All Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh locations will be closed on Wednesday, December 24, Thursday, December 25 and Thursday, January 1, 2015. In addition, the Library will close at 5 pm Wednesday, December 31, 2014.
small text medium text large text

Jane's Picks



 
Book Cover for The Dinner Koch, Herman
The Dinner

Fiction
Well, this is a first for me: I can’t really say that I enjoyed The Dinner, or that I could even strongly recommend it to any of our customers, and yet it is a book that has haunted me since I read it a few months ago. Two couples meet for dinner to discuss a gruesome crime their teenage sons have recently committed. Guilt and innocence, privilege and entitlement, crime and punishment are all relative concepts to these people, and it is easy to see how their children have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. I was disturbed by nearly everything about this story, but I can’t stop thinking about it. The credit must be given to Koch, who is a fine writer and managed to hold my attention even though I found that I didn’t care about any of the characters, which is usually essential to my enjoyment of a story. Are there really people like this out in the world? This is an unsettling story, and although I was often repulsed by the behavior of these characters — well, it’s been several months since I first read the book, and I’m still talking about it.
Recommended October 2013

 
Book Cover for The Burgess Boys Strout, Elizabeth
The Burgess Boys

Fiction
The three Burgess siblings – Jim and twins Bob and Susan – have survived a childhood trauma and are now navigating the dangerous waters of middle age. Susan has remained in their Maine hometown while the brothers live and work in New York City. The title of the book doesn’t include Susan because it is Susan’s teenage son whose clueless and criminal behavior pushes the siblings, unwillingly, back into one another’s lives. Jim is the family’s big success story, a flashy attorney who has become famous defending a high-profile client. Susan’s marriage has fallen apart, followed quickly by the rest of her life. Brother Bob is the heart and soul of the story, as well as the family, yet his brother and sister spend too much precious time pushing him away. As in all families, the family bond is complicated – fundamentally, this is a love story. Strout is a master at showing the interior lives of people, their search for a place in the family unit and in the world. Her earlier work, Olive Kitteridge, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and she again demonstrates her mastery of the human heart. She draws such clear pictures of these people that we anticipate what will happen to them before they do.
Recommended June 2013

 
Rash, Ron
Nothing Gold Can Stay

Short Stories
These stories, all set in the fierce beauty of the North Carolina mountains, are literary gems. Rash’s cast of characters includes a struggling young couple who are willing to bet it all at a local casino, a pompous British folksong expert who meets his match in the backwoods, a convict on a chain gang who charms a sweet young thing at a remote farm and thinks he’s found his way out, and a frustrated accountant who decides to cure his sexual dysfunction with a homemade remedy using the paw of a freshly killed bear. Nothing works out the way these people expect, and that’s what makes these stories so delicious. And there’s another story here of a young woman who drowns in a river, and we see what she sees as she’s dragged down through the darkness. It’s tender and beautiful. Rash knows how to weave a tale, and these stories are haunting and tough. Can’t wait for his next collection.
Recommended May 2013

 
Book Cover for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie Mathis, Ayana
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

Fiction
Hattie Shepherd has married the wrong man, and the decision to move with him from the Jim Crow South of Georgia to Philadelphia doesn’t turn her life in the right direction. It’s the 1920s, and African-Americans are moving North to begin life in a supposedly non-segregated environment. Hattie and her husband August join this migration, but after losing her first two babies to illness she loses her joy in living and her hope for the future. Nine more babies can’t stop the pain, and each grows up with his own story of despair and frustration. These eleven children (and one grandchild) are Hattie’s "twelve tribes", and each child’s story is highlighted in the twelve chapters of the story. Hattie can feed and clothe them all (barely), but cannot seem to love any of them. All of her children author their own disappointments, but it is their mother’s remoteness that keeps them from discovering how to start again. These stories are grim, but the writing is fine, spare yet descriptive, and the tales are captivating. "Grim" is the word I keep using when I describe this book to potential readers, but I believe it’s a book worth reading, especially because it illustrates an important time in American life. For a thorough history of this period, I also recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award winner The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, a spectacular nonfiction account of this period.
Recommended February 2013

 
Book Cover for The Light Between Oceans Stedman, M.L.
The Light Between Oceans

Fiction
Tom Sherbourne has survived the horrors of World War I, and now he returns to Australia to put the horrors of war behind him. He takes a position as a lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast, a job he believes will give his life purpose and the solitary existence he craves. But on a trip to the mainland he meets Isabel, a woman who will marry him and share the stark beauty of life on the island. Two miscarriages and a stillborn child seem to end their dream of starting a family, and then a small boat with two passengers washes up on their shore. The man is dead but the baby in his arms is alive. Tom is certain that as a government employee he must immediately report the incident to his superiors. But Isabel, in her profound grief, convinces Tom to put their own happiness ahead of the uncertain future the child might face. What happens when fundamentally good people make disastrous choices? What is the nature of forgiveness? Is it really more difficult to forgive than to seek revenge? And who deserves happiness? Beautiful descriptions of the Australian coast, fascinating – really – explanations of the inner workings of lighthouses, and deftly drawn supporting characters add dimension and realism to the novel. A wonderful, sad story that ends the only way it can – with broken hearts all around.
Recommended December 2012

 
Book Cover for Breed Novak, Chase
Breed

Horror
If you like to read in bed before sleeping, or if reading is your way to unwind at the end of the day, do not try this one. Or at least wait until daylight. Alex and Leslie Twisden live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and have everything money can buy, except a biological heir to the family’s massive fortune. Desperate to conceive, they travel to Slovenia to visit the truly creepy and highly recommended Dr. Kis, who promises instant fertility. After an excruciating and gruesome session in the doctor’s office, Leslie is pregnant. The birth of the Twisden twins (or was it triplets?) is merely the beginning of the story. Ten years later the family is still living in New York City, but the once palatial Twisden mansion is now in ruins, family pets are constantly “misplaced,” and the terrified children sleep behind locked doors each night. Following a clever escape, the children must convince other adults in their world that their parents are the enemy. But Alex Twisden is smart, freakishly fast and strong, and anticipates their maneuvers through the city. This is a tale that is part Hansel and Gretel, part Rosemary’s Baby, and all horrifying.
Recommended November 2012

 
Book Cover for The Imperfectionists Rachman, Tom
The Imperfectionists

Fiction
Cyrus Ott decides to establish a small English-language newspaper in Rome in 1953. The long-term survival of newspapers is uncertain, but Ott, with his own agenda, moves ahead and staffs his paper with handpicked writers, editors, and executives. But this really isn’t a story about the obsolescence of the printed word. In fact, most of the employees seem eerily unconcerned and disconnected from the paper’s fate. It’s the story of the people whose lives intersect at the paper, professionally and personally. Each chapter is its own short story, and we learn about the ambitions, the terrors, and the souls of each of these newspaper people. Twenty pages into this book, I knew I’d be recommending it to everyone I know who loves clear prose and the wonders of human nature. You’ll have your own favorite character – mine was the aging war correspondent, still looking for that one big story that will catapult him to his Pulitzer Prize as he looks for his next free meal or place to crash. Can’t get to Rome this year? Grab a glass of iced tea and enjoy this wonderful book this summer.
Recommended July 2010

 
Book Cover for The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession Grann, David
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession

Non-fiction
Murder? Madness? Obsession? What three better lures can entice a reader to these fascinating essays? Each of the essays stands alone, but all are connected by these themes. David Grann, staff writer for The New Yorker, introduces a Sherlock Holmes scholar found dead under mysterious circumstances. Clues abound. Murder most foul? Something else? Grann then tells of a recently executed murderer on Texas’ death row. Justice or a terrible legal mistake? A French con-artist passes himself off as the missing son of an American family, and nearly gets away with it. Why does he do it, and why does the family go along with the charade? A New York City firefighter can’t recall what happened to him during the first furious moments in Manhattan on 9/11. The only survivor of his company, he wonders why. Other essays tell of an obsessed New Zealand giant squid hunter, an American baseball legend struggling for one more shot at the big leagues, and the working life of the men who build and maintain New York City’s crumbling sewer system. Well-written, filled with detail, never dull, this collection will leave you with more questions than answers, giving you plenty of jumping off places to read more about these fascinating people.
Recommended June 2010

