Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

"Do you really think you're the only human being alive who is unforgivably flawed? Who's been hurt almost to the point of breaking?"
After 18 years in the foster care system, Victoria believes that yes, she is the only one. And as a consequence, friendship, love, and redemption seem the stuff of fairy tales-of other people's lives.

In her debut novel, The Language of Flowers, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh takes us into a world that very few of us really know: the life of children (and the adults they touch) in foster care. In doing so she manages to steer a careful course between the opposing shoals of sermonizing and romanticizing, and guides us straight into the life of Victoria, a young woman caught up in the current.

As many of us do, Victoria tries to find the balance between swimming against the tide and simply trying to stay afloat. Neither course is entirely successful, nor is it an absolute failure. Hampered by her inability to share her feelings verbally, Victoria falls back on her second language; the symbology of flowers. Through her almost instinctive ability to see the message in her floral medium, she finds a way to reach out to a handful of fellow travelers, a lifeline out of her self-inflicted solitude. But each time she throws the rope away, knowing in her heart she does not deserve to be saved, afraid to be tied to anyone or anything.

There comes a point in your life that you find that what prevents you from moving forward is not what is in front of you - it is what is behind you. The overwhelming weight of your past can anchor you in place, and rob you of your future. Often, a series of events will bring you right back to that point you started from, and you must confront the flood of your fears all over again.

The Language of Flowers is the story of anyone that has made that journey back into the light, back into the stream of life. Sometimes you may sympathize with Victoria, at others you just want to shake some sense into her, but you can never be ambivalent about her. By title and subject Flowers may give off the scent of being "chick-lit", but there is nothing perfumed about life here - there are plenty of falls and thorns among the roses.

I don't judge books by their covers, but rather by how eager I am to pick them back up and reluctant to put them down. By all my marks, Vanessa Diffenbaugh speaks a language that I understand.

[Follow up note: Although at the time I wrote this review this book had not been officially released, I see that subsequently it did become a bestseller. Happy to hear that!].

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Grandma's Dirty Little Secret

Book Review: My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner by Meir Shalev

This is how it is: author Meir Shalev has taken the threads of family history and woven them into a tale that drapes as easily as a babushka over the head of the family, in this case Grandma Tonia. Every family has a skeleton or two in the closet; Grandma has a sweeper in the bathroom. Or does she? A story doesn't have to have a point -- the story IS the point.

As the title My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner implies, this is in no small part a tale of the clash of cultures (and cultural values). Americans have long been upheld as the personification of luxury and comfort, and reviled for those very same qualities at the same time. 'Luxury' implies laziness, 'comfort' equals complacence. It is not simply a case of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots', but goes deeper into values and ideals.

And when your ideal is cleanliness, the value of a vacuum cleaner would be priceless, or so one would think. Like magic the dirt disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. It is a miracle of modern science, as long as we ignore the law of conservation of mass. And then at last the weighty dilemma occurs - who sweeps the sweeper?

Shalev manages the diversity of cultural history and values with sure hands - the story of My Russian Grandmother could happen anywhere, and in any time. In fact, I am sure it has. While not everyone has a Grandma Tonia or an Uncle Yitzhak, we have all had people like them in our lives and in our own families. The idiosyncrasies that make us individuals are the very things we have in common.

An enjoyable read, filled with humorous insight into obsessive-compulsive behavior as well as the Freudian aspects of a manicure, My Russian Grandmother is part James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times, part my own uncle Dave reminiscing about life on the farm in the Depression (if my family had been Jewish and Israel was Minnesota.) If you don't have stories like this in YOUR family, you should make some up.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Dogs Really Want

Book Review: In a Dog's Heart: What Our Dogs Need, Want, and Deserve--and the Gifts We Can Expect in Return by Jennifer Arnold

There are at least as many books on raising dogs as there are on raising children, and undoubtedly as many points of view. There are scores of television shows and Internet sites professing to have the "secret" of success in teaching Fido what to do, and more importantly, what NOT to do. So what makes In A Dog's Heart any different?

