The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I have mixed feelings about this book. It is a story about Victoria, who as the book begins is aging out of the foster care system, where she has spent most of her life. The story jumps from the present, where she is homeless for a while, but then gets a job as a florist due to her talent with flowers, to her past when she was 9 years old and almost adopted by a woman, Elizabeth, before things went wrong. Interspersed with all this is Victoria’s fascination with the (Victorian) language of flowers, in which every flower has a meaning and people communicated specifics with their bouquets. (For example, a red carnation means “My heart breaks”; rhododendron means “Beware”, etc.) My main problem with the book was that the writing was rather rudimentary and had no nuance. My second problem with the book is that because I learned right away that Victoria’s adoption was disrupted, the reading experience was all fraught with tension as I waited for the horrible events to be revealed. There’s also a section in the middle about an infant and breastfeeding and abandonment that was very, very hard to read. By the very end of the book I was won over, albeit rather begrudgingly. But still: not spectacular is my final opinion.
Victory by Joseph Conrad. I have problems with Conrad. I had to read The Heart of Darknessad nauseum when I was doing postcolonial studies, and when it comes right down to it, I just don’t get what the fuss is all about. I decided to read Victory upon reading online that it was someone’s favorite book of all time (of course, I forget who), but I was not very impressed. I know that with Conrad it is not necessarily about the story or the plot, but more that he delves into (or skirts around? I’m not sure) a particular (generally angst-filled) emotion. So Victory – a story about a man, Heyst, and a woman, Lena, who have escaped or retreated from various aspects of their lives onto a small island in Surinam, and then get visited by three sociopathic villains intent on doing them harm – is really about Heyst’s helplessness, and how doing the right thing and keeping to himself got him in trouble. And then because it was written in 1914 and because it is Conrad, there is also a whole lot of the us and them dichotomy – with the “us” being white gentlefolk and the “them” being the island natives and the Chinese who work there. I definitely got into a zone halfway through the book, and began to enjoy the slowly unfolding narrative. But to me the book remains a curiosity and not great literature.
New and Selected Poems, Volume One by Mary Oliver. I’ve always been a little snobby about (the little I knew of) Mary Oliver’s poetry; I considered her a second-tier poet, although I’m not sure why—perhaps because of the popularity of certain of her works. It is hard to go a week, for example, without coming across the end of her “The Summer Day” poem: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” But I suppose being overly quoted is not the poet’s fault. She is a nature poet and her language is very straight-forward; she’s like a modern Robert Frost, only less wordy. The book was set up to go backwards in time, so you read what was – at the time the book was published – her newest poems, and then read poems from her books in reverse chronology. I would have preferred it the other way around, as it had the odd effect of showing her style unravel, in that her voice was stronger in the newer poems than it was in the beginning. I’ve started the second volume of her collected works and will withhold further opinion until I finish volume 2.
We Are Called To Rise by Laura McBride. I loved this book! It’s a simultaneously heartbreakingly sad and ultimately very hopeful story of four people whose lives intersect in one tiny moment that has huge consequences for all involved. McBride writes the various chapters in the different voices of the four characters (although it is mainly three – one woman has only a few short chapters): an 8 year-old boy, Bashkim Ahmeti, who lives in Las Vegas and whose parents are Albanian refugees; Avis, a woman in her fifties whose husband has just ended their 30-year marriage and who has a son, Nate, who is having PTSD issues after returning from Iraq; and Luis, an American soldier who is recovering from wounds in a veterans hospital in Washington DC. Bashkim especially is such a well written character – he’s an anxiety-prone kid for good reason, as there is a lot in his life for him to worry about. I was surprised to learn that McBride is a first-time author, as this is a really wonderful novel. She has an interesting author’s note at the end of the book explaining a few things about the incident around which the book is centered. She discusses what she set out to do, and she clearly achieved her goals. I very much recommend this book; I’ll be reading anything else she cares to write.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley. I haven’t read a Jane Smiley novel for a while, and I enjoyed this one, which is apparently the first in a trilogy (the second one is just now out). It follows the various members of a family of Iowa farmers, starting in 1920 and in this volume going up to 1953. Each chapter is one year. Because of this, time moves quickly, yet the book still feels slow-paced in a good way – I was always happy to pick it up and read. In each chapter she switches the viewpoint from character to character, dipping in here and there to the events of that year. Because of that, you don’t really know any character very intimately – it’s more “a day in the life of”, yet Smiley is a good writer, so she is still able to convey what is important. It also ends up being a series of historical snapshots: you see the family get their first car, switch from horses to tractors, go to college, stay and leave the farming life, etc. I am looking forward to volumes two and three.
Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe. This was a wonderfully entertaining read and I adored it. It reminded me very much of a modern day I Capture the Castle, a book of which there cannot be too many imitators, as far as I’m concerned. Nina Stibbe recently published her first book, Love, Nina, which was a collection of letters she wrote to her sister twenty plus years ago while she was working as a nanny in London. The tone and voice in this book was similar – that is, her quirky sense of humor is very visible – but this was much better because as a novel, it could have the plot that a collection of letters lacks. Anyway, Man At The Helm is told from the point of view of an 11 year-old girl, Lizzie, who has an older sister (who annoyingly is never named in the book, but is just called “my sister”; that’s my only complaint) and a younger brother, Little Jack. Her wealthy parents get a divorce in the beginning of the book, and Lizzie and her siblings go to live with their mother in a village, which does not compare favorably to the city they are used to. Lizzie and her sister decide that all their problems stem from not having a man at the helm of their family, so set about finding a man for their mother. It is really hilarious and well written and delightful.