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Just finished a stunning book, The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives (don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read and is reviewed below) and really liked it. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

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 Novel by 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. 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 angry father is a wealthy and influential man in the area. 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.

 

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 Cookbooks, on July 18th, 2007.

These are all cookbooks. And I have another 5-8 more books sitting around in different places in my kitchen too. Once upon a time I was able to decoratively arrange my cookbooks – some standing up, a few short piles in strategic places lying flat. That was a long time ago. I haven’t counted all my cookbooks, but they surely number over 100. And I have no more room in the cabinet. None whatsoever. Some years ago I did perform a necessary purge. I simply had to get rid of some of them. It was agonizingly difficult. Even though there are many of these that I never refer to anymore, one just never knows. Maybe tomorrow would be the day I need that very book I just gave away.

But then, I’m that way about all books. Not wanting to get rid of them. With my non-cook book collections, my desire is to keep them all. Tattered paperback or brand new hardbacks. No matter. I like them all surrounding me. My biographies collection resides in our downstairs guest room. I always know where to find them. Non-fiction fills another book case in my office upstairs. And the fiction, the largest by far, fills all of the other bookshelves in the office. I like to gaze at those spines now and then and recollect how much I enjoyed reading the pages in between. I like looking at the multiple books I own by a few authors, like Anita Brookner, Ludlum, Rutherford. I do loan them out now and then. Sometimes I get them back. Not always, even though I tell the borrower I want them back. I don’t keep a log, so don’t remember who I gave them to. But that’s okay, as long as somebody is reading them. A friend once asked me why I kept my novels. She, a librarian, doesn’t keep any. I marveled at her ability to give them away, or just borrow them from the library. She asked me, do you ever read them a second time? Well, no I don’t. Why keep them, then? Why indeed. But I do.

But cookbooks. I DO refer to them. I have a 12-volume cookbook encyclopedia – the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. It was given to me back in the 1960’s by my former father-in-law. He had an in with the publisher. I still refer to those books time and time again. I don’t much use the recipes, but I look up information. It’s full of advice about how long you can keep things, calorie counts, methods of cooking and really basic information about the origin of foods, spices, ingredients. And of course, it contains lots of recipes. The books, although published in 1966, are worth a bit if you have the whole set (I do). A whopping $74.99. But I can’t part with them. Even at that price.

I have cookbooks that reflect a bygone era – like Vincent & Mary Price’s large volume about cooking, A Treasury of Great Recipes. Published back in the late 1960’s the mostly French recipes are heavy with butter and cream and sauces. I could sell it for $20 on ebay. But no, I’ll hold onto it, thank you. Why? I really don’t know. Likely I’ll never make a single one of the recipes in it. I don’t know that I ever have. But I choose to keep it. I like it’s large shape. Heavy, padded cover, even. And it contains lots of photographs of Vincent Price’s home and kitchen. Not that I was a fan of his acting. I wasn’t. But, I just like glancing at the book now and then.

Then, as with most cooks of my generation, I have a copy of the Joy of Cooking. It was by far the most popular cookbook of the 1960’s. I still have my copy, food spattered and all. I rarely refer to it anymore, but I don’t want to give it away, either. A couple of years ago I read the biography of Irma S. Rombauer, Stand Facing the Stove. In it you learn about her life, of course, but many interesting stories about how the publisher of Joy took such unfair advantage of Irma in the publishing of the cookbook. But it was revealing too, because Irma Rombauer really didn’t have much of an interest in cooking, certainly no love for it, but she saw a need and thought she could, with a great deal of work, create a cookbook that would be useful and sale-able. She was a single mother (her husband committed suicide) who had never worked, and needed to provide a living for her family. Unfortunately, she saw very little of the earnings from the printing and reprinting of her book and the multitude of other books Bobbs-Merrill printed using the names of Irma and her daughter. The publisher took grave and unfair advantage of her naivete. Versions written after 1976 were compiled by the publisher and the Rombauer family was not consulted.

In 2006, however, the Rombauer family rewrote the original Joy in its new 75th Anniversary Edition. I have a hankering to get that version, although I don’t know that I’ll be willing to forgo my old spattered copy. Numerous famous chefs were consulted and wrote some parts of this new book, bringing it fully up to date.

One of the things some food bloggers do is present a list of favorite cookbooks. I have several, but I must tell you that when I’m searching for something new to cook, I may consult 10-20 of my cookbooks before I decide. Or I may combine two or three recipes from different books. So what I will give you is a list of the books that I seem to refer to more often than others. Maybe I’ll create a sidebar box for this list too.

The Silver Palate Cookbook (the original one, 1982), Lukins & Rosso. The original book that I have is out of print, but click on the title and you’ll get to the 25th anniversary edition.

Thrill of the Grill, Chris Schlesinger. Available at a bargain price at Amazon, through their used book resellers.

Barefoot Contessa at Home, Ina Garten. You may still be able to buy this at Costco. It’s been out for several years, but she’s very popular and they’ve done umpteen reprintings.

Weir Cooking in the City, Joanne Weir. She’s one of my favorite cooking class instructors, but rarely comes to Southern California. She has a cooking show on PBS that I Tivo whenever it’s on. She’s much more out-there and fun in person than she is on the show. She says the producers make her tone down her crazy, vivacious personality. One day, Cherrie and I are going to take one of her week-long classes in Tuscany. She has her own website.

A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma, Michelle Anna Jordan. A smallish paperback book from a former caterer in Sonoma. I have several recipes from this book that are favorites. There is a new edition – if you click on the book title link, you’ll get to it.

Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, Paula Wolfert. More a wintertime kind of reference, but everything I’ve cooked from this book has been wonderful. She’s a well known writer and author who lives in Europe, although she’s American.

Barbecue! Bible (new), Steve Raichlen. I bought this at Costco recently for $11.99, and have referred to it many times, so I think this will become a favorite.

Baking: From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan. I think I’ve written about Dorie before. She’s quite a globetrotter, but a baker extraordinaire. She has her own blog, and I love reading her stories. If I want to bake something, this is my go-to book now.

Another day I’m going to write up my favorite food writing books (enjoyed more for the reading than for the recipes). I have a bunch of those too. But if you know me, you know that already! I’m one of Amazon’s best friend!
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