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A & E
Stacks and stacks of new local titles

Sunday, December 16, 2001

Now is the time to bring attention to -- and, in some cases, praise -- the wide range of this year's books tinged with that distinctive Western Pennsylvania flavor.

The field is eclectic, from Gifford Pinchot's environmental concerns to the effects of coke ovens on Fayette County, with plenty of fiction in between.

We also include several sports books in the mix, certainly a topic of local interest.

Our only criterion is that the books use this region as the backdrop for their subjects. While our selection might not be all-inclusive of the year's output, it offers readers much to enjoy.

NONFICTION

"Gifford Pinchot And The Making Of Modern Environmentalism"
By Char Miller.
Island Press. $28
By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

With pressing environmental issues like global warming and offshore oil drilling at the forefront of public debate these days, it's easy to ignore the problems that spurred concerned naturalists at the turn of the last century to jump-start the modern environmental movement in America.

Which is why anyone desiring perspective on today's environmental debates and debacles should read Char Miller's lively and well-written biography of Gifford Pinchot.

Although not a household name, Pinchot was an influential environmentalist who started the U.S. Forest Service in the 1890s. He was also head of the National Conservation Association and a two-term governor of Pennsylvania. His marriage to a feminist radicalized his politics in the 1920s and 30s, according to Miller. Pinchot also considered the naturalist John Muir a friend and mentor.

Miller is a professor and chair of the history department at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

"Wealth, Waste And Alienation."
By Kenneth Warren.
University of Pittsburgh Press. $30.
By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Connellsville and coke. The terms were interchangeable in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Connellsville coke district made about 18 percent of the global output of metallurgical coke -- material essential to the iron and steel industries.

The coke industry obviously was an economic boon to the region. But according to Kenneth Warren, an emeritus fellow of Jesus College at Oxford University, the coke ovens also caused social disruption and environmental degradation.

And when the industry declined in the 1920s, Connellsville began facing the environmental and social costs of such dogged economic development.

Warren's "Wealth, Waste and Alienation" describes the rise and fall of the Connellsville coke industry, augmented by access to the personal and business papers of Henry Clay Frick.

"The Lincoln Trail In Pennsylvania"
By Bradley R. Hoch.
Penn State University Press. $35.
By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Sure, George Washington slept here in Pennsylvania (and lost a war here, too). But Abraham Lincoln actually had ancestors from this state, traveled extensively throughout it on political tours, gave his most famous speech in Gettysburg, and lay in state in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Many of the places Lincoln visited are still accessible, offering Pennsylvania history buffs the chance to trace his travels through familiar landscapes.

In his detailed and richly illustrated book, Bradley R. Hoch takes readers back to key moments in Lincoln's public life, many of which were spent in the Keystone State. The book is entertaining and offers detailed information about Lincoln's life. Hoch also provides a guide to present-day sites linked to Lincoln, which may inspire readers to take to Lincoln roads.

"From Sugar Camps To Star Barns: Rural Life And Landscape In A Western Pennsylvania Community"
By Sally McMurry.
Penn State University Press. $24.95. By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

This book grew out of a vernacular architecture survey initiated by the Somerset Historical Society in the early 1990s. After a "windshield" survey of Somerset County, teams homed in on several dozen farmsteads, making measured drawings of buildings and collecting oral histories and documentation.

Buildings were matched against tax, census and deed records, diaries and other documents to draw a broader interpretation of who built them, how they were used, how many people lived in them, what crops they grew and what values they held.

McMurry, who teaches history at Penn State, discovered that at the turn of the 19th century, Somerset County log housing was modest to an extreme. Families who could afford bigger, better dwellings didn't build them for several reasons, including a Pennsylvania German preference for putting their money into land, livestock and tools.

By the mid-1800s, status began to be expressed through houses with ornate, double-decker front porches used both for socializing and domestic work, places where guests were entertained, peas were shelled and laundry was hung.

By 1900, mining operations were scarring the farm fields and introducing a new town type, the coal patch, and a new icon, the monumental tipple. The book doesn't deeply explore the architecture of the coal patch itself, but describes its impact on the rural landscape.

