*This post was updated on July 20, 2022*
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, “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. His latest book “Ocean State” released in March 2022.
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. Young is a columnist for GQ, a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and he writes a weekly column for the Washington Post.
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. Her new book, “Mirth” comes out September 2022 and follows Harrison Mirth, “a romantic man who writes about love and tries to find it through three marriages, in three cities”—one of which is Pittsburgh.
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 rereleased it. Help yourself to some of her other titles, too, 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”). A collection of his work from 1981 to 2018 was published in 2021 titled “You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories.”
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. Her 2020 book “You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love” follows an unnamed protagonist on her “multidimensional, Afro-futuristic journey.”
Sherrie Flick. The latest collection by Southsider Sherrie Flick, “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (2018), is an assemblage of lonely people, broken people, wanderers and seekers. There are moments of hopelessness and beauty, all of which are observed with compassion and economy. In addition to this new collection, Flick is the author of the novel “Reconsidering Happiness” (2009) and the short story collection, “Whiskey, Etc.” (2016).
Jan Beatty. This is poetry. But never fear — Beatty is more rock & roll than staid sonnets. The director of Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic writing program tells stories of waitressing and addiction, road trips and adoption, homeless shelters and Joni Mitchell. She’s funny and sharp and edgy. How can you not love a writer who titles a poem, “Dropping Blotter Acid at the Slag Dump”? Pick up her 2021 memoir “American Bastard,”—a “lyrical inquiry” into the experience of being a bastard in America.
Roy McHugh. Before Pittsburghers came to love hockey and before the Steelers were the calling card of the region, Pittsburghers loved boxing. The great Roy McHugh died at age 103 in February 2019, but luckily for us, a collection of his tremendous sports writing has been published posthumously, simply titled, “When Pittsburgh Was a Fight Town” (2019.) Nobody knew the fight game like McHugh, who wrote for the Pittsburgh Press for more than four decades. His prose was elegant and efficient, evocative and clean. He was one of the great sportswriters, in the pantheon with the likes of Grantland Rice, Shirley Povich and W.C. Heinz. If you want to understand boxing, or even if you just want to understand Pittsburgh, this book is a fantastic introduction.
And there are two writers with whom all Pittsburghers should be familiar: These two have both moved away, but continue to produce work as the writers emeritus of Pittsburgh.
David McCullough. For all the history dorks, one of the great American history writers hails from Pittsburgh. You’ve all seen McCullough about 1,001 times on various PBS history specials and he has chronicled Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Wright Brothers and the American Revolution. Some of his best titles are his comprehensive biographies of Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001). His first book, “The Johnstown Flood” (1968) should be required reading in every Western Pennsylvania high school history class.
Annie Dillard. Dillard’s breathtaking memoir of growing up in Point Breeze, “An American Childhood” (1987), is one of the best childhood memoirs of all time. Though she has written both fiction and nonfiction, she is best known as a naturalist. In “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” she reveals her exquisite abilities to observe and interpret the world around her. Dillard‘s prose feels like waking up all over again, but in a world that is lusher and brighter and more colorful. If you want a quick primer on Dillard, pick up “The Abundance” (2016), a collection of selected essays from four decades of writing that The New York Times describes as a “retrospective of her career.”