Monthly Archives: September 2010

They Say It’s Your Birthday!

Picture of a piece of birthday cake with a lit candle


Well, it’s my birthday too, yeah!  Actually, it’s not.  But if today is your birthday, you’re in good company.  How do I know?  Well, you see, we here at the Library have access to this marvelous book called Chase’s Calendar of Events.  It’s an annual publication that lists all major historic events, national this or that days, and famous people’s birthdays for every date of the year.  When we Eleventh Stack bloggers are stuck for a blog post topic (nahhhh, that never happens, right?), this is a great place for us to check for a timely, educational, and possibly entertaining subject.  I can honestly say that Chase’s is my favorite reference book of all time. 

So, back to today’s birthdays.  Here’s a list of just some of the famous (and infamous) people born today.  If any of them strike your fancy, you know the library has books and/or DVDs available about or by them.

Ethan Coen (9/21/1957- ) – Ethan, along with his brother Joel, form the duo known in the movie world as the Coen Brothers.  Now, I can’t say that I always ‘get’ their movies.  I found the ending of A Serious Man to be a little abrupt.  But Hollywood loves them, as evidenced by 4 Oscars and countless other awards and nominations.

Dave Coulier (9/21/1959- ) – You know him, he’s that guy who lived in the basement on Full House.  He was supposed to be funny.  And Alanis Morissette wrote that song about him, maybe…

Fannie Flagg (9/21/1944- ) – This comedian and author is best known for her book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and won an Academy Award for the movie screenplay she adapted from this.  She has a new book coming out in November 2010, so watch for it!

Larry Hagman (9/21/1931- ) – Who shot JR?  If you don’t know the answer to that, or even who JR is, you can check out our Dallas DVDs and other big and small screen productions in which Mr. Hagman has appeared.

Faith Hill (9/21/1967- ) – This multi-award winning American country singer is almost as famous for being married to Tim McGraw as she is for singing.

Chuck Jones (9/21/1912 – 2/22/2002) – You know him whether you think you do or not.  He’s the genius animator behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, etc.  The list of his characters goes on and on.  One of his works, What’s Opera Doc?, has even been inducted into the National Film Registry for being “among the most culturally, historically and aesthetically significant films of our time.” 

Stephen King (9/21/1947- ) – What do I even need to say about Mr. King?  If you haven’t heard of this horror author by now, I would say it’s time you came out from under the rock where you’ve been residing.  His latest novel, Under the Dome, comes in at a hefty 1074 pages and therefore can also be used as a step stool, car jack, or for crushing small animals and children.  (Not that I would ever advocate doing any of those things with a book!)

Ricki Lake (9/21/1968- ) – This actress and talk show host is usually best remembered for her numerous roles in John Waters films, most notably as Tracy in the 1988 adaptation of Hairspray.

Rob Morrow (9/21/1962- ) – I remember Rob from his days playing the doctor in the television show Northern Exposure.  (Which I personally think ‘jumped the shark’ during his final episode.)  But those of you who are younger probably best know him as the FBI agent brother on Numb3rs.

Bill Murray (9/21/1950- ) – “This crowd has gone deadly silent, a Cinderella story outta nowhere. Former greenskeeper and now about to become the masters champion … He’s on his final hole. He’s about 455 yards away, he’s gonna hit about a 2 iron I think … IT’S IN THE HOLE!”  OK, so he’s done more than Caddyshack for sure (Saturday Night Live, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, etc), but who doesn’t love Caddyshack

Nicole Richie (9/21/1981- ) – Mostly known for being the best frenemy of Paris Hilton, she also has a famous father, Lionel Richie.  Fame in her own right has still eluded her…

H.G. Wells (9/21/1866 – 8/13/1946) – This is the well known Father of Science Fiction and author of the book War of the Worlds, which was famously turned into the radio broadcast by Orson Welles that caused widespread panic when it aired on Halloween night in 1938.  His novels and works of non-fiction spoke of a future that included robots, nuclear war, global warfare, and chemical weapons at a time when very few believed they were a real possibility. In the preface to the third edition (1941) of his book, War in the Air, Wells wrote “Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in that year, twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’ ”  Enough said.

OK, so maybe you think a few of these people are not such good company, but you have to admit one thing about them all.  They have been entertaining at some point in time…

Oh, and Happy Birthday!

