APRIL 2013

Mama Day 
Gloria Naylor 

Gloria Naylor is a masterful storyteller and in Mama Day she shares with readers a suspenseful generational saga filled with love, wonder and magic.  The story is not necessarily an easy read, but just like spring can be frustrating in its inability to commit to the release of winter, Mama Day is a tale that keeps pulling you in.

Much has changed since this novel was first written.  Even the contemporary characters live in a world that is more than 20 years ago.  But the story still has the same power that made it a sensation and a book club favorite in the '90s.  Set on the island of Willow Springs, off the Georgia coast, the story is about the summer, “When Cocoa came visiting from New York with her first husband, a stone city boy name George.  It was the year of the last big storm that blew down [Mama Day’s] pecan trees and even caved in the roof of the other place.”

Mama Day is the dominant force on the island, and she only plays mind to the weather.  She is a direct descendant of the legends of generations past and the keeper of the magic passed down through the years.  She is also the great-aunt of Cocoa, a stubbornly emancipated women who is at risk to the darker forces.

The book lends itself to solid discourse on a number of topics: voodoo, slavery, folk traditions, love, families and island life.  Ms. Naylor conveys these sentiments with literary devices, including references to Shakespeare, the time period of the novel and the dialects used by the narrators. There is no question that the locales -- both Brooklyn and coastal Georgia lend context and romance to the story.

The story comes to an emotional crescendo, which makes it worth the read.  It’s a story about listening.  “Think about it: ain’t nobody really talking to you.  We’re sitting here in Willow Springs, and you’re God-knows-where.  It’s August 1989-ain’t but a slim chance it’s the same season where you are. Uh huh, listen.  Really listen this time: the only voice is your own."

A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor is the American Book Award-winning author of The Women of Brewster Place published in 1983 and Linden Hills, published in 1985. She is a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University.

Related Links
Gloria Naylor Quotes

Same Shelf
Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

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    The Language of Flowers 
    Vanessa Diffenbaugh

    Reviewed by Barb Brabec

    The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s first novel, is a mixed bouquet – blending themes of abandonment and loss with forgiveness and redemption.

    Scarred from a childhood spent in one foster home after the next, Victoria Jones has given up trying to be likeable. We meet her the day she is departing from a group home in San Francisco; her housemates nearly start her mattress on fire with candles to commemorate her 18th birthday.

    It turns out Victoria is no stranger to fire, as we come to know as the author takes us non-chronologically through her checkered past in the foster care system.  She lingers on her relationship with Elizabeth, one of her foster parents who lives in a bucolic vineyard north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

    Elizabeth is the foster parent who introduces a 10-year-old Victoria to the Victorian practice of attaching meaning to flowers. Traditionally used to convey romantic feelings, Elizabeth has used flowers to try to remedy a strained relationship with her sister, among others. She patiently and lovingly teaches Victoria the meaning of flowers through this old English tradition, and, along the way, the importance of stability and family.

    A devastating fire at Elizabeth’s family vineyard leaves Victoria’s future in shambles, and her ability to literally rise from the ashes – with many twists and turns along the way – makes the Language of Flowers a real page-turner.

    Other characters include Meredith, a social worker with the near-impossible task of finding homes for Victoria; Renata, a neighborhood florist who inspires in Victoria an outlet for her unique talent with flowers - her gift of helping others through the flowers she chooses for them; and Grant, the recipient of Victoria’s always thoughtful, yet sometimes misconstrued, communication through flowers.

    Diffenbaugh captures the peculiarities of San Francisco neighborhoods well, and deftly describes the vineyards to the north. There are some elements of magical realism in the book, particularly the depiction of Victoria’s living arrangements – she goes from living in womb-like space in the corner of a leafy San Francisco park, to a tucked-away closet in the apartment of a punk rocker. These settings – less “home” and more “garden” – are thoughtfully described, but seem pretty far-fetched, particularly when Victoria finds herself in a family way.

    The Language of Flowers uniquely describes Victoria’s unconventional journey to contentment.  Diffenbaugh practically ties up the novel with a ribbon – perhaps too pretty and perfect – but she creates a beautiful bouquet nonetheless.

    In addition to a satisfying first novel, Diffenbaugh, a foster parent herself, has established the Camellia Network (camellia, in the language of flowers, means “my destiny is in your hands”), in order to create a nationwide movement to support youth making the transition from foster care to independence. For more information, go to www.camellianetwork.org.

    For more information, reader's guide and flower dictionary go to: http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/features/vanessa_diffenbaugh/

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    I really can't remember the first time I read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but I remember feeling exactly the way Claudia does. Her begrudging respect for her younger brother and exasperation at the responsibility you inherit just because you are the oldest.  Claudia's voice was penned from the remarkable and gifted E. L. Konigsburg.  On Friday, April 19, Ms. Konigsburg, passed away. She was 83 years young.

    Elaine Lobel Konigsburg was born in New York City but grew up mostly in small towns in Pennsylvania.  The first in her family to earn a degree, she attended Carnegie Mellon University majoring in chemistry.  She met her husband in a lab, pursing a masters degree at the University of Pittsburgh and then teaching science at a private girls school.  She didn't begin writing until her three children were in school.  They and people she met along the way formed the basis for characters in her books.


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    She wanted to write children's books, according to an interview with Scholastic Books, because she wanted document what it was like to grow up.  When she was of school age, she didn't have books that reflected a point of view to which she could relate.  Konigsburg put it this way,  "The kids I write about are asking for the same things I wanted. They want two contradictory things. They want to be the same as everyone else, and they want to be different from everyone else. They want acceptance for both."

    E. L. Konigsburg wrote more than 20 books that did just that.
    The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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    The Moon and Sixpence
    William Somerset Maugham

    The Moon and Sixpence is intriguing from the outset because of its premise.  A fictionalized account of the life of Paul Gaugin (Charles Stickland in the book), it walks the reader through the author’s encounter with a genius.  “The greatness of Charles Stickland was authentic.  It may be that you do not understand his art, but at all events you can hardly refuse it the tribute of your interest.  He disturbs arrests.  The time has passed when he was an object of ridicule, and it is no longer a mark of eccentricity to defend or perversity to extol him.”

    The first two chapters, before the narrator meets up with Strickland, are a little long, but stick with it.  The story picks up quickly after that.  How much poetic license does an author have with a real person’s life? Are some other characters in the book also based on real-life people? (Van Gogh immediately comes to mind).) What of the actual story of Gaugin’s life, which hardly needs an imaginary version? There are just some of the questions to ponder during discussion.

    If you have ever seen Gaugin’s work of Tahiti, or even if you have not, the scene Maugham paints while Strickland is on his island hideaway makes you feel like you are there.

    William Somerset Maugham was born in 1874. His works include Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge.  He was also a successful playwright and short story writer.

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    Irving Stone