Monthly Archives: October 2012

OP-ED: America’s Mad Dash to Irrelevance: Presidential Campaign 2012

  • By Joseph J. Honick 
Joseph J. Honick

Joseph J. Honick

It was about four years ago that I raised the specter of irrelevance
consuming the U.S., the bastion of hope and freedom in the world, but
also a nation consumed by the human and material costs of two
unwinnable wars and the onset of domestic economic recession. I noted
that we are often at our most vulnerable and confused during
presidential election campaigns.


Nothing has changed that concern.


What has indeed multiplied the reality of our diminished standing is
not so much the expected reality of the campaign but its embarrassing
vulgarity. The “curtain call” for that campaign that saw Republicans
taking the majority of the House of Representatives and a relatively
small Democratic majority in the Senate was the post mortem
declaration of political war against the sitting president by the two
Republican leaders of the two Houses. What was absent was a similar
declaration those Republican leaders wanted to work with the sitting
president to secure the future.


Now as the nation is faced with a presidential campaign whose costs
run to an estimated $5.6 billion and still more tons for local and
state campaigns, the rest of the world looks on in bewilderment.


Every four years, we get a chance to headline candidates who could
focus on means to reestablish confidence in America’s role as world
leaders. Unfortunately, President Obama has not only had to deal with
a Republican campaign that began two years ago but the realities of
his own limited influence here and abroad. His long ago designated
opponent, a one-term state governor and business consultant, Mitt
Romney, has presented little that affords confidence but also raises
questions as to what influences stand behind his efforts.


In short, and in the words of an old, sad song : “Is this all there
is, my friend?”


In the process, and in the eyes of much of the world, we are in a mad
dash to irrelevance, shielded only by our power.


What can and must be done?


For openers, there is a need to “cleanse” the process by which we
choose the most powerful individual in the world to occupy the most
powerful office in the world. Three immediate steps could be taken if
the warring political parties could place the nation before their
political interests:

1. Limit the campaign period to 90 days following the nominating conventions.
2. Eliminate any funding for political conventions by the Federal
Election Commission.
3. Provide public financing of equal portions for both major political
candidates, and prohibit any other funding following nominating

Would this create a perfect world? Of course not. It would evoke the
screams of special interest groups, public relations firms and others
who make tons on the campaigns that these steps would frustrate the
First Amendment of the Constitution.
And I am clearly aware of the Constitutional election prescriptions
that exist, but I also recall that same document permitted Prohibition
and some other oddities until logic prevailed for change.

Those steps would, however, expose those who have little interest in
the good of the country and want only to manipulate the very freedoms
guaranteed in that document.

Until such steps are taken — or others that might be still more
productive — our descent into irrelevance around the world will only be
hastened, as other powers continue to assert themselves.

So what stands in the way of change? It is the same two ingredients
that always impeded progress: lack of courage and leadership.


* * *

Joseph J. Honick is president of GMA International in Bainbridge
Island, Washington. He writes for many publications and can be reached at


BOOK REVIEW: ‘I’m Your Man’: Hallelujah! Richly Textured, Thoroughly Researched Biography of Leonard Cohen Shows His Many Talents — and Relationships

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'I'm Your Man': Hallelujah! Richly Textured, Thoroughly Researched Biography of Leonard Cohen Shows His Many Talents -- and Relationships

Maybe the many fans of Canadian poet, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, who turned 78 this past Sept. 21, should have a shout-out of praise for Kelley Lynch, his former manager, who stole millions of dollars from his retirement fund.


In the wake of the 2005 financial revelation, Cohen was forced to go on the road and tour, bringing to a new generation of fans the man who wrote such classic songs as “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire” and, of course, “Hallelujah”.


Sylvie Simmons brilliantly explores the many facets of the artist in “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen” (Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers, glossy photo insert, index, notes, 576 pages, $27.99). Simmons has delivered the ultimate biography of a much honored poet and songwriter whose songs have been covered by dozens of artists to the point where even Cohen himself has called for a moratorium on the use of “Hallelujah.”


Masha Cohen, Leonard’s mother, warned him about people like Kelley Lynch who would take advantage of him when he left Montreal  for New York in the 60s with his guitar, Simmons writes describing one of the oldest stories in show biz: “You be careful of those people down there,” Masha told Leonard. “They’re not like us.” It was a woman, his daughter (with Suzanne Elrod) Lorca, who brought the Kelley Lynch matter to his attention.