-Melissa M

P.S. Sorry if you hate that song and it’s now stuck in your head.  But I had to do it…


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The 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

Every year, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is one of 150 libraries worldwide invited to nominate three titles for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.   We put together a team of librarians who live and breathe fiction and we come up with our own “longlist” of titles. 

This year’s winner is The Twin by Gerbrand Baker.  Here’s a summation, from the IMPAC website, of the novel:

When Helmer’s twin brother dies in a car accident, he is obliged to return to the small family farm. He resigns himself to taking over his brother’s role and spending the rest of his days ‘with his head under a cow’.  After his old, worn-out father has been transferred upstairs, Helmer sets about furnishing the rest of the house according to his own minimal preferences. The Twin is an ode to the platteland, the flat and bleak Dutch countryside with its ditches and its cows and its endless grey skies.

If this particular novel isn’t up your alley, we thought we would supply you with our “longlist” of suggested titles for best novel as suggested by our fiction team:

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Big Machine by Victor LaValle
Brooklyn by Colin Tóibín
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Far North by Marcel Theroux
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


From this list we were “forced” to select three titles to nominate, as that was the maximum number for each library to submit.

Care to guess which three we picked?

– Don

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“Don’t Text, Don’t Chat – What Do You Do?”

If we do say so ourselves, it’s amazing how many different ways there are to contact the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh when you have a question, and we keep expanding our repetoire all the time.  Just in case you weren’t aware of the many ways you can reach us, here’s a quick overview of our contact services.

New for 2010:  Text Messaging

Out and about?  Going crazy because you can’t remember the name of that song, or how late we’re open on Saturdays?  If you’ve got a mobile phone, we’ve got you covered.  Every weekday you can text us at 66746.  Start your question with askCLP, and keep in mind that standard messaging rates will apply.

24/7 Assistance:  AskHere PA

Can’t sleep for lack of knowledge? Fret not.  Thanks to the AskHere PA live chat service, you can speak with an information professional at any time of the day or night.

If you prefer chat and have specific questions about your Carnegie Library account, try to contact us during normal operating hours.  If, however, you have a more general request, the sky is the limit, night and noon.  Bonus:  there’s also a link to AskHere PA in the library catalog.

Old Faithful:  E-mail Reference

Based on the number of e-mail messages we receive, many of you are already hip to the vast amount of knowledge you can obtain by sending a message to , but a gentle reminder never hurts.

Turnaround times can vary depending on the difficulty of the question, but we do our best to untangle your puzzles in 24-48 hours.  Don’t feel like opening up your e-mail client? Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the handy-dandy e-mail reference form.

One Ringy-Dingy:  412-622-3114

The Ready Reference staff serve as the initial point of contact for Main Library, so if you have a question and prefer to contact us by phone, you’ll want to memorize the 3114 extension.  Swift answers to simple questions are their specialty, but they’re also happy to refer you to the department that can help you best with more complicated queries.

Community Conversations

Last, but certainly not least, we have 19 library locations staffed by helpful, friendly professionals, and we would love to see you anytime during operating hours.  Stop by to read, use the internet, attend a program, or even just to talk to us about great books or current events.

As we’ve been pointing out all year, we need to see you up close and in person now more than ever as we begin our final round of Community Conversations, designed to gather input on how best to shape the future of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.  These meetings will be held at the following places and times:

Saturday, September 18 | 10 am – Noon
St. Catherine of Siena Church • 1915 Broadway Avenue, 15216
Across from CLP – Beechview

Saturday, September 18 | 2 – 4 pm
Providence Family Support Center • 3113 Brighton Road, 15212
At the intersection of Brighton Rd. and Schimmer St. , near CLP-Woods Run.

Sunday, September 19 | 2 – 4 pm
CLP – Squirrel Hill
5801 Forbes Avenue, 15217

Monday, September 20 | 6 – 8 pm
CLP – Downtown & Business
612 Smithfield Street, 15222

All are welcome!  To get an advance copy of the discussion guide, click here. To print and fill out the “I Will Help” survey in advance, click here. Both files open as .PDFs.

How do you prefer to use the library? Face to face? Via chat? Over the phone? We’re committed to answering your questions regardless of what format they come in, but we’re always curious about what works best for you.

–Leigh Anne
equally enamored of face-to-face and internet communciation

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Plenty of Horns

Do you like books about music?  Check out Jasper Rees’ book A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument.  Then come to the library on Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 6:00 p.m. for the first meeting of our second year of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Book Club.

