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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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 14th, 2015.

It was quite a long time ago Houghton Miflin sent this book to me, asking that if I liked it, would I mention it on my blog. I said sure. Then my DH Dave died, and the first month I could hardly read, period. Somehow or another I put the book aside, not in a place I noticed. Months went by. I was finally able to read again, but I forgot all about this book hiding under something in my office.

I’m rectifying that right now. I wouldn’t even mention it if the book wasn’t a good one.  I unearthed it and read it again. It’s a very good book. Mones did a prodigious amount of research about what Shanghai was like during the 1930s. And she wove a fascinating story in the midst of it.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones has a very interesting premise. It’s about a man – a black man – from the South – who is offered a job (hard to get in the best of times in the American South in the 30s) in Shanghai, to work at one of the more upper-crust Chinese nightclubs. Thomas Greene is an accomplished pianist, but a classically trained one, and this job is to play jazz with an existing musical orchestra, all African Americans. He knows next to nothing about jazz, but he agrees to go, and the powers-that-be don’t know he’s clueless about jazz. Black musicians in Shanghai, back then, were not exactly common, but black people in general were a bit scarce. And respected, actually. He is given the use of a house, with servants, and hardly knows what to do or say to them. He’s embarrassed to have them wait on him hand and foot.

Greene navigates his way through the music (that in itself, if you have an interest in music, is worth reading), the relationships with his orchestra (tenuous at first) and making friends along the way. There is much about the gritty side of Shanghai as well as the incredible wealth there too. Some I’d read before – from the nonfiction book called The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.

My former father-in-law was, in his younger years, an entertainer. He was a pianist, an accomplished one, though not classically trained. He could sit down at any piano and just make music, threading known tunes with his own. He and a friend, a singer, also lived in Shanghai in the 1930s. He and his singing partner sang in nightclubs too, so this story certainly resonated with me, from hearing the stories my father-in-law tell the family about that period.

When I read Caldwell’s book a few years ago I was quite enchanted with what Shanghai must have been like. And that book was excellent. This book, although it’s a novel, is based on fact  – many black musicians lived and performed in Shanghai during that time. They lived high, drank high, played high. Drugs were rampant. Morals weren’t so cherished. But the visual descriptions of Shanghai are vivid – I felt like Mones was leading me by the hand, down the streets, up the stairs you see on the cover photograph, pointing out the opium dens, the food vendors, the laundry hanging out the windows. Reminding me not to go to certain areas (there were invisible borders within the downtown area and some weren’t safe to cross) because of crime. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, the complexion of the city takes a whole new slant. Many expats escaped; some did not. Some stayed because they didn’t have the money. Some thought they could survive it. It’s riveting: the chaos, the fear, the inability to hardly survive if you didn’t have money. Greene loses his job and barely survives. It’s the story of his will to live, and the caring of friends too.

I’d read one of Mones’ other books, The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel. So I knew her writing style – detailed, and how it draws you into the story. I recommend both, but this new one was particularly enchanting. Highly recommended.

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