Monthly Archives: October 2010

Books Not Read

Oh how the day goes by. John Burroughs may have said it best:

“I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see.”

Recently, what’s been resonating with me most in that statement is all the books I want to read, because I am burying myself in lists and reviews and never finding the time to take in all that I want, at least all while still thinking the thoughts I want, walking the walk I want, and seeing the friends I want. We can’t have everything all the time, eh Burroughs, you sly ol’ dog you.

The purpose of this post is to share with you, dear reader, what I have not been able to read, but totally would if I had the time. Maybe I can convince one of my many, many devoted followers to pick it up, and then drop by and let me know how it is and how worth my time it will be. Ah, to read or not to read.

Tom McCarthyC

McCarthy’s newest was on the Booker shortlist and has drawn comparisons to Pynchon and Joyce’s Ulysses. Right there, I should be reading it, right? Probably. Sorry McCarthy, Remainder was fantastic, but I still need to catch up on my aforementioned Pynchon before I can consider reading an homage to him. Then again, if this is the future of avant-garde fiction, perhaps I should get on board.

Scarlett ThomasOur Tragic Universe

 This book has like one of the coolest covers I’ve ever seen, but I couldn’t get much further. I’m clueless as to why, she seems up my alley as well – reviews cite her books as exploratory, with plots that touch upon the concepts of deconstruction, physics and philosophy. Just writing that sentence made me want to give this book another try.

Hilary Theyer Hamann – Anthropology of an American Girl

A first time author! This book is causing a sensation, but I fear it may be out of my demographic. It’s a coming of age tale for a teenage girl, dealing with the social traps of high school and falling in love. Perhaps I’m too cold and old to relate? I admit I am willing to get caught up in the hype of an author who is a self published success story — such dedication to the art is always worth our time.

Gary ShteyngartSuper Sad True Love Story

This one stings the most, because I really tried this time. This is an author whose every book seems to fascinate me more, but for whatever reason (perhaps his funny last name?) draws me away. Super Sad deals with a loser of a narrator, in a satirical future where characters can check each other’s “status” (social, wealth, health, etc.) with a PDA-like device aimed to connect people to each other but ultimately draws them apart. Shtyengart creates a man, out of step with how interaction is changing, but nevertheless falls hopelessly in love with someone not in his spectrum. This, too, deserves another chance.

Sometimes, thankfully, a moment comes and tells you that the reading choice you made was the right one. While I was neglecting these other wonderful titles, I instead gravitated towards Nicole Krauss’ newest, Great House. And it’s everything I wanted it to be, and also reminded me what it feels like to be justified in reading what we read:

“When I at last came across the right book the feeling was violent: it blew open a hole in me, that made life more dangerous because I couldn’t control what came through it.”

If that doesn’t make you wish there were more time in the day I don’t know what will.

–          Tony

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Scary Haunted House Stories

When I was a boy, my great-grandmother filled my head with excellent ghost stories that she or someone she knew personally experienced. One, for instance, recalled the headless ghost that hid on the side of the road near her house –before the pavement, cars, and street lights– and jumped out at horse-drawn carriages as they drove past. It happened to a friend of hers one night.

But her best story was about the haunted house she lived in as a young girl.

It was on Farview Mountain, and it sat precariously close to the train tracks that carried coal down the mountain to the weigh station in Waymart, PA, my hometown. So close, in fact, that the sparks emitted from the train tracks would burn out right on their front yard. Other than that, everything about the house was quaintly normal when she and her parents first moved in.

And then the knocking started.

KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK. Always three knocks, never more nor less. It was impossible to know their origin; they echoed throughout the entire house. My great-great-grandmother, I was told, contemplated calling out “What do you want?!” to the knocker, but was too afraid she’d get an answer.

Then there was the blood on the basement stairs. Just a few drops, easy enough to clean up. But no matter how often and how hard they cleaned it, the blood would reappear.

