Monthly Archives: June 2010

Are you ready to read all summer?

If your answer is “yes!” (and you’re over 18 years of age), then you are a prime candidate to participate in our Adult Summer Reading program!  The premise of the program is really simple:  Read 5 books, get a free gift.  All you have to do is register and log your books (or magazines, or newspapers, or audiobooks) by August 7th. 

Think Summer Reading is for kids?  Well, yes, it is.  And you can count what you read to kids as your own summer reading.  Being  a role model to the children in your life only gets more important in the summer when they have all that extra time to watch and learn from you! Want some ideas for what to read to your kid? Check out the many, many suggestions our children’s librarians have put together for the Kids Page on our web site. One of my most distinctive memories is the last book my mother ever read to me; I simply couldn’t wait to see what happened and snuck off to finish The Good Earth on my own. 

On the other hand, Summer Reading has its rewards for you, as well, and not just the free gift at the end of the summer. Reading keeps your brain healthy, reduces stress, and helps balance the pace of a hectic life.  Plus, books make great conversation starters, especially the ones on our Summer Reading Lists!  By signing up for Summer Reading, you can say to yourself, “I’m committed to giving myself the gift of reading at least 5 books this summer,” and you can join the many others who have given themselves that gift this summer, too. 


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Halfway Through

Blame it on being surrounded by millions of enticing materials everyday, but I just can’t resist the urge to read more than one book at a time. Books teeter on every stackable  surface of my home, and most of them with bookmarks tucked halfway through. Right now, I’m in the midst of several very different and very interesting titles. Every single one is unputdownable (except, of course, to pick up the others).

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman

The World Without UsDo you ever wonder what it would take to erase all traces of humankind from the planet? In this intriguing thought experiment, Weisman walks through the processes Earth would undergo without human interference to deconstruct and decompose  every human creation, from a single house to a landfill to New York City to carbon emissions.

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram

The Spell of the SensuousI’m still in the introductory, theory-heavy portion of this book, but the perspective of an author who relates to a “more-than-human-world” is refreshing and inspiring enough to keep me enrapt. So far, Abram has discussed interacting with one’s environment with the awareness that we are always both seeing and seen, and that sentience may not be as simple as scientific, objective thought traditionally views it.

The Opposite House, Helen Oyeyemi

The Opposite HouseOyeyemi’s poetic prose is immediately arresting and surprising, even breaking mid-line like a poem in some places. The characters’ position as Cuban immigrants to London, and the tension between the narrator’s mystic, Santeria-practicing mother and analytical professor father create incidents of thought-provoking cultural conflict. The real hook of the novel is that their storyline interweaves with another one, where a Yoruba goddess lives in a mysterious house that opens to both Lagos and London.

Even though I’m only halfway through all of these books, I’m confident that they will continue to deliver on their though-provoking entertainment. It’s possible that I might finish reading faster if I limited myself to one title at a time, but what would be the fun of that?


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Annoying Classic Literature

In honor of a chance reunion with my 12th grade English teacher, I offer our gentle readers a short list of so-called classic literature that I despise.

Dickens, Charles Great Expectations

Random kid makes good by helping a convict and just so happens to meet the weirdest woman in England? Real plausible there, Dickens. Not that Dickens ever cared about plausibility (though he apparently cared about orphans and making money).

Try instead: Well, I can’t recommend any more Dickens, since I’m firmly in the Anti-Dickens camp. But I can suggest Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which presents a much more amusing Miss Havisham.

Great Expectations is available as a book, an audio book, and assorted movies. We also have the Cliffs notes and a DVD guide, but if you’ve been assigned this book you should still probably read it. The Eyre Affair is available as a book or audio book.

Eliot, George Middlemarch

I tried to read this three times, twice while in college, and never managed to get more than 2/3 of the way through it (though I still got As on my papers, go me). The moral of the story is that you shouldn’t marry an old dude when you really want a younger one. There, I just saved you 800+ pages of dullness.

Try instead: Um, I hated Middlemarch so much that I never tried to read any more Eliot. Anyone out there have any suggestions?

Middlemarch is available as a book,  an audio book, and a movie that I should eventually buy for this library. We have the Cliffs notes too, which are probably every bit as boring but much shorter.

