Because of an extraordinary amount of rain and snow this year, many parts of the country (mine included) have had a particularly colorful spring when it comes to both wildflower superblooms and the overflowing roses, peonies, and daffodils in cultivated gardens. Observing this bounty has caused me to take a look at some books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal not only with the appearance but also with the language of flowers.
Although flowers and other plants have had symbolic significance for centuries, the full blossoming, if you will, of the use of flowers as symbols for emotions was in the approximate 75-year span of the Victorian Era in England. Restrictive social conventions prohibited direct expression through conversation between those whose interests were loverlike, so whatever was deemed unacceptable by etiquette to share openly was encoded in the giving of particular flowers or combinations of flowers to convey specific meanings. This practice became so commonplace that the language of flowers was christened “floriography.” The practice has also captured the imagination of various authors, who have used it as a vehicle to tell their stories. Among them:
The Language of Flowers,
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
From the title, you’d think this book would be soft and romantic, but it’s not at all. The main character, Victoria, is an 18-year-old who has just aged out of the foster care system. She has no friends, no family, no history, no prospects, and no skills, and soon she is homeless. Once she had a foster parent who taught her the language of flowers (i.e., asters = patience, red roses = love, etc.), and since she left that home, she has pursued her knowledge further. Based on this, she finds a florist willing to give her some under-the-table work, and creates for herself a small, regular life—for awhile. The book is told in alternating chapters between the one good foster home she was in at age 10 and her present existence, and the level of tension maintained as you wait to find out what happened that brought her to her current fix keeps you eagerly reading. The protagonist is engaging despite herself, and you don’t know whether you feel sorry for her or want to shake her. It’s a poignant story, and although Victoria isn’t always a likeable character, her courage is inspiring.
Forget-Her-Nots, by Amy Brecount White
While researching the Victorian language of flowers for a school project, 14-year-old Laurel discovers that the bouquets she creates have peculiar effects on people. Her mother hinted at an ancient family secret, and Laurel suspects it has something to do with her new-found talent, but her mom was never able to share either the gift or its use with Laurel. Unfortunately, Laurel uses this talent to meddle, and a string of incidents that involve the misuse of flowers threaten to mess significantly with everyone’s prom night experience. Clever, fun, and informative, too. (Young Adult fiction.)
The Art of Arranging Flowers, by Lynne Branard
Ruby Jewell grew up in a harsh environment, her only comfort being her close relationship with her sister, Daisy. Daisy’s death when Ruby was in her early 20s was devastating as well as life altering. Instead of pursuing her studies to become a lawyer, Ruby just wanted to curl up and die, too. It was the flowers that saved her. For 20 years now, Ruby has created floral arrangements at her shop in the small town of Creekside. With a few words from a customer, she knows just what flowers to use to help kindle a romance or heal a broken heart. However, Ruby has a barrier around her own heart and is determined that she will not allow it to be broken. It takes an extraordinary group of people to bring Ruby out from behind her wall.
If reading any or all of these causes you to be intrigued by the background these authors used to create their floral fantasies, you can read about Victorian identification in…
This is a charming reproduction of a rare volume by a 19th-century illustrator that includes a full-color illustrated list of more than 200 plants and their supposed meanings: tulip = fame; blue violet = faithfulness, etc.
And if you feel further inspired, you can read some germane nonfiction delving into the scientific significance of blooms:
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World,
by Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan has a vision in his garden that leads him to question the interrelationship between humans and plants. He postulates that the plant species humans have nurtured over the past 10,000 years may have benefited as much from their association with us as we have from ours with them. He decides to investigate four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—and he digs into history, anecdote, and personal revelation to do so. It’s entertaining, philosophical, and smart.
This is a comprehensive examination of the roles flowers play in the production of our foods, spices, medicines, and perfumes. Buchmann also goes into the cultural history of flowers, examining everything from myths and legends, decor, poetry, and esthetics to their basis for various global industries. From the flowers to the pollinators to the people who pursue the many intertwined careers sparked by these natural wonders, Buchmann inquires about it all. A fascinating volume, liberally illustrated.
If you want more, there is a 17-book list on Goodreads on the subject of floriography.
Here’s hoping your next tussy-mussy conveys the emotions you desire!
Although I included The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett, in a previous list of “books about books,” I hadn’t actually had the pleasure of reading it.
I finally got around to it recently, and felt I had to follow up with a little more detail about this delightful story.
