Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

dogwoosI like flower language, and I’m deeply embroiled in a storytelling project involving fostered and adopted children in SW VA right now, so finding this book on clearance at a used books store in Knoxville, Tennessee, it was a no-brainer purchase.

It was easy to get into, but perhaps hard to stay with; this literary novel has a weird dichotomy running through its middle. On the one hand, it is about tough, stupid, needy, intelligent Victoria, a child who ages out of foster care and lands hard/soft/hard/soft as the book progresses. She’s hard to love, but everybody around her does. And the only way this tough, I-don’t-care girl can communicate well is by flowers. She uses their Victorian meanings to say what’s on her mind.

So does her 20-something suitor. And her foster mom and FM’s estranged sister. It’s kinda hard to buy. But what was it Isaac Asimov said – that every writer gets one free pass at an unbelievable premise built into his or her story? Diffenbaugh got hers in early on.

Still, as bad as the flowers strewn along this bed of thorns tale of dysfunction are, her characterization of Victoria is compelling. Just Victoria, though: the other characters all kind of serve her, appearing as extensions of what she needs.

This is not a character-driven novel. The flowers are running the show. And if you’re willing to believe that could happen, it’s a good read – compelling forward motion, an underdog to root (ha) for, and some very believable circumstances for the foster kid.

On the other hand, perhaps too much perfume, not enough manure, for the growth the characters show. A mixed review, but I can say that I enjoyed reading it, and only began to think “Hey wait a minute” afterward. It was good escapism, and a pretty good depiction of the inner chaos of a foster child who ages out. Just don’t confuse the elegant narration of this fiction with anything like journalism, and we’ll be okay. Ain’t no foster kids in SW VA giving each other flowers, jobs, or free passes.

(If you would like to see the blog on ADOPTION IN APPALACHIA, it is adoptioninappalachia.com. Go take a look at some real stories and advice on the subject.)

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The Monday Book: THE GRACE THAT KEEPS THIS WORLD by Tom Bailey

It’s set in the mountains, it’s about a rural family living close to poverty, and it involves dysfunctional quiet love. What’s not to like about this novel (which came out in 2005)?

And yet, when I opened it and saw that the author used the first person narratives of several different people to tell the story, my first thought was Oh no. Most people can’t keep characterization well enough to pull that off successfully. The people don’t sound different, don’t want different things, don’t act as though they are, as Stephen King more or less put it, the stars of their own lives.

Bailey not only pulled off this technique, of all things, he did it by means of a weird kind of failure. His writing is pretty, ornate, descriptive to the point that I admit to sometimes skimming because I’m not that kind of reader. I don’t like long descriptions of wooded areas. (I accept this as a failing in me as a reader, and insert it here so you know whether to trust me as a reviewer.)

But I love, love, love when a writer gets inside the heads of others and makes the writing sound like them. And Bailey’s success at failing is that he did this not by changing the dialect or lexicon, but by changing what they want to talk about and how they want to talk about it intellectually. All Bailey’s characters – the father, the two sons, the mom, the girlfriends and the neighbors–have similar vocabulary. Yet they have very different points of aim to their lives and conversation. I liked this approach.

The building sense of tragedy, the inevitable moment that’s foreshadowed in the mom’s opening volley, lying in bed listening to her three men take off for their hunt, keeps the whole book’s plot humming with a kind of relentless bass thrum; you aren’t so much watching a train wreck as a ballet dancer fall. It’s a graceful tragedy, bittersweet in its one-step-removed sense of what it means for the family left behind.

In this novel, tragedy is masked in beauty and quietness. Even the hardcore parts about logging and shooting and men hitting each other are written in that once-removed elegance that must have frustrated the tar out of some readers. I like bittersweet, so I loved Grace. I’m now looking for Bailey’s other novel (Cotton Song, I think) to hit the bookshop at some point.

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The Monday Book: The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin

I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself. ~Marlene Dietrich

epigraphPicked this book up when Jack and I visited Williamsburg on holiday in January. I love quotes, have kept a notebook of them forever, and sometimes, just for fun, I troll quote sites.

So now you know.

Rosemary Ahern’s editing of this book has them organized by loose subjects, but she also wrote a nice contextualizing essay about epigraphs (the quotes that open a book chapter or book by being a kind of sideways poetic move into what the text will deal with). She refers to them as ‘mental furniture’ and a way of understanding not only what the chapter will be about, but how the author thinks about life–a little peek inside the study, if you will.

I figured this was  a “dipping” book, the kind one picked up at bedtime and browsed amiably until sleep fogged the brain and the words danced away from your eyes. (That’s usually the last thing that happens before the book falls on my face and wakes me up.) But in reality, this is a bad book to read before bed. You kinda have to think about the quotes, because they’re set on the page above the title of the book they open. Which is like a game of Dixit, or Apples to Apples, with words and somebody else’s brain waves. Cool, fun, but not really sleep-inducing. More of a wake-up call for.

Insights are glorious things, but as Elizabeth Gilbert said in her TED talk, sometimes you don’t want to be inspired because you’re trying to drive a car or get some sleep.

Ain’t no plot to this book, but if you’ve read the books that are under the epigraphs, you totally spend a few minutes moving the letters around inside the square to see if you can form the mystery key word. Thought Boggle?

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it is one of the few, the proud, that I will keep rather than Frisbee-flick into the shop for someone else to find. Getcher own copy, and I highly recommend purchasing rather than the library. You’re going to want to write notes in the margins. :]

 

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A Deep Dive

Writing about writing is kind of dangerous, because if you were really writing, you wouldn’t be writing about writing, so therefore whatever you write is pretentious git dribble about how much fun you would be having if you were really doing it.

But it’s still so alluring to do……

When you’re getting back into the groove, it’s like taking a deep dive back down into dark water. You know what you’re doing and you can’t wait to jump, you’ve been practicing your form and technique, but you have no idea what’s down there. You just know you want to get into it, feel it close around you, and forget the rest.

So you set aside all the housecleaning jobs that have to get done “someday” and you set a time limit for Facebook, morning and evening and no lunch peeking, and you clear all the crochet patterns from your laptop and block Ravelry for a couple of months.

diveAnd then you dive.

Ohhhhh, that dive…….. :]

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The Monday Book: HAUNTING JASMINE by Anjali Banerjee

♪ IIIIII’m in the moooooooood ♪ for Fluff! ♪

ganeshAlthough I like most novels and memoirs about India or Pakistan, I tend to avoid the Bollywood-in-print end of that continuum. But Jasmine is about a woman who watches her aunt’s bookshop for a month. So I had to read it.

If you read Sarah Addison Allen’s charming romance Garden Spells, in which an apple tree chucks fruit at Mr. Wrong and rains petals down while wafting heady perfume at opportune moments, you have the concept of this book. The shop has a mind of its own, guarded by Ganesh, the Hindu remover of obstacles, who works in collusion with the ghosts that haunt the place.

A LOT of ghosts haunt this place. There are no surprises in this book. If it were food, it would be cotton candy. PINK cotton candy.

And very well made. Not your clumpy spun sugar, but the smooth, fluffy, cloud of sweetness that dissolves even as you start to taste it. This is a fast read, a light read, fun and fluffy.

I can hear regular readers of this blog thinking, “Yes, okay, but how is the WRITING?”

Practically non-existent. Like that spun sugar, it disappears as you’re reading it. You don’t remember turns of phrase, just the story line. And you can kinda see what’s coming, but that’s party of the pleasantness–anticipation of that next mouthful of dulce ethereal.

You don’t have to own a bookstore to enjoy the inside jokes about books, bookshops, or the customers who frequent them. But if you do, you might laugh at more places than the rest of the world. There are plenty of laughs as Jasmine struggles with her mysterious suitor, her scumbag ex-husband, and her inability to believe that Horatio and co. were right- there are more things under heaven than we might already know about.

Two cotton candy cones up for this pink-lit, chick-lit romance.

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The Monday Book: GRAY MOUNTAIN by John Grisham

tumbsNormally I only do Monday Books on those I’ve liked. This one is a bit half-hearted, but Grisham’s latest is set in our region and tackles the much-ignored topic of mountaintop removal, so almost everyone around here feels an obligation to read it. We need opinions for the church potlucks.

Obligation is a pretty good word. I don’t like dissing authors, or books – unless they’re real creeps, and Grisham isn’t. He just….. kinda didn’t do anything exciting in this book. And, inevitably, even though he spent time in SE Kentucky with some people dedicated to stopping MT removal AND bringing social justice to the Coalfields, he got some important stuff wrong.