James, Henry The Turn of the Screw

This particular bit of assigned summer reading was such exquisite torture that I had to read it twice. Not that I enjoy making myself suffer, mind you, I was just so bored the first time that I was reading individual words and not complete sentences. I had to read it again so that I could pick up enough plot points to write a convincing essay (which I did, of course).

Try instead: Roderick Hudson – I read this one in college, and it actually has a plot. A plot that make sense. And the main character has a name!

The Turn of the Screw is available as a book and an audio book. We have the Cliffs notes as well, so save your money and borrow our copy instead. Roderick Hudson is only available as a book, probably because everyone gives up on Henry James after reading The Turn of the Screw.

Wharton, Edith Ethan Frome

Life is hard! Let’s sled into a tree! While Robert Altman and the crew from M*A*S*H would have us believe that suicide is painless, this book, with its botched and completely lame suicide attempt, is anything but. Gah.

Try instead: Anything else by Edith Wharton. I loved The House of Mirth and Old New York, perhaps because they are nothing like Ethan Frome.

Ethan Frome is available as a book, an audio book, and a movie, though not even the presence of Liam Neeson can make this classic palatable. We also have the Cliffs notes for those who want to get this over with quickly and painlessly – unlike poor Mr. Frome. The House of Mirth is available as a book, an audio book, and a movie – though perhaps not a good one. Old New York is available as a book.

So I ask, gentle readers, are there any classics that you cannot stand? Or would you care to convince me that these four are worth my time after all?

– Amy (who really does have a degree in literature)


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Steve Martin Appreciation Day

“Isn’t Steve Martin just great?”

This thought enters my mind whenever I see one of his old movies (emphasis on the older ones), pick up a novel he wrote, or simply hear about him in the news. I just finished tearing through The Pleasure of My Company, and it’s wonderful.

I’m impressed with the fact that Martin has stayed relevant throughout a career that spans four decades now, and that he has in no way remained static.  I wanted to take a quick moment just to highlight some of my favorites from the man that is much more than a comedian.

For example, he started his film career with The Jerk, which he both wrote and starred in.  Not only is Martin at his personal best here, but the film at large is considered one of the finest comedic efforts of all time.  You would think that might cause an actor dismay, but it apparently didn’t faze Martin, who went on to do Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Roxanne, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I must also, of course, mention Three Amigos, which I have basically watched once a week from the age of five until now. L.A. Story is the finest of his later films; once again written and starred in by Steve himself, this movie is essential viewing before any visit to Hollywood.

As his movie career has been less stellar in recent years, my enjoyment of Martin’s other work has increased.  Because of Pure Drivel, the devestatingly beautiful Shopgirl, and the aforementioned The Pleasure of My Company, I think fiction may be where his talent truly lies.  Of course, it doesn’t end there either:  Martin is also an accomplished banjoist — dude has won a Grammy for his collection entitled The Crow, played at Bonnaroo and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and jammed with Earl Scruggs. That’s not just playing around.

On top of all that, Steve Martin has remained remarkably candid and aimiable.  This is a guy who has received the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the arts, hosted the Oscars and SNL multiple times, and yet still seems genuine and down to earth. Oh, and of course, if you don’t want to hear any more about Steve Martin from me, you can always get it straight from the source in his memoir, Born Standing Up.



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More Cowbell @ Your Library

This is a cowbell:

senior kit cowbell

This blog needed more cowbell - photo credit R. Kaplan, 2010

More to the point, it is a cowbell that can be borrowed from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Wait, what?

Surprise.  This particular cowbell is included as a piece of realia in one of the library’s senior activity kits.  “Realia” is the fancy librarian word for “circulating items that you might not expect a library to have,” and a little bit of catalog search magic reveals that you can borrow all sorts of unusual things from libraries all over the county.

But:  back to the cowbell.

The senior activity kits are designed for use by activities/programming directors who work in senior centers, nursing homes, and other group situations. As such, they have special borrowing and lending policies.  Our cowbell is part of kit #PK123, “Remembering Farm Days,” which also includes a set of slides,  several bags of seeds, some activity booklets, and much more.  You won’t find it in the catalog, though – senior kits are one of the services you can learn more about on the CLP “secret menu,” also known as “our astonishingly diverse and informative website!” 

[Okay, the website isn’t really a secret, but in the age of Googlemania, it’s the best-kept open information secret you might not be looking at.  Just for fun, next time you have a question, ask us first, then report back on how it went. We need to know this sort of thing.]

