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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 aging 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, wealthy women) 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.

I’ve written up an entire blog post about this book. (It hasn’t been posted yet, but will soon.) It may be one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s a memoir by Pat Conroy (an author I’ve long admired). He died a year or so ago – sad, that. In order to get the most out of My Reading Life, I recommend you BUY THE HARDBACK. I can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s an autobiography of sorts, but not really. He never wrote one, I don’t think, and I doubt he would ever have written one as he likely didn’t believe anyone would want to read about his (sad) life. In this memoir, he chronicles the books (and the people who recommended them) that influenced his life. Starting at his mother’s knees and continuing through influential teachers and mentors and friends. One of my book clubs read it, and I devoured it, cover to cover, with little plastic flags inserted all the way through to re-read some of the prose. Pat Conroy was a fabulous writer – he studied words from a young age and used them widely and wisely throughout his writing, but better than most authors would. He adored his mother, and hated (with venom) his aviator military father who physically abused everyone in the family, including his mother. They all took it like stoic Buddhas. I’m going to have to read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel because of reading this book. I’ve never read it. Conroy says that book’s first page is the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. Wow. And maybe my book group is going to re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Vintage Classics) too because of the chapter on that book. We might have to assign that to a 2-month or longer read. If you have friends or family who are avid readers, this would make a great gift, this book, My Reading Life. If YOU are a reader, it needs to be on your bookshelf, but in hardback, so you can go back to it and re-read his stories. It’s a series of essays, each one about a sub-section of his life. A must-have and a must-read.

Also read The Towers of Tuscany by Carol Cram. It was a bargain book through amazon or bookbub (e-book). Back in the Middle Ages women were forbidden to be artists. Their only place was in the home, caring for children and sewing and cooking. But the heroine in this book was taught to paint by her widowed artist-father (in secret, of course). When her father suddenly dies, all hell breaks loose and she must fend for herself. Much of the book takes place in Siena (and also San Gimignano) as she disguises herself as a boy in order to continue her life’s passion – painting. Very interesting story and worth reading.

 

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 September 30th, 2017.

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If you’re not a reader, you may want to skip on over this post, as it’s all about a book. A marvelous book. However, If you aren’t a reader, but know someone who IS a reader of literature, then buy the book as a gift.

Pat Conroy was not exactly a prolific writer – he wrote a number of books, but they took him years to complete as he threw so much of himself into all of his writing. There was always travail and angst with each one. Sadly, Pat Conroy died in 2016 of pancreatic cancer. His wife collected a bunch of his writings, speeches, articles, etc. and published a book posthumously, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life I’ve ordered that one, but haven’t read it.

To understand Pat Conroy means a journey through a very tumultuous military brat childhood being abused both emotionally and physically by his tyrannical father, a Marine fighter pilot. His mother and most of his siblings received the same. He wrote a novel about his upbringing, about his father –The Great Santini: A Novel – which angered legions of people in his life, including his family, because up to that point they’d all been stoically silent about the father’s abuse. To understand Pat Conroy means watching how he elevated himself out of the miasma of his childhood, not always successfully. He suffered from depression. He had a hard time writing sometimes, though he was gifted from the get-go. Teachers took him under their wings, mentors mentored him. He was married three times, and he suffered terribly from the breakup of the first two.

I don’t remember which of his books I read first. It might have been Beach Music: A Novel. Then I read several of his other books. I even owned his cookbook, The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life, but I think I discarded it in my last iteration of giving away books (one of about 400 last year). His cookbook was fun to read, but I found that the Southern cooking style he used was too heavy and fat-laden for me to experience much in my own kitchen. But his novels. Oh my goodness. What treasures they are.

And this book, My Reading Life, is a treasure beyond compare. What Conroy did in this book was tell stories about the people in his life who influenced his reading. It began with his mother, who never got to go to college, but she was a reader and instilled it in her children. One of Conroy’s sisters is a poet and poetry looms large in this book too (sadly, I’ve never been much of a fan of poetry except for Billy Collins).  And it included early teachers, then later on men and women who came into his life and recommended books. As an example, he said that the first page of Look Homeward, Angel was the best first page of any book he ever read in his life. That got my attention and I’m going to look for a used copy of that book soon. The Russians also captured his attention – War and Peace (Vintage Classics) was a particular favorite of his because of the writing style. He read that book over and over during his life, gleaning gems to help him in his own writing (as have countless other authors). Conroy was a master story-teller. About his family and even his closest friends. I laughed out loud so many times as I read this book. I attached little plastic flags in many places so I can go back and re-read them. One was about a praying mantis he observed and his mother’s very clever one liner. Oh so very funny. Then about the Japanese man, Mr. Hara, who’d had his passport stolen (this was in Paris while Conroy was trying to finish one of his books) whose English was “velly bad.” I roared reading that one. And about a librarian in a Beaufort elementary school who was not a mentor (Conroy escaped into the library at lunchtime because he knew no one and wanted to hide – – and yes, he wanted to read). He got the last laugh with her too once he became a teacher at that school.

I just can’t recommend enough that everyone who enjoys reading, should read this book. I must thank my friend, Jean P, who recommended we read this book in one of my 3 book clubs. I’m so sad that cancer has stilled Conroy’s voice forever.

Posted in Books, on July 11th, 2016.

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You can always check on my most recent book reading on the left sidebar of my blog. I usually keep about the last 3-4, maybe 5 books I’ve read with a short blurb about it. Once they’re gone from that place, the list is gone – I don’t keep a running log of the books I read. I should have started that years ago, but I didn’t, and somehow, at my age, I’m not about to start now. I update the sidebar every month or so.

Having just read The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo, I thought I’d actually write a post about it. One of my book clubs read the book, and we were meeting at one of our members’ homes. Peggy and her husband (along with their son) own a great little eclectic coffee store and small vegetarian restaurant (combined) in Orange, near where I leave. It’s called Mead’s Green Door. And within the same building is a cute, little fancy cake establishment, called Creative Cakes.

Product DetailsI think I heard that Peggy and Gary (her husband) bought Creative Cakes recently – as if they need more things to do. Oh my goodness. But what was fun, was that Peggy had an adorable cake at our book club meeting, all about this book. Peggy is a superb baker, so I’m not sure if she made the cake, of if she had the employees at Creative Cakes make it – it was SO delicious.

Isn’t it cute, though? Notice that the color scheme on the cake comes from the book’s cover. We hated to cut into that cake it was so adorable!

Anyway, the book . . . it’s about Cuba and weaves an intricate tale spanning a lifetime of the woman pictured. She lived during very tumultuous times in Cuba, including the Spanish revolution in the early 1900s. Her life was hard. Very hard. Certainly, this book is about relationships (what novel isn’t?). She has a loving, but troubled one, with her mother. She found love, but it was a somewhat taboo relationship – he was a rebel and he was black. Not common, most likely, in Cuba at that time. From Amazon, it says: “Maria Sirena tells stories. She does it for money—she was a favorite in the cigar factory where she worked as a lettora—and for love, spinning distant_marvels_cake_topgossamer tales out of her own past for the benefit of friends, neighbors, and family.” A lettora was a “reader” or a storyteller, and although she began reading from books to the workers in the cigar factory, she eventually began telling the story of her life over the course of time. And in the book, decades later, living alone in one of Cuba’s coastal villages, a hurricane is headed toward them. Maria is old, and really doesn’t want to go to a safe house to weather the hurricane, but she’s swept there anyway by officials, despite her protests, to spend many days in an old, abandoned, but sturdy palace near her home. And it’s here that the myriad women housed there during the hurricane and its aftermath, begin telling stories of their lives. And Maria tells hers. And quite a story it is. Chapters go back in time as she re-lives the many escapades of her youth. And finally unburdens her own soul in the telling.

It was a wonderful book – you feel great compassion for Maria Sirena (from the older woman’s voice, you learn that she’s ill and likely dying, but that’s only a tiny backdrop), the struggles she had, the great love she experienced. Worth reading for sure.

Posted in Books, on May 8th, 2016.

Visiting the library some weeks ago (getting books on tape to play in the car while I took a 5-day road trip to Northern California to visit family) I decided to look at new books on the shelves. And here was this book with an unusual title, The Thousand Dollar Dinner: America’s First Great Cookery Challenge by Becky Libourel Diamond. She’s a journalist and food historian.

On Saturday evening, the 19th instant [1851] thirty gentlemen sat down to a dinner at J. W. Parkinson’s, South Eighth St. below Chestnut [Philadelphia], which for magnificence outvied anything ever seen in the United States. . . . Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 1851.

Perhaps the richest, most elegant, elaborate and poetical entertainment ever gotten up in this country, was achieved in this city last week by the accomplished confectioner and caterer, James W. Parkinson. . . . American Courier, April, 1851.

At 6:00 am, the morning of April 20th, the satiated group of men finally decamped. It had been an extraordinary evening, with 17 courses served. [I can’t imagine sitting down for an all-night eating of that many courses.] It had come about as a bet, a wager, that no Philadelphians could possible prepare as sumptuous a meal as New Yorkers (the guests were half from each city).

1 – OYSTERS – Raw,  on the half shell – Nearly every first class dinner back then started with oysters, and the Philadelphia area was loaded with oyster reefs. They would have been served with bottles of sweet Sauternes. Since the early to mid-1900s, as many of you know, the oyster business disappeared. So very sad. My DH’s (dear husband’s) family was from Bivalve, New Jersey, (also Mauricetown, pronounced like morris-town) which was one of the hubs of the oyster business back in the day (20s, 30s and 40s). In the 1950s the oyster population developed a deadly parasite called MSX, which wiped out nearly all the oyster business in the Delaware Bay.

2 – SOUPS – Green Turtle and Potage a la Reine [a type of French chicken soup] – The book goes into much detail about the purveyors of turtles (mostly the Caribbean) and in what high demand they were. Over-fishing also nearly ended turtle soup as a delicacy except perhaps IN the Caribbean. Some restaurants in Philadelphia still offer turtle soup made from a local snapping turtle harvested on Pennsylvania shores. The turtle soup was usually served with sherry or Madeira; Parkinson apparently served both soups with Cognac.

3 – FISH – Fresh Salmon with Lobster Sauce and Baked Rock [a striped bass], a la Chambord – the salmon came from Maine. The bass was caught by privately hired anglers who were sent to Virginia the day before and rushed the fish back to the restaurant; it was stuffed with forcemeat, larded with bacon, braised in white wine and seasoning, finished off with decorative skewers of fish quenelles and cooked crawfish, then served with a rich Chambord and Espagnole sauce. Apparently James Beard described this recipe as one of the most elaborate dishes in all of cookery. This course was served with a Riesling from the area of Steinberg, Germany (founded by Cistercian monks mostly).

4 – BOILED – Turkey, Celery and Oyster Sauce; Chicken and Egg Sauce; and Beef Tongues – Much of this chapter of information was about the early-times methods of cooking meat (boiling), even tracing back to the Pilgrims. This course was served with Champagne, Haut Brion and Cote Roti.

5 – COLD DISHES – [this one’s a lot to read . . .] Galantine de Dinde a la Gelee; Jambon Decore; Salade a la Russe en bordure de Gelee; aspic huitres; Boeuf a la Mode; Mayonnaise of Lobster, Salad de Volaille, a la Mode Anglaise; Aspic de Volaille aux Truffles. What all that most likely says is: tenderloin of beef garnished with vegetables, boned turkey and capon, ham stuffed with pistachios and truffles, aspics, pates and terrines of all kinds, foie gras, smoked tongue well glazed and dressed in pyramid form, chicken mayonnaise, ducks’ livers a la Toulouse, young rabbit a la mode, and salad a la russe. Everything was sculpted and presented in high form (mostly prepared by the young chefs), and prepared some in advance. All these were served with an Amontillado (pale sherry) from Spain.

6 – ENTRÉE #1 – Filet of Beef with Mushrooms; Vol-au-vent; Veal with Tomato Sauce, Lamb Cutlets; and Chicken Croquettes – Although it was designated as an entrée, meals back then weren’t what we’d would call an entrée (the main course) but a side dish, really. And they probably weren’t served with anything else – maybe just a bite of two of each with its own sauce or gravy.

7 – ENTRÉE #2 – Braised Pigeon with Madeira Sauce; Lamb Chops Milanaise; Chicken; Turtle Steak, Chicken Fricasee; and Calipash, a presentation of turtle hearts and livers – most often all the entrees served all together, but Parkinson veered off course here. Wines served with both of these entrée courses was champagne by Moet.

8 – ROAST – Spring Chicken on Toast, Spring Lamb with Mint Sauce – it seems that all the food up to this point was leading up to THIS, the most important course of all, the roast! The meat was likely roasted on a spit. Wine served here was a Moselle from Scharzberg, Koblenz.

9 – PIECES MONTEES and VEGETABLES – [elaborate sugar sculptures served alongside garden vegetables] – seems very odd to our modern sensibilities, but it was all high art of the time

10 – COUP DU MILIEU – Sorbets – made from nothing less than Hungarian Tokaji wine. It was a sorbet never eaten before, Parkinson’s idea, and was noted as quite magical by the diners.

11 – GAME – Jack Snipe; teal duck, woodcock, plover, rice birds, celery hearts and Saratoga potatoes – all the small game birds were done on an early version of a rotisserie, and they’d have been studded with lard. This course was served with a pale rose wine.

12 – DIAMONDBACK TERRAPIN – the terrapin was a common enough turtle found in brackish waters along the Eastern Shore. They were also called “bay tortoise.” It was probably a sort of stew with a creamy sauce. And it was served with roasted potatoes. This course was again, served with Amontillado sherry from Spain.

13 – PASTRY – Puddings, Pies, Meringues, Cakes, Creams and Cookies – too many to name here. Parkinson was quite fond of both lemon pudding and coconut pudding, both served at this meal. There are pages and pages in this chapter about the style of preparing and serving all kinds of special sweet treats from that era. The sweets were served with old, mellow sherry, Madeira and Port.

14 – CONFECTIONERY – Mint Drops, Raspberry Balls, Chinese Almonds, Nougat, Cream Candy, Burnt Almonds, Port Wine Drops, Sugar-Coated Celery Seed and Brandy Drops – all things to showcase Parkinson’s skill in the kitchen.

15 – ICE CREAMS AND WATER ICES – Biscuits Glace, Caramel, Harlequin, Lemon, Buttercream, Vanilla, Strawberry, Orange Water Ice, Champagne Frapee – all innovative items (so the book says) from Parkinson’s kitchen. He was most definitely ahead of his time

16 – FRUITS AND NUTS – Apples, Figs, Walnuts, Pecans, Orange, Raisins, Almonds and Filberts – some of the explanation in this chapter is about the etiquette of eating fresh fruit at the table. Kind of hilarious, really. The wines served here were Rhenish Marcobrunn and a Medoc (highly tannic).

17 – CAFÉ NOIR – Black Coffee, Maraschino and Curacao (liqueurs) – back in this time, in a fine restaurant, only really strong, robust coffee was served using a French Press (still a highly prized method – I had some that way just last week). It was thought that a strong cup of coffee at the end of a meal enhanced digestion.

When it was all said and done, the diners smoked cigars, probably groaning, and were eventually escorted to their carriages and off to their homes or to a local hotel to sleep off the calories. Oh my.

A really interesting book – each of the courses comprised a chapter in the book, and each chapter is about 5-12 pages long, depending on the complexity of it. You learn history, the how and wherefores of acquiring such food then and now, and about the presentation itself. Astounding meal for sure!

Posted in Books, on July 14th, 2015.

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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.

Posted in Books, on March 12th, 2015.

Product Details

About a  year ago I wrote up something about a book – one I’d read that I just loved. One that a friend had recommended to me and since I’ve trusted her suggestions in the past, I bought a used copy and and fell in love with it in the first chapter. That book was written by Nevil Shute – Trustee from the Toolroom. Of all the books I’ve read in the last several years, it was/is a standout. The book is hard to get – the books are almost collector’s items – Shute’s books are no longer in print, so hardbacks are a bit on the precious side. Libraries have them, though, and most, if not all, are available on Kindle. Nevil Shute died in 1960, unfortunately. I never wrote up a post about that book; it just appeared on my left sidebar after I read it, and I raved about it.

Recently, though, I was reviewing my notes on to-read-books (my list is incredibly long, and I keep a running litany on Evernote, on my iPhone) I was reminded of this book on my master list. This one is also by Nevil Shute. Several people told me it was very good. A Town Like Alice (Vintage International) is a walk down a history road, partly in Malaya, and partly in Australia. Shute was an Aussie, and the country or its people populated many of his books. I haven’t researched this, but my understanding is that really the events happened in Sumatra, but Shute decided for some reason to re-write it for Malaya. It doesn’t really make any difference, because it’s about the Japanese invasion anyway.

What I’ve learned is that I really like Nevil Shute’s writing. It’s easy reading. It’s very descriptive, and you get a real sense of place as  you read his books. He also does magnificent character studies. And he keeps you wondering where the story is going next. That was particularly the case with the Toolroom book, which was almost a mystery in a way, but not like today’s mysteries. This book isn’t a mystery, either. It’s really a love story, but you don’t discover it’s a love story until you’re nearly half way through the book. It’s not sappy, or pulp fiction. It’s literature.

The heroine is a feisty young English woman who has a very interesting youth, partly living in Malaya. The story is told from the voice of her attorney. A bit of a fusty older, single Londoner, you sense his wistfulness of what might have been had he been younger. But the story is really about the woman . . you learn about her parents and her brother. Suffice to say that she’s in Malaya (now Malaysia, I assume, although I’ve not consulted a map) when the Japanese invade and she’s taken prisoner. I’ll say no more about that, except that she meets a young Aussie man during this time period and never forgets him. His story is deep, poignant and excruciating.

Without giving away the plot, I’ll not give you any additional info, except that this book is such a good one. The “Alice” refers to Alice Springs in central outback Australia (I’ve been there). When I suggest you’ll feel a sense of place,  you truly will understand the Aussie outback a whole lot better when you’ve read this book. It’s a real winner. You’ll feel the same way about the Malaya jungle too. And you’ll be led along a very interesting story line that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

Posted in Books, on February 28th, 2015.

http://images.macmillan.com/folio-assets/macmillan_us_frontbookcovers_1000H/9781250007810.jpgOnly once in awhile do I write an actual blog post about a book – when a book is particularly worthy. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, then you already know that my reading list is on the left sidebar of my home page. That’s where I write up blurbs of what I’m currently reading, or have just finished reading – about the last 2-4 of them.

For now I don’t own any animals, but for most of my life I’ve had a dog. You can be a dog or a cat lover and not be enamored with the entire animal kingdom, I guess, but I’m a sucker for a good animal story. And oh yes, this one is wonderful. True story. I watch Nature on PBS. On occasion I’ll just turn on Animal Planet and leave it on.

Well, anyway, a couple of friends recommended this book, The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild , by Lawrence Anthony, and I’m so glad they did. Just now, as I’ve been finding these two photos did I realize that Anthony died in 2012. Much too young (age 61, heart attack).