My great-great-grandfather decided to investigate the origins of the specter. The locals hinted that a few years earlier two kidnappers on the run with their victim, an infant boy, broke into the house one night while it was vacant. They killed the boy there, and buried his body in the dirt basement. My great-great-grandfather dug up every square inch of the basement, but never found any bones.

Frustrated but not deterred by the disturbance, my great-grandmother and her family stayed in the house for a while. But then the knocking picked up in frequency –KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK, KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK– several times an hour, throughout the day and night. Eventually my great-great-grandfather had enough, packed his family’s bags, and moved into a new house that would one day become my childhood home.

Just a few days after my great-grandmother and her parents moved from the haunted house, a spark from a passing train landed on its front porch. The house caught fire, and burned to the ground in minutes. Much later, my great-grandmother heard a story that another house had earlier stood in the same spot. It also burned to the ground from a flying spark. Tragically, a school teacher lived in that house, and died in the blaze. Was the knocking the school teacher’s warning? That was my great-grandmother’s theory, though she never confirmed the story of the other house or the teacher’s death.

What is it about haunted house stories that people find so interesting? I think the answer lies in what makes scary stories in general appeal to so many people: the corruption of the safe and mundane. Whether it’s a serial murderer who invades the sanctity of summer camp“reliving” dead loved ones, or the invasion of one’s home by a ghostly presence, scary stories, whether told in books, films, or by great-grandmothers, create a version of the world that’s an easy escape from the banality of the day-to-day. At the same time, they help us appreciate the day-to-day by making us think “I’m glad that’s not me being chopped up” or “I’m glad my wife isn’t a zombie.”

Oh, and of course there’s always the awesome gore.

Regardless of what makes scary stories appealing, take a moment this Halloween to appreciate some. Here are some more good haunted house stories to get you started.

By the way, a few years ago I found the site where my great-grandmother’s haunted house once stood. The trains no longer run there, of course, but the tracks remain. And just beyond the lot where the house’s crumbling foundation peeks quietly from the ground, hidden amongst some brambles I found an old tombstone with a death’s head carving, and a barely discernable inscription that read “Ida May Smith, 1893-1915.” Ida May Smith was one of Waymart’s first school teachers…



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Great Gershwin for Everyone

If you haven’t already been there, you have just a few days left to explore the Gershwin in Print exhibit featured in the Gallery at Main during October.  Curated by Greg Suriano, author of Gershwin in His Time, the exhibit features a wonderful collection of Gershwin memorabilia and sheet music covers.


To make the exhibit even more exciting, the music will “go live” this Sunday, October 31st, at 2pm in the Quiet Reading Room of the Main Library in Oakland.  Mike Plaskett, co-host of the WDUQ-radio program “Rhythm Sweet and Hot,” will lead a musical group that includes Doug Starr on keyboards, Lou Schreiber on clarinet, and vocals by Emily Collins and Mr. Plaskett.  Mr. Suriano will provide commentary on the songs, featuring many of the composer’s finest compositions performed from the original 1920s-30s sheet music.  You may find yourself singing along to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” or “‘S Wonderful.”

After that, you may want to explore the library’s own sheet music collections, which are filled with such treasures as “Gateway Polka,” “In Wilkinsburg,” “Dear Old Westinghouse,” and “Wake up America! A toast to the death knell of Prohibition.”

We hope to see you at this entertaining and enjoyable event!


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By the Cover

Is it truly possible to judge a book by its cover? I recently came to the realization, while browsing my own home library, that I may be a book cover snob. Superficial as I know this sounds, I simply can’t get into a book that comes in a lousy package. So many wonderful books lie unread on my shelves because they 1) feature the dreaded movie tie-in cover 2) feature some lame picture of a model-posing-as-the-main-character (always cheap and disappointing, no matter how good the book is), or 3) feature a cover that is just plain lazy or uninspired . Conversely, I can be inspired to pick up a book I may not normally read, simply because the cover is intriguing. (Note: the cover at the beginning of this post fits in its own special category of so visually awful that it’s wonderful—a category reserved for truly unique bad cover art.)