So, if you work with seniors, and you think one of our kits — with or without cowbell — might enhance your programming options, give Main Library a call to arrange an Oakland pickup. Can’t make it in to see us? Contact the staff at your local district library and they’ll work with us to set it up for you.

–Leigh Anne
cowbell aficianado since 1975.


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Relearning Science Basics

This past weekend I made a five-hour drive across the state to my hometown near Scranton, PA. To make the drive a little more interesting, I borrowed the audiobook version of Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. If you’re not already familiar, Natalie Angier is a science writer for The New York Times. The Canon is her attempt to write a book that explains the most crucial aspects of the major hard sciences from physics through astronomy, and she does a terrific job of it.

In fact, she did such a good job that all I’ve been thinking about since being immersed in 13.25 hours of science love is how much more I need to learn. Of course, I now need to buy a stereoscopic microscope, a chemistry set, and a telescope. But I also need to read more too, so here are a few books where I might begin:

The Joy of Chemistry: The Amazing Science of Familiar Things by Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf

Physics Made Simple by Christopher G. De Pree  

Biology: An Everyday Experience  by Albert Kaskel, Paul J. Hummer, and Lucy Daniel

Astronomy: A Self-Teaching Guide by Dinah L. Moche 

Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey

Have you begun any new love affairs with knowledge lately?


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George Carlin, 1937 – 2008

Two years ago, controversial funnyman George Carlin passed away.   But he left a huge body of work, spanning both decades and formats.

If you want to know more about his early stand-up career, why not try George’s Best Stuff?  The clips range from 1978 to 1988, and include some of his most famous bits.  George Carlin’s Personal Favorites is another such compilation, featuring performances from 1977 to 1998.  However, if you lost track of George in his later years, the library has several HBO specials, including Complaints and Grievances (which was filmed live, ten weeks after September 11th), Life is Worth Losing and It’s Bad For Ya.

In his later years, Carlin also tried his hand at books, including Napalm and Silly Putty and When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops? Notice that I linked to the audiobook versions – read by Carlin himself, of course – because they are an almost identical experience to his live stand-up albums, except for the somewhat noticeable lack of an audience.  If you find that unnerving, as some listeners do, they’re also available in traditional book format.

Maybe you’re interested in Carlin’s acting career.  His little-known first role was in With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968.  This was followed by the slightly less obscure films Car Wash in 1976 and Outrageous Fortune in 1987.   It wasn’t until 1989 that Carlin introduced what is arguably his most famous character – Rufus, a time-traveling “fairy godmother” to two vapid teenagers, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  (Over the next three years, this goofy flick spawned a sequel and a short-lived animated TV series.  This franchise was arguably the launch of Keanu Reeves’ career, as well.  Most triumphant!)  Carlin then appeared in The Prince of Tides, which was nominated for Best Picture.  Later, he became associated with Kevin Smith’s View Askew Films, playing roles in Dogma and Jersey Girl.   He even guest-starred in an episode of The Simpsons – D’oh-in’ in the Wind.

Given the tone of most of Carlin’s work, perhaps his most surprising aspect is his work with children’s entertainment.  He voiced the character of Fillmore, a psychedelic VW bus, in Cars.   He was also Mr Conductor on Shining Time Station, and then narrator on the related show Thomas the Tank Engine.  (Incidentally, one of his predecessors was Ringo Starr, and one of his successors was Alec Baldwin.)   One of Carlin’s final projects was the voice of the Wizard, in the movie Happily N’ever After.

Carlin’s actual final project was Last Words, an autobiography that was nearly completed when he died.  I haven’t listened to this one yet; I’ve been saving it until I’m caught up on the rest of his work.  In the meantime, it’s nice to know there’s some “new” George Carlin material out there.

Lucky for me, it’s hard to miss a guy that’s done as much as George has.



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Have You Caught the Fever?

Football fever that is.  “What?” you say, “Football in June?  The Steelers haven’t even gone back to Latrobe yet!”  Not that kind of football.  Not the American kind where the players’ feet actually rarely touch the ball at all.  I’m talking about what is referred to as football in just about every other country in the world, the sport of soccer.

Soccer BallThis week for the first time ever, I saw one of the local news stations discussing soccer on the 11 o’clock news.  If I hadn’t already known about the major global event taking place right now, I might have been flabbergasted.  But because I have at least one good friend who is a huge soccer fan, I knew they were talking about the World Cup.

