I (and my family) Read Banned Books!

Clip art courtesy of the American Library Association

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association

This is the time of year that your librarians are getting ready to school you on the fact that there are many books challenged or banned by the public every year, and some of these attempts are even successful at getting books pulled off the shelves of your favorite library. Public, school and higher ed. libraries will be putting up displays on tables, in cases and on websites alerting users to the annual event,  Banned Books Week (September 21-September 27). You may even come across the Library Bill of Rights, which many of you outside the world of librarianship may not even know exists, but which many libraries and librarians ascribe to, which helps in the purchasing of materials, the planning of programs, and is the foundation for this very important week.

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The wonderful thing about the annual Banned Books Week, is that it is an event promoted by librarians around the country who share together in the philosophy of the Library Bill of Rights. This upcoming week provides an opportunity to inform library users that some of their fellow community members find certain reading material objectionable, and that those same community members have taken steps to try and prevent others from reading those materials. The sad fact is that there has been a Banned Books Week year after year for more than three decades, and that there continue to be new books added to the banned and challenged list within our county where “freedom rings.” While this yearly challenging and banning can seem to be a sad statement on how some may try and squash others’ freedoms, I would suggest that we take the opportunity of this upcoming week which celebrates the freedom of information and look at it as a positive thing, a way to discover some new reads and to begin some lively conversations over books and their possible controversial subject matter.

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For professional and personal reasons, I scan the list of banned books every year, looking for those I’ve read.  As a parent, I compare the list with what I’ve seen on the reading lists of my kids and wonder at whether I’m a bad parent or not for allowing my children to have read that particular banned or challenged title. As it turns out I don’t feel bad, in fact I feel proud at having had the opportunity to read a particular book or allowed my children to experience those stories. If anything, especially in terms of children and teen books, these challenges provide an opportunity to have some really important conversations with your children regarding certain subject matters that some might find difficult to talk about, but are often experiences that they or friends they know may have had in their real life.

Obviously, there are some books that include subject matter that may be more appropriate for a  reader depending on their age and experience, and parents should definitely keep that in mind in terms of supervising their own children’s reading habits, but what I think is the most important thing to remember during the upcoming week, and throughout the year, as we all encounter new and challenging books, is that it is an individual’s choice as to what to read, and not something to be dictated by others.


Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

Here are some of my favorite Banned Books:

  1. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
  4. Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
  5. Harry Potter(series), by J.K. Rowling

- Maria J.


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I’m Bookin’ It

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ManBookerPrize)

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ManBookerPrize)

For whatever reason, I’m kind of obsessed with The Man Booker Prize for Fiction this year.

(Maaaaayyyyyybe it has something to do with being an avid reader and working here at the Library. I mean, I’m just sayin’.)

If you’re not familiar with The Man Booker Prize, here are Ten Things You Need to Know:

1. It’s a literary prize that “is recognized as the touchstone for high quality literary fiction written in English,” according to its website.

2. Before this year, authors were eligible if they were a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. Now, the prize is open to authors “writing originally in English and published in the UK” which means American authors are qualified. It also explains why you may have heard a bit more about The Man Booker Prize this year.

3. Also according to The Man Booker Prize website, “judges are chosen from a wide range of disciplines, including critics, writers and academics, but also poets, politicians and actors, all with a passion for quality fiction.”

4. The name has nothing to do with men or women and, as with many things these days, everything to do with a sponsorship.  The prize is sponsored by The Man Group, an investment management firm.

Man Group + Booker Prize = The Man Booker Prize.

Even I can do that math word problem.

