Monthly Archives: September 2015

FREADom Songs

Do you love Pittsburgh? How about karaoke? Are you a little rebel who reads banned books? Do you like free stuff, games and prizes?

If any of those things sound like your cup of tea (or coffee or hot chocolate), celebrate your freedom to read at FREADom, the ACLU-PA’s 20th annual reading of banned books tonight at 7pm at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater (that’s on the lower level).

image courtesy of the PA ACLU - click through for event page.

image courtesy of the ACLU-PA – click through for event page.

A veritable rogue’s gallery of greats from the event’s past twenty years have assembled for tonight. Scrapbook documentarian and Pittsburgh treasure Rick Sebak will read from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Talk-show host Lynn Cullen will read selections from the Bible. Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes will read some of Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita.

Pittsburgh’s best jazz vocalist, Etta Cox, will sing “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s banned song that protested lynchings. There will be more singing throughout the night in the form of a banned-song karaoke singalong. Fun fact: I’m banned from this part of the event because my singing voice sounds like a cat giving birth to a helicopter and can literally cause paint to peel.

If you’re over age 21, don’t forget to get your Banned Books Week cocktail from the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC).

There will also be a Banned Books Quiz, featuring questions about frequently challenged Young Adult books (like The Bluest Eye, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The House on Mango Street), organized by your favorite CLP librarians. And of course there will be prizes!

Best of all, it’s free!

FREADom is also sponsored by CLP, 90.5 WESA-FM and 91.3 WYEP-FM. For more information call 412-681-7736, email or go to



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Just in Time for Banned Books Week

Earlier this month, a mother from Tennessee called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot “pornographic”–because of the description of Henrietta discovering a cervical tumor–and demanded it be removed from the school’s reading list.


Rebecca Skloot responded in the best way.

First, she called the mother out for “confusing gynecology with pornography,” and second, and even better, she’s raising funds to donate copies of her book to kids who can’t afford it.*

The book traces the life of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the 1950s. When Henrietta died, she left behind six children–and cells from a sample her doctor had taken from one of her tumors.

No one in Henrietta’s family knew the doctors had taken the sample. The cells, now known as HeLa cells, became the first cells that survived in a laboratory setting and led to many scientific advances, including the polio vaccine.

Now scientific and pharmaceutical companies sell HeLa cells to labs across the country, but Henrietta’s family has never seen any of the profit. Skloot has attempted to offset this injustice by using proceeds from her book to create The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which you can read more about here.

In her compassionate and beautiful telling of Henrietta’s story, Skloot raises issues of medical ethics, race, poverty, and more as she investigates Henrietta’s life, death, and the legacy she left behind. Getting young adults to read this book is an incredible way to promote scientific literacy and engage broader issues of medical ethics and our country’s long history of viewing people of color as “less than.”

If you haven’t read this book, now is the perfect time. Banned Books Week is happening right now, and Henrietta Lacks is available to you in print, large print, e-book, e-audio, and CD.




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Welcome… To Banned Books Week 2015


Image courtesy ALA. Click through for source.

I would like to personally welcome you to the beginning of Banned Books Week.

The focus of Banned Books week is to celebrate the freedom to read, and to hopefully have a discussion about why certain books have been banned or challenged throughout the years. This week is not about forcing someone into a set of ideas, or taking away people’s rights to voice their opinion about a book. It’s about bringing to light the harm that censorship can do to people of all ages, races, religions….well, all people.

I believe that ALA’s website defines and describes banned and challenged books the best by saying challenges are “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group” and continues with “challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”

I wanted this post to be informational to those who have not heard of Banned Books Week before, or those who have but weren’t quite sure what the big deal was, because I’m sure there will be plenty of posts/blogs/articles/podcasts/information about all the books that have been banned or challenged. Therefore, welcome to a passionate and intense week of book discussions and their value to the readers.



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September: the Month of Mindy

bookcoverSeptember is a busy month for Mindy Kaling. On September 15th, the fourth season of her show The Mindy Project debuted on Hulu. It ran for three seasons on FOX until they canceled it (yet they renewed New Girl and it’s sucked for the past two seasons). Anyway, Mindy now has a new home on Hulu. The season premiere was hilarious! Mindy and the gang haven’t missed a beat. We have the first, second and third seasons in our catalog if you want to catch up.