A certain generation of us were raised with a particular consciousness of England’s royal family, because the abdication of Edward VIII from the throne (in favor of marrying a divorceé, Wallis Simpson, which simply wasn’t “done” at the time) catapulted his brother, Albert, to the throne as George VI. The key ingredient to this story for girls, however, was that George VI had two daughters, Elizabeth (the next heir) and Margaret Rose, who were instantly in the limelight, and we were fascinated with their every move—their dress, their hobbies, their education, their pets….
Already predisposed towards the love of princesses,
I came to know about the real ones through a book my mother bought me, called The Little Princesses, by Marion Crawford. The initial events took place in the 1930s when “Lilibet” and Margaret were five and two years old, respectively (well before my time), but the book, written by the princesses’ long-time governess, “Crawfie” (as she was nicknamed by Elizabeth), was published in the 1950s, and it crossed my path when I was seven—able to read its grown-up text but probably not able to understand some of it until re-reads years later. I was nonetheless fascinated with the whole story, and particularly the photographs of the princesses and their governess, dogs, ponies, and so on that were included in the book, and over which I pored at length.
The book explores the inner life of the royal family from the girls’ childhood up through Elizabeth’s wedding and the birth of her son, Prince Charles. It does so lovingly and without a hint of scandal or any lack of respect, but Crawford was nonetheless banned from the family (and from her employment) for writing it, despite her claim of having been given permission to do so. The rumor is that the Queen Mother felt the intimacy of the narrative would detract from the mystique of the holder of the throne.
Cut to the recent past, when Queen Elizabeth’s early reign has been explored by the Netflix series “The Crown.” In it, Elizabeth is portrayed as deeply uncertain and vulnerable on the inside but formal, traditional, and almost staid in her mannerisms (particularly for a young woman) on the outside—ever conscious of her image and her duty to uphold a certain appearance. For those who had read the account by Crawford of her formative years, the portrayal was spot on, and continued a sense of exactly who Elizabeth II is in the world (even to the uncanny similarity of appearance between the actress, Claire Foy, and the young queen).
I preface my comments about The Uncommon Reader with all this simply to say that Alan Bennett also has an extraordinary grasp of both the woman and the office, and portrays her as a somewhat elderly woman who has pursued exactly the life Elizabeth II has lived, only to find that something has been missing that, upon its discovery, changes everything.
A short synopsis of the book: Queen Elizabeth, wandering outdoors in search of her beloved corgis, stumbles upon a bookmobile near the palace. She feels compelled by good manners to check out a book, which she struggles through, returns, and feels compelled to take out another. But this one she enjoys! This behavior is out of character for the Queen, who has previously allowed herself few hobbies or interests that express a preference for anything, and now here she is, preferring books, which habit begins to influence the person she is and how she reigns and interacts with her subjects. Not everyone approves, however; politicians and staff collaborate to steer her away from this selfish, isolating, alienating addiction!
In his tiny volume (shown here in my gargantuan hand just to convey size and scale), Bennett absolutely nails the personality, the inner thoughts, and the outer habits of the Queen, along with the judgments and expectations of those intimates of her court who are always on the lookout for aberrant behavior from their monarch, with the desire to neatly nip it in the bud. But Elizabeth isn’t going to be ruled by their expectations (after all, who is the queen here?) and quietly pursues her new hobby to an astonishing and humorous end. If you are a person who loves books about books, and you also have a sneaking fascination with England’s monarchy, don’t miss out reading this charming but also revelatory and even mildly subversive novella.
My reading time is, of necessity, taken up right now with the novels I am assigning to my Young Adult Literature class at UCLA’s MLIS program. Most of them are a re-read for me, many with a specific goal of evoking some quality of YA lit that will give my class a context for where it came from, the ways in which it has been and continues to be effective for teenagers, and where it is now.
Last week we had a far-roving and engaging discussion about two “classics” of YA—The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, and The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier—and two later books that continued the job of these seminal works—Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.
Previous to the 1960s, there were narrowly defined categories for this newly emerging fiction sector: adventure stories for boys, romance for girls. That was pretty much the extent of YA fiction. With the exception of some vocation-driven series like Sue Barton: Student Nurse and Nancy Drew, most of the books written for teenagers were, to quote historian and critic Michael Cart, “slick, patterned, rather inconsequential stories written to capitalize on a rapidly expanding market.”