Leonard’s father died when he was nine, so it was Masha who educated him about the importance of women in his life: “My mother taught me well never to be cruel to women” Simmons quotes him from an unpublished memoir in the 1970s, adding that he also learned from Masha  “to count on the devotion, support and nurturing of women and, if and when it became too intense, to have permission to leave — if not always completely, and rarely without conflicting emotions.”

Sylvie Simmons

Sylvie Simmons


Cohen was raised in upscale Westmount, an English speaking district of Montreal, which also had a sizable Jewish population. It was in sharp contrast to the gritty working class largely Jewish Saint-Urbain district of Montreal chronicled by Mordecai Richler in novels like “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.”


I was surprised at the diverse number of artists who worked with Cohen, including  Phil Spector; Charlie Daniels, David Crosby and the man he’s most often compared with, Bob Dylan. In fact, John Hammond, the leading A&R man at America’s  foremost record company, Columbia Records, who signed Dylan to a multi-album  record contract, initially played the same role with Cohen.


I read “I’m Your Man” quickly, but it’s the kind of book you’ll want to go back and savor the “Various Positions” — to quote the title of one of his albums — of  Leonard Cohen’s life and career. (“Hallelujah” was a song on that 1984 album). Simmons devotes a great deal of space in her book to Cohen’s Buddhism, which he practices along with his Judaism.


Since the late 1970s Cohen has been associated with Buddhist monk and teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, known as Roshi,  regularly visiting him at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles County. Roshi is now 105 years old.


It goes without saying that Leonard Norman Cohen is also a man of complexities and seeming contradictions: a devout Jew, who is also a sophisticate and ladies’ man, as well as an ordained Buddhist monk whose name, Jikan—“ordinary silence”— belies his career as a writer and singer whose life has been anything but ordinary. Cohen’s 2001 album “Ten New Songs”  is dedicated to Roshi.


And of course, there are the women in his life. By the way, the Suzanne of the song is not Suzanne Elrod, the mother of Lorca and Adam Cohen; it refers to Suzanne Verdal, whom he met in Montreal years before meeting Suzanne Elrod. Simmons deals with this complicated relationship on pages 124-130.


Simmons created her portrait of Cohen through a wealth of research that includes Cohen’s personal archives and more than a hundred exclusive interviews with those closest to Cohen—from his lovers, friends, monks, professors, rabbis and fellow musicians to his muses, including Rebecca De Mornay, Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod and Suzanne Verdal — and most important, with Cohen himself. It must have taken a lot of work on the author’s part to get such a private man to open up as he does in “I’m Your Man” — and readers should be glad she did!

About the Author


Sylvie Simmons was born in London,  and moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies and started writing about rock music for magazines such as SoundsCreemKerrang! and Q. She is the author of acclaimed fiction and non-fiction books, including the biography “Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes” and the short-story collection “Too Weird for Ziggy”. She has lived at various times in England, the United States and France, and she currently lives in San Francisco,  where she writes for MOJO magazine and plays the ukulele.


Publisher’s website:

A Dad’s Point-of-View: Men vs. Women: Differences Between Our Communication Skills

  • By Bruce Sallan 
Bruce Sallan

Bruce Sallan

The  HYPERLINK “” first in this new series of differences between men and women took on how we handle money. This one is about how we communicate. As with every article in this ongoing series, I continue to believe that men and women are inherently different, due to our genetics, biology, and to some degree our environment and/or upbringing. However, I don’t believe the latter plays a big factor except when it’s horrific, like in the case of child abuse, severe disabilities, and/or illness.




Most of the time, and I emphasize “most,” it is simply that our make-up, our approach, our reality is simply different. I am not attaching a quantitative judgment to this statement. Again, as I will likely state in every one of these columns, I am making stereotypical generalizations and fully recognize there are exceptions to all of them. But, stereotypes and generalizations exist and shouldn’t be dismissed simply because there are exceptions. Some things affect the majority of us and in our gender differences, I think they’re relatively clear and true, however subjective one may judge my assertions.



With communication, as with money, men and women approach it so differently. I will begin with the basic idea that men communicate in a more direct manner, tend to pay less attention to body language, and can be simpletons when it comes to communicating with women, including “their” woman. Women, on the other hand, have genuine intuitive advantages over men but sometimes allow their emotions to rule their actions in communication, relationships, and perhaps in business.



So, I know I’ve already offended half of you. Not saying which half. Now, I’ll be more specific. Some of what I’m suggesting comes from being married – for the second time now – and having had a number of relationships prior to marriage. I also have lived through a sea change in the workplace in an industry – showbiz – that embraced women and where women had more opportunities sooner than in other fields. All informs these ideas.



