Monthly Archives: April 2011


For me, nothing beats discovering a great new writer. Whether it’s an up and comer first trying their hand, or a seasoned professional who you’re just happening on for the first time, finding a good writer can be an arduous task. But recently, I was so nailed on the head by a writer that I had to stop and wonder why I hadn’t known him before. Turns out, I had, but should have been paying close attention. This blog post is about learning a lesson in discovery. Now I’d heard of David Grann before. To me, he was “that dude” who went to the Amazon, and most notably for me, showed up on the “Colbert Report” to talk about it. I had added The Lost City of Z to my weathered and massive  book list, and then promptly forgot about it—crossing out books nearby but never settling on it. I mean, what interest do I have in the Amazon? Who does this guy think he is?

Then one day two weeks ago or so, I was happily “internetting” along when I came across this Slate article in praise of David Grann. A journalist friend sent me the link, and his message simply said “Hero.” I take heroes seriously, long time readers.

Glancing through skeptically, wondering what could possibly be heroic about our fake Amazonian explorer, my jaw hit the ground. The passages of Grann’s work represented in the article—I knew them. It didn’t click yet, but for some reason I felt like I had known Grann’s work for ages. I immediately requested The Lost City of Z and by the next day was crushing it. Before I was even halfway through I was recommending it to strangers who asked me what the weather was like. Didn’t matter, this book mattered. The book, in a nutshell, is about obsession—Grann follows the path of Percy Fawcett, an great explorer who was responsible for mapping the borders of Amazonian countries in South America. Fawcett became enamored with finding a lost civilization in the middle of the jungle that he named “Z,” serving as a new name for fabled El Dorado. Grann’s narrative, which often went back and forth from the history surrounding Fawcett to modern day, was perfect almost fictional storytelling, but what made Grann so enjoyable was how much he enjoyed exploring the very true subject. He knowingly became too involved, unable to stop himself from being so compelled. And neither will you reading it (same goes for Brad Pitt, who bought the rights to the book and plans to option it as a movie with himself playing Fawcett).

After Z, my lust for more Grann knew no bounds. I read The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession in a fury. (The only problem with liking a writer this much is reading everything he’s done in a week—what do I do now?) This is where the words I had seen in the aforementioned article hit home. Grann is a regular New Yorker and  Atlantic Monthly  contributor—I had been reading him for years, never noticing he was often responsible for the pieces I enjoyed so thoroughly. This book is a collection of his best work, all of it as engaging and memorable as Z but in shorter bursts. My favorites were “Trial By Fire,” concerning an inmate on death row who is fighting against the clock to clear his name, and “The Chameleon,” concerning “actor of life” Frédéric Bourdin’s ability to fool a family into thinking he was their missing son, and what his deception revealed about the family’s knowledge of the disappearance. All of it incredibly engaging, all of it very true.

To get a good idea of whether Grann is for you (and for your sake, I hope he is), do yourself a favor and check out his latest effort for The New Yorker. Just to get yourself started on the obsession.

– Tony


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That is the Worst Movie I Have Ever Seen!

“I’ve always been a failure junkie. I get giddy over toxic buzz, noxious press, and scathing reviews.” — Nathan Rabin

I’m often amazed that movies make any sense at all, and that so many of them turn out as wonderfully as they do. Unlike novels, whose cohesiveness is helped by the fact that there is usually one author (with a team of editors) guiding the overall vision of the novel, movies are the product  of so many different (often competing) visions that it’s unclear how they ever come together at all. With a movie you have not only a writer, but also a director, cinematographer, art director, costume designer, location scout, actors, editors, dog wranglers…the list goes on and on. The fact that a cohesive work of art is ever produced with so many cooks in the kitchen is truly a marvel.

