books

Murder, She Wrote

In 1980, three women hitchhiked to an outdoor peace festival in West Virginia called the Rainbow Gathering. Only one survived. Accusations and mystery swirled in the nearby town for decades. This juicy setup is perhaps the most obvious reason to recommend Emma Copley Eisenberg’s first book of nonfiction, “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life …

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America 2.0: An Old Novel Idea

When I was serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, I spent a lot of time patrolling in my Military Police Jeep and boring myself silly. Being a cop is a bit like being an airline pilot: hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. To relieve the boredom, I wrote a …

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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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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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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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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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Rob Ruck Examines Football the Samoan Way

The thing to understand about Rob Ruck is that he’s a runner—a distance runner and a daily runner. He’s the type of guy to run the Pittsburgh marathon a bunch of times, and when he is not running, he is at loose ends and out of sync. This devoted runner is also a long-time University …

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The Spirit of Animals Glows in Robin Becker’s “The Black Bear Inside Me”

There’s a favorite scene in Don DeLillo’s sprawling masterpiece of a novel, “Underworld,” where a priest asks his student to name the parts of the boots the pupil’s wearing. The young man struggles with the assignment, allowing the priest to walk him through each aspect of this common accessory, an extension of the body, saying …

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Sheryl St. Germain Muses on her Son’s Overdose in “The Small Door of your Death”

According to the National Institute of Health, more than 115 people in the United States die every day from opioid overdoses, adding up to well over 40,000 deaths a year. And while statistics lend a sense of scope to this epidemic, it’s often the tragic aftermath of a single death with its unanswered questions that …

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Recalling Poet Muriel Rukeyser and her Work on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster

When she was just 23, poet Muriel Rukeyser drove from her home in New York City to the hollers of West Virginia, fueled by a desire to investigate and document the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel mining disaster. By the time she arrived in 1936, many of the men who had dug the tunnel were dead. More …

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Looking for Belonging Underscores Kothari’s “I Brake for Moose and Other Stories”

With hate crimes up nationally according to the FBI, those of Indian descent haven’t been spared. Locally, a 2016 beating incident at a South Hills Red Robin was deemed “ethnic intimidation,” while the 2017 murder of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas drew international attention. These are but two prominent examples of the recent …

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A Terrific Look at the Sophisticated History of Black Pittsburgh

“Smoketown” is a gift to Pittsburgh on a number of levels. When an accomplished national journalist and author turns in a deeply researched and gracefully written work about your town, that’s a win. Beyond that, Mark Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, gives Pittsburghers the gift of enhanced understanding of their city, stretching back centuries. …

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