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Just finished reading The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novelby Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas. It’s a very, very good read. It tells the story of an older married woman who lives in a small mining town in the Colorado rockies (this is the mid-1800’s), and is well known by all because she’s the only midwife in the area. Often people can’t pay her anything, or very little for her days of service with little or no rest or food. Suddenly, a couple accuse her of strangling their infant (she arrived after the birth, actually). Hence the story is about how this small town rallies or rails for or against Gracy. She didn’t commit the crime, but not everyone can be convinced since the father is a wealthy man in the area who carries a lot of clout. There’s plenty of relationship issues here, which make really great fodder for a novel. And there are plenty of characters in the book that you’ll love or hate. Some secrets get dredged up too. Oh, such a good read.

On my recent road trip, I visited one of my local libraries and borrowed 5 books on tape. We listened to 3 of them. I’m a big fan of Craig Johnson, the author of a series of mysteries taking place in Wyoming, and a TV series on Netflix called Longmire. This book, A Serpent’s Tooth: A Longmire Mystery was really complex. Hard to explain, but it’s about graft and greed and oil. Worth reading, for sure. Also read Stone Kiss by Faye Kellerman, another complex mystery about Lt Decker, an LA cop who journeys to NYC to help out his family when a murder occurs. Lots of violence in this one.  Not particularly a fav book, I’d venture. Then read Leaving Time: A Novel by Jodi Picoult. I’ve read most of her books – always very riveting. In this book, you’ll learn a whole lot about elephants since the protagonist in it is a young girl whose mother disappeared when she was quite young. Her parents ran an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years, Jenna has tried to find clues as to her mother’s whereabouts because she just cannot believe her mother would have up and abandoned her. There are a whole cast of characters (her mother, her father, employees at the sanctuary, a cop or two, and a psychic). All play fairly prominent roles. Fascinating book – I really liked it, almost as much for the education about the behavior of elephants as about the mystery. A great read.

Also on the trip, I read a book (on Kindle) for one of my book clubs, The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin. It’s about the relationship between Truman Capote and his “swans,” a group of middle-aged high society ladies, and specifically Beth Paley. I don’t know whether to recommend this book or not. Truman Capote was not a nice man, although the whole novel (vs. non-fiction, which this is not) is conjured from speculation about the years Truman was kind of adopted by the group of women. He cared about all of them (most were married/divorced, and wealthy) but in the end he betrays them all by writing a novella about their secrets, their marriages, their affairs (theirs or their spouses, information they’d all shared with him, thinking he could be trusted with their innermost secrets). It was scandalous, and yes, all that part is true. I finished the book, but almost felt like I’d read a “dirty book.” There is no graphic detail in this book – it’s just what Capote did to destroy these women, supposedly his dear, darling “swans.” He was the villain in the book, and in his old age . . . well, I won’t spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it.


Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Books, Travel, on August 6th, 2014.

Product DetailsWhile I was on this recent trip, I did quite a bit of reading. Every night, trip or not, like clockwork, I read for 20-30 minutes before I fall asleep. And because I’m having a problem with my foot (did I say I have a stone bruise on my heel from wading in the river on the camping trip a few weeks ago?) I had to rest my poor heel sometimes in one museum or another. My Kindle went with me in my purse throughout the trip so I always could sit and read if I could find a place to sit. (I’m seeing my GP this week about my heel, though I’ve read there’s not a lot that can be done for stone bruises.)

I’ll be writing up several books in my left sidebar, as I always do, about my most recent good reads. There will be at least three, of which this is one. But I decided to do a post about it because it was just so interesting.

You knew, of course, that Louis Comfort Tiffany was the Tiffany glass and lamp man. Right? You knew that, of course you did!? Tiffany and Co., the jeweler that we all know, was his father’s, Charles Lewis Tiffany. You’ll learn everything you never thought you’d care to know about the making of stained glass windows and lamps if you read this book. But it’s not boring in the least.

Susan Vreeland, the author, has written several books, the most notable probably Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She also wrote Luncheon of the Boating Party. I think her newest book, this one, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel is her best one yet. Just an FYI: she has another book soon to be released called Lisette’s List: A Novel. The latter can be pre-ordered. I just did.

