Two Reads for Spring: "Pittsburgh—The Port to the West" and "Thou Shalt Kill"

Whether indulging in a little bit of “me time” on the porch or whiling away a day in the park with the family, make sure to always bring a book.

Books On Tap:
Pittsburgh—The Port To The West: An Illustrated History About The People And Events In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, During Its First One Hundred Years by Denise L. Fantazier; Denise L. Fantazier; $14.95
Thou Shalt Kill by Daniel Blake; Gallery Books; $25.

Ah, here we are hip deep in the spring season. The morning air is cool and dry, dusted with sunlight and perfumed with car exhaust and coffee. Days like this—luxuriant soft clouds of time, candy-floss pink and deeply sugared by the lazy warmth—were meant for easing back and sipping something light, a book open in your lap and the private music of the city floating around you.

Perfect for the younger reader, Denise L. Fantazier’s The Port To The West: An Illustrated History About The People And Events In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, During Its First One Hundred Years tells the tale of the founding of our fair city. Fantazier uses several different approaches: Interspersed throughout the straight history sections are small passages of a more fictional nature, which serve to place the reader inside the story. In the section that deals with indentured servants in the colonies, Fantazier includes a short, fictional paragraph depicting a family signing their indentures:

Joseph, hat in hand, stood in front of his older brother, Robert, waiting their turn to sign the indenture papers. They had no trouble finding a ship in the harbor to sign onto. … The ship’s Captain sat co-signing the indentures, or contracts. He had made the voyage across the Atlantic many times and knew that he would find a ready market in America for the group in front of him.

These side passages are typically paired with an original painting by the author of the events depicted. The author’s use of artwork, photographs and maps makes for a delightfully immersive experience sure to be appreciated by young readers.

Fantazier also includes many highlighted questions sprinkled throughout the book. Queries such as: “If you were a Native American what would you think of the Europeans moving into your neighborhood?” and “How long would it take you to carry enough firewood and water to do the laundry?” are excellent moments, if you happen to be reading the book together with your children, to set the book aside and start a discussion. The questions are fine prompts for deeper thinking, exploring issues such as the displacement of people or community or the advances in technology and the perils of our overreliance on it.

The Port To The West is a fine first history of the region for grade-schoolers. At the end, Fantazier provides a handy bibliography for further study, as your young, local historian continues to explore the region’s rich heritage.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more visceral, and you enjoy a good detective yarn, you might want to spend some time with Daniel Blake’s Thou Shalt Kill, a nasty little thriller that jets around Pittsburgh at breakneck speed. Homicide detectives Franco Patrese and Mark Beradino are hunting a serial killer known as The Human Torch, who intends to kill some very prominent locals.

Blake, a pseudonym for a former reporter for The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, overstuffs his violent tale with a few more “important issues” than the story can rightfully carry, such as racial intolerance, religious fanaticism, terrorism, national security, the hypocrisy of the legal system and so on. Blake unnecessarily piles it on. There’s no reason why this couldn’t have just been a page-turner instead of a public-service announcement.

Blake is at his best when he’s tossing off a bit of hard-boiled cleverness such as, “Franz Kafka was not dead, clearly. He was alive, well, and living in Pittsburgh,” or describing a football-loving priest as a “Pigskin Padre.” Of course a little of this goes a long way. Blake’s amusement with our local ways can become annoying: “Pittsburgh cuisine majored in two things: size and simplicity. You wanted nouvelle cuisine, drizzled this and sun-dried that? You could take the next flight to LA, and leave the supersized portions of mayo and fries to the hard-core Steel Towners.”

Blake is not a particularly subtle writer, and neither his representations of hot-button issues nor his depictions of Pittsburgh would ever be mistaken for layered and trenchant observation; however, if you’re looking for a taste of Hannibal Lecter in the ’Burgh, Thou Shalt Kill just might hit the spot.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment