In The Language of Flowers, the LHJ Book Club pick for May, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh tells the moving story of Victoria Jones, a young woman whose journey through the foster-care system has taught her to be untrusting of herself, the world, and the people in it. Isolated and alone, only her treasured Victorian language of flowers allows her to communicate her true emotions. But until she meets a young man in a flower market, only she understands the message.
Desperate to survive following emancipation from foster care at age eighteen, Victoria is forced to answer the question … “Can we grow past our limitations?” Below are examples from the book that show, for Victoria, flowers are not only a way to communicate, but a symbol of her ability to transcend her personal history.
Message of Hope
Excited to finally have the tools to communicate, Victoria gives her foster mother thistle, a symbol of her hatred for mankind, and ironically it bonds them to each other.
“Thistle!” I said, handing her the jar. “For you,” I added. I reached out awkwardly and patted her once on the shoulder. It was perhaps the first time in my entire life I had initiated contact with another human being-at least the first time in my memory.
Just before her eighteenth birthday, Victoria is warned she must find a job in order to remain in the group home, or else be homeless, but instead she spends her days nurturing her first garden.
“Back in my room, I spread out the shocked roots gently, covered them with the nutrient-rich soil, and watered deeply. The milk jugs drained right onto the carpet, and as the days passed, weeds began to sprout from the worn fiber.”
Fear of Failure
Fearing she will not be able to surmount the obstacles of her past, Victoria makes the heartbreaking decision to return her baby to the father to raise.
When the basket was finally covered, I put the knife back in my pocket, picked up the baby, who had fallen asleep, and lay her down gently on the blanket of moss. Maternal love. It was all I could give her. Someday, I hoped she would understand.
Finding the courage to try again, Victoria returns to the father and her baby to finally realize she is capable of love.
“If it was true that moss did not have roots, and maternal love could grow spontaneously, as if from nothing, perhaps I had been wrong to believe myself unfit to raise my daughter. Perhaps the unattached, the unwanted, the unloved, could grow to give as lushly as anyone else.”
Book Club Bonus!
At your club’s discussion of The Language of Flowers, invite members to bring a favorite flower representing a special message they want to convey to the group. Each flower’s meaning can be discussed, added to a vase and taken home by one lucky drawing winner to enjoy all week.
LHJ is hosting a live Facebook chat with Vanessa Diffenbaugh on Thursday, April 26 at 1:00pm EST! Mark your calendars, and go to LHJ's wall to ask Vanessa a question about The Language of Flowers, her life as a writer, or her philanthropic efforts. We hope to see you there!
Please welcome Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly, to On the Bookcase! Jennifer tells us how her novel was inspired by the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae.
I didn’t set out to write a ghost story, and yet somehow The Year of the Gadfly became one. The apparition of a famous dead journalist counsels my reporter-heroine. A secret chamber in the school basement is thought to be haunted. And a group of young artists use an Ouija board to conjure up the spirit of a dead boy.
This last detail was inspired by a specific occurrence my junior year of high school, in which my Latin class decided to practice the ancient tradition of Sortes Vergilianae, or the “Lottery of Vergil.” According to legend, the Aeneid could be used to divine the future. It had worked for a handful of Roman emperors who’d predicted their rise to power in the book’s pages. Maybe, my classmates thought, the Aeneid could shed light on where we’d get into college or whom we’d end up taking to prom. My boyfriend Ben thought the game was silly. What could a book written over a thousand years before reveal about his future?
We didn’t know how the Sortes Vergilianae was meant to go, so we resorted to holding a kind of séance. We shut off the classroom lights, drew the shades, and sat knee-to-knee in a circle on the floor, holding hands. I was surprised that Ben, skeptic that he was, agreed to go first. He closed his eyes, opened the Aeneid to a random page, and pointed at the text. Then he opened his eyes and read. He’d chosen Book 6, set in Hades—the underworld. Specifically, Ben picked the passage about a boy who dies at the age of 19.
