Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).

September 2019 Reading Review

A rather good reading month, as it turned out (despite the initial craziness of back-to-school). I’m having (and enjoying) a big focus on the TBR pile right now (hopefully, this will continue until the end of the year), and also an ongoing craze on NF… I’m loving it all. 

  • Total books read:        12 (including 2 x halfway-through-DNFs)
  • Total pages read:        2,886 (av. 240)
  • NF: 9 (75% of total)      
  • F: 3 (25% of total)
  • TBR: 9.
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 54%. <takes a bow>
  • Library: 3 (including 1x ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 1. (Oh dear.)   
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 5 females + 2 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs (new for this month): 2. (I’m getting better at this.) 
  • Oldest title: 1951. 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 340pp.
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 122pp.

Here’s what I read in September:

Now that October is here (and September, to me, has to have been the longest month in the entire year), I’m looking forward to some gradually cooling temperatures, slightly fewer daylight hours, and the steady routine of the university semester. 

Plus – I have this horde of books from the recent FoL Book Sale. <rubs hands with glee>

Fun times. Total Nerd Fest, but fun.

You know how sometimes you have a weekend when it seems like you didn’t do much but you still had a lovely time? When you put all goals toward efficiency to one side in favor of doing not much? Well, last weekend was one of those. It was great. 🙂

Both the SuperHero and I had had a busy week, so by mutual agreement, we had no social plans and not much else on the books. Despite this, it was still a fab weekend for a variety of reasons. Plus – it rained. A lot. (Not very common for this semi-desert area and very conducive to hanging around at home.)

One of those reasons was that we went to see a matinee of the new Downton Abbey film… (Fun plus Alamo had put together a funny recap of the previous six seasons prior to the film).

Another one of those reasons was that it was the weekend of the big annual book sale at the FoL which, although I have no absolute need for any more titles, I went to. I typically take Friday afternoon off from work and go at that time to avoid the crowds but this year, thought I would take the risk of a Saturday attendance. 

(It wasn’t too bad in the end, but goodness gracious me: if there was one thing that I could change, I would make parents take better charge of their ill-behaved children: No, you can’t suddenly sit down on the floor in the middle of the aisle and read your book. No, you can’t run around screaming right now. Pro-point for bringing kids to the sale: the kids are being exposed to lots of books and the library itself. Anti-point for bringing kids to the sale: Think of the other people.) 

I ended up with a good stack of books, although heaven knows when they will get read (!): 

Non-Fiction titles: 

  • Home – Ellen Degeneres [2015] – (coffee table/interior decorating/design and I like this sort of thing)
  • The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks [1985] – (sounded interesting)
  • In Search of London – H.V. Morton [1950] – (loved Morton’s In Search of England)
  • Journeys to the Past – David Attenborough [1981] – (true recollections of his animal days)
  • One Writer’s Beginning – Eudora Welty  [1983] – (Actually thought this was another author entirely, so not sure about whether I’ll keep this one.) 

Fiction titles: 

  • The Forgetting Room – Nick Bantock [1977] – (he who wrote the Griffin and Sabine books and I loved those)
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu [2007] – (heard good things plus POC)
  • Life after Life – Kate Atkinson [2013] (heard good things)
  • Mama Day – Gloria Naylor [1988] – (love Bailey’s Café [1992] before plus POC)
  • The Darling Buds of May – H.E. Bates [1958] – (classic and been on list awhile)
  • A Death in the Family [1957] – James Agee (classic and been on list awhile)
  • Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner [1971] – (been wanting to reread this and no copy at library)
  • Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [1968] – (ditto above except not a reread)
  • Lost Horizon – James Hilton [1933] – (thought might be interesting and classic – also potential read for scary October)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes [1962] – Ray Bradbury (for scary October reading)

Plus – I was completely sucked in to Jigsaw Puzzle world with this one (from a rug design by Frank Lloyd Wright): 

Snow Angels – Stewart O’Nan (1994)

For my next read (this one from the TBR shelves), I pulled “Snow Angels” by Stuart O’Nan (1994). O’Nan and I have crossed paths with previous reads (see Emily Alone (2011) [which I loved], The Odds (2012) and Wish You were Here (2002)) and a movie (Last Night at the Lobster Café), and we really have rather a mixed view of each other. (He’s a little middle-aged male angst-y for me at times, although Emily Alone was nothing like that.) So in a past FoL Book Sale, I had tracked down another of his titles and that is what I pulled off the shelf for this read. It looked like a pretty solid run-of-the-mill American drama read.

