Book News: It's a new ballgame at literary events

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Literary readings are not the stuffy, uptight affairs that some people think they are. Sure, there's usually a little formality to them -- respectful, attentive audiences that are quiet and, if some nod off, they keep the snoring at a minimum.

Lately, though, the behavior at several readings has reached the anarchy of the multiplex movie crowd.

Maybe it started at the George Saunders' reading Oct. 1 with the guy in front of me eating french fries and passing them around to his friends while the author read on earnestly.

The scene was the Frick Fine Arts auditorium for Pitt's Contemporary Writers Series, so we give the kid a pass because he's a college student and he don't know no better.

It went from fries to a little black dog at the Heinz Fiction Prize ceremony Oct. 17 at the Frick. After I sat down for winner Kirk Nesset's reading, I heard a muffled yip behind me and, sure enough, two women had brought Fifi along for the festivities.

I'm not sure if the pooch was fed from the reception table after the talk.

Now, in a long career of hearing authors, I can say I got to hear a dog, too.

The next day, I was privileged to hear a cell-phone conversation as Ellen Litman read from her debut novel, "The Last Chicken in America," at the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library.

That's right. Not only did a woman sitting in the first row forget to turn the thing off, as is customary and polite, she then answered it and chatted for a while as a clearly distracted Litman carried on.

Litman, a teacher in the creative writing department at the University of Connecticut, immigrated to Squirrel Hill from Moscow in 1992 and finished her degree at Pitt. "The Last Chicken in America," which has begun to garner positive reviews in the national press, is structured as a novel in linked stories about the lives of Russian Jewish immigrants in Pittsburgh.

Litman said she's now writing a traditional novel set in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Poetry in the Pitt

There's a lot of life left in October in what has been one of the busiest literary falls in some time around here.

Two evenings of poetry open tonight at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium as part of the University of Pittsburgh's Contemporary Writers Series.

Allison Joseph and Jan Freeman take the stage at 8:30 p.m. today. Joseph, director of the graduate writing program at Southern Illinois University, has a Pittsburgh publishing link. Two of her books -- "Soul Train" and "Imitation of Life" -- were published by Carnegie Mellon University Press and another, "In Every Seam," bears the Pitt Press imprint.

Freeman is founder of Paris Press, which published her collection, "Simon Says," in 2000.

Two more poets who also work in publishing are on the program at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow. Martha Rhodes is founding editor of Four Way Books based in New York City and author of three poetry collections. Joining her is Alice Ossmann, executive director of Alice James Books, a collective that began in 1973. Rhodes' press just published her collection, "Anxious Music."

The four will present a seminar on poetry publishing tomorrow at 2 p.m. in Room 501, Cathedral of Learning.

All programs are free and open to the public.

Journal celebrated

Chatham University's graduate writing program throws a faculty reading Thursday at 8:30 p.m. in the school's Art Gallery in Woodlawn Hall. The occasion is the release of its literary journal, Fourth River. The program's free; 412-365-1190.

A new voice on Coal Hill

In the journal department, Autumn House Press is now publishing Coal Hill Review, an online poetry publication and is seeking submissions for its spring edition. The deadline is Feb. 15. For details, visit

Autumn House is headquartered on Mount Washington, first called Coal Hill by the early settlers.

Book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.


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