This book, which covers the years 1780 to 1940, is bountifully illustrated with historic photographs, maps and the measured drawings of the survey. It should be in the library of those interested in the history and buildings of Western Pennsylvania.

"The Chief"
By Jim O'Brien.
James P. O'Brien Publishing. $28.95. By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

This year marks the centennial of Arthur J. Rooney Sr.'s birth, so it was fitting for Jim O'Brien to pick "the Chief" as subject of the latest book in his Pittsburgh Proud Sports Series. O'Brien, a Pittsburgh native who covered the Steelers for four years for The Pittsburgh Press, weaves his own memories of "Mr. Rooney" with biographical data and the reminiscences of many other Rooney relatives and friends as well as former Steelers.

"The Steelers Reader"
Edited by Randy Roberts and David Welky.
University of Pittsburgh Press. $25. By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

What better way to learn the almost-70-year history of the Steelers than through the words of the sportswriters who covered them and the athletes who played for them?

Among the nationally known writers represented are Myron Cope (that's right, he once was a writer -- and highly regarded), Roy Blount Jr., the late Jim Murray and the late Red Smith. There are also stories by many of Pittsburgh's best-known football writers and excerpts from books written by ex-Steelers Terry Bradshaw, Rocky Bleier and Andy Russell.

John Lardner's piece on Art Rooney's famous betting streak at Saratoga is priceless.

FICTION

"East Liberty"
By Joseph Bathanti.
Banks Channel Books, $21.95. By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

The predominantly Italian neighborhood of Joseph Bathanti's childhood doesn't exist anymore, but he resuscitates it vividly in his first novel, a coming-of-age story that captures the confusion, hope, fear and ambivalence of a mid-20th century American Catholic upbringing.

To someone who grew up in the same time, place and religion as Bathanti, the landscape -- external and internal -- rings true, so true I had to keep reminding myself "East Liberty" is a novel, not a memoir.

The story is told by Robert Renzo -- Roberto to his immigrant Nonna, who lives nearby, and Bobby to his young, single mother Francesca, a beautiful blonde who likes to be called Francene, even by her son.

The name of Bobby's father, however, is a mystery.

The novel begins in 1955, on Italian Day at Kennywood, when Bobby is 5, shorter than the Henry cutout but permitted to ride the Jackrabbit roller coaster because he's with Francene.

"I am too ashamed to admit I am terrified," he recalls.

"Each time we climb I watch the same world below, Angelina singing and the old men throwing out their fists of gnarled fingers, the food spread over the tables, the horses at their laps like time winding down. Then we fall and the blurred world stuffs me with my own breathless screech."

I saw it in black and white, like an early Fellini film.

The Hollywood movies that Bobby and Francene watch on TV play a big role in his young life, becoming a sort of substitute family with their role models and morality tales. In a neighborhood fraught with bullies, drunks and dangers real and imagined, they are more comforting than reality.

In the 1950s and '60s, as Italian immigrants were moving out of East Liberty and more blacks were moving in, stories generated by the shifting demographics played out on the landscape. In the novel, "The Hollow" that cradles Negley Run Boulevard is "the demilitarized zone for East Liberty's cherished race wars," the "last pittance of wilderness, a few unclaimed acres in the heart of the neighborhood."

And, for Bobby Renzo, another country, where local thugs vie with the diabolical diavolos of Nonna's mythology in provoking terror.

SS. Peter & Paul grade school, where education is administered amid beatings and benedictions, is a sanctuary, more secure and predictable than life on the streets and life with Francene. Bobby is a smart boy, wise beyond his years in the way the uncoddled sons of single mothers can be.

Sizing him up as priest material, the nuns single him out for special treatment, but others aren't so fortunate.

Bathanti moves back and forth in time in the episodic and random way that memory works. Sometimes he incorporates Bobby's dreams and nightmares, making it difficult to tell truth from fiction, a technique that keeps the reader engaged.

Of course, on another level, it's all fiction, right? Still, I found myself guessing which of these incidents might have been pieced together from Bathanti's childhood and which were made up of whole cloth -- especially when an episode of "Route 66" is filmed across the street from Bobby and Francene's Lincoln Avenue apartment.

