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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 July 14th, 2015.

lusitania_image

The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 has held a traumatic place in history. It was a relatively newly built passenger liner and despite direct threats from the Germans that they could/would sink any military or merchant vessel, the Cunard line felt that cruise ships would be left alone and not bothered by the warring nations. Pipe dream, that.

Probably I’d never have read this book if it hadn’t been chosen by one of my book clubs. But that’s one of the joys of belonging to a book club with people of varied interests – you’re asked to read books that you might not ordinarily choose.

Erik Larson is the very well-respected author of several books, most notably The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. What Larson does is collect the facts, copious amounts of them, and cull them down to write a very engaging story – the truth – about what really happened. Many information archives (both British and German) are now available for public perusal, and that in itself makes for very interesting reading, dead_wake_book_imagetelling the true minute by minute action that occurred that fateful day off the Ireland coast when 1,198 people were drowned in the very rapid sinking of this flagship of the Cunard line. And the weeks leading up to the sinking. Many people survived, and its from them that even more information is known about exactly what happened on different decks or sides of the ship. About who acted well, and who didn’t. The Captain of the ship was presumed drowned, as he stayed with the ship until the ship sunk below the surface. He never expected to live, and only came to hours later. His career was marred because no one stood up for him, to share that he had no knowledge. It wasn’t his fault. Cunard had instructed the ship to reduce speed to save fuel (when speed could have saved them, yet the Captain did as he was instructed). No one told him to go north to avoid detection. A big snafu from everyone around.

Reading such a book now, with the kind of technology we have from radar and sonar, and satellite, makes this book and the lack of knowledge for both the ship and the U-Boat amazing reading. I was riveted to the chronology, the messages (or lack thereof) between the Admiralty, the Cunard line to its Captain and the secret department in the British military who were deciphering coded messages from the U-Boats. Yet the information was never shared with the merchant ship for fear of disclosing the fact that the Brits knew of their intent. It could have changed the course of the war had they known. The woman who reviewed the book for us made a really interesting comparison about the sinking of the Titanic vs. the sinking of the Lusitania. So different in every aspect. Made for very interesting contemplation.

The book is on the best seller list, and rightly so. It’s a really good read, though the part detailing the passengers who drowned, fell overboard or had any variety of accidents in trying to save themselves was heartbreaking to read. If you buy this, be sure to scan through the last 40-50 pages of footnotes – they make fascinating reading all by themselves. It tells you, again, how thorough Larson was in researching the material.

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