Swords & History

My last post mentioned a book called Desert Of Souls by Howard A. Jones. Thanks to eCLP, I was able to read Mr. Jones’ book shortly after that post went live, and I was not disappointed! Ostensibly historical fiction, if Desert Of Souls were ever made into a big-budget action movie, it would fall into the “buddy picture” category. Set in 8th century Baghdad, lead characters Asim and Dabir are devout Muslims in the employ of Jaffar, an important judge and close friend of the Caliph. As captain of Jaffar’s guard, Asim knows few equals when it comes to wielding a blade, and his companion Dabir possesses an unmatched level of scholarship and a perceptive eye Sherlock Holmes might envy. Together this formidable pair faces threats both mundane and magical–yes, Desert Of Souls includes supernatural elements that takes it out of the realm of pure historical fiction and into some nether region between it and pure fantasy.

Mr. Jones’ treatment of his Muslim protagonists offers a wonderfully full, real, and nuanced picture of Islamic culture and society in the 8th century, and his protagonists remain devout Muslims while also suffering the normal human foibles that make characters great. He even works in Sabirah, a strong female character who struggles with her role as a privileged royal daughter destined for a political marriage. Having devoured this tale in the span of less than a week (good time for a slow reader like me), I could not help comparing it to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventureanother “buddy-picture” historical fiction novel I wrote about a while back in this space. While Mr. Chabon’s novel is set in the 10th century and heels closer to pure historical fiction, it compares favorably to Desert Of Souls. Mr. Chabon is fond of calling the book “Jews With Swords,” and his lead characters, Amram and Zelikman, share similar traits of camaraderie won through action that Asim and Dabir possess.

While not historical fiction, if you try the two titles listed above and find “buddy picture” stories to your liking, you might also try some Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. If you want a print book for this CLP’s best option is Thieves’ House : Tales Of Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser.

If you just want some more sword-swinging historical action written in a classic pulp style, you can’t go far wrong reading Robert E. Howard’s amazing Gates Of Empire And Other Tales Of The Crusades. This phenomenal collection of pulp historical tales fails only in one capacity–it does not include a story entitled “Road of Azrael.” This tale would fit nicely into our newly coined “buddy picture” fiction category, as it pairs the Turkish sell-sword Kosru Malik and the Frankish knight Eric de Cogran in a desperate attempt to rescue a Frankish princess from slavery. This story directly influenced Mr. Jones, and he writes eloquently about it and his other sources of inspiration and research for Desert Of Souls here.

Reading this and the titles above has made me hungry for his second Asim and Dabir book, The Bones Of The Old Ones, a short story collection. Once I’ve knocked that one off, I will try one of Mr. Jones’ other inspirations, Howard Lamb’s Wolf Of The Steppes and Warriors Of The Steppes a bit of Cossack historical fiction!

In addition to the links above, you can click on any of the covers below to check out the library catalog record for that item!

Desert-of-Souls_cover   Gentlemen-of-the-road-cover Gates-of-empire-cover    Bones-of-the-old-ones-cover  Warriors-of-the-steppes-cover    Warriors-of-the-steppes2-cover


–Scott P.


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Ask Yourself This Question…

Today’s very important question comes to you from guest writer Audrey! You can find out more about her and the rest of the Eleventh Stack team on our About Us page.

Who do you think you are? 

That is the question!  And who is most likely to be asking this question?  Genealogists!

It is the question that propels us to climb our family tree.  It is the question that drives us to a state of obsession.  We forsake all other interests and obligations as we pursue those elusive ancestors through libraries, archives, and yes…even cemeteries.  How many of us have sacrificed our own personal comfort to trudge along endless rows of unreadable tombstones as we are baked by the sun, bitten by vicious insects, and attacked by savage weeds.  Don’t kid yourself.  Genealogy requires grit and stamina and tenacity (as well as assorted bottles of sun screen, insect repellent and hydro-cortisone cream).  If you are lucky, a trip to the emergency room can be avoided.

Everybody's doing it! Click through to see source page and advice from Skipease.

Everybody wants to get in on the act! Click through for more advice from Skipease. Image copyright as cited within photo.

Who Do You Think You Are? 