Of course, sometimes things just don’t work out, and this is where Nathan Rabin comes in. Rabin, a writer for the The Onion A.V. Club, has long specialized in writing about the dregs of culture in his columns “Direct-To-DVD Purgatory” and “My Year of Flops,” and has even created his own audio commentaries for some truly horrible films. The newish book My Year of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure collects some of Rabin’s best bad movie reviews, as he chronicles cinematic failures past and present, covering classics such as Ishtar, Howard the Duck, and Cleopatra, as well as newer stinkers like Battlefield Earth, Gigli, The Love Guru, and Elizabethtown. The point of the book is not, however, to simply kick a bad movie while it’s down. The truly great thing about Nathan Rabin’s writing is that he is clearly a lover of cinema and not content with merely engaging in schadenfreude. He obviously loves the films he’s gingerly poking fun at, even while watching films like the 2001 comedy Freddy Got Fingered and wondering in open-mouthed astonishment, “how did this movie even get made,* let alone released.”

For added value, you may want to watch some of the bad movie goodies Rabin discusses before checking the book out:


Ben Affleck stars as Gigli, a second-rate mob enforcer hired to kidnap Brian, the mentally handicapped younger brother of a federal prosecutor who’s about to bring Gigli’s boss to trial in New York. Sparks (and groans) fly after Jennifer Lopez is sent to keep an eye on both boys.


In this ultra-saccarine stinker, our sensitive hero Drew accidentally causes the shoe company he works for to lose millions of dollars and becomes suicidal. Then his father passes away, he falls in love with a flight attendant, listens to lots of indie rock, and learns to live again.

Freddy Got Fingered

When 28-year-old cartoonist hopeful Gord Brody (Tom Green) leaves the safety of his parents’ home to make it big in Hollywood, all kinds of horrible offensive things happen for about 90 minutes. This was Tom Green’s first Hollywood movie and probably his last.

The Love Guru

I cannot bring myself to write anything about this movie, so instead I will share a quote from A.O. Scott’s famed New York Times Review: “The word ‘unfunny’ surely applies to Mr. Myers’s obnoxious attempts to find mirth in physical and cultural differences but does not quite capture the strenuous unpleasantness of his performance. No, The Love Guru is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.” 

Under the Cherry Moon

Playboy and con man Christopher Tracy (Prince) sets out to woo and marry a young heiress, but finds he also has to woo the heiress’ priggish father. It’s fun to watch Prince traipse about the French countryside with his man servant in tow, but beyond that nothing makes much sense in this movie.


Mariah Carey makes her film debut in this unintentional campfest as Billie, a young singer struggling to make it big in New York City. She is plucky and talented and quickly learns about the highs and lows of fame. Bummer.

Southland Tales

I still have not figured out how to describe (or watch) this movie. Briefly, it is an ensemble piece set in a futuristic Los Angeles that stands on the brink of disaster. It stars the Rock and Justin Timberlake and too many C- and D-list actors to name here. It’s pretty weird.

There are, of course, many more horrible awful bad movies out there to enjoy—should you choose to move beyond horrible movies (or continue your journey deep into the heart of cinematic failure) you can find helpful resources on our CLP film page, such as filmlists, reviews, and helpful search tips.

How about you? Do you have any favorite bad movies?


* This post is partially inspired by the podcast “How Did This Get Made,” one of the only reasons I can think of to ever watch the Sandra Bullock disaster-comedy-stalker film All About Steve.

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One of my wildly improbable long-term goals is to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Given that, up to now, I’ve only written plays, I have some work to do before I’ll be able to cross this one off my to-do list. However, I already have the important part down pat:  the thank-yous. After repeat observations of past winners, I’ve mentally composed an acceptance speech that properly acknowledges all the people who helped me succeed as a writer, yet remains short enough that I’m not politely forced offstage. Really, after hammering that out, finishing a brilliant screenplay itself should be a piece of cake.

John Kralik would probably approve of my priorities.  His own gratitude journey, as detailed in the book 365 Thank-Yous, describes how Kralik devoted a year to consciously giving thanks by writing one note every day to someone who had been influential to him.  Brought to such a pass by desperation rather than inspiration, Kralik stumbled upon the idea for the practice during a walk in the woods, and stuck with it despite business difficulties, financial problems, and relationship struggles.  Mindfully practicing gratitude didn’t magically transform Kralik’s life into a sunny vista of unicorns and rainbows, but, more often than not, writing and sending the notes re-opened long-closed lines of communication and opened up new opportunities and adventures for him, which convinced him to make some changes to his attitude and lifestyle.

