Saturday, March 28, 2015

ERIK LARSON: HISTORIES THAT READ LIKE NOVELS



Writer Erik Larson has the distinction of being one of the most popular and bestselling non-fiction authors.  Able to pick fascinating and obscure historical topics and bring them to life, his books read like novels. Influenced by the work of Raymond Chandler, Larson’s books are suspenseful and engaging. Larson began his career as a journalist and his attention to research and accuracy may have sprung from his reporting days. Don’t miss his exciting books found on the shelves of the Monrovia Public Library. 

One hundred years ago the British ocean liner Lusitania left New York on a voyage to England, but it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. When the ship sank more than 1,200 people died, including many Americans. The rallying cry of “Remember the Lusitania” encouraged America to enter World War I. Erik Larson’s new book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is an investigation of exactly what happened, including a look at the personalities and politics involved. Attempting to unravel some of the mysteries of the Lusitania, Larson has written a dramatic and compelling book.

A favorite of book groups is Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Set in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Fair this is a history that simultaneously focuses on two personalities, the architect who designed the fair grounds and a serial murderer who lured his victims to their deaths. The story of the fair and its amazing buildings offer a background and a respite from the bloodcurdling cunning of the murderer. Masterfully told, this is a book that will keep you up into the wee hours.



Who remembers the name of the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazism? With In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin Larson tells the story of William Dodd and his family who arrive in Germany little prepared to understand or confront the unraveling terror and or to persuade Americans about the threats that the Nazis imposed. The portraits of family members and of Nazi members are particularly mesmerizing and the political issues are related in an easily understood way.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

SPRING HAS SPRUNG



Now that March 20 has come and gone, it is officially spring. Called the Spring or Vernal equinox, this is the time of year when the sun crosses the earth’s equator making day and night approximately the same duration, each being 12 hours. That is the scientific explanation, but spring means so many other things—flowers blooming, bunnies hopping, and shedding our old skins and jumping into something new. There are so many books devoted to the topic of spring, each with its own angle, and here a few from the shelves of the Monrovia Public Library. 

People love it or hate it and always have. In Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Savings Time author Michael Downing has plumbed the depths of history and hearsay to chronicle all the facts and myths of why we change our clocks twice a year. Daylight savings time started in Germany before spreading to other European countries and then to the U.S. This is a story of legislators, bankers, farmers and scientists who debated springing forward and then falling back. Humor and history mix in this entertaining book.

The hills of California are alive with the presence of wildflowers. Introduction to California Spring Wildflowers of the Foothills, Valleys and Coasts by Philip Munz is a classic guide that tells readers where to go to witness the glory of spring and illustrates and names many kinds of wildflowers.

In spring our attention turns to the rebirth of what has been missing during the colder seasons. Popular novelist Mary Kay Andrews has written Spring Fever about a divorced couple who rediscover love. This title is for readers who enjoy gentle romances. 

Our attention also turns to our cluttered houses and the annual rite of tidying up. That rite is highlighted in another light novel, The Spring Cleaning Murders by Dorothy Cannell who sets her mysteries in an English village. Ellie Haskell has hired a cleaning lady who is mysteriously murdered. Ellie goes undercover as a char woman to solve the crime. A charming setting and quirky characters make this an enjoyable read.

Monday, March 23, 2015

ALEXANDRA FULLER: OUT OF AFRICA



Alexandra Fuller’s first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood was a memoir that startled readers and earned a place for Fuller as an accomplished and original writer. It is the story of a girl whose family moves from England to Africa and lives in Rhodesia during a war that set whites against blacks, the latter who wanted to free themselves from British rule. Young Alexandra’s parents, segregationist farmers who continually choose to live in hostile environments, do not accept that they are interlopers and teach Alexandra to use a gun. Full of childhood observations about life in an Africa, where her infant siblings die and where the environment teems with danger from the flora and fauna and from her parents who drink and fight, this is a fascinating autobiography that reveals an alien world. 

Ms. Fuller’s follow up book is Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which further relates the story of her continually on-the-move family and focuses on her mother, both an alcoholic and a glamorous woman. Fuller’s narrative mixes present and past as she looks back at her mother’s earlier life that is fraught with humor and tragedy. Readers will cringe at the discomfort of this dysfunctional family, but they will also laugh at the many humorous moments.

Leaving Africa for the United States, the author settled in Wyoming in 1994 and wrote a modern day western centered in that state. The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, non-fiction told with literary license, is about a good-hearted young roughneck oil rigger who falls to his death from an oil well.  Spotlighting the lack of employee safety provided by oil companies, this book is a change-of-pace for Fuller, but still maintains her storytelling skills and ability to engage readers.


Leaving Before the Rains Come is Alexandra Fuller’s newest bestselling book in which she returns to her youth in Africa to probe the origins of her own emotional issues as she and her husband divorce. This is another terrific memoir from an outstanding writer.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

ALL THE PRESIDENTS’ CHILDREN



The lives of the children of the presidents are always open to scrutiny by the press and the public. Stories about President Carter’s daughter Amy reading Nancy Drew books at state dinners or President Kennedy’s daughter Caroline riding her pony Macaroni at the White House always seem to amuse. There are plenty of books on the topic of these children. When it is the presidents’ children themselves who write books about their fathers, it is from a special perspective. Here are some of these books on the shelves at the Monrovia Public Library.

The newest is 41: A Portrait of My Father, which is a very special, because it was written by one president, George W. Bush, about another president, his father George H.W. Bush. This is a very affectionate memoir about a loving father and accomplished statesman. George W. does take time to talk about the roots of some of his own decisions, but the most engaging parts are about the personal aspects of Bush family life.

The most prolific writer of all the presidential children was Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret. She wrote several book about her dad, including the biography Harry S. Truman, Letters from Father and a collection of Truman’s writings called Where the Buck Stops. Margaret is also known for her popular mystery series that take place at famous Washington, D.C. venues. Some of the many titles are Murder in the White House, Murder in the Smithsonian and Murder at the Library of Congress.

 President Reagan’s son Ron wrote about the 40th president after his dad had passed and the book is called My Father at 100. Ron balances stories of his loving, but somewhat distant, dad with a look at how his father grew up, learned his values and grew in political stature.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

ALL ABOARD: MYSTERIES SET ON TRAINS



Yes, there is a need for speed and yes, time is money, but there is something special about taking a more leisurely train. If you're looking for adventure, a nostalgic railroad train is the way to go. The Monrovia Public Library has many fiction and non-fiction books on train travel, but let’s focus on a timeless genre: mysteries set on trains. Trains are great places for crime stories because they are enclosed spaces with places to hide, the passengers have a certain anonymity and there’s so much to witness from the windows.

Two of the greatest classic mystery stories are Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Both authors are considered queens of the mystery genre and both wrote intensely plotted novels with vivid characters and multiple surprises. Published in 1934 and filmed 3 times, Murder on the Orient Express is about the death of a businessman who is stabbed multiple times. Christie's detective Hercule Poirot must solve a mystery where many passengers have a reason to murder the victim. Strangers on a Train is a 1950 psychological mystery about two train passengers who do not know each other, but agree to murder each other’s nemesis, supposedly ensuring that neither will be a suspect.
 
One-legged Moscow police officer Porfiry Rostnikov, a favorite Stuart Kaminsky character, must locate a courier with a mysterious package on Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express. Kaminsky’s grasp of Russian life and history mixed with intricate storytelling make this enjoyable reading.



Proving that favorite genres never go out of style, a new bestseller is The Girl on the Train. Author Paula Hawkins has written an atypical story of Rachel, a divorced sad-sack woman fired from a job for over-imbibing alcohol. Every day on the train she muses about a happy couple she sees from the window and then suddenly she becomes a suspect in a crime involving the couple.