I don’t remember any of the other passages we chose that day. I only remember Ben’s, because only a few months later, he was killed in a car accident. In some strange and horrible way, the Sortes Vergilianae had worked. It fulfilled its promise of revealing Ben’s future. Not that Ben would have given credence to what was simply coincidence. Moreover, he’d have argued, the boy in the book died at 19. He was only 17. Still, I wondered if by turning the Sortes Vergilianae into a séance, we had called up a ghost—somehow pushed Ben toward the underworld before his time.
I know ghosts do not exist in the real world. But I think it was inevitable that after Ben’s death, ghosts would come to populate the world of my imagination. The presence of these spiritual forces in Gadfly—both the walking, talking ghosts and the haunting specter of the past—is my attempt to account for, or at least understand, what happened that day in the Latin classroom. I’d like to see the world through Ben’s skeptical eye, and yet I’m struck daily with the truth of Vergil’s Lottery. How it defined Ben’s future, and mine, in so many inescapable ways.
Jennifer Miller, the author of Inheriting the Holy Land: An American’s Search for Hope in the Middle East, holds a BA from Brown University, an MS in Journalism from Columbia, and an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Men's Health, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, and others. She is a native of Washington, DC and currently lives in Brooklyn with all the other writers.
Reading Group Choices attended the Virginia Festival of the Book on March 24th. I, Laura Vianna, was a panel member for the Book Club workshop. I was able to inform the audience of a few tips that Reading Group Choices has gathered over the years from book clubs. A few included:
-Book Club Awards
-Book Group Website
-Food by the Book
-Diversify group membership
At the end of the workshop, the audience was able to share what their book clubs do for fun as well as ask the panel questions and seek advice.
Reading Group Choices also gave away five boxes of books to five lucky winners for their book clubs. Maybe we will be at an event near you!
Quail Ridge Books & Music held a "Book Club Bash" at it's store on Monday, March 19th and Wednesday, March 21st. At this Bash, employees of the book store had chosen 2-3 books each to present to a crowd of local book club members. Each presented book was picked because it would lead to a lively book club discussion.
Reading Group Choices came bearing gifts. Each day the bash was held, RGC gave away 5 boxes of books as a random drawing to different book groups that attended the Bash. We gave away about 120 books!
The event was really exciting and full of useful information. The categories of books included Fiction, Non-Fiction, Short Stories and Young Adult. At the end of both events, owner Nancy Olson opened the event to the attendees and asked what their favorite picks were.
It was a great way to bring together all the book groups in the community to meet each other and find new books to read.
Find out if a bookstore or library near you is doing a similar event!
Please welcome the author of The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, to On the Bookcase! She has made a "Dictionary of Flowers" that in relationship to her novel, that will make for a great book club resource.
When I began The Language of Flowers, I owned only one flower dictionary: The Floral Offering: A Token of Affection and Esteem; Comprising the Language and Poetry of Flowers, written in 1859 by Henrietta Dumont. It was an ancient, crumbling hardcover, with dry flowers pressed between the pages. Scraps of poetry, collected by previous owners and stored between the yellowed pages, slipped to the floor as I scanned the book for meanings.
Three chapters into Victoria’s story, I myself made the discovery of the yellow rose. In the table of contents at the beginning of Ms. Dumont’s beautiful book, the yellow rose appears as jealousy. Hundreds of pages later, in the very same book, the yellow rose appears again: this time as infidelity.
Reading through the book more carefully, I found no explanation for the discrepancy, so I went in search of additional dictionaries, hoping to determine the “correct” definition of the yellow rose. Instead, I found that the problem was not specific to the yellow rose; nearly every flower had multiple meanings, listed in hundreds of books, in dozens of languages, and on countless websites.
The dictionary shown here was created in the manner in which Victoria compiled the contents of her boxes. Lining up dictionaries on my dining room table—The Flower Vase by Miss S. C. Edgarton, Language of Flowers by Kate Greenaway, The Language and Sentiment of Flowers by James D. McCabe, and Flora’s Lexicon by Catharine H. Waterman—I scanned the meanings, selecting the definition that best fit the science of each flower, just as Victoria would have done. Other times, when Icould find no scientific reason for a definition, I chose the meaning that occurred most often or, occasionally, simply the one I liked best.