Again, this list is in no particular order nor am I looking to fulfill a specific number. I hope, as with the first in this series, that you’ll weigh in with your additions, rejections, outright denials, and other “worthy” comments:



Women want their men to read their minds


I know I said there was no order to this list, but I’d have to say this came to mind first because I find it so pervasive. I’ve never really understood why women think we men should be able to read their minds, but in my unscientific study – my life – it’s always been the case.



My wife and I have attended marital therapy and our therapist has repeatedly suggested to her, when this issue came up, that it would be so much simpler and effective if she just expressed what was on her mind. My wife agreed and promptly forgot about it.



A simple example is when it’s gift time. I would really prefer to give my wife something she wants, so I do the evidently incredibly unromantic thing of asking her what she’d like. You’d think I confessed I’d had an affair given the reaction that usually elicits. “Don’t you know?” is the exasperated response I often get.



The upshot of this reality, at least in my life, is I actually do try to understand what my wife is thinking even, for the life of me, if it doesn’t make any sense (to me).



Men prefer short, terse answers to long-winded explanations and responses


Now, I’m beginning to feel a bit like Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” when he sings “Why Can’t a Woman be Like a Man.” It would be so much easier if women would communicate like we do: grunts, aYes or a No, a nod, etc. It’s not complicated. Food? Yes. Sex? Yes. Spend money. No. Talk? Nah – would rather watch TV.



I have one male friend who literally takes pride in his short email answers. I rarely receive more than a short sentence response to any email I send him. Frankly, I do communicate more like the average female and enjoy extended writing, discussions about emotional issues, family dynamics, and talking about relationships of every kind.



Heck, I even prefer some chick flicks to violent action/horror movies. That said, I prefer a straightforward answer. I like to fix a problem rather than belabor it.



Women prefer to talk, to meet in person


I think the only time a woman would prefer not to meet in person is to break up with a guy. Then, preferring to avoid conflict, she might take the chicken route and send an email or text. Of course, guys do the same so this is a gender-neutral example of relationship cowardice.



But, in most all other matters, women prefer to talk, to meet, to discuss, and perhaps – from a man’s viewpoint – beat the subject to death. Again, it comes down to a general stylistic difference in our communication preferences. I’m not expressing favoritism over one or the other.



However, in most situations women will get together and hash it out whether it’s a personal problem, a family situation, business, etc. Men might get together, but they prefer to quickly finish whatever the issue is and then have a beer.



Men communicate about the Macro with their friends, while women   lean towards the Micro


In some ways, this is an elaboration of #2. Men generally avoid discussing intimate stuff with their male friends while women generally enjoy discussing personal issues with their female friends. Men would rather talk about the “Big” issues of the day whether it is serious like politics and world issues or really important ones, like sports.



Women, on the other hand, while they certainly care about politics and the world, will choose to go into greater detail about personal issues regarding family, their health, diet, dress, marriage, etc.



Men would prefer water boarding to having to discuss some of those topics.



The comments that the first column in this series generated were quite interesting. In many ways, they reflected exactly the sex differences I’ve begun to expose in this series. In other ways, I was pleasantly surprised at the agreement expressed by many of the comments from the women. I hope the dialogue will continue. Next up in this series are the differences in how we choose our partners/spouses.


* * *


Bruce Sallan, author of HYPERLINK “““A Dad’s Point-of-View: We ARE Half the Equation” and radio host of HYPERLINK “““The Bruce Sallan Show – A Dad’s Point-of-View” gave up a long-term showbiz career to become a stay-at-home-dad. He has dedicated his new career to becoming THE Dad advocate. He carries out his mission with not only his book and radio show, but also his column HYPERLINK “““A Dad’s Point-of-View”, syndicated in over 100 newspapers and websites worldwide, his “I’m NOT That Dad” vlogs, the “Because I Said So” comic strip, and his dedication to his community on HYPERLINK ““Facebook and HYPERLINK ““Twitter. Join Bruce and his community each Thursday for  HYPERLINK “” #DadChat, from 6pm -7pm PST, the Tweet Chat that Bruce hosts.


BOOK REVIEW: ‘Lincoln’: What Would Honest Abe Do?

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Lincoln': What Would Honest Abe Do?

The latest Participant Media Guide, “Lincoln: A President for the Ages” (PublicAffairs, 288 pages, notes, in-text black and white illustrations, index, $14.99) is a companion quality paperback timed for the release of Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, but it also can be enjoyed as a stand-alone book. In fact, it’s an excellent one-volume introduction to Lincoln’s political career.

