Monthly Archives: November 2011

Me Read Book

Usually, I don’t like to read hard books.  Fundamentally, it may be because I’m just lazy, but I think it has more to do with the escapism. I read books to immerse myself in another world and I often find myself gravitating to the books that most smoothly create this other world. But, occasionally I do enjoy something a little bit tougher and this is about two books that I found particularly challenging. Of course, this could just show how much of a Neanderthal I am when it comes to the written word. We shall see.

One of the most interesting and absorbing books I’ve ever read would have to be  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. I found out about this book from a conversation that I had with two friends one afternoon. Friend #1 read the book and found it to be creepy and weird and very rewarding. Friend #2 found the book to be too difficult to read and couldn’t finish it. Intrigued, I borrowed the book off of Friend #2 and proceeded to read it.  I can’t recall how long it took me to finish, but I remember it being a while.  Originally published and circulated by hand, the officially released book retains that DIY feeling.  When holding it in your hands, it almost still feels warm like a pile of pages straight off the copying machine. The book has three distinct levels to it and each level maintains its own unique shifting text and page layouts. Level 1 recounts the life of a young man who finds a dead blind man’s trunk that is stuffed with information meticulously describing a video that the blind man seems to have at some point watched.  Except that he is blind.  And the video never even existed. And neither did the family that the video is supposed to be made by. But that doesn’t stop him from describing it so complexly and completely that it becomes real and begins to affect his life. Level 2 consists of the blind man’s story that the young man is able to put together from his belongings.  Level 3 consists of the story of the family that the video is about, documenting what happens after they find that the interior of their home is actually bigger than the exterior.  Both Levels 2 and 3 begin to have terrifying effects on Level 1 as the young man delves deeper and deeper into the fictional mythology. Does that even make any sense? My point is that this book does what Inception wished it could have. It creates a revolving set of fictional worlds that weave throughout the story and forces the reader to physically manipulate the book in a variety of ways to finish it. I will admit that I didn’t read all of the footnotes.

The second book, I didn’t have as much success with.  After finishing the Invisibles, a genre and gender bending, weirdo punk rock comic series by Grant Morrison, I heard some rumblings about the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.  It was to contain a lot of what made the Invisibles great. When reading, I got the distinct feeling that almost every contemporary conspiracy theory got its humble beginnings in these 816 pages, of which I made it to 786. I finished a paragraph in the middle of a chapter and just stopped. I couldn’t take it anymore. This isn’t to say that it is not good. In fact, I’d probably say that the book is great. Like House of Leaves, the history that it tackles is meticulously researched and outlined for the reader. Alternate viewpoints to actual historical events are complex and believable. The mythology of chaos and the religion of Discordianism are introduced with all the confusion that they represent. Perspective changes happen without warning and often times in the middle of a paragraph. Time and space are bent and broken, often times leaving the reader stranded in entirely unfamiliar landscapes. This book is not for the weak of mind. I failed at finishing this, but that shouldn’t discourage you. As pointed out earlier, I am a bit of a halfwit. Get out there and take the Illuminatus Trilogy challenge. Or you could just read the Invisibles and Sewer, Gas and Electric (The Public Works Trilogy) and call it even.



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The Dark Side of History*

I admit that I don’t like to read historical true crime; still, it both fascinates and repels me. What makes some people think and do the terrible things they do?  My own dear sweet mother is a true crime junkie (she’s read more than I can count) but I’ve had my fill with these books. The very few I have read include high profile as well as some obscure cases. The key ingredients for me in reading non-fiction have always been the historical aspect and the quality of the writing. The following books have both in abundance.

 The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. I’m a child of the 1970s and, for some reason, I seem to remember a lot of missing persons/serial killer headlines (and one from my childhood in particular, the Oakland County child killer, is still unsolved). One Ann Rule book is plenty for me and this case is the one that started it all for her as the queen of the true crime genre. Rule grew up in my home state of Michigan; her grandfather was a sheriff in a small northern Michigan town, and she was also a police officer, thus her interest in the human psyche. But nothing prepared her for the horror of realizing that the handsome, friendly young man she worked with at a suicide hotline crisis center in the 1970s was Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the disappearance and murder of an unknown number of young women. I admit I skipped the gruesome parts of this gripping book but I liked how Rule put a very chilling spin on her telling of the crimes committed by someone she knew.

Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Smith is a mystery novelist but I’ve only read this poignant memoir of her 1950s childhood punctuated by the disappearance and murder of a classmate. In addition to the parallel stories of both the victim and the suspect, Smith tells of the experience and challenge of growing up with an autistic brother and its impact on her life and family.

 A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger. This is a very creepy story. In 1960s suburban Boston, a serial killer known only as the Boston Strangler murders a housewife in broad daylight in Junger’s childhood neighborhood. Interweaving the trail of the murderer with events from his own life, acclaimed non-fiction author Junger (The Perfect Storm) reveals that a handyman named Albert De Salvo confessed to the crimes, the same man who did some work for his mother on the day of the Belmont murder.

Arc of Justice: a Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. Imagine the excitement of buying your very first house. Now imagine feeling intimidated because you are black and you purchased your house in an all-white neighborhood. Ossian Sweet, a man separated by one generation from slavery, was a successful doctor in 1920s Detroit. With his wife and young child, he eagerly moved into their new home. So began a reign of terror that culminated in shots and left a neighborhood white man dead. This little known case was defended by star attorney Clarence Darrow and the very sad story will stay with you long after the book ends.

 The Red Parts: a Memoir by Maggie Nelson. Okay, I’m beginning to notice a pattern here. I most likely was attracted to some of these books for both their Michigan connections as well as the fact that they are mostly memoirs. From 1967-69, young women in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (in Michigan) area disappeared and were later found murdered. Nelson’s aunt was one victim and, at first, it was thought she was yet another victim of the so-called Michigan Murders. Nelson, a poet, recounts the impact the murder had on her family and her life growing up, and her own interest in the case. Coincidentally, while working on a poetry book as a tribute to her aunt, a break in the case finally brought closure for the family.


*This is the third in a series of historical non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed reading and recommending.


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The Cure for Winter Blues.

As we inch closer and closer to the shortest day of the year (and the subsequent three months of winter), I have begun stockpiling my winter survival resources. I tend to feel pretty dreary and sluggish in the winter months, which is why I try to incorporate as many happy-making rituals into the dark days as possible, namely by making lots of soups and reading lots of comics. Luckily, this has been a swell year for comics, and I’m excited that Kate Beaton’s long-running web comic has finally been released in an handsome book edition, simply titled Hark! A Vagrant. If you’re a follower of Beaton you’ll delight in the re-packaging, and if you’re new to her work then you’re in for a very special treat. Her comics deal largely with historical and literary figures, brought to life with fun, jaunty line drawings and wonderfully goofy facial expressions.

Lynda Barry also has a collection coming out called Everything: Volume 1. This is not a collection of new comics, but probably the next best thing–a collection of her earliest (and little seen) work from back in her college days. More volumes to come!

I am also a fan of the lovely, colorful, and whimsical art work of Maira Kalman. Her latest, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manifesto, is also not a new work, but instead a collaboration between the artist and Michael Pollan that reimagines and dresses up his original book from 2009.

As if these three books weren’t enough to keep us all busy well into winter, here are some bonus suggestions from friends and co-workers:

Life with Mr. Dangerous by  Paul Hornschemeier

Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

The Essex County comics of Jeff Lemire

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Marzi by Marzena Sowa

Happy winter reading,



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Drafting Your Holiday Survival Plans

Maybe yesterday whetted your appetite for holiday cuisine.

Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden: 150 Festive Recipes for Bringing Family and Friends Together by Bradley Ogden

Or maybe you ate too much, and you’ve sworn a vow of moderation.

The Frugal Cook: Buy Cleverly, Waste Less, Eat Well by Fiona Beckett

Maybe you’re getting ready to go out for Black Friday, but you want to  shop wisely.

Consumer Reports magazine (image via Gizmodo)

Maybe you don’t have a lot of money for presents.

Crafting With Cat Hair by Kaori Tsutaya

Maybe it’s the relatives that stress you out.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Maybe you can’t wait to see them, but you have no idea what you’re all going to do.

Moon Handbooks: Pittsburgh

And what if you just want to hide out until it’s all over?

Daria: The Complete Animated Series

No matter what your situation is this holiday season, may you find something in the library that’s perfect for you.