And it was, overall. It’s a short read, but it covers a lot of mileage. Let me steal the description used for the 2008 movie-of-the-book from Rotten Tomatoes:

Waitress Annie (Kate Beckinsale) has separated from her suicidal alcoholic husband, Glenn (Sam Rockwell). Glenn has become an evangelical Christian, but his erratic attempts at getting back into Annie’s life have alarmed her. High school student Arthur (Michael Angarano) works at Annie’s restaurant, growing closer to a new kid in town, Lila (Olivia Thirlby), after class. When Glenn and Annie’s daughter go missing, the whole town searches for her, as he increasingly spirals out of control.

So, right from the get-go, you (as the reader/viewer) know it’s not going to be a huge barrel of laughs. It is rather sounding as though I didn’t really enjoy this novel, but it’s not that I didn’t “enjoy” it so much as that it was a little (a lot) darker than I had hoped for. (My fault. I accept that. There are lots of clues in the description about how dark it could be and I just didn’t pick those up.) Despite this unrelenting shadow over the story, it was still a pretty good read.

This title was about a small group of very normal people living their lives in a cold and grey northern U.S. town and where one of their young children disappears… (So – no. Not a lot of happy in that plot, is there?…)

But despite the plot being pretty bleak, it was a good read that kept me turning the pages to see how things turned out for these characters. One of the protagonists is young Arthur, a typical middle-school-aged boy whose life has been torn apart from his parents’ divorce and who is directly impacted when his much-loved former babysitter suffers from a litany of rather tragic events. And Arthur, actually, was the reason why I kept reading as these awful events occurred, I just had to make sure that Arthur was still soldiering on ok.

O’Nan is a good writer overall. He has some strong descriptive skills and he can pull together a cast of characters about whom you unexpectedly care. I think where the trouble lay was that there were no glimmers of happiness for any of his cast – none of them – and the lives that lay ahead of them were obviously not going to improve much over the years.

I think that if you enter into this read KNOWING that it’s going to be a rather gloomy book with characters who are surviving their lives (more than enjoying them), you’ll be ok. Honestly, the actual story was good – it was just a little too dreary for me, I think. I would have liked just a sprinkling of positivity for just one of the characters… So – I think O’Nan and I are done now. Thanks for the reads, sir (especially Emily Alone*). It’s not you. It’s me. :-}

And now I’m reading a NF that is taking a close look at honeybees… (Flowers. Summer months. Sunshine. Just a bit of a change of pace from the previous read!!) Along with this brilliance, another bright spot is that the annual FoL Book Sale is this weekend! Yabba dabba doo.

  • And Emily Alone is so good, that it’s probably going to be reread. Yes. That good.

Vacationland – John Hodgman (2017)

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

Lottery – Patricia Wood (2007)

This was a random FoL book sale pick and from just reading the back-cover blurb, it seemed like it had the potential to be a good read. So I chose it. Then it sat on the shelf for about two or three years until the other day, when I pulled it down and read it. I still had very little idea what to expect during the read itself, but you know what? I was surprised. It was a good one.

It’s a novel and a fast-reading one at that. It’s not fast-reading because it’s written in a simple manner – it’s simply fast-reading because I ended up really caring about the main characters and how their lives ended up, and when I turned that last page, it was a read where you emit a sigh of satisfaction as you close the cover.