My goal was to create a usable, relevant dictionary for modern readers. I deleted plants from the Victorian dictionaries that are no longer common, and added flowers that were rarely used in the 1800s but are more popular today. I kept most food-related plants, as Victoria would have, and deleted most nonflowering trees and shrubs because, as Victoria says, there is nothing wistful about the passing of sticks or long strips of bark.
I am grateful for the assistance of Stephen Zedros of Brattle Square Florist in Cambridge and Lachezar Nikolov at Harvard University. This dictionary would not exist without their vast knowledge and generous support.
To write The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh found inspiration in her own experience as a foster mother. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford University, Vanessa taught art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.
Author Alice Hoffman has written a letter to all readers about her new novel, The Dovekeepers (April 2012).
Once in a lifetime a book may come to a writer as an unexpected gift. The Dovekeepers is such a book for me. It was a gift from my great-great grandmothers, the women of ancient Israel who first spoke to me when I visited the mountain fortress of Masada. In telling their story of loss and love, I’ve told my own story as well. After writing for thirty-five years, after more than thirty works of fiction, I was given the story I was meant to tell.
The Dovekeepers is a novel set during and after the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.). The book covers a period of four years as the Romans waged war against the Jewish stronghold of Masada, claimed by a group 900 rebels and their families. The story is taken from the historian Josephus, who has written the only account of siege, in which he reported that two women and five children survived the massacre on the night when the Jews committed mass suicide rather than submit to the Roman Legion. It was they who told the story to the Romans, and, therefore, to the world. I have researched The Dovekeepers for many years, relying not only Josephus’s account, but also on the findings of Yigal Yadin, the archeologist who lead the Masada project.
I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant. The tragic events of the past and the extraordinary sacrifices that were made in this fortress seemed to be present all around me. It was as if those who had lived there, and died there, had passed by only hours before. The temperature was well over a hundred degrees and the horizon was shaky with blue heat. In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.
All My Best,
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City in 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one. She has published a total of twenty-eight works of fiction. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Hoffman is currently a visiting research scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She lives in Boston.
Please welcome Kate Furnivall, author of The White Pearl, to On the Bookcase! In an essay she has written, she tells us how note taking is the key to writing her novels. Take it away Kate!
I am a fanatical note-taker! My problem is that I love doing the research too much. Once I get started, I can’t stop. I make hundreds of pages of notes, most of which I will never use, but they fill my head with the time and place I intend to write about. For The White Pearl I had to be so familiar with Malaya in 1941 that I could move with ease through the world I was going to create for Connie.
I devour everything I can lay my hands on that will expand my knowledge of the period, some fiction but mainly non-fiction. I adore memoirs. They are a rich vein of information because they provide the kind of intimate details that no historian would bother to record. These personal accounts are wonderful for helping me build the daily life of my characters. I get excited about discovering facts about a whole new subject – like the planting and milking of rubber trees. Nigel’s passion for them in the book was a reflection of my own. The temptation is to include too much research material, but I always keep in the forefront of my mind that the characters and plot have to come first.
I thank the Internet, Amazon and Google Books from the bottom of my heart. They give me access to facts and accounts that it would otherwise take me a lifetime to track down. Whatever the subject – the flying snakes of Malaya, the sail configuration of native trading boats, the placement of guns in Singapore or the address of General Percival’s headquarters – there is always someone out there who has written about it. I thank them all. Where possible I also spend time in the country I am writing about, but I am cautious about doing so, because I can’t bear to see McDonald’s and Coca-Cola signs eclipsing the 1930s world I have conjured up in my head. But this is where old film footage and old photographs are invaluable. Often a photograph, curling at the edges, will tell me more than any number of books.
One of the problems of living with research notes is that the facts and places become so fixed in my own mind that it is easy to forget how much the reader does – or doesn’t – know about the period. The city of Darwin in Australia is a case in point. I refer to it at the end of The White Pearl, because, as a strategic military port, it was savagely bombed sixty times between February 1942 and November 1943, causing great devastation and killing many inhabitants. A dangerous time for everyone.
