The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, made the rounds on the book club circuit not too long ago, evoking strong feelings for many. “I feel it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s central character … is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday,” writes Paula McLain (Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife). “She’s also going to make you want to pick her up, shake her and scream, why can’t you let yourself be happy…. She herself is like a thistle, a wall of hard-earned thorns.”
Diffenbaugh’s second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, came out recently, and today, Nashville attorney Paula Walker shares her thoughts on both books. At the end of the post, I’ll suggest some more book club reads for right now.
Book club choices are always a gamble. My book club has had a range of success, and Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers seemed like it would be a good read. After all, who doesn’t love getting flowers? Whether from the local grocery 3 for $12 bin or delivered to your door, it is a special thing to know that someone took the time to pick out flowers. Especially these days when you are more likely to receive a text of an emoji flower than a real one! Before reading The Language of Flowers, I had no idea what my husband was telling me when he came home proudly holding sunflowers – but I will leave it to you to figure that one out.
In The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh uses the Victorian era language of flowers (the practice of sending messages via flowers when etiquette forebade the direct message) as the means by which her main character, Victoria Jones, establishes relationships after aging out of the foster care system. Diffenbaugh is an advocate for ending abuse in the foster care system, and at times she blurs the lines between fact and fiction in her novel. The foster care system can hide an ugly reality that we don’t want to acknowledge – a reality where kids are so abused and love-starved that the loss of self-worth leads straight toward self-destruction. It wasn’t easy to read about the evil directed at helpless children who often shoulder the blame for how they eventually turn out. I am not proud to admit that I almost put the book down because it wasn’t my typical pleasant release from the hectic world. In the end, the discomfort yielded to a beautifully written story where the main character grew throughout the book – yet there was no certain happy ending.
When I was asked to read Diffenbaugh’s second book, We Never Asked for Wings, I agreed, hoping that the second book would be as good as the first. Diffenbaugh tackles another challenging topic in today’s news – the plight of impoverished immigrant children (both legal and illegal) – while weaving in the historical art of using feathers from migratory birds to make detailed mosaics. I get the feather’s symbolism, but the use of feather art didn’t work as seamlessly as the language of flowers.
While the second book portrays the life of several interconnected hard-working immigrants looking for the American Dream, ultimately it was more predictable than The Language of Flowers. I was left with more of a happy ending feel, which seemed unrealistic in a book highlighting the difficulties facing immigrants. While it might satisfy as a stand-alone novel, I don’t recommend reading the two back to back.
Here are some links worth a quick look for history and art buffs: This link is a good source for learning the language of flowers: www.languageofflowers.com. In addition, feather art isn’t what you might think. It’s a true art with Spanish origins and involves intricately detailed work. Here is a link for those who want to learn more: www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mxms/hd_mxms.htm.
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Paula Walker came to Bacon by way of my friend Katie Crumbo. They share a neighborhood and a book club and have raised their children together. “We have many incriminating photos of the kids playing in the bathtubs and elsewhere. Both of us are saving these for future wedding slideshow embarrassment,” Katie notes. “Paula is super smart and well-spoken. She joined a book club I’m in several years ago and was a terrific addition. She keeps us all on our toes! I’ve become a sometimes book club slacker when life gets in the way,” Katie ruefully admits.
Paula and Katie’s husband, Kevin, overlapped as undergrads at the University of Kentucky. Paula went on to law school and has specialized in labor and employment law in Nashville since arriving here in the mid-90s. She currently serves as Vice President of Global Compliance and Assistant General Counsel at Sitel and was formerly a partner at Waller Lansden. She and her husband Neil have two daughters at Harpeth Hall.
Paula loves summer, especially time spent at the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly. Her greatest accomplishment in the kitchen is homemade French onion soup, “worth the crying!” Favorite guilty pleasures include anything with dark chocolate and sea salt. She needs a little time to herself each day though she also loves time with family, friends and neighbors; she especially appreciates that her neighborhood Facebook page is devoted to the finding of lost dogs. Advice to parents of teenagers? “Life will not be defined by what happens in high school.” And those, dear reader, are words to the wise.
