Monday, March 2, 2015

JANE SMILEY: A MIDWEST POINT OF VIEW



Born in Los Angeles, the incredibly prolific author Jane Smiley spent 24 years living in Iowa before she returned to California to live in Carmel. In an NPR interview she said about Iowa, "I got so many ideas there and I had so many thoughts there and it was such a great place to live." The Midwest seems to be a great source of inspiration as farming plays a role in many of her novels, which are on the shelves of the Monrovia Public Library.


Ms. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for A Thousand Acres, a novel in which she reimagines Shakespeare’s King Lear. The patriarch of a farm family divides his property between his three daughters, but when one objects to the arrangement, the family and the farm fall into despair. This is a realistic and biting book about morality and family relationships.

The newest book is Some Luck, the first of a trilogy that will eventually cover 100 years. It should especially appeal to those who love sweeping epics. Beginning with the Depression, the first 30 years in the life of the Midwest Langdon family unfold. Births, deaths, bad and good economic times are covered. What might at first glance seem pretty mundane, becomes a powerful story of generations in the same family that readers care about.

It is not all bad luck with Jane Smiley. Her dash of humor delights in Moo. She describes an agricultural university where scheming professors, secret romances and pampered pigs reign. Wit is a hallmark of another book, this time about the world of horse racing. Horse Heaven is a winning novel that pulls back the curtain on wealthy owners, jockeys, trainers and everyone involved in the insular world that circulates around everything equine.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

SCANDALOUS READING WITH A MONROVIA CONNECTION



What is it about true crime, scandals and celebrity news that attracts readers?  This kind of news dots the headlines of the Los Angeles Times and People magazine, but there are also some terrific books on the topic, including a new blockbuster at the Monrovia Public Library.

One of Hollywood’s biggest crimes and scandals occurred 93 years ago in 1922 on Alvarado Street in Los Angeles. The murder victim was William Desmond Taylor, a silent film actor and director with a quiet reputation for dating both ladies and gentlemen, and a valet with a criminal background who knew Taylor’s secrets.  On Taylor’s dead body was a locket with a picture of one of the hottest and most talented actresses of the day, Mabel Normand, a known drug user.  Another girlfriend was the starlet Mary Miles Minter whose mother did not get along with Taylor.

Because the studios feared that the public would regard Hollywood as a sin city, they tried to cover up the story of the murder and the possible suspects. The story was too big to contain and the combination of celebrity, sex and drugs and the inability to pin the murder on any of the suspects made the headlines. The crime is also a cold case that still continues to fascinate.  Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is a new investigation of the case and all its personalities. The book also captures the movie industry and the vices of show biz. Author William Mann has written a compelling read for those who like Hollywood history and true crime stories.



The Monrovia connection?  William Desmond Taylor’s younger brother abandoned his wife, Ada Brennan Deane-Tanner, who then moved to Monrovia to seek treatment for tuberculosis at the Pottenger Sanatorium, where her sister was married to a supervising physician named John Pomeroy.  Because Ada was destitute, Taylor sent his sister-in-law a monthly check. When reporters heard about this connection, they headed to Monrovia to get the scoop.

Monday, February 23, 2015

WHERE THE SPIRIT LEADS



Books on self-improvement, psychology and spirituality have always been popular requests at the Monrovia Public Library. The Library’s spiritual section covers not only religion, traditional and otherwise, but also books about people’s quest for meaning and enlightenment. Here are some of the newest titles.

The Future of God: A Practical Approach to Spirituality in Our Times by Deepak Chopra is a book that promotes a belief in god, particularly in the face of modern times where there are so many scientific discoveries and where life can be so difficult. Chopra denies atheism and says that disbelief is just a step on the road to belief.  He asks readers to look to their own experiences as sources of spiritual awakening.

Having conversations with God, whether through prayer or talking to oneself, is pretty common, but graphic artist David Wilkie takes it to another step with Coffee with Jesus. This collection of cartoon strips from Wilkie’s online comic features a robed Jesus talking to people, fashioned from 1950’s style clip art advertisements, about life, politics, relationships and work. This spirit-filled and fresh look at “what Jesus would do” is not a parody of religion, but a thought-provoking work.



Polls show that people are stating a greater disinterest in traditional religion or attending church on a regular basis. Author Phil Zuckerman takes a look at the sociology underlying this trend in Living the Secular Life and points out that just because people do not adhere to specific religious rules does not mean they are not driven my moral beliefs.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: NEW MEMOIRS



What is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? An autobiography, an author’s own life story, generally covers lots of chronological ground and relates events and emotions in a more factual manner. A memoir focuses more on the personal and is not limited by time.  Both autobiographies and memoirs can be found at the Monrovia Library, but let’s take a look at some of the newest memoirs on the shelves. 

New York Times columnist Charles Blow has written a heartbreaking memoir of his youth and how his being molested by an older cousin helped shape the man he became. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is about a black kid growing up in the South, where a legacy of poverty and racism was ever present, and where a bright kid took the opportunity to go to college and succeed, but is besieged by the secret of his past. Unable to escape, Blow uses this memoir to tell his story and find his redemption.

In Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival Persian journalist Maziar Behari writes about being imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Inhumanely treated, he finds strength in remembering how his father was once jailed by the Shah of Iran and his sister by the Ayatollah. Through his memories the recent history of Iran is revealed. The title comes from the only thing he knew about a brutal captor—how he smelled like Rosewater.


The size of a record album, Peter, Paul and Mary: Fifty Years in Music and Life is not a classic prose memoir. Instead it is a memoir told through images and tidbits of words. This collection of photos is accompanied by personal letters and the public and private speeches and words of the musical threesome. Written by Peter Yarrow, the Peter of the group, this is the story of a musically amazing trio and the impact of their folk music on social issues.

Monday, February 16, 2015

STANDING OVATIONS: AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN PLAYWRIGHTS



Because we are celebrating Black History Month, let’s look at some talented African American female authors whose plays are on the shelves of the Monrovia Public Library.

With a title taken from a Langston Hughes poem, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry is one of America’s most celebrated and performed plays. Debuting on Broadway in 1959 with Sidney Poitier and revived in 2014 with Denzel Washington in starring roles, this is the story of a black Chicago family who uses part of an inheritance to buy a house in a white neighborhood.  The new neighbors, not wanting African Americans in their community, offer to buy the house at a higher price.  The 1961 and 1989 film and television adaptations of A Raisin in the Sun can also be found on the DVD shelves. 

Another play where the Library also has the film is For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Playwright Ntozake Shange’s feminist play/prose/poem is about a group of women of color who share the intimate and emotional parts of their lives.
A student at the American Negro Theater and the first African American woman to have a play produced in New York, Alice Childress was a multitalented actress and author who also wrote books and screenplays. Her plays include Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White about an interracial relationship. Less a romance and more a stark look at racism and sexism, the play was controversial when it was performed in 1972.
 
Bringing us to the present is Suzan Lori-Parks who won the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog about two African American brothers at odds with each other. Also on the shelves is Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays.