Tag Archives: Wes

Black Holes and Gadgets

Are you interested in discussing the mysteries of the human mind? Do you have questions about the latest eReader technology? If so, mark your calendars for these two upcoming library events.

The first is Black Holes, Beakers, and Books, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s popular science book club. The book club’s theme for Spring 2011 is Best Science Books of 2010. Black Holes members chose three of the most highly esteemed science books of 2010 to read and discuss. The second book, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, will be discussed this Sunday, March 20th, 2011 from 3:30-4:30pm in the Director’s Conference Room at CLP – Main.

Oliver Sacks is well-known for his terrific books on abnormal psychology, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia. His latest explores the connection between vision and mind, focusing on six clinical tales that demonstrate how vision impairment influences the way we perceive reality. It’s worth mentioning, too, that someone new will be taking over the club, and you’ll have an opportunity to meet her at the next meeting.

Also, on Saturday, April 2nd from 12:00-2:00pm, my colleague Sarah and I will be hosting a Gadget Lab in the Quiet Reading Room of the First Floor: New and Featured Department. The Gadget Lab will give you the opportunity to stop by and get your hands on some eReaders, tablet computers, and MP3 players. You’re also welcome to bring your own gadget so we can help you understand how it works. And, we’ll be able to give you a tour of the Library’s eResources, including Overdrive, where you can borrow free eBooks, eAudio, and eVideo.

I hope you can make it out to both of these programs!


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An Introduction to Some Great Contemporary Horror Short Story Writers

Horror seems to be best in short form. Sure, we’ve got Stephen King and The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby as shining examples of the success of the novelization of horror, but the really great stuff, the stuff that lies in wait beneath the mainstream, the stuff you can be pretentious about, comes in the form of the short story.

Great short horror is usually also the stuff you have to discover or be introduced to. Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen come to mind as examples of classic horror short story writers that I stumbled upon or was told about.  I’m writing now to introduce you to a few great contemporary horror short story writers — via examples of their short story collections — that have stood out as I’ve purchased books for the New and Featured Department’s horror collection:

Tales of Pain and Wonder by Caitlin Kiernan — I’ve probably mentioned Kiernan’s novel The Red Tree at least fifty times while writing for this blog. Sometimes, I feel like every blog post I write should be about that book. Yes, it was that good. It was a revelation. However, among underground horror aficionados, Kiernan is probably best known for her short stories. Tales of Pain and Wonder is filled with short stories that are dark and violent, yet beautifully written.

Occultation by Laird Barron — The first short story of Barron’s I read was “Catch Hell,” which is collected in another great horror short story collection, Lovecraft Unbound. That story reminded me of Lovecraft meets The Wicker Man. Indeed, Barron does a great job of mixing Lovecraft with a kind of pagan revelry; just check out the cover of Occultation to get a feel for what I mean.

Tempting Providence and Other Stories by Jonathan Thomas — Here’s a book of horror short stories about Providence, RI, the hometown of the man himself, H. P. Lovecraft. See those tentacles twisting around the cover of the book? That’s a good sign that Thomas knows what he’s talking about. But seriously, the Lovecraft inspiration aside, this is a strong collection of short stories from Hippocampus Press, which is a very important independent horror publisher to pay attention to. I first learned about them because of the next book . . .

Seven Deadly Pleasures by Michael Aronovitz — . . . which Hippocampus published and which really freaked me out while I was reading it on a creepy, overcast fall day last year. The stories in this collection feel, in a lot of ways, like episodes of Tales from the Darkside, or some similar dark, episodic horror television show. Every story, that is, but the last one, “The Toll Booth,” which was so terribly realistic that I still think of it and feel disturbed.

Consider this a sample of all the great short story collections and writers the New and Featured horror collection has to offer. Are there any other great horror short story writers or collections you’d like to introduce me to?


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


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For the Love of Trains

I come from a train family. My great-grandfather worked on the Delaware and Hudson Railway for 47 years, and literally died on its tracks. He instilled in my father a love for trains, and my father did the same for me when I was a child. Now, I intend to pass a love for trains on to my own son.