Edited by Karl Weber “Lincoln” has leading historians answering the question: “What Would Lincoln Do?”

Abraham Lincoln was, in his time, both strongly admired and aggressively opposed — not incidentally by many of his cabinet members who thought they were smarter and more capable than Lincoln. He has been written about more than any other president and he is still our nation’s most enigmatic and captivating hero. If you think today’s political campaigns are laden with invective and dirty politics, you’ll learn from this book that they don’t hold a candle to the 1860 campaign. 


“Lincoln: A President for the Ages” introduces a new vision of Lincoln grappling with some of history’s greatest challenges. He was elected at a time when the nation was splitting up over slavery. Traveling to Washington, D.C. from his home state of Illinois, he was under constant danger, especially in the slave state of Maryland and the big city of Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW: 'Lincoln': What Would Honest Abe Do?

Produced with an estimated $50 million budget, according to IMDb (link:, the DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox and Participant Media film “Lincoln” is based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with playwright Tony Kushner writing the screenplay, and will have a limited release on Nov. 9, going wide Nov. 16. The movie’s

Among the questions asked — and answered — by contributing historians in the book: Would Lincoln have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? How would he conduct the War on Terror? Would he favor women’s suffrage or gay rights? Would today’s Lincoln be a star on Facebook and Twitter? Would he embrace the religious right— or denounce it? How would he have treated defeated Germany and Japan after World War II?

The answers come from an all-star array of historians and scholars, including Jean Baker, Richard Carwardine, Dan Farber, Andrew Ferguson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Allen C. Guelzo, Harold Holzer, James Malanowski, James Tackach, Frank J. Williams, and Douglas L. Wilson.


As a Civil War buff who’s reviewed books on that war’s battles — most recently Jeff Shaara’s “A Blaze of Glory” about Shiloh (link to my review: — I was drawn to Chapter 6, by James Tackach, dealing with how Lincoln waged war. Tackach, whose father George Tackach survived the battle of Okinawa in February 1945, where more than 7,500 men lost their lives and 40,000 were wounded — just one horrendous battle — gives his answer to the question about dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. No, I won’t give away this spoiler. Just consider that more than 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors died in the Civil War — more than all the other wars of the U.S. combined and almost twice the fatalities of our next most deadly war, World War II (link:


Liberals and other who question the various laws enacted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, especially the PATRIOT act, might be surprised at some of the actions of Lincoln, especially his suspension of habeas corpus and his administration’s prosecution — some might call it persecution — of Northern dissenters during the war. Frank J. Williams writes how Lincoln would deal with the War on Terror in Chapter 9. I won’t give away any spoilers, but Williams writes that one of Lincoln’s harshest Northern critics — Ohio Democratic congressman Clement L. Vallandigham — was arrested at his home in Dayton, Ohio, on May 5, 1863 by more than 100 Union soldiers and was tried by a military tribunal. He was imprisoned for the duration of the war. Vallandigham had, in a public speech, characterized Lincoln as a tyrant and called for his overthrow.
All told, “Lincoln” is an excellent introduction to the many facets of Abraham Lincoln. I recommend it and I hope the movie comes my way.

About the editor

Karl Weber is a writer and editor based in New York. He collaborated with Muhammad Yunus on his bestseller “Creating a World Without Poverty”, edited “The Best of I.F. Stone”, and, with Andrew W. Savitz, coauthored “The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social, and Environmental Success — And How You Can Too”. He edited the previous best-selling Participant Media Guides, Food, Inc. and Waiting for “Superman.” Website:

BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Sunless Sea’: Grisly Murder Leads to Greatest Challenge to the Investigative Skills of William and Hester Monk

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'A Sunless Sea': Grisly Murder Leads to Greatest Challenge to the Investigative Skills of William and Hester Monk
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran /  Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea. — opening lines of “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), composed 1797, published 1816.

The legend has it that one of Samuel T. Coleridge’s great poems — a fragment actually, since he was interrupted by the “Person from Porlock” — was written while the poet was under the influence of opium. It was perfectly legal at the time and widely used as a painkiller and anesthetic. Of course, it was widely abused, as Anne Perry demonstrates brilliantly in her latest William Monk novel “A Sunless Sea” (Ballantine Books, 384 pages, $26.00).

