Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Language of Flowers

By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballentine Books     2012
322 pages     Literary

Book club is Thursday night, and I am fascinated about the potential discussion we will have about The Language of Flowers.
The premise is that each variety of flower, wild and cultivated, has an emotion attached to it. In Victorian times, one gave flowers that were connected with the emotion he or she wanted to convey. So, for example,  in the language of flowers, my favorite Gerber daisies convey cheerfulness. Giving Gerber daisies might be a good idea to bring to a hospital patient. The novel is followed by a glossary of flowers and their Victorian meanings.

Victoria, the protagonist of The Language of Flowers is a child who has been tossed about by the foster care system; she is so damaged that she fits nowhere. Her case worker says that she is “detached, quick tempered, tight-lipped, unrepentant.” At age 9 she ends up with grape farmer, Elizabeth, who tells Victoria that this is her last stop and this is where she will stay. Elizabeth grew up on a flower farm and she teaches Victoria the language of flowers. Victoria realizes that she has found her calling for life. She memorizes all the flower meanings, creating scrapbooks of pictures of flowers with their meanings attached. But even this idyllic setting ends up being just a way-station for Victoria, and within a year she is back in group homes until at age 18, she ages out of the system and is on her own. 

The narrative shifts back and forth from Victoria at age 9 with Elizabeth to Victoria as an 18-year-old out on the street, stealing food and sleeping in public parks. A wonderful florist names Renata sees Victoria’s potential and hires her to work in her shop. Renata is a wonderful character, who seems to see Victoria’s need for self-preservation and offers just the right amount of nurturing and the right amount of help.

Diffenbaugh tries to tackle a lot of subjects –adoption, foster homes, emancipation, homelessness, single motherhood, and attachment disorder—perhaps too many subjects, because I didn’t quite know where to place all my emotions. The least resonant part of the plot (for me) concerned the day of the adoption hearing, when Elizabeth is going to adopt Victoria, and suddenly Elizabeth backs out of the deal. The reasoning behind it is so nebulous that I never did quite figure it out. At that point, Diffenbaugh lost me as a committed reader, and I finished the book simply because my book club is going to discuss it this week.

What I did like particularly were the flowers and the way Victoria found purpose for her life in the flowers. As I was reading, I kept thinking of a young woman I know who has had a similar life experience to Victoria. She has found purpose for her life with animals, and a kind dog kennel owner has nurtured that love of dogs by giving her a job at the kennel. 

I also realized as I read The Language of Flowers that I was feeling emotionally manipulated by a contrived plot, and a lot of loose ends. I was let down by the ending, while at the same time I realized that the overarching theme resonated with me. The New York Times reviewer felt much the same way I did, but the Washington Post reviewer loved it. She found it “original and brilliant.” I guess that is why there are so many genres of novels—books to appeal to everyone. 

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s website. I kept thinking her last name was dieffenbachia—which is a common house plant. I wonder what it’s Victorian meaning is.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Noir and Neo-Noir

Noir and Neo-noir

I have four noir short story compilations from Akashic Books on my shelf right now, and I want to share them with you. Also, I just reviewed Deadbomb Bingo Ray, the best-named novel ever. Before I read these books, I had to find a definition of “noir” fiction. Here is the definition of noir fiction from Wikipedia: “ a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Other common characteristics include the self-destructive qualities of the protagonist."

In other words, hardboiled detective fiction and noir fiction are philosophically and diametrically opposed to each other. “One is dependent on its hero maintaining the ethical high ground while most everyone with whom he interacts lies, cheats, steals and kills. The other features people who wallow in the sty that is their world. The machinations of their lust, whether for money or love (which, in noir fiction, is a four-letter word for sex), will cause them to be blinded to rudimentary decency as they become entangled in the web of their own doom.” Another difference is that in hardboiled detective fiction, the reader will have a general sense that justice has been done—even though there may not be a happy ending. In noir fiction, however, there is never a sense that justice has been done and there is never a happy ending. One reviewer says, “The noir story with a happy ending has never been written, nor can it be. The lost and corrupt souls who populate these tales were doomed before we met them because of their hollow hearts and depraved sensibilities.” If you are a movie person, think LA Confidential or The Maltese Falcon.

Neo-noir is slightly darker than noir, but neither has any consciousness that justice will be done. In neo-noir, the world is just a shithole (pardon my language) and the characters are just trying to get through it all. Often the protagonist gets away with the crime. Movie buffs with recognize this in Point Blank or Blood Simple. Some say that Chinatown is the greatest neo-noir movie, and another reviewer says that it is one of the “greatest, most stylish films ever made.”

If you want a send up of noir and neo-noir movies, watch Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang from 2005. It has all the noir characteristics and is funny to boot.

Here is the article about noir fiction in the Huffington Post. Penzler closes his article with these words: “I love noir fiction. It makes doom fun. And who doesn’t like fun?”

Deadbomb Bingo Ray

By Jeff Johnson
Turner     2017
288 pages     Noir

How could I pass up a book with a title and a character named Deadbomb Bingo Ray? I couldn’t. I wavered a bit. Started and stopped it several times, but I just couldn’t let it go. Finally, this weekend, I was able to focus and concentrate on it. I descended into a rabbit hole of noir that I had to claw my way out of. Deadbomb Bingo Ray set me on a path of understanding the genre of noir and neo-noir. I soon learned that each author has his/her own definition of what noir is and how they are going to express it.

Johnson has created his own definition in the highly intelligent, elegant “fixer” Ray, who is not above killing anyone who gets in his way. (By the way, his name came from a casino incident.) He is well known in Philadelphia, where he has landed, and Philly is close to Atlantic City, where he does a lot of business. He has a reputation of being able to get things done, but he is being hounded by a man named Tim Cantwell, who is seeking revenge for past injustices and is determined to bring Ray down. And herein lies the plot.

Ray summons a vast cast of characters who work for him off and on, including his secretary Agnes and her son, Cody, a fixer in training. Skuggy, his henchman, is almost as colorful as Ray, wearing vintage suits and hats--a black Humphrey Bogart. They are on call to aid and abet the crimes Ray and company perpetrate in order to bring Tim Cantwell down. Sometimes the plot is a bit murky, and I lost track of several of the characters and their relationship to the plot. But I just kept reading on, enjoying the quick-witted Ray, his antics, and his romance with the lovely Agnes—a PhD physicist, no less.

To live his life, Ray has to be well-prepared. His house is filled with firepower; he sleeps under the dining room table, where he has a gun taped to the table’s underside; he has several safe exits; and he pays proprietors of four restaurants, a grocery store, and a dress shop to stand by in case he needs help. There are many great lines. One time when Ray was on surveillance at the train station, he sat and watched the people, “letting his mind wander and listening to where it went.”  “. . .sadness had trouble being alone.” And my favorite “the costume brought out the side of him that was dangerous in a next-level way, beyond angry beehive and well into biblical-serpent territory.”

There may be a lot of killings, but it is all in good fun. One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is the soundtrack that shows  up for each chapter. I found some of the music and listened as I read.  Very clever, by the way. It reminded me of the soundtrack Jennifer Egan included in A Visit from the Goon Squad. I would suggest to Johnson, that he do like Egan and put the soundtrack on his website so that readers have an easy time finding the music.

By the way, Johnson’s first career was as a tattoo artist, so I think that he must be as cool a character as Deadbomb Bingo Ray. I assume that this is the first book in a coming series. Library Journal named Deadbomb Bingo Ray the pick of the month for November.

If you like noir or hard-boiled detective fiction, you will enjoy the noir books that are in the next review. If you are looking for an understanding of noir, read my explanation that you will find here.