Friday, August 28, 2015


More than 2,000 miles long the Oregon Trail began in Missouri and ended in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Originally created in the 1830’s by fur trappers who needed a route to pursue their trade, the trail expanded to accommodate covered wagons and East met West as settlers came to make homes along the way in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Other roads burst forth from it and facilitated the California Gold Rush. 

So with this history in mind, let’s visit a new bestselling book called The Oregon Trail by the unusually-named Rinker Buck, a middle-aged divorced man with personal and financial problems and an interest in American history. While visiting a museum he realized how little he knew about the Oregon Trail and before the dust had settled Buck had decided to travel the length of the trail—in a covered wagon. The adventuresome Buck is accompanied by his brother, a dog named Olive Oyl and 3 mules.  What could be a one note contemporary story is an endlessly fascinating travelogue filled with history (Buck quotes original diaries of those who traveled a century plus before him), geography, disaster (any mechanical or weather disaster that could happen does happen) and differing personalities of both man and beast. Adventure and history readers will love this wonderfully entertaining book and feel every bump on the trail that the author describes. Look for this book on the New Book Shelves at the Monrovia Public Library.

After reading Buck’s account, look for other books that will give you other historical perspectives.  Francis Parkman, a historian who lived 1823-1893, explored the expanding West in The Oregon Trail: Stretches of Prairie Rocky Mountain Life. The well-to-do Bostonian who was partially blind savored the experience of traveling the trail and meeting Native Americans and trappers and his book, like the new The Oregon Trail, captures the wonders of exploring a new world. David Lavender’s Westward Vision: The Story of the Oregon Trail and Oregon Trail by Ingvard Eide complete the picture of the development of overland travel that led to a more expansive United States.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Supposedly F. Scott Fitzgerald said “the rich are different from you and me” and Ernest Hemingway replied “Yes, they have more money.”  This mythic conversation never took place. Fitzgerald remained transfixed on the rich and his classic The Great Gatsby elevated the role wealth played in achieving the American Dream.  As for Hemingway, he was less interested in money and more interested in a good insult. But what about we readers in the declining days of summer?  Those interested in reading about the rich can find some fun books at the Monrovia Public Library.

One of the hottest recent bestsellers is The Primates of Park Avenue written by Wednesday Martin. A Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and a career as a journalist gives her the heft to study the lives of well-to-do Manhattan mothers who must compete for supremacy and hold on to their status as if they are in the jungle. Part anthropology and part a humorous look at the lives, clothes and real estate of the rich, this is for readers who enjoy some good dishing. 

Kevin Kwan took over some territory usually occupied by chick lit in Crazy Rich Asians, a satirical and hilarious novel about extraordinarily rich Chinese who live in Singapore. When New Yorker Rachel Chu accompanies her boyfriend on a trip to meet his parents, little does she know just how wealthy the family is and to what lengths they will go to make sure she is a good match for their son. In the sequel that just came out, China Rich Girlfriend, Ms. Chu is now engaged to the heir to the conspicuous consumption fortune and the wild decadence continues.

 Let’s finish in our own backyard, if your backyard is on the Westside. Among the Mansions of Eden: Tales of Love, Lust and Land in Beverly Hills is a very readable history of Beverly Hills and its development from farm land to millionaire homes, but it is also a gossipy and fun look at its eccentric residents.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Some writers are stymied when their debut novels are huge bestsellers. Think Kathleen Stockett who wrote the The Help, but has not published anything since. This is not the case for author Anne Packer who continues writing after her initial fame. A student at the famous Iowa Writers Workshop, she wrote short stories and New Yorker articles and spent ten years writing her first novel. That novel was The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which became an immediate best seller, was named one of the best books of 2002 and then went on to become a favorite book group title.
The Dive From Clausen’s Pier challenges readers to think about the question, what is the right thing to do? Carrie, who has always lived in her small Wisconsin town, is bored with her life and feels suffocated by her engagement to her longtime beau Mike. When Mike becomes paralyzed in a diving accident Carrie abandons him and leaves for New York, where she finds life much more exciting. This is a very emotional book where lives are upturned by a traumatic incident. Compelled by questions of responsibility and self-interest, readers will take sides as they race through the book. 

Ann Packer’s latest novel, on the New Book shelves at the Monrovia Library, The Children’s Crusade also visits the notion of what makes a satisfying relationship and then what happens to the children who are products of an unhappy marriage. This is the story of doctor who buys a plot of land near San Francisco, plans a life and picks a wife. Some years later the wife, now the mother of four children and an aspiring artist, knows this is not the life she wants to lead. Unsettled by family, the children are now grown up, but grasping for something more.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Since the early days of the Spanish settlers through the mid-1900s, California has been a hotspot for the design and production of colorful tile. Some of our favorite buildings, including Union Station, have exteriors and interiors covered with gorgeous tiles. What is so interesting is that many of these tiles were made locally, in small towns throughout the state. Visit the Old House collection at the Monrovia Public Library to take a look at some fascinating books on this subject. 
Are you old enough to remember Adohr Milk whose delivery trucks drove up and down local streets? Adohr is Rhoda spelled backward, the first name of Rhoda Rindge whose family once owned Malibu. She started a tile company on the beach that lasted only a few years.  Ceramic Art of the Malibu Potteries 1926-1932 by Ronald Rindge shares the story of the family and their vividly glazed tiles.

Ernest Batchelder came to the Arroyo in Pasadena at the turn of the 20th century and built a house and a kiln to fire his handmade tiles. Robert Winter, Occidental College’s great historian who lives in the Batchelder house, tells the story in Batchelder Tilemaker. With themes taken from history and nature, the often three-dimensional tiles still decorate houses throughout the San Gabriel Valley. 
Both California Tile, Volumes 1 and 2, by Joseph Taylor, and American Art Tile 1876-1941 by Norman Karlson track the small companies that made unique and glorious ceramic tile. The books highlight the companies in cities like Glendale, Pomona and Southgate. And, don’t miss Catalina Island Pottery and Tile, 1927-1937 by Carole Coates. The book relates how Catalina owner William Wrigley brought artisans to the island to produce tile and to give locals employment.

Monday, August 17, 2015


The historian Joseph Ellis writes about American history and concentrates on the founding fathers (and an occasional mother) and the time and events in which they rose to prominence. Ellis’ work is highlighted by his tremendous research and a sense of immediacy that places readers into historic moments. 

The title Founding Brothers puts a spin on the more frequently used phrase and  reveals Adams, Burr, Franklin, Hamilton,  Jefferson, Madison and Washington to be dedicated to the formation of the United States, but each with his their own independent ideas and personality.  The book is unusual in that it is not a chronological history, but one that highlights 6 great developments, including how the nation’s capital was chosen.

With so many pages, including his own, devoted to fathers, Ellis succeeds in delivering a full-bodied biographical and political look at a founding mother in First Family: Abigail and John Adams. The accent here is on their shared partnership of ideas and affection.

The Quartet is the most recent Ellis book. Once again the author succeeds in presenting the founders as real people and not just stereotypical cardboard cutouts that can be hauled out in any discussion of American history and patriotism. This book is all about Washington, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay and how their leadership and compromises at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 resulted in a document that reflects a united and forever changing nation. 

Joseph Ellis writes history for curious readers. Find his books at the Monrovia Public Library.