The show, starring Ethel Waters as a dying blues singer, was indeed filmed in Pittsburgh; it aired Oct. 6, 1961, the same day Bobby and Francene watch it on their black and white TV.

The streets that figure most prominently in "East Liberty" -- Hoeveler, Omega, Prince -- exist only on old maps; they were lost in the 1960s to a new neighborhood of low-income housing. The only landmark still standing is the abandoned SS. Peter & Paul Church, a decayed ghost.

With an economy of language that makes every word count, this is a beautifully written novel that inhabits the intersection of landscape and memory. The winner of this year's Carolina Novel Award, it reminds us again how important place is in shaping people.

Bathanti, who is also a poet, teaches creative writing at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he has lived since 1976. He left East Liberty a long time ago, but it's clear East Liberty has never left him.

"Pittsburgh Stories"
By Clark Blaise.
The Porcupine's Quill. $18.95. By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Pittsburgh, "the dirtiest city in America, with the ugliest history," is the setting for this collection of tales by Blaise, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon in the 1940s and went on to a career as a writer and well-traveled college professor.

His characters are frequently young men of that era encountering not only the familiar haunts of Pittsburgh but the bumpy ride to adulthood.

Written with a certain sweetness and appreciation for the city and its citizens, Blaise's stories are like finding small forgotten presents in the toe of your Christmas stocking.

"Never Kissed Goodnight"
By Edie Claire.
Signet. $5.99 (paperback). By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

North Hills veterinarian-turned-author Edie Claire brings writer Leigh Koslow back for her fourth adventure, and this time the amateur sleuthing reveals long-buried family secrets.

Leigh's cousin, Cara March, has caught her husband lying and sneaking around, suspects the worst, and asks the newly married Leigh to find out the truth. Gil March actually is trying to protect his wife from two separate blackmail efforts that trace back to Cara's long-absent father, about whom she knows nothing.

As usual Leigh, an advertising writer, plunges right into all the tangled plots and risks life and limb trying to unravel them. Also as usual, she does. Her new husband Warren, meanwhile, wins a council election, and their friend, police officer Maura Polanski finds love from a surprising source.

"Night Terrors"
By Drew Williams.
Barclay Books, LLC. $15.95. By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

McKeesport native Drew Williams, a creative writing professor at North Carolina Central University, sets a good example for his students with this horror novel, reminiscent of Stephen King and just as scary.

Strange things are happening in McKeesport -- suicides, murders, drastic changes in personality -- and Detective Steve Wyckoff has a hunch they're all connected. The reason, however, is something Wyckoff needs time to accept: an evil spirit named Dust is loose in the town and playing havoc with dreams and souls.

Wyckoff and a small band of similarly strong-minded friends must try to stop Dust before McKeesport is as dead as the Indian village once located at the same site.

"Genetic Witness"
By Chuck Rahi.
Creative Arts Book Co. $16.50. By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Thirty-five years later, retired FBI agent Ben Connars is haunted by the one murder he never solved: the shooting of a federal employee with highest security clearance who is guarding the Manhattan Project papers.

At the same time, the young grandson of the murder victim is haunted by the memories of a grandfather he never met. The phenomenon is known as genetic memory, and the only doctor who can treat it is also Connars' longtime counselor. The boy's problem gives Connars an irresistible opportunity once again to try to solve the crime.

His efforts put both his life and that of the boy at risk. Author Chuck Rahi, a Wheeling, W.Va., native who lives in West Virginia near West Alexander, Pa., and works as a pharmaceutical representative, says he got the idea for the book in a biology course at West Liberty State College.

"Souls Of Steel"
By Philip Garrow.
AmErica House. $16.95. By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Philip Garrow looks at the steel industry in a very literary fashion through the eyes of Thaddeus Gallo, a man married as much to the mill as to his much adored wife, Laura. Gallo, who's almost done with college, takes a summer job with Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel in Allenport, Pa., and ends up staying for the money.

Unfortunately, he stays too long and becomes one of the thousands who lost their jobs when the steel industry of Western Pennsylvania died. Garrow, of California, Pa., also has lived the life and death of a steelworker, "but," he says, "was recalled to life in the public school substitute teaching '90s."

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