Reading Room

Pittsburgh Philanthropy

Ask a person from Pittsburgh to define philanthropy and they’ll most likely mention an industrialist such as Andrew Carnegie, or a patriarch named Heinz or Mellon. These economic titans loom large in Pittsburgh. The word “Pittsburgh” and its Gilded Age bequests are so intertwined that some think these industrialists invented philanthropy here. Experiences at Carnegie’s …

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A Different View of the Neighborhood

In 1968, when Fred Rogers pushed through his famous front door for the first time, he brought with him more than kindness, compassion and a cardigan sweater. He brought more than Daniel Tiger, more than X the Owl, more than all the puppets who lived in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. What Rogers brought was less …

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Looking at the Block Family’s Record on Race

Book reviews traditionally talk about what’s in a book, but almost never about how a particular book came to be. This one has an interesting and unusual beginning. Nearly three years ago, following a controversy over an editorial called “Reason as Racism,” Allan Block, the chair of Block Communications, Inc., the parent company today of …

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Short Takes: “To Risk It All,” “Franco, Rocky & Friends”

In his book, “To Risk It All: General Forbes, The Capture of Fort Duquesne, and the Course of Empire in the Ohio Country,” historian and war scholar Michael N. McConnell sets his sights on the French and Indian War, and more specifically General John Forbes’s campaign against Fort Duquesne, the largest overland expedition during the …

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A Well-Deserved Drue Heinz Prize-Winner

In The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, winner of the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Caroline Kim offers an expansive debut collection of stories that transports the reader across continents and centuries. Kim is a gifted writer of tremendous range—each story conjures a world unto itself. Throughout the collection, settings shift from the …

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Short Takes: “Further News of Defeat,” “Hallelujah Station and Other Stories”

When Autumn House Press began in 1998, they published poetry. In 2008, the Pittsburgh-based press expanded its offerings to fiction, and over the past decade, few small presses can claim to have published a catalog of work as reliably entertaining and artful. In the fall, Autumn House Press published two new story collections from up …

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Lee Gutkind on Writing His Memoir, “My Last Eight Thousand Days”

My memoir, “My Last Eight Thousand Days,” published in October 2020, had been a work in progress for at least 10 years—just as my life had been a work in progress for 70-plus. I think of the book and the process of writing it, digging deeply into my life, as a bridge from the Lee …

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The Life and Deaths of Cyril Wecht

Stepping into his office to interview Cyril Wecht for a profile I had been commissioned to write for Pittsburgh Quarterly, I expected to encounter the intense, blustering and contentious person who had so often been depicted on the evening news. To me, at the time, Cyril was just another loud-mouthed local public official who had …

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Fairest of Them All?

Following the results of the historic November 2018 midterm elections, I found myself, at times, both amazed and appalled. My reaction was not as a result of the outcome of the midterm elections. Rather, it was the increasingly sharp divisions between the Republican and Democratic parties, which became even more strident over the next several …

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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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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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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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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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