5. The CEO of The Man Group is named Manny.

6. For real. I’m not kidding about #5.

7. A longlist of 13 titles was selected in July.

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ManBookerPrize)

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ManBookerPrize)

8. They were:

Author (nationality)                  Title 

Joshua Ferris (American)             To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Richard Flanagan (Australian)     The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Karen Joy Fowler (American)       We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

Siri Hustvedt (American)              The Blazing World 

Howard Jacobson (British)           J  (scheduled for publication on 10/14/2014)

Paul Kingsnorth (British)             The Wake

David Mitchell (British)                 The Bone Clocks

Neel Mukherjee (British)              The Lives of Others 

David Nicholls (British)                 Us 

Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American)  The Dog

Richard Powers (American)          Orfeo  

Ali Smith (British)                          How to be Both

Niall Williams (Irish)                     History of the Rain 

9. From that baker’s dozen, the judges whittled the list down to six titles.

10. Which are these:

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via www.themanbookerprize.com

image courtesy of The Man Booker Prize, via http://www.themanbookerprize.com

Author (nationality)                     Title 

Joshua Ferris (US)                            To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Richard Flanagan (Australian)        The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Karen Joy Fowler (US)                      We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Howard Jacobson (British)               (…yep, still not scheduled to be published until 10/14/2014)

Neel Mukherjee (British)                 The Lives of Others

Ali Smith (British)                             How to be Both

History of the RainHere’s the thing. As intrigued as I am with The Man Booker Prize, I’ve only read one contender: History of the Rain by Niall Williams, which was absolutely outstanding. (A bit slow-going in the beginning parts, but stay with it. Trust me on this.)  It’s a good thing I’m not a gambler – or a different kind of bookie – because I was telling everyone who would listen that History of the Rain was definitely going to be the winner. It had me from the second paragraph:

“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.” (pg. 1) 

How can anyone who loves books and reading not love that quote?

Joshua Ferris has been getting some criticism that his work isn’t perhaps quite up to snuff for The Booker, but I disagree. I loved The Unnamed (which should come with Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” as a soundtrack) as well as Then We Came to the End, about a group of dysfunctional coworkers barely hanging on to their jobs and sanity as they manage to survive life in an Chicago advertising agency experiencing a “downturn” in business, thanks to the dot com bust. (Dated? Somewhat. But I read all 250 pages in one sitting, so there’s that.) Almost anything by Joshua Ferris tends to make it onto my TBR (To Be Read) list, so The Booker is just an added impetus.

I was – and still am – intrigued by the premise of Orfeo, and even though it’s out of my usual reading genre, I’m willing to give The Narrow Road to the Deep North a try. And I’m especially interested to read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, because I really like the title and because it sounds like something I’d enjoy. (And because it’s my pick for the winner.)

Basically, I want to read ALL of these – the longlist, the shortlist, every book that has been nominated and won The Booker since its inception – RIGHT NOW ALREADY before the prize announcement is made October 16.  Now, I’m somewhat of a realistic, pragmatic person, with the exception of being able to determine how many books I can read before they’re due back to the Library.  But even I know that with The Man Booker Prize announcement being less than a month away and not having the luxury of reading 24/7, that’s not happening.

That’s where you come in.

Have you read any of The Man Booker Prize longlisted or shortlisted titles for this year?

If so, which ones did you enjoy most? Were you surprised by any on the list?

And what book do you think will be the winner?

~ Melissa F.


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We Can Do It!

It’s the middle of September and I have my Halloween costume picked out. I’m very rarely so prepared at this stage of the game, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m finding that I need to put as much, if not more thought into my costumes than I did as a kid. There will be at least one party hosted by friends and I’ll need something for our annual bash at Woods Run.

This year, I’m going with something that I can put together with items from my closet and a $3-4 trip to the fabric store – Rosie the Riveter.


Simple, yet effective, right?

And of course, I’ve been doing some research on the history of the illustration. Our girl, now commonly known as Rosie, was created by J. Howard Miller, a graphic artist who lived in Pittsburgh during WWII. The poster was commissioned by Westinghouse Electric, and only displayed internally in the company’s factories in East Pittsburgh and the Midwest during February of 1943 – more to inspire the women already working than to recruit – then it disappeared.  The poster was rediscovered by the National Archives in 1982 – the art was unlicensed and it became the feminist symbol we know and love today.

rosie the riveter

Illustration by Norman Rockwell for the May 29. 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post.

It was Norman Rockwell’s illustration that had far more traction during the war, especially in connection with a popular song at the time also called “Rosie the Riveter.” While the image was loaned out by Rockwell to the US Treasury for use in propaganda during the war, the copyright kept it from reaching  true icon status. The video below from the Library of Congress is well worth the watch for more information about Rockwell and other art from the time:

For further reading about women in World War II home-front propaganda and the real ladies who held it down in the factories, check out these books and this collection of photos!



- Jess, who needs to make herself a vintage Westinghouse Electric badge


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Men, Women & Children

Let’s wind the clocks back to the last few months of 2013.  I was randomly looking up Jason Reitman, one of my favorite directors.  I knew he was in the middle of making a film, but I wanted to see what he was doing next.  After some very light digging, I discovered that his next project was an adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel Men, Women & Children.

I love Reitman’s films. Up in the Air speaks to me on a very deep, personal level.  An adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name, it’s probably one of my favorite films of all time. It may even be one of the top ten.  Juno is as quirky as it is adorable and made me fall hard for Ellen Page.  Thank You For Smoking, also based on a book, is great too. The movie shifts the political thriller focus of the book to a much more tender father/son story.

I wasn’t too impressed with Young Adult, mostly because I’m not a fan of Charlize Theron.  Then again, I haven’t seen it since it came out.  Maybe I’m due for another viewing. His most recent film, Labor Day, is pornography for lonely divorcees. Even Reitman himself calls it misguided. Of course, I didn’t know that Labor Day, also based on a novel, was going to be as bad as it was when I learned his next project was doing Men, Women & Children.  Still, I’m willing to give Reitman the benefit of the doubt. The trailer looks amazing.

Much like with Jesse AndrewsMe and Earl and the Dying Girl, I ordered the book right away once I found out it was being adapted.  I must have been reading something else at the time because I didn’t get around to  it until near the end of January.  When I finally sat down to read it, I devoured the three hundred and three pages in two days.

bookcoverMen, Women & Children chronicles the goings-on of several suburban families and their middle school-aged children as they try to make their way through life in the age of instant information, instant gratification and instant humiliation. It is straight-up depressing in the best kind of way.

One father has to rush home during his lunch hour just so he can masturbate. His porn tastes are downright vanilla compared to his son’s, who is discovering just about every kind of kink there is thanks to the vastness of the Internet.

One mom runs a website where she charges men to view suggestive photos of her daughter.  The daughter only wants to lose her virginity before any of her other eighth grade peers.

One chaste middle schooler uses an alternate MySpace profile to present herself as a sexually promiscuous Goth.

A married couple is drifting further and further apart.  The husband struggles with whether or not he should hire an escort while the wife struggles with whether or not she should meet up face-to-face with a man she met online.

This is just a sampling of the characters in the novel.  I wish I’d had a character sheet to keep them organized.

Kultgen’s novel, at times both hopeless and hopeful, is an examination of what happens when the American Dream is digitized.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about how different my middle school experience was from the kids in the book.  I wasn’t worried about losing my virginity, battling anorexia or harboring suicidal thoughts.  My mother wasn’t taking suggestive pictures of me and charging men to look at them.  Is this really what kids are going through these days?  I’m not being rhetorical here; I’m genuinely asking.  We live in a society that fosters the idea of growing up quickly.  Through their media consumption, kids already know what to do with sexual urges before they get even them.  If this is how kids really are in middle school, someone needs to do something about it; someone needs to talk to them.  But if we’re going by the narrative of the book, it won’t be the parents because they are just as screwed up as the children.

Despite my comparatively mundane middle school experience, I could still relate to the kids in the book.  And I could relate to the adults, too. The book posits that at one time or another, everyone has felt alone. Whether that feeling is in a relationship or in life in general is irrelevant because the feeling is still there.  Everyone has feared ridicule of presenting their innermost desires to someone.  That’s why the Internet is so great.  It brings like-minded people closer together.  You can look across the chasm you’re about to jump into and see that you’re not alone. Sometimes that’s all you need, to decide not to jump.

[The Internet is also awful because those innermost thoughts can be instantly shared with everyone that you don’t want them to be shared with.  If you need proof of that, just go read the comments section of literally any YouTube video.]

Regarding the upcoming movie, Reitman may potentially have the greatest movie of his career on his hands.  I imagine something like American Beauty meets Disconnect meets Blue Velvet.  While I’m less than enthused about the casting of Jennifer Garner and Adam Sandler, I’m still excited about the movie.  And if you’ve seen Punch-Drunk Love, you know that Sandler is capable of actually acting. I’m hopeful that Reitman will pull something serviceable out of him. It seems like Sandler is playing the man who wants to hire an escort.  Thinking back to his characterization, Sandler may be a perfect fit.

Men, Women & Children is set for a limited run starting October 3 before expanding on October 17.  That gives you a little over a month to read the book, so hop to it!

What are your thoughts on the oeuvre of Jason Reitman? Have you read this or any other book by Kultgen?  Sound off in the comments below.



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Toi Derricotte & Vanessa German: Saturday Poets-In-Person

Samuel Hazo_postcard flyr (5_5x8_5)

Come join us on Saturday, September 20th, at the Main Library in Oakland, for the inaugural reading in our brand new series, Saturday Poets-In-Person. The series will focus on well-known Pittsburgh poets, with the featured poets for the first reading being Toi Derricotte and Vanessa German. Readings will take place from 3 to 4 pm on Saturday afternoons. Sign language interpretation will be provided for our Deaf community.

Toi Derricotte is an important American poet whose work resonates deeply with the sorrows and the joys of being human, utilizing elements of her own life to inform us all what it is to be alive in the late 20th and early 21st century. An award winning poet who is the co-founder of Cave Canem, an organization “committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets,” she was elected Chancellor of  the Academy of American Poets in 2012.

Vanessa German is a multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh’s historic Homewood neighborhood. Her performances have been described by Creative Mornings  as being in a “style called Spoken Word Opera; a dynamic hybrid of spoken word poetry infused with the theatrical elements of Opera, Hip Hop, and African Storytelling.” Her love of Homewood, her personal courage in the face of adversity, and her performance work, the stuff of Pittsburgh legend, are well-known both nationally and internationally.

All readings will take place in the International Poetry Room on the second floor of Main Library. The poetry collection housed there contains over 4,500 books and is one of the largest standalone poetry collections in a public library in the US. The collection was begun by the Carnegie Library in collaboration with Dr. Samuel Hazo, the founder and Executive Director of the International Poetry Forum, with a few dozen books back in 1976 and has grown into a destination point for poetry lovers in Pittsburgh and throughout Allegheny County.

For lovers of the written word, performance art, or poetry, this is a program not to be missed. I hope to see you there. FYI, here is a flyer for the complete series. Just click to enlarge:

page0001~ Don

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Ten books

If you’re on social media, you’ve probably seen the “10 books that stayed with you” meme that’s been floating around. For those of us who are book lovers, it’s the best kind of voyeurism– finding out what books left some kind of permanent mark on the people we know. The idea is to not pick with too much thought; you just come up with the 10 books off the top of your head that stayed with you in some way. My own picks (with favorite quotes!) are:

Anne of Green Gables (“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think.  It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”)

A People’s History of the United States (“Tyranny is tyranny, let it come from who it may”)

The Secret Garden (“Is it wick?”)

Madame Bovary (“She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.”

No Logo (“So, if consumers are like roaches, then marketers must forever be dreaming up new concoctions for industrial strength Raid.”)

The Catcher in the Rye (“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you’ll start missing everybody.”)

The Outsiders (“Stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold.”)

Holes (“When the shoes first fell from the sky, he remembered thinking that destiny had struck him.”)

100 Years of Solitude (“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover the ice…”)

The Great Gatsby (“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well I met another bad driver, didn’t I.”)

I don’t think I could tell you how often I’ve read these books! I wonder if they’ve stayed with me because of how often I’ve read them, or if I’ve read them so much because they left such an impression on me? I think I quote or think of something from each of these books daily, or certainly weekly.

If you like statistics as much as you like books, you’ll love the data that some researchers put together of the top books from this meme, which you can find here.

What are your ten books?




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Tea Cups, Tempests and Sci-Fi

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a bit of science fiction. With the notable exception of the Glory Lane by Alan Dean Foster, I didn’t read much sci-fi growing up (As an aside, having re-read this book recently, I think it holds up remarkably well. If you enjoy lighter sci-fi with a nod to pop-culture, American subcultures, and general weirdness, give it a go!). I suppose I’m making up for lost time getting into a lot of stuff that is considered either New Weird or Sci-Fi. I’m quite taken with much of it. Earlier this summer, however, I found myself revisiting the (possible) origins of the genre.

When I was an English major back in college I remember a very excited Shakespeare professor saying that The Tempest was the first sci-fi work of Western Literature. At the time I seem to remember being entertained by the idea but not giving it much thought. I’m also not sure how true it is! I suppose a lot depends on this particular professor’s definition of science fiction! (Also, as an aside, if you want a great book on Shakespeare, check out Bill Bryson’s book on the bard. It’s well worth reading!) Years later, when post-colonial readings of the classics occurred more widely, I noted that The Tempest was getting more and more life breathed into it and was being staged everywhere from London to Pittsburgh.

So, earlier this summer when I was reading more sci-fi, I thought back to that Shakespeare professor and the idea that The Tempest was the first (or, maybe more accurately, ONE of the first) sci-fi work(s) in Western Literature. I decided to watch the 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest starring Helen Mirren as Prospera, Felicity Jones as Miranda, Reeve Carney as Price Ferdinand, Djimon Hounsou as Caliban and Russell Brand as Trinculo.







This more recent film adaptation by Julie Taymor is worth watching, if for nothing else the amazing performances of Housou, Mirren and Brand (yes, Russell Brand is excellent). The story, in case you aren’t familiar, consists of a user of the magical arts being cast away from civilization (usurped by a brother) supposedly for practicing said arts, with their child. Living on an island inhabited only by Caliban, the magician and daughter live for years, until the magician’s arts finally shipwreck the usurping brother and his companions. A story of revenge, difference, the “other”, and love comes to the surface.

This particular adaptation isn’t without difficulties. The character of Ariel (who is an other-worldly spirit daemon called into service, and forced to work for Prospera) is a fascinating character that opens the reader (or viewer in this case!) to a whole world of possible interactions and interplay between characters. Especially when one banks this relationship off of the relationship that Prospera has with Caliban, the whole production is ripe for some serious analysis and question asking! What I found a bit underwhelming were some of the special effects that the film-makers used with the Ariel character. Sure, Ariel is a sprite or spirit or demon or whatever, but at times the scenes featuring this other-worldly creation seemed more like a cruddy new-metal music video than a production by the Immortal Bard.

Aside from those scenes, the film is really worth seeing. Maybe it’s just my tastes in visual effects! You might think it looks pretty cool. Either way, I recommend the film highly. Get into some really classic sci-fi.

- Eric (who is reading and watching the New Weird, Old Weird and All Around Weird as fall descends on us here in Pittsburgh, AND who carefully LEFT OUT the part about how seeing this film had a lot to do with his wife demanding to see it because Russell Brand is in it and she has a major thing for Russell Brand)


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