So what, then, makes for good book cover design? Generally speaking, a good cover is nice to look at, and probably incredibly hard to design. It should catch the reader’s eye, and convey the idea behind the book in on one simple, abbreviated glance—but it shouldn’t give any of the book’s secrets away, or provide overly concrete visual information. (This is why I hate photographs of real people on book covers—it does not allow the reader to imagine what the character looks like, and distracts from the overall reading process.) An ideal book cover should be unique and interesting, and appropriate for the overall mood of the story contained inside—and if it’s pretty and shiny, all the better!

Some nifty new and replacement fiction covers that recently came into the First Floor Department:

For more inspiring cover reads check out The Book Cover Archive.


PS – What are some of your favorite books covers?


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Planet Stories Revive Pulp Classics

Now and then the pen-and-paper role-play industry crosses over into the mainstream book trade, and this can result in some pretty wonderful outcomes. Paizo, publisher of the award-winning Pathfinder  RPG, has jumped into the mainstream publishing business with their line of Planet Stories books.  For the first time in decades, this series reprints some of the more obscure work of sci-fi and fantasy genre luminaries like R. E. Howard, Michael Moorcock,  Leigh Brackett, and many others!

We decided this series of books would make a great addition to our First Floor New & Featured genre collections, so we are slowly adding titles from the Planet Stories series.  Check here for a list of what we have so far.  You can be sure there will be more to come with this dynamite collection of genre fiction!


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Music sale at Main – this weekend!

It’s happening now, so don’t miss your chance to spend your money on our stuff!
Come look through the scores, sheet music, music CDs, music related VHS and DVD offerings, music books, and a totally random collection of books on CD.

These people got here first.

TIME: Saturday, October 23rd – 10 AM to 4 PM and Sunday, October 24th – 1PM to 5 PM.

LOCATION: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Main, in the International Poetry Room (it’s on the second floor, on the opposite end of the building from the Music department).

Most items will be $2 or less!

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Old Friends – Renko & Robichaux

“. . . old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends.”
–Simon & Garfunkel

If not old friends, then maybe ‘old reliable’ is a better description. We all have one or two, maybe more:  comfort foods, movies, ratty clothing, and, of course, authors. You may not even be able to articulate who they are on the spur of the moment – these aren’t necessarily your favorite authors or the best ones, but when they cross your path it’s a small slice of literary promise – you know you’re not going to be disappointed.

There are two authors in particular who’ve always made reading their works worth my while, and this is going on for almost 30 years now – Martin Cruz Smith and James Lee Burke.

There’s something comforting in the storytelling of both these writers and their all too human chief characters; Smith’s Russian Chief Inspector Arkady Renko and Burke’s New Iberia Parish Detective Dave Robichaux.

Both men are iconoclasts, always at odds with, and at the same time hopelessly entwined with the conventions of their professions.  They are – the both of them – very troubled individuals; each has their own uber-human faults, iron clad convictions (beliefs not criminal,) and their daily battles with the human condition around them.  Alcohol, alcoholism and dreams play significant parts in their lives, as does their Sisyphean efforts to make right the societal wrongs around them .

If asked, I’d rarely say that I enjoy the mystery genre and I really don’t read most of them, but Renko and Robichaux are among my “must reads” when they come out.  They’re also among the regulars I recommend when asked about a good fiction read. What I find appealing is that the whodunit element isn’t as important as the atmosphere and tension in their respective stories. These are men immersed in dark places, and I don’t know why, but I find their internal battles to be more worthy and interesting than a recitation of evidence and Agatha Christie “a-ha” moments.  Maybe it’s because I don’t have their collective demons; I get to look in from the outside.

