Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Long before cable news and social networking sites there were newspaper headlines, television interviews and tabloid stories about two women that rose to the top of popular culture. These two famous women from the recent past are being re-examined in new biographies that can be found at the Monrovia Public Library.

Jeffrey Toobin, attorney and author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, revisits one of the last century’s truth-is-stranger-than-fiction histories in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. The title almost says it all in this page-turning look at the events and personalities surrounding the 1974 kidnapping of a wealthy college student by a ragtag group of revolutionaries. When Ms. Hearst joins the group, but is not present for the group’s shoot-out with Los Angeles police, the story becomes even murkier. The author parses the evidence in this incredible story, which includes Ms. Hearst’s later presidential pardon. Readers who have not thought about Patty Hearst in years, or who enjoy suspenseful non-fiction, will enjoy this terrific book.

One person who always seemed to turn up in the news was Helen Gurley Brown, who exploded onto the publishing scene with her book Sex and the Single Girl and her much-imitated magazine Cosmopolitan. Not Pretty Enough by Gerri Hirshey is a fascinating biography of the plain Jane who held numerous secretarial jobs before transforming herself into a glamour-puss and becoming the editor of the highly influential Cosmopolitan. What fascinates is the author's ability to corral all Ms. Brown's contradictions into a revealing and sympathetic book.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Louisiana seems to stay in the news. Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of New Orleans in 2005 and recent flooding earlier this year caused loss of life and dwellings. The state is also known for its tremendous cultural tradition that includes great literature, music and food. Let’s take a look at a native Louisiana author whose novels have become contemporary classics - find them at the Monrovia Public Library!

African-American author Ernest Gaines was born in 1933 and is descended from sharecroppers. He grew up in an area where Black children picked cotton and were barely educated after 8th grade. It was a family move to California that sent the writer on the path to a college degree and the beginnings of a writing career that includes two titles that are considered great books of the Civil Rights Movement. Gaines’ books are popular both in high school and college classrooms and in book groups.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is an inspirational novel that tells the story of a slave freed after the Civil War, but soon plunged into a world of poverty in the Jim Crow south. Living 110 years, into the era of Black Power, she tells her own story. Set up like an oral history, the book is beautifully written and captures the great strength and humanity of the main character.

 In A Lesson Before Dying, a young educated teacher begins visiting a man about to be executed for a crime he did not commit. The teacher thinks he will impart education to the man who will inevitably die and instead learns about a more spiritual way of living. Called Gaines’ crowning achievement, this is a deeply moving story that packs an emotional wallop.  The 2 main characters are unforgettable.

Other Ernest Gaines novels are Catherine Carmier, a love story fraught with issues of racism, and In My Father's House, a story of redemption.

Monday, September 19, 2016


The previous blog post was all about starting a book group and choosing titles that members might enjoy reading and discussing. And, of course one genre that certainly is worthy of looking at are books about…book groups. There are some terrific titles, each with idiosyncratic charm, which can be found at the Monrovia Public Library.

Azar Nafisi taught at the University of Tehran in Iran after the revolution brought stringent rules for women. In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books she tells the story of a book club she led during the country’s tumultuous political and social events. Discussing literature, including Nabokov’s stunning novel Lolita, the students talk about their own lives.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler is about a group of 5 women and 1 man who read and discuss only books by the great English author. Ms. Fowler mirrors Austen’s wit, ear for dialog and keen observations of relationships in this modern homage.

Mary Ann Shafer’s epistolary (letters tell the story) novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is about how some residents of the English island of Guernsey met under the noses of the German occupiers during World War II. At first pretending to be a book club while practicing subterfuge, the residents discover the solace that reading brings during hard times.

One of literature's greatest books is the center of Dinner with Anna Karenina by Gloria Goldreich. In New York, some women who meet regularly to discuss books discover just how important their group becomes as they share the joys and difficulties of their own lives when they meet.