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Here are some great book club reads for right now, which I’ll be featuring in upcoming posts:
The Past, by Tessa Hadley. This is my favorite novel of the year so far! Four adult siblings (with assorted children and one non-family member) convene at the family homestead in the English countryside. Over the course of a three week vacation, they must decide whether to sell or keep the home, now in a state of disrepair. The children play disturbing games; adolescents find love, or something; adults try to figure things out, past and present. A deserted cottage deeper in the woods holds a powerful sway. This novel is not as creepy as I’m making it sound. It’s a rich and gorgeous variation on the “English countryside vacation” novel. Anthony Quinn, writing in The Guardian, is more than a little impressed: “In her patient, unobtrusive, almost self-effacing way, Tessa Hadley has become one of this country’s great contemporary novelists. She is equipped with an armoury of techniques and skills that may yet secure her a position as the greatest of them. Consider all the things she can do. She writes brilliantly about families and their capacity for splintering. She is a remarkable and sensuous noticer of the natural world. She handles the passing of time with a magician’s finesse. She is possessed of a psychological subtlety reminiscent of Henry James, and an ironic beadiness worthy of Jane Austen. To cap it all, she is dryly, deftly humorous. Is that enough to be going on with? These talents are on formidable display in her latest novel, The Past.”
Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld. This sounds a lot lighter than Sittenfeld’s best known (and amazing) novel, Prep, but I’m planning to reread Pride and Prejudice and then pick it up. Your book club might also enjoy reading one followed by the other! From Booklist: “Sittenfeld transplants the beloved characters of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from nineteenth-century Regency England to contemporary Cincinnati, Ohio, in this fun, frothy modernization. The Bennet family has similarly fallen on hard times here, thanks to exorbitant medical bills, reckless spending, and the perpetual underemployment of four of the five Bennet daughters…. Sittenfeld has updated some of the characters and story lines to better fit a contemporary setting, but her charming retelling is a delightful romp for not only Austen devotees but lovers of romantic comedies and sly satire, as well.”
The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker. The Taliban Shuffle, an incredibly intriguing memoir, has recently been abused as the inspiration for the mediocre movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (see Bacon smack-down here). Here’s a bit of what Michiko Kakutani has to say about the book in The New York Times Book Review: “What’s remarkable about “The Taliban Shuffle” is that its author, Kim Barker – a reporter at ProPublica and the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 – has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.… Ms. Barker has discovered a voice in these pages that enables her to capture both the serious and the seriously absurd conditions in Af-Pak (Afghanistan and Pakistan), and the surreal deal of being a female reporter there, with dating problems ranging from the screwball (a boyfriend competing to cover the same story) to the ridiculous (being romantically pursued by the former prime minister of Pakistan).”
The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota. The New York Times Book Review featured this novel in its cover review a couple of weeks ago and caught my attention. Again, from Kakutani: “Even as waves of refugees fleeing the war in Syria have created an urgent world crisis, many immigrants who have already made it to Europe have been grappling with prejudice, poverty and unemployment. No recent novel does a more powerful job of capturing the day-to-day lives of such immigrants than Sunjeev Sahota’s second book, “The Year of the Runaways,” which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize. Mr. Sahota – whose grandfather came to Britain in 1962, and who grew up in Derby, England – writes with intimacy and feeling about his four main characters, three of whom have arrived illegally from India to try to make new lives for themselves in Britain or make enough money to support their families back home. By cutting back and forth between their intertwining stories, and between their current lives in the English city of Sheffield and their left-behind lives in India, Mr. Sahota creates an ensemble portrait of young immigrants struggling to find work, to sort out their love lives, to come to terms with duty and tradition and their own confused ambitions.”