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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 October 15th, 2016.

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I’ve just returned from a 2-week trip to Croatia, Bosnia (and Herzegovina) and Montenegro. Wow. That’s it in a nutshell. If you haven’t been, you need to plan a trip there.

The picture above is one of the best photos I took on the trip, I think. There are a few more, but that one just takes me to that place in an instant, in my head. Since Yugoslavia was divided up, there are 5 different countries: Croatia (along the coast south of Venice, Italy and inland), Bosnia (further south on the coast and way inland too, past Sarajevo), Montenegro, which is a small pie wedge of a country along the most southern coast and some inland mountains; and Slovenia (eastern strip, didn’t go there) and Serbia (also didn’t go there). The division of the old Yugoslavia is quite complex, so don’t quote me on all the borders.

These countries are struggling a bit – Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia managed to get into the EU (probably because tourism is prospering) but the other countries are not. Their unemployment rate is extremely high, except Montenegro. All the countries are trying to find their niche (industry and corresponding infrastructures) and promote tourism because it may be their only future. That’s the sad part. The good part is that each of these countries does has a lot going for them in the tourism arena. All 3 countries I visited were very beautiful. Croatia and Montenegro have some gorgeous scenery. You’ll be seeing lots of pictures of these places in the next couple of weeks as I go through my photos and write up a few stories.

And the next question is, from most people – is it a safe place to visit? Absolutely. I felt safe everywhere I went, even the few occasions when I was alone. The countries have very low crime, and there hasn’t been any terrorism activity there. The Croat people are fiercely proud of their respective countries. And because they represent a variety of cultural differences, religions and ethnic backgrounds, they tend to identify themselves as their country’s people, not prefacing it with a Muslim designation or Roman Catholic, for instance. All the people speak the same language (Croatian) which was impossible for us to understand, and I hardly tried!

I took all the photos with my cell phone (iPhone 6s), and I think they’re nearly as good as my really good Canon DSLR. Sure made it easy to carry around my cell phone everywhere we went.

We started in Zagreb (the capital of Croatia), then went down to the coast to Zadar, Split, back inland to Mostar and Sarajevo, then southeast to Mt. Durmitor (a Montenegran national park) and nearby Biogradsko Lake, then to the Bay of Kotor (absolutely breathtaking). And lastly to Dubrovnik. We flew to London after that and stayed overnight after a visit to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s home during the latter part of his life, then home. I was gone for 2 weeks and a day. I’m very happy to be home, as I always am after a trip. This trip was rather rigorous, requiring the 14 of us to get up early nearly every morning by 6ish, and rarely got to our nightly destination until 6pm. Long days in the bus. Very few free hours. We were perpetually behind in our daily schedule and sometimes in the evenings, we couldn’t even finish our meals because our bus driver (a really nice guy) was required to finish his 12-hour shift and his pay would be dinged if he failed to meet the nighttime arrival. That happened at least twice on the trip. We didn’t think that was very nice, but, of course, the policy wasn’t ours to make!

The food across the board, was very good. We enjoyed LOTS of specialty cheeses, lots of organically raised beef, lots of fish and not much pork. Usually there was a vegetarian option too. One night lamb was offered, and we had it at an interesting mountain aerie one noontime too. Mostly we had a breakfast buffet with plenty of options for anything from cereal to eggs to breads (great breads of all variety), bacon and sausage and lots of lovely fruit. Hotel coffee wasn’t always great, but I had coffee in individual little coffee places several times and it was delicious. Mostly they don’t offer anything but partly skimmed milk to put in coffee. Yuk. So I didn’t drink a whole lot of it. I asked for cream many times, to be met with a blank face of non-understanding and someone pointing to the skimmed milk pitcher. Oh well, it was just 2 weeks! We stayed in one Muslim-owned hotel (Sarajevo) and some in our group grumbled because no alcohol was served. I think those folks went out after dinner to a nearby bar or club. We were served white wine, red wine, beer and soft drinks everywhere (except Sarajevo) and across the board, the wine was good. The Zinfandel grape originates from that part of the world.

So, bear with me as I sort and catalog my pictures.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on October 17th, 2016:

    I can’t recall when I went to Yugoslavia, as it then was, but I think my daughter was very small. My memory of it all was not as good as yours since it was a communist country at the time. I took spending money and brought almost all of it home. Food was dismal, drinks were expensive and the German tourists definitely got the best deal even though the locals hated them because of the war experiences. Strange times…

    The German tourists still love the country . . .I’ll tell a story about one of our destinations in one of my posts. The food overall was good, and drinks (even alcohol) wasn’t much more than we’d pay at home – that was a surprise. Lots of the architecture is still Communist-era – gray and dismal looking, but I give the Croats a lot of credit for trying to spruce up their cities and make them more appealing to visitors and business men and women. . . I only bought one thing – I’ll share it eventually. I spent most of my money at the Harrod’s store and Fortnum & Mason store in Terminal 5 at Heathrow! . . .Carolyn T

  2. Kathleen Heckathorn

    said on October 17th, 2016:

    We have been to Dubrovnik at least twice and loved it. This spring, Kotor, Montenegro, was a surprise addition to our schedule. Heaven! Loved it. So dramatic there. We did the big hike up the hill. Breathtaking views. I am just about to embark on my vacation travel book after much procrastination due to other projects.

    I was blown away by the beauty of Kotor. We stayed at a lovely hotel at the marina on the other side of the mountain from Kotor itself, but it overlooked the northern length of the bay. Breathtaking. . . carolyn t

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