My love for trains lay dormant for awhile as I pursued other interests as a teenager and twenty-something. But those transient years apparently weren’t enough to wipe trains from my memory. As I’ve emerged into adulthood, trains have again become one of my biggest interests. Why? I have a few ideas that I think most train buffs will be able to relate to:

1. The Power. Trains are an engineering marvel that helped build the world, and it’s easy to be awestruck by a 1,600 horsepower diesel engine (or several) pulling hundreds of cars filled with thousands of tons of coal or freight. The power of trains is what brings out the child in us as we’re humbled by their might. At the same time, this power reminds us of the greatness that people can achieve.

2.  The Artistry. Though filled with immense mechanical power, trains were also made to be aesthetically pleasing. As far as diesel engines go, I’m a big fan of the round-nosed ALCO PA’s, as seen here. But trains also add a lot to scenery; whether an industrial landscape or a wintry mountain forest, trains add beauty to the world rather than detract from it.

3. The Collectibility. Trains are utterly collectible due to the immense range of varieties that exist. And, it’s possible to collect a lot of different things related to trains, such as images of certain trains, train rides, or model trains. I attended a model train show recently, and I noted the detail with which model train collectors can become involved when a man next to me to pointed at an HO scale No. 19 Delaware and Hudson ALCO PA1 diesel engine and said “they have 19, but I need 17.” There are actually four models of these diesels, 16 through 19, and I need them all.

4. The Lineage. For all of the reasons above, a love for trains is easy to transfer to younger generations. Their power teaches; their beauty inspires; and their collectibility allows for these virtues to be physically passed along. Indeed, trains are a family thing, and even if my son should forget about his boyhood trains while he’s studying microbiology at Dartmouth, I’m sure he’ll return to them someday when he stumbles across his old train sets, and decides to pass them along to his children.

Are there any other train lovers out there?


Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


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Got a New eReader? Don’t Forget What Your Library Can Offer!

There was a major surge in the sale of eReaders this past holiday season, resulting in a significant increase of eBook downloads at public libraries. Indeed, according to Digital Library Blog — the official blog of the company, Overdrive, which supplies Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s downloadable eBooks — right around Christmas, library eBook downloads increased 93% compared to just a month earlier.

If you received an eReader during the holidays — or are interested in purchasing one — and want to know more about using it with the Library’s free resources, you should stop by one (or all) of our upcoming training sessions created by the Film and Audio Department in collaboration with the PC Center:

Gadget Lab: Wednesday, January 26th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm and Saturday, February 12th from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm — Bring your new gadget to our gadget lab and we’ll show you how to use it with the Library’s downloadable services. Don’t have a gadget of your own? Come to the lab and try out one of ours!  This event will be located in the Quiet Reading Room, and no registration is required.

Library Resources for Mobile Devices: Thursday, January 13th from 5:30-7:30 pm, and Saturday, January 22nd from 10:30 am – 12:30 pm — If you’d like to learn more about how to use the Library’s downloadable services, as well as receive a hands-on introduction to the major devices that work with these services, such as the Nook eReader or iPod Touch, then this class is for you. Both classes will be taught in the PC Center.  Registration is required, and can be completed by calling 412-622-3114.

If you can’t make it to one of these training sessions, it’s likely there will be more in the near future. In the meantime, you can always stop by the Library to ask your favorite librarian for help with your new device.


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Daydreams About Books I Need to Read

Life has lately been hectic and unsympathetic to my reading needs. Fortunately, every now and then I have a minute to daydream about the books that I’ll read when I have a chance. Here are some that have been on my mind:

Face in the Frost by John Bellairs – Bellairs, the classic author of young adult gothic horror, was one of my first favorite authors. I received his book The Treasure of Alpheus Winterbornwhich is, incidentally, about a secret treasure hidden in an old library — as a gift in 6th grade, and quickly went on to read many of his other titles, such as The Spell of the Sorcerer’s SkullAs a kid, the autumnal ambience of Bellairs’s stories did much to shape my brain into the scare-seeking adult reader I am today. Face in the Frost is an earlier Bellairs title that I discovered only recently. It’s a mashup of horror and fantasy about two wizards trying to stop a world-destroying spell, and something I need to get my hands on soon. 