Much like the Olympics, the World Cup takes place every four years and its location is different each time.  They try to move the event around to a variety of countries, again much like the Olympics.  There is one team representing each participating country and every player on that team must be a citizen of the country he represents, although he may play for a different country’s club team during his regular season.

If you’d like to learn more about soccer and also the World Cup, I recommend checking out the following…

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer – Yes, believe it or not, soccer is a big enough sport around the world for it to have global economic and political ramifications.

The Simplest Game: The Intelligent Fan’s Guide to the World of Soccer by Paul Gardner – Everything you always wanted to know, even if you didn’t know to ask.

The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt – This was recommended to me as an excellent overview of the history of soccer.

A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006 by Clemente Angelo Lisi – A comprehensive overview of the tournament from its beginning to the most recent world champion, Italy.

Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans, and Freaks by Jamie Trecker – What’s it really like to be at the World Cup?  Are soccer fans really that crazy?  This book tells all.

The Official Rules of Soccer by the United States Soccer Federation – Just in case you want to know exactly what the rules are…

So join the rest of the world who are glued to their TV sets over the next month and cheer on the real football team of your choice.

Gli Azzurri!


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Dresden Files: Late to the Game

A couple of weeks ago I started reading the Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels penned by Jim Butcher. Dresden Files tells the stories of Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practicing wizard. It’s set firmly in the urban fantasy genre of popular fiction, and features the main character’s struggle to keep the darker aspects of the supernatural at bay, while still making enough money to pay his rent!

This series has been running since 2000, and I am very late to the game. Somehow, for all of that time, I have managed to avoid the spoilers. It’s not easy. There are numerous web sites with great info on the series, including a really thorough Wiki page (but beware the spoilers).

There’s also a pretty awesome pen & paper RPG coming out soon from Evil Hat Studios.  It’s already for sale in PDF for folks who aren’t averse to books in electronic format.  Since we’re discussing Dresden in other media, there are also graphic novels and a short-lived TV show.

I am on the third book, Grave Peril, now, and Butcher’s first-person narrative style has really grabbed me. I often find first-person a little constraining, but Butcher knows his character so well he’s never at loss for letting the reader know exactly what he or she needs to, while holding back certain tantalizing elements for later revelations.

It’s kind of nice being late to the game.  For a while at least, when I finish a book, I can just grab the next one in line.  I’ll catch up eventually, but my assiduous avoidance of spoilers for Dresden has paid off!


P.S. If you’re already familiar with Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files and you’re interested in exploring other urban fantasy writers’ work, check out the Urban Fantasy Writers web site, and you can get some decent mileage out of a similar keyword search on our Catalog.

P.P.S. I have only read the first two Harry Potter books, so please don’t tell me how it ends!


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Old School

How many of you remember the 1980s Smith Barney ad with John Houseman“We make money the old fashioned way, we earn it.” I thought about that slogan after mixing my media one weekend.

Several weeks ago I found myself  in Squirrel Hill, so I satisfied my inner hedonist and went to Dunkin Donuts.  They keep a collection of books around to help nurse the coffee, so I perused their pickings.  I settled on Ken Follett’s Triple – with its ingredients of Uranium, the Mossad, the KGB, and Egyptian Intelligence – written in 1979.  I read far enough into the story that I couldn’t just stop, so I took it home to finish (it has since gone back to DD.)  During the course of the weekend I also happened to watch one of the Bourne movies with Matt Damon.  Both my book and movie were immensely enjoyable and intriguing, keeping me entertained, drawing me in and making me think ahead 2-3 steps as the events and action unfolded.

After comparing them a little, I can’t decide who had it harder:  Follett’s KGB and Mossad spies, or Ludlum’s (via Hollywood) amnesic regular Joe with a dark secret.  Even though Ludlum wrote back in technologically Neolithic days, Hollywood’s Bourne is our contemporary; everything is on the Internet, he can hack CIA networks without breaking a sweat using his iPhone between lattes, conjure up multiple passports and find empty space on the 50th floor of a midtown Manhattan high-rise bereft of other tenants. 

