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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 Travel, on April 2nd, 2016.

biltmore_estateIf you haven’t ever been to The Biltmore Estate, you have truly missed out on out one of America’s treasures. It’s open to the public, and also has 2 hotels located right on the grounds of the estate itself.

My friend Darlene has been telling me for years about The Biltmore Estate, and it had been on the travel plan for my DH and me in the spring, but then my hubby died suddenly. We were planning a driving trip of the Blue Ridge Mountains and had known we’d stay there. Obviously, that trip didn’t happen, as I wasn’t going to do the trip by myself. So, when Sara invited me to go with her and granddaughter Sabrina to visit colleges in the south, I prevailed on them to add 2 nights (my treat) to visit and stay there.

After visiting 2 of the colleges on our plan, we arrived at the Biltmore late in the afternoon. Darlene had recommended we stay at the Inn on the Biltmore, and to get a room facing the back, the big meadow toward the winery, which we did. We had a lovely room with a gorgeous view.

inn_at_biltmore_estatesThis estate was built by George Vanderbilt at around the turn of the last century (1890-95 approx). The Vanderbilts made their money from the beginnings of railroads here in the U.S., and they were multi-millionaires. This Vanderbilt, married a society inn_biltmore_view1woman and they lived mostly at the Biltmore, although the family also had a huge family home in NYC. George vacationed in the Blue Ridge mountains when he was young, and always wanted to return and build a home there. Originally he bought up about biltmore_doorway125,000 acres and he and his friends hunted on the grounds in season. George and his wife had one daughter who eventually married into the Cecil family (connected to British royalty), and the estate is still owned by their progeny. Because of inheritance taxes (I’m supposing this as I’ve not read it) that the family decided to open the estate to the public – only that way could they keep the beautiful grounds (now only 8,000 acres). Over the years the land has yielded lots of crops and they raise livestock on it now. There is a winery too.

biltmore_doorThe Biltmore itself contains 40+ bedrooms and about 25 bathrooms – this back in the day when a complete bathroom housed within a home was almost a rarity. To say that the house is exquisite almost doesn’t do it justice. It’s sumptuous. It’s brilliant, glittery in places, tasteful throughout, housing thousands of art pieces that George collected and are worth millions all by themselves.

Visiting the Biltmore is not for the meek of pocketbook. We stayed on the grounds, at the hotel pictured above and I bought a package that included parking (yes, that’s extra even if you’re staying at the hotel) and the breakfast buffet. The grounds also contain numerous gardens which were nothing but brown twigs when we visited. The hilly landscape was beautiful, nonetheless, as we wove on the interior curvy roads. It’s 3 miles from the front gate to the Biltmore, and back in the day you went by carriage. There was a train aft_tea_sara_sabrinaterminus in the nearby town – Asheville. George died quite young of a burst appendix (the infection caused by the rupture). This was before penicillin. His widow continued to live at the Biltmore and she maintained the many educational programs she and her husband had started for the villagers (because the depression caused such hardship). About 30-35 servants worked in the home full time, year ‘round. We did the Upstairs/Downstairs tour, which was just fascinating. The architect and designers included many innovative things into the building of the French Renaissance “castle.” It isn’t a castle, but by my parlance it certainly qualifies.

Our second day there we did the tour in the morning and then had afternoon tea, which is served at the Inn on the Biltmore, in their beautiful library.

Our waiter (in tux attire) was very attentive and made us feel very content. The tea offered are their own varieties, 3 or 4 black tea combinations, and 4 herbal and floral combos. Because it was late afternoon I think we all had herbal teas, which were very, very nice and tasty. The tea was one of the bargains of the visit – I think it was $21.95/pp and included savories, sandwiches, pastries and tea.

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In nice weather the Biltmore offers carriage rides (yes, sign me up) and also an open jeep backcountry ride as well (ditto). In

my_girls

season, with the flowers and foliage, the estate must be absolutely gorgeous. Sara, Sabrina and I have promised ourselves we will go back to the Biltmore, stay at the Inn again, and be there when the flowers are in bloom – but in the spring before it’s too warm for bugs and humidity. It was bitterly cold while we were there – it got down into the low 20s both nights, but we were toasty inside and there was no snow or rain, really. A must see if you’re ever in the Asheville, NC area. My advice: you really cannot see the estate in a day; not even in 2 days. I highly recommend a 3-days visit, or do 2 nights, but arrive in the morning, many hours before you can check in and do a tour or two. There are several restaurants on site; all the food we had was exceptional.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on April 2nd, 2016:

    I have been to Asheville but was completely unaware that the Biltmore Estate was there! You’d think my brother-in-law (a local man) would have known and told me about it, wouldn’t you?

    It might not have been open to the public when you lived there, Toni. I think it was in the late 1990s that they decided to put it into a family foundation and opened it for public tours. Since then they’ve built the 2 hotels on the property. . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on April 10th, 2016:

    That might explain it! Thank you Carolyn.

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