September 15th should’ve been Unofficial Mindy Kaling Day because not only did the new season of The Mindy Project premiere, but Kaling’s new book Why Not Me? hit shelves. This is one book that I’ve been impatiently waiting for. I loved Kaling’s last book Is Everyone Hanging Out WIthout Me? which was released in 2011. I’m only twenty-seven pages into Why Not Me? and I already love it; Mindy compared herself to a hash brown from McDonald’s after having a spray tan and to an extra from The Walking Dead when she wakes up in the morning. Hilarious indeed. While there are a lot of people on the waiting list for Why Not Me?, her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is available in our catalog.


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Shirt Pocket Notes

Nobody asked me, but…

  • Reading Robert Graves’ The White Goddess requires a lot of work! His explorations into the sources behind Western poetry and poetic mythology remain tantalizingly inaccessible to casual reading. I feel like you have to really commit yourself to get the most out of Graves’ sometimes meandering, but always erudite, prose.
  • I know others have written far more eloquently about H Is For Hawk here and elsewhere, but author Helen Macdonald’s powerful style really grabbed me when I happened to idly pick the book up the other day. Her journey into falconry included the extremely difficult task of training a goshawk named Mabel. Forging a rapport with this magnificent bird provides the backdrop for Macdonald’s deeply personal struggle with the unexpected death of her beloved father.
  • With the Pittsburgh Pirates again on the precipice of making the MLB playoffs, I find myself wanting to read more about their storied history. A Pirate Life by Steve Blass will be my next port of call when I’ve cleared the decks of my other reading obligations. Mr. Blass is class personified, and his book offers a sometimes funny, sometimes sad look into the life of a major league baseball pitcher in the 1960s.
  • As we now head into the fall season, I find myself wanting to get out and do more hiking. Glen Scherer’s excellent Hikes In The Mid-Atlantic States: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York offers a host of great day-hikes within fairly easy driving distance of Pittsburgh.
  • Fall being my favorite season, I thought it might be nice to finish this little post with an affirming quote from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

–Scott P.



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Connecting Kids With Culture

Although I’m not Latino, I feel a strong connection to all things Latin American. My wife and in-laws are from Panama, and therefore Latin culture is something that we want to immerse our children in culturally and linguistically, so they recognize and appreciate their maternal roots. How do we do this when we’re thousands of miles away from that culture? The Library has plenty of resources to help.


There are lots of kids’ Spanish music CDs, and ones for grownups, too!

spanishbopSpanish Bop 15 Favorite Children’s Songs – Produced as part of the “Little Pim” language learning series, this has excellent nursery rhymes and catchy kids songs to sing along with.

Sabor! Spanish Learning Songs – Another title from the “Little Pim” collection, Sabor! has great easy songs for singing along in Spanish.

Putumayo Presents Latin Playground – Putumayo, which produces a wide variety of global music for kids and adults, puts together a collection of kid-friendly songs from throughout Latin America.

I’ve found kids end up loving Latin American music that’s not “for kids” anyway.  Check out awesome artists like Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, AventuraFania All Stars and many more for some great music that will get your kids dancing too!  Also, you can tune in to Pittsburgh’s Latin music radio show, La Rumba, on Thursdays between 7-9 pm on 88.3 FM or WRCT.


My kids are 3 and 5, so these choices are geared towards that demographic.

Maria Had a Little Llamalittlellama – A cute rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.  This story has both English and Spanish text.  The illustrations are excellent, noting the indigenous dress of Peru and matching backgrounds.

Don’t Say a Word, Mamá = No digas nada, Mamá – Another excellent bilingual tale; the illustrations have a Mexican style.  The story of two sisters and their love for their mother, peppered with traditional Mexican food ingredients like corn, chiles and tamales. Great illustrations!

My Grandma = Mi abuelita –  A cute story about a child and their family traveling to visit their grandma in a different country.  Excellent bilingual story and the backdrop could work for any country in Latin America.


mexicancookingNo discussion of culture would be complete without my favorite element, food!  Now, food in Latin America, like most other things in Latin America, is incredibly diverse, and I don’t claim to know a lot about the cuisines of all Latin American countries, because I don’t.  Although there are certain common themes in Latin American dishes (tamales, empanadas, rice, corn) even those themes are very different country to country. Here are some awesome cookbooks that contain recipes my kids will actually eat.