Follett’s people, in contrast,  have to work harder to earn their pay. Day’s long stakeouts in Ford Cortinas, Plymouth Furys, or Trabants; surreptitious dead drops, and clandestine meetings with embittered nicotine sucking controllers in the cellars of Bulgarian or East German versions of PHI in the wee hours.  If they have to make a call, they’ll need a dime, kopek or shilling and a pay-phone that’s always two blocks away in the cold rain and being used.  These are blue-collar guys, no Q to outfit them with jet-paks and tricked out Aston Martin DB5s, though I’ll give Ian Fleming points because the literary 007 is more like the rest of us than the cinema Bond.

So who else earns their pay the old fashioned way and brings you along without logins and passwords?  In no particular order, each of these writers and their works stand the tests of time and effort.  The selections are mine, the annotations are Novelist’s.

Alistair MacLean –

  • Guns of Navarone – Five selected men, experts in their particular fields, have been brought together to destroy the Germans’ heavy guns on the island of Navarone, accessible only after scaling a 400 foot sheer cliff. 1200 Tommies depend on them.
  • Where Eagles Dare – Major Smith, leading seven agents, parachutes into Bavaria to rescue an American general who has fallen into the hands of the Gestapo.  He is now held in the Schloss Adler, an inaccessible castle above a snow covered valley.

Ken Follett –

  • Triple – With the KGB and Egyptian Intelligence on his trail, Nat Dickstein, former British soldier, camp survivor and Israeli intelligence agent, penetrates Euratom  and is forced to put his faith in an attractive woman whom he last met as a child.
  • Key to Rebecca – Alex Wolff is sent to Cairo to gather secrets from the British and broadcast them to Rommel in the desert, using pages of du Maurier’s Rebecca for a code.  How is he to be caught?
  • Eye of the Needle – A German agent – Die Nadel – finds out that D-Day will be at Normandy, not Calais as the Allies would like Hitler to believe. A chase and battle of wits follows between the German agent, fleeing across England, and a British Military Intelligence officer who has come out of retirement to catch him.

Jack Higgins  –

  • The Eagle Has Landed – “The eagle has landed” was the message received by Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, on November 6, 1943, telling him that a small force of German paratroopers had landed in England and were poised to snatch Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For the first time, meet Liam Devlin, an IRA gunman, poet, scholar, and one of the most celebrated anti-heroes of fiction.
  • Touch the Devil – Retired agent Liam Devlin is forced to undertake a deadly mission that involves British and Soviet intelligence, hired killer Martin Brosnan, and combat photographer Anne-Marie Audin. They need to find Ulster-born psychopath and super-terrorist Frank Barry, a KGB hireling who kills socialists as well as capitalists.

Robert Ludlum –

  • The Bourne Identity – Amid a storm at sea, a man is shot in the head and washes overboard–but he grabs onto a piece of wood, and eventually is picked up by Greek fishermen. Suffering from amnesia, he finds himself with a Swiss bank account in the name of Jason Bourne, a professional assassin being manipulated by a top-secret American government organization to kill his arch rival, the dreaded Carlos.
  • The Chancellor Manuscript – A secret group of Washington’s most powerful men – “Inver Brass,” – have FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover killed in order to reach his secret files only to discover there is someone else capable of using these personal dossiers for blackmail and extortion.
  • The Holcroft Covenant – Noel Holcroft is shown a thirty-year-old document, drawn up by his Nazi father and other high Third Reich officials – a document which, upon Noel’s signature, will supposedly release eight hundred million dollars to Holocaust survivors and their descendants. It isn’t in everyone’s best interests for this to happen.

Frederick Forsyth –

  • Day of the Jackal – A detailed account of the meticulous plans to assassinate the French President, and the equally meticulous search for the assassin when the authorities are alerted. The President is DeGaulle; the time, shortly after the withdrawal of France from Algeria; the instigators, the dissident French OAS; the assassin, an Englishman, master marksman and master of disguise. The chief counteragent, an unassuming little police detective called in by the French security.
  • The Odessa File – Peter Miller, a German freelance feature writer, acquires the diary of a Jewish survivor who has just killed himself. While reading the diary he comes across the name of the man who once was the Butcher of Riga, a concentration camp commandant, and now is the head of a prominent industrial concern. Miller decides to bring him in; to do so he must infiltrate the organization of former SS members.
  • The Devil’s Alternative – The rescue of an unconscious man from the Black Sea, sometime in 1982, sets off a sequence of events that takes officials in Washington, Moscow, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and Rotterdam to the brink of global catastrophe.



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