Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book #72: The Language of Flowers

I heard about The Language of Flowers this summer when I attended a book preview lunch at ALA in New Orleans. During that hour session, I heard about a number of forthcoming books, mostly fiction, that would hit bookstores and libraries this autumn. I was lucky enough to get to bring some advanced reading copies home with me, but not every book the publishing staff book talked was available. I had to wait, just like everyone else, for The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. After finishing it last night, I can attest that it was well worth the wait.

The story opens with Victoria, a lifelong ward of the state, about to age out of her group home placement. Finally eighteen, she will now be emancipated and truly subject to only her own decisions. Victoria was always a somewhat difficult child, but her behavior stemmed only from what her upbringing was steeped in: abandonment, abuse, and dashed hopes. When Victoria steps out on her own for the first time, all she has is a backpack of a few belongings, an emotional mess of guilt and misanthropy, and a particular talent for flowers.

The Language of Flowers is told mostly in chapters alternating between Victoria's present and her time, ages 9-11, with a foster mother with whom she thought she could finally stay. This span of her childhood is the root of her guilt but also the budding of her love and talent for flowers. Her foster mother taught her the Victorian meanings of flowers--how gentlemen would express their feelings for ladies through deliberate selection of particular flowers. Victoria takes this skill, along with her natural proclivity for arranging flowers, into her new adult life. After a stint of homelessness, she finds work with a florist. She feels competent, if not completely comfortable, arranging bouquets for customers with desires for very specific emotions in their lives, and she becomes known for creating beautiful arrangements that express the customers' feelings.

Victoria can speak the language of flowers, and she feels pride and happily alone in her ability to convey messages through blooms without anyone else's knowledge. Then she meets a man at the flower market; his focus on her immediately puts her on edge, but she is even more taken aback when he begins to give her single flowers that convey messages to her. It turns out that Victoria is not as pleasantly alone as she thought. Suddenly this man causes her present and her past to collide, and for the first time Victoria must confront her own feelings, both about her past and herself.

The Language of Flowers is a beautiful piece of storytelling. The characters are very well developed, and it is difficult not to feel for them--especially Victoria, even though she does some truly awful things. The use of the Victorian language of flowers adds a beautiful and slightly mysterious, ethereal element to the novel--can we really communicate and influences lives with flowers? There is a lot to talk about in this book: flowers, the foster care system, family, personal guilt. I would suggest this book to readers who enjoy complex characters, beautiful descriptions, and themes of forgiveness.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Read-aloud Tales for School Children, or Books #70 and 71

We tend to think of reading to kids in public libraries as something specific to pre-readers; once a child can read for him/herself, they don't need to be read to, right? Wrong. It doesn't matter how old you are, how strong a reader you are--everyone loves and benefits from listening to stories. If you're looking for shorter, strange, and sometimes mysterious tales to read, either to yourself or a group of school children, give these two books a try.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick was just released not too long ago. It is in immediate response to The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book published in the eighties. Mysteries was comprised of 14 strange illustrations, each with a cryptic title and caption from its unpublished story counterpart. The story goes that Harris Burdick was a man who stopped into a publisher to show these 14 illustrations and give just a taste of the stories that accompanied them. He left these bits with the publisher along with a promise to return the next day with the full narratives, but he never returned. So intrigued was this publisher that he published Mysteries, and ever since folks have been wondering what the true tales behind the images might be. The Chronicles of Harris Burdick is a long-awaited answer to those wonderings. While Harris Burdick never did reappear (is he real?), 14 talented children's authors each chose a picture, title, and caption set and crafted a story to fit it. The result is a book of 14 wonderfully strange stories well befitting the mystery of the original picture book.

The Troll with No Heart in His Body is a likewise intriguing anthology. It contains various stories of trolls from Norse mythology, some familiar and some not. It includes the Three Billy Goats Gruff, but it also includes such fun and beautiful tales as the Eating Competition and the Boy and the North Wind. Like all good folktales, they tell the reader/listener something about life--the moral--as well as about the culture from which the tale originated. I would love to use these stories in a program and then make guesses as to why trolls were the national monster of Norway, and we could make trolls out of random craft supplies as well. Regardless of whether you read these tales alone, tell them to others, or make them part of a larger event, they are very much tales worth reading.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

New meal: Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter over Pasta

I read a lot of food blogs. My favorites are still the same ones I fell in love with while working on my food thesis in college; time may pass, but those blogs still offer consistently great suggestions. I shouldn't be surprised, then, that a recipe found on not one but two of my favorite blogs turned out to be absolutely stupendous.