Beforehand, you might also want to check out some music performed on “the orchestra’s most difficult instrument” (i.e., the horn) and I’ve prepared a list below.  To clarify, when talking about classical music, “horn” specifically means the coiled brass instrument also known as a French horn.  See the book cover at left and the picture at the bottom of the post.  The French invented it for hunting; the Germans made it an instrument for the orchestra.  It acquired valves in the early 19th century.  Be sure not to confuse it with the English horn, which is a kind of oboe.

Here are some recommended recordings of pieces for one, two, three and even four horns so you can surround your ears with the sound of wide-belled brass.

1 horn:

  • For an overview with spoken commentary of the repertoire that horn players auditioning for orchestras need to know, listen to Orchestral Excerpts for Horn by A. David Krehbiel.
  • Even though he was a violist, Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) always seemed to write well for brass.  His Sonate für Horn und Klavier from 1939 is an intimate way to hear the horn sing over piano accompaniment.

2 horns:

  • On this recording, the Virtuoso Horn Duo of Kristina Mascher and Kerry Turner play pieces composed for two horns and chamber orchestra by Haydn and his horn-playing contemporary Antonio Rosetti, plus an arrangement for 2 horns of a Vivaldi concerto, and a piece by Turner himself.
  • Baroque concertos were shorter in duration and utilized smaller ensembles than later classical and romantic era works.  Georg Philipp Telemann’s concertos for 2 horns and strings and continuo (TWV 52:D1 and TWV 52:D2) from the early 18th century exemplify concise craftsmanship.

3 horns:

  • Chôros No. 4 by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is scored for the unusual quartet of three horns plus trombone.  Its first half is ponderous, perhaps even menacing, while the last minute or so sounds more like a concert in the park.

4 horns:

  • One usually associates Schumann with works for solo piano, vocal and piano, his great piano concerto and his four symphonies.  But also worth hearing is his 1849 Konzertstück (concert piece) for four horns and orchestra.  Originally composed for two valveless and two modern horns, it’s a bridge between two eras of the instrument.
  • While it might not inspire Spanish-style dancing, Four-Horned Fandango by Mark-Anthony Turnage (1960- ) does have castanets accompanying the four horn soloists and, like a lot of contemporary classical music, gets better with repeated listens.

Interlochen music campers playing the horn.

To add one more to the list, though it wasn’t composed specifically for horn, Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks) was the most used piece for horn players’ orchestra auditions according to Facing the Maestro.  So you know it will have some impressive parts for the instrument.  (And Strauss did also compose two concertos for horn.)

Last but not least, if you want to get really serious about horn music, use our French Horn Resources page.

— Tim








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The Smell of Fall

This past weekend I noticed a new yet familiar and comforting smell on the wind, one that occurs every year.  It’s the smell of leaves and crisp air, and it can only mean one thing:  fall is just around the corner.

The beginning of fall constitutes a few things.  For one, football season begins, and many of us spend Sunday rooting for our favorite team (go Steelers!).  We slowly exchange our short-sleeved shirts and sundresses for warmer attire.  We begin to think about pumpkins and butternut squash.  We wait for shorter days and longer nights.  For many of us, the fall season marks a transition between summer and winter.

As we anticipate (or dread) this transition, we can celebrate the season.  Here are some books and websites for fun fall thoughts.


The Miracle of Fall

A project of the University of Illinois Extension, this site aggregates fall festivals, fall foliage webcams, and much more.

The Foliage Network

Twice a week, from September through November, you can visit the network and get updated information on leaf color changes nationwide.


Fall is an excellent time to work on cooking skills!  Here are some cookbooks that incoroporate seasonal foods.

Autumn: From the Heart of the Home, Susan Branch.

Fall, Family and Friends, Gooseberry Patch.

Fall Notebook, Carolyne Roehm.

In Celebration of Autumn, Helen Thompson.

Adult Fiction

If fiction is your thing, here are some novels set in autumn that deal with life issues, love, and family.

Autumn Leaves, Victor McGlothin.

Cloud Nine, Luanne Rice.

Grace in Autumn, Lori Copeland.

The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford.

Speak of the Devil, Richard Hawke.

Children’s Books

Who doesn’t love children’s books?  Here are some items useful for teaching children all about the season.

Are You Ready For Fall?, Sheila Anderson.

By the Light of the Harvest Moon, Harriet Ziefert.

Leaf Trouble, Jonathan Emmett.

Now It’s Fall!, Jeanie Lee.

For fall fun outside the library, don’t forget about Fort Ligonier Days, The Pittsburgh International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, The Three Rivers Film Festival, and RADical Days. These are just some of the many events that occur during the special three months known as fall.

