We’ve Moved

Our blog has moved to become part of the all-new Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh website! Follow us there for the same great library news, updates, book reviews and more:


Thank you for for your faithful readership during our time here at WordPress. We’ve been honored to be featured as one of the community’s best book blogs, and we intend to build on that excellence at our new digital home.

See you in the future!

Team Eleventh Stack


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Pace Yourself: The Paying Guests

Whenever library workers chat with you about books, we try to figure out what kind of book you’ll like so we know what to recommend. We ask you a lot of questions designed to tease out certain kinds of information we call “appeal factors.” That’s fancy library lingo for “must-haves and deal-breakers” and they’re different from person to person.

Some readers care about the plot: how exciting it is, whether or not it makes sense, and–in the case of mystery readers–how hard it is to figure out whodunit. Others insist on complex characters, both likable ones and those you love to hate. You get the idea. The thing that makes or breaks a book for me personally is the pacing: if it’s not hitting certain dramatic beats in what I consider a timely fashion, I just can’t finish it. Usually this happens when a book is moving too slowly: there’s a big difference between tease and snooze, and some authors just haven’t figured it out.

Sarah Waters is not one of those authors. I’ve just finished part one of The Paying Guests and am impressed with how well it’s put together. In fact, its three-part structure and gradually unfolding action lend itself nicely to filming; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a TV version on PBS or BBC America at some point, particularly since it’s set in the same time period as Downton Abbey, and would have, I think, massive crossover appeal.

It’s helpful that the protagonist, Frances Wray, is both sympathetic and interesting: a payingguestsyoung woman who’s quietly sacrificed all of her own dreams and desires to take care of her elderly mother. She’s not a martyr about it; in fact, she’s extremely practical and pretty much resigned to her losses (which include both brothers, killed in WWI). Because they’re a bit down on their luck after the death of Mr. Wray, Frances and her mother rent out part of their home to a young married couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. After the Barbers move in, however, Frances finds a passion for life … and Lilian.

Frances and Lilian’s feelings for each other unfold at just the right pace. There’s an art to these things, and Waters understands it. Given the time period, and the fact that Lilian appears to be happily married when we first meet her, it would be absurd if they fell into each others’ arms immediately. Frances doesn’t even notice anything special about Lilian the day the Barbers move in; she’s annoyed that the Wray finances are so bad they have to share their house with others (something that’s definitely Not Done in their social circles). Frances’s slow warm-up, and Lilian’s even slower thaw, thread the narrative with a delicious energy: are they going to get together, or not?

Waters makes the sensible choice to answer this question, and raise new ones, by the end of Part One. This works well because dragging out the will-they-or-won’t-they question over the course of a 500+ page novel is both cruel and unfair (there’s a difference between tease and torture, too). The resolution of Part One ups the ante for Part Two, creating even more tension with new questions: what obstacles will Frances face going forward? Will Lilian hold to her decision, or choose a different road? Is Leonard going to find out about any of this, and what will he do if he does? And what role will poor Mrs. Wray play as the action unfolds? Though she’s a somewhat minor character, she’s still got the potential to be either an obstacle or a gateway to happiness, and it’s exciting to wonder which way it will go.

I’m indulging myself in a little more speculation and dramatic tension before I dive into Part Two; honestly, by the time I finished Part One I needed to stop and catch my breath. If this kind of reading experience sounds fun to you, and you’d like to spend some time in post-WWI London with a pair of conflicted young women from different social classes, you’ll really enjoy The Paying Guests, which you can read in print, large print, audio book, and digital audio.  I’m tempted to try an audio option next, to compare/contrast; I’m a bit fussier about pacing in audio, though, because I can’t control the speed at which the narrator reads. Still, the story’s so good, it’s worth a shot.

What makes or breaks a book for you? What does a story absolutely have to have in terms of character, plot, pacing, setting, etc. for you to really enjoy it? What else can we call “appeal factors” so they don’t sound quite so formal and stuffy? Let us know what you think in a comment below!

