Back to School with Very Local, Literary Arts

Some required reading

A (non-comprehensive) list of (somewhat) recent books by Pittsburgh authors you should read this fall

What would back to school be without a little required reading? This is definitely not comprehensive; rather, it is a curated list with hopefully a little something for everyone. If you need some help locating a local bookstore to purchase these titles, check out our guide to some of Pittsburgh’s independent bookstores, with online ordering info included. 

Deesha Philyaw’s “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” might be the most-anticipated release of the fall (if not the year). This collection of short stories features four generations of Black women who are exploring what it means to navigate the conservatism of the church while being true to their own desires; they wrestle with the duality of the public face and the secret self. Philyaw’s characters are complex and real. This collection deserves a space on your bookshelf. You can order a signed copy from White Whale Bookstore.

Since we’re talking about school, Shannon Reed’s “Why Did I Get a B?” is a collection of humorous essays about Reed’s time in the classroom. The current Pitt professor shares the trials of 20+ years of teaching: bullies, lunch breaks, parent-teacher conferences. A lovely reminder of all that teachers do for their students (whether it is IRL or via a virtual classroom).

Want a little less actual reading on your reading list? How about learning about animals via Brooke Barker’s “Sad Animal Facts,” “Sad Animal Babies,” and “Let’s Get Weird.” Impress your friends with animal facts such as: “female cheetahs live alone” and “Chinese softshell turtles pee out of their butts.” If you order them from White Whale Bookstore, Barker will even personalize them with an animal drawing of your choosing. For extra credit, listen to Barker’s new memoir on Audible.

[Brooke was a guest on our podcast this summer and shared a preview of her audiobook at the end of the episode.]

Zoje Stage’s “Wonderland” was released this past July. The book’s remote setting and isolated characters who are trapped at home might feel even more relatable these days. Stage’s previous book, “Baby Teeth,” was an international bestseller that made too many best-of lists to name here. The library waitlist is long on “Wonderland” (eight weeks at the time of publishing this piece) so you might want to just buy this one and read it in bed with the lights on, or, do as I do: wear a camping headlamp.

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Thanks so much to @bookish_apple for posting this for day one of September's photo challenge: "Wake me up when September ends: grief horror"! 🌲❄ . #Repost @bookish_apple • • • • • • I read Wonderland a few months ago and was struck at how accurate its depiction of grief is. Between its setting in a house in a remote part of the mountains and the horror elements throughout, this made for a fantastic read. Synopsis: If Shirley Jackson wrote The Shining, it might look like this deliciously unsettling horror novel from the acclaimed author of Baby Teeth. A mother must protect her family from the unnatural forces threatening their new and improved life in a rural farmhouse. The Bennett family – artist parents and two precocious children – are leaving their familiar urban surroundings for a new home in far upstate New York. They're an hour from the nearest city, a mile from the nearest house, and everyone has their own room for the very first time. Shaw, the father, even gets his own painting studio, now that he and his wife Orla, a retired dancer, have agreed that it's his turn to pursue his passion. But none of the Bennetts expect what lies waiting in the lovely woods, where secrets run dark and deep. Orla must finally find a way to communicate with – not just resist – this unknown entity that is coming to her family, calling to them from the land, in the earth, beneath the trees… and in their minds. Day one of September’s #photochallenge is “Wake me up when September ends: grief horror” #Harvestyourfears #bookphoto challenge is Hosted by @N0vel.id3a @teamredmon #horror #horrorreads #bookphotography #thriller #bookstagrammer #shelfie #bookhaul #bookcart #bookshelf

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Technically, these authors are in Westmoreland County, so shoutout to my hometown, Greensburg, Pennsylvania:

Karen Dietrich and I used to spend a lot of time in the same coffee shop. She read at Get Lit, the monthly literary series I curated for way too long. I remember when this book was in the blip-of-an-idea stage. “Girl on the Edge” is another dark and suspenseful novel that explores the question of nurture versus nature. I’m only speaking from my own pandemic reading habits, but I am finding horror and psychological suspense novels to be a great distraction from the horror of the daily news cycle.

For the athletic among us: “Farther than 26.2 Miles” is Cheryl Collins Gatons’ memoir about her relationship with running — how it led to her relationship with her husband, and how it subsequently helped her to deal with grief after his death. Gatons goes from running as a hobby to qualifying for the Olympic trials. The slim book serves as a reminder to persevere in times of hardship and to turn toward things that bring us happiness in order to move through grief — possibly more timely right now.

Honorable mentions

Don’t forget Pittsburgh’s other literary treasures: Lori Jakiela and Dave Newman, Sherrie Flick, Jan Beatty and Damon Young. Help local bookseller Karen Lillis in her mission to create a resurgence in awareness of the work of John Edgar Wideman — a lesser-known Pittsburgh author whose work is prescient to today with its themes of class structure, criminal justice, and systemic racism.

Extra Credit

And lastly, if you haven’t already, please read “Marilou is Everywhere” by Sarah Elaine Smith (which was one of my favorite books of 2019).


📸 Header photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.