 
Book Cover for The Murder Room James, P. D.
The Murder Room

Mystery
What do long winter days and long airline flights have in common? Both offer wonderful opportunities to pass the time with a good book, and especially a good mystery. James’ Commander Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard is assigned to a grisly murder that may or may not have a connection to MI5, the UK’s Homeland Security division. There is definitely a copycat killer at work with his (or her) inspiration coming from a quirky museum in the English countryside. The Dupayne Museum is a small family affair, and when a charred body is discovered on the museum grounds, the family provides plenty of suspects. Employees, volunteers, unhappy children, and rejected lovers keep the Commander and his interview team busy. Stir in a poignant old-fashioned romance, add a surprising touch of 21st century love and lust, and most certainly a few gruesome crime scenes, and you’ll wish that your flight were delayed just a bit longer.
Recommended April 2010

 
Book Cover for Let the Great World Spin McCann, Colum
Let the Great World Spin

Fiction
An ordinary summer morning in New York City, 1974. Suddenly a crowd gathers in lower Manhattan and all eyes focus on the top of the World Trade Center towers. A man, it appears, has rigged a cable between the towers and is walking, now running, now dancing in the air. For a few moments strangers on the streets of the city are connected to Philip Petit and what will become an extraordinary American event. Meanwhile, an ambulance races to the scene of a gruesome car accident, and nearly no one notices. Against the backdrop of this summer of Watergate, the first aftershocks of the Vietnam War, and the seedy pre-Guiliani streets of Manhattan, lives intersect, some briefly and some profoundly. A resilient prostitute mother/daughter team, immigrant Irish brothers, an artist and his wife, and grieving parents all find their way through various kinds of pain on this day. “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.”
Recommended February 2010

 
Book Cover for A Handful of Dust Waugh, Evelyn
A Handful of Dust

Fiction
The story of Percy Fawcett’s disappearance in the Amazon was still fresh in the minds of the British in 1934 when Evelyn Waugh wrote this searing indictment of manners, morals, and marriage. Tony Last describes himself as the happiest man on earth, living comfortably on his family estate, spending his days hunting, and sharing this world with his beautiful wife and child. As his domestic life falls apart, he can neither comprehend what has gone wrong nor deal with what comes next. He decides to travel to the Amazon to find some peace and discovers something else entirely. The last few pages of this story are unforgettable, as is Waugh’s delicious prose.
Recommended January 2010

 
Book Cover for The Lost City of Z Grann, David
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Nonfiction
Percy Fawcett, gentleman explorer on assignment from the Royal Geographical Society of London, disappeared in the jungles of Brazil sometime during 1925. His search for the treasures of what he termed the Lost City of Z or El Dorado ended in tragedy, but his travels inspired others to return to South America to search for him and his lost party. Hundreds of these searchers also died in their quest to find Fawcett and the fabled lost civilization he was convinced lay somewhere in the jungle. Recently named one of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2009, this story is a fascinating look at the bravery and self-reliance of Fawcett, who traveled to an uncharted wilderness with few provisions and a simple compass. Fawcett’s story has inspired future generations of explorers and artists, including Evelyn Waugh whose novel A Handful of Dust is reviewed below.
Recommended January 2010

 
Book Cover for Black and White and Dead All Over Darnton, John
Black and White and Dead All Over