Anthony devoted his entire adult life to the conservation of the African animal kingdom. He was a native to South Africa. A very gentle man, he always preferred to let the wild animals be wild, to do their predatory thing, because that’s what animals do in the wild. Thula Thula is the gigantic game reserve (preserve) he founded in Zululand (that’s in South Africa) many years ago. It took him decades to introduce the animals back into the area as they’d been hunted to extinction in that part of South Africa.

His story about this elephant herd began when he received a frantic phone call asking him to “take” a herd of wild elephant from another reserve, that were “difficult.” He did, and the book documents the extremely dangerous process of even transporting elephants across many hundreds of miles, and acclimating them to this new area. It’s a fascinating story. Every page.

In the photo above (the book cover) I’m assuming the photo is of Nana, the matriarch of the herd, and the astounding friendship he had with her and the herd. Understand, this herd was never tamed, they were strictly wild elephant, and subject to their own trials and tribulations, but Nana and a couple of the other elephants became his friends. He was extremely cautious around them and only rarely did he allow or did they approach him without an electric fence between them, but often Nana would put her trunk over the top of the wire and smell and fondle his face and chest – a sign of friendship. He didn’t exactly “whisper” with them (as the title says), but he talked to them, called to them (and they would usually come), calmed them (normally his voice would immediately relax the herd). With a huge 5,000 square mile preserve, he had to go to find them first, then he’d stop the Land Rover and call to them. Only on a rare occasion would he be out on the open ground (as the book cover shows) without the protection of the sturdy Land Rover (it probably was just to the left of him). He and his wife built a safari lodge on the reserve, and that helps keep the reserve in operation. Some of the story is also about the verbal battle(s) between the native people who think that any wild animals can be hunted for meat, and the poachers who still encroach and kill for the tusks or even the thrill of the kill. Gradually, though, with friendships between the conservationists and the native tribal chiefs, they’ve carved out a huge chunk of land that now comprises a bigger area for all kinds of wildlife.

Anthony wrote several books – one about the saving of most of the animals in the Baghdad Zoo – that book’s called Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo. He also wrote a book (his last one) about the white rhino – The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures. I haven’t read either of those, but I sure do recommend this one. It’s a touching story and well written (he had a co-author, so I assume he’s the so-called ghost writer, but his name was also listed.

When Anthony died, the herd “knew.” Amazing. The entire herd came to the house and crowded as close as they could get beyond the fence and mourned him. Elephants do mourn – they actually weep and they communicate with each other through specific rumblings in their digestive systems (yes, really). When Anthony would be gone on business trips, the elephants would be invisible to the family and the game reserve crew for days or weeks, but before he returned (how could they possibly know?) they would be gather at the fence to greet him. But they knew. That happened over and over again. Anthony truly believed Nana could understand him in some way. Beautiful book and amazing story.

Posted in Books, on February 14th, 2015.

It was quite a long time ago Houghton Miflin sent this book to me, asking that if I liked it, would I mention it on my blog. I said sure. Then my DH Dave died, and the first month I could hardly read, period. Somehow or another I put the book aside, not in a place I noticed. Months went by. I was finally able to read again, but I forgot all about this book hiding under something in my office.

I’m rectifying that right now. I wouldn’t even mention it if the book wasn’t a good one.  I unearthed it and read it again. It’s a very good book. Mones did a prodigious amount of research about what Shanghai was like during the 1930s. And she wove a fascinating story in the midst of it.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones has a very interesting premise. It’s about a man – a black man – from the South – who is offered a job (hard to get in the best of times in the American South in the 30s) in Shanghai, to work at one of the more upper-crust Chinese nightclubs. Thomas Greene is an accomplished pianist, but a classically trained one, and this job is to play jazz with an existing musical orchestra, all African Americans. He knows next to nothing about jazz, but he agrees to go, and the powers-that-be don’t know he’s clueless about jazz. Black musicians in Shanghai, back then, were not exactly common, but black people in general were a bit scarce. And respected, actually. He is given the use of a house, with servants, and hardly knows what to do or say to them. He’s embarrassed to have them wait on him hand and foot.

Greene navigates his way through the music (that in itself, if you have an interest in music, is worth reading), the relationships with his orchestra (tenuous at first) and making friends along the way. There is much about the gritty side of Shanghai as well as the incredible wealth there too. Some I’d read before – from the nonfiction book called The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.

My former father-in-law was, in his younger years, an entertainer. He was a pianist, an accomplished one, though not classically trained. He could sit down at any piano and just make music, threading known tunes with his own. He and a friend, a singer, also lived in Shanghai in the 1930s. He and his singing partner sang in nightclubs too, so this story certainly resonated with me, from hearing the stories my father-in-law tell the family about that period.

