Pittsburgh, Can We Save Christmas? #pghsavesxmas


Earlier this week, The Girl asked me if I could help her find a charitable holiday project she could donate something to – be it time, money, or items. Something like a food drive, she suggested.

Shouldn’t be too hard, I replied. ‘Tis the season, after all.

But I got busy with work and our family’s own Christmas preparations, and The Girl had her Winter Concert at school, and we were ridiculously late for a doctor’s appointment  –  and all of that combined drop-kicked my daughter’s wish to Do Something Nice even lower on the priority list.

Until tonight, when I read a blog post from my friend Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents about #pghsavesxmas. I’m reposting portions of Sue’s post below, with Sue’s permission, because I think it says exactly what I would have said and because tomorrow is December 20 and we need the word to get out about #pghsavesxmas ASAP.

Toys for Tots has been at the heart of holiday toy drives for decades. The Marines run this project and it is a bear – coordinating the needs of hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals with a minimal budget, limited personnel and probably not a ton of training in social services. It can be amazing and it can fall flat. It is a logistics nightmare and I appreciate how hard people work to make it happen.

This year, something went wrong and 11-20 community groups in Pittsburgh did not receive their requested toys. The way it typically works is that the groups submit the names and ages of the kids sometime in October via fax or email, then receive a notification when it is time to pick up their delivery. They request this information to avoid duplication. The toys are repacked in large boxes by age and gender. It is relatively smooth if not necessarily predictable. It is exhausting and time-consuming and very very hard work.

Something went wrong this year and that needs to be sorted out by the powers-that-be. But in the meantime, hundreds of kids are going to not receive  a gift or gifts that their parents were counting upon. And that’s something we can address. Stepping up to the plate are Most Wanted Fine Art, I Heart Pittsburgh and several Pittsburgh bloggers.


The Need – 2,000+ toy and gifts for children ages 2 months to 17 years – NEW, UNWRAPPED toys and gifts please (books, CDs, movies, etc. also fine)

The Organizations – Approximately 11-20 different community groups around the region

The Drop-Off Spots/Times - in addition to the location and times above, toys can also be dropped off to: 

Most Wanted Fine Art
at The Waterfront
210 West Bridge Street next to Panera Bread and Famous Footwear

Drop off times:
Friday-Saturday noon-9pm
Sunday noon-6pm

Financial or Online Donations:  I Heart Pgh has set up a Crowdrise Fundraiser. The money will be used to purchase gift items. This is not going through a 501c3, but it is being coordinated by well-known community advocate Lindsay Patross of I Heart Pgh among others who are well-known in the Pittsburgh blogging community. I completely trust the members of this group and know several of them personally. 

These holiday programs build relationships with community groups, relationships that can help year round. It is also important that we as a community take every opportunity to show that the lives of these children and their adult relatives matter to us. It isn’t what we get out of it or how we are acknowledged that matters. It isn’t up to us to figure out who is naughty or nice. It doesn’t matter if we get to see gifts opened or smiles light up faces.

What matters to us as the community is knowing that we are contributing to the social fabric that binds us together. We gain when we share with others without asking anything in return. Our hearts grow through the giving itself.

As luck would have it, The Girl and I just happen to have some Christmas shopping to finish up tomorrow …

Acquired Taste Presents: Holiday Recovery? (Yes, Please. With Visions of Oysters and Crocheted Toilet Paper Roll Holders In My Head.)

I don’t know about you, but I need to do some major recovery from this holiday season.  Like, right now.

(Did I mention that Christmas is still seven days out as of this writing?)

It’s a good thing, then, that author Marissa Landrigan is organizing one of her fantastic Acquired Taste literary reading events for January 10 at the fantastic East End Book Exchange.

Acquired Taste Holiday Recovery

And yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: I’m beyond honored to be one of the featured readers at this literary event with incredibly talented Pittsburgh writers Rachel Mennies (The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012) and Jeff Oaks. I’ll be debuting a new, not-even-published-here-on-the-blog-yet creative nonfiction essay of mine, “When We Were Oysters.”

