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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 November 7th, 2016.

mt_durmitor_lakes

I don’t remember what these lakes were called – I believe they’re part of a dam (in Montenegro). We drove along the edge of several of these lakes, then began a very steep ascent – in serpentines they called it – before we actually arrived in Mt. Durmitor National Park.

We stayed one night in Sarajevo. It was one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip. After reading the heart-wrenching book, The Cellist of Sarajevo some years ago, I longed to make a kind of pilgrimage to the small square in the city where the cellist played during the seige. I thought I’d written up a post on my blog here about that book, but I guess I just put it on my sidebar, which I update ever few weeks. The book is a novel, but based on the history of the siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s. The filament that holds the various stories together is the life of a professional cellist (supposedly based on Vedran Smailovic) who is an observer, from his apartment window, of a massacre that happened in his square – the sniper on the hills gunned down 22 people standing in line at a bakery. The book is about how the people of Sarajevo were totally at God’s mercy during the many, many months of the siege. They had little food, had to walk great distances to get water, and took their lives in their hands when they did, as the snipers were vigilant in the nearby hills. Awhile after that particular massacre, the cellist (this part is fiction, according to some accounts) decides he’s going to play a specific piece of music (the composer Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor – which has a very interesting history all on its own – look it up if you’re interested) every day for 22 days; he went down into that square, right where the people were massacred, and in line where a sniper could have killed him too. He plays the piece of hauntingly beautiful music, a classical piece for cello, and hundreds of people come to the square to hear him play. And for whatever reason, the snipers don’t shoot.

So, I’d hoped to see that square, but our guide misunderstood me I guess – Smailovic did do a concert in the ruins of the National Library (it’s been rebuilt), and well after the seige he did play a concert on the square. On our walking tour – and she pointed out the rebuilt Library to me. Sarajevo is a city, big enough that I suppose she couldn’t very well take me to that place. Sarajevo still has many disfiguring marks from mortar fire and other damage to municipal buildings and apartment buildings. They’re still working on fixing it up. We did visit the tunnel that was built from one end of Sarajevo under the airport and out the other side, 266which was used (all secretly) to ferry medicines and much needed supplies, ammunition too. We walked through about 15 feet of the tunnel – cramped, low, and has a steel track on the ground for pushing or pulling a cart. There at left is a display, showing the tunnel (the white line near the top, that traverses underneath the runway).

We stayed in a Muslim-owned hotel in Sarajevo. I think it was called the Bristol. Very nice. Some in our group grumbled because the hotel didn’t serve alcohol. Really? Fortunately the complainers only talked to our tour leader about it, not the hotel. I’d have been embarrassed if they had. Bosnia is a mostly Muslim country, so when you are in such a place, we should respect their customs.

Once we left Sarajevo we headed further south and to the border of Montenegro. The photo at top was the northern edge of Mt. Durmitor National Park. After crossing the Bosnian and Montenegro borders (which sometimes took 20-30 minutes to wait in line, then for all of our passports to be examined, cross-checked and stamped, then we’d go another 200 yards and do the process all over again to enter the new country), we were off into the mountains. At one point we had to pull off the road for awhile because a film crew was shooting a motion picture somewhere on up in the mountains, and all traffic on this very arterial 2-lane highway came to a complete stop for 4-5 hours. We were lucky to be stalled for only about 30 minutes.

4_wheel_drive_mt_durmitorEventually we got up into the highlands and our group got into 4-wheel drive SUVs and off we went on a mountain adventure. We went on, up and up and up (to about 6,000 feet that day) and above the timberline.  Part of the roads were paved, but mostly they were dirt and gravel and usually only one lane.

It was a gorgeous day and it was very fun to be in something other than a bus.

The photo below was one I snapped as we went through a particularly beautiful valley.mt_durmitor_4

We had lunch at a kind of a summer camp up there – a delicious meal – and as always, way too much food. We had lamb, potatoes, home made cheese, tomatoes, wine and beer if we wanted it, and some delicious strudel like savory pastries. We had those (kind of in a burrito-shape but smaller) with a flaky pastry and a meat and cabbage filling. Really tasty. Then we were off again in the SUVs to get down Mt Durmitor on the other side and into a town called Kolacin. It was up at a fairly high altitude. We stayed in a rustic kind of chalet hotel that was full of high school kids on a field trip of some kind, plus some kids competing in some sports games there.

The next day we were picked up by similar SUVs and off we went to another 8,000 foot high mountain aerie in a different direction. That day we encountered a small pack of horses. We thought they were wild, but found out later they spend every summer up there fending for themselves and the owners retrieve them in the Fall and take them down to his ranch at a lower altitude for the winter. They came8000feet_montenegro_horses roaring down the nearby hills and approached us. We wished we’d had some apples or something to feed them. There were some young colts in the bunch (see the one colt’s head in the middle?). That day we stopped at a different high mountain camp and sat out in the relative open camp (covered, but open and windy, and it rained too) for another big lunch. Similar food – maybe it was beef or veal that time, more home made cheese (that was SO good – it was a free-form kind of stretchy cheese – you’d tear off a portion and eat it with the delicious home made bread), salads, wash_up_station_montenegrocabbage salads, wedges of tomatoes, beer, wine and some sweet for dessert. There was a toilet in an out building there, and a primitive sink for washing your hands.

We were out in the elements for several hours and enjoyed the scenery so much. It was just breathtakingly beautiful up on those mountains. There were a few villages here and there, dotting the distant hills. Probably really cold in the winter.

at8000_feet_montenegro

The scenery was just so pretty. Kind of like Colorado, I suppose. We all remarked on the gorgeous clouds that day. 8000feet_montenegro

Once again, we were up above the timberline and nearly into the clouds. So beautiful.

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