Secrets of Colombian Cooking – There are actually no Panamanian cookbooks in the library system, yet. But Panama’s neighbor, Colombia, has very similar gastronomy. This cookbook contains recipes of things kids will love like empanadas, sancocho (a hearty soup), arroz con coco (rice with coconut) and desserts like flan, tres leches and rice pudding.  This is definitely an adult’s cookbook, but kids will love to eat the delicious food.

Mexico – This is a kids’ cookbook. The recipes are simple and fun to make. I love the homemade tortilla recipe, and what kid doesn’t love using a rolling pin on some dough?  Other delicious dishes include picadillo and fried bean cakes.

Cool Mexican Cooking: Fun and Tasty Recipes For Kids – I love this series of cookbooks for kids.  Similar to the title above, also easy-to-make and fun dishes that kids will eat.

Spanish Language Learning Resources for kids

Even though my wife and I both try to always speak Spanish at home, and even though we try to travel to Panama every year, oftentimes our kids don’t want to speak Spanish.  I don’t fret though because I know the library can help!  The library has plenty of resources to help you and your children learn languages (I wrote about them a little over a year ago.)  Here are some of the children’s resources again:

Little Pim –  Online videos you can watch with your child that teach basic vocabulary.  Available in additional languages than just Spanish.

Muzzy Online – Similar to the above mentioned, cartoon videos that teach your kids the basics of the language.

Speak Spanish with Dora & Diego! – Audio recording paired with books that help your child learn with beloved characters Dora & Diego.

Community organizations and events

Throughout the year Pittsburgh’s Latin American community has many family events that are excellent ways to expose kids to Latin American culture.  A great place to find info on these events is the Latin American Culture Union’s calendar.  Some of our favorite events include the LACU’s summer picnic in August and Pitt’s Latin American and Caribbean Festival every March.  These events often have music, food, dance, activities for kids and much more.  They’re also a great way to meet some neighbors and celebrate Pittsburgh’s diversity.

If you’re bringing up your kids to be bicultural, how do you do it? What tools do you use to keep your kids close to their roots, whatever those roots may be?  How do you expose your children to cultures other than your own?  I’d love to hear from you!

-Scott M.


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Election Season Reading Challenge

When it comes to politics, there is one thing that most people agree on: making an informed decision about your vote matters. Of course there are myriad ways to stay informed and educated, and it’s great to consult multiple sources of information. So, gearing up for the grind of election season, I decided to give myself a small reading challenge. There are only three prompts, so feel free to join me!

Go Vote

Image by Chris Piascik. Click through for the artist’s website.

1. Read a Book About an Election Issue You Care About – Hot topics in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election include immigration, gun controlhealthcare, and more, but I urge you to define what matters most to you and go from there. In terms of “issues” books, I recently read Not Funny Ha-Ha, a graphic novel that straightforwardly describes two different women who choose to have abortions, and The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, which I can’t stop talking about. I have plenty more on my “to read” list, including Burning Down the House: the End of Juvenile Prison and Between the World and Me.
2. Read a Book About Media or Politics – To me, the political process is sometimes as interesting and relevant as the outcomes. Insight about behind-the-scene antics help us understand how arguments and messages are being constructed, and interpreted (or misinterpreted).  Right now, I’m in the midst of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class and The Influencing Machine, and loving them both.
3. Read a book about or by a candidate  – There are so many choices, I’m not even sure where to start. Choose your own adventure:
How will you be keeping up-to-date this election season?


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A Tale About Me, My Coworkers, and Margaret Atwood

As a fairly recent newcomer to Pittsburgh (four years last month, which might as well be four minutes when talking with native yinzers), our city’s vibrant and exciting literary scene is something that continuously impresses and surprises me.

The novelty of this should be worn off by now, given that my employer is one of the organizations that contributes mightily to this bookish culture of awesomeness that we have going on in the ‘Burgh.

