Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

The social wasteland

Themes of social, psychological and emotional isolation have been the stock in trade of American writers for as long as the concept of a national literature—and the elusive Great American Novel—have existed, variously attributed to religion, race, politics, drugs, wars, fragmented families, generation gaps and gender issues. Now Michael Bishop, the callow protagonist of Salvatore …

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The Sentimental Anarchists

Sentimentality is not often associated with terrorism, yet authors Paul and Karen Averich display an unmistakable nostalgia for the so-called first American Age of Terror in their wildly sympathetic history, “Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman.” Once upon a time, they tell us, violence actually meant something, great literature …

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Ecce homo!

Feeling discouraged? Lacking self esteem? Skip the self-help books and read “Last Ape Standing” instead. Subtitled “The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived,” this engaging précis of recent developments in paleoanthropology is imbued with enough enthusiasm for evolution to cheer and inspire even the most miserable Homo sapiens. Author Chip Walter, a Pittsburgh …

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A tragedy for the ages

I don’t think anybody can get a handle on what makes me tick… without understanding what I learned from the deep relationship I formed with Virgil,” wrote the late Pennsylvania State University football coach Joe Paterno in his 1997 autobiography, “Paterno: By the Book.” The remark refers without irony to the affinity he felt for …

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Creepy creatures!

Given the prevalence of vampires and werewolves in contemporary culture, one wonders why it has taken so long for them to reach the Pittsburgh area. (We’re a world-class city, dammit!) With typically gray skies and an abundance of abandoned steelworks and subterranean coal mines, our region possesses a strong Gothic quality that ought to be …

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Divorce in Morningside

Hallelujah! at last, there is a novel about contemporary divorce that eschews shallow revenge-fantasy clichés of dream jobs, boytoys and boob jobs in favor of a thoughtful, balanced and gently humorous representation of the end of a marriage. Local author Jane McCafferty laudably transcends melodrama in “First You Try Everything” to marvel with unaffected wonder …

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A different Jonas

Well, it’s official: the end is near. Whether or not the dire Mayan predictions for the future of mankind come to pass in 2012, it is clear that time is running out for books.The sad inevitability of this is demonstrated both by the ascendancy of electronic readers and the proliferation of materials promoting new uses for …

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Black Humor

“See you in the funny papers” is a phrase one seldom hears these days. Indeed, with the possible exception of “Daddy-O” or “23 Skidoo,” few expressions seem more obscure.But once upon a time, when newspapers were the Internet of their day, conversational reference to the funnies was the equivalent of an emoticon.

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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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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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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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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The Pied Piper of Pittsburgh

I’d like to punch Richard Florida in the nose. Not only for the deliberate misuse of pronouns in his latest title (although that’s reason enough in my mind), but also for his brazen urban infidelity. After nearly two decades of professing to love and respect his “adopted hometown,” the self-proclaimed public intellectual unceremoniously dumped Pittsburgh …

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The Revolutionary Frantz Fanon

This “novel” is novel indeed; a variform narrative incorporating, among other things, letters to a dead man and a tentative tale of a severed head. It’s a curious brew, heavily laced with impressions, observations and fantastic, almost hallucinatory images. (How else would one describe the author’s elderly mother giving birth to a full-grown man,who emerges …

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