In fact, opium is as much a character in this novel as William and Hester Monk, Scuff, Sir Oliver Rathbone and the other characters populating Perry’s Monk books. In more than a few ways, “A Sunless Sea”   advances plot points and information in the previous Monk novel, “Acceptable Loss” (link to my Aug. 19, 2011 review :

When I reviewed “Acceptable Loss” last year, I wondered how Perry, who turned 74 on October 28, could top the twists and turns and intricacies of that novel, involving the Commander William Monk of the River Police. A veteran of the regular police,  Monk is accustomed to violent death, but the mutilated female body found on Limehouse Pier in early December 1864 moves him with horror and pity. The victim’s name is Zenia Gadney. Her waterfront neighbors can tell him little — only that the same unknown gentleman had visited her once a month for at least 15 years. Those who jump to conclusions think she’s a prostitute, but she doesn’t appear to be a woman who walks the streets, like the victims of Jack the Ripper in the Whitechapel murders almost two decades in the future.

Monk draws upon the skills of his wife, Hester, who as a nurse in the Crimean war a decade earlier had also become accustomed to violent death, to discover that Zenia Gadney has a connection to Dr. Joel Lambourn, an apparent suicide who died on One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park two months before Zenia’s body was discovered. An inquest concludes that Lambourn, a scientist and investigator,  committed suicide after his report on the dangers of unrestricted opium in Britain is rejected by the powers that be.

Any reader of Anne Perry’s Monk novels — as well as her novels featuring Charlotte and Thomas Pitt —  knows that anything that appears obvious and straightforward will turn out to be complicated beyond belief. “A Sunless Sea” is no exception as complications pile on like players in a rugby match. Men at the highest levels of government are identified as parliament attempts to do something about the opium epidemic.    William and Hester have their faith in their country shaken as they learn the truth about the opium wars the British Empire waged against China starting almost 30 years before, with the world’s greatest power forcing the weak Chinese government to grant concessions like Hong Kong and in treaty ports like Shanghai. In the process, the wars addicted millions of Chinese to consume opium grown in  India, a British possession, at great profit to many Englishmen. (for more on the Opium Wars, which forced China to accept unequal treaties with Western powers — including the U.S. — see:

Monk’s investigation leads him to arrest Joel’s wife, Dinah Lambourn,  for the murder of Zenia, but that’s just the beginning as the tangled web is unraveled. Dinah wants the best defense lawyer available asks Monk to secure the services of his friend and one time rival for the affections of Hester, Sir Oliver Rathbone.

What sinister secrets could have made poor Zenia worth killing? And why does the government keep interfering in Monk’s investigation?

Like the torch-wielding villagers  in vampire novels, the public cries out for blood, as Dinah’s trial begins in an example of the speediest of speedy justice.  Monk, his spirited wife, Hester — Rathbone calls her “anarchic” —  and   Rathbone, search for answers. Unless they can gather evidence to convince a judge who is anything but even handed — and a jury already convinced that Dinah Lambourn is guilty of murdering Zenia — an innocent person will hang three weeks after the verdict. Did I say justice was speedy? Read “A Sunless Sea” for Anne Perry at the top of her game.

 About the Author
Anne Perry, born Juliet Hulme in England  Oct. 28, 1938,  is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the William Monk novels, including “Acceptable Loss” and “Execution Dock”, and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including “Dorchester Terrace” and “Treason at Lisson Grove”. She is also the author of a series of five World War I novels, as well as nine holiday novels, most recently “A Christmas Homecoming”, and a historical novel, “The Sheen on the Silk”, set in the Byzantine Empire.    Anne Perry lives in Scotland.

REALTORS: September Pending Home Sales Show Slight Improvement

  • By David M. Kinchen 
REALTORS: September Pending Home Sales Show Slight Improvement

Pending home sales were little changed in September but remain well above a year ago, according to a report issued Thursday, Oct. 25 by the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

The Pending Home Sales Index, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, edged up 0.3 percent to 99.5 in September from 99.2 in August and is 14.5 percent above September 2011 when it was 86.9. The data reflect contracts but not closings.

NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said pending home sales continue to hold a higher ground. “Home contract activity remains at an elevated level in contrast with recent years, but currently appears to be bouncing around in a narrow range,” Yun said. “This means only minor movement is likely in near-term existing-home sales, but with positive underlying market fundamentals they should continue on an uptrend in 2013.”
Pending home sales have risen for 17 consecutive months on a year-over-year basis, leading to the solid recovery seen in closed existing-home sales this year. In September all regions were showing double-digit increases in contract activity from a year ago with the exception of the West, which is constrained by limited inventory.