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Another Wordless Wednesday

So the day before the huge hustle and bustle of another family holiday, I thought it might be nice to observe a silent wordless Wednesday. Actually it may not be so silent, as I think these photographs speak volumes.  The pictures today are selected from the public archives collection on The Commons.

And because many of us will be traveling for the holidays, our theme for today is Getting from Here to There…

Taxi bij Schiphol / Taxi at Schiphol airport from the Nationaal Archief collection


Travel Air 2000 courtesy of the San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives


Cary Bay Zoo, Lake Macquarie, NSW, 1954 / Sam Hood from State Library of New South Wales collection


Op reis met de trein / Traveling by train from the Nationaal Archief collection


Favorittbilde #12. Ukas bilde courtesy of National Archives of Norway


Trip for fatherless children from The National Library of Wales


The Hartlepool Old Ferry by Museum of Hartlepool


May your holiday journeys be short and your travels be safe.

-Melissa M


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Ready, Aim, Fire!

Kindle Fire, that is.

I received my own Kindle Fire in the mail this past Friday.  For those who might not know, the Kindle Fire is a tablet device produced by Amazon (the online book and everything else seller) and sold for $199.  A $199 tablet?  How does this compare to Apple’s $499 base iPad?  Or any of the other tablet computers out there?   Here’s a link to a number of reviews on the Fire from around the internet.

Getting this device gives me a chance to remind folks that all Kindle devices (including the new Fire) now provide ready access to free Kindle books through Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Overdrive service.

The nice thing about accessing Kindle books through Overdrive is that it requires just a few quick steps, and is a little less unwieldy than the ePub format accessed via Nooks and other devices.   Now I also own and love the Kobo, a dedicated eReader that does nothing but read ePubs.  I’ll likely keep using my Kobo to read eBooks, and use my Fire for eReading, watching streaming video, and listening to MP3s.

Here’s a short list of things I like about the Fire:

  • The Tablet and screen interface provide adequate navigation and bright, clear visuals.
  • The Wireless connectivity delivers speedy browsing results, including handling Netflix downloads with ease.
  • Accessing library Kindle books is easier than ePub format materials.

Here’s a short list of things I do not like about the Fire:

  • The marriage to the Amazon “cloud” makes it hard to add non-native content.
  • $199 means a bare bones product: no micro-USB cord, no case, and no internal camera creates an austere device.
  • Battery life is low–only about 5.5 hours before a re-charge  in my experience.

One thing that every reviewer agrees on is that owning a Fire marries you to Amazon’s online content distribution network.  As long as you’re OK with this, you can also use the device to read PDF’s and do other things that a tablet device allows, but you’ll have to buy an Amazon micro-USB cord to add any “non-native” content.

So if you’re curious about the Fire, read some reviews, check it out at a local store that sells it (you can buy them in person at Staples and other places), and make up your own mind.  A $199 tablet does have some drawbacks, but you might also find that it does the job you need it to do.



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Comfort AND Joy

I distrust the term “comfort food,” which evokes images of casseroles thickened with canned soup, or joyless food whose sole asset is that it is steamy hot. Main Library’s cookbook collection (6,000+ titles) includes 104 titles with “comfort food” in the title or subject heading. Of eleven cookbooks in the “comfort food” category added in 2011, I present one strong recommendation.

 Saveur: The New Comfort Food – Home Cooking from Around the World. The pages of this book offer more than 100 recipes for comforting foods from around the globe—spring rolls, empanadas, potato latkes, hummus, huevos rancheros, Korean fried chicken, kimchi pancakes. Many are recipes of fare prepared by home cooks. Though the dishes are not fussy, these recipes don’t cut corners. Many require planning ahead. The beautiful design of this book includes hunger-coaxing photographs and sidebars offering cultural and historical information.

Saveur, the food magazine “for people who experience the world food-first,” has published four cookbooks. A copy of Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian sits on my cookbook shelf at home. Page after page sports cheery images of a culture in love with food. Although “comfort” is not part of its title or subject headings, the culinary culture it portrays satisfies both body and soul—comfort food.



