Tag Archives: memoir

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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Talking to Girls About Duran Duran

I love the ’80s, and I am not ashamed.

The 1980s, that is. The 1880s were jam-packed with interesting phenomena, to be sure; however, no matter how many serious, “grown-up” books I read, sometimes what I need to make it through the day is a healthy dose of cheese-tastic teenage nostalgia.

It was acceptable in the 80s.

Scoff if you must, but music critic Rob Sheffield understands.  His latest memoir, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, is a heart-felt, hilarious love song to the decade permanently associated with hair metal bands and extreme fashion trauma.  Each chapter bears the name of an ’80s pop hit, and weaves Sheffield’s memories of the music with his poignant, yet snicker-worthy, tales of being young and confused during the Reagan era.  “Purple Rain,” for example, relates the saga of Sheffield’s stint as an ice-cream truck driver during a sweltering Boston summer; I laughed so hard while reading this chapter that everybody else in the coffeeshop went out of their way to give me plenty of personal space.

If you remember the ’80s fondly, or wish to understand the psychology of those who do, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is an excellent summer read.  Put yourself on the reserve list ASAP, and, while you’re waiting, consider taking Sheffield’s first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, out for a test drive.

 Leigh Anne
who still passes the dutchie on the left-hand side


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The Beautiful Rent Girl Sister Spit Without a Net

Recently, I was lucky to catch the poetry and spoken word tour Sister Spit, an LGBTQ-oriented, “rotating crew of female-centric performers, writers and artists across the United States,” that stages “cabaret-style shows in The beautiful : collected poems / Michelle Tea.universities, bars, discos, art galleries, indie bookstores and community spaces everywhere.”

While I wasn’t familiar with most of the writers beforehand, I especially enjoyed the graphic novel readings (yes, you heard right) from Nicole J. Georges and Elisha Lim, the powerful poetry of  Lenelle Moïse, and the overall humor and fun of the evening: PowerPoint! An advice segment! Audience participation! Keep Valencia / Michelle Tea.an eye out for some of these touring terrors’ books on a library shelf near you–they were too good not to share. Even better than discovering so many new writers to follow, Sister Spit’s lineup also included one of my favorite authors, Michelle Tea, who founded Sister Spit.The Chelsea whistle / Michelle Tea.

With so much to read, I rarely revisit the same author, but Michelle Tea is kind of irresistible. I’ve made time to read several of her books, including her poetry collection The Beautiful and her illustrated novel Rent Girl, and I plan to come back for more. Will it be her novel Valencia or her memoir The Chelsea Whistle?

Without a net : the female experience of growing up working class / edited by Michelle Tea.Michelle Tea’s own writing celebrates honesty and wildness, and her skills as a selecting editor are equally vivacious. In the anthologies she edits, each piece segues gracefully to the next through common style or subject matter, and the pace rarely drags or stutters. One of her anthologies is Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, whose moments of young women surviving and navigating childhood vary from heart-breaking to hilarious, but always remain poignant and immediate. The Baby remember my name : an anthology of new queer girl writing / edited by Michelle Tea.contributors to another Tea anthology, Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing seethe with exuberance whether their essays, stories and comics depict a poor trailer park resident’s birthday, an acid trip in San Francisco, or a gender-bending six-year-old on a bike.

If you are a fan of  queer-friendly, class-conscious, feminist, real, personal, feisty fiction and memoir writing, you’ll love Michelle Tea and the writers she publishes and tours with. Start reading, and maybe, if Pittsburgh is lucky enough to warrant another Sister Spit tour stop, you can listen for yourself next year!


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American Life Stories

READ ABOUT IT! American Life Stories is the title of a new book discussion series coming this spring to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Main. Funded by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, this 4-part series will be held on Tuesday evenings  from 6:30-8:00 pm in the Director’s Conference Room . Titles and dates are:

March 9: The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

March 30: When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago

April 20: Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Faroozeh Dumas

Mary 18: Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement by Dennis Banks

We are happy to announce that Dr. Liane Norman Ellison, a local author and poet, will be leading the discussion.


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graphic novel booklists

By now, we all know that graphic novels are (let’s say it together) Not Just About Superheroes.  The question now is “So which ones do I read?”  Since the graphic novel format offers as many genres and styles as prose fiction, that’s a very good question.  And, as you might have guessed, we can help with that. 

We recently added two new graphic novel booklists to our Book Lists page.  One lists Surreal Graphic Novels that blend reality, hallucination and visual delirium to create captivating, disorienting tales.  These stories include demonic talking cats, philosophizing infants, multi-dimentional houses and shifting landscapes. 

The other list showcases Graphic Novel Memoirs, starring real people or their fictional graphic alter-egos.  These stories span the halls of high school to the streets of Mexico City.  They cover topics like adolescent humiliation, refugees, HIV, family, famous comics creators and plenty more.