(There might be mention of my childhood passion for crocheted toilet paper roll holders and, well … oysters.)

Acquired Taste is a curated series of public readings, each featuring 3-4 local or touring authors reading their work around a food-related theme. Marissa’s hope is that this series will showcase the outstanding literary talent in Pittsburgh and to be part of expanding the literary world’s understanding of food writing to something beyond restaurant reviews and cookbooks.

I’m beyond honored and thrilled to be included, and I look forward to sharing my essay “When We Were Oysters”  – about a nostalgic, childhood tradition – with you.

All will be merry and bright. Event is free and all are welcome.

Please join us?


The Sunday Salon: Currently

The Sunday Salon

Today was a lazy Sunday for us. I woke up with a bad headache, but fortunately my migraine meds helped get rid of that nonsense by early afternoon.  Nobody has time for that crap, especially this time of year.

‘Tis the Season
We put our Christmas tree up yesterday, which helped make me feel a little less behind in everything Christmas. No matter what I do or don’t do, this whole holiday stresses me out like nothing else. There’s a part of me that can’t stand it – even with eliminating things like sending cards (not doing them this year), baking (never was much for that anyway), and significantly reducing the number of gifts we’re buying (I never know what to get anyone anyway and everyone has everything they need).

Lest you think I’ve changed my name to Scrooge, I am looking forward to seeing some family and friends that we don’t see much. The Husband and I both have some vacation time awaiting us and the downtime will be especially welcome. And needed.

I’m still holding out hope that this will be the year I’ll reach my elusive goal of having read 75 books. I’ve come close: last year I read 70. It’ll be tight, as I just finished #67 today. That would be Going Over by Beth Kephart, a historical fiction young adult novel.

Going Over


Going Over is the story of Ada and Stefan, two young would-be lovers living in ’80s Germany who are separated by the Berlin Wall. Although they’re able to visit occasionally, the constraints prove emotionally difficult.  I’m hoping to do a longer review later, but suffice it to say that I think this is an important book for young people to read because this time period is one that is so essential to understand.


This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Earlier this year, I heard Ann Patchett when she spoke at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures; afterward, we chatted briefly when she signed my copies of Bel Canto, The Magician’s Assistant, and her essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I finally got around to reading the latter via audio and really liked it. As with most essay collections, some selections are better than others, but most are well-done and a few are extraordinary. Given the choice,  I think I would recommend this one in print, though.

It’s Sunday, so of course that means it’s all football, all the time in our house. Right now, we’re all set for our Eagles-Cowboys and hoping for a repeat of Thanksgiving Day. Always nice when both of my teams (Steelers and Eagles) come up with a win.

In terms of movies, this weekend we introduced the kids to “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” for the first time ever. It was quite a hit. At 13, they’re now at the age where they’re able to handle some of the innuendoes and scenarios presented – although that can still be tricky with The Boy because of him having Asperger’s.

A few days off next week for Christmas!

top ten tuesday: top ten new-to-me authors i read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - New

For Top Ten Tuesday, an original weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to share our top 10 new-to-us authors we read this year.  In alphabetical order, here are 10 authors who I read for the first time in 2014, along with what works of theirs I read.

There are another 10 writers who could have just as easily have been on this list.


1. Carlene Bauer (Frances and Bernard)

2. Katie Coyle (“Fear Itself,” from One Story)

3. poet Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

4. poet Terrance Hayes (Muscular Music, Hip Logic, Wind in a Box, Lighthead)

5. Rachel Joyce (Perfect)

6. Paul Monette (Borrowed Time)

7. Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)

8. Dani Shapiro (Devotion, Slow Motion)

9. Megan Stielstra (Once I Was Cool)

10. Niall Williams (History of the Rain)

Each week The Broke and the Bookish post a new Top Ten list and everyone is welcome to join in the fun. Simply link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out other bloggers lists!

Book Review: Once I Was Cool, Personal Essays by Megan Stielstra

Once I Was CoolOnce I Was Cool: Personal Essays, by Megan Stielstra 
Curbside Splendor Press
212 pages 

Make no mistake about it: Megan Stielstra is very, very cool.