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis – In an earlier post, I mentioned the “founding fathers” book club I started with a friend. We fell a little behind on our reading schedule, but when we’re both able to read again, this is the book we’ll turn to next. Founding Brothers is Ellis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about, who else, the founding fathers of the United States. Hopefully this book will reveal to me some truth about the founding fathers, something that is in short supply these days.

Cicero by Anthony Everitt – I’ve been in the mood to dive into some Roman history, and since I enjoyed Everitt’s Augustus so much — a reading that was inspired by the amazing HBO series, Rome — I hope to eventually give his Cicero a try. Everitt has a knack of writing history in a way that feels more like a story than an academic treatise. He brought Augustus to life for me, so I’m sure he can do the same for Cicero.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – My colleagues have been discussing Franzen’s latest hit a lot lately, and I’m itching to get in on the conversation. I also think it sounds like an interesting story, I’m curious about what it says about American culture, and its pretty cover is always tempting me.

Stephen King’s N by Marc Guggenheim and Alex Maleev – This is a graphic novel version of the best short story I’ve read in the last year-and-a-half or so, “N.”, from Stephen King’s short story collection, Just After Sunset. “N.” is a Lovecraftian pastiche about a man who suffers from severe OCD after accidentally stumbling across a field that contains a half-opened entrance to our world with horrible things on the other side trying to get through. A graphic version of this amazing story must be great. 

Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – Do I really want to get into a high fantasy series (Wheel of Time is the series title) that’s now thirteen books long, with no end in sight, and that most people I talk to say becomes a drag just a few books in? I guess I’m just curious to see how far I can get before I hate it.

Aftershock by Robert B. Reich – It’s true, I’m obssessed with the post-recession state of the world and what the future holds, and Reich’s book jumped out at me. Aftershock argues that a definitive structural component of the near economic future will be the decline of the American consumer class that’s been built up over the last century. With wealth and power increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, the income and influence of the majority of Americans (that’s us) will steadily decline. It’s an intriguing argument that I’d like to read more about. 

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson took over the aforementioned Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. As if he wasn’t busy enough working on that huge series, he recently published this first whopper (1,007 hardcover pages) in a new 10-part epic of his own called The Stormlight Archive. It’s about kings and weapons and magic and fights and other fantasy stuff that I enjoy.

What books have you been daydreaming about?



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Scary Haunted House Stories

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

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

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

And then the knocking started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Black Holes, Beakers, and Books, Fall 2010

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Black Holes, Beakers, and Books: Popular Science Book Club returns this fall with our fourth discussion series of three recent books about science. This series is entitled Brains & Behavior, and features the following books:

Sunday, October 17, 2010
Proust Was a Neuroscientist
by Jonah Lehrer
Can science and the arts be reconciled? Neuroscientist and Wired blogger Jonah Lehrer claims they can because artists, such as the writer Marcel Proust, often stumble upon scientific truths independently of scientists.

Sunday, November 21, 2010
Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind
by Gary Marcus
The human mind is rightfully held up as an amazing product of evolution, but it is also flawed in numerous ways. Kluge explores why, and offers tips for identifying and working around the errors our minds produce.

Sunday, December 19, 2010
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink
Bestselling author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) moves beyond simplistic notions of human motivation by exploring the latest science about what drives us, and how this science is being implemented by individuals and organizations. This series of books will come to an exciting conclusion when Daniel Pink joins us via teleconference to discuss his book!

I hope to see you there!


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Ripping Through the Curtain

In my past life as a sociologist I studied ideas that exposed the true nature of human behavior. No one and no thing was held sacred; scratch beneath the surface of society’s conventions and you’ll see people as they really are. Later, as I began reading more widely, I realized that novelists were doing this long before sociologists.