Hinton’s book was the start of the writing revolution in teen literature. Here was a teenager, writing from personal observation and with thematic relevance about class warfare, rejecting “the inane junk lining the teen-age shelf of the library” (to quote the young author Hinton herself), and echoing the rejection of the status quo for which the 1960s were known. The year 1967 kicked off a positive flurry of books about such formerly verboten topics as gangs, drug use, underage sex, homosexuality, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Teen fiction went from sweet stories tied up with a bow to exemplars of determinism and naturalism. Robert Cormier, who wrote The Chocolate War in 1974, commented that “Adolescence is such a lacerating time that most of us carry the baggage of our adolescence with us all our lives.” Judging from the discussion we had about these first two books and the two that followed, many YA authors and the teens who read them agreed with him.
There are certainly issues with these books that make them problematic to recommend to today’s teens. The absence of a single non-white character, the blatant misogyny exhibited towards both the “bad” girls and the “good” in the society of the 1960s, and the rather blatant sentimentality with which the characters are treated in The Outsiders would seem to be stumbling blocks, and yet this book is still widely read and enjoyed. The dark atmosphere of The Chocolate War, depicting teens (and humans in general) as hapless victims of social and natural forces and holding out no happy ending, seems similarly discouraging, but the book continues to check out of the library.
Other popular books of that era, such as The Contender, by Robert Lipsyte, which took up the theme of becoming an individual and focused on self-transformation through the eyes of an African American protagonist, or Alice Childress’s A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, which explored heroin addiction in the first person of 12 distinct voices, continued and extended the reach of the admittedly rather gritty view of the teenage years. Author Richard Peck cited these works as books “about young people that parents thought their children didn’t know.” They fostered a writing revolution that has ebbed and flowed ever since, interrupted by the inane “problem novels” of the 1980s and revitalized in the 1990s, pushed off track by trendy fiction with the vampire craze and the fascination with all things paranormal and revitalized yet again in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction and the current return to realism.
The two books we read from 1999, Speak and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, are also classic books about secrets, about guilt, and about the adolescent task of figuring out what responsibility you bear for your circumstances versus the degree to which you have been victimized by others and by life itself. The class discussion concluded that these books are necessary so that teens who are in similar situations can see themselves in their literature, realize that they’re not alone, and possibly find reason for hope.
This week we continued this theme in a way, but brought it up to date with our segment on “soft reads vs. edgy fiction.” There are obviously teens for whom the books full of personal human tragedy are not relevant or not desirable. Likewise, these teens’ parents are more comfortable with a literature that doesn’t expose their children to language, relationships, and frank talk beyond their level of emotional maturity. There is definitely a place in teen fiction for the equivalent in adult fiction of the “cozy,” the soft read, the book that tells an uplifting and nonthreatening tale with a positive message and a happy ending. Even those who appreciate gritty fiction sometimes enjoy taking a break from it!
This week’s exemplar of a soft read was Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here, which would seem with its very title to express a different message than those other books we had been reading. Bauer is among the many authors who has written a baker’s dozen of books (between 1995 and 2016) about perky, approachable protagonists with a sprightly, can-do attitude and a feel-good mood. Authors for slightly older teens who want soft reads include Maureen Johnson, Melissa Kantor, Ally Carter, and Sarah Dessen.
While most of these books are aimed at a female audience, their equivalent in gentle reads for boys include adventure, science fiction, and fantasy genre fiction that the girls likewise appreciate. Some of the more popular series that serve this purpose of transitioning children from age 11 or so to about age 14 are the Pendragon series by D. J. MacHale; the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz; the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer; and Michael Scott’s books beginning with The Alchemyst.
The flip side, the polar opposite of these books are those that place a high premium on being real—the realer the better—and if that means drinking and smoking, profanity, sex, and violence, then bring it on. This edgy fiction pushes all the boundaries beloved of teens and shocking to parents, and gives teens the ability to encounter those they may not ever know in real life, through the pages of books.
The ones we read this week included:
Tyrell, by Coe Booth: Tyrell is 14 years old. He’s grown up in the projects, with his dad, his moms, and his little bro Troy, but his dad’s just gone to prison, his moms is a hot mess incapable of caring for herself or her children, and the weight of it all is resting heavily on Tyrell’s shoulders. He loves his girlfriend but she won’t put out, he’s tempted by an overly friendly new girl he meets at the roach-filled motel where social services has parked them, and he’s angry and confused about the role into which his mother is trying to force him, which is as the wage earner in the absence of his father.