What makes companion animal trainer and dog rescuer Jennifer Arnold the voice we should listen to?

She starts with one simple premise: treat "man's best friend" like a friend. Dogs have evolved and grown alongside mankind for thousands of years. Their wants and needs are parallel to our own - to be physically well, to be safe, to know friendship and love, and to be content in their lives. And as dogs help us find these things for ourselves, as friends we should help them do the same.

Arnold points out that much is made in current dog training of the "pack mentality" of the dog's wolf ancestors. The theory is that our dogs must be taught their place, with we their owners as the "alpha" canines. Arnold shows (and research supports) that dogs are not wolves, and even if they were, a pack is not a group of individual animals fighting for dominance. A pack is a family unit; the alpha pair are the parents, and the pack works together to supply its needs. Think about it - a group of animals continually fighting each other for dominance would not last as a unit for long in the wild. And they won't last long in the home either.

Arnold gives us helpful pointers for understanding our dog's behaviors from the dog's perspective. He just wants to be well, and safe, and loved, and happy. He simply lacks the vocal ability to tell us how that can happen. He acts out his worries and fears (like many of us humans do as well). We need to learn to read the signs, not browbeat our friends into silence.

And no that doesn't mean we let our dogs run wild. Arnold also teaches how to deal with problem behaviors, from chewing furniture to jumping up to biting. Dogs have spent millennium learning to get along with us; we need to spend a few hours returning the favor.

As a lifetime dog owner (I have three right now) I found In a Dog's Heart to be a humane, insightful, and knowledgeable approach to selecting, raising, and enjoying a healthy loving dog.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A World Long Ago and Far Away

Book Review: The End of Sparta by Victor Davis Hanson

I recently observed to a friend that the further we range in time from the present the more fantastic it becomes. Both the distant past and the distant future become speculative and mythologized through the lens of time; voyages into unknown and unseen lands.

The End of Sparta is Victor Davis Hanson's effort to throw back the veil that hides our past, and show us the people that lived behind it. Through his effort we are able to see that not much has changed in human character. In the battle for Sparta we find the same motivations and strivings that we do today: power, money, fame, love, faith, and justice.

Yet at the same time, Hanson shows us that the world was very different as well. It is a land of unfamiliar names, ancient weapons, and mythical creatures. At times I felt as if I was in a fantasy world, journeying not to Sparta but to Mordor, preparing to battle the Dark Lord. I won't belabor a comparison that many would contest; only noting many of the same themes and intricacies of the greater work The Lord of the Rings

Personally, I enjoyed the End of Sparta as a story in the classic vein. Such are the characters that myths are made of; the simple farmer who slays a king, the freed slave who liberates a people, the opposing general whom none can kill. To be honest, it is of a different caliber than most "historical fiction", which are histories written by novelists. This is a novel written by an historian, at once scholarly and inspiring.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

History, Elegy, and Autobiography

Book Review: The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille

In The Mirador, Elisabeth Gille, daughter of novelist Irene Nemirovsky, creates a new genre: the autobiographical novel. Mirador (literally translated as "watchtower") allows Gille to look out over the life of her mother through her novels and notes against the background of Europe in the early 20th century.

In the process she enlightens us to a part of history that we (as Americans) have too little exposure; namely the events in Europe leading to the Second World War. Writing in the first person, Gille is able make a personal connection with the life of her mother that she was denied in real life. The historical context of the First World War and the Russian Revolution give the personal aspects of the story a factual tone; the reader must remind himself that with some exceptions the words are not those of Irene herself.

Sadly, we in the United States have a limited view of European history. The Mirador enables us to obtain a glimpse into the turmoil that took place in Russia during the Revolution, and in Europe during and after World War I. The destruction of lives and property during the Great War and the financial toll of war reparations afterwards combined to accentuate political and ethnic tensions in an unprecedented manner.

