13 books to read during the pandemic — several with a Pittsburgh twist

For lots of people (myself included), reading for pleasure during the pandemic has been nearly impossible.

Reading every single terrifying news article? Check. But cracking open a book and flipping pages for fun? Nope.

So we consulted with Shayna Ross, a librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to find some great books (some with Pittsburgh themes) to read right now and a good tip on getting back into reading.

If you’re in a reading rut, Ross shares this tip:

“Reading has become challenging for a lot of people,” she said. “One of things that has been recommended is going back to books that they liked. Rereading a book helps get that interest in reading again.”

Plus, she said, reading can be an “escape.” So with that in mind, let’s journey through the lives of a woman trying to save her restaurant, a scientist developing vaccines, and activists during a pivotal moment for the American civil rights movement, plus ten more tales.

Though physical locations of local libraries are closed, you can check out these books right now at home. We’ve got quick tips on using e-books at the bottom of the article.

Fiction with a Pittsburgh twist

These titles focus on uplifting, inspirational, or humorous tales with plenty of Pittsburgh connections.

“There seemed to be this trend that people go to Pittsburgh to recover,” Ross noted in her research.

🌃 Aftertaste: A Novel in Five Courses by Meredith Mileti – eBook on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

Mira Rinaldi was living a chic life in NYC, co-owning a popular trattoria and with a brand-new baby on board, until she catches her husband having an affair with a new employee. After going through anger management and legal battles to save her restaurant, Mira finds herself back with family and friends in Pittsburgh. She then gets an opportunity to win back everything she thought she lost after new developments come forward.

📜 American Histories: Stories by John Edgar Wideman – eAudio on Hoopla, eAudio and eBook on Overdrive/Libby

A collection of short stories that blends personal, historical, and political viewpoints with a wide range of characters from everyday Americans to Nat Turner and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The settings range, including an appearance from Pittsburgh, as Wideman addresses the conversations on social issues and race with a mix of his own imagination and reimagining historical individuals.

🔍 Leave Me by Gayle Forman – eBook on Hoopla, eAudio and eBook on Overdrive/Libby

Maribeth Klein is a harried working mother so consumed with her duties that she doesn’t realize that she just had a heart attack. Upon discovering that her recovery is a hindrance to others, she packs her bag and leaves for Pittsburgh to learn more about her adoption. Far from her family and among new friends, she is able to dive into her hidden secrets and forge a path for herself.

❤️ Wish You Were Here by Stewart O’Nan – eBook on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

A year after her husband’s death, Pittsburgh-resident Emily Maxwell gathers the family to the vacation home on New York’s Lake Chautauqua for one final summer before selling. We meet a cast of characters, including her sister-in-law mourning the sale, her daughter Meg who is a recovering alcoholic, and her son Ken, a budding photographer who quit his job to pursue art. They all reflect on old memories, rekindle old rivalries, and allow love to be reborn.

📖 Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – eBook on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

Grady Tripp and Terry Crabtree, former college friends, are now self-destructive adults whose rare meetings erupt into zany events. Grady is a professor at a small Pittsburgh college with an unfinished, 2,000+ paged novel titled “Wonder Boys,” and has already destroyed three marriages. Terry is a sexually predatory editor who has been patiently enduring Grady’s writing block, and finally makes a decision to fire him. Then comes a potential “wonder boy” — a talented but dishonest student named James Leer — into the mix, thus launching a series of darkly funny misadventures.

Nonfiction about science and vaccines

These are books to learn from.

They might seem a little bleak,” Ross said. “But it’s really interesting to see what happened in our history.”

🔬 Jonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs – eAudio on Hoopla

Explore this authoritative, biographical account of Jonas Salk based on hundreds of personal interviews and access to Salk’s sealed archives. We gain a more complete picture of this complicated scientist, including his role in preventing polio, his part in developing the influenza vaccine, and the silence his work received from the scientific community.

➡️ The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – eAudio and eBook on Overdrive/Libby

Henrietta Lacks was a poor black mother of five and wife to a steelworker, but her cells became a significant tool in medicine, including the development of a polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. While her cells, named HeLa, were bought and sold all over, Henrietta remained virtually unknown as a person while her family could not afford health insurance. This is a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine.

💊 The Laws of Medicine by Siddhartha Mukherjee – eAudio on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

When Dr. Mukherjee was a young, isolated medical resident, he discovered a book called The Youngest Science and asked himself the fundamental question: Is medicine a science? He spends his career exploring this question, as he investigates his most perplexing cases. This book is a fascinating look into the struggles and joys of the medical profession.

🌿 Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Have Shaped the History of Medicine by Thomas Hager – eBook on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

There is a story behind every drug, whether it was an insight gleaned from oddball research, an unexpected side effect discovery during clinical trials, or new breakthrough technology. With these stories, explore the evolution of our culture and practice of medicine, starting with opium, the “joy plant,” to the new frontier of monoclonal antibodies.

Nonfiction about past outbreaks

🇬🇧 The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson – eAudio on Hoopla, eAudio and eBook on Overdrive/Libby

London has emerged as one of the first modern cities in 1854, but by lacking the infrastructure to remove garbage and maintain clean water for its rapidly expanding population, a terrifying disease emerges that nobody knows how to cure. A local physician and a member of the clergy jump into action to solve the most pressing medical riddle of its time as the cholera outbreak takes hold. Combined with the rise of cities and exploration of scientific inquiry, this is a riveting history of an epidemic that shaped our world.

📜 The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly – eAudio on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

One of the most compelling events in human history, this plague devastated Asia and Europe during the 14th century with incomprehensible results. By exploring the journey of this plague, we learn what it means to sit in Siena or Avignon while hearing of thousands dying just a few towns away, or living in a society where the bonds of blood and law has lost all meaning. More than just an exploration of the statistics of 75 million lives lost, this is a historical account with emotional impact.

🌎 The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston – eAudio on Hoopla, eBook on Overdrive/Libby

A deadly virus stemming from a rain forest in central Africa suddenly appears in Washington, D.C. with no cure to be found. Within a few days, countless victims have died and a military SWAT team of soldiers and scientists have mobilized to stop this outbreak. This is a dramatic story of a rare and lethal virus crashing into the human race, highlighting that truth is often scarier than fiction.

📓 How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France – eAudio and eBook on Overdrive/Libby

A definitive history of the battle against the AIDS epidemic, this book tells the story of grassroots activists who helped turn HIV from a fatal infection into a manageable disease. These men and women had to become their own researchers, lobbyists, and drug smugglers while being largely ignored by the rest of the world. This is an insider’s account of this pivotal moment for American civil rights.

Quick tips on e-books

So, you can’t go into a library right now, but you can check out these books right now from your electronic devices. Even if you don’t have a library card, you can sign up for an online library card.

Carnegie Library encourages readers to check out its eResources, specifically Overdrive (along with the Libby app) and Hoopla, which offers tons of great titles for all ages.

Need help? Try these tutorial videos or give your local library a call.

Looking for more?

Librarians list staff picks online. Or if you’re looking for tailored recommendations just for you, fill out this book recommendation form.

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