Please welcome the author of The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, to On the Bookcase! She has made a "Dictionary of Flowers" that in relationship to her novel, that will make for a great book club resource.
When I began The Language of Flowers, I owned only one flower dictionary: The Floral Offering: A Token of Affection and Esteem; Comprising the Language and Poetry of Flowers, written in 1859 by Henrietta Dumont. It was an ancient, crumbling hardcover, with dry flowers pressed between the pages. Scraps of poetry, collected by previous owners and stored between the yellowed pages, slipped to the floor as I scanned the book for meanings.
Three chapters into Victoria’s story, I myself made the discovery of the yellow rose. In the table of contents at the beginning of Ms. Dumont’s beautiful book, the yellow rose appears as jealousy. Hundreds of pages later, in the very same book, the yellow rose appears again: this time as infidelity.
Reading through the book more carefully, I found no explanation for the discrepancy, so I went in search of additional dictionaries, hoping to determine the “correct” definition of the yellow rose. Instead, I found that the problem was not specific to the yellow rose; nearly every flower had multiple meanings, listed in hundreds of books, in dozens of languages, and on countless websites.
The dictionary shown here was created in the manner in which Victoria compiled the contents of her boxes. Lining up dictionaries on my dining room table—The Flower Vase by Miss S. C. Edgarton, Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers by James D. McCabe, and Flora’s Lexicon by Catharine H. Waterman—I scanned the meanings, selecting the definition that best fit the science of each flower, just as Victoria would have done. Other times, when Icould find no scientific reason for a definition, I chose the meaning that occurred most often or, occasionally, simply the one I liked best.
My goal was to create a usable, relevant dictionary for modern readers. I deleted plants from the Victorian dictionaries that are no longer common, and added flowers that were rarely used in the 1800s but are more popular today. I kept most food-related plants, as Victoria would have, and deleted most nonflowering trees and shrubs because, as Victoria says, there is nothing wistful about the passing of sticks or long strips of bark.
I am grateful for the assistance of Stephen Zedros of Brattle Square Florist in Cambridge and Lachezar Nikolov at Harvard University. This dictionary would not exist without their vast knowledge and generous support.
To write The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh found inspiration in her own experience as a foster mother. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford University, Vanessa taught art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.
Author Alice Hoffman has written a letter to all readers about her new novel, The Dovekeepers (April 2012).
Once in a lifetime a book may come to a writer as an unexpected gift. The Dovekeepers is such a book for me. It was a gift from my great-great grandmothers, the women of ancient Israel who first spoke to me when I visited the mountain fortress of Masada. In telling their story of loss and love, I’ve told my own story as well. After writing for thirty-five years, after more than thirty works of fiction, I was given the story I was meant to tell.
The Dovekeepers is a novel set during and after the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.). The book covers a period of four years as the Romans waged war against the Jewish stronghold of Masada, claimed by a group 900 rebels and their families. The story is taken from the historian Josephus, who has written the only account of siege, in which he reported that two women and five children survived the massacre on the night when the Jews committed mass suicide rather than submit to the Roman Legion. It was they who told the story to the Romans, and, therefore, to the world. I have researched The Dovekeepers for many years, relying not only Josephus’s account, but also on the findings of Yigal Yadin, the archeologist who lead the Masada project.
I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant. The tragic events of the past and the extraordinary sacrifices that were made in this fortress seemed to be present all around me. It was as if those who had lived there, and died there, had passed by only hours before. The temperature was well over a hundred degrees and the horizon was shaky with blue heat. In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.
All My Best,
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City in 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one. She has published a total of twenty-eight works of fiction. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Hoffman is currently a visiting research scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She lives in Boston.
Please welcome Kate Furnivall, author of The White Pearl, to On the Bookcase! In an essay she has written, she tells us how note taking is the key to writing her novels. Take it away Kate!
I am a fanatical note-taker! My problem is that I love doing the research too much. Once I get started, I can’t stop. I make hundreds of pages of notes, most of which I will never use, but they fill my head with the time and place I intend to write about. For The White Pearl I had to be so familiar with Malaya in 1941 that I could move with ease through the world I was going to create for Connie.
I devour everything I can lay my hands on that will expand my knowledge of the period, some fiction but mainly non-fiction. I adore memoirs. They are a rich vein of information because they provide the kind of intimate details that no historian would bother to record. These personal accounts are wonderful for helping me build the daily life of my characters. I get excited about discovering facts about a whole new subject – like the planting and milking of rubber trees. Nigel’s passion for them in the book was a reflection of my own. The temptation is to include too much research material, but I always keep in the forefront of my mind that the characters and plot have to come first.
I thank the Internet, Amazon and Google Books from the bottom of my heart. They give me access to facts and accounts that it would otherwise take me a lifetime to track down. Whatever the subject – the flying snakes of Malaya, the sail configuration of native trading boats, the placement of guns in Singapore or the address of General Percival’s headquarters – there is always someone out there who has written about it. I thank them all. Where possible I also spend time in the country I am writing about, but I am cautious about doing so, because I can’t bear to see McDonald’s and Coca-Cola signs eclipsing the 1930s world I have conjured up in my head. But this is where old film footage and old photographs are invaluable. Often a photograph, curling at the edges, will tell me more than any number of books.
One of the problems of living with research notes is that the facts and places become so fixed in my own mind that it is easy to forget how much the reader does – or doesn’t – know about the period. The city of Darwin in Australia is a case in point. I refer to it at the end of The White Pearl, because, as a strategic military port, it was savagely bombed sixty times between February 1942 and November 1943, causing great devastation and killing many inhabitants. A dangerous time for everyone.
With themes of self discovery, history, and culture & world issues, The White Pearl is a great book club pick!
Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and currently lives in Devon, England. Married and the mother of two sons, she has worked in publishing and television advertising. She is the national bestselling author of The Jewel of St. Petersburg, The Girl from Junchow, The Red Scarf, and The Russian Concubine.
Jessica Goodell has written a memoir entitled Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq about her duties as a member of the mortuary affairs unit of the Marines. She was inteviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. This memoir is intense but highly discussible. With themes of military, women's lives and personal challenges, paired with the NPR interview, this book will surely get your book group talking.
"This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Everybody knows the expression no Marine left behind, but do you ever think about who does the work of retrieving the remains of fallen Marines, identifying the bodies and preparing them to be sent home to their families?
During the war in Iraq, the Marines created their own Mortuary Affairs Unit to do that work. My guest, Jess Goodell, served in the Marines Mortuary Affairs Unit in al-Anbar Province in 2004. She was constantly surrounded by exactly what you can't let yourself obsess on when you're at war: death, bodies mutilated by IEDs.
The work was saddening, sickening, necessary and important. It took a toll on her then and still weighs heavy on her. She has written a new memoir about her work in Mortuary Affairs, her experiences as a woman in the Marines and the difficulty of adjusting to life back home after what she witnessed. It's called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq."
—Introduction to "Jessica Goodell on Fresh Air with Terry Gross"
Please welcome Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling to On the Bookcase! She tells us about how her new novel came to exist and what initiated the interest in researching "the way female desire changes over time."
I kept hearing stories: How, at a cooking class, one woman had apparently told everyone that she had given up "that part" of her life forever. All around the room, the other women nodded empathetically; they knew what "that part" meant. How, over drinks, a friend had confided, "I would pay someone to have sex with my husband." How, on the message boards devoted to young motherhood and all its accoutrements, women described never wanting to be touched by adult male hands again.
Something was in the air, or at least in the conversation, and the prurient part of me was interested. But so was the writer part.
The subject of women withholding sex from men is an ancient one; in Aristophanes' comic play Lysistrata, the title character encourages the women of Greece to stop sleeping with men in order to end the Peloponnesian War. There have been more recent examples of sex strikes around the world, both in art and in life—not all involving war. What if the women's reasons for turning away from men are hard to explain? What if they're emotional, or biological, or have something to do with being angry at men for running the world and basically ruining it? And then, of course, there's despair, and vulnerability, and the fact that childbearing days have come to an end, so sex for its own sake needs to be really wonderful, or else why bother.
