"The Language of Goodbye," by Maribeth Fischer, "From the Ground Up," by Amy Stewart, and "Watching the Tree," by Adeline Yen Mah 

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Love and Loss
With The Language of Goodbye (Dutton $23.95), Maribeth Fischer joins the ranks of acclaimed novelists who have graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University's writing program. These ranks include Sheri Reynolds, Agymah Kamau, Dennis Danvers and Charlotte Morgan.

"The Language of Goodbye" tells the story of separation, divorce and abandonment through the twin lenses of language learning and culture. Annie, an English as a Second Language instructor, leaves Carter, her husband, for the promise of passionate love with Will, who has himself left his wife, Kayla, and daughter, Brooke, for Annie. The novel traces this café latte crowd through their broken and new homes in the Fan area of Richmond.

The characters' lives intersect with Richmond's growing and diverse immigrant community, especially in the character of Sungae, a Korean artist who left a daughter in her homeland and now confronts the impossibilities of English in Annie's classroom. Sungae also works in a coffee shop for Kayla and so serves as a sort of keystone where all the principal actions and themes are joined,

Sungae's difficulty with English is not confined to the mechanics of grammar; rather, she wrestles with how words change lives, exhume and destroy memory, and violently recast the nature of things through naming. As Sungae resists adjectives and cries over the actions denoted by verbs, Fischer weaves a complex understanding of how humans make sense of themselves and the worlds they create.

"The Language of Goodbye" is most stunning, perhaps, in its depiction of the interior lives of these characters, in the thoughts, words and feelings behind their actions of loving, leaving, wanting, searching and remembering. Never heavy-handed in this beautifully limned novel, Fischer narrates the complexities of all human intercourse — physical, linguistic and emotional — as she weaves the threads of language and culture into a fascinating tapestry of human relationships.

"The Language of Goodbye" has already received stunning reviews, and Fischer will no doubt be short-listed for this year's fiction prizes. While some may find the novel's candid explorations of divorce a bit depressing, anyone who has experienced the pain of love and separation will be comforted by Fischer's poignant depiction of what we mean when we say, "Goodbye."

— Patrick Tompkins

Dirt Therapy
Maybe it's because I spent Christmas in Chicago where it never for one minute stopped snowing or reached 0øF, but this winter felt like the worst ever. When we got back to Richmond I almost cried to see that the gardening catalogs had arrived. I spent too much money on plants and seeds, as usual, but my excuse was an acute Vitamin D deficiency. Not satisfied with waiting for planting, I picked up Amy Stewart's utterly charming and perversely touching memoir From the Ground Up (Algonquin, $18.95).

out of graduate school and aching for some dirt therapy, Stewart rents a house with a tiny yard that contains nothing but weeds and a sickly lemon tree. Like all beginning gardeners she immediately wages war on the weeds, only to ultimately lose. Her advice to get a head start on the weeds is great, even though she says beginning gardeners will be too impatient to take heed. Lay mulch on your flowerbed but don't plant anything. Water and fertilize as normal and as the weeds sprout, pick them. Do this for two weeks. This guarantees your flowers will have a leg up on the weeds most of the growing season. She also lists a recipe for weed salad, if you are adventurous. Stewart is at her best when she redefines "weeds" to include some raggedy rose bushes left by the previous tenant.

Her hard work and lessons learned come to fruition in this excellent book in the epilogue, which is a letter to the next unknown renter of the house. She tells them her cat is buried under the lamb's ears and that the cherry tomatoes that will pop up everywhere come spring are the best she has ever tasted. Anyone who has ever moved from a place they love or felt bad about thinning seedlings will not fail to recognize Stewart's special brand of nostalgia.

— Thom Jeter

Heads up:
Adeline Yen Mah, author of the best seller "Falling Leaves," the story of an unwanted Chinese daughter, has written a follow-up: "Watching the Tree"(Broadway Books, $22.95). This new little book discusses in understandable terms the religious and philosophical elements of Chinese thought, including the I Ching, the Tao, Confucianism, Zen, the concepts of Yin and Yang and Feng Shui. Mah's explanations are tied to her youth and to the family from which she is today estranged.

This is a useful and interesting little book, although, at times, I wanted to tell her: Come on, move past your grievances and get on with life.

— Rozanne Epps


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