–Melissa H.

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“Pittsburg Phil” and “Pittsburgh Phil”

Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" Strauss

Information is everywhere.  One of our primary sources of information at the library is our customers.  We learn things from them, a/k/a you, every day.

A few weeks back while on the desk in the Music, Film, and Audio Department, I received a call from one of our regulars who is a repository of information that crosses all disciplines.  When he calls, it is not infrequent that he might ask about a Broadway tune, a 70s TV series, a Puccini aria, a grade B 50s sci-fi classic, or any other multitudinous areas of inquiry.

On this particular occasion he mentioned running across a special on Borscht Belt comedians which touched on connections between the Catskill resorts and the Mob.  I ran the special down on Shalom TV.  It was hosted by the novelist Warren Adler with guest star comedian Stewie Stone. At the time (September 2008), Adler was promoting his new novel, Funny Boys, set in the Catskills and peopled with real-life characters.  Adler mentioned  a particularly vicious member of the infamous Murder Inc. gang, whose name was Harry Strauss, otherwise known as “Pittsburgh Phil.”   Though Adler called Strauss by the nickname, no explanation was given as to why Strauss was called “Pittsburgh Phil.”  Our customer wanted to know if we might have any ideas where he got the name since, evidently, Strauss was born in Brooklyn?

I told him I’d see what I could do.

I scoured the net.   I pored through encyclopedias of the crime and popular circulating titles, I called in books from various county libraries that might provide a clue.  I spoke to our notoriously astute Pennsylvania Department, the mavens of Pittsburgh history at the Main library, all to no avail. The sources all mentioned “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss.   Many volunteered the fact that Strauss had never even visited Pittsburgh.

None mentioned why the moniker, though two posited a thought.

The most information I found was in the 3rd edition of The Mafia Encyclopedia, an extensive, grisly, three page, double-columned entry entitled “Pittsburgh Phil (1908-1941) Murder Inc.’s premier hit man.”   Strauss was one mean, nasty character, who was tied to at least 100 victims (some estimates run over 500), more than the rest of the gang knocked off combined.  He killed any which way: knife, rope, gun, ice pick, all tools in Phil’s repertoire.   Most of the stories I learned of I dare not even recount, particularly the one about the corpse he sunk to the bottom of a lake tied to a slot machine.

In a somewhat eccentric twist, Phil was known as something of a dandy, always impeccably dressed in expensive suits.   Once during a lineup, NY Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine observed of Phil: “Look at him!  He’s the best dressed man in the room and he’s never worked a day in his life!”

Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss was finally taken down by possibly the most famous stool pigeon in mob history, fellow Murder Inc. member Abe (“Kid Twist”) Reles.  Reles, a ruthless, coldblooded killer himself, turned state’s evidence giving up enough to mark Strauss for the chair.  Unfortunately for him, he didn’t live long to tell about it.  His story is recounted in the book The Canary Sang But Couldn’t Fly, the title of which sums up Reles’s fall from a six story window while in police custody.

Still, source after source either ignored or outright admitted to not knowing why Strauss was called “Pittsburgh Phil,” aka “Big Harry” and “Pep.”   I found out that he made it on to the radar of arguably the greatest American crime writer of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler.  He was mentioned in this letter by Chandler to Hamish “Jamie” Hamilton and even gets a nod in the opening paragraph of Chapter 24 in Chandler’s classic novel The Long Goodbye. He even makes a lengthy appearance in Neil Kleid’s graphic novel Brownsville, pages 44 through 48.

To add to the conundrum, while researching Strauss I ran into another, previous “Pittsburg Phil.”  Here is the 2nd dapper lad:

Georg E. "Pittsburg Phil" Smith

George “Pittsburg (or “Pittsburgh”) Phil” E. Smith was a famous handicapper, so famous that a book of his system was put out after his death in 1905 (you’ll find some of his maxims here).  He was described as “the founding father of horseplayers.” Phil was said to be worth 5 million dollars at the time of his death.  He was born in Sewickley and lived in Pittsburg during the brief time period when we had shed our culminating “h” (1890-1911); in fact he lived two doors down from Daniel and Maggie Rooney, Art Rooney’s parents, as documented in the 2010 biography entitled Rooney: a Sporting Life.  He died four years before the birth of Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, but his reputation lived on and on.  A sizable New  York Times obituary attests to his widespread fame.  Charles Bukowski wrote a piece on the horses called “Pittsburgh Phil & Co,” included in his collection South of No North. He remains one of the most famous gamblers and handicappers of all time and surely his name was a household word during Harry Struass’s heyday in the Murder Inc. gang, the 1920s.    The picture above shows him to be a well-turned out, fancy dresser.  For amazing pictures of Phil’s mausoleum gravesite, showing a life-sized statue decked out to the nines (complete with racing form), and still more information, check out the post on the thoroughbred racing history website, Colin’s Ghost.  In all this searching, we even discovered a novel based on the life of George E. Smith entitled, of course, Pittsburgh Phil.