So – what’s it about? It’s a novel that follows some of the life of Perry J. L. Randall (the “L” stands for “lucky”) who is a developmentally-challenged man who wins the Washington State Lottery when he is thirty. What happens to him after this life-changing event is the narrative arc of this story. However, kudos to Patricia Wood for not choosing the simple “Forest Gump” way out of the story though. It’s definitely a thoughtful read.

Perry is independent in his own way, as much as he can be. He was raised by his grandma and when she died, he was at a loss. A job at a marine supplies company saves the day for him and provides him not only with meaningful work but also a support team of friends and colleagues who will look out for him. Things really get interesting when Perry wins the lottery ($12M)…

It’s not a mind-shattering read, but if you’re looking for a fairly uncomplicated (without crossing over into “too simple”) read with believable characters about whom you’ll think when you’re not even reading the book, you’ll like this novel.

Wood is (was?) actually a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii who was studying disability rights, and so she is well-versed in how to include a developmentally-challenged protagonist in a respectful and inclusive way (even to the point of writing it from Perry’s own POV and in his own style). I enjoyed it and it was a good reminder that there are still good people out in the world.

For a random read off the shelf, this was a solid effort. I enjoyed it. Plus – another one off the TBR…

(Another random fact: Wood’s own father actually won his state’s lottery in real life.)

A different kind of reading…

Last weekend was a longer break than typical since it was Labor Day, which typically signals for many people, that summer is over. (Not by temperatures since around here, we’re still in the 90s during the day, but in terms of the monthly calendar.) Seeing as we didn’t have a lot scheduled, I planned to do some shopping (shoes :-}) and a lot of reading.

(Outcome was successful, although I’m truly dreadful at buying shoes. We’ll see how this pair work out for me! But come on – leopard-skin Keds? How can you go far wrong with those? I’m trying to be on-trend this autumn (for the first time in ages), and apparently, fake leopard is very in. 🙂 )

To the reading: The Superhero had to work on Monday which meant a quiet day in our house (apart from Nova Dog barking at all those people who have the gall to walk by our house without a hall pass). I happened to clean out the magazine rack and in doing so, was reminded of two mags which I’ve had for more-than-enough time to read them. Yesterday was that day. (See pic above for deets.)

The first was a special issue from the New Yorker with a bunch of true crime stories that they had culled from years of earlier issues, and that included the old chestnut from Truman Capote (the first installment of “In Cold Blood”). I haven’t read this since my freshman year in college when I was fresh off the boat from England, so didn’t really remember much of it, but it was such a good read that now I’m interested in reading the entire book by Capote. It was the one of the earliest examples of narrative nonfiction (or longform nonfiction) and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t appreciate it for what it was when I read it back then. Now it’s on the list for the next visit to the library.

Other true crime stories were spread over the last forty years of the twentieth century but I wasn’t really familiar with the crimes they mentioned. Still – overall, a pretty good read. Glad I’ve read it, glad it’s off the pile, but one day later, pretty forgettable. :-}

The other mag that I had pulled from this pile was from a writing conference I attended last year about writing narrative nonfiction. This journal was put out by the sponsoring university and included the year’s best writing (as chosen by judges from the conference). A good selection of pretty diverse nonfiction, but as above, one day later, I can’t really remember any of the individual stories. (I am now worrying whether this says a lot about me as a reader! Maybe I need to start being a lot more intentional when I read!!)

I enjoyed this taste of nonfiction essays and learned a lot about how to structure a similar one should I end up writing something along these same lines. It was a good change of pace from longer reads and fit my Monkey Mind of the other day! Plus – off the pile and out of the house.

Win-win.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it.

I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

August 2019 Reading Review

Had a good month of reading in August, the last month of the summer (for some of us). It was a mix of leisurely enjoy-the-last-few-days of break combined with the getting-ready-for-student crush, but overall pretty fun.

Here’s what I read last month:

Plans for September? Get back into the swing of things for teaching this semester, continue to read from the TBR pile, prepare for the annual FoL Library Sale (woo hoo!), and just be.