On a personal note, it gave me insight into the attitudes and beliefs leading to the Holocaust -- I never fully understood why the Jewish people did not flee when the danger seemed so apparent. As any of us would, they believed they had the reasonable expectation of safety; I am sure that Irene was not alone in maintaining "I will not emigrate again." The very people that she depended on for safety turned on her in the end. I cannot fully comprehend their experience, but the scope of my understanding has been widened.

It is a testimony to the writing talent of Elisabeth Gilles that she was able to craft the story of her mother's life in such a moving way. The Mirador serves as an act of reconciliation between mother and daughter, a moving elegy for a talented novelist, and a valuable and timely reminder of the tragedies of war and intolerance.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What Really Matters

Book Review: Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic's Search for Health and Healing by Tim Parks

What happens when a person grounded in rationality and whose faith lies in science and technology, finds themselves face-to-face with a problem beyond the reach of modern medicine?

Tim Parks, a man who found it impossible to sit still, finds himself on a journey to a place he could not conceive or believe in his quest for answers. In Teach Us To Sit Still, he gives us a glimpse of that journey.

Tim Parks was in pain -- an insistent, intractable, undeniable pain. He went to doctor after doctor, underwent test after test. The professional opinion was that there was nothing really wrong with him; that is, nothing that would explain the pain. Procedures were suggested, not with any promise of relief but for lack of better options.

His experiences with medical professionals in different countries (England and Italy) echo my own in this country. The patient should do what he is told, the experts know best, and his friend the surgeon will wait until he comes to his senses. "There is part of me," he says in describing one procedure, "at these moments, eager to rebel. Yet I never do. I imagine it is the same at executions."

But slowly, reluctantly, he does rebel. Averse to anything he would call faith-healing, he dips his toes into various streams of alternative medicine, always keeping one foot firmly on the ground of logic. Even with his doubts and distrust of anything remotely mystical, the pain starts to recede. It is not any one thing that brings him back to well-being, no more than it was any one thing that made him ill to begin with.

Tim Parks is not proselytizing for any cure. This is not The Idiot's Guide to Prostrate Pain; it is not a self-help book with a checklist of do's and don'ts. Teach Us To Sit Still is the story of Tim Parks' "process of self-purification by self-observation." It is a help-full book, a tale of one man's re-discovery that the devil IS in the details - in the seemingly inconsequential matters that make up our daily lives. In our headlong rush to the next big thing we are missing the point of the journey. Tim Parks is sharing his.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Story Within the Story

Book Review: My Favorite Band Does Not Exist by Robert T. Jeschonek

Deity's Syndrome: "Multisystemic symptoms resulting from a psychosomatic manifestation of the unshakable fear that the patient is a character in a novel".

That mouthful of psychological jargon is the diagnosis for the character of Ideal Deity in Robert T. Jeschonek's My Favorite Band Does Not Exist. It also sets the stage for a wild allegorical ride through philosophical thought from the Greeks to modern Western philosophy.

The characters we meet are always more than they seem. Symbolism is rife in every name, occupation, and physical description. Janus, two-faced god of beginnings and transitions makes an early appearance, albeit in female form, and is there to guide Ideal along the path from existential solipism, through Cartesian dualism, and finally to nondualist enlightenment. Along the way we meet Descartes' "evil genius" and a host of mythological and religious figures as friends, foes, or fellow travelers. All of this is set in the current world of online music, Twitter, and the Internet - well, except where it moves into a different reality.

Jeschonek does a great job of matching the actual format of the book to the story. You know when you are reading the book within the book because, well it's a book within the book! The language and concepts are accessible; this is not a philosophy text full of 6 syllable words. As the novel moves towards its closing, the story does gather speed, flipping through reality like a deck of cards in Alice in Wonderland, and it can be a little hard for the reader to keep up.

The question in the back of my mind throughout this fast-moving book was, "Would a teenager like this?" The book is targeted to ages 12 and up (grades 7+), and some of the vocabulary and plot twists are more appropriate for the higher end of that range. I can see this being used in an English classroom to teach metaphors and symbolism; motivated students would have a field day deciphering names and finding hidden symbology. But would they read it for fun? I'm just not sure. I definitely know some kids who would love this - and some who would glaze over a few pages into it.