Women's magazines have long been on the diminished-desire beat. The articles they publish seem to be increasingly brain science–based, in addition to including traditional anecdotes from unhappy bedrooms and professional advice from a kind and knowledgeable therapist. (The word "candles" might get mentioned, prescriptively.) But what interested me most as a novelist wasn't primarily the latest psychological or neurochemical research into female arousal, or lack thereof. Instead, I just wanted to take a look at the way female desire changes over time. And it definitely does change. There may not always be an outright war between men and women, but something's certainly going on now, in "that part" of women's lives, and I wanted to see what it was.
That's what I've explored in The Uncoupling. I decided to work Lysistrata into it, at least around the edges, imagining what would happen if the play cast a spell over a group of girls and women in that same invisible way that love and the beginnings of desire seem to cast a spell, too, entrancing their subjects, changing the way they think about themselves and the lives they've been living.
"In The Uncoupling, bestselling author Meg Wolitzer sets up a twenty- first century parable that blends the supernatural with the decidedly real. . . . The Uncoupling is a fast, fun read, and like all off-kilter thought experiments, it asks us to reexamine the experiences we accept unthinkingly as well as the very language we use to describe them. Desire is enchanting, but its sudden absence can feel like a curse."—NPR
Meg Wolitzer is the author of eight previous novels, including The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.
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In the LHJ book club pick, Vaclav & Lena, author Haley Tanner tells the story of a young Russian immigrant boy’s obsession with becoming a great magician. While Vaclav studies and practices his magic, his best friend, love interest and assistant, Lena, hides behind the illusions of her horrific home life. It’s a delight to read how Tanner skillfully marries the literal theme of magic with a deeper metaphor and exploration of illusions.
When discussing the book with your club, ask members to identify examples of the use of illusions. What are the tricks behind them? How might we be using illusions in our own lives to hide or protect ourselves? What magic in life is worthwhile? Here are some brief excerpts from the book that illuminate the theme to get your conversation going.
When Vaclav and Lena are reunited as teenagers, they both reveal more self-awareness in trying to control the unmanageable parts of their lives.
“’Same thing’, he says, meaning same thing as when you left, meaning still magic, still trying to take care of you with my mind, still trying to control events using supernatural powers.”
When Lena finally settles into a relatively normal life with her new mother, she has a hard time maintaining the mirage of happiness, as she is haunted by her past.
“This is especially difficult when she must lead a meeting of the student council or the art club, or rally her teammates at soccer practice, but she gets through it, one minute at a time, by pretending.”
During a moment of introspection and clarity while escaping to a bathroom stall in her school, Lena realizes how she uses the illusion of different personas as a coping mechanism.
“She decides that the spots are keys to living a life as a complete person, not as a disjointed puzzle person made up of many different people trying to masquerade as one person.”
This leads Lena to another observation. She’s not the only one masquerading—everyone around her is projecting an ideal self-image to hide behind, an illusion to mask their perceived inadequacies.
“Everyone wants to go about as if they were a fantastic superhero, born into the world complete; no one wants to acknowledge that they are self-consciously creating themselves, but everyone is. Everyone is, Lena thinks.”
This month's Food by the Book selection is The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.
Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant. Placed with the slaves in the kitchen house under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her new adopted family, even though she is forever set apart from them by her white skin. As Lavinia is slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles an opium addiction, she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When Lavinia marries the master's troubled son and takes on the role of mistress, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk. The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail..
The recipe offered with is this book is "Belle's Molasses Cake."
1/2 cup butter
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 cup of molasses
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 dashes of ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inchsquare baking pan.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg. In a separate bowl, combine the milk and the molasses. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Add each of these alternately to the butter mixture, beating well between additions. Spoon batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Enjoy!
It's one-of-a-kind: a list of favorite DISCUSSIBLE books for book groups! Though there are many lists of books and many book awards, not all of the books on them make for the kind of lively, fun, interesting, thought-provoking, unforgettable discussions that reading groups crave. Well, here's your chance - join with thousands of other book group members to tell us which books did all that for your group in 2011. We'll compile and publish the list for you, and let you know how it compares to those chosen in previous surveys.
What worked for your book group this year? Your colleagues want to know! How do you connect with authors, if at all? What do you and your group think of e-books and audiobooks? The survey is up and waiting for these answers too, but it won't take long to complete - we know how busy you are!
