Thursday, July 25, 2013

Language Lessons

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Had I known that sunflowers mean false riches, I would have put Gerber daisies (which mean cheerfulness) in the guest room when my brother-in-law brought his family to visit at the beginning of July.  I would not have put fresh cut hydrangeas in pretty glass vases all over the bathrooms and downstairs (hydrangeas mean dispassion).  I should have opted to cut my purple coneflowers which mean strength and health, or my pink roses which mean grace.  Had I known that the baggie full of basil I so lovingly gave my best friend Cari last summer secretly meant hate, I would have opted to fill the baggie with Oregano instead (which means joy).

I didn't know. 

But now I pay attention to the hidden meanings of flowers after reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers.  Although this book would most definitely be categorized as "Chick Lit" I loved it (since I am, in fact, a chick who likes lit).  Diffenbaugh presents an edge to her storyline that made me want to retain the secret Victorian language of flowers.  I knew that flowers had meanings.  I once attended a wedding where the bride ordered special flowers for her bridesmaids.  Each bouquet showcased flowers that emphasized the individual qualities she loved about each of the women she wanted by her side on her special day. I love the symbolic meaning of anything and to know that an entire language can exist not only for wooing a potential mate (which is how flowers were utilized in Victorian England), but to communicate so much more.  

While reading The Language of Flowers, it becomes almost impossible not to feel sympathy for the plight of the lonely Victoria who is a self proclaimed misanthrope due to her years spent in and out of foster care, her belongings in one box or bag, sharing space with other desperate girls who are aging out of the broken system.  At age 10 she comes close to happiness with Elizabeth, a vineyard owner and patient person who sees Victoria's anger and hostility as a match for her own loneliness and a window into her past self.  They come close to being a family, but the human heart holds darkness and limitations.  As Renata, the perceptive owner of the floral shop Bloom,  says to Victoria, "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?" Because Victoria wants to punish herself for past mistakes, she refuses to depart from her loveless life. 

Something about Victoria and her aversion to love, her self imposed seclusion, her inability to stay when she finds love or kindness, and her self hatred resonated with me and not because I feel any of those things in my own life or with my own personality. I felt for her.  I wanted her to find happiness.  I wanted Grant to break through her icy exterior and teach her the language of human emotion - not just the language of flowers which she can recite and help others with in their own lives.  I wanted all of them to find the reconciliation that Hazel offers.  

The Language of Flowers was a beautiful two day diversion that made me aware of the symbolism all around me.  As I look out my window right now and see my beautiful Crepe Myrtle in bloom I know it means love, and when my friend Dayna came over for lunch and brought a mason jar full of zinnias (her daughter is named Zinnia) and a purple coneflower, I know that bouquet meant strength and health and I mourn your absence.  Maybe this wasn't what Dayna wanted to say, but I love the language of flowers and have an appreciation for it even more after reading Diffenbaugh's book. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Majestic Mountains

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I cried when I finished And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini for two reasons:
1) It was that amazing
2) Khaled Hosseini's writing ability makes me cry.  It's that beautiful.  It's that well crafted.  It's that perfect.

I feel like I have learned about writing and about Afghanistan after reading his books.  Hosseini is a master at crafting beautiful story lines that show tragedy and truth.

I loved both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Out of the two of them, I probably liked A Thousand Splendid Suns better mostly because it followed the story of a woman in Afghanistan and was more hopeful than The Kite Runner.  After seeing Hosseini's latest novel And the Mountains Echoed on all the "Best Books" lists, I knew I had to own it and read it.

From the first chapter with the fable about the div that came to a tiny village and stole the youngest and most beloved child of a farmer, I was hooked.  What I loved about this book most, though, was the effortless weaving together of the story lines of each chapter where we get to know the whole life story of each character introduced throughout the book. Each chapter is almost a mini novella about one character's journey of loyalty and love where he or she comes to understand the complex nature of dependency and care taking, compassion and betrayal.  I loved that I could see each character's past, present and future, but never felt that Hosseini gave too much or too little - the amount of character development made me care about each and every heart breaking story (as Idris and Timur say, "Kabul is . . . a thousand tragedies per square mile"). The miracle of this book stems from the fact that Hossenini is able to span generations and whole continents and make the reader believe in each story line and character down to the last story (that made me cry for an hour as it mirrored the first chapter and somehow brought closure to every story in the book).

