The language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers is an engaging, haunting book. Be forewarned, once you pick it up, you will NOT want to put it down. The book is about Victoria Jones, who is just 18 when we meet her. She is aging out of the foster care system, a system that has not cared well for her. (The book carries a powerful, evocative message for social workers, and all who would do good, about the unintended consequences of well meaning but misplaced help.)

Victoria is clearly a wounded and angry child/young woman.  If the right to love is a basic human right, Victoria’s right has been egregiously violated, her dignity as a human being has been ignored. Or has it?  The story follows Victoria as an 18 year old struggling to make a life, struggling to deal with a powerfully painful secret, even as Victoria remembers her days as a young child. The child Victoria hid in silence, and communicated with the world through the Victorian era language of flowers.  The young adult Victoria struggles to find her voice, even as she hides in the back of a florist shop arranging flowers.

Within  the book we meet Renata who owns a florist shop and hires the 18 year old Victoria to help in arranging flowers. Renata sees the pain and the potential in Victoria. It is in Renata’s shop that Victoria’s gift in using flowers to help others realize their dreams comes to full bloom.  We also meet Elizabeth and Grant, each of whom plays a significant role in Victoria’s past and future – but I will not write spoilers here.  Each of these characters plays a transformative role in Victoria’s life.

This is a book about the search for forgiveness, about the yearning for happiness and love.  It is sad and lovely and quite wonderful as it hints at the possibilities and the limitations of hope.

The author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, was born in 1978. She was a writing teacher, and with her husband was, and is a foster parent.  I have read that she was inspired to write “The language of Flowers” as she witnessed the struggles of youth who are transitioning out of foster care.  She is the founder of the Camellia Network, whose mission is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. The Camellia network emphasizes a belief in the interconnectedness of humanity (not unlike the African principle of ubutu, which can be translated as ‘I am because you are’). The Camellia network reminds us that our destiny is in the hands of our youngest citizens.  You can read more about the network at

Do you know anyone who reminds you of Victoria? or who Victoria reminds you of?

Do you have any ideas on how the child welfare system could be more respectful of the dignity of the children it was created to protect? (there’s a small question!)

Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  2011. The Language of Flowers. Ballantine books: New York.

Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

I just finished listening to the audio book of Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. What a great book!  It is set in Seattle, and told in the voice of Henry, a Chinese American man. The book moves back and forth between 1942 and 1986.

In 1942 Henry was 12 years old, and his father, a very conservative and traditional immigrant from China, had just sent Henry to an all white prep school. Life is not sweet for Henry when we first meet him in the book. He is taunted by the other Chinese kids for being too white, and bullied by the white kids for being Chinese. And then another Asian student is enrolled in the prep school. Keiko is Japanese American. She and Henry are both ‘scholarshiping’ at the prep school, and so they meet in the cafeteria where they work serving lunches and doing clean up. They bond as they clean erasers and put classrooms back in order after school. And then in another part of the world there is the attack on Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry.  We witness the effects of the relocation through Henry’s eyes as he loses his best friend who he comes to realize is so much more than his best friend.

In 1986 Henry is in his 50’s and his wife, Ethel, has just died. Henry is grieving, and trying to find balance and the path for his life as a widower. He is trying to deepen his relationship with his son who is about to graduate from college. And, he keeps remembering and thinking about Keiko. Early in the book, the Panama Hotel, a hotel in the Japanese area of Seattle, has been purchased after being boarded up since the war years. In the process of renovation, boxes that had been stored in the basement of the Hotel by Japanese American who were being relocated are discovered, evoking even stronger memories for Henry. The opening of the hotel opens Henry’s heart, opens his relationship with his son, and …. well, I’m not going to give the rest away.

This is a GREAT read. Not a perfect read, but who cares. Nothing is perfect. It is a book that will keep you engaged. It will teach you a bit about the internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. And it will warm the cockles of your heart. That’s quite a lot for a book!

When did you first learn about the Japanese internment? What did you know about it?

How close do you think we have come at other moments to similar actions against other groups within the United State?

Jamie Ford. 2009. Hotel on The Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Ballantine  Books: New York.

Ishmael An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

So, I have to confess I owned the book Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit for a while. It sat on my shelf. I looked at it, thought it was a book that I ‘should’ read. Picked it up a few times, put it down. And it sat there. Then one day I picked it up, sat down and started to read it — I was looking for something a bit different. And different it is! It took me a few pages, but, once I got hooked, hooked I was, and I think you will be too.

The author, Daniel Quinn was born in Nebraska in 1935. He spent some time as postulant in the Trappist monastery in Bardstown, KY where Thomas Merton was his spiritual director. Together, Quinn and Merton decided that the cloistered religious life was not for Quinn, and so Quinn left the postulancy for publishing. Eventually Quinn became a freelance writer. In 1977 he began work on Ishmael, which was eventually published as a novel in 1992.

Ishmael is a gorilla. Ishmael is also a teacher. His subject is captivity. The book follows the lectures shared by Ishmael with the narrator as he holds forth on the ‘takers’ and the ‘leavers’, the costs of agriculture, about human supremacy.  Ishmael relates an intriguing reworking of the story of Adam, Eve and Cain and Able to the narrator suggesting that the forbidden fruit was the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die – and the hubris to make such decisions – this rather than the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, Ishmael highlights the need for humanity to cherish and cultivate wisdom.

The book speaks to the importance of sustainability.

Yes, it is essentially a monologue by Ishmael the gorilla. But it is also so much more than that!

On page 4 of the book is the add Ishmael managed to place in a newspaper: “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.”