When I read Caldwell’s book a few years ago I was quite enchanted with what Shanghai must have been like. And that book was excellent. This book, although it’s a novel, is based on fact  – many black musicians lived and performed in Shanghai during that time. They lived high, drank high, played high. Drugs were rampant. Morals weren’t so cherished. But the visual descriptions of Shanghai are vivid – I felt like Mones was leading me by the hand, down the streets, up the stairs you see on the cover photograph, pointing out the opium dens, the food vendors, the laundry hanging out the windows. Reminding me not to go to certain areas (there were invisible borders within the downtown area and some weren’t safe to cross) because of crime. When the Japanese invaded Shanghai, the complexion of the city takes a whole new slant. Many expats escaped; some did not. Some stayed because they didn’t have the money. Some thought they could survive it. It’s riveting: the chaos, the fear, the inability to hardly survive if you didn’t have money. Greene loses his job and barely survives. It’s the story of his will to live, and the caring of friends too.

I’d read one of Mones’ other books, The Last Chinese Chef: A Novel. So I knew her writing style – detailed, and how it draws you into the story. I recommend both, but this new one was particularly enchanting. Highly recommended.

Posted in Books, on November 17th, 2014.

Each year one of my book groups gets together (this year at my home) and we go around the room and each person shares something about a book, or more than one, that they think might make a good Christmas gift. All the women are 60+. I love this particular meeting because we aren’t there to discuss a specific book we’ve all read, but just to share ideas. I love to give books as gifts – not only because I try to nurture reading as a pastime to everyone I know or meet, but sometimes the ideas that come from this group get me outside my box. Also a good thing. So, I thought I’d share this year’s suggested books. Understand, please, I haven’t read but a few, and I’ll say so below.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t really keep up with all the books that get published. It’s overwhelming. To keep track, I use an app on my phone called Evernote, a note-taking app. One of my note-taking sections on Evernote is “Books.” This is where I add a title or an author when I’m out and about. Perhaps someone has told me about a book. I know I’ll never remember the title, so I just whip out my iPhone and add it to Evernote. That list is SO long, I wonder if I’ll ever winnow it down. Why? Because I keep adding more and more. It’s enough that I try to keep up with the reading in 3 book groups. If it weren’t for the fact that some reading in the 3 groups overlap, I’d never be able to manage it. Generally, now, I read when I go to bed, for about 30-45 minutes. Unless I’m stuck at home for some other reason, I don’t read books during the daytime. Unless I’m under the gun and need to finish something before one of the meetings.

The links below go to amazon, and if you happen to order a book, amazon gives me a few cents. It’s no big deal one way or the other. Once in awhile I get a dollar or two – it’s by month, I think, and orders have to reach some minimum threshold (most of the time I don’t meet the minimums), then they credit my amazon account. So, here’s the list:

A Redbird Christmas: A Novel by Fannie Flagg. It’s not one of her newer books, but it’s apparently a very cute story and a red bird figures significantly in the story. There’s faith in the book. It takes place in the American South.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel (A Mitford Novel) by Jan Karon. Two of the gals were currently reading the book and loving every page.

Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten. This is her newest one. It was passed around our group, and even though I don’t need another cookbook, I just may have to get it anyway.

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. He writes the most interesting narrative books. Several in our group had heard of it, and also mentioned that their husbands had read it and liked it a lot. This isn’t a new book.

Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I’ve read two of O’Reilly’s books, and been very impressed. Most of the research is done by Mr. Dugard, a history wizard as far as I’m concerned. Two in our group had already read this and liked it very much. It’s all history. Period. It’s not political, even though O’Reilly is a political commentator.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Hillenbrand. What a book. You could hardly have existed without hearing people talk about this book. Great book for a man, too. I read it some months ago. I wish Dave had read it – he would have loved it.

Mean Streak by Sandra Brown. Although her books have some romance to them, she also weaves, always, a very good mystery in with it. Light reading.

Gray Mountain: A Novel by John Grisham. Two in our group had already read this one, his newest. Always good for a page-turning read.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel by Nancy Horan. I’ll for-sure have to get this one on my Kindle as I really liked her other book about Frank Lloyd Wright. This one is about Robert Louis Stevenson and his love, a woman 10 years his senior.

Mud Pies and Other Recipes (New York Review Children’s Collection)– this is a children’s book (5-9 year old girls it says). Originally written decades ago, it’s been re-published by, as you can read above, the New York Review Children’s Collection. It has stories, but also some “recipes.”  It has a 5-star rating on amazon.

Peter Pan Picture Book: Shape Book – also a children’s book. It’s for very young readers, or even pre-readers. One of our members brought the whole collection of these books. They’re short, maybe 10-12 pages each, and this is just one of them. If you’re interested in others, google “shape book” and you’ll find the others in the series. If you’re an artist, you’ll really appreciate the exquisite 4-color art which are reproductions from old nursery rhymes and stories of old. Very sweet book.