The PHSI in the Northeast rose 1.4 percent to 79.3 in September and is 26.1 percent higher than a year ago. In the Midwest the index fell 5.8 percent to 89.5 in September but is 19.3 percent above September 2011. Pending home sales in the South increased 1.0 percent to an index of 111.5 in September and are 17.6 percent higher than a year ago. In the West the index rose 4.3 percent in September to 106.9, but is only 0.8 percent above September 2011.
Housing affordability conditions are forecast to remain favorable through next year, with the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage staying near record lows for the balance of this year but gradually rising to 4 percent in the second half of 2013.
Completed existing-home sales in 2012 will total close to 4.6 million, an increase of 9 percent, and are projected to rise about 9 percent next year to nearly 5.1 million. With notably lower housing inventory, the national median existing-home price is expected to increase 6 percent this year and 5 percent in 2013

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Language of Flowers’: People We Want to Like Rebounding from Whatever Life Throws at Them

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Language of Flowers': People We Want to Like Rebounding from Whatever Life Throws at Them

Reviewer’s note: One of my favorite novels of 2011, “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is now available in a $16.00 trade paperback from Ballantine for $16.00. It’s currently 15th on the N.Y. Times trade paperback fiction list and has been on the list for 22 weeks. That’s word of mouth!
Here’s my review of the hardback edition, as posted Sept. 1, 2011, with publication information changed to reflect the April 2012 trade paperback release. — David M. Kinchen

I wanted to tell her that I had never loved anyone, and ask her to explain how a woman incapable of giving love could ever be expected to be a mother, a good one. —Victoria

Life has a way of mutilating, spindling and stapling us, but we’re a resilient species, as Vanessa Diffenbaugh demonstrates in her powerful and elegant debut novel “The Language of Flowers” (Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $16.00).

Each chapter toggles between Victoria Jones’ life at nine and ten years of age and today at age 18 and older, when she’s been emancipated from the foster care system. We’re afforded a look at Victoria as a sensitive girl who can’t stand to be touched — physically and emotionally.

In spite — or maybe because of this — we find ourselves rooting for Victoria, as well as the rest of the flawed but true to life characters in the book: Grant, Elizabeth, Renata, Mother Ruby, Marlena and even tough love social worker Meredith.

Victoria’s far from perfect — there are times when we want to reach inside the novel and grab her by the shoulders and try to shake some sense into her — but this is understandable in a person who has been in the foster care system all her life.
Of all the strains of living in this system, perhaps those she experienced with foster care provider Elizabeth, who owns a vineyard outside San Francisco, affect her the most. She comes so close to bonding, but when the time comes for decision making, Elizabeth turns out to be just as much of a “no toucher” as Victoria.


While with Elizabeth and her nephew Grant, the son of her estranged sister Catherine who lives only a mile or so away but might as well live in New York, Victoria begins to learn about the Victorian Language of Flowers, which turns into an obsession and a career for a girl who lacks self-esteem.


The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions; for example: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. For Victoria, the language of flowers becomes her only connection to the outside world. (Diffenbaugh provides a basic dictionary of the language of flowers at the end of the novel).


Grant Hastings, Victoria’s lover, is caught in an intolerable situation. He tries to support his mother, Catherine, but he obviously likes his aunt, Elizabeth. Anyone who’s been in this position knows how difficult it is. The turning point for Victoria comes when she’s homeless, jobless and living in a San Francisco park and meets florist Renata who recognizes the young woman’s talent with flowers. This is when Victoria greatly expands her knowledge of flowers, discovering talents that she couldn’t even imagine. and reunites with Grant after an absence of a decade or so.


I’d lived with Grant before, and failed. I’d lived with Elizabeth; I’d lived with Hazel. Each time I failed. — Victoria


Who is Hazel? You’ll have to read “The Language of Flowers”, a book that was the subject of arguably the most heated literary auction in 2010, to find out. You’ll probably wipe away a tear or two or three when you reach the end. I confess that I did!

About the author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Diffenbaugh and her family currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband is studying urban school reform at Harvard.

Diffenbaugh is also the founder of the Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. In The Language of Flowers, Camellia [kuh-meel-yuh] means “My Destiny is in Your Hands.” The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives will be accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens. For more information visit

OP-ED: No Right to Pass By On the Other Side: Kofi Annan and the UN

  • By Sir Ronald Sanders 
Sir Ronald Sanders

Sir Ronald Sanders

“The Security Council took no responsibility for the situation in Rwanda and the growing number of lives lost, and its key members flatly denied the notion that a genocide was taking place.”   That is how Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, summed up the attitude of the UN Security Council – the world’s most important security body – as over 200,000 people were killed in Rwanda by April 1994 in a violent, brutal and bitter tribal war.