–Leigh Anne


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Looking Out at the Views While Sipping Lemonade

59fc635f7dbe6b5cd1e07e5e605c96b5.640x640x1.jpgRecently, two of my favorite artists, Beyoncé and Drake, released albums (Lemonade & Views). Beyoncé has wowed the world once again with a visual album. The film to accompany Lemonade aired on HBO a few weeks ago & the soundtrack so to speak was Lemonade. The album is currently available for streaming on Tidal.

The film chronicled Bey going through an emotional journey of dealing with her husband’s infidelity. Each song represented each emotion that she went through during the process. It ended on forgiveness, which makes sense since she & Jay-Z are still together. It was very powerful to see her get so personal and raw with the world. I thought that her self-titled album was personal, but Lemonade takes the cake.

I love the album from start to finish, but here are my top 5. The top five are: “Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sorry,” “Freedom,” and “Sandcastles.” On “Sandcastles” you can hear Bey’s raw emotions in her vocals especially when she sings: What is it about you that I can’t erase?  You can hear her voice crack, and it sounds like she’s on the verge of tears. This song definitely delivers in the feels department. Beyoncé experiments with a lot of different genres on this album from rock, reggae, hip-hop, country and r&b.


Meanwhile, after all of the speculation, push backs and rumors, Drake’s new album Views is finally here. Drake has delivered yet again with this album. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Drake said that this is his best album vocally and I agree. Drake is doing what he’s known for, which is mixing rapping with singing and once again it works. One of my favorite sections of this album is what I would consider the reggae section. The two tracks “Controlla” and “One Dance,” which is currently the #1 song in the country, both have reggae vibes to them and it makes almost impossible to not dance when those two songs come on. Towards the end of “Controlla” you can hear reggae artist Beenie Man and I felt that transition was genius.

Another great song on this album is “Weston Road Flows,” which features a sample of a Mary J. Blige song called “Mary’s Joint.” On this song, Drake displays his storytelling abilities while reflecting on his past. “U With Me?” is another great song on Views. It samples two DMX songs and has Drake wondering if his girl will stick with him. “Still Here” is also great for it’s uptempo jam style.

Both artists have delivered quality albums that I’m sure will be on a lot of “Best of 2016” lists at the end of the year. Lemonade and Views  are in our catalog for request but if you can’t wait, you can stream Views on Hoopla and Beyoncé’s previous albums are available for download on Freegal. Beyoncé and Drake will be making their way to Pittsburgh very soon. Queen Bey will be gracing the Burgh with her presence on May 31st when her Formation World Tour makes a stop at Heinz Field. The 6 God himself will be at the Consol Energy Center on August 17th when his Summer Sixteen Tour stops here.

Happy listening!


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Short Stories, Big Impact in Whiskey, Etc.

Flash fiction. It’s really, really, really short fiction. Shorter than this blog post, in many cases.

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote that goes, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain agrees. Flash fiction is hard to write. How do you tell a compelling, meaningful, and impactful story in 200, 500 or even 1,000 words?


Local author Sherrie Flick has the answer in her new collection, Whiskey, Etc. At 207 pages, the collection contains 57 short short stories, most of them between one and three pages long. Some are only a paragraph, and some stretch to five or so pages. All of them will make you feel as if you are holding a small, intricately detailed world in the palm of your hand.

Flick has grouped the stories into categories: Songs, Pets, Dessert, Art, Soap, Whiskey, etc. (Get it?) These aren’t dogmatic categories, but more like loose grouping of themes and objects. Within the categories, the stories range from funny to devastating. The tone throughout is muted and quiet, but it feels like something will happen next, even if it isn’t written down.

In my opinion, the ending makes or breaks the story. And Flick nails the ending every time. Instead of closing the story, her endings open that world up to possibility and the future:

As she sets her glass on the coaster and stands, she rubs the faint curl of a red mark the glass has made on her forehead. When the steady pounding begins at her door, she swings it open wide to see what has come. (84)

The characters in these stories handle—or don’t—complex emotions. Love is not a simple yes or no, it’s a yes, but. Often, it’s not love at all, but lust or fear wrapped in satin. Revenge is not an overt or epic action, but a series of small betrayals and denials.

