John Allison

John Allison reviews books for Pittsburgh Quarterly.

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 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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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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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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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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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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Grit, Striving and Some Redemption Highlight Rust Belt Collection

A Pittsburgher’s first reaction upon completing the 24 essays in “Voices from the Rust Belt” is bound to be: Jeez-o-man, we’ve got it pretty good here. The tales of city woe here are datelined Akron, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Flint, Youngstown… the usual suspects. But the value of “Voices from the  Rust Belt” is not in …

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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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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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Living in Harm’s Way

Lynda Schuster has had quite a life. now safely squared away in Squirrel Hill, she spent the 1980s and ’90s in one danger zone after another. She reported on wars, insurrections and misery in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. After marrying a U.S. diplomat …

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Short Takes: “Shopping Mall” “North and Central”

Matthew Newton lets you know by Page 10 that he was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as a teenager. These days, he’s a productive and well-adjusted married man and dad, doing great work at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and his skills as an inquisitive writer and thinker are evident from his latest work. But knowing …

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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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Short Takes: “Leave Me” “Perpetual Carnival”

Pittsburghers could read “Leave Me” for the same reasons they’d see a movie filmed and set here. It’s a kick to see the city as a backdrop, collecting references to your favorite coffee shop (Commonplace in Squirrel Hill), local slogans (“I Bleed Black and Gold”) and outright praise (“she stared out the window at the …

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A Well-Woven Contemporary Tale

For his second act, Pittsburgh novelist Jacob Bacharach has turned in another work of enormously entertaining literary fiction set in Pittsburgh. It’s less cosmic than his debut, the 2014 sci-fi sendup “A Bend in the World,” but equally peppered with highbrow cultural references, trenchant social observations and turns of phrase that spin you right up …

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Six Books for Your Winter Reading List

This issue, we take up half-a-dozen new books in three groupings: literary works from two creative writing teachers, Pittsburgh sports history from two prominent national writers, and the latest from two great local legal minds. Don’t be surprised if that next national media story about the resurgent charms of Pittsburgh works in a reference to …

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The Challenge of Fighting Back

Reading the latest novel by Stewart O’Nan, the Pittsburgh-born writer who boomeranged home several years ago, is like watching the performance of an experienced athlete who makes it all look so easy. “City of Secrets” is his 16th novel since 1994, and the first to take place entirely outside of the USA. Like 2015’s “West …

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Short Takes: “Whiskey, Etc.” “Death by Cyanide”

Sherrie Flick’s latest collection is described as “short (short) stories”—that parenthetical “short” preparing you for one page tales, even one-paragraph blasts. Scholars of marketing might see this as evidence that fiction creators are getting with the short-attention span condition of the modern consumer, offering an efficient product that can be noshed like a meal replacement …

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