Both lists include older titles and brand-new classics-to-be, veteran comics-makers and newcomers.  Maybe you’ll find your new favorite book on one of them!


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Books (but no snakes) on a plane

I try not to go anywhere without at least one book.  You never know when you’re going to be stuck in rush-hour bus traffic, or sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, or standing in line at the bank.  Might as well have something to read, just in case, right?

So when I was packing for my trip to Denver, I made sure to take at least one book for every day I would be gone.   And even though I’m having a great time up here where the air is clear, I’m glad I have a few pieces of the Pittsburgh libraries’ vast arsenal with me.  Keeps me sharp, and cuts down on the homesickness.

Here’s a quick peek at some of the books I took:

Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner. If you find the Buddha, slam dance with him! An extremely down-to-earth Zen monk makes an esoteric Buddhist text accessible to the average jane/joe.

Sacred Voices, Mary Ford-Grabowski, ed. This diverse collection of women’s wisdom illuminates historical and contemporary aspects of the sacred feminine.

Leading With Kindness, Baker & O’Malley. If you think being kind means being a cream puff, think again. The authors espouse a firm, reality-based approach to kindness at work. Designed for bosses, or people who think they might want to be one someday.

Straight Up and Dirty, Stephanie Klein. This hilarious narrative of the post-divorce world will bring healing laughter and tough-love comfort to everybody who’s ever failed at relationships. Klein pulls no punches, sharing her story in an honest, yet not-victim based, way as she struggles to date after her marriage goes horribly awry.

With all these great books to distract me, I won’t have time to worry about whether or not there are snakes on my plane. What kind of books and music do you use to distract yourself during travel or other down times?

Your roving reporter,

–Leigh Anne


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trespassing in the desert

Remember back in June when I was trying to decide whether to read  The Devil, the Lovers, and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach or Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine, and I wound up choosing Trespass?  Well, I finally finished it, and it’s my new favorite book.

Trespass captured me from its first line:  “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones,” and Irvine’s arresting prose continues throughout this unrelenting memoir that chronicles the period of turmoil in her life following her father’s death and during her marriage to a man she describes as the “lion man.” 

Irvine frames her experience against the history of her homeland, the desert of Utah, structuring it with sections named for archaeological terms that summon the symbols and archetypes of the Southwest’s prehistoric inhabitants.  These terms gather increasing weight as Irvine relates them to her own life, continually adding and peeling back layers, as though excavating an archaeological site.  As she refers to the past to inform her present struggle, she summons not only the Anasazi and Basketmakers, but her own ancestors, including her great-great-great grandfather, who was among the founders of the Mormon Church.  Mormon history and doctrine also add dimension, as Irvine outlines its place in the history of San Juan County, Utah, part of the Mormon promised land called Deseret.  The most acute conflict in the book stems from Irvine’s opposing desires to both establish community with her neighbors, and to identify with her belief in wilderness protection and the land’s sacrality—convictions that place her at odds with the rest of the population who are largely religious and culturally conservative ranchers.

In this interview, Irvine discusses the book’s shift in intention and its evolution from an “environmental rant” to an exploration of our shared culpability and responsibility to our environment. 

Trespass is a narrative infused with tension, as Irvine details the internal pull she feels from the conflicting lifestyles and beliefs of the centuries of inhabitants who share only the land in common. Ultimately, the desert is as much the focus as the author herself, and she conjures its images with fierce passion and intimacy, unafraid to implicate herself among those who inhabit it, living imperfectly and seeking transcendence.

Irvine’s intimate knowledge of her home’s history and landscape inspired me to learn more about mine.  If you enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, nature writing with edge or tough, intricate memoirs, you should check this book out, and even go ahead and listen to Amy Irvine read an excerpt.


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Trespass or Tarot?

There are lots of ways to pick your next readbooklists, databases like NoveList, reviews, conversations with friends, staff picks or asking a librarian.  Choosing what to read is a big commitment.  That book will be my bus partner, my pastime and a destination for wandering thoughts.  I want to make the perfect choice.  Put simply, I’m really picky.

I prefer to base my selection on the book alone by browsing while I shelve.  To show you what I mean, I’ll walk you through a recent browsing/shelving excursion in the New Non Fiction section, and my choice between two books: Tresspass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine or The Devil, the Lovers, and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach. 

1.  First, a book has to make an impression with a catchy title, fascinating subject or gorgeous cover.  Both examples passed this first step.  Trespass was immediately arresting with its taboo-sounding title that references religion and its intricate woodcut-style jacket illustration of animals and a shaman-like woman overlooking a city (by artist Cathie Bleck).  The Devil, The Lovers, and Me caught my attention with its bright yellow cover overlayed with Tarot cards and paisley and its blend of memoir with the mysterious and occult. 