And when you complete the short survey, Reading Group Choices will enter your name into a random drawing for $100 to jazz up your next get-together! Five lucky groups will win a $100 prize!
Complete the Survey
You and your group can use the survey results to select some great discussibles that you may not have otherwise chosen. To see what we mean, take a look at past years' lists.
See Past Years' Favorites
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everytihng in between!
Samuel Park: Congratulations on the release of your book! It's a pleasure to e-meet you and be interviewing you about your work. There was so much in All the Flowers in Shanghai that I could relate to, and I'm delighted that I get to ask you about it.
Duncan Jepson: Thank you very much and thanks for taking the time to read my book and ask me these questions.
SP: You’ve had a successful career in film and documentaries. What inspired you to turn to novels, and what specifically inspired you to tell this particular story? Did your background affect the process at all?
DJ: Storytelling by writing feels to me like planting seeds and then leaving the tending and cultivation to another, the reader and their imagination. I think a good book propels the reader on a journey that is as much theirs as the authors. Film is different, it’s direct and fast, over in a couple of hours. Whether comedy or tragedy, it must be executed precisely enough to suspend disbelief for the duration, taking the viewer away on the filmmakers’ journey. For this story, writing seemed to give me more freedom to explore and immerse myself in the character and ideas than the demands of film.
SP: I really enjoyed your use of a female point of view in the novel. Not only that, but you tell the story in the first person. Could you talk a little about the challenges of doing so, and maybe discuss how one can successfully pull it off?
DJ: Well, I hope I pulled it off successfully. I just tried to s tick to the basic rule of creating a character and remaining true to it. The challenge seemed to be telling the story of a character who is not Western and does not think in a Western manner f or Western readers. For example one of the difficulties is that what Westerners see as “forsaking individuality,” something abhorrent, in Asian cultures at that time and even now it was not questioned because the concept of the “individual” was very much absent, so it wasn’t a sacrifice—it was (and is) simply what happens.
SP: I hope I'm not ruining it for anybody by noting that your author’s note at the end of the book talks a lot about your mother. How did she inspire the book, and how did she affect your experience of writing it?
DJ: My mother had told me that she had not wanted to return to Singapore after she had qualified as a doctor in England in the mid 60s. My grandparents had not required anything specific of her but my mother explained there were expectations and at the very least she wanted to marry someone she loved. I think many Westerners don’t realize that these expectations still exist and are widely felt. I wanted to explore the idea that these expectations are actively passed from mother to daughter, not necessarily imposed by the father, and to understand what it would take for a woman to reject these traditions.
SP: The book contains a lot of very precise descriptions of life in Shanghai. What was the process of researching life in 1930s Shanghai? Were there any discoveries that you made that you weren't expecting?
DJ: In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time in Shanghai, particularly at the Peace Hotel where jazz and Western dancing had been available since the 30s and 40s. I spent much time walking around by myself and listening to people’s experiences. I think the main discovery was just how modern Shanghai had been and how people had embraced the world openly. People (including young Chinese) don’t realize that the Communist dogma and perspective is only recent.
SP: Readers are often fascinated by China. What is it about this country—its customs, history and culture—that you think intrigues people so much? Are there any insights about it that you hope people will get out of the book?
DJ: In the early 90s I met a long-lost relative who was a farmer. He lived in quite a remote part of Fujian Province in China. I was full of passion for events in China such as the Cultural Revolution and when I asked him about living through it he said he’d hardly noticed it. I liked the idea that someone like Feng could live isolated from events simply by virtue of the very culture and traditions that led China to revolution—insularity by the elite. How people thought and behaved is one of the most interesting aspects of history and culture. We live in a small world and we have to start understanding each other better, we’re not all the same and we are not all going to immediately believe in the correctness of one way of living, whatever that may be. I hope by reading the story people will think a little about how different human beings can be at a very fundamental level. China now looms large in the world and we’re all desperate to know what that means.
Thanks Samuel and Duncan!
Samuel Park is an Assistant Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago. He is a graduate of Stanford and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate in English. He is the author of the novella “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Alyson Books, 2006) and the writer-director of the short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Duncan Jepson is the award-
winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.