If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch: When she was five years old, Carey’s mother stole her away from her father and took her to live in a trailer in the middle of a national forest. Her mother, bipolar and a meth addict, subsequently gave birth to a second daughter, whom Carey took care of during her mother’s frequent absences. Carey’s mother did whatever she had to do, including exploiting her daughter, in order to get a drug fix or a new winter coat, while the girls lived on cans of beans and Chef Boyardee and the squirrels and rabbits Carey shot in the forest. One day, after their mother has been missing long enough for the store of beans to be looking worryingly small, a man and a woman show up calling their names, and Carey and Jenessa are whisked off to the real world to live with Carey’s father, stepmother, and stepsister, with all the adjustments this involves. But Carey can’t help thinking about the crime she committed during a moment of desperation back in the forest, and worrying that its revelation will separate her from her sister, the only person in the world she really loves.
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick: Leonard is the epitome of the sad loner at every high school, and like that guy, he’s about to indulge in some stereotypical behavior: His plan is to take a gun to school, shoot his former best friend, and then off himself after. But first, he wants to make a final connection with the few people in his life who have been kind to him by giving them each a gift. The book is the story of the last couple of days of Leonard’s sorry life…although some letters to Leonard from the future hold out a ray of hope.
Parents, teachers, and random adults have asked me, during my tenure as a teen librarian, “Of what value are these books for teens? Why are all of your book lists so irredeemably bleak?” My answer has always been, it’s what the teens want, and in many cases it’s what the teens need. Protecting a privileged notion of what constitutes teen literature can easily deprive teens of reading books that let them identify and understand their sadness, their loneliness, and their anger, and also equip them to fight the real monsters in their lives, whether those are other teens, the adults who control them, the world at large, or simply their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.
The paradox of much of edgy fiction is that although the circumstances in which the characters exist are ugly, the characters themselves are beautiful in their vulnerability, and the literature itself can be lyrical even in its truthfulness. And in my discussion with my class, some of whom were put off or even horrified by the selection of edgy fiction we read, we ironically came to the conclusion that the soft reads are often identical in their effect to the edgy ones, and the adults who laud them as more appropriate aren’t seeing the spectrum on which they appear.
The book we read, Hope Was Here, has a protagonist whose mother deserted her, and she was raised by her aunt. She had to move repeatedly during her 16 years because of financial hardship. Her only constant is being a good waitress at the serial diners at which she has worked. Her new boss, of whom she has become fond, is dying of cancer. The town is run by a crooked politician who is exploiting the townsfolk. Reading that synopsis, would you guess it was a soft read? The fact that the heroine, Hope, takes a relentlessly positive attitude toward the obstacles in her life doesn’t negate the fact that she’s been dealt a tough hand.
The truth about young adult literature is, no matter what its guise—soft read, edgy fiction, paranormal or dystopia—the really good stuff is designed to invoke one important quality from the teens who read it: Empathy. The greatest gift we as librarians (or teachers or parents or friends) can give our teens is how to experience empathy; and one of the best ways to teach them that is through reading.
As has been previously noted, I’m a sucker for books about books—a book featuring a bookstore, a library, a bookmobile, a librarian, a writer, a reader—if it’s book-centered, I usually end up reading it. After my post about a variety of these a few days ago, I decided to track down some more, but before I could do so, two serendipitously popped up, one of them a bargain book for my Kindle and the other “trending” on my Goodreads feed.
The first one I read was By the Book, by Julia Sonneborn, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I should have taken the title literally, because this book is written “by the book” without necessarily being “about” books. Let me clarify.
It’s supposedly a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (so, yet another author for Jane Austen’s lawyer to sue in the afterlife), and while the basic elements are there—the woman and her former suitor, working their way gradually back into a relationship—there were so many other things to distract that the original material didn’t resonate for me as I read the story.
Anne Corey is teaching English at a small liberal arts college in the foothills outside San Bernardino. She’s quite happy in her work, but trouble looms: In order to gain tenure (and avoid being fired!), she has to get a book deal for her literary tome on women writers. She goes into the new fall semester thinking this will be her biggest challenge, but then discovers, somewhat to her dismay, that the newly hired president of her college is none other than her first love and former fiancé, Adam Martinez, the man she jilted in favor of college and career.