Mystery
The New York Globe is a fictional big city newspaper struggling with the real problem of how a print daily can retain its place in the changing world of journalism. This is the setting for a few extremely creepy murders. When the paper’s assistant managing editor is murdered in a deliciously macabre manner, the list of suspects is long and keeps growing longer. Young and ambitious reporter Jude Hurley is covering the story for the Globe and sets out to unravel the mystery with the help of an energetic and eye-catching NYPD detective. Darnton creates a thinly veiled cast of newsroom characters (Nat Dreck, snarky internet columnist, for example), and part of the fun is trying to figure out the famous people he’s hidden on the Globe’s staff and on the ever-expanding list of suspects. Even if you can’t decipher all the characters, this whodunit is a good one.
Recommended August 2009

 
Book Cover for Hemingses of Monticello Gordon-Reed, Annette
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Nonfiction
This year’s Pulitzer Prize for History was awarded to this scholarly investigation of eighteenth and early nineteenth century American life through the filter of American slavery. While the life of the Hemings family is certainly bonded to the life of Thomas Jefferson, it is the story of the African-American side of this tangled family tree that is the centerpiece here. Beginning with the “unnamed African woman” who became the grandmother of Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s “concubine,” in the language of the newspapers of the day, other members of this family are given historical importance. In addition to the Hemings family story, Gordon-Reed gives a vivid and carefully researched vision of daily life for both the elite and the enslaved in early America. You won’t forget her graphic description of the first crude–yet amazingly successful–attempts at smallpox inoculations.
Recommended June 2009

 
Book Cover for This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War Faust, Drew Gilpin
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Nonfiction
Until the latter half of the 19th century, most Americans were born, married, and died in the same town or city, and sometimes even in the same house. In fact, families rarely traveled more than a few miles from the homestead or the town center. The Civil War changed all that, and for the first time American families were denied the ritual of spending last days and moments with their loved ones, and even more traumatic, sometimes never learned where their family members had died, how they died, or where they were buried. Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and a Civil War scholar, has written an absorbing examination of how the slaughter and death during our American Civil War forever altered how we view the process of dying, and even changed our conception of life after death. Desperate to know whether their sons and husbands died a Victorian “good death” – a death marked by some sort of religious blessing at the moment of passage – survivors began long, frustrating, and often unsuccessful journeys to find the remains of their family members and provide a family burial. Bodies were often buried in mass graves at the site of the battles, and it was the mission of grieving family members to find a way to identity and return these bodies to family cemeteries. The Civil War also saw the beginnings of the embalming industry, military cemeteries, and charlatans who preyed on the grief of family members by claiming to be able to reach their loved ones through séances – for a price, of course. Before the Civil War, most Christians defined life-after-death as the presence of God in some sort of heavenly bliss. Following the trauma of the Civil War, this definition was expanded to include the reuniting of family members after death, and the promise of heaven embraced the face-to-face reconstruction of the family. Praised by The New York Times as one of the Ten Best Books of 2008, this fascinating history adds an interesting dimension to our expanding knowledge of 19th century American life.
Recommended May 2009

 
Book Cover for The Complete Stories of Truman Capote Capote, Truman
The Complete Stories of Truman Capote

Short Stories
The recent death of John Updike reminds me that there was a time in American life when some of the most famous and admired persons in American culture weren’t movie stars or singers or vapid heiresses (although we did have Zsa Zsa Gabor, didn’t we?). Writers were our rock stars, and no American writer of the 20th century embraced and squandered his talent and popularity more than Truman Capote (1924-1984). If you only know his name from his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood or from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance in Capote or from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then prepare to be dazzled. The stories in this collection are about many things, some personal, some universal. But it’s Capote’s prose style that is the reason to read and reread these stories. I can’t begin to guess how many books I’ve read during my lifetime, but I can tell you that there are only a handful that make me read just to savor the poetry of the language. The poignancy of his unhappy life and early death lends an eerie quality to the prose. It's the dissonance that makes the reading so bittersweet – to know that his luscious writing style and heartbreaking observations came from such a sad, troubled soul. Fellow Capote lovers (and there are many of us here at CLP) have their favorite Capote stories. My favorite is “A Christmas Memory,” a childhood remembrance of baking fruitcakes with an elderly cousin in the backwoods of Louisiana, and it is included in this collection. To learn more about Capote, Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, is regarded as the best history of the author. Used as source material for the film Capote, it is diligently researched and beautifully written. Enjoy.
Recommended April 2009