But maybe it’s because I work for the Library that I revel in this so much.

We’re incredibly lucky to have access to so many prominent writers who regularly visit Pittsburgh. We work closely with our friends at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, who offer events such as the Monday Night Lecture Series, PA&L Kids and Teens and Authors on Tour, a new collaborative initiative between our two organizations that presents authors who are on a national publicity tour, either with a new hardback or recent paperback book release, to Pittsburgh audiences.

After one such gathering, a coworker and I were chatting about upcoming concerts lectures.  (Um, why yes, I absolutely do consider literary lectures by writers I love to be akin to rock concerts.)

Anonymous Coworker dropped a name of someone who was “a strong possibility” for an upcoming appearance. That’s all he divulged, but that was enough to sustain my hopes.

Lo and behold, Anonymous Coworker was correct … and on October 21, none other than MARGARET ATWOOD will be here. In Pittsburgh. At the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall.  FOR. REAL. If you don’t believe me, go here. I’ll wait.

(I was right, wasn’t I?  You’re welcome.)

When I started fangirling like nobody’s business at my desk, Anonymous Coworker #2 confessed that she wasn’t quite sure who Margaret Atwood was.

(She is not, I should mention, my coworker who does not believe in the very real phenomenon that is Mercury Retrograde.  Which we happen to be in right now, thank you very much.)

“You don’t know who Margaret Atwood is?” I gasped.

I then started putting my college English degree to good use by pontificating about the prescient genius that is The Handmaid’s Tale, which I consider to be one of the best books ever written.

The Handmaid's TaleSet in the not-too-far-off-in-the-foreseeable-future society that is the Republic of Gilead (formerly, the United States), Margaret Atwood’s 1987 novel is one of the count-’em-on-one-hand books I’ve read more than once.  It’s a chilling story, a thought-provoking novel about so many things: women’s rights, the influence of religion in society, relationships, politics, identity, betrayal, forgiveness, power and control. There are so many themes running through these pages. Indeed, that’s one of its criticisms: some say that Atwood’s prose tries too hard to have the book serve as commentary on too many issues.  But that’s part of what makes a novel a classic, in my view, and I truly believe that The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a classic.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, around 1989, shortly after it was published. Offred made a strong, immediate impression on me, one that I remembered when I re-read the novel in 2011.  I remembered that Offred had once been married and had a child. I remembered her relationship to and her purpose for the Commander and that Offred wasn’t her name.

“My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.”

What’s striking about The Handmaid’s Tale is Atwood’s description of life before the Republic of Gilead — We were a society dying of too much choice.” — as well as specific events leading up to the formation of the Republic of Gilead. (“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.”)

A mention of the president being assassinated was particularly chilling, given the political climate today, as well as the mention of a catastrophic, tragic event (9/11?) that befell the country.  The pollution of the rivers and dying off of the fish was poignant, too, given environmental disasters like the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast.

Another thing that caught me off guard was how much Offred, before, was like so many women today.  She was a wife and a mother.  She worked full time.  She went grocery shopping.  She wore a bathing suit. And just like us, these everyday simple things that comprised her life were taking place amid a culture of sensationalism and a media smorgasbord that thrived on constant diet of the outlandish.

“The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives. We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” 

Sound familiar?  Probably, because most of us are also living the kind of everyday lives where our actions don’t make the news.

For all of the oppression and denial of freedoms contained within The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the primary messages is a hopeful one: even though there will always be people hell-bent on silencing another, there will always be ways to make yourself heard.

“Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamor to be heard, though silently.” 

So, this post is for my coworker who isn’t familiar with Margaret Atwood.  And maybe for you, too, if The Handmaid’s Tale is one that you haven’t read either.

And when I think I am starting to forget, I’ll re-read it one more time.

For more information about Margaret Atwood’s appearance on October 21, visit Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures at

ETA 10:21 a.m.: this event has sold out.

~ Melissa F., who is trying within the next 30 days to read every single thing Margaret Atwood has ever written


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I first noticed it on Canal Street in New Orleans. Random steel spikes in building doorways. It took me a minute to figure out what they were for. They certainly weren’t public art and didn’t appear to serve a purpose. Once I was realized they were to prevent the homeless from sleeping, I was astonished.