The “publish or perish” push to get tenure was an interesting story element; but some of the others (Anne’s gay friend Larry’s obsession with a closeted actor, Anne’s own romance with a questionable Lothario, and dealing with the needs of her aging father) seemed to distract from the main thesis quite a bit.
I’m not saying I didn’t like the book; I did. But it reads as much more of a light, “cozy” romance than it does as a book that is engaged with books and literature. We hear a lot about the writing of books without getting many details of what is written; and the rest is a mish-mash of confusing and contradictory human relationships, including the secondary love interest, who turns out to be something of a caricature.
I also felt that the author let the source material down by improperly characterizing “Captain Wentworth.” In Persuasion, Wentworth is dead set against Anne at the beginning, and a lot of the book is about how he gradually changes his mind and returns to his original feelings for her. But in By the Book, despite some red herring relationships for him, it’s pretty clear that Adam Martinez is still carrying the torch, which made the tension between them feel too flimsy to carry the story. It’s not a bad book, but I don’t think it will go into my “canon” of bibliophilia-related reading.
The second book I read, the one that kept popping up on Goodreads, was Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan, and it was a lot closer to being what I have in mind when I want a book about books.
First of all, I loved the description and provenance of the bookstore; it’s in a previously dodgy but now up-and-coming neighborhood, built into a former lightbulb factory, which is what contributed the name and logo (a lit-up bulb) for the store. While being a smart emporium for new books, it employs a variety of quirky book people, nicely described, and also serves as a haven for a group of book-loving ne’er-do-wells, from the homeless to the merely eccentric, with whom the main character, Lydia, is involved, due both to her empathetic nature and to her desire to share her love of books with all and sundry.
The gist of the story, however, is a mystery based on tragedy, both present-day and in the past, and both connected to Lydia. In the present, it’s the suicide of a boy who frequents the store (one of the customers the clerks call “Book Frogs”). This event contains an unexpected element that carries Lydia (and the reader) back to a traumatic incident in her childhood, and brings her into contact with people and incidents she had banished to her subconscious for a couple of decades. The suicide, a boy named Joey, leaves her ingenious clues contained within books he stole from the bookstore, and in piecing them together Lydia discovers connections about which she never dreamed.
I didn’t expect the book to be so dark or so mystery-oriented, but I loved the writing, the set-up of the atmosphere surrounding the events, and the protagonist’s gentle yet inexorable qualities. (I also loved the cover!)
I would definitely read something else by this author, and will probably read this one again someday.
I always find it interesting how one has a thought about something and suddenly that subject is popping up everywhere in life. This happens to me frequently with books: I will decide to read a book about Paris, for instance, and three more will come to me, purely by chance, after I’ve finished the first. This time, the theme was the Romany, otherwise known as travelers or, in less politically correct nomenclature, gypsies.
First, I bought a Kindle book as one of my “daily dollar deals,” called The Snow Gypsy, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford. I have always liked stories about Travelers, ever since reading Rumer Godden’s book The Diddakoi as a child, and following it up with Meridon, the last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy as an adult. I didn’t read this one right away, though; my friend Bix had mentioned the other two books in the Chocolat series by Joanne Harris, and I decided to catch up with those first. But those introduced me to the itinerant boat people, including Vianne’s love interest, Roux, who seem to be some variation on Romany or pavees, as the Irish travelers call themselves, except that they travel by river boat rather than by horse and wagon. The French townsfolk of Lansquenet unflatteringly designate them “river rats.”
After finishing the three-book series, I went back and read The Snow Gypsy on my Kindle. Rose Daniel is an English veterinarian who specializes in alternative medicine for animals; in other words, she is an herbalist in her practice. Rose’s brother disappeared in 1938 in the mountains of southern Spain, fighting alongside gypsy insurgents during the Spanish Civil War. Rose knows that he had a love interest (or possibly a wife) in one of the villages near their base, and decides, in 1946, to drop everything and go there to see if she can find any trace of what happened to him. (She has, of course, an irrational hope that she will actually locate him, and/or possibly the woman and child.) She is on a collision course with Lola Aragon, whose entire family was murdered by the fascists eight years ago in one of those same villages while she was herding goats up on the mountain, and who rescued a baby girl from her dead mother’s arms when she descended and found the slain villagers. Rose connects with Lola, an aspiring flamenco dancer, hoping to get her help finding some trace of her brother and his family.