This is also the name of a wildly popular genealogy television series that traces the ancestry of celebrities.  All seven episodes of Season 4 were rebroadcast on TLC on Sunday, July 20 and will be repeated on July 23.

Episode one will be aired at 1:00 PM (Eastern Standard time) followed every hour by another episode.   The featured celebrities in the fourth season are Chris O’Donnell, Cindy Crawford, Zooey Deschanel, Kelly Clarkson, Chelsea Handler, Jim Parsons, and Christina Applegate. Each episode follows a celebrity as they explore their family tree, uncovering the mysteries of his or her ancestral history.  Their stories are framed within real historic events.   The new Season 5 of Who Do You Think You Are? begins on July 23 when actress Cynthia Nixon uncovers an ancestral mystery of deceit and murder.   This episode will air at 9:00 PM Eastern time on TLC.

[FYI…  the DVDs for Seasons 1 and 2 are available in the Library.  The segment on Ashley Judd in Season 2 is particularly fascinating and poignant.    Even if genealogy is not your thing, you may enjoy watching your favorite celebrity trace their family roots back through time.]

Who do YOU think you are? 

To help you to answer this question and to begin to climb your own family tree, bring your questions to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh PA  15213.

Or call:  412-622-3154.  

Or check out our website.

Answers to your genealogical questions are just a call or click away.

Our experienced staff is here to assist you.


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I Learned How To Spell ‘Gyllenhaal’ Without Looking While Writing This

The last time Jake Gyllenhaal was in Pittsburgh was when he was filming 2009’s Love & Other Drugs.  Now, he’s back in town filming Southpaw. Directed by Hill District-native Antoine Fuqua—who led Denzel Washington to his Oscar win in 2001’s Training Day—the currently-filming drama follows the rising boxing career of Billy “The Great” Hope as his personal life declines. Sadly, this entry has no juicy behind-the-scenes anecdotes.  Sorry about that.

If Southpaw is anything like last year’s Pittsburgh-filmed boxing movie Grudge Match, I don’t have very high hopes.  Have any good sports movies even been made since Space Jam in 1996?

I didn’t think so.

Anyway, I’ll probably still see it because, as I’ve mentioned, I like seeing Pittsburgh on film.  And I like Gyllenhaal as an actor, even if I’ve always seen him as a teenager.  This is probably due to his roles in Donnie Darko, The Good Girl and the 2001 remake of Bubble Boy.  Even seeing him in the spectacular Zodiac and the wonderful Brokeback Mountain, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a kid playing an adult.

Pictured: me in college enjoying Jake Gyllenhaal. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Collins

Pictured: me in college enjoying Jake Gyllenhaal.
Photo courtesy of Caitlin Collins

That all changed when I saw the two films that Gyllenhaal put out last year:  Oscar-nominated Prisoners and Enemy, both helmed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.

I’ll talk about those two films on the next page.


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Language Learning 101 @ Your Library

Today’s guest post comes to us courtesy of Scott M., of the West End library. You can learn a little more about Scott, and all of our contributors, at the About Us page.

I love languages and language learning, I guess you could say, other than working at the library, languages and language learning are my passion.  The library is an incredible place to find resources on language learning, the science of linguistics, and learning in general.

Western Carolina University = image source

Image spotted at Western Carolina University pages.

There are countless promises in advertising of programs that will get you speaking another language easily in no time, with little or no effort on your part. Some of these programs can teach certain things really well, and most of them are available through the library, but I think we all know that some effort and multiple sources of information are required to really master a language.

Pimsleur language programs are an all-audio system of learning languages developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, these programs can quickly teach the basics of the language you’re learning, drill the basics really well, and are quite repetitive, so you will never forget what you learn. The library also has a wonderful language learning program available in app form or on your computer called Mango Languages . Mango is an electronic learning program that has flashcards, brief grammar notes, and voice comparison. Download Mango on your smartphone and you’ll be able to practice anywhere, anytime you have a moment free. That’s not all: the library has countless books, audio-programs, and other tools!

You can also find a lot of information about linguistics, the science of languages, which can cover topics like language learning, but also some great topics like the evolution of languages, extinct languages, and languages in danger of becoming extinct.  Some excellent books that I’ve enjoyed on these topics are:

The Science Times Book of Language and Linguistics -  Language columns that have appeared in the Science Times section of the New York Times.