Details hold these miniature worlds together: “the sound of a glass bottle shattering in an alleyway, a muffled yell” (15), “moonlight spills onto the lake like tomato juice” (146), “You drive toward Wyoming with a lump in your throat, with a Tic Tac in your mouth, with a flask in your glove compartment” (160).

These small descriptions create both a physical world within the story and a lens through which to view the characters. Every word is precise and chosen with care. They echo throughout the story, creating ripples and rip tides of meaning and feeling.

Time becomes liquid in many of the stories–reaching out to the past or the future, as in “Sweet Thang,” a story about a breakup:

So lovely that I remember for the last time the first time I saw him, walking across the lawn at Suzy’s infamous BBQ. Walking so fluidly, like he could be, would be, a man in love with me some day. (5)

And in “Anna,” a story about a woman with a double life:

Long nights ooze into one another like stiff, black ink bringing thoughts about her future and how many books she hasn’t read, recipes she hasn’t tried, and friends she no longer calls. (78)

The elasticity of time is one of my favorite aspects of Whiskey, Etc., and flash fiction in general. Because space is so short, there’s no room for a traditional narrative that follows the inverted check mark you learned about in English class. Everything must be condensed, contained, and encapsulated—but not stifled or suffocated.

Doing that is the real trick, and Flick does it with ease.

Join us at CLP – Main on August 6 for an evening with the author, and while you’re waiting, dive into the miniature worlds of Whiskey, Etc.


P.S.: Full disclosure: I know Sherrie Flick personally, but she did not ask me to write this review. I truly love this book.

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 Unquiet Mind.

Imagine one day your brain is overflowing with ideas, bursting with creativity; you can’t stop the thoughts from coming, faster and faster and faster. You’re exhilarated, you don’t sleep, you see everything with a clarity you didn’t think possible; your brain is on fire with understanding. You’re euphoric, delighted, inspired by life.

And then it isn’t and you aren’t.

Instead you can’t get out of bed. You can’t go to work. You don’t eat or you eat too much. You stop showering. You’re apathetic, possibly suicidal. Nothing matters, nothing is exciting, everything is pointless. You’re tired. You’re done.

That’s life with bi-polar disorder. There’s no in-between.


Kay Jamison is a clinical psychologist and an expert in the field of mood disorders. She has also suffered from bipolar disorder since early adulthood. A good friend with bipolar disorder asked me to read her book, so that I might understand him and his illness. I’ll confess, the idea of “mania” is seductive to me. As someone who is pretty even-tempered, the idea of going off the rails is tempting. However, the personal and financial fall-out is too scary—and that’s what makes me different from someone suffering from bipolar disorder.

Jamison wrote Unquiet Mind as a memoir, so it doesn’t get too scientific—though she does explain the science behind drugs (some work, some don’t and it seems like all of them deaden) and brain chemistry. But ultimately, it’s her story about years of refusing medication—even while studying it! At one point, instead of finding a therapist, she buys a horse. She racks up piles and piles of bills, is evicted multiple times and yet completes a PhD. It’s a highly personal glance into someone’s very personal struggle.

Do I understand my friend’s illness better now? Maybe?

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, by the way, so it’s a great time to read Unquiet Mind!


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Misfit Musicals

Despite having the singing skills of a potato, I want nothing more than to live in the world of a musical. Imagine being at the DMV or something and being overcome with the need to sing about the wait. Then the bored workers join you for the chorus, completely nailing the complex choreography. Am I the only person who thinks that’d be totally awesome?  Even though I absolutely love musicals, I realize they exist in a weird world. You can suspend all your disbeliefs and musicals can still get really weird sometimes (did you know there’s a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera?). I scratched the strange surface and spotted these four in our collection.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
sgtpepI’m someone who holds The Beatles sacred, so I think I’m more critical of this movie than any other on this list. After catching the ear of a big-time Hollywood record producer, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band leave behind their small hometown of Heartland, USA (seriously), quickly becoming stars while experiencing the splendor and sleaze of the music industry. There’s also a plot to destroy their hometown thrown in because bad covers of Beatles songs can only last so long. I know that Across the Universe, another musical using Beatles songs has its detractors, but it looks like Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and The Sound of Music combined in comparison. Did I mention this stars, among others, the BeeGees? Watching them strut around with more hair on their face than I have on my entire body while “singing” Beatles songs was certainly jarring and seeing George Burns talk-sing through a lethargic rendition of “Fixing a Hole” was cute and sad, like how seeing a turtle trudge through tar is cute, but also sad. The movie also features blasphemous covers by Alice Cooper before he was shilling Apple Watches and Aerosmith before Steven Tyler looked like a jack-o-lantern left outside two weeks after Halloween. If you’re a fan of musicals or a hardcore Beatles fan, I’d recommend checking it out just so you can say you experienced the insanity. If you value your mental facilities, watch literally other film on this list, like …