That being said, if you know a young adult that likes a story with a little more story to it, and enjoys sci-fi/fantasy, I heartily recommend My Favorite Band.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Post-Apocalyptic Archetypes

Book Review: Blood Red Road by Moira Young

The new hot genre of the moment for young adult readers seems to be the Apocalypse, or rather the Post-Apocalypse. It's beginning to beg the question: how many ways can writers end the world before it actually happens?

Written in the form of a first-person narrative, Blood Red Road by Moira Young is the story of a young girl's journey to rescue her twin brother, set against a post-Apocalyptic background. Told in the backwoods dialect of the heroine, Saba, the story ranges from the deserts to the mountains of Saba's homeland. Along the way she picks up help from likely and unlikely fellow travelers. Saba comes of age in the course of her journey, in more ways than one, her horizons irrevocably expanded from her childhood home at Silverlake.

Admittedly, at times it feels that the book is simply a derivation of previous end times works like David Brin's The Postman. Even the cage fighting of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is invoked during Saba's effort to find and save her brother. Initially I found myself being critical of the story not being "original", and cynically ranking it as a re-working of other authors. I had to dig a little deeper into my own conceptions to rate this story correctly.

As with any genre of literature, post-Apocalyptic tales have common themes and characters. From the Book of Revelation through Stephen King's The Stand there is a continuity of concept in the balance between salvation and damnation. The inevitable struggles of the hero and the duplicity of the villain are grounded in symbols as old as human existence, and naturally find their way into accounts of the end of humanity as well. The commonality of human experience may be archetypal, but that is the very reason we celebrate it in literature.

Moira Young may be cultivating previously tilled soil, but she does it with style and enthusiasm. What saves Blood Red Road is what sets apart any work from its fellows: the Story. The book is eminently readable, the plot cohesive and understandable for its teen target audience, and adults as well. The action is fast but doesn't leave the reader behind in a cloud of verbal dust wondering what happened, or why. This is the debut novel for author Moira Young, and I look forward to further work from her.

[Reviewers note: There are now 3 books in the Dustlands series]

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Lost Art of the Essay

Book Review: Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland

In the experience of the average American, the word essay brings to mind a formalized piece of writing inflicted on us in the course of high school English classes. Successor to the "book report", and predecessor to the "term paper", the essay has become a formulaic piece of drudgery that has lead more students to avoid writing as a communication method than any other form of public education.

In an effort to make the essay an achievable goal for the average student, the process has been broken down to the cellular level. Students are micro-managed in their essay-writing, to the point of being instructed not only how many paragraphs are permitted in a "good" essay, but also as to how many sentences in a paragraph, and how many words in a sentence. Grading is done by word count; content is irrelevant as long as the proper mechanics are used. It is small wonder that students throw up their hands and buy a ready-made one off the Web.

It was not always thus. The essay has its roots in the Renaissance, and left its mark on writers from Descartes and Rousseau through Huxley to Asimov. It is in this tradition that Edward Hoagland guides us in Sex and the River Styx. In the original meaning of the word, essay is "to try" or "to attempt", and Hoagland attempts to bring us along on his journey to a different perspective on life, love, and death.

In doing so we have to make a jump, not only in our understanding of what an essay really is, but in our reading as well. This is not a novel, quickly paced and easily digested while waiting in the airport. This is a book not to be read so much as mined, to be dug into, its truths extracted like prized nuggets. The digging is not always easy, but it is well worth the effort.

Each of the essays in this baker's dozen is a work unto itself; while related to each other and the whole they are not dependent on one another for understanding. They do not have to read in a particular order - choose a spot to your liking and start digging. Take your time and savor the effort, allow yourself to feel the textures, the woof and warp of the fabric Hoagland has woven.

It may not make you enjoy writing essays, but Sex and the River Styx might give you a new take on reading them.