Briefing Books: Think globally, read and write locally

Here's a new column of short items about local writers and their new books

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So many books, so little space to review them. And let's face it, too little time to read everything, anyway. So what is to be done with the scores of worthy local books that come into a newspaper every year, but sink into undeserved obscurity? With apologies to Dave Eggers, sometimes the book review editor and an army of well-meaning freelancers are too shortsighted to spot a work of "staggering genius."

This space is an attempt, perhaps irredeemably feeble, to address this oversight. Sometimes, all it takes is a note to let the public know that a book it has been yearning for has finally arrived. Meanwhile, the mechanics of what gets featured in full-length reviews is byzantine, even to those of us tasked with sorting through the onslaught.

If this sounds like a semi-pre-emptive apology, it is. In defense of this space, be assured that the books featured here deserve longer treatment. Alas, resources must be allocated and reasonable opportunities for sleep and other expenditures of energy indulged. For now, this will be a space where book signings and poetry readings will also be listed. The column will aim to run weekly (with weeks off to catch up on our own reading).

Please send physical books to Book Editor, Post-Gazette (34 Blvd of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222) and other information to the email below. Small press, self-published and e-books are welcome, as are all genres, including poetry. (Please don't send manuscripts, as we don't know any good literary agents.)

Steve Hallock's "The Press March to War" (Peter Lang) is a sober, nonpartisan analysis of media complacency (and complicity) with the government during wartime. The subtitle spells out the Point Park University professor's premise in full: "Newspapers Set the Stage for Military Intervention in Post-World War II America." The Iraq debacle is Exhibit A, but it isn't an isolated folly, by any means.

• Graphic novels don't get more earnest than Howard Shapiro's "The Stereotypical Freaks," a coming of age tale about a rock 'n' roll band composed of a familiar quartet of high school archetypes. The Pittsburgh-based author collaborated with Joe Pekar, Ed Brisson and Vickie Adair to put flesh on the book's very hip bones.

• "Dogging Steinbeck," by former PG reporter and Tribune-Review editor Bill Steigerwald, is a long-overdue expose of John Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley." In autumn 2010, Bill retraced the 11,000-mile route that Steinbeck took for his 1960s best-seller, and chronicled it in the PG. He concluded that "the esteemed work is something of a fraud," embellished and finessed to the point of being fictional. Illustrated with photos and interviews, this is a wry, wistful, but never angry tale about a great literary deception that lasted way too long. (One triumph: the intro to the book's 50th anniversary edition, published late last year, noted "that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts.")

"Mere Citizens: United, Civil and Disobedient" by Liane Ellison Norman (Smoke and Mirrors Press) chronicles the decade-long effort of a group of Pittsburgh-based anti-nuke activists as they waged peaceful protest and civil disobedience against Westinghouse, Rockwell International and CMU's Software Institute.

• A few years ago, a very funny novelist who uses the pseudonym Sijin Belle spent quality time in Pittsburgh writing her debut novel about the poultry industry (obviously not set in Pittsburgh). I can say without fear of contradiction that "Big Chicken" (Selwa Press) is funnier than Dave Barry's latest novel, but the fact it is on a small press means it will likely be overlooked -- a pity since Ms. Belle knows her way around Southern grotesqueries and corporate intrigue.

"Grit, Smoke and Steam, Part I: The Journey of a Boy They Called Jinks" by James J. Messina (edited and co-authored by his son Charles D. Messina). This is an impressive biography in vignette form, featuring naive illustrations by the late author and photos from the family album. If you want to know what it was like to be a working-class boy finding his way in Depression-era West Aliquippa, and eventually to infantry duty during World War II, this is the place.


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631.


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