Streets of Fire
streetsAs this film opens a title card informs us that what we’re about to see takes place in “another time” and “another place…” Billed as a “rock & roll fable”, Streets of Fire opens with a motorcycle gang, led by Willem Dafoe, kidnapping a famous singer, played by Diane Lane. To rescure her, her agent, played by Rick Moranis contracts her ex-lover, played by Michael Pare (who?), a soldier-for-hire who happens to be passing through town.  The ragtag group hijacks a doo-wop group’s bus and eventually track the singer down. This is the movie that actually inspired my journey into the world of weird musicals and it’s objectively a terrible movie. The acting is wooden, the dialogue is stilted but I unapologetically love it. Everyone plays their parts so straight that it just makes it seem like a ridiculous fever dream of the Regan years. It looks like it takes place in the alternate 1985 from Back to the Future Part II and I’m pretty sure every major scene took place under a bridge or in a tunnel. Do you want to know how much of a relic this is from the 1980s? Dafoe—in only his fourth film role—gets billed after Rick Moranis and Amy Madigan, but before Bill Paxton. Not to mention that the songs sound like the lovechild of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler. The only thing that could have made this movie more awesome would have been to have Dafoe sing a show-stopping ballad while riding a motorcycle. But I guess if 1984 was exposed to that the world would have probably imploded under the weight of this movie’s awesome terribleness.

Phantom of the Paradise
phantomThis and the next film are both from 1974 and they’re both a trip. What was happening in the early-1970s that inspired these kinds of films? Apparently director Brian De Palma was inspired to make this after hearing a muzak cover of “A Day in the Life”. This is essentially a rock opera remake of The Phantom of the Opera, with a little Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in. A record producer (played by one-half of the team that wrote “Rainbow Connection”) is opening a club—The Paradise—and needs new music to accompany the opening. When he hears the music from an obscure composer, he steals it and frames the composer for drug dealing. In an attempt to avoid capture, the composer gets horribly disfigured. Later, he escapes prison and hides out in The Paradise, waiting for the perfect moment to exact revenge on the producer. Also, The Phantom’s lover is in danger, or something. I guess there’s a message in the movie about how the business and corporate side of things can destroy art, not unlike Sgt. Pepper, but Phantom of the Paradise is just so weird you might forget that there’s even a message to be had. When it was released, it flopped but has since gained a cult following.

The Little Prince
princeSadly, this is not a Purple Rain prequel or some kind of Prince: Origins movie, may he rest in power. Based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and with music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe—the songwriting team behind An American in Paris, Brigadoon and My Fair Lady—I imagine this movie is what being on all the drugs in the early 1970s was like. It opens with a pilot played by Richard Kiley making an emergency landing in the Sahara Desert. As he spares no expense trying to fix his plane, the titular Prince appears. The Little Prince has been on Earth for a while, after a perilous and low-tech journey through the solar system. He recounts his tales to the pilot, giving special attention to his encounters with the Fox (played by Gene Wilder, trying to out-Gene Wilder himself) and the Snake (played by Bob Fosse, who you may have never heard of, but we’ll come back to him in a minute). I’ve never read the original novella, but this movie is cute and creepy, like the movie version of a banded piglet squid. Seeing Wilder and Fosse dance and sing around this poor kid gives the film a really weird vibe. And speaking of weird, remember Fosse, the man who won eight Tony awards for choreography throughout his career? Okay, so maybe you’ve never heard of him, but his dance moves probably look more than a little familiar. Take a look:

Nothing is original and everything is a remake of a remake. While we’re on that subject, a gorgeous-looking computer-animated remake of The Little Prince was supposed to come out in March, but a week before its release date, Paramount dropped the film. The good news is that Netflix picked it up.


