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Angels in the North Country

Guests flow into the hall at the First United Methodist Church in Littleton, N.H. Crepe paper swirls overhead. Paper flamingos greet the partygoers, who carry gifts. Carol Anne Gillis (EDU ’83) is expecting, and her friends have gathered to celebrate.

She opens the first package, finding a blue rubber ball. The next package yields a box of gourmet biscuits. Next, come more biscuits. Then, a handmade quilt with white dogs on a field of red cotton cloth.

Gillis is expecting a puppy. This won’t be an ordinary pet, though. Gillis has a degenerative eye disease and is nearly blind. The puppy Callie Luz—or beautiful light bringer—will replace her first guide dog, who died at the age of nearly 12.

A former middle-school English teach-er, Gillis didn’t let her vision problems prevent her from earning a master’s degree in counseling education at Pitt. She now works in private practice as a counselor while also volunteering at the Hospice of the Littleton Area, which she founded in 1983.

In her book Angels in the North Country (Keeley-Mara Press), Gillis describes the creation, life, and “angels” of this rural, all-volunteer hospice.

Cindy Gill

The Midwife’s Tale

Ancient whispers and late-night ghost stories became her inspiration. There were hauntings and babies’ bones crying out from beneath the hearthstone, stories retold through generations inside and outside her family. These were the things Gretchen Moran Laskas (CAS ’92) researched for seven years before writing her first novel, The Midwife’s Tale (The Dial Press). “I write to justify the goofy stuff I read,” Laskas says with a laugh.

These tales of hauntings and babies’ bones that Laskas found belied a grim reality. In the early years of the last century, and certainly before that, killing sickly or unwanted newborn children was part of rural life that was rarely discussed openly. “It’s called midwife’s mercy,” narrator Elizabeth Whitely learns during the first chapter. Laskas says her fiction springs from a dark corner of human history. “If you couldn’t keep a child, it just disappeared,” she says. “Very few people blamed anyone when it did happen.”

Laskas knows something about family stories. Although she was raised in Beaver Falls, Pa., she is an eighth-generation West Virginian. She, her husband, Karl, and 7-year-old son, Brennan, often visit her family’s 300-acre farm in West Virginia, a place of stories and secrets and fiction.

Kris B. Mamula

The First War on Terrorism

David Wills was still sleeping. A friend’s telephone call woke him. He told Wills to turn on the news. Wills did, just as United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the second twin tower.

Wills (GSPIA ’94) had completed everything but the last chapter of his book when the planes hit. With the escalating terrorist attacks toward the United States, Wills expected something big “like a cruise ship hijacking,” but nothing like this. People called him all day, knowing his background in political science, specifically terrorism.

Well before Al Qaeda became a household name, Wills had been exploring terrorist attacks on American targets. In 1983, there was the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1985 came the hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and of the Achilles Lauro cruise ship. And, in 1988, Pan-Am Flight 103 exploded over Scotland.

Wills’ book primarily evaluates how the Reagan Administration dealt with modern terrorism. After September 11, Wills’ book title became The First War on Terrorism (Rowman & Littlefield). He is working on his second book, tentatively titled The Second War on Terrorism.

—Keith Bandelin

Three Slovak Women

Lisa Alzo remembers the rich smells of the paska bread her mother and grandmother baked in the kitchen. She remembers how her grandmother would make an extra piece of paska just for her to nibble on.

Alzo’s mother remembered dancing the traditional bridal dance in Western Pennsylvania as her own mother had done some 20 years before.

Alzo’s grandmother remembered riding in a wagon from her small town of Milpos in Slovakia to a port in Germany where she boarded the S.S. Orduna to Ellis Island. She remembered, after settling in the United States, her arranged marriage and how she eventually grew to love her husband.

Ever since Alzo’s grandmother got on that boat, succeeding generations have been on a voyage that seems to distance them from their heritage.

Alzo, though, hasn’t forgotten the traditional Slovak customs and values from where she came. She teaches Slovak genealogy online for Ancestry.com. She’s also written Three Slovak Women (Gateway Press), about the life and times of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.

Alzo (FAS ’97) plans to keep chronicling her family’s past because, as she says, “With family history, you’re never done.”

—KB

The Audible Past

A young man sits on a bus, huge headphones covering his ears. He bobs his head up and down to the music, not paying attention to anything else. Outside, it looks like a woman is talking to herself, until she turns, revealing a thin black cord dangling from her ear. She’s wearing an earpiece for her cell phone.

Every day, we see scenes like this, not even thinking about them. But Jonathan Sterne, an assistant professor in the communication department, thinks about listening all the time.

As an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, he took several cultural studies classes, most of which emphasized visual culture. Sterne, a bass player since childhood, wondered about audio culture. Listening affects life. Talking on the telephone, for example, is commonplace now, but as recently as the late 1800s, most people had never done so.

As a graduate student, Sterne pursued these ideas. After years of digging through boxes, reading lab notes, and flipping through scrapbooks in the U.S. Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s archives, Sterne crafted The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke University Press). Another of his contributions to the audio culture is a self-released CD by his band, Lo-Boy, a “slow, low, and pretty post-rock duo.”

Meghan Holohan


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