With themes of self discovery, history, and culture & world issues, The White Pearl is a great book club pick!
Kate Furnivall was born in Wales and currently lives in Devon, England. Married and the mother of two sons, she has worked in publishing and television advertising. She is the national bestselling author of The Jewel of St. Petersburg, The Girl from Junchow, The Red Scarf, and The Russian Concubine.
Jessica Goodell has written a memoir entitled Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq about her duties as a member of the mortuary affairs unit of the Marines. She was inteviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. This memoir is intense but highly discussible. With themes of military, women's lives and personal challenges, paired with the NPR interview, this book will surely get your book group talking.
"This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Everybody knows the expression no Marine left behind, but do you ever think about who does the work of retrieving the remains of fallen Marines, identifying the bodies and preparing them to be sent home to their families?
During the war in Iraq, the Marines created their own Mortuary Affairs Unit to do that work. My guest, Jess Goodell, served in the Marines Mortuary Affairs Unit in al-Anbar Province in 2004. She was constantly surrounded by exactly what you can't let yourself obsess on when you're at war: death, bodies mutilated by IEDs.
The work was saddening, sickening, necessary and important. It took a toll on her then and still weighs heavy on her. She has written a new memoir about her work in Mortuary Affairs, her experiences as a woman in the Marines and the difficulty of adjusting to life back home after what she witnessed. It's called "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq."
—Introduction to "Jessica Goodell on Fresh Air with Terry Gross"
Please welcome Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling to On the Bookcase! She tells us about how her new novel came to exist and what initiated the interest in researching "the way female desire changes over time."
I kept hearing stories: How, at a cooking class, one woman had apparently told everyone that she had given up "that part" of her life forever. All around the room, the other women nodded empathetically; they knew what "that part" meant. How, over drinks, a friend had confided, "I would pay someone to have sex with my husband." How, on the message boards devoted to young motherhood and all its accoutrements, women described never wanting to be touched by adult male hands again.
Something was in the air, or at least in the conversation, and the prurient part of me was interested. But so was the writer part.
The subject of women withholding sex from men is an ancient one; in Aristophanes' comic play Lysistrata, the title character encourages the women of Greece to stop sleeping with men in order to end the Peloponnesian War. There have been more recent examples of sex strikes around the world, both in art and in life—not all involving war. What if the women's reasons for turning away from men are hard to explain? What if they're emotional, or biological, or have something to do with being angry at men for running the world and basically ruining it? And then, of course, there's despair, and vulnerability, and the fact that childbearing days have come to an end, so sex for its own sake needs to be really wonderful, or else why bother.
Women's magazines have long been on the diminished-desire beat. The articles they publish seem to be increasingly brain science–based, in addition to including traditional anecdotes from unhappy bedrooms and professional advice from a kind and knowledgeable therapist. (The word "candles" might get mentioned, prescriptively.) But what interested me most as a novelist wasn't primarily the latest psychological or neurochemical research into female arousal, or lack thereof. Instead, I just wanted to take a look at the way female desire changes over time. And it definitely does change. There may not always be an outright war between men and women, but something's certainly going on now, in "that part" of women's lives, and I wanted to see what it was.
That's what I've explored in The Uncoupling. I decided to work Lysistrata into it, at least around the edges, imagining what would happen if the play cast a spell over a group of girls and women in that same invisible way that love and the beginnings of desire seem to cast a spell, too, entrancing their subjects, changing the way they think about themselves and the lives they've been living.
"In The Uncoupling, bestselling author Meg Wolitzer sets up a twenty- first century parable that blends the supernatural with the decidedly real. . . . The Uncoupling is a fast, fun read, and like all off-kilter thought experiments, it asks us to reexamine the experiences we accept unthinkingly as well as the very language we use to describe them. Desire is enchanting, but its sudden absence can feel like a curse."—NPR
Meg Wolitzer is the author of eight previous novels, including The Ten-Year Nap, The Position, and The Wife. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She lives in New York City.