The setting of this Tiffany novel is the design studio and glass factory owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany. He’s middle-aged, married with daughters, wealthy (mostly from his parents) and he is somewhat of an art visionary. With little or no financial sense – he’d always had money and thought nothing of spending more, never giving a second thought to whether it would be there forever.

The heroine in the book is Clara Driscoll. She’s a no-nonsense kind of frugal woman with a big independent streak in her and a sad marital past who needs a job. She works for Tiffany, and over the course of many years, she begins to help with designs. Mr. Tiffany grants her some leniency with her ideas, and eventually she takes on the project of designing the first Tiffany lamp, with the very iconic upside-down tulip shape we all recognize. But transforming the idea on paper into a practical thing, a lamp, first a oil-burning one, later electric ones, was far from an easy task. That’s what you’ll learn in this book, about how leaded glass is made, and about the very unique ways in which glass makers can create shades, forms and textures. In that respect, I found the book especially fascinating.

The story along with it – Clara’s life – and her very slow escalation into a position of supervision within the design, window and lamp making department is also very interesting. When I began reading I assumed the book was based on complete fact. It’s not exactly. Vreeland took some liberties to make it a more interesting and riveting story. Tiffany, a kind of old-school stuffy man, made one particular strict policy in his company – he didn’t permit any married women. Period. Hard to believe, but that part’s true. Once you were discovered, you were out. Clara weaves her way in and out of a couple of relationships and a near second marriage, that makes for almost an air of mystery. It’s a charming story from beginning to end. Whether Clara Driscoll really did design the Tiffany lamp? Well, that’s up to speculation, although Vreeland read Driscoll’s letter collection in which she describes in detail how she did it, so probably it is true. And whether she actually led a mini-revolt within the company regarding the male-only glass making trade union (which tried to shut down the women-only lamp making department that was non-union), isn’t known either. She lived in a boarding house, which has its own sub-set of stories to go along with it, and also made for fun reading. All of it together makes for a good story.

So, when my granddaughter Sabrina and I were in New York last week, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve visited it many times in the past, but Sabrina had never been and she happily went off on her own. Once I’d seen the Impressionists again (I never tire of them) and a few other oils, I went downstairs to the café for a coffee and a place to sit and rest my aching heel. As I was walking down the stairs, lo and behold, there in front of me was a 3-piece panel of Tiffany glass. Flowers and greenery, as nearly all of them are. I walked right up to it and read the tiny little card of info. Clara Driscoll’s name was not associated with that one. In fact, I believe in the Afterword of the book, Vreeland says that none of the Tiffany glass designs (windows or lamps) were specifically credited to Clara, but Vreeland’s research indicated significant hints about her contribution to the lamp-making. Driscoll never did receive the recognition she craved. Elsewhere in the NYC area there are two more museums with oodles of Tiffany glass. I wished I’d had time to visit both of them. I’d never have thought of doing so had I not read this book. Next time.

If you like Vreeland’s style of writing (I certainly do) then this book will be good reading. I certainly thought it was. You’ll come away from it with a whole new appreciation for the intricacies of creating leaded glass in whatever form you see.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on August 9th, 2014:

    Arnica helps to heal bruises, cream or gel.

    The book sounds interesting, not an author that I have ever heard of but I might well look for her book, thank you for the post on it.

    In the UK, right up until the middle of the twentieth century, women who worked could not carry on doing so if they got married. Arcane laws, made by men, of course. I am pleased that things have changed.

    Sometimes it’s hard to believe laws or rules were or even could be made that were so ridiculous, but then men thought most women were too moody (hormonal), wouldn’t employ them while pregnant, etc. We’ve come a long way, thankfully. Someone else told me about arnica. I’ll have to look for it. A cortisone shot has helped it a LOT so I’m able to do a lot more walking. Susan Vreeland’s books may be harder to get in the UK. Have no idea. Worthy trying, though! . . . carolyn t

    I went onto amazon uk, and sure enough, it is available:

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on August 10th, 2014:

    Thank you for the link, I have some Amazon vouchers to use (£50 worth!) so I will investigate tomorrow.

    I am glad that the cortizone is helping; I keep Arnica cream in my First Aid box, together with Tea Tree Oil, Lavender Oil and Aloe Vera Gel.

    I’m going to stop at a store that’s a ways away (on my way home from the airport delivering my cousin to return home) and I’ll check to see if they have arnica. Surely they will. . . carolyn t

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