For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life by Eric Metaxes – the title is pretty self-explanatory. Was mentioned as a good book for a man, though the gal said she liked reading it very much herself, then she passed it on to her husband.

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life As this book was discussed, the gal who recommended it explained that this book is often suggested to people who are not-so-sure they believe in miracles  – or even for people who are non-believers. The author (who also wrote the recent definitive book on Bonhoefer) is analytical, yet he’s a believer. There’s a scientific element to this book which might appeal to some. One review read: “ . . . will blow your mind with stories of phenomena beyond anything we might classify as merely natural. And he will bless your heart with what can happen in your life personally as you read stories of people (very smart people I might add) who “extra-ordinarily” encountered God’s majestic purpose converging with their daily lives, stunning and humbling them forever.” I’ll be buying this book, probably in hardback just for my own reading.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympicsby Daniel James Brown. I read this book several months ago and wrote it up on my sidebar. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. Great book for men and women. The one word description: teamwork.

An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir – Phyllis Chesler is a PhD and Jewish. She married a Westernized Afghani who was attending graduate school with her. She did it with eyes closed (obviously), trusted him and his family when she moved to Kabul. At which point she lost everything – her American passport and any form of freedom. Not a book you’d give every woman as there is certainly a message here, but it’s an eye-opening reveal about day to day Islamic life. She escaped eventually, but she’s forever scarred.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart. This is a book I recommended. Not for every reader. My friend Darlene gave me the autographed book for my birthday. It’s a dense book about the history, the botany, and the uses of every kind of natural flora and fauna which contribute to the making of spirits. So, for instance – agave, juniper, grains of paradise (a very special pepper), casava, prickly pear. Very interesting reading. If you don’t drink spirits, I’d not buy this. If you’re a gardener and interested in such things, it would make a good read or a gift. Amy Stewart has also written several other books about poisonous plants and about the life of the earthworm. Just google her name on amazon and you’ll see them all. If you have family members who are particular interested in bugs, there are a couple that would make a great gift.

Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home by Marcus Samuelsson. I think I wrote up something about this on my blog already. This is his most recent cookbook and it’s chock-full of stories about all the recipes. For being a native Nigerian, but raised in Sweden, Marcus has certainly embraced our American foods and I’m glad of it! The recipe for the mac ‘n cheese that my granddaughter ate at his restaurant in Harlem when we were there in July, is in the cookbook. Haven’t tried it yet.

Christmas Memories Book – one member of the group forgot to bring it, but she shared with us about a gift that she bought many years ago when her first child was born. It’s a method of keeping memories alive of every Christmas in your family. You fill in who was there, what was special that year, gifts given, what you had for breakfast or dinner, and other little bits of trivia that contribute to your family’s Christmas traditions. And a place for a photo or two. The link is to the only one I found on amazon that seemed to be similar to hers which she purchased 30+ years ago. She has completely filled the book and had to move on to another one, different size and shape because she couldn’t find one like the first one. Anyway, it was a sweet idea, particularly for a young family, just married or on the arrival of their first child.

Photo at top from The Guardian, found through Google images

Posted in Books, on October 13th, 2014.

You may have said to yourself, “I’m tired of reading stories about World War II.” I have friends who have stated that flatly, meaning they’re done with them. They’ll be missing a really good tale, a sweet tale, and one that’s certainly way out of the usual norm of a novel about that war.

This story isn’t about the warfare. Without giving away the story, let’s just start with a young girl, in her early teens, who is blind. She lives with her father in Paris, and then the war comes to their lives. The father works at a museum, and the powers-that-be decide to try to hide most of the treasures, the biggest, most valuable treasures. A particular diamond, a huge diamond with an interesting story in and of itself, has so much value that a gemologist is asked to make a replica of the diamond from glass. A total of 3 replicas are made and 4 people are asked to care for the 4 “diamonds”. None knows which one has the real diamond, but they’re asked to keep each one safe.

Eventually, when the Germans begin nosing around trying to locate the missing diamond, the father and daughter flee to St. Malo, a small town a few miles from Mont St. Michel, that gorgeous beehive of a town built on top of a rock on the coast of Brittany. They move into a home of relatives there.

Meanwhile, there’s a young German boy who is very bright. He’s recruited to join Hitler’s army. His skill is with radios. He’s not exactly a zealot – in fact he’s not – he’s a gentle boy – but as with so many young people back then, you did what you were told. Eventually his skill was noticed by others and he gains a reputation for locating resistance fighters (in hiding) who send short radio transmissions to the Allies. Systematically he and his helpers find and take out many such transmitters and the people who use them.

