experiment, Jake Oresick’s revealing history of Pittsburgh’s first public high school, PMC Property Group began to advertise Schenley Apartments, which occupy the former school. “A truly unique historic property modernized to exceed your expectations,” the website …

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Big Business Now and Then

Be careful what you wish for” is the adage that best applies to the McGraw family and their neighbors on the failed and failing dairy farms northwest of Scranton, Pa. After generations of scraping by, their dreams are finally poised to come true, now that corporate prospectors have come calling, offering buckets of cash in …

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The Tao of Emily

Readers, rejoice! Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, not everything in the world is getting worse. Novelist Stewart O’Nan, for instance, just keeps getting better and better. The Point Breeze native has long been noted for his use of beautiful, unpretentious prose to document the lives of ordinary people dealing with losses such as deaths, …

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Literary Pittsburgh

Kathleen “kit” McCafferty, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, has never discussed her trauma with anyone, and its residual rage and pain have left her estranged from her shell-shocked husband and grown children. Now approaching death, Kit is determined to complete and bequeath to her family a series of confessional notebooks, in order to break …

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The Power of the Pelt

Behold the beaver! Beady-eyed, snubnosed and bucktoothed, it is hardly a thing of beauty, yet the pursuit of this oversized rodent across North America launched more ships (and keelboats, rafts and canoes) than the lovely Helen of Troy, for all her charms. Desire for the legendary queen may have prompted the decade-long Trojan War, but …

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A Checkered Past

Renaissance, schmenaissance. To read Joe W. Trotter and Jared N. Day’s new book, “Race and Renaissance: African Americans in Pittsburgh Since World War II,” is to realize an inconvenient truth. The skies above our city may have cleared, but racial inequities of generations past still cast a pall on the quality of life for many …

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Anatomy of a Tar Baby

Move over, David McCollough and make room for Ken Gormley, another native son who brings honor to Pittsburgh as a narrative historian of the highest order. Gormley, the new dean of Duquesne University’s law school, clearly shares McCullough’s belief that “history is the story of people,” and manages to transform one of the more shameful …

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Medicine, Murder and the Mon

Corporate histories commissioned by the client are seldom (read never) impartial, and UPMC’s “Beyond the Bounds” is no exception. Author Mary Brignano lays on the praise in this glossy tribute to UPMC founder Thomas Detre, M.D., and his protégé, current President & CEO Jeffrey Romoff. Their accomplishment—the transformation of a parochial medical center into the …

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The City Revisited

After a year-long anniversary celebration in 2008 and two national championships and a global summit in 2009, one might think that the city’s appetite for tributes would be pretty well sated. But there is always room for a little something more, particularly when the fare is as lovingly prepared and tastefully presented as Franklin Toker’s …

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Of Untimely Corpses

Surely one of our region’s most colorful anomalies is the phenomenon of a celebrity coroner. Where else but in Pittsburgh would proximity to corpses carry such cachet? Of course, these corpses are media sensations, and the high-profile pathologist who enjoys their reflected glory is rather sensational himself. Former Allegheny County Coroner and sometime politician Cyril …

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What Happened to Anna K.?

These are tough times for aspiring romantic heroines. Gone are many of the obstacles that for centuries prevented women from achieving personal freedom, sexual liberation, social mobility, financial independence, true love and an authentic voice. Society now tolerates a host of behaviors once deemed shocking. And without the impediments of yore— the fire-breathing dragons of …

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Steel City Jews

Kudos to historian Barbara Burstin for producing “Steel City Jews: A History of Pittsburgh and its Jewish Community, 1840–1915.” For 10 years the author toiled alone, without a publisher, to create a labor of love that relates the early history of our city in the context of the Jewish experience. She examines, intelligently and effectively, …

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Clan Destiny

You don’t need to love football in order  to enjoy Art Rooney Jr.’s glowing tribute to his famous father. “Ruanaidh: The Story of Art Rooney and His Clan” is first and foremost about people—the odd and irascible, the magnificent and flawed, the drunk and devout—in the orbit of one of the greatest “people persons” ever …

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A Mary Roberts Classic Centennial

Once America’s best-selling author, Pittsburgh native Mary Roberts Rinehart started her career with a crime classic that celebrates its centennial in 2008.

Bittersweet Heiress

One of the most interesting historical sites in the Laurel Highlands is the Fort Necessity National Battlefield. And a new destination for hiking and exploring in the region is a property currently owned by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and about to be added to Forbes State Forest, adjacent to the national battlefield property. Forbes State …

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The Lay of the Land

Have you ever stopped to ponder to what extent anatomy — or more correctly, topography — is destiny in the historical development and popular perception of Pittsburgh? Martin Aurand has. In an ambitious, new publication from the University of Pittsburgh Press titled “The Spectator and the Topographical City,” he endeavors to explain how three of …

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Can You Dig It? Yes.

It’s tough to make a non-fiction work on paleoanthropology entertaining. The search for early forms of fossil man is commonly perceived as a dry one, figuratively and literally; comprising years upon years of tiresome labor by pedantic academics in wretched climates and occasionally yielding a fractured femur with which the average dog couldn’t be bothered. …

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Ukiah: In Pittsburgh!

Of the thousands of materials that fill the Pennsylvania Room of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, all are of local interest, being by or about Pennsylvanians. Hundreds of these are works of fiction; nearly a third of which take place in Pittsburgh. A surprisingly high percentage of the same are mysteries.

Shadows on a Wall

The increasingly popular genre of creative nonfiction has taken a new turn with the publication of “Shadows on a Wall: Juan O’Gorman and the Mural at Patzcuaro” by Hilary Masters (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005, $24.95). This book-length essay combines fact and fiction with artistic metaphor, autobiography and imaginative technique to describe an episode from …

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