Briefing Books: Short stories, poetry, laughter and heartbreak

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The great critic George Steiner was never one to mince words. "Books," he pronounced, are "the best antidote against the marsh-gas of boredom and vacuity." Few book lovers who would argue with that.

So, if you're a local author of fiction, nonfiction or poetry published recently, send a copy along with an email contact or website information to: Tony Norman, Book Editor, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Please, no PDFs, self-help books, recipes or rants against the New World Order. We're respectable editors around here:

• "The Proper Words for Sin" by Gary Fincke (Candalia Press/West Virginia University Press). Flannery O'Connor Award winner Gary Fincke crams the full spectrum of the human condition into the 11 short stories gathered in "The Proper Words for Sin." The author, who teaches at Susquehanna University just north of Harrisburg and grew up near Pittsburgh, uses the ordinary lives and circumstances of his characters to cast shadows over larger events such as the JFK assassination, the Challenger disaster and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. While ratcheting up the anxiety, Mr. Fincke's poetic sensibility never allows him to craft a hyperventilating word. This is thoughtful, morally engaged fiction at its best. >

• "Painting a Disappearing Canvas" by Mark Saba (Grayson Books). There are poets who exercise admirable restraint, yet somehow manage to squeeze in a lot of images between the lines. Former Pittsburgher Mark Saba falls into this category. His language is rich and imagistic, but nuanced; tender, yet suspicious of false sentiment. A few poems touch on Pittsburgh in this collection, but most are about other states of mind and being. "Painting a Disappearing Canvas" is sublimity guaranteed to linger. > and

• "Sandy Cove: A Love Story" by Steven Recht (CreateSpace). There's a lot of beauty in a resort community in the Outer Banks, but death and heartbreak wait in the wings. Tom Ralston, the novel's protagonist, counted on an uninterrupted series of happy years with his wife to give his life meaning. That storybook ending was cruelly dashed in the novel's opening chapters. Inevitable heartache eventually gave way to Tom's renewed determination to reconnect with the friends he lost touch with while luxuriating in the love of his now-dead wife. This is a melancholy look at friendships in the process of becoming something deeper. > Amazon and Barnes & Noble; as an ebook on ibookstore

• "Below Average Genius" by Michael Buzzelli (Llumina Press). Michael Buzzelli writes a humor column for the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. -- and he's pretty funny. "Below Average Genius" is a collection of his funniest columns which effortlessly live up to the book's droll title. A stand-up comedian by disposition and aspiration, Mr. Buzzelli is a whiz at word play. He's a natural and confident storyteller whether riffing on baby names, corporate buzz words or bad television. His tales about life in Hollywood are hilarious, though capable of stumbling into the poignant when you least expect it. Open to any random page and you're almost guaranteed to find something to laugh at -- honest. > Available at Amazon and on Kindle;

• "Jonathan and the Flying Broomstick" by Marilyn Marsh Noll; illustrated by Florence Chan (Sunlight and Shadow Press). This is an illustrated children's book about a little boy named Jonathan and his unlikely friendship with a little blue lizard. Jonathan and the lizard are thick as thieves and do everything together. Soon, the blue lizard introduces Jonathan to the art of flying a broomstick. It isn't long before witches notice Jonathan and the blue lizard riding a broom together, which is forbidden. Instead of flying away in terror after being challenged, Jonathan and the lizard try to persuade the witches to the practicality of their flying arrangement. This is one of the more offbeat children's books I've ever read. Highly recommended. >;

Pulitzer Prize roundup

Last Monday, Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son," a novel about a North Korean man who attempts to live a dignified life in a totalitarian regime, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. "The Orphan Master's Son" was one of the first books I tweeted about based on an advance copy that fell into my lap. The book is amazing in both scope and execution. Last year, no Pulitzer was awarded for fiction. The jury named three finalists (Denis Johnson, Karen Russell, David Foster Wallace), but their recommendations were rejected by the board. Recognizing Adam Johnson's novel is good for both the Pulitzers and literature.

The Pulitzer judges also recognized "Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam" by Fredrick Logevall and "The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo" by Tom Reiss.

"Stag's Leap" by Sharon Olds won for poetry. Gilbert King's "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America" won for general nonfiction. Bernard Bailyn's brilliant "The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675" was a finalist, which makes me feel there's some justice in this world.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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