The world is still in need of those willing to respond to Ishmael’s call.  If you have an earnest desire to save the world, find a copy of this book and read it. I promise you will be engaged within a few pages.

Sustainabiltiy is a very large issue! Quinn frames it as a conflict between an orientation that seeks to master and control the earth; and a more interdependent collaborative orientation.  What are your thoughts about the ‘proper’ relationship between people and planet? between humans and other living beings?

Daniel Quinn. 1992. Ishmael An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bantam Books: New York.

Sheila’s Trifecta by Dorothy Van Soest

When I first started to read Sheila’s Trifecta  I couldn’t put it down. I found myself completely engaged with the characters in the book and I couldn’t wait to learn about their ongoing self discoveries. The book is not new, but I wanted it to be my second blog post because it everyone should know about it! Everyone should give it a read!

The author, Dorothy Van Soest is a political activist, social worker, professor and former dean of the school of social work at the University of Washington. She is deeply committed to working for social justice, peace and the celebration of cultural diversity. Her author’s bio notes that she maintains that personal and spiritual growth are essential for anyone engaged in social change efforts and that belief is clearly reflected in ‘Sheila’s Trifecta’ her first novel.

The novel’s opening epigraph is a quote from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (of death and dying fame): everything in life has purpose. There are not mistakes, no coincidences; all events are blessings give to us to learn from. This is the perfect opening, as the book begins with Sheila’s dying.  In death, Sheila is reunited with Sky and Gritty who call Sheila Spring. The three have been friend across multiple lives as together they are led in their spiritual progress and growth by their guide Suma. Suma helps them all, helps them each to ever deeper realizations that there indeed are no mistakes, no coincidences. As they review the events of each of their lives together they discover the blessings that were woven throughout their actions and experiences.

Dorothy describes the book as a self help novel, and it is. She concludes her introduction to the book with the hope that readers will find the book to be a damn good read, and it is.  The book is self published, but you can find it online in many of the major booksellers, it is even available as a kindle ebook.

It’s a fun, thought provoking, heartwarming read. I heartily recommend it to one and all!

Life after death? Reincarnation? what do you think!?

Dorothy Van  Soest.  2006. Sheila’s Trifecta. iUniverse, Inc.

The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance by Dorothee Soelle

First impressions matter. And so I thought for more than a minute about which should be the first book that I would write about here. I asked myself, the classic: if I were going to be stranded on an island and could have only one book, which would it be? Hmm … too hard. If I could have only a very few books, which would be first in the pile? Still hard, but I’m pretty sure, it would be Dorothee Soelle’s “The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance”

This is not an easy reading book. But, I would say it is definitely worth the effort of learning a few new words, and it is absolutely worth the time to pause and ponder some new/different ideas. When I was in college I had a dear friend – Joe Gosse – who told me that the books that were the most important in his life, he would read only a few lines (at the most a page) a day. He said that gave him the time and space to really think about and to digest what the book has to say to him. Maybe “The Silent Cry” is that kind of book.

Dorothee Soelle (1929 – 2003) was a German liberation theologian.  In a biography of Soelle, Renate Wind describes her as a religious provocateur. I like that descriptor – a religious provocateur! In reading her books, I experience her as a feminist and maybe as a spiritual guide. She certainly was quite brilliant, and her words, thoughts and ideas in “Silent Cry” light a path to a more socially just world.

The opening epigram is a poem fragment, a question, from Rumi: Why, when God’s world is so big, did you fall asleep in a prison of all places?

Ah, yes. Why indeed. In this book, Soelle does her best to wake us up to the love, to the mysticism that can – and should – found religion and that can inspire work for social justice.  Mystics, she tells us, proclaim a message about compassion and justice – a message about the meaning, purpose and place of love in creation and in relationship.

The Greek word for reading means to have renewed cognition, to re-cognize!

As I read this book, I found myself inspired to write

Listen in the thundering silence

Hear the silent cry

The wind sweeps across my being

Echoing in the aching vacuum

You once filled with your grace

The grace of your light.

It’s just that kind of book!

Soelle asserts that we are all mystics. She talks about ecstasy and invites us all along on the journey as she explores the places of mystical experience: nature, eroticism, suffering, community, and joy! She carefully and evocatively explores mysticism as resistance considering aspects of life as if we lived in a liberated world; ego and ego-lessness; possession and possessionlessness; violence and nonviolence; concluding with reflections on a mysticism of liberation.

A few of my favorite words & ideas from the book: revolutionary patience; attentiveness; the conduct of life as a sacrament; compassion; panerotic power; stages of the journey: be amazed, let go, resist; to live sunder warumbe – without a why or a wherefore. Sunder warumbe! That is a phrase that has resonated with me since I first read the book. It reminds me of the zen ‘wu wei – doing without doing, natural action. So many of the ideas within this book are evocative, they evoke other thoughts and ideas as you read. This book is a luxurious invitation to love and liberation. Ah – this is a book I am going to re-read! Today.

Mysticism, activism and social justice? what’s your experience? how much of the same cloth do you find them to be?

Dorothee Soelle. 2001. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Augsburg Fortress Press: Minneapolis, MN

Welcome to Mary’s Book Bog


So, what is a book bog? It could be book bag misspelled, or it could be book blog misspelled. Or it could be a nod to my love of Cape Cod and the cranberry bogs there. Or all of that or none of that.

What this book bog will be is just a place for me to carry on about books that I’ve read, books that I think are wonderful or important in some kind of way.

So, join me if you will. Let me know what you think?