Both Burke and Cruz have positioned their stories and principals in the events / history of the moment.  Renko has been our guide from Gorbachev’s Glasnost to the fall of the Soviet Union, to the successive emergence of oligarchic corruption and the rise of  Vladimir Putin – an eventful if not enviable Russia.  Burke’s Robichaux speaks to us of slave and slave owner descendents, dead Confederates in the bayou, Big Easy corruption, po-boys, beignets, and the physical / unworldly devastation of Katrina!

book cover - the Three Stations

book cover - Glass RainbowSmith’s latest gem is Three Stations and I came upon it very much by accident.  It’s short as novels go – about 245 pages, but it’s absorbing – the Moscow Mafia, the militia, runaway children and dead dancers.  There’s also the obligatory sidekick investigator whose vodka intake is about 50% of the annual Russian state production.  Burke’s most recent work is The Glass Rainbow.  As Dave investigates a series of murders involving the less than stand-up community icons, his daughter Alafair becomes involved with an ex-con in a setup perhaps inspired by Norman Mailer’s sponsoring of  Jack Abbot.  It’s always close to home with a little too much mortality.   If you want some exposure to the human condition – from the comfort of your own life, then you need to be reading James Lee Burke and Martin Cruz Smith.


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Music sale this weekend

Amy already gave you a heads up or two, but I’m going to tell you again about our big music sale this weekend.


  • Saturday, October 23, 2010 — 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, October 24, 2010 — 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main Library

2nd floor (in the International Poetry Room, down the hall from the Music Dept.)

What will be there:

  • Scores

Particularly strong this year is the selection of music scores for woodwinds (flute, bassoon, recorder, etc.) plus a lot of piano/vocal scores of opera and operetta.  There are also some folk music collections.  For students and aficionados, there are a number of orchestral study scores.

  • Books

The selection includes music history, music instruction and biographies of musicians.

  • Videos

This section is dominated by videocassettes of operas that will sell for 50 cents each.  There is also some music instruction on VHS and DVD.

  • CDs

The CDs are from donations so they’re in fine shape, not scratched up, and not covered in stickers and labels.  And a couple years ago, it was almost all classical, but this year, there is a lot of rock, pop, reggae, electronica, Latin and more.  They’ll be $1.00 each.


Almost everything will be less than $2.00.

We pride ourselves in having a massive collection of circulating and reference material in our Music Department.  That will remain as such.  The sale is a chance for you to cheaply pick up some stuff to add to your home library that you never have to return.

See you this weekend!

— Tim

p.s.  Then we hope to see you soon after for the second meeting of this season’s Pittsburgh Symphony Book Club on Tuesday, October 26 at 6:00 p.m.

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Gaia’s Garden

In a recent post about rain gardens, I recommended Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. I thought of that book one day last month when I visited a demonstration garden maintained by Seattle Tilth, an urban ecology organization in Seattle.

Seattle Tilth, "Permaculture"

I photographed this Seattle Tilth garden sign. It provides a concise definition of the complex concept of permaculture gardening. Here’s what the sign says:

Permaculture is a set of techniques and principles for designing agriculturally productive ecosystems that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is a combination of the words “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture” and was first defined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia who were inspired to design human systems that functioned with the same efficiency and vitality as forest ecosystem. . . . Its goal is to create a permanent landscape with minimal inputs [such as labor, irrigation, fertilizer] where relationships between plants, animals and people are enhanced.

Kale, broccoli, marigolds, lavender border

Tilth’s teaching garden ultilizes one of the tenets of permaculture gardening: begin with a wide array of plant types, and nature will sort out a coherent community of mutually supportive life. This photo shows a bed of flowers and vegetables, a happy contrast of colors and functions.

Gaia’s Garden exists in two editions, 2000 and 2009. After the first edition was published, the author moved from a home on ten rural acres to a small urban lot in Portland, Oregon. Mr. Hemenway includes an additional chapter in the 2009 edition, “Permaculture Gardening in the City.”

Straw bale garden

Urban and rural gardens often look very different. It might seem easier to mimic the look and function of nature in a rural setting. The premium on city space means that yards must be multifunctional. “Permaculture is a design approach to create landscapes that function like ecosystems, but that doesn’t mean they must always look like what we see in nature. A well-mulched raised bed and a forest floor, though looking very different, are both homes for the talented microbial alchemists that decompose dead tissue and stitch it back into the dynamic flows of life. ”

I appreciate the focus on practicality in Gaia’s Garden. A wise advisor, Mr. Hemenway offers detailed, well-organized information. His highest wisdom stems from the notion that idealism should not get in the way of making a garden that is ultimately effective for the people who use it. He writes, “Overall, doing an imperfect something is better than doing a perfect nothing.”

That’s good advice in and out of the garden.


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Proust’s Overcoat: Obsession About Obsession

Collection is obsession.  It is a perfect illustration of the 2nd of the 4 Noble truths of Buddhism: the origin of all suffering is attachment.  Following, as it does, the 1st Noble truth – all life is suffering – possession doesn’t portend well when one ponders the concept of transcendence.

Obsession, as we all know, is never good for you.  Even those of us who have one (or more) know this well.  In fact, one may convincingly argue, no one knows it better.

Book collection, in particular, appears to be a particularly virulent strain of obsession.  Those of us in the business see it all the time.   Many of us fall victim.  One minor off-shoot of this type of thing is reading about others with the same obsession.  It temporarily takes our minds off our own nagging preoccupations and – who knows – one might pick up some tips for future use.

Oh, misery does love company.

Proust’s Overcoat, a slim little addition to the field of bibliophilia, is something of an obsession about obsession.  How so?  Well, Proust’s great masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (fka Remembrance of Things Past), is itself a novel concerned, among other things, with obsession, most notably in the form of love.  There is Swann’s obsession with Odette.  There is Baron Charlus’s obssesion with Charles Morel. There are the narrator’s myriad obsessions: first with his mother; next with Gilberte; with the Duchess de Guermantes; with Albertine, and, finally, his obession with capturing all of life, all of the past, in the work which became the novel we may now read.

And obsess about.

Then there’s this little book, Proust’s Overcoat, the 120 page memoir of Jacques Guérin, who is obsessed with all things Proust.   The oddness of just how Guérin acquired his vast collection of author booty is fascinating.  The thrill of the chase is intriguing, what was lost to jealousy and hatred positively scandalous, and what was acquired, including the eponymous overcoat and the entire contents of Proust’s room, including the bed in which he composed his 7 volume, 3500 pages plus magnum opus, simply mindboggling. 

I won’t reveal all the details, sordid or otherwise.  How Guérin’s obsession began, what role the overcoat played, the odd and wonderful (and famous) characters he met along the way, are all herein revealed. I will say that just before his death at 93, Guérin finally disabused himself of his most coveted worldly possessions, for which he received a sum that could hardly be spent in any number of lifetimes. 

You can still see, however, one truly amazing array of what Guérin amassed in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris: the contents of Proust’s bedroom.  Alas, the overcoat, which Proust used as a blanket on his bed while writing his novel -the heat was always off in his room due to his severe asthma and allergies – is too worn for public display (how it got that way  is incredible in and of itself).

Proust’s Bedroom. Photo used via Creative Commons license

Photo by LWY

One hardly need read this 120 page book or all 3500 pages of In Search of Lost Time in order to understand the nature of obsession, but it certainly doesn’t hurt and I highly recommend them both.   If you’d like something a little briefer, in this case by a classical master of haiku, these 11 brief words cover the entire topic very nicely:

Even in Kyoto –
hearing the cuckoo’s cry –
I long for Kyoto
          translated by Robert Hass


– Don

PS.  If you’ve ever wanted to dip into In Search of Lost Time and were just too intimidated by it all, I highly recommend the graphic novel adaptations by Stephane Heut, which might also appeal to high-end obsessors, as the translations are his own.

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