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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 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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