This observation by Annan is one of a number that damn the behaviour of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who declined to take action, because of their own national interests, even as hundreds of thousands of people were killed in civil wars within countries.

Annan recounts these events in his book, “Interventions: A Life in Peace and War”, published by the Penguin Press.  It is a surprisingly frank account by a man who was often criticised for taking the side of the Americans in international conflicts.  He served as UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006 at a time when civil war and genocide raged not only in Rwanda where eventually over 800,000 were murdered, but Bosnia, Kosovo, the Congo, Iraq, Darfur, Sierra Leone and East Timor.

His narration of the Security Council’s attitude is most chilling in relation to its lack of unanimity to intervene in States where a line had been crossed in the brutalisation of people and governments had lost any legitimate right to continue to govern.  Often national interest positions of the veto-empowered nations, particularly the US and Russia, delayed action until world-wide television coverage of atrocities forced them to do something.

But, even when the Security Council did agree to take action, Annan chronicles how difficult it was to get them to commit troops for peacekeeping exercises, and how much more difficult operations become because the governments that commit the troops want to maintain control over them rather than relinquish authority to a UN-appointed commander.

This is a situation which, while improved under Annan’s watch as Secretary-General, still remains problematic in relation to the UN actually intervening in States to protect human life.  As he put it: “When people are in danger, everyone has a duty to speak out.  No one has a right to pass by on the other side”.

Governments did “pass by on the other side.”    They did so for years on the argument over whether large scale killings could legally be defined as “genocide”.  As Annan put it, there was a mistaken assumption that this question was effectively synonymous with “Should the world take action?”.  He argued with Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary of Britain, over Darfur in 2004, that “whatever we call it, there are clearly gross and systematic violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law happening in Darfur and the situation is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world”.

As it turned out, it was almost four years of mass rape, mutilation, slaughter and the deaths of hundreds of thousands from exposure, disease and malnutrition as well as the displacement of millions before the Security Council acted in 2007, and even then the “peacekeeping” mission that it deployed could not protect the people of Darfur from gross violations of human rights.

Annan was a proponent of the “Responsibility to Protect” as a standard by which governments should be held to account.  As he says: “We have told the dictators that sovereignty is no longer a shield behind which gross violations of human rights can be committed.  You are responsible and you are accountable.”

In a persuasive passage in his book, Annan argues: “We needed to convince the broader global community that sovereignty had to be understood as contingent and conditional on states’ taking responsibility for the security of their own people’s human rights and for this to be taken as seriously as the states’ expectation of non-interference in their internal affairs.”

This notion is still being resisted in particular by some developing countries that continue to assert that the non-interference in their internal affairs is sacred.  Of course, when their states are rent asunder, their economies ruined and many of their young able bodied people are dead or maimed, it is the rest of the world that has to pay the costs of rebuilding.

These are two issues that remain relevant in the working of the UN and in particular the Security Council: the “Responsibility to Protect” and the role of UN forces once they are deployed in a country.  In the latter case, if the mandate and strength of the forces are not credible in that they are given authority and resources to enforce an end to war, they will be standing-by while atrocities continue.  In the former case, the issue of “Responsibility to Protect” has to be embraced by States the world over or gross human rights violations will continue under the shield of sovereignty.

On these matters, Kofi Annan’s memoir is a very important contribution to the welfare of all mankind.  It is a text that should be widely read and not only by practitioners or students of international affairs.

His book deals with many other complex issues that still bedevil the world and – while we have all come to live with them — are serious threats to international peace.  Among these are the Middle-East, and in particular Israel and Palestine.

The invasion of Iraq by the US and UK on the fig leaf of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction is also referenced in the book although not in sufficient detail.  However, Annan does make a solid observation: “Despite the singular contribution of the United States to the UN’s founding and its mission in the decades that followed, after Iraq, America was too often unwilling to listen, and the world unable to speak its true mind.”

* * *

Sanders is a consultant and former Caribbean diplomat. Responses and previous


NAHB: Remodeling Market Index Climbs Five Points, Returns to 2005 Levels

  • By David M. Kinchen 
NAHB: Remodeling Market Index Climbs Five Points, Returns to 2005 Levels

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 that its Remodeling Market Index (RMI) climbed to 50 in the third quarter of 2012, up from 45 in the previous quarter, and is at its highest point since the third quarter of 2005. The improvement in the RMIis in line with the rising tide of residential construction and real estate sales of the past few months, as the housing industry claws its way out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.


The RMI component measuring current market conditions rose to 52 from 46 in the previous quarter, while the component measuring future indicators increased to 49 from 44. 
An RMI above 50 indicates that more remodelers report market activity is higher (compared to the prior quarter) than report it is lower. The overall RMI averages ratings of current remodeling activity with indicators of future activity.
“The strength of the RMI, especially in owner-occupied properties, shows that home owners are investing in remodels as home prices stabilize,” said NAHB Remodelers Chairman George “Geep” Moore Jr. a remodeler from Elm Grove, LA. “As owners become more confident that investments in housing will hold their value, they are beginning to undertake projects to improve their comfort that they had been putting off.”

All three indicators of current market conditions improved: maintenance and repairs rose to 56 (from 50), minor additions and alterations to 51 (from 47) and major additions and alterations to 49 (from 42). Current market conditions improved or held steady in all four regions in the third quarter of 2012. Current remodeling activity was particularly strong in owner-occupied housing; the sub-components of the current conditions index for owner-occupied housing were all well over 50, ranging between 55 and 60.

Future market indicators in every region but the Northeast experienced gains from the previous quarter: Northeast, 38 (from 41); Midwest, 50 (from 46); South, 52 (from 46); and West, 52 (from 42). All indicators of future market conditions rose: calls for bids, 48 (from 44); amount of work committed for next three months, 46 (from 43); backlog of remodeling jobs, 50 (from 46); and appointments for proposals, 51 (from 43).

“The improvement in the RMI provides more evidence that the remodeling industry is making the orderly recovery from its low point in 2009 as we’ve been expecting,” said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. “Although remodeling projects over $25,000 are now showing some signs of strength, they are still lagging behind smaller property alterations and maintenance and repair jobs. The recovery of the remodeling market in general, and large projects in particular, continues to be constrained by factors such as tight credit and problematic appraisals.”

BOOK REVIEW: ‘White Jacket Required’: A Coming-of-Age Memoir for Millennials and Their Parents

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'White Jacket Required': A Coming-of-Age Memoir for Millennials and Their Parents

When recent college graduate Jenna Weber decided to go further into student loan debt hell by attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, Florida, her parents were bemused but eventually were supportive — as long as they didn’t have to pay for more education for a young woman who didn’t want a routine entry-level job.

Weber chronicles her post-college odyssey in “White Jacket Required: A Culinary Coming-of-Age Story” (Sterling Epicure, 216 pages, $19.95). It’s a fun to read book that will appeal to the millennial generation of twenty-somethings, as well as their parents. I’d recommend the book for younger readers, too. The book may even help explain why many members of the oft-criticized millennial generation — those who came of age around 2000 and a few years later — insist on doing it their way when it comes to careers and relationships.

Weber, 27, always had two loves: Writing and cooking. She inherited much of love of cooking from her flight attendant mom, who grew up in Milwaukee. As a resident of that city for a decade when I was a reporter and editor at The Milwaukee Sentinel, I can attest to the love of food that is part of the heritage of Brew City. Her father, on the other hand, came from a small town in Texas and had little interest in cooking. He became a flight attendant in the hopes of meeting the perfect woman who was also a good cook. He lucked out when he met the high-flying girl from Milwaukee.


“White Jacket Required” is replete with recipes that Jenna Weber obtained from her grandmother, her mother and elsewhere. You could call it a cookbook with a memoir attached — or vice versa.


Jenna Weber

Jenna Weber


The people at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando were just as bemused as her parents when Weber disclosed that she wanted to learn classic French cooking to become a better food writer. Midway through the 15-month course she shifted from the meat-oriented courses to the baking and pastry curriculum. Forget what you think you know about a rigorous cooking academy: It’s no cakewalk (pardon the pun!); it’s more like Army basic training or Marine Corps boot camp. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” could be the motto of the cooking school. Wimps need not apply. Among the students were recent high school graduates, college graduates and older men and women seeking a career that can’t be outsourced to China or India.

Weber describes her ups and-downs as she confronts the rigors of training, gets her first job, deals with a family crisis, and enters into a love affair. I wouldn’t be surprised if a savvy movie producer optioned “White Jacket Required” for a TV or feature film.

About the author

Jenna Weber, a graduate of the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC, attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, FL, with the goal of landing a job at one of the top food magazines. Instead, she ended up becoming a hugely popular blogger and writing this, her first book. Visit her blog to get an up-to-the-minute look at Jenna’s world of food. She lives in Santa Rosa, CA.
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