I enjoyed this story quite a bit, though it had its flaws. The parts I liked best were the details about flamenco (tantalizingly few, as it turned out), the herbalist knowledge Rose exhibits and learns throughout the book, the scene-setting in the mountain villages of Spain, and the lingering atmosphere of the Spanish Civil War that casts its shadow over all the characters. The coincidences were a few too many, and at least one of the relationships was hard to buy. I wished (in light of the title) that there had been a bit more detail about the Travelers—the few pictures that were given were evocative but not elaborate. Some of the details of the book that seemed superfluous became more understandable when I learned from the afterword that it’s based on the true story of a woman herbalist, so I reserved one of her autobiographies at the library and am waiting for its delivery.
In the meantime, my memory was jogged about another Traveler-related book that I read a few years back, and will mention here: The Outside Boy, by Jeanine Cummins. It’s poetic, beguiling, and different; a coming-of-age story, but within the subculture of the Irish Pavee—gypsies, tinkers, whatever name they are called by outsiders—circa 1950s rural Ireland. And within the already arresting picture of this nomadic people is the intimate story of Christy, who is at the brink of many unexpected discoveries about his family’s past and his own. I had planned, when I read it, to suggest this as a selection for my 10-12 Book Club—it was a real charmer, poignant and inspirational but also a good tale. Alas, I couldn’t get copies of the book in sufficient quantities at the time to make it work for the club.
That was my Romany serendipity; the following week, everything was about bees. Stay tuned…
I have read two books recently that dealt with the ideas, emotions, and results of bigotry, both focused on the Muslim experience. One was, somewhat weirdly, the third volume in the Chocolat series, by Joanne Harris, called Peaches for Father Francis (I reviewed the other two books earlier on this blog); the other was a newish young adult novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi.
The first was a story of clashing cultures trying to co-exist in the same small French village, while the second was the devastating effect high school ignorance has on one Persian Muslim girl in a sea of white kids, one year after 9/11. Both were powerful statements and, while quite different, arrived at some of the same conclusions.
In Peaches for Father Francis (otherwise sold as Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé), it is eight years after the events of the original book Chocolat, and Vianne and her two daughters have made a life for themselves in Paris, floating on the Seine in a houseboat with the traveler Roux, father of Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Then comes in the mail a posthumous letter from Vianne’s old friend Armande, via her grandson, Luc, summoning Vianne back to Lansquenet because “someone here needs you.”
It’s August in Paris, which means it’s stiflingly hot and empty except for the tourists, so Vianne decides to indulge the impulse to take Anouk and Rosette for a holiday in the country. Roux somewhat surprisingly decides to stay behind, in Paris.
What Vianne discovers when she arrives is that the derelict housing on the other side of the bridge from Lansquenet, near where the travelers used to dock their boats, has been appropriated by a rather large immigrant Muslim community, the Maghrébins, and although their occupation had initially been accepted with cautious enthusiasm by many of the other villagers, now factions have broken out on both sides of the river, and friction is growing. Somehow, despite their formerly oppositional roles, the solution comes down to a cooperative relationship between Father Francis, the town priest, and Vianne to solve the impasse and narrowly avert a war.
The characters and situations in this novel are masterfully drawn. While it still retains a bit of the magical realism for which the first book is known (the shadow of Pantoufle still follows Anouk), this third tale is deadly serious in its exploration of warring cultures, tolerance, and understanding. It clearly and sometimes horrifically demonstrates the degree of misperception that can exist when people make shallow and blatant assumptions about one another and fail to take either human nature or love into account.
The young adult book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, was more problematical for me, partly because it relies so heavily on high school tropes, which become wearying after so many teen novels based on them; but the fact is, they do still exist, and are potent, especially for the teenagers experiencing them.
I found the protagonist, Shirin, confusing because she is so vulnerable and yet so hardened in her angry cynical belief that no one will ever give her a fair shake. Several things baffled me about her character, the first being that she spends almost a hundred pages (basically a third of the book) being angry about how people react to her because she covers her hair with the hijab; then, when asked why she wears it, her reason seems inadequate. Her parents don’t require her to wear it, and in fact questioned her decision to do so; while she celebrates Ramadan with her family, she isn’t particularly religious and doesn’t otherwise have any kind of spiritual practice; and what she finally reveals to her new boyfriend is that wearing the scarf is a control issue for her—she gets to decide who can see her hair. I was kind of stunned that she would put up with the treatment dealt out to her post-9/11 for such a stubborn but singular reason.
While acting and talking like she doesn’t care whether anyone sees and knows her or not, she seems completely blown away when her brothers’ friends, who are in the siblings’ break-dancing club (the side story of a break-dancing hijabi was one of the best images of the book), tell her she’s beautiful. This scene may have been constructed so that the black friend, Jacobi, can subsequently tell her that she’s also scary and mean, and that she has let her anger convince her that all people are assholes when in fact they’re not and she needs to let go of that belief; but the degree of her investment in her looks, after rejecting every superficial nice remark and compliment from absolutely everyone, felt a little off.
There is one raw-ly honest moment in the book when a teacher embarrasses Shirin in class and then keeps poking at her (after she cuts his class for three days) to find out why she’s so upset that calls out white privilege and is probably the penultimate speech Mafi wrote the book in order to include:
“I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way. I’m just—I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job? It’s not.”
But there are also a couple of bigoted remarks by Shirin herself—like when she somewhat snottily hopes that the boy who likes her will just give up and “find a nice blond girlfriend.” Ultimately, though, the book does a good job of breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions on both sides of the divide, and provides along with it a sweet, satisfying, and occasionally swoony romance. Most significant, perhaps, is the reaction to the book by this former teenager on Goodreads:
“Y’all mind if I cry? because if you’d told 16-year-old me that one day I’d read a NYT best-selling book where a Muslim Hijabi teen gets her own coming of age story and her own big romance instead of being the token (stereotyped) minority character or some cultural prop used only to further the writer’s favorite white girl…it would have made a world of difference.”
(Despite searching its pages, I have not figured out the title of the book: The boy protagonist has the unlikely first name of “Ocean,” but other than that, there’s no reference to a large expanse of sea. I’m sure it’s hugely symbolic and that I’m just being obtuse; if you get it, please enlighten me!)
I have either liked or loved and frequently recommended the books of Deb Caletti, ever since I discovered them in the Young Adult section. Hers can be thought of, I suppose, as a more mature version of the “soft read” so beloved of the parents of middle-schoolers, in that they tell compelling, real-life stories that are also frequently sweet. Her books are often compared to those of the ever-popular Sarah Dessen. But as Caletti’s career has progressed, the subject matter of her books has grown grittier and more real, even as she keeps the dialogue civil and mostly expletive free (something that is of much more concern to parents than to any teenager!).
Recently, she took a time out from YA and wrote a couple of books for adults, and although I read them, I found myself slightly let down. I can’t put my finger on why, but I didn’t connect with them or find them as involving as her YA books.
I waited, therefore, with both hope and trepidation for Caletti’s new offering for teens, A Heart in a Body in the World. Caletti talked on Facebook about how pleased she was with the book, its cover, and all the positive attention it was garnering, and I should have had confidence that she would deliver. I purposely avoided finding out the themes of the book and began it with no prior knowledge of its contents (I didn’t even read the cover flap), and the whole thing bowled me over.
The character of Annabelle was unlike yet familiar to me. As a woman (like most) who has had my share of difficulties, both in my teenage years and during the early years of adulthood, keeping men beyond the boundaries I tried to set—even while also guiltily trying to be nice and not upset or hurt anyone—I can see that this would be even more difficult for a beautiful, five-foot-three, 110-pound girl. (In fact, I believe that some of the large, ungainly, overweight girls and women like me may simply be attempting to reinforce those boundaries with our ponderous bodies, as we have come to realize that many men can’t be trusted to respect them, and that we don’t want to have to work so hard to do so ourselves.)
Caletti does a masterful job of letting the reader know that there has been a tragedy
here—perhaps a violation, certainly an event from which Annabelle hasn’t and may never recover—without initially coming out and describing what it was. The story unwinds along the road as Annabelle literally runs away from it—while hopefully running towards something else—and is revealed organically along with every apprehension, guilty feeling, and tic of Annabelle’s. Comic relief—or at least the relief of normalcy—is provided by Annabelle’s grandfather, Ed, her brother, Malcolm, and all the other people in her life who love her and are willing to support her on this journey. It’s a saga, a road trip, an adventure both internal and external, and it’s beautifully pictured and told.