There’s one more little tidbit I must tell you . . . the dear father of the young girl is good with small things, models and such. He had built a small replica of the neighborhood where they lived in Paris so his blind daughter could find her way to the bakery or other places. Each little model home, although many stories high, was built as a separate piece and they’d be lined up side by side. From studying the models, and with her father’s help, she learned to walk alone, with her cane, past 4 storm drains, left at the third cross street, or whatever, to find her way. When they moved to St. Malo, her father began building a new replica of that village. Mostly they stayed in hiding, as most people did. Her uncle, who was also good with radios, began helping the resistance.

Her father, of course, has the diamond. Or he has one of the diamonds. The young blind girl is resourceful. Very bright too. Knows the little model of her village. Reads Braille, what few books that were available back then. You can tell from what I’ve said that there’s a little collision of events, the boy who is hunting for radio resistance fighters, a German colonel who is hunting for the diamonds, and the one little house in St. Malo. Do read this book: All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr. Worth reading. It’s a love story too. Trust me.

Posted in Books, Travel, on August 6th, 2014.

Product DetailsWhile I was on this recent trip, I did quite a bit of reading. Every night, trip or not, like clockwork, I read for 20-30 minutes before I fall asleep. And because I’m having a problem with my foot (did I say I have a stone bruise on my heel from wading in the river on the camping trip a few weeks ago?) I had to rest my poor heel sometimes in one museum or another. My Kindle went with me in my purse throughout the trip so I always could sit and read if I could find a place to sit. (I’m seeing my GP this week about my heel, though I’ve read there’s not a lot that can be done for stone bruises.)

I’ll be writing up several books in my left sidebar, as I always do, about my most recent good reads. There will be at least three, of which this is one. But I decided to do a post about it because it was just so interesting.

You knew, of course, that Louis Comfort Tiffany was the Tiffany glass and lamp man. Right? You knew that, of course you did!? Tiffany and Co., the jeweler that we all know, was his father’s, Charles Lewis Tiffany. You’ll learn everything you never thought you’d care to know about the making of stained glass windows and lamps if you read this book. But it’s not boring in the least.

Susan Vreeland, the author, has written several books, the most notable probably Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She also wrote Luncheon of the Boating Party. I think her newest book, this one, Clara and Mr. Tiffany: A Novel is her best one yet. Just an FYI: she has another book soon to be released called Lisette’s List: A Novel. The latter can be pre-ordered. I just did.

The setting of this Tiffany novel is the design studio and glass factory owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany. He’s middle-aged, married with daughters, wealthy (mostly from his parents) and he is somewhat of an art visionary. With little or no financial sense – he’d always had money and thought nothing of spending more, never giving a second thought to whether it would be there forever.

The heroine in the book is Clara Driscoll. She’s a no-nonsense kind of frugal woman with a big independent streak in her and a sad marital past who needs a job. She works for Tiffany, and over the course of many years, she begins to help with designs. Mr. Tiffany grants her some leniency with her ideas, and eventually she takes on the project of designing the first Tiffany lamp, with the very iconic upside-down tulip shape we all recognize. But transforming the idea on paper into a practical thing, a lamp, first a oil-burning one, later electric ones, was far from an easy task. That’s what you’ll learn in this book, about how leaded glass is made, and about the very unique ways in which glass makers can create shades, forms and textures. In that respect, I found the book especially fascinating.

The story along with it – Clara’s life – and her very slow escalation into a position of supervision within the design, window and lamp making department is also very interesting. When I began reading I assumed the book was based on complete fact. It’s not exactly. Vreeland took some liberties to make it a more interesting and riveting story. Tiffany, a kind of old-school stuffy man, made one particular strict policy in his company – he didn’t permit any married women. Period. Hard to believe, but that part’s true. Once you were discovered, you were out. Clara weaves her way in and out of a couple of relationships and a near second marriage, that makes for almost an air of mystery. It’s a charming story from beginning to end. Whether Clara Driscoll really did design the Tiffany lamp? Well, that’s up to speculation, although Vreeland read Driscoll’s letter collection in which she describes in detail how she did it, so probably it is true. And whether she actually led a mini-revolt within the company regarding the male-only glass making trade union (which tried to shut down the women-only lamp making department that was non-union), isn’t known either. She lived in a boarding house, which has its own sub-set of stories to go along with it, and also made for fun reading. All of it together makes for a good story.

So, when my granddaughter Sabrina and I were in New York last week, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ve visited it many times in the past, but Sabrina had never been and she happily went off on her own. Once I’d seen the Impressionists again (I never tire of them) and a few other oils, I went downstairs to the café for a coffee and a place to sit and rest my aching heel. As I was walking down the stairs, lo and behold, there in front of me was a 3-piece panel of Tiffany glass. Flowers and greenery, as nearly all of them are. I walked right up to it and read the tiny little card of info. Clara Driscoll’s name was not associated with that one. In fact, I believe in the Afterword of the book, Vreeland says that none of the Tiffany glass designs (windows or lamps) were specifically credited to Clara, but Vreeland’s research indicated significant hints about her contribution to the lamp-making. Driscoll never did receive the recognition she craved. Elsