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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, on February 28th, 2015.

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9781250007810.jpgOnly once in awhile do I write an actual blog post about a book – when a book is particularly worthy. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you already know that my reading list is on the left sidebar of my home page. That’s where I write up blurbs of what I’m currently reading, or have just finished reading – about the last 2-4 of them.

For now I don’t own any animals, but for most of my life I’ve had a dog. You can be a dog or a cat lover and not be enamored with the entire animal kingdom, I guess, but I’m a sucker for a good animal story. And oh yes, this one is wonderful. True story. I watch Nature on PBS. On occasion I’ll just turn on Animal Planet and leave it on.

Well, anyway, a couple of friends recommended this book, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild , by Lawrence Anthony, and I’m so glad they did. Just now, as I’ve been finding these two photos did I realize that Anthony died in 2012. Much too young (age 61, heart attack).

Anthony devoted his entire adult life to the conservation of the African animal kingdom. He was a native to South Africa. A very gentle man, he always preferred to let the wild animals be wild, to do their predatory thing, because that’s what animals do in the wild. Thula Thula is the gigantic game reserve (preserve) he founded in Zululand (that’s in South Africa) many years ago. It took him decades to introduce the animals back into the area as they’d been hunted to extinction in that part of South Africa.

His story about this elephant herd began when he received a frantic phone call asking him to “take” a herd of wild elephant from another reserve, that were “difficult.” He did, and the book documents the extremely dangerous process of even transporting elephants across many hundreds of miles, and acclimating them to this new area. It’s a fascinating story. Every page.

In the photo above (the book cover) I’m assuming the photo is of Nana, the matriarch of the herd, and the astounding friendship he had with her and the herd. Understand, this herd was never tamed, they were strictly wild elephant, and subject to their own trials and tribulations, but Nana and a couple of the other elephants became his friends. He was extremely cautious around them and only rarely did he allow or did they approach him without an electric fence between them, but often Nana would put her trunk over the top of the wire and smell and fondle his face and chest – a sign of friendship. He didn’t exactly “whisper” with them (as the title says), but he talked to them, called to them (and they would usually come), calmed them (normally his voice would immediately relax the herd). With a huge 5,000 square mile preserve, he had to go to find them first, then he’d stop the Land Rover and call to them. Only on a rare occasion would he be out on the open ground (as the book cover shows) without the protection of the sturdy Land Rover (it probably was just to the left of him). He and his wife built a safari lodge on the reserve, and that helps keep the reserve in operation. Some of the story is also about the verbal battle(s) between the native people who think that any wild animals can be hunted for meat, and the poachers who still encroach and kill for the tusks or even the thrill of the kill. Gradually, though, with friendships between the conservationists and the native tribal chiefs, they’ve carved out a huge chunk of land that now comprises a bigger area for all kinds of wildlife.

Anthony wrote several books – one about the saving of most of the animals in the Baghdad Zoo – that book’s called Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. He also wrote a book (his last one) about the white rhino – The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures. I haven’t read either of those, but I sure do recommend this one. It’s a touching story and well written (he had a co-author, so I assume he’s the so-called ghost writer, but his name was also listed.

When Anthony died, the herd “knew.” Amazing. The entire herd came to the house and crowded as close as they could get beyond the fence and mourned him. Elephants do mourn – they actually weep and they communicate with each other through specific rumblings in their digestive systems (yes, really). When Anthony would be gone on business trips, the elephants would be invisible to the family and the game reserve crew for days or weeks, but before he returned (how could they possibly know?) they would be gather at the fence to greet him. But they knew. That happened over and over again. Anthony truly believed Nana could understand him in some way. Beautiful book and amazing story.

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  1. Carol

    said on February 28th, 2015:

    I also just finished “The Elephant Whisperer” and was sad that the book ended. I enjoy following your blog with books and recipes! I also love reading about your home in OC. I grew up in Costa Mesa in the 50’s -70’s where I lived until 1989 when my husband and relocated to Sebastpol, CA. I still have nieces, nephews and a brother in the south county. My family had lived on the same property in Costa Mesa from 1920 until my mother passed away in 2010, three months prior to her 100th birthday. She prided herself on being an Orange County Native and having been a member of the Native Daughter’s of the Golden West for 60 years! My family home was demolished to make way for 2 McMansions. I’ve only returned once since to Costa Mesa. We still make visits to San Clemente a couple of times a year. A long story to explain my connection to your blog! But thank you for sharing!

    How interesting, Carol. It’s never the same to go visit your old neighborhood. The home I grew up in, in San Diego, doesn’t look all that much different, but it doesn’t look like it did way back when, so it’s sad to drive by, therefore I don’t do it much anymore. I’m glad you enjoyed the book as much as I did. I truly was sorry when the book ended! I do want to read the book about the white rhino, though. . . carolyn t

  2. Mary S

    said on February 28th, 2015:

    I listened to an NPR story about Anthony, more than a year ago, regarding the convergence of the elephants on his home, after his death. I know that elephants have amazing connections with people they know and care for or who care for them. This story just left a great love in my heart for these beautiful animals, we call “beasts,” and a sadness for the loss of a man who offered so much to them and to the world.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful book. Now many more people will have the chance to know Lawrence Anthony’s marvelous story.

    I was just SO sad when I read that he’d died. My Kindle book, of course, didn’t mention it. It was only when I began writing up the blog post did I see a photo of him with a death date prominently displayed on the photo. I just groaned in sadness. He sounded like such an amazing man and died much too soon. I still want to read the book about the white rhino – I just need to order it on my Kindle! . . . carolyn t

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