 
Book Cover for Rhett Butler’s People McCaig, Donald
Rhett Butler’s People

Fiction
As many times as I’ve watched Gone with the Wind, there’s a part of me that always hopes Rhett Butler will change his mind, put down his bag, and sweep Scarlett O’Hara back up that staircase. McCaig’s story doesn’t change the outcome of Margaret Mitchell’s book, but it does fill in the back-story of Butler’s misspent youth in Charleston, highlights his troubled relationship with his father, and follows the circuitous path that leads him back to Tara. While GWTW purists may balk at the irreverent suggestion of a happy ending for these two characters, McCaig makes a convincing argument that they do, indeed, deserve each other. Filled with rich historical details, the question is, frankly, will you give a damn? I think so.
Recommended February 2009

 
Book Cover for Daughter of Fortune Allende, Isabel
Daughter of Fortune

Fiction
I’ve loved Isabel Allende's writing since The House of the Spirits, and her mixture of South American history, romance, adventure, and fantasy continues here. Set in Chile and San Francisco, the daughter of the title is Eliza Sommers, abandoned on a doorstep and then adopted by a brother and sister in nineteenth century Valparaiso. Eliza travels from Chile to America as a stowaway to find her lover who has abandoned her and her unborn child. Along the way, she rekindles a friendship with Tao Chi’en, a Chinese doctor whose devotion and love take her on another sort of unexpected journey. Allende mixes the temporal and the sensual with the fantastic and we often wonder where the narrative ends and the fantasy begins. No matter, really – what‘s important here is the tale and it’s a lovely one.
Recommended January 2009

 
Icaza, Jorge
The Villagers (Huasipungo)

Fiction
Arguably Ecuador’s most famous literary lion, Jorge Icaza shines a light on the horrific living and working conditions of Ecuador’s most vulnerable citizens, its indigenous Indian population. Reviled upon its publishing and the subject of an attempted ban within Ecuador, The Villagers (Huasipungo) is as illustrative of the horrors of workers, who never will be able to make a living, in the same way that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was in our own country (both books were published in the 1930s). Icaza places the blame on many shoulders – the wealthy landowners, government officials, the police, and the Catholic Church, all part of the larger social problem of racism. Icaza follows the story of ruthless businessman Don Alfonso who makes a deal with wealthy foreign investors to build a road through a forest which contains the hovels of his native workers. By supplying the workers with alcohol during a religious celebration, Don Alfonso assures that the workers won’t be paying attention as rising flood waters force them out of their homes. When workers, women, and children drown, it’s all in a day’s work. Yet there is great beauty in this land, and the novel shows us this beauty as well.
Recommended December 2008

 
Book Cover for The Art of Racing in the Rain Stein, Garth
The Art of Racing in the Rain

Fiction
First of all, let me say that (with the glowing exception of Bugs Bunny, lapin magnifique) I don’t appreciate anthropomorphism in film or literature. Secondly, I am not a dog lover, but a dog liker under only the most well-controlled circumstances. Well, now I’ve found another exception to my no-talking-animals rule – Enzo, the wonder lab, the narrator of this quirky story about love, death, auto racing, and what we all might learn from those who never speak to us in words. As Enzo ponders his life on the eve of his final trip to the vet’s, we see how he has learned more about living as a human than most of the humans in his world. Fully prepared to be reincarnated as homo sapiens the next time around, Enzo convinces us that he deserves to be a real live boy. Of course, perhaps life as a dog will always be superior to that of a person, but he knows that part of the joy of life is to love so well that you are guaranteed to have your heart broken. He also knows that promises are meant to be kept, and he is a faithful friend to Denny, Denny's doomed wife Eve, and their daughter Zoe. Hilarious, poignant, and chock full of inside information about how to handle a race car, you’ll be recommending this book, too.
Recommended November 2008