I know that the whole Italian argument is that "it's not about the sauce, it's about the pasta," but sometimes a really great sauce is just wonderful. Cue Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, a simple concoction that tastes so much more complex than its component parts would suggest. All you need is a can of plum tomatoes, some butter, a peeled-and-halved onion, and some salt, and about 45 minutes later you've got the most perfect simple tomato sauce. I've been eating it over Trader Joe's pesto tortellini, and I am confident that it would be just as wonderful over plain pasta. I can say with confidence that I will be testing that statement in the near future--this sauce is that simple and that rewarding to make.

Book #69: The Family Fang

The Fang Family are a strange lot. The parents are artists of the most absurd kind--all of their artwork exists in the reactions of innocent bystanders to their chaotic yet intricately planned "performances." The children, Annie and Buster, were fundamental parts of these pieces from their infancy. In fact, much of the American art world knows them primarily as Child A and Child B, young participants in the Fang madness. All of that strange art could really mess with a child, don't you think?

That's where the present-day of the novel takes place, with Annie and Buster trying to shed their histories and instead live normal lives--at least as normal as a Fang might expect. Annie is now a somewhat famous and talented actress who has a penchant for making very poor personal choices, and Buster is a novelist-turned-struggling-freelance writer who cannot make an emotional investment in anything. Suddenly Annie and Buster, despite their best intentions, find themselves living with their parents again. The elder Fangs take this reunion to mean the four Fangs are back as an absurdist art team, but Annie and Buster don't want a part of that life--they want to be more than just Child A and Child B in their parents' impersonal and emotionally cruel art pieces. Then the Fang parents disappear. Is is kidnapping, or is it art? Annie and Buster are left to sort things out for themselves.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is a fantastically strange, melancholic, and hopeful read. Each chapter is prefaced by a description of some past Fang family art piece--the burning house, the punk band, the theatrical performance--that really fleshes out the psyches of each member of the family. Moments in the books were unbelievably funny, and I found myself laughing out loud quite unexpectedly. Other moments, however, make the reader ponder what is acceptable while in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal. Add on the obvious discussion of what constitutes art and you've got a whole lot of talking points.

I am going to try to get my library to pick up this title for one of its book clubs, but I hope someone I know reads it soon so that we can discuss. I would suggest this book to you to read if you enjoy novels with strange yet somehow extremely endearing characters, fiction looking at relationships between parents and children, or books that provide a lens for thinking about art.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Last of the Mark Twains, or Books #65-68

I finished the last of the twelve Mark Twain Award nominees on Friday, and now I'm left to decide which I think are the best. I'm excited to discuss this topic with kids at my library--they always seem up for a Mark Twain Award discussion. Have I mentioned what a great job I have? Below are my synopses of the final four books.

The Secret of Zoom by Lynn Jonell -- Christina lives with her scientist father in a mansion on the grounds of a mysterious science laboratory. Christina is not allowed out--not even for school--"for her own safety," says her father. Christina knows that some sort of accident at the lab claimed her mother's life, but she still wishes she could get out of the confines of her home and explore. When she befriends a boy who has escaped from the harsh, local orphanage, however, she starts to see that an adventure, although what she wanted, really is as dangerous as she was led to believe.

Storm Chaser by Chris Platt -- Thirteen-year-old Jessie lives with her family on their working cattle and horse ranch. After a fire claims their barn and destroys their supplies for winter, Jessie's family decides to open the ranch to summer vacationers for the first time to bring in extra income. Suddenly Jessie finds herself trying to prove she can train one of the new horses at the ranch while attempting to navigate the challenges that come with playing hostess to folks unused to ranch life.

Captain Nobody by Dean Pitchford -- Young Newt Newman has always felt invisible. His older brother Chris has always been the star of the show at school and on the football field, and Newt has generally been content to blend in. When Chris is left in a coma after The Big Game, however, Newt feels that even his family has forgotten he exists. After a successful Halloween as a self-made superhero called Captain Nobody, Newt finds that he doesn't want to shed his uniform and mask. As Captain Nobody, he gets noticed; he rights wrongs; and he starts to realize his strengths in his family and community. Now if only he could help his brother...

