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The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets: A Novel by Dianne Dixon (Anchor; $14.99; 272 pages)

Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there…   Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)

The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“A lovely and compelling debut.”   Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.

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The Language of Light

The Language of Light: A Novel by Meg Waite Clayton (Ballantine Books; $15.00; 352 pages)

Just do your best and find joy in what you do.

Nelly Grace has accepted a new beginning to her life after moving in to her great-grandfather’s home in Maryland with her two young boys following the death of her husband.   With the support and encouragement of her new friend, Emma Crofton and Emma’s distant, attractive son, Dac, Nelly begins to remember the passion she once had for her photography.   As Nelly struggles to regain her confidence and work towards her dream of being a photojournalist like her father, she also tries to come to terms with their fragile relationship.   But as her photographs begin to develop, so too does a secret past that is as complex as taking the perfect picture.

The prose in this novel is beautiful and refined, including descriptive landscapes and multifaceted, interesting characters whose complex relationships develop as secrets unfold at each turned page.   The plot takes several unexpected turns and the resolution of the story left me wanting more, curious for a “part two” for further closure on the changing relationships and outcome of these unexpected plots.

Clayton also enlightens the reader throughout her story on the creative aspects of photography that brings an entire new perspective to this craft and the skill and dedication it takes to embrace the art of photojournalism.

I appreciated Clayton’s references of several well-known pieces of art to depict particular scenes, feelings and relationships within the story.   In the attached readers guide she notes:

Despite my efforts to learn more about how to use a camera in order to deliver a believable photographer-protagonist…  I remain sadly untalented in the art of film.   But one of the things I love about writing is that it allows me to imagine having talents I lack.

As the reader, I was mesmerized by the details of photography described by her characters and the importance of capturing each moment accurately.   I would have believed that Clayton herself was a member of this profession.   It provided a  new respect and deeper understanding of the gifts delivered by a great photographer.

The combination of interesting characters, an intriguing, ever-changing plot, and the elements of photography so beautifully captured in this novel, allow me to share that this novel is Well Recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:   Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton (author of The Wednesday Sisters and The Four Ms. Bradwells).

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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

“The Great Women Series” by Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees: A Novel

I have always believed in the power of the stories women tell about their lives.   These are the stories that can soften landings, bolster new beginnings, and telescope dreams so that they appear within reach.   These are also the types of stories that were shared by our grandmothers and passed down to our mothers, the stories that came from the heartbreaks and revelations of our great aunts and neighbors, the stories that soothed and inspired.   While many women today lack this sort of community, it is my hope that together we can create it.   This is the purpose of The Great Women Series.

It is a compilation of the best advice from the most outstanding women I know.   Some are authors and artists, like myself.   Others are athletes, teachers, survivors, healers and shining spirits.   Some are well-known.   Others, more private.   Some have touched my life profoundly.   Others only briefly.   Some I have known my whole life.   Others, it only feels that way.   All are women that I admire and whose words and stories I have found inspiring.   I am proud to bring their voices and their uncommon wisdom to the world.   My hope is that their words will awaken and empower girls and women on the journey to becoming who they are meant to be!

Some stories of the journey are not for the faint of heart.   Some are war stories.   Others are stories of incredible grace and good fortune.   Few are unmarked by heartbreak.   Many, by tragedy.   Most hold uncommon wisdom.   Almost everyone has experienced a miracle of some sort.   I have rarely met anyone who didn’t consider herself incredibly lucky in some area of her life.

Several months ago, after finishing up my book tour for The Language of Trees, I started meeting with book groups.   I was impressed and humbled by the candor and the wisdom of the women in these groups as they related to characters in my novel and began to tell me their own stories.   In group after group, I’d look out at these resplendent women and feel an overwhelming sentiment: Gratitude.   And the realization that all of us are so very wise at different times in our lives.

Our unique journeys are our most precious gifts.

Find us at – http://www.greatwomenseries.com .

Yours on the journey,

Ilie

Pictured:  Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer by Nancy G. Brinker and Joni Rodgers.

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The River

Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (Harlequin)

Review by Ilie Ruby, author of The Language of Trees: A Novel.

Few of us are well-versed in what it takes to save our own lives.   Carrie Host is.

Between Me and the River is a heartbreaking, glorious, and poetic rendering that spans several years of a young woman’s life during which her body is ravaged by a slow-growing but deadly form of cancer.   It is also the story of a woman saved by her inner resources, and the buoying love of her husband and three children.   In Between Me and the River, Host intimately describes her battles and triumphs in nail-biting detail.   While difficult to read at times, Host’s cut to the quick candor keeps the reader engaged as she takes us on a journey into the labyrinth of the medical system, as she rebuilds her body, brick by metaphorical brick, only to have it ravaged again.  

Her lyrical descriptions provide a reprieve from the harsh realities of a life forever on the “river” – a metaphor that she uses for her cancer.   At once poet and realist, Host’s struggle to make peace with her disease provides a compelling narrative that propels the reader to turn the book’s pages with care, hanging on to Host’s voice as though it’s a life raft through the unknown rapid waters she so bravely navigates, even when it appears she will drown.   Yet, through it all, one has the feeling she’s got her eyes set on the horizon, far enough in the distance to see herself across the river.

Sometimes the river is torrid.   Sometimes it stops moving completely.   Emboldened with a fighting spirit even as her 5’7′ body drops from a healthy 135 to a haunting 97 pounds, rendering her unable to hold her head up let alone hold a new baby, the future looks bleak.   But treatment after treatment, she fights and holds on, wrestling with her own spirituality and drawing epiphanies about herself and her relationships – the sort that come from the deepest depths of despair – that bless her with an uncommon peace that only those who have visited death’s door can intimately understand.