2.  While I may scan review blurbs on the cover  of the book for familiar authors’ names, I don’t rely on them.  No publisher would excerpt a bad review right on the book, and the quips usually abound with the same seven adjectives.  I skip the jacket description, too, because I like to discover the plot as it unfolds. 

Instead, I look to the table of contents to glean subject matter and the author’s creativity.  Both books in question use interesting thematic structures.  Irvine’s chapter titles reference archaeological terms, so the actual content remains veiled, but the metaphorical frame is alluring.  Auerbach entitles each chapter after a Tarot figure, so her book also boasts an intriguing extra dimension.

3.  So far, both books are tied.  For the final test, I read the first sentence, page or chapter.  Of all the aspects that make a good book, I value writing style most.  If the language is vivid, poetic and original, I’ll probably read it.  Here’s what Trespass offers in its prologue: 

“My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones.  There are two reasons I came here: my father’s death, and the lion man who prowled my dreams.  Perhaps it was coincidence, but a man—half wild, ravenous beyond words—slid from the dream world into the mud of the waking one the same year my father left this world for another.” 

Personification of the land? Bones?  Feral dream men?  I’m sold. 

The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, didn’t stand up quite as well: 

Cement lions.  I’m a Leo.  It’s a sign! . . . Apartment #9.  Nine is my favorite number!  I push the button, and she buzzes me in a second later without asking my name.  Of course.  She’s clairvoyant.  Or the intercom is broken.  What if the intercom is broken?  What if she lets anybody in?  What if the man on the street comes in after me?  Calm down.  There are lions.  There’s the #9.”

While it introduces a similar mysticism, the writing is much more casual, which can make for compelling tension, but exclamation points make me skeptical. 

In the end, I checked out both books.  One chapter into The Devil, the Lovers, and Me, however, I returned the book because the premise wasn’t enough to hold my attention over the less captivating writing.  I’m still reading Trespass, though–and enjoying it.


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Breathing, Smiling, Walking, Talking Books.

Last week, I was forwarded this article about a library in London where patrons can borrow people for one-half hour chats.  Borrow people, you say?  Yes, borrow people.  Several Londoners volunteered to participate in Living Library program where, as a patron, you can “check out your prejudice.” 

The idea is beautifully simple:  volunteers are cataloged as “books” and tagged with various stereotypical descriptions related to that volunteer’s identity.  Patrons ask a librarian to borrow one of the “books” and then the patron and “book” have a 30-minute conversation with the goals of breaking down barriers and of increasing tolerance.  When the thirty minutes are up, the patron returns the “book” to the librarian.

After I read the article, I just couldn’t stop thinking about this concept and wondering, could we have a program like this here at Main?  I invite you to comment here and let us know what your thoughts are.  If we had a program like this, what living book might you volunteer to be?  What living book would you want to check out?

In the meantime, check out one of our non-breathing books.  We have many autobiographies and memoirs on our shelves.  Read about someone who is Black, White and Jewish or read about the experience of a Person with a Transgender Spouse.  Perhaps you have questions for a Christian Voter or an African-American Single Mom.  Or maybe you just feel like “hassling” a Celebrity.

Comments and thoughts?



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The “It’s all good,” all-you-can-read, Eleventh Stack book buffet

Frequently, we library folks are asked to recommend a “good” book.  While we’re always happy to do this, the definition of “good” sometimes becomes a sticking point.

For example, in my personal readerly universe, the prospect of spending a few hours with Chicago’s only practicing wizard, Harry Dresden, is decidedly “good.” You, however, may prefer old-school gumshoes. And it’s quite possible that you’d really be happy with something else, or maybe even something else entirely.

Luckily, no matter how you conceive of “good,” we can probably fill the bill.  Like short stories? It’s all good . Wish to dabble in matters poetical? It’s all good.  Jonesing for a good yarn about evolution, mountain climbing, and yetis? Seriously, it’s still all good.

Many people strongly feel that “good” is a word reserved for classic fiction; while it certainly applies there, “good” is also a word valued by countless non-fiction aficianados, who enjoy true tales of murder, adventure, or celebrity shenanigans. “Good” can encompass every aspect of the human experience, and librarians have a professional obligation to actively seek out what “good” means for you, as well as for the person sitting next to you on the bus, your next-door neighbors, etc.

In the final analysis, whether you’re looking for books about  professional ethics, Cyrano de Bergerac, or something else entirely, please come ask us, and don’t be afraid to tell us what you think is “good.” Because it really is all good. And it’s all right here, at your library.

Leigh Anne, with suggested titles from the Eleventh Stack team, and apologies to Don for borrowing his catchphrase.

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