Milan Kundera argues a similar point in The Curtainhis book of essays about the novel. Beginning with Don Quixote, he argues, novelists began to draw back the social “curtain” that hides the truths of life. It’s the duty of subsequent novelists to expose even more of what the curtain hides.

Here I recommend some of my favorite novels that, for me, did more than draw back the curtain — they ripped right through it:

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse — I could include the Hesse canon in this list, but for simplicity I decided to go with the Hesse standard. Siddhartha is a fictionalized account of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment, and does a good job of introducing Hesse’s favorite themes of internal conflict and searching. Like the real Buddha’s journey, Siddhartha reveals the true nature of reality that hides behind the curtain of our worldly desires.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera — Naturally, Kundera’s best known work is a study of the truth behind the curtain, in this case the Iron Curtain. Indeed, in this and much of his other work, Kundera displays a preternatural understanding of men’s and women’s hearts and minds laid bare by the 20th century socialist political machine. 

Independent People by Halldor Laxness — I’ve bragged up Laxness’s World Light here before, so now I should mention his other great novel, Independent People. In this epic, an Icelandic farmer works hard to maintain his illusions of independence even as history conspires against him. Laxness is a master of lifting the curtain to reveal the often ridiculous nature of individual and social hubris.

The Lurker at the Threshold by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth — Ah, the ultimate rending of the curtain, in this case literally as Yog Sothoth rips through the fabric of mankind’s silly reality. Lovecraftian horror is probably not quite what Kundera has in mind, but for me—and for many others, I think—Lovecraft and fellow Cthulhu Mythos writers like Derleth exposed how puny our presumptions truly are.

What books ripped through the curtain for you?


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Ode to August 18th

August 18th is Bad Poetry Day. In honor of that fact, I’ve written a bad poem about today.


Oh, August 18th, you wretched day —
Stuck in the middle of endless summer,
Fall leaves and winter snow delayed;
How can I not think you a bummer?

But if blogging on this day must be done,
How about a little trivia, just for fun?
Know that Roberto Clemente was born today in 1934,
He played with the Pirates back when they could score.

It’s a big day for women, don’t forget:
Ninety years ago today they gained the vote
With a ratified 19th amendment.
(That’s certainly good reason to gloat.)

Today’s the day, too, for family planning,
As fifty years ago today first was sold —
All controversy notwithstanding —
The first birth control pill, Enovid, I’m told.

And let us remember Woodstock,
That most singular of events:
Ended today in ’69 three days of rock,
And lots of mud in hippies’ tents.

Comments will only be accepted in the form of bad poetry.



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(Barely) Remembering the First Gulf War

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, an event that eventually led to a 100-hour pummeling of Iraq by U. S. and coalition military forces in Operation Desert Storm. I was in seventh grade when this war happened, so my memory of the events is relegated to the rosier shades of kid-dom. Indeed, my strongest memories of the event are the endless talk of the cool-sounding Patriot and evil-sounding Scud missiles, and the Topps Desert Storm trading cards, of which I still own a few, including the Saddam Hussein and Norman Schwarzkopf cards, which are sadly worth virtually nothing.

Though the backs of the Topps cards offer some useful information, I could certainly stand to read some more rigorous analyses of this historic war. Thus, a few book recommendations for myself, and for anyone else interested in the topic:

Saddam’s War of Words: Politics, Religion, and the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait by Jerry M. Long

The Gulf War 1991 by Alastair Finlan

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Gulf War by Charles Jaco

Persian Gulf War Almanac by Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Note that this is noncirculating.)

Hollow Victory: A Contrary View of the Gulf War by Jeffrey Record

The Gulf Conflict 1990-1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order by Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh

These web resources are also interesting:

The Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Timeline, presented by the U. S. Department of Defense

An overview and analysis of Operation Desert Storm by the U. S. Navy

A terrific compilation of additional information pulled together by bibliographer Terry Kiss at Air University Library

Let me know what you remember about the war.


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