She may not think so (and she may say so in her essays) but trust me … she is.

She’s that kind of down-to-earth cool, the kind that’s so very absolutely real with no-holds-barred emotions in full view out there for everyone to see. The kind of person who has been through some shit and has learned some shit, too,  and is damn good at writing about her shit.

“It’s the single syllables that’ll kill you:

Your dentist says Oops.

Your pregnancy test says plus.

Your psychic says Oh.”

- from “Felt Like Something,” pg. 117

Megan Stielstra is funny and honest and self-deprecating. She’s a child of the ’90s and the mom of a toddler who drops more than a few literal fucks on the page while writing about her sexcapades of years gone by.

She knows that sometimes – a lot of times – working means having to say no to playing with your kid at the instant he wants you to play, and she knows the heartwrenching guilt that this can produce.

She knows what it is like to owe thousands to the IRS (right there with ya, girlfriend) and to see The American Dream turn into your personal nightmare.

And she tells you about it in a way that somehow feels different than other writers who might be classified in this or similar genres. Megan Stielstra comes across as a friend, yes, as do many others, but there’s a subtle difference. She doesn’t seem to take any of her life for granted. She gets how crappy and tough this life can be. Hell, the woman works three jobs and still manages to have a sense of humor.

I first heard of Megan Stielstra when I read her essay, “Wake the Goddamn World,” which is the piece that piqued my interest in this book. It is among the best in this collection. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with any of these, but “Channel B,” “The Right Kind of Water,” “Feels Like Something,” and “82 Degrees,” are especially spectacular.

In fact, the essays are so good and the writing so sharp, that I just have to ask … was there some sort of snafu with the editing or printing of this book? I mean, some kind of oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-that-just-fucking-happened type of scenario between the time that Megan Stielstra wrote these essays and the time that the ink hit the page? I’m being serious, not snarky. There’s more than one spelling error, and my copy doesn’t appear to be an ARC. Maybe I just happened to read a copy from the reject pile. Maybe the editor screwed up. I don’t know. Anything is possible.

But you know what? If there’s any message to be had from Once I Was Cool, it is that SHIT HAPPENS. As in, just when you think you’ve made it – say, you know, maybe when you’ve written a kick-ass essay collection that’s been getting some notable attention – four fucking typos appear on page 15. Four! Because, why not, right? And then some typo-obsessed book blogger in Pittsburgh harps on THAT and only that in her review instead of how awesome the essays themselves are.

I don’t want to be that person. Because you know why? Because we all make mistakes. Typos happen in this life.There are bigger problems in this world and besides, I’d rather focus on how good the writing is in this collection.

Because the writing is really, really good. So good that Once I Was Cool has earned a spot on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2014 list.

And Megan Stielstra has absolutely earned a spot as one of my newest favorite writers.

4 stars out of 5.


The Sunday Salon: Yet Another Best Books of 2014 List

The Sunday Salon

All the cool kids have one. By the end of this blog post, I will too.

Unless you’ve been living under a literary rock, suddenly everyone who has read anything during the past year has popped up with their Best Books of 2014 List.

My initial reaction to that was somewhere between “Oooooh book lists!”  and “Bah freakin’ humbug.”

I mean, doesn’t it seem too soon for this? I know, I know … there are only 23 days left in the year (!!) and chances are that you’re I’m not going to read that many more books in that timeframe, even though I have 10 more books to go before reaching my yearly goal of 75 and dammit, I am going to try my damnedest to achieve that.

(It’s doable. Completely doable.)

So, a compromise. I’m still planning to do my annual Best Books I Read in 2014 lists, as I do. Those will include books published in any year. Look for those later in the month. In the spirit of things, however, here are my picks for Best Books I Read That Were Published in 2014.