Reading Kralik’s book has inspired some of the library staff to start a similar project and see what happens.  I’m looking forward to making a trip downtown to Weldin’s to treat myself to some pretty notecards, but I will probably also make a fair number of them by hand as well. I’m brushing up on the art of writing letters, and mentally making my list of people who have changed my life for the better; the list is already fairly long, and includes family, friends, teachers and — no surprise here — librarians.

Other library titles on the practice of gratitude include:

Serendipitously, while writing this, I received a thank you note in library mail from a co-worker.  That was really sweet, entirely unexpected, and definitely day-making!  What are you most thankful for right now?  How could you best express it?  Whose day could you brighten just by being there?

–Leigh Anne
thirty-eight years young today, appreciating every second


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Learning Languages the Library Way

A few weeks ago I decided to see if I could revive my long-dormant Spanish skills, using only library resources.  So far, it’s been a wildly successful experiment.

The first thing I did was visit the tools and research page for Languages  on the library’s website.  I started at “Online and Downloadable Language Programs,” because I had heard good things about Mango Languages.  It was easy to register an account and start a course.  I thought one of the coolest features is that Mango keeps track of which languages you’ve studied, and for how long.  I’ve completed 27 minutes of basic  Spanish, and while that particular course is a little too basic for me, there are two more levels I can try.

Then I went back to the library’s Languages page, and browsed the specific section for Spanish.  Towards the bottom I discovered Destinos, an instructional program in the style of a telenovela (Spanish soap opera).  Destinos turned out to be perfectly suited to my needs — I was beyond the basics of “Hello, how are you?” but needed a lot of support from the captions, review sections, and online exercises.  Plus, the perfect blend of melodrama and a nostalgic 80s-90s feel has pretty much made it one of my favorite things ever.

I’ve also investigated the First Floor’s foreign language fiction collection.  I chose La Milla Verde, by Stephen King and translated by María Eugenia Ciocchini, and Apocalipsis Z: Los Días Oscuros by Manel Loureiro.  In English these might be leisurely beach reads, but I’m merely chipping away at them in the same painstaking way I translated The Aeneid in Latin III.  I can still only get the gist of them without Google Translate or a Spanish-English dictionary (I chose this one because it was travel-sized, but I can already tell it’s a bit light for my purposes).

My goal is to get good enough that I can join the Spanish Conversation Club.  I’m not quite ready yet, but I don’t think it will be long.


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Go Home Green!

Make your home Earth friendly every day.  Whether you are thinking of building, remodeling an existing home, or just need to clean up the one you have, the Library has resources that can help you green your home environment.

Build Green and Save Book CoverBuild Green and Save: Protecting the Earth and Your Bottom Line by Matt Belcher
Let this book show you how to select green building materials, make sure your construction activities are green, and explain the benefits of green building practices.

Big Green Book of Recycled Crafts book coverThe Big Green Book of Recycled Crafts: Over 100 Earth-Friendly Projects
Did you know you can fuse together plastic shopping bags and make your own reusable tote? Or that old blue jeans can be turned into at least 5 different crafts? These and other fun and easy projects are explained in this book, along with lots of pictures to guide you.

Home Enlightenment Made Easy: with Annie B. Bond
Watch easy to follow instructions on this DVD for making your own nontoxic formulas to clean your home, fabrics, and even your face!

Green This book coverGreen This!: Volume One, Greening Your Cleaning by Deirdre Imus
Room by room, this book deals with the dangers of commonly used household cleaning products and then gives greener, homemade cleaners as substitute options.

Practical Green Remodeling book coverPractical Green Remodeling: Down-to-Earth Solutions for Everyday Homes by Barry Katz
With useful information such as a simple explanation (and diagrams!) of how geothermal systems work and 10 ways to reduce your water usage, this book goes beyond the typical green building materials recommendations. But it has those too!

Easy Green Living book coverEasy Green Living: The Ultimate Guide to Simple, Eco-Friendly Choices for You and Your Home by Renée Loux
Every room in your house can get clean the green way. Even the laundry gets a makeover. The author includes advice on shopping green, light bulbs, and better choices for personal hygiene that will protect you and the environment.