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor -- Ivy June moved in with her grandparents after her parents' house nearby became too crowded with children. Her family lives in Appalachian Kentucky mining country, and they have the struggles and relative poverty to show for it. When Ivy June is selected for an exchange program that will take her to Lexington for two weeks, not everyone is thrilled that she'll get a taste of a "better life" than she was born into. But Ivy June finds she and her exchange partner, Catherine, really aren't that much different. Through the course of their program, both experience prejudice, family trauma, and severe self-reflection, but their new and unlikely friendship helps them to overcome.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Mark Twain Award Nominees, or Books #61-64

I've been making steady progress through the other Mark Twain Award nominees by reading during my lunch break and in the evenings. Super nice thing about most juvenile literature: it's got all the interest of great fiction with a shorter reading time. This next batch of four novels offers a variety of moods, styles, and appeal factors, so there's sure to be one that appeals to even a tough-to-please young reader.

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry -- The protagonist, called Brother because of his having four older brothers, lives on a working ranch in rural Oregon where military service is a fundamental part of the largely Catholic ranching community. When Brother's father and his Army Reserves unit are deployed to Iraq, Brother suddenly finds himself alone on the ranch with his aging grandparents. Though he's only twelve, Brother earnestly takes it upon himself to ensure everything will be in working order at home for his father when his tour is over. During the course of those long fourteen months, Brother learns about how family, neighbors, and faith can make a vital difference in how one survives difficult times.

The Potato Chip Puzzles: The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin -- Middle schooler Winston loves puzzles. He loves them so much, in fact, that after he helps his school decipher a mysterious letter that turns out to be an invitation to a puzzle tournament, he volunteers himself and his closest friends for the event despite its taking place on the first day of summer vacation. The event pits ten middle school teams against one another as they try to solve six consecutive puzzles with clues all around town, but Winston quickly realizes that more gears are in motion than the planned contest. Can Winston solve the potato chip puzzles and the case of a cheater in the competition's midst?

11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass -- Amanda is about to turn eleven, and for the first time in her life, she won't be celebrating her birthday with Leo, who was always her best friend. During last year's joint party, Amanda overheard Leo saying some things that she just could not forgive, and so the pair are celebrating separately. Imagine Amanda's surprise when she wakes up the day after turning eleven only to discover that she is reliving that birthday again. Amanda tinkers with her actions and choices every time she relives her birthday, and in the process she discovers what it means to help others, to recognize who she is and be herself, and to be a true friend.

Runaway Twin by Peg Kehret -- Sunny has seen the unsavory sides of the foster care system over the last few years. After her mother and grandmother died when she and her twin sister Starr were three, Starr went to live with one family while Sunny went first to relatives and then, abandoned, into the system. Despite finally finding herself in a stable foster home with a woman who cares about her, Sunny decides to runaway in pursuit of Starr. Throughout this event-heavy first person narrative, Sunny braves a great many things--a tornado, traveling alone, unkind children--in her pursuit of no longer feeling alone in the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New meal: Fish en Papillote

Sometimes, after a long day of work, especially toward the end of the week, it can be tough to get my act together enough to make dinner. There are many reasons for why I have frequently found myself in this scenario in the last few months. Oftentimes I'm running low on groceries by Thursday and so don't have much on hand. Sometimes I've had meetings elsewhere in the county in the afternoon, and my drive home takes me oh-so-conveniently near something easy and tasty, like Bread Co. And, yes, sometimes I just can't be bothered to focus on anything that is going to take me thirty minutes or more. So, yes, I don't end up with a proper dinner. Some days, I'll just eat toast. Other days are much, much worse.

But tonight I finally tried a recipe I'd been saving, and it's going to be my go-to meal for these late-in-the-week, no-advance-menu-plan nights. And it is called "fish en papillote," or fish in parchment paper.

The concept is simple: tear off a decent-sized piece of parchment paper. Right smack dab in the middle, lay a piece of uncooked fish. Either on top of or around the fish, add some veggies cut bite size, some thinly-sliced potatoes or sweet potatoes, perhaps a lemon wedge or two for the bright flavor. Drizzle the whole thing with olive oil and some pepper/salt/herbs, then wrap that baby up so the steam of a 400-degree oven will cook it all to perfection. It takes 20 minutes. Seriously.

The beauty of this meal is manifold. It's delicious, for one. It takes moments to assemble and a mere 20 minutes to cook, and there's something gratifying about opening a present to get to your dinner. Plus I can use up what random bits of veg and potatoes I've got hanging around. My local grocery store has a good fresh fish counter, so I can stop in on my way home from work no problem. It's quick, and it's cheap: 5 minutes in-store and $1.68 for my wild Alaskan cod fillet today. I will be gifting myself this meal many, many times this winter, I can already tell.