As a literature writer and voracious reader, I’m often asked for good book suggestions. Here are 13 talented writers whose work I highly recommend, all with close ties to Pittsburgh.
Some were born here. Some adopted the city. A few have moved away, but many of the writers on this list continue to work right here. And their work will make a great addition to your summer reading list.
Stewart O’Nan. O’Nan has penned a trilogy of related books around the same family. “Emily, Alone” (2011) was my introduction to O’Nan. (This is the second book in the trilogy, a follow-up to “Wish You Were Here,” but you don’t have to read them in order to enjoy them.) O’Nan so beautifully creates captivating prose through his examination of humdrum, everyday routines. That’s a tall order when grappling with issues of widowhood and old age, but “Emily, Alone” is completely spellbinding. His third entry to the trilogy, just released this spring, “Henry, Himself,” is set 10 years earlier and revolves around Emily’s husband, Henry. It’s right on top of my vacation pile of books to read.
Damon Young. One of the founders of the site VerySmartBrothas, Young is perhaps best known as a master of funny and cutting hot takes. But with his 2019 book, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” a memoir in essay form, he examines the experience of being black in America, and in Pittsburgh, specifically. He really allows himself room to breathe in this format, creating a gorgeous, genuine, sometimes harrowing journey into his American experience. Don’t worry — he can still drop a hilarious pop culture reference like the best MC.
Kathleen George. George is the author of 10 novels all set in Pittsburgh (except “The Johnstown Girls,” from 2014, set nearby.) Most recently, George published “The Blues Walked In” (2018), which uses Lena Horne’s time living in the Hill District as it’s jumping-off point. Lovers of mysteries and detective fiction should pick up her book, “Taken” (2002) and then read through her Pittsburgh mysteries. They are engaging and propulsive, with great local landmarks sprinkled throughout.
Lori Jakiela. In 2015, Lori Jakiela penned her third memoir, “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe.” Published by Atticus Books, it won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Then Atticus went out of business and this book went out of print. Luckily for Pittsburgh readers, local publishing house Autumn House Press is re-releasing it this September. Can’t wait ’til then? Help yourself to some of her other titles, especially “The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious” (2013), her memoir of taking care of her dying mother. And for the growing number of people who can identify with the scourge of the 21st-century economy — the gig economy — pick up “Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker,” her 2017 collection of very lived in, captivating, funny essays about labor and the meaning of work.
Anjali Sachdeva. Few short story collections are better than Sachdeva‘s “All the Names They Used for God” (2019). The stories are all strange and challenging and a bit magical. Sachdeva takes us from the late-1800s prairie to Pittsburgh in the early 20th century, to Chibok, Nigeria a few years ago, to an American city at some point in the future.
Jeanne Marie Laskas. If there were a Mount Rushmore of nonfiction observers of life, Laskas would be on it. Her prose is effortless. Her style is always curious, rather than authoritative. She allows her subjects to reveal some authentic part of themselves in a way that would be easy for another writer to miss. Laskas is a true Roshi of non-fiction writing. Pick up her recent book, “To Obama, with Love, Joy, Anger and Hope” (2018), which details life in the White House mailroom and the people who wrote to President Obama. If that’s not your thing, scoop up her earlier collection of stories, “Hidden America” (2012) — in which she brings to life an Ohio coal mine, an Alaskan oil rig, a Maine migrant labor camp, the air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport, an Arizona gun shop and the cab of a long-haul truck.
John Edgar Wideman. Homewood native John Edgar Wideman has written novels, flash fiction and nonfiction, and his work has been adapted for the theatre. Wideman has also lived through more than his share of tragedy. Be patient: His prose is complex and sometimes cerebral. It can take some work to get through, but it’s totally worth it to explore with him some of the most difficult aspects of race, family, loss, guilt and trauma. His most recent is a collection of stories titled “American Histories” (2018). Along with that, pick up his searing memoir, “Brothers and Keepers” (1984), and his Homewood trilogy (“Damballah,” “Hiding Place” and “Sent for You Yesterday”).
Yona Harvey. For those who prefer their stories told in graphic form, Yona Harvey is the co-author (with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay) of several comics in the Marvel universe: “Black Panther: World of Wakanda” (2016) and “Black Panther & the Crew: We Are the Streets” (2017). Harvey is also an accomplished poet. Her collection “Hemming the Water” (2013) is corporeal and detailed. She uses her watchful eye to examine inter-generational stories full of strength and struggle.