Big Green Purse: Using Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World by Diane MacEachern
Change the way you spend money and change the world! You’ll get background information about how certain products negatively impact the environment and people, along with alternative options you can purchase to combat these effects.  You have the power!

Green Living by Design book coverGreen Living by Design: The Practical Guide for Eco-Friendly Remodeling and Decorating by Jean Nayar
Organized by area of the house and materials utilized, this book guides you through making informed decisions about remodeling and furnishing your home in an earth-friendly way.

Real Simple book coverReal Simple: 869 New Uses for Old Things
Not sure what to do with those leftover name tags? Use them to label your casserole dish so it comes back home after the potluck. This encyclopedia lists most common household items and ways they can be re-purposed.  You won’t ever need to throw anything away again!

Simple Steps to a Greener Home DVD coverSimple Steps to a Greener Home: With Lifestyle Expert Danny Seo
This DVD gives many “smart and stylish” suggestions for remodeling in an eco-friendly way.  

Your family, your home, and your Earth will thank you.

-Melissa M.

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Happy Earth Day!

Today marks the 41st Earth Day, a celebration of the planet, its ecological resources, and the importance of protecting them.

Here’s  a short list of resources with environmental themes to help you properly celebrate this special day:

You can find plenty more where these came from by searching the Catalog here.

Happy Earth Day!



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In The News: Libya

I can’t decide if it’s me or Pittsburgh, and how news is covered or presented, or if the quantity of news information available reduces almost every storyline to Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame.  Outside of Queen Elizabeth II and Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi (and the variations of G, Q, or K in spelling) has been an eternal presence on the world stage since I was 10 years old.

Depending on your outlook and frame of reference, Qadhafi is either an arch Arab nationalist, victimized by President Reagan, who has tried to modernize his country with a unique approach to Islam and Pan-Arabism, or a previously unapologetic supporter of terrorism who has seen the error of his ways.  In either case, the idea that Libya would be the scene of a prolonged popular uprising is amazing,  and yet after two weeks of reporting, it’s all but faded from the headlines.

On the surface, Libya in and of itself doesn’t have the significance of Egypt or the dynamism of Tunisia vis-a-vis the Arab street and political upheaval, but that Kadaffi has lost that much control so rapidly is to me a barometer of where the Arab world is heading.  As we’ve seen in Iraq and post Mubarak Egypt, Democracy doesn’t necessarily translate into the Madison – Jefferson – Adams model we pride ourselves on in the US.  A philosophy and way of life isn’t so readily exportable, it isn’t something that can just be given or imparted – it’s a process.  If successful, at the end of the day it probably won’t look like what we have here and it probably shouldn’t.


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When I’m not dressed as a respectable, professional adult, I’m probably wearing jeans and a t-shirt. This comfortable de facto uniform minimizes the amount of time I have to spend actually thinking about clothes, freeing me up for longer sessions of crafting and baking. It’s also a great way to express my political opinions and pop culture preferences without holding forth at length like a tiresome windbag. When people see my shirts, they’ll know right away whether or not we’ll get along; this, too, is time-efficient and, therefore, pleasing. That may sound silly, but I like to use my time wisely and well.

On the other hand, some of my favorite t-shirts make excellent conversation-starters, and I’m okay with that! My obsession with Marie Curie, for example, and the companion tee with which I express it also show support for women and girls in the sciences. Sporting the Ada Lovelace look gives the same props to women in computer science. And my absolute favorite, the Mary Shelley tee, is a fashionable shout-out to the women of gothic fiction.

There are, however, so many women I admire who do not yet have their own t-shirt, which means I’m going to have to make my own until fashion catches up with my vision.  Here are a few of the many (in)famous women I admire who really should have their own clothing line.

Grace Hopper. The first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale, and a tenured professor at Vassar, Hopper proceeded to top herself by enlisting in the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor. The ever-restless Hopper completed officer training and was assigned to the Harvard Computational Laboratory, where her gift for programming, excellent collaboration skills, and prankish sense of humor led to a string of professional successes. Thanks to Hopper we have COBOL and personal computers, so the least we could do is thank her with a spiffy tee, no?