In Chapter 6, Nila Wahdati, a poet,  talks about writing in an interview.  She tells the interviewer, "I see the creative process as a necessarily thievish undertaking.  Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing, Monsieur Boustouler, and you will find all manner of dishonor.  Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants.  You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering.  You take what does not belong to you.  You do this knowingly."  She goes on to say, "I find it hard to flaunt something obtained through what I know to be morally questionable means.  I leave the decision to tout or not to others."

If Hosseni's characterization and thoughts from Nila, the tormented poet who feels trapped with a daughter she basically stole, ring true for him as a writer, I choose to tout his writing as beautiful thievery for the art of storytelling and education on the thousand tragedies per square mile in Afghanistan, and I thank him for making me feel so close to each of his characters and their life struggles and journeys.

When you wish upon a silver star . . .

The Silver Star by Jeanette Walls
I first want to say that I LOVE Jeanette Walls.  Probably not as much as my friend Cari whose mother arranged for her to go to a local  Jeanette Walls book signing. Cari considers her Walls a literary hero and proudly displays the picture at the book signing with Cari and her mom flanking Walls all three of them with gorgeous triumphant smiles on their faces prominently on her classroom desk.

When I think of my favorite books of the last 10 years, The Glass Castle makes the list.  Walls did this incredible thing while writing her memoir; she allowed the readers to love and hate her parents all at the same time.  She delicately showed their relationship with no want of sympathy because ultimately, her life story is one of hope even if her parents were neglectful and mentally ill, she loved them and it was the life she knew before she escaped.

I liked Walls second book, Half Broke Horses the story of her fiesty grandmother told in the first person.  With this book, Walls still worked with a true story, but straddled the worlds of memoir and fiction (a true-life novel).  Because I loved The Glass Castle so much, Half Broke Horses left me feeling a bit unsatisfied, but I loved the concept enough to enjoy it although recollecting even fragments of the book just a year or so after reading it requires serious memory mining.

For my 39th birthday (in June), Cari gave me Walls' most current book, The Silver Star.  "I haven't even read it yet.  I can't believe I am giving it to you before I read it, but my mom already told me she got me a copy, so here you go." She looked at the cover with the two girls treading through the water longingly and handed it to me.

I couldn't wait to read it thinking that the narrative of Bean and Liz's journey to their neglectful mother's hometown, a crazy uncle, a long lost step brother, a town crazy man, a trial, and their adventures in this traditional Virginia town would satisfy longing I had for Walls' hopeful style after The Glass Castle.  I did like The Silver Star, I just didn't love it and I wanted to love it because I love Jeanette Walls.  The Silver Star was easy to read, and the characters are lovable, but everything feels unfinished and a bit too much like a To Kill a Mockingbird wannabe experiment.  Crazy small southern townspeople, a trial, life seen through the perspective of a little girl, even the mention of To Kill a Mockingbird . . .

The crazy thing is that I mentioned to Cari after I finished The Silver Star that I liked it, but I didn't love it, that I thought it was trying too hard to be something it wasn't, that it felt like Walls had To Kill a Mockingbird (which Cari and I have both taught for the past 15 years) on the brain as she wrote the book, and Cari, a die hard Jeanette Walls fan, agreed with me on all points.  So it isn't just me being critical or overthinking it or just knowing To Kill a Mockingbird too well.

I didn't get chills when I read The Silver Star, but I did end up confused and a bit bewildered by the whole emu thing closer to the end.  It seemed so odd and too out of place and the connections weren't clear enough to make it feel like a smooth symbol (instead of one completely forced on the reader).

So . . . I am still hoping for another Jeannette Walls book to come close to her magical touch in The Glass Castle.  I will continue wishing upon a silver star.

Gone, Gone, Gone

He's Gone by Deb Caletti
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I ran into my friend, Cari, on the way to my mailbox my last week of school (my last official week as a high school English teacher) and in her hands she held the book, He's Gone by Deb Caletti.  I asked, "What do you think of that book?  Deb Caletti wrote this really great message response to a girl who posted about her YA novel The Nature of Jade on  I was impressed that she took the time to respond to the National Writing Contest post. She seems like a great person."
Cari looked at me and hugged the book, "Well, Deb is making me love her with this book.  I can't stop reading it.  It's so good."
I was intrigued and happy that I immediately recognized the name.  I went home and purchased He's Gone which is Deb Caletti's first Adult novel.  Her YA novels have received critical acclaim.  I can picture my student, Elizabeth reading Honey, Baby, Sweetheart with the National Book Award finalist silver seal on the front.
My friend, Cari was right (as she usually is about books).  She and I have an affinity for books with magical writing - not just a straight plot driven blockbuster, but stories that have beautiful characters, that feel real, believable and make us think.
He's Gone starts with Dani waking up and realizing her husband, Ian, is missing but his car is still parked outside.  The following pages weave together a narrative of Dani's first marriage, her marriage with Ian, her relationship with her step children, her own daughter, her mother, and herself.  Caletti quietly draws her reader's attention to the intricate balance of infidelity, abusive marriages, what we can and can't tolerate of ourselves and others and she makes it all believable.  It's the first book that I stayed up until 2am to finish in years because I needed to see what happened to Ian, and what would happen to Dani.  I read it in two days and didn't want to do anything but read Dani's thoughts about life and love, self esteem, loss of self, loss of love, and ultimately a search for herself as she searched for her missing husband.   I believed Caletti's characters.  I believed in Dani's narrative, her internal dialogue of truth and questions about happiness and marriage, feeling trapped and free, feeling like the butterflies preserved in Ian's office.
I love knowing what a good person Caletti is, too.  That her writing fame hasn't made her unapproachable or too busy to respond to a teenager who identified with a character in her YA novel, The Summer of Jade.
Since reading He's Gone, I have recommended it to everyone that asks, "What's a good book to read this summer?"

After reading He's Gone, I did some research on best books of summer 2012 and requested last summer's big blockbuster novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn from my local library.  It had great reviews and Gillian Flynn is considered "one of the hottest writers around" based on the book jacket description.  Gone Girl follows the dual narrative of Nick and Amy.  On their 5th anniversary Nick gets a frantic call from a neighbor who alerts Nick that the front door of his home in a half deserted Missouri neighborhood is hanging wide open.  Nick goes home to find an iron on (which Amy would never do), a table smashed and an ottoman overturned.  Amy has vanished and Nick is left to pick up the pieces of what happened to Amy.
It felt similar at first to Caletti's narrative, but twists and turns ensue to make Gone Girl almost maniacally farcical by the end.  I LOVED the first half of the book, but somewhere around page 225, I started to lose interest.  It all got to be too much - so much hate, so much psychosis, so much manipulation.  I stopped believing or caring about any of the characters and wanted to just get to the end which in my mind was ridiculous.  Where Caletti was able to resolve her plot twists gracefully, Flynn resolved hers in a twisted, almost uncomfortable way.  At the end of Gone Girl, I announced to my husband, "I didn't like it.  I wanted to like it.  I liked it in the beginning but by the end, I wanted it to be over."  I didn't feel like that with He's Gone. Because Gone Girl received so much high praise and was considered the book to read last summer, I really thought I was in for a literary experience.  Instead, I encountered an empty experience which made me lose my reading mojo for a few days to recover from the silly ending of this book.

So . . . if you are looking for a book about a missing spouse that uncovers the truths about marriage, love, infidelity, abuse, longing, and life, choose He's Gone by Deb Caletti.  If you want something a bit more sinister and slightly ridiculous, choose Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.