It isn’t a big deal that the mileage and directions are way off in his book. It’s fiction. It isn’t a big deal that sometimes he slides into stereotypes even though you can tell he’s trying not to – kinda like a kid learning to ride a bike will guaranteed hit the pothole she’s watching with her whole being, intent on avoiding it. You always hit what you concentrate on avoiding, because you’re concentrating on it rather than the story you have to tell. We don’t mind; it was nice of him to try.

But I knew we were in trouble when Grisham started the serious action of his book with an old “legend” that circulates about SW VA/SE KY/NE TN mountain roads.

The book itself opens with the heroine getting laid off from her high powered-yet-hated legal job. She has a chance to keep her health insurance if she goes to work for a nonprofit, and she winds up taking the “bottom of the barrel” with the only remaining option: in the Coalfields of Appalachia. It must be hard for an author to try not to stereotype while writing about a NYC character coping with moving out of Manhattan. He tried, bless his heart. It made the book a bit flat because at the points where people would’ve been asking some serious questions, the heroine gets all open-minded. Still, his mechanism for driving her to VA is a good one: keep your health insurance if you leave the land of the midnight latte for the exile of rural America. Nice try, Johnny, but your logistics are showing.

Maybe that’s the biggest problem throughout the book. HOW he was trying to tell the story showed as much as the story.

Anyway, she drives into a town thinly disguised as being not-Grundy, VA, and a guy pulls her over in an unmarked police car and threatens her with all kinds of things if she doesn’t come back to the station with him. Including handcuffing and a gun. Turns out he’s the local learning impaired dude who pretends he’s a cop and only pulls over people with Yankee license plates.

We are not amused. You can look up the stories on Snopes, but there really was a rape and murder under this scenario; the guys weren’t handicapped; they were felons. It is not funny to display color local characters in this manner, let alone a town complicit with such dangerous actions. {“Yeah, he’s weird, but he’s ours.”} I began to hate the book at this moment, and probably couldn’t give it a fair read from there forward.

From then on the words skimmed past my eyes very much like an Arthur Hailey novel: all explanation and no storytelling; the facts of mountaintop removal thinly disguised as a fish-out-of-water story; lots of sensational details added about the main characters, a la the unnecessary drama of a Hollywood plot built around a love story. The whole thing just read like… well, like reading the script of your average mid-week 8 pm tv drama. I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters, because I didn’t believe they were real.

Which is annoying, because–let’s give him credit–Grisham is the FIRST big deal author to tackle MT removal, and I don’t care how much I didn’t like the book, I love him as an author for doing that. GOOD FOR YOU MR. G!

But can I add, very sadly, that I wish he’d done a better job of telling a story rather than so obviously trying to talk people into hating the bad guys? The complexities suffered, and so did the communities. But thanks.

mtr

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The Monday Book: THE ODD SEA by Frederick Reiken

This was an odd little book – little in that it is short. Odd in that it is about a disappearance that remains unsolved. Rather than taking the thriller resolution or the Doris Day film happy reunion ending, it just…. stops.

Philip’s older brother Ethan disappears, on a random day doing some normal activities. And the rest of the book is about piecing together what the rest of the family can of their lives. And there’s a lot of Catcher in the Rye coming of age bits about sex, too. Ethan was having sex with his girlfriend and a local artist, and both of these things figure prominently in his diary–which his oldest sister, Amy the Angry, finds. She keeps it from the police and press, but Philip traces his brother’s footsteps–almost literally, as he kind of falls for the one girl and is fallen for by the other.

The book explores the darkness inside all of us, but across the surface. It’s more about how Philip deals with all the things he can’t explain around him–including his brother’s disappearance and his emerging manhood.

And the title is one of the best parts; it comes from the youngest daughter demanding that the father distract them all by telling stories to the family on the porch. And he tells them the adventures of the Beaver King and Queen and their son, all through the long hot summer. It isn’t until years later that Philip realizes his dad has beaverized The Odyssey – and done a good job of it. And he begins to think of their lives and Ethan’s disappearance as The Odd Sea.

This is a quiet book, a gentle one, not given to tension so much as exploration. It’s the kind of novel adults like to read about high school times. Two beaver tails up.

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