Saturday, April 30, 2016


Two recent books on the New Books shelves at the Monrovia Public Library highlight the brutality, the senselessness and the politics of war. Although set in different time periods, geographic locales and from different viewpoints, the books share some common themes.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 is a beautifully written narrative about a somewhat unfamiliar war which divided the left-leaning Republicans and the fascist Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco and backed by the Nazis. The war was immortalized by Ernest Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls and by Pablo Picasso in his artwork Guernica. In Spain in Our Hearts historian Adam Hochschild chronicles and analyzes the War by telling the stories of those involved, including the Americans and others who joined the Republicans and the journalists who reported the war (including Martha Gellhorn who married Hemingway), as well as unfurling the complex politics and propaganda surrounding it. The Nationalists won the war and Franco ruled Spain until 1975. The War is remembered as a very unique conflict in which a volunteer army lost to an organized force.

Memoirs by war correspondents always cite the dangers of reporting from battle zones. NBC’s Richard Engel’s new book And All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East is not just a gripping read, but also a terrific overview of the history, politics and geography of a region riddled by chaos and war.  Engel covers his 20 years of eyewitness reporting about the Iraqi war, the Arab Spring and the rise of terrorism; his prose reads like a thriller. Most heart pumping is the story of his 2012 kidnapping in Syria. This fast-paced work will especially appeal to those who like behind-the-scenes books.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Cholera. Ebola. Aids. West Nile Virus. Did you ever wonder the exact source of these epidemics? Pandemic by Sonia Shah is an amazing new book that presents the scientific, social, economic and geographic origins of a great many pathogens and how they emerge and then re-emerge in present day.  A compelling book on which readers will have a laser focus, Pandemic doesn’t require a scientific background to enjoy. Instead, it is non-fiction reading at its best, offering both food for thought and facts that call for later discussion. Book groups should take note of this fascinating book.

One of the most interesting revelations in Pandemic is the role commerce and transportation have played in the spread of disease. While the destruction of rain forests has led to the closer proximity of animals and beasts and allowed microbes to infect people, the vast reaches of ships and airplanes have allowed the infected to spread contagious disease throughout the world.  Author Shah highlights the history of cholera and how it spread from rural India to cities like Paris, London and even early New York. The role of fresh water as a simple antidote to cholera is particularly interesting. Ms. Shah’s last chapter called Tracking the Next Contagion will fascinate.

Look to the Monrovia Public Library for Pandemic as well as other books on epidemics. Flu by New York Times science writer Gina Kolata is about the 1918 influenza. Plagues and Peoples by William McNeill is the classic book on how disease affected history and details the role of the Black Plague. In The Cruelest Miles author Gay Salisbury tells the story of the Alaska diphtheria epidemic of 1925 and how only sled dogs, led by the famous Balto, could bring the antitoxins to the snowed in region.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


So what current Broadway plays and musicals are thrilling theater goers?  Find the literary origins of these shows by checking out the original books at the Monrovia Public Library.
Hamilton is one of the most innovative musicals ever and the hottest ticket on Broadway. The writer Lin-Manual Miranda liked biographies and bought Ron Chernow’s book Alexander Hamilton at the airport on his way to a vacation. Rap master Miranda then took the story of our first Secretary of the Treasury and wrote the book, lyrics and music to create the blockbuster hip hop musical with a multi-ethnic cast and in the process won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem, known for his enchanting stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe villages wrote the story Tevye’s Daughters which became the Broadway favorite Fiddler on the Roof.  Tradition is the well-known song from this story of a milk man, with 5 daughters, who tries to continue his religious culture. Barbara Isenberg’s Tradition is also the title of a book about the history of the musical, how it was created and how it went from Broadway to Hollywood.

Those of a certain generation can sing many of composer Carole King’s best known songs like Take Good Care of My Baby, Up on the Roof and I Feel the Earth Move. In her memoir A Natural Woman, Ms. King told her story which was created on Broadway as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
And, let’s finish with some wonderful children’s books that became Broadway plays: Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit and Matilda by Roald Dahl.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016


Who would imagine that author Helen Simonson lives in Brooklyn, New York? This native Brit who grew up in Sussex has lived in the United States for 30 years, but her writing seems to embody all that is English. Ms. Simonson originally worked in advertising and as a young mother took a Beginning Fiction class at her local YMCA. She said she wrote about England and its countryside because of her nostalgia for the place where she grew up. 

And, what a countryside village and villagers Ms. Simonson created in her debut work, the extremely popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. This novel has the usual suspects, but with a modern twist and a large dose of compassion, understanding and humor. The Major in the story is a widower who lives in a charming lodge, and the local shop is owned by a Pakistani widow, the attractive and wise Mrs. Ali. Their romance set amid cultural differences and relatives whose values are different does not always sail smoothly, but readers will find enormous satisfaction in this charming novel that combines both beloved stereotypes and a surprisingly different storyline.

Helen Simonson returns to rural England with her new The Summer Before the War. One reviewer called it “a novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal.” Beatrice Nash is a bicycle-riding well-educated young woman who arrives in a small town to teach and the locals react with shock at their first female Latin teacher.  Set just before World War I the book combines not just the changing lives of women, but the quality of life for everyone as the war commences. Great characters, romance and gentle humor also make this a treat for readers.

Sunday, April 17, 2016


Not just baby boomers are thinking about the aging process and what will keep their minds ready, able and free of too many senior moments. Although the medical and scientific communities do not always agree about what keeps the brain sharp and without debilitating illness, there is general agreement that exercise, good nutrition and making brain use a priority will help prevent cognitive decline. So what is on the shelves at the Monrovia Public Library that might help stimulate your mental activity?

A good general book is Brain Longevity is not just about how to retain your brain power but also to rejuvenate it once it is lost. Author Dharma Khalsa is a doctor who sites scientific studies to defend his theories.

Maybe your goal is to fight forgetting. In Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, author Joshua Foer studies with the mental athletes who teach him an assortment of memory methods.

 Are you a word person who likes the idea that vocabulary games will fire up your brain? The Scrabble Book by Derryn Hinch is a classic title for all skill levels and promotes winning strategies. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary will help players develop greater vocabularies.  And if your method of brain fitness is to read, try Word Freak by Stephen Fatsis, which is all about competitive and obsessive professional Scrabble players who play to win. Always wanted to try crossword puzzles? Then read How to Solve Crossword Puzzles by Norman Hill.

Whatever direction you are going to stay mentally fit, remember that all roads lead to the public library where every kind of book is available.