Hope for a Sea Change

Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino (SheBooks, 57 pages)
I met Elizabeth through the special needs parent blogger world, and her writing – honest, raw, quietly searing – knocks me out with every single post. Elizabeth is a fierce advocate for her daughter Sophie, who has a rare form of epilepsy.  Hope for a Sea Change is about the early days of diagnosis, the desperate search for answers from misinformed specialists, and the emergence of a mother’s strength.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday, 288 pages)
In my review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I wrote that “it’s possible to view this novel “as sounding an alarm on the many disasters facing this generation: teenage homelessness, prostitution and sex trafficking, drug addiction, environmental and energy crises, school shootings, absentee parents. Like the [fictional] nuclear power plant [disaster in the novel], our world itself can seem in a perpetual state of meltdown.”

Glitter and Glue

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan (Ballantine Books, 240 pages)
I read this memoir in less than two days. (It probably would have been quicker, had I not been recuperating from gall bladder surgery.) Glitter and Glue is a follow up, of sorts to Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, the story of her having cancer at the same time as her father. Here, Kelly writes about her relationship with her pragmatic mother, her time as a nanny for a grieving family, and the life lessons she had to leave the house – and the country – to learn.


Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages)
In this book-length poem, Edward Hirsch opens the door into his shattered world after the death of his 22 year old son Gabriel. As a society, we don’t often talk about grief in the way that Edward Hirsch does in these 78 pages – and our grief memoirs are rarely left unresolved. We’re used to some big revelation of acceptance, of peace. That’s not this book. This is anger and sadness and disbelief (“I wish I could believe in the otherworld/ I wish I could believe in a place/ Of reunions outside of memory”) and it is haunting.


Perfect, by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 361 pages)
Maybe this doesn’t count as a “published in 2014″ book because it was first published last year, but whatever. All that matters is that this novel is a work of art – except for the cover, which is absolutely ridiculous (it’s set in 1972, so that probably has something to do with it). The writing and the plot shines. And the characters … you won’t forget these folks for a second.

Nest. Flight. Sky.

Nest. Flight. Sky. On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time, by Beth Kephart (SheBooks, 37 pages)
A book by Beth Kephart usually makes it onto my best of lists, and this one is no exception. I would have loved this memoir – which marks the first time in several years that Beth has returned to the form – even if I wasn’t reading it in the middle of the night, wide awake in a hospital bed while recuperating from the gall bladder surgery. This was a book that found me at the right time.

History of the Rain

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury, 358 pages)
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, History of the Rain was among my favorite books this year. I still think it should have won the Booker, but I also didn’t read all the selections. Still, this story about an Irish family dealing with so much literal and figurative rain is spectacular.Along with the writing, Williams draws you in with unforgettable characters. Ruthie is so smart, so sensitive and insightful  (“Hope, you see, takes a long time to die,”) yet so sad without the ones she loves.

What about you? What books published in 2014 are going to make it onto your best-of list?

For those of you who (like me) can’t get enough of year-end book lists, Penguin Random House is compiling the ultimate collection of best books of 2014 lists on Tumblr.


Readin’at: Books make great gifts. Small Press Pittsburgh books make even better ones.

Small Press Pittsburgh Holiday Book Sale

I am notorious for giving people books as gifts.I can’t help it; it’s sort of what I do. Plus, I’m thinking that people kind of expect this from me, so there’s that reputation to live up to, y’know?

Books can be wonderfully personal things to give people – especially when they aren’t in the mainstream. Karen Lillis is the ultimate curator and champion of Pittsburgh’s small presses and independent books and her selection always makes me crave every single title she is carrying.

Small Press Pittsburgh will be at the Stephen Foster Community Center this Sunday, December 7 from 12-5 p.m. with plenty of incredible reads for everyone on your gift list.  Event details are above.

The Stephen Foster Community Center is located at 286 Main Street, which is halfway down the hill (between Penn and Butler). It is right behind the library in Lawrenceville. The parking lot entrance is on Fisk Street right next to the library.

Vendors confirmed:

Copacetic Comics
The Big Idea Bookstore, Inc
East End Book Exchange
Amazing Books
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
Autumn House Press
Braddock Avenue Books
Six Gallery Press
Lilliput Review
Small Press Pittsburgh

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces books and writing and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things bookish in the Burgh, I created “READIN’AT,” a weekly blog feature here that focuses on Pittsburgh-based novels and stories, authors, events, and literary goings-on around town (or …tahn).