I was astonished at such intentional unkindness.

Once you notice this phenomenon, you can’t un-notice it. Park benches slant forward, walls are uneven, with jagged masonry; there are pavement sprinklers, spikes, barricades, even coin-operated benches…all with the sole purpose of preventing society’s “unwanted” from inhabiting public space.

It even has a name: Disciplinary (or defensive) architecture.

So this isn’t carelessness or accidental. These are carefully considered, planned, designed and implemented acts of unkindness.


Artist Nils Norman has documented thousands of “defensive” architecture examples.

Or, as Alex Andreou put it in the Guardian, “[Defensive architecture] is the aggregated, concrete, spiked expression of a lack of generosity of spirit … Making our urban environment hostile breeds hardness and isolation. It makes life a little uglier for all of us.”

Does that sound like a world you want to live in? Nope.

So hey guys, let’s try to be kind to each other. Practice it randomly. Practice it intentionally. Practice it early and often. It’s actually good for your physical AND mental health!

Let’s aim for more this. And less this.

We good with that?

Kindness-inspiring books

ExtraYarnExtra Yarn, Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

A little girl discovers an endless box of yarn! Guess why it’s endless? Because she shared it with her whole town! A lovely little children’s book about community and generosity.

ArtofHappinessThe Art of Happiness and The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.

It’s the Dalai Lama. You better listen because he knows his business.

Compassion is a true source of happiness. Cultivating a close, warm-hearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease, helps remove fears and insecurities and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter.

OnKindnessOn Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

Why does being kind feel so dangerous? And why are we suspicious when we are on the receiving end? A psychoanalyst and a historian attempt to explain how modern people have chosen loneliness over connection- even though we crave it.

Caring about others is what makes us fully human. We depend on each other not just for our survival but for our very being. The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic.

WorldAccordingThe World According to Mr. Rogers: Important things to Remember, Fred Rogers

Like the Dalai Lama, it’s Mr. Rogers.

You better listen to him, too.

The real issue in life is not how many blessings we have, but what we do with our blessings. Some people have many blessings and hoard. Some have few and give everything away.

CongratulationsCongratulations, By the Way, George Saunders

This is the transcript of the convocation address George Sanders gave at Syracuse University.

It is a little book, but it’s simple and uplifting.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

I’m going on vacation this week. I’m going to pay tolls for people behind me. Because someone once did it for me and I felt great all day. What’s the best random act of kindness someone did for you?

This post is dedicated to my favorite bouncer, who won’t say happy birthday to strangers.



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Looking for my Anatevka*

The Marketplace

The Marketplace, Vitebsk, 1917 by Marc Chagall
Click through for source

Many Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape persecution from the Russian government. The parents of both of my grandfathers (all Jews) came from the same town: Vitebsk in Belarus. My four great-grandparents left about the same time as one of the most famous artists in the world, Marc Chagall.


Over Vitebsk, 1913 by Marc Chagall
Click through for source

Chagall painted many scenes inspired by his home town. He wrote an autobiography titled My Life filled with his fond memories of Vitabsk. I could get a feel for what life was like for my great-grandparents looking through Chagall’s eyes.

I wanted to get a historical perspective of the region, so I consulted one of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s social science databases: World History in Context. There were quite a lot of results to read. The town was decimated in WWII. The Jewish population was wiped out in 1941 by the occupying Nazis in a way typical of that time. Modern day Vitebsk calls itself “The City of Chagall” and is a tourist destination with art and music festivals.

I was then drawn into CLP’s genealogy databases, where I spent hours and hours looking up my ancestors. One of the more interesting and surprising things I learned is that I have an ancestral connection to Pittsburgh that predates my move here from New York to attend college. My great-grandfather was an iron worker who lived in Homestead in 1916, where his youngest child was born. His family, which included my grandfather, moved back to New York City by the 1920 census.

I can trace my roots from Vitabsk to New York City to Pittsburgh, then back to New York City, then back to Pittsburgh!

Find out details of your personal history with the aid of the databases from the Carnegie Library. Most of the databases have remote access, so you can view them at home with a valid library card.


*Fiddler on the Roof – Anatevka 


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