Before I quit my job at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to play at being a writer, I was a regular contributor to the Eleventh Stack blog. I was free to write about pretty much any material in the Library’s catalog. It was great! On Thursdays, I’ll revisit some of my old faves. A version of this post first appeared on April 28, 2017.
In 2016, I finally achieved my goal of reading 100 books, so I needed a new goal to focus on. My own search for Szechuan sauce, if you will. I decided to travel more and, serendipitously, I was a plus-one for a wedding in San Diego the summer of 2017. As someone who’d never been further west than Chicago, I was supes stoked! What I wasn’t excited about was how expensive traveling can be.
Instead of pampering myself into a coma in lavish hotels, I decided to try Airbnb for the first time. Because a stranger was letting me sleep in his spare room, I thought I’d show my appreciation by gifting him with some of my favorite books set in Pittsburgh!
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The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.”
And just like that, Chabon’s 1988 debut novel begins. This was my first Chabon book, and if you don’t mind him flexing his vocabulary muscles every other sentence, it really is a great introduction to the fictional side of Pittsburgh. Taking place mostly over one summer, the novel features neighborhoods like Oakland, pre-gentrification East Liberty and Downtown, as well as the Lost Neighborhood (actually Junction Hollow), where the characters find The Cloud Factory (actually an old boiler plant).
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a wonderful coming-of-age novel that expertly balances the trials of life after college with the tribulations of navigating a newly discovered side of one’s sexuality. If you’re craving more of Chabon’s Pittsburgh after you read it, stay away from the abysmal film adaptation and instead check out Chabon’s 1995 novel, Wonder Boys.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
If you’re interested in a Pittsburgh-based book with a wonderful film adaptation, check this one out! I have to read this book at least once a year. Each time, it’s like meeting up with an old friend for a long-overdue hug. It’s a book that can be laugh out loud funny as well as severely serious all within the span of a few paragraphs.
Another coming-of-age tale, Perks is about a group of high schoolers and that trepidatious time when you begin to learn who you are as a person. A love letter to both the mainstream iconography of Pittsburgh (the view of the city as you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel) and the fringe (shadowcasting The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Dormont), Chbosky’s debut deserves a place on the shelf of every yinzer who’s ever felt like an outcast.
And speaking of yinzers …
The dialectic quirks of the Pittsburgh region are truly fascinating. Whether you hate or love our local dialect, this little tongue in cheek “dictionary” is a great collection of the aggressive violence against the English language that is Pittsburghese. It’s a quick read that could be finished before yinz get dahn 28, n’at.
If you have a real interest in linguistics (which, honestly, don’t we all?), be sure to also check out Barbara Johnstone’s Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect. It’s a comprehensive history and study of our region’s slang and shorthand. The Heinz History Center also put out a book on our vernacular variants called Pittsburghese: From Ahrn to Yinz.
I remember the first time I read each of these books, can even remember where I was sitting as I read them. I remember each time I gave one as a gift, and I can only hope they brought my one-time host and the other guests of his apartment as much joy as they did me.
I hope you enjoy them, too.