The Last Speakers:  The Quest to Save the World’s Endangered Languages – By David K. Harrison.

The Language Instinct – By Steven Pinker

Fluent in 3 Months - By Benny Lewis

There are also some great informational books about specific languages that are not instructional in learning the language, but are nonetheless great to read, such as:

Born to Kvetch : Yiddish Language and Culture in all its Moods – By Michael Wex

The Mother Tongue : English & How it Got That Way - By Bill Bryson

Made in America : An Informal History of the English Language in the United States – also by Bill Bryson

Another great topic for those interested in language learning is learning in general.  I’ve found these titles to be pretty helpful:

The Art of Learning : A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence - By Josh Waitzkin

Learning how to Learn : The Ultimate Learning and Memory Instruction - By Jerry Lucas

Another way the library can help you on your language learning journey is through classes and conversation groups.  Whether Italian conversation or Korean for beginners to Let’s Speak English or Let’s Learn Spanish! for kids, there are plenty of opportunities to engage your family in language learning activities.  Check out the events section of our website to find out more!

Learning a language is not a quick fix thing that is achieved in a short period of time. You also don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the results you’re looking for.  We don’t have to buy into the gimmicks we see in advertising.     At the library we have resources to support you in your linguistic journey whether you are a beginner or advanced learner.  Actually, no matter what you choose to pursue, we’ve probably got you covered!

There are also a couple of great FREE resources that I wanted to mention that are not library resources:

duolingo – Duolingo is a free downloadable language learning app that can help you learn French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, or German.  It is online, interactive, and set up like a game in which you compete against other learners.

meetup.com – Often there are groups that meet-up through this website to practice learning together.  A great way to get actual experience interacting with others.

Have fun learning!

–Scott M.



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Philadelphia, a Visitor’s Perspective

As a huge history buff, I love that I live in the heart of historic colonial and revolutionary America. In the past few years, I have taken several history vacations. Last year, I visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland as well as Washington, D.C. And last month, I visited Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia.

It was love at first sight. At the risk of antagonizing any Pittsburghers, here’s what I loved:

  • The grid-like street system. As a native Michigander used to flat, grid-like streets, I never got lost! Also, Walk! Philadelphia signs are everywhere directing you easily.
  • The history, the history, the history. This city is a history lover’s dream. Besides the usual must-see sites such as the reverent Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, and Congress Hall, everywhere you walk, you stumble upon something historically significant: Dolley Madison’s row house, the site where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the location of the printing shop which printed Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet, Common Sense (which is now, sadly, a parking lot), etc.
  • The cleanliness and walkability of the city. We stayed near Washington Square at the Morris House Hotel, within easy walking distance of Society Hill’s historic sites, the waterfront, and Center City. And, if you’re not a walker, there are buses and the subway.
  • The numerous vegan food choices. As a very careful eater, it was such a pleasure (and relief) not to constantly have to ask if something contained dairy or eggs! Vedge was an amazing culinary experience worthy of a celebration, while Blackbird Pizzeria offered many delicious pizzas and beautiful and flavorful salads. Also a nice surprise was the outstanding iced soy lattes and vegan ice cream at Old City Coffee and several vegan breakfast options at Le Pain Quotidien.
  • The great people watching of well-dressed walking commuters of all ages and races.
  • The lovely public green spaces. Pennsylvania founder William Penn designed the city to have large public squares, filled with beautiful landscaping, benches, and fountains that invites you to rest and pause a moment.

We had such a wonderful time we extended our holiday by an extra day and there are still things I missed including the Rosenbach Museum, the Rodin and Perleman Museums, and the Todd and Bishop White Houses.

Oh, and should you be upset about this post, you can read my Pittsburgh post here.

-Maria A.


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Outside Activities

I wasn’t very good at summer as a kid. I have fair Irish skin (I have ALL of the freckles and wear SPF 50 sunblock marketed to babies). Getting dirty was not my idea of a good time. My neighborhood was the typical super hilly affair found all over our region, so riding bikes was more of a chore than fun. My idea of playing outside was reading on the back porch. I was outdoors, what more did those people want?

An accurate depiction of my childhood. Photo via Historic Pittsburgh.

