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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 March 12th, 2015.

Product Details

About a  year ago I wrote up something about a book – one I’d read that I just loved. One that a friend had recommended to me and since I’ve trusted her suggestions in the past, I bought a used copy and and fell in love with it in the first chapter. That book was written by Nevil Shute – Trustee from the Toolroom. Of all the books I’ve read in the last several years, it was/is a standout. The book is hard to get – the books are almost collector’s items – Shute’s books are no longer in print, so hardbacks are a bit on the precious side. Libraries have them, though, and most, if not all, are available on Kindle. Nevil Shute died in 1960, unfortunately. I never wrote up a post about that book; it just appeared on my left sidebar after I read it, and I raved about it.

Recently, though, I was reviewing my notes on to-read-books (my list is incredibly long, and I keep a running litany on Evernote, on my iPhone) I was reminded of this book on my master list. This one is also by Nevil Shute. Several people told me it was very good. A Town Like Alice (Vintage International) is a walk down a history road, partly in Malaya, and partly in Australia. Shute was an Aussie, and the country or its people populated many of his books. I haven’t researched this, but my understanding is that really the events happened in Sumatra, but Shute decided for some reason to re-write it for Malaya. It doesn’t really make any difference, because it’s about the Japanese invasion anyway.

What I’ve learned is that I really like Nevil Shute’s writing. It’s easy reading. It’s very descriptive, and you get a real sense of place as  you read his books. He also does magnificent character studies. And he keeps you wondering where the story is going next. That was particularly the case with the Toolroom book, which was almost a mystery in a way, but not like today’s mysteries. This book isn’t a mystery, either. It’s really a love story, but you don’t discover it’s a love story until you’re nearly half way through the book. It’s not sappy, or pulp fiction. It’s literature.

The heroine is a feisty young English woman who has a very interesting youth, partly living in Malaya. The story is told from the voice of her attorney. A bit of a fusty older, single Londoner, you sense his wistfulness of what might have been had he been younger. But the story is really about the woman . . you learn about her parents and her brother. Suffice to say that she’s in Malaya (now Malaysia, I assume, although I’ve not consulted a map) when the Japanese invade and she’s taken prisoner. I’ll say no more about that, except that she meets a young Aussie man during this time period and never forgets him. His story is deep, poignant and excruciating.

Without giving away the plot, I’ll not give you any additional info, except that this book is such a good one. The “Alice” refers to Alice Springs in central outback Australia (I’ve been there). When I suggest you’ll feel a sense of place,  you truly will understand the Aussie outback a whole lot better when you’ve read this book. It’s a real winner. You’ll feel the same way about the Malaya jungle too. And you’ll be led along a very interesting story line that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

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