For some reason, other YA books popped into my head as I read this. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were similar, but perhaps both theme and feel suggest some affinity. The first is The Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, and the second is The Distance from Me to You, by Marina Gessner; one for the comprehension of just how deeply we can misunderstand other people and what they’re about to throw at us, the other for the sheer perseverance and determination necessary to undertake such an iconic journey alone, on foot, and dependent for the most part only on your own resources. Read
them—you might enjoy them as well—but definitely don’t pass up Caletti’s book, which is deserving of every award it has received, and more.
If you are a Tana French fan, as I am, there is no question that you will read whatever book she has written next; you just put a check in the “want to read” box on Goodreads and wait for its publication. And if you don’t want to buy your own personal copy so as to read it the instant it is released (I do, but I’m trying to come to terms with a new, slimmer budget, now that I am semi-retired), you resignedly log onto your local library catalogue, place a hold, and wait.
That’s what I did about six weeks ago, opting for the e-book with the idea that it would take less time to get than it would a hardcover copy. Then I promptly forgot about it and went about my business, until my email notification popped up to tell me that the e-book was awaiting me on my Kindle.
If you are a Tana French fan, then you know that all her books to date (six previous to this one) are part of a loose series called the Dublin Murder Squad, and each deals with a murder mystery to be solved by a Dublin detective. Each book has a different protagonist, although the others crop up in big, small, or completely incidental ways in the background of the books in which they don’t play lead. So while there is a familiarity about each book (a murder to be solved, a member of Dublin’s finest to do so), there is also a certain variety. You don’t know exactly what to expect, as you do with series in which the lead detective is always the same person. It’s kind of a genius way to write, if you can pull it off. Although I am a fan, for instance, of John Lescroart’s Dismas Hardy series, I have been vocal about my disappointment in those books in which he chooses one of his other characters as the lead. But so far, in her six books, French’s choices have never disappointed me, and I haven’t wavered in my slavering desire for the next one.
So, as I mentioned, The Witch Elm popped up on my Kindle a couple of days ago, and when I finished Michael Koryta’s book, I started to read. Imagine my confusion when, not having looked at a physical copy of the book for a flap synopsis or author blurb, I slowly realized that the Dublin Murder Squad was nowhere to be found? I kept reading as Toby, the average guy with a good job, friends, and a lovely girlfriend, went about his life, until one night he was mugged by burglars in his own home, and lay in the hospital recovering. Finally, two detectives showed up to take his statement, and I thought “Ah! here we go.”
Nope. The detectives came and went, and we stuck with Toby.
For her fans, this is a huge departure for French, and reactions will be mixed. Mystery readers and procedural fans may be disappointed. As with many procedurals, the crimes in French’s books, while clever, are the incidental vehicle, but the detectives’ engaging personal histories are what draw readers in and tempt them to return.
There is, eventually, a murder in this book, and there are some Dublin detectives taking an active part in its investigation; but the story continues to be told by the victims and, later, the perpetrators. Rather than featuring as the leads, the detectives maintain the persona that they represent to most people in real life: initially friendly and helpful, but also a looming source of panic and dread as their attention falls on you and you wonder, Do they really think I did this?
The book is a slow and intricate read, and takes almost 100 pages to build up to the discovery of the murder. Although some may believe that French’s editors were simply too afraid at this point to curtail the prose of such a successful writer, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Yes, I was initially somewhat frustrated to sit through the transformation of Toby from a basically happy-go-lucky guy to a man who didn’t know how or when he would ever recover from what’s been done to him. He’s pathetic, but he’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and my impatience grew with the narrative. But when the story transitions to the search for a murderer among Toby’s family, and so many questions are raised, you begin to realize that this book isn’t a whodunnit, it’s a psychological character study that, because of the unreliable nature of the characters, ramps up the tension exponentially with every page. In hindsight you see that all (okay, most) of that angst and drama you sat through with Toby was in service of everything that comes after, and you grow to appreciate your insider’s view as things continue to swing out of control. Although I had to make a little effort to get through the first part of this novel, I whipped through the last 30 percent of it between midnight and 3:00 a.m., and I don’t regret staying up one bit.
It’s hard, when you love unreservedly the kind of book that an author has reliably delivered as many times as has Tana French, and then she changes her focus. But I would call The Witch Elm a successful step in her career. If I’m honest, I still hope she returns to the Dublin Murder Squad, but I won’t be sad if, as well, we get a few one-offs like this one along the way.