Little has changed. You’re very surprised, I’m sure. Here’s a few of the books that will be keeping me company on the back porch for the rest of the summer:

Girls at the Kingfisher Club - A spin on the Twelve Dancing Princesses tale, set in Jazz-Age Manhattan. Need I say more?

We Were Liars – This is a pick from my book club, but I’m excited to dive into E. Lockhart‘s new one (I really loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Laundau Banks). Two generations of families who vacation together. A mysterious accident. Supposedly a doozy of an ending. I can’t wait.

Hidden - What happens when the wife and the “work wife” finally meet? In the hands of Catherine McKenzie, I’m sure it’ll be good.

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line - My non-fiction selection. I like being able to peek behind the curtain and check out jobs I’ll never hold. Chef in a fancy restaurant is certainly one.

- Jess



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How Comics Become Graphic Novels, or Which Volume One Do I Pick?!

Saga Monthly vs. Saga Trade Paperback

Six issues of the Saga comic book series equal one trade paperback collection. Photo by Kelly (Yeah, the comics are hers, too.) Click through for a link to Saga in the Library catalog!

The books you find in the graphic series sub-section of the Library’s graphic novel collection don’t start out as nicely bound books with shiny pages, introductions, and insights into the artist’s process in the back.

(If you’ve been reading comics for any length of time, you are thinking “duh!” and rolling your eyes at me. If you’re new to comics, you might find this blog post helpful and informative. So read on!)

Comic series are (for the most part) published monthly in 32-page installments. Often, about 10 of those pages can be taken up by advertisements. Many comics also feature letter columns, where readers can email the author and/or artist and have their thoughts about the book printed, along with a response from the creative team. Some books have other “back matter” too, like Image’s Lazarus, which features a monthly update on real-life scientific research that relates to the story.

New issues come out every Wednesday, but we comic book nerds call just call it “New Comic Book Day.”

So how do comics go from monthly serial to book form?

Saga monthly vs. trade paperbacks

Eighteen issues of Saga shrink down into three trade paperback collections. The trades take up a lot less room and are easier to care for, but are worth less cash money. Photo by Kelly.

It’s pretty simple. Publishers like DC, Marvel, Image, and others put complete story arcs from the monthly serials into collections commonly called graphic novels or trade paperbacks (as this is the format in which they are most often published). Of course, they remove the ads, letter columns and other back matter and add introductions and things like character designs from the artist’s sketchbook.

These days, trade paperbacks come out shortly after the final issue of the story arc, which is great for readers. In the overall history of the comic book, though, graphic novels/trade paperbacks are a fairly recent invention. Marvel did publish a few “graphic novels” in the late 1960s and ‘70s, but the format didn’t really take off in mainstream comics until the ‘80s (thanks to the success of “true” graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, And Other Tenement Stories, as well as the collected reprinted editions of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). You can read more about the history of the graphic novel over at Wikipedia’s Graphic novel article.

Story arcs span anywhere from one to six or more issues, but four and six are standard, and are usually the number of issues that get collected in those “graphic novels” you see on Library shelves.

The Walking Dead volume 1

This is about zombies, so Kelly tried to read it once but got too scared. But the 10 pages she read were good!

So the first trade paperback of, say, The Walking Dead, really consists of issues 1 to 6.

Okay, okay, you say. But why is there a trade paperback volume one AND a hardcover volume one of The Walking Dead? And Y The Last Man (links to paperback and hardcover, respectively)? and Fables (paperback and hardcover)? And Hellboy (paperback and hardcover)? And a bunch of other stuff?

When a comic becomes really popular, publishers often collect multiple trade paperback collections–usually two–into special hardback collections. Vertigo has a line of “Deluxe” hardback volumes for most of its popular series. Image has done this for The Walking Dead, and I expect it’ll do the same for Saga, another super-popular series (and my current favorite), in the near future.

Which version should you read, though? It all depends on what you like. I usually read both the monthly issues and the trade paperbacks, because I adore letter columns and I don’t like to wait, but I also like the additional material that comes with the collected editions.

If you’re picking up a series for the first time, and it’s available in hardcover, I’d recommend going with that, because you’ll need to check out and keep track of fewer volumes. If you take your books everywhere, a trade paperback will be lighter (it never hurts to be practical, right?).

Just be careful about buying monthly series. It’s, um, kind of addicting.


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