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.