The connection, still, seemed tenuous at best.  I could find nothing in writing, no proof that the mobster Harry Strauss was nicknamed after the gambler George E. Smith, though both were snappily attired.  I could only speculate.

Two sources ventured a guess at where Strauss got the nickname “Pittsburgh Phil,” though at first glance those guesses seemed diametrically opposed.   In Murder Inc.: the Story of “the Syndicate,” Burton Turkus and Sid Feder posit the following: “Harry Strauss was one of (the national crime cartel). They called him Big Harry and Pep and, mostly, the called him Pittsburgh Phil, because he was a dandy of the outfit.”  Indeed, Strauss was sharp dresser, as confirmed by Brooklyn native and comedian Alan King in his book, Name Dropping, but how does that connect with the name “Pittsburgh Phil?”  Could that one picture I saw of Smith be the connection?

The second source, Tough Jews by Rich Cohen, gives the following description of Strauss: “(In high school) they called him Big Harry – he really was very big.  Or Pep – he could be the kind of friendly that demanded a cute diminutive.  Or Pittsburgh Phil – it sounded tougher and more interesting than Big Harry or Pep.”

So, one source has him named “Pittsburgh Phil” because he was a dandy, the other because he was a tough guy.   Go figure.  Which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do.

Was it the sharp dressing that connected Strauss to Smith, two dandies in two unsavory professions?   Did Strauss have an undocumented passion for the horses, thus connecting him to the famous handicapper?    Calling a tough guy named Harry “Phil” just for its alliterative qualities is highly unlikely, to say the least.  It must have been a nickname he liked – it’s doubtful anyone would call him anything intentionally to make him cross.

I ran across one last curious bit of information which kept the fire burning.  On Google Books, I found a citation for “Pittsburgh Phil,” (Geo D. Smith) in the Brooklyn Citizen Almanac for the year 1894:

“Pittsburgh Phil,” (Geo D. Smith) purchases a residence in New York for $50,000.” [$1,220,000 in 2010]

Circumstantial evidence for a city, Brooklyn, whose population was just over 800,000 in the 1890s, that Phil’s reputation might spread locally?  Pittsburg Phil the handicapper already had a well-known reputation well beyond his hometown environs.  Having virtually moved to gangster Phil’s neighborhood certainly could only help the theory that the hood was named after the gambler.  It is hardly a stretch to think the criminal world would be particularly interested in one of the greatest handicappers of all time.

Though the mystery is hardly solved, narrowing it down to these two choices, with all the interesting circumstantial evidence, definitely made the ride worth taking.   Our customer sure thought so.  He liked the dandy theory of a couple of sharp dressed men sharing  a name if not a predilection.  And I kind of like that theory, too.   How about you?

And one last thing; I wonder, too, what Chandler and Bukowski might have thought.

– Don


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Today’s post is brought to you by the color yellow.

The truth of the matter is that I am obsessed with the color combination of blue and yellow.  It lifts my spirits, touches something deep inside me, and makes me happy.  However, I’ve already done a blue post, so now it’s yellow’s turn!

Dreaming in Yellow, by Flickr user Cesar R.

Yellow Wave, by Flickr user 8#X

Yellow Multitude, by Flickr user racineur

lemon on pink, by Flickr user Miss Muffin

We’ve got songs! Listen to Yellow Submarine, Big Yellow Taxi, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Yellow, Yellow Ledbetter, or Mellow Yellow.

We’ve got sickness!  Try Yellow Fever: A Deadly Disease Poised to Kill Again, by James L. Dickerson, or The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History, by Molly Caldwell Crosby.

How about bugsCeramics? A big, beautiful national park?  You can’t go wrong with a cookbook by Christopher Kimball, The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook.  And speaking of food, you can explore lemons or corn – or go bananas!

And speaking of going bananas, I think it’s time to end this post!


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