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Best books

What makes an author become famous for one book over another?  Is it the beauty of the writing?  A movie adaptation?  The fact that this book wound up on school reading lists?  Some time ago I read this article in which the author debates several books- from Corelli’s Mandolin to Slaughterhouse Five– and offers up some suggestions of what he feels are the authors’ better works.  This article stuck in my mind because I’ve often thought that there are certain books, which while perfectly fine, or even excellent, don’t really reflect an author’s best work (or at least my favorite works of that author).  As you’ll see from the comments section of the Guardian piece, there are a lot of people who feel the same way.  A few of my own picks that would be different from most well known works of certain authors:

Othello: I’ve always loved this play.  Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful romantic tragedy, but Othello has always grabbed me in a way that Shakespeare’s other tragedies haven’t.  Maybe it’s because Iago makes such a great villain?  While this isn’t exactly a lesser-known play, it’s not one that gets quite as much hype as some of Shakespeare’s other works, and for my money it’s one of his best. 

Tender is the Night: I’m in no way knocking The Great Gatsby here, but Tender is the Night is the book that really made me love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. I think that while Gatsby is a somewhat tighter piece of writing, this book packs even more of a punch. 

Keep the Aspidistra Flying: No doubt that George Orwell’s 1984  is a classic, and one worth reading, but this story of a struggling young writer determined not to succumb to middle class values has always been much more appealing to me.  Orwell’s sometimes sharp tongue shines through a bit more subtly in this novel, and he gently satirizes both young artists and mainstream values while also penning a character who is very relatable. 

What do you think?  Are there books that you feel deserve more praise than they get? 



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Chairs to Mend: Sing it with Friends

While reading British novelist Graham Greene’s harrowing 1939 novel The Confidential Agent: An Entertainment, I ran across these sentences:

A few street cries came up through the cold air: old clothes and a man who wanted chairs to mend.  He had said that war killed emotion; it was untrue.  Those cries were an agony. [p. 51 of the 1967 edition]

Any bit of beauty or humanity is agonizing to the beleaguered protagonist, but I was tickled to see a mention of the street peddler song “Chairs to Mend.”  By its very nature as a peddler’s song, it’s a simple, repetitive, catchy way to offer chair-mending, fresh mackerel, and new rags.  Think of street cries as an old-time precursor to the advertising jingles of radio and TV.

“Chairs to Mend” also is well suited for singing as a round.  In fact, I first stumbled upon it in The Great Rounds Songbook, but like most traditional, collected songs, you’re likely to find varying versions in other books such as The Book of Rounds or Best of Canons and Rounds: From the 13th Century to the Present Day.

Almost everyone has sung a round before; it’s hard to imagine getting out of preschool, kindergarten or summer camp in the U. S. without having sung “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a round.  But why let the kids have all the fun?  Get together with a group of adults and sing some rounds!  They’re perfect for amateur singers and once you learn the melodies, you don’t need any instrumental accompaniment.  All you need are some friends who are good sports or some good sports who will become new friends.

— Tim

P.S. If you don’t think getting together with friends for group singing sounds “cool,” then don’t take my word for it, take Brian Eno’s.  Eno is perhaps the coolest record producer in the atmospheric rock and pop world and one of the inventors of instrumental ambient music, but when he did a segment for the “This I Believe” radio series, he extolled the virtues of group singing.


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Pittsburgh Loves Its Libraries

We interrupt your regularly scheduled bookish goodness to offer our sincere thanks.

Thank you, Pittsburgh, for loving your library.  Thank you for caring enough to go to the polls, consider the library referendum, and make an informed choice.  Thank you for making it possible for us to continue providing books in multiple formats, quality programming for patrons of all ages, access to technology, and neighborhood library services.  You have demonstrated a great deal of faith in us and the work we do, and we couldn’t let another day go by without acknowledging how much that means to us.

In return, we promise to repay your trust with the high-quality service and skills to which you have become accustomed.  Have questions?  We’ll answer them, via whichever medium is most convenient for you.  Want book recommendations?  We can do that.  Help with your job search, resume, or cover letter?  Easy peasy. Quench your undying thirst for knowledge? Happy to oblige. If you can dream of it, the library has the resources to help you achieve it, whatever “it” might happen to be.

It is an honor and a pleasure to work for you.  And if you haven’t visited us in a while?  Please consider this your invitation to come back and experience all the wonderful things we have to offer. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.  This is, and is not, your grandparents’ library: the 21st-century Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh combines the best of its traditional services with continual improvements and innovations.  Stop by and get to know us all over again.

—Leigh Anne, for the Eleventh Stack blog team

with a special tip of the hat to all the library workers in less visible positions, who make magic “behind the curtain.”


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