“Netflix and chill?”

Is your favorite musical a bit on the weird side? Let us know in the comments below.



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The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one’s perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised and who remain on the fringes of society.

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. It’s plausible to draw comparisons with that and The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

(A bit of a disclaimer: Rachel Simon is someone whom I consider a friend, as I’ve been a fangirl follower of her career since 1990 when I attended a writer’s conference where she was the keynote speaker. I’ve taken a few writing classes of hers, and we hang out on The Facebook and The Twitter. I have tried to separate all this from the novel, but the truth is?  I love her work and have for quite some time. Even if she never gave me the time of day, I would still be saying what I say here about this book.)

As I was saying.  Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, “put away,” sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That’s the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania “school” where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better “forget” about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie — who is mute — meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  It’s important to note that he is based on a real person, representing the plight of people of color who had disabilities in that era.  Lynnie and Homan become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse and racial relations that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge — temporarily — with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband’s emotional distance and loss of their only child.

From the book jacket: “When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. Before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: ‘Hide her.'”

Lynnie and Homan choose Martha’s home because her mailbox is a lighthouse, a beacon of hope for those who are lost.  The symbolism of the lighthouse plays out throughout the novel, as Lynnie and Homan and Martha and the baby journey separately (but always interconnected) out of the darkness of their lives into the light. It is not an easy road, and as the reader, you find yourself holding your breath and turning pages to learn what happens next.  In doing so, you become immersed in a world that is rarely talked about, one that is shrouded in darkness even today. (For those who may be concerned that the abuse, neglect and race relations are too graphic in this novel, they are not portrayed as overly such.  It is more heartbreaking and eye-opening than horrific.)

The most significant aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how it sheds light on one of the biggest disgraces in our country: how we treat those who are developmentally disabled and the people who were put away. Another compelling aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how universal this story is, and Simon conveys that to her reader through the physical sense of place and the spiritual elements present throughout the novel.  In regards to place, there were times I wanted to know definitively where the action was taking place.  I like to be grounded as a reader, to know where I am.  You don’t always have this with The Story of Beautiful Girl, and it took me a few chapters to realize that this jarring was intentional. With the action sweeping literally across the country – from Cape Cod to San Francisco, for example — it illustrates that people with disabilities (and especially those of color) are everywhere in our society.  In every community.

Similarly, the spiritual aspect was one that I appreciated about this novel too. It’s hard not to miss the symbolism of the young couple traveling a long distance, the seeking of shelter, the secret birth of a baby in a barn. When the novel opens, it’s November, the eve of Advent and the Christmas season.  Yet, Lynnie was raised in the Jewish faith and The Story of Beautiful Girl includes a traditional Passover.  Buddhism comes into play, too.  These elements are not heavy-headed but again, included intentionally to show the universality of people with disabilities being part of a religious community, even though that community might not know how to address and minister to their spiritual needs.

When I finished The Story of Beautiful Girl, I immediately thought of the phrase “faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” That is, at its essence, what this book is about.  It is about having faith and trust in others, in rebuilding that faith and trust when it is irrevocably taken, and ultimately, having faith and trust in yourself to survive the darkest of nights and go on to do what might have seemed impossible.

It’s about hope that never fades, that survives decades. (“There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could. And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad” (pg. 313).

And yes, The Story of Beautiful Girl is very much a love story.  It’s a love story that illuminates how people with disabilities aren’t immune to the feelings of love that we all experience. It’s a story about the love between a parent and a child, and how those bonds aren’t always defined by blood or race. It is a love story “for those who were put away” (to whom the book is dedicated), to those who have who have been forgotten and neglected, and those — regardless of color, creed, disability and gender — who have risen from darkness into light and those still journeying on that path.

Reserve a copy of The Story of Beautiful Girl.

~ Melissa F.

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