Host navigates the river as she enters into complicated dialogues with friends, her children, and her husband, all of whom, at times, she believes she may never see again.   She describes the desperation and frustration she feels when hiring someone to care for her children, to do the things she is supposed to be doing as she feels herself falling into a shadow of her former self when cancer seems to be winning.  

This is a story that shakes the reader to the core, one not for the faint of heart, but certainly a worthy one.   Host, caught in the middle of a glorious life, could have been any one of us…  yet, she is no longer like us.   She is different, as only a woman can be when she has touched death’s door and returned with as many scars as gifts.  

This book teaches us powerful lessons about love, letting go, and forgiveness, about the quest for health and the fight to survive, about savoring every small moment with the same enthusiasm and appreciation as all the grand moments put together.   In the end, it is Host’s determination and wisdom that bring her back fighting.   Hers is a voice not easily forgotten, one that makes a reader wish her many more healthy years, for surely she has many more gifts to share with us.

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Willow Weep for Me

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon)

The Language of Trees transports us into the deep, magical aspects of nature, while inviting us to reconsider the magnetic power of desires long-buried.   While not a believer in second chances, but rather in what is meant to exist, this story had me wanting to change my mind.   This is a well rendered tale of shattered pieces, and the sorrow of remembering their beginnings.   Ruby’s suspenseful story telling style and painterly prose make for an alluring read.

Ruby brings us to a seemingly inncuous town, whose many secrets are whispered and hidden among the giant willows.   Her characters are artfully drawn, yet oddly familiar.   We are shown Canandaigua, of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where the folklore of the Seneca Indians runs deep.   When three children spontaneously set off in a canoe towards Squaw Island, to escape the angry father they are running from, a weeping rain turns to sudden fury; spilling into a tragedy that becomes a series of dark storms for the Ellis family.

This tightly wound tale manages to both inform and invite the reader to reconsider the gift of healing, or at least the deepest human urge to repair what is broken.   Ruby shows us the mystery of spirit in all living things and how those spirits swoop and dart among us, landing in the most unlikely of places.   This book will have you wondering about ghosts, and if those who remain and haunt us are simply the ones we choose to keep.

 

Carrie Host is the author of Between Me and the River. 

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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Someone Saved My Life Tonight

On Reading – A Book That Changed My Life

I read The Language of Trees not long after it was first published this past summer.   The massive review in the local paper promised it would be a good read, and it did seem to be right along the lines of something I would normally pick off the shelf.

I came to learn rather quickly that Ilie Ruby has a wonderful way of carrying you through a story, pulling you deeper and deeper and then when you least expect it, WHAM, she hits you with an emotional truth that is so deep and profound that it sends you sprawling, gasping for something to hang onto.   This happened to me in the process of reading this book.   I would go from a relaxed reading position, to sitting straight up, to leaning on the edge of my seat, to standing, to pacing, to talking to myself and holding my forehead, wondering how she could possibly know such detailed things about ME.   It was unnerving and fascinating in a way that only a magnificently written novel can be.

There was a movie in the 80’s called The Neverending Story, about a little boy who steals a book from an old bookshop and has the sense as he hides away in an old attic reading by candlelight that the people in the book are aware of him.   The old book-keeper had warned him that this book wasn’t safe for him to read, it wasn’t like other books, because the old man knew that those who delved into the pages of that book became part of the story.   There was a point as the boy was reading that the characters talk about him as if he is there with him.   They say they were there with him as he entered the bookstore and took the book with the oren symbol on the cover and they are with him as he reads the book.

“But that’s impossible, it’s not real,” he says to himself, looking up from the book disturbed and confused, “they can’t be talking about me, it’s just a story.”   But it wasn’t just a story.   It was a book that forced the little boy to confront fears, to take a good long hard look at himself, and ultimately gave him courage and power.

I found myself thinking and feeling the same thing as I read The Language of Trees and its characters continued to speak to me.   “How,” I asked myself out loud, looking at the book as if could look back at me, “how does she know these things about me?”   “It’s not real, it’s just a story.”   But as it wasn’t just a story in the movie, it wasn’t just a story for me.   It forced me to confront fears, to look deeply into myself, and when it was over, I had found courage, comfort and healing.

A book filled with forgiveness and the hope of second chances and healing, it’s a compilation of love stories, old ones and new ones, reborn ones and healing ones.   It’s about Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell and whether or not they can heal and find the love they lost all those years ago.   It’s a ghost story about little Luke Ellis who was lost in the waters of Canandaigua Lake many years before, and who now haunts the people on the lake out of love for his sister Melanie who has recently vanished without a trace.   It’s a book full of secrets, secrets kept by Clarisse Mellon who knows the truth needs to come out or Melanie Ellis will never be found and things will never be right.

It’s a book about facing fears and finding yourself and allowing yourself to reach out a lonely hand, trusting someone else in the process.   As Clarisse Mellon says, “A full life, a life where she captures her heart’s desire, requires that chances be taken.”

This book is full of hope, and in a day where people seem to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, this book is a welcome respite, a place where the desires of the heart are encouraged to fly.   Read this book, allow it to take you on its journey, find the truths in its pages and open yourself up to the infinite possibilities it offers.

“You must go alone,” the movie says of the journey, if you’re willing to take it.   “You must leave all your weapons behind.   It will be very dangerous.”   It’s true, looking inside ones self with no walls and no weapons can be very dangerous, for those willing to make the journey.   It took me many years to find that “Neverending Story” experience and it changed my life.   The Language of Trees changed my life.

“Show no fear, for it may fade away, in your hands, the birth of a new day.”   No, it’s definitely not just a story.

 

The Language of Trees: A Novel by Ilie Ruby has been published by Avon ($14.99). 

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