Camille Claudel.  Often unfairly dismissed as the mad mistress of Auguste Rodin, Claudel was a gifted sculptor in her own right. The sensual nature of her work, however, was far more earthy and naturalistic than nineteenth-century French culture could bear, and only Rodin and her father supported her unique artistic vision. However, after a series of personal shocks and the unhappy end of her affair with Auguste, Claudel struggled on alone in poverty until finally her mother committed her to an asylum, where the misunderstood muse remained for thirty years. To the end of her life, however, Claudel remained true to herself and did not compromise her vision. A t-shirt is, perhaps, the very least we could do to honor such strength.

Coco Chanel.  Last, but certainly not least, on my list is the fashion designer closest to my heart.  Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel changed women’s clothing forever by rejecting the fussy, restrictive styles of her day and designing simple, elegant garments made from fabrics in which a person could actually move and breathe! Not content to dabble in clothing, Chanel also created hats, perfume and handbags, first for the friends and relatives of her lovers, and then, as her reputation spread, to Paris society at large.   Ashamed of her humble beginnings, Chanel remained mysterious and private to the end, and her habit of hanging out in graveyards and talking to the dead techincally qualifies her as a first lady of goth. What’s not to love?

Your turn:  whose t-shirt would you wear?  Would you make it yourself, or hire someone crafty to create it for you?

—Leigh Anne


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Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Every year when spring approaches, I begin to daydream of warmer weather, longer days, and summer vacation.  Then I remember that I’m a grownup and don’t really get a summer vacation any more (this has been the most difficult lesson of my adult life).  So like most people, I begin to pine for vacation and begin to think about where I should go this year.  A national park?  A sunny beach?   I tend to be a huge planner, not to mention a huge reader, so I usually peruse a few books to help me decide.  Rather than recommend specific books, I thought I’d suggest a few subject areas that might be helpful to browse:

  • North America Guidebooks:  This is where you’ll find all kinds of books on getaways and vacations in, you guessed it, North America.  Trips to take with friends, the best cities to visit, and wildlife watching guides are among the selections that fall under this subject heading. 
  • Travel– Guidebooks: Much like the above subject heading, books here will cover just about everything, but under this heading you won’t be limited to North America. 
  •  Visitors, Foreign [+ name of country]: If you plan on traveling to another country, and would like to be mistaken for a native, this is the place to look.  This is where to find books that will teach you about the etiquette and customs of different countries.
  • People With Disabilities– Travel: This is a much smaller subject area, but I thought it was worth pointing out for those who might not know that we have books on the topic.  This is where you can find information on accessible vacation spots, planning tips, and general travel information for those with a disability. 
  • Family Recreation: This subject heading encompasses everything from travelling with children to activities to do at home- perfect if you’re planning a staycation

Do you have any favorite travel books or travel tips? 



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It’s like Nunsense, but with a guillotine!

Just kidding.  Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmelites does involve nuns and a guillotine, but let’s be frank, this opera is not a comedy.  It takes place in late 18th century France’s Reign of Terror and it’s about prayer, privation, and personal sacrifice.  In an opera world full of love at first sight, overwrought love tragedies, and absurd cross-dressing romantic comedies, it’s refreshing to see a compelling kissing-free drama about martyrdom.

As for the music, although it was written in the 1950s, in the midst of the modern era’s obsession with atonality, Poulenc (1899-1963) was somewhat old-fashioned.  In the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, he is quoted:

It seems that my Carmelites can only sing tonal music.  You must forgive them.

It is indeed a tonal work and one with touching lyricism plus powerful choral prayers in Latin.

Pittsburghers will get a chance to see this opera from April 30 to May 8, 2011.  It’s a rare chance indeed.  Hax McCullough’s Illustrated History of Opera in Pittsburgh indicates that the Pittsburgh Opera has never performed this work before.

To preview it beforehand or explore other versions afterward, the library has CDs (in versions in English, German, and the original French) and DVDs (in English and French).  In addition, it’s also available in a new streaming Opera in Video database that we offer.

But don’t miss the rare opportunity to see it live!  And even if you’re irreligious like me, you will still be deeply affected by the pathos of the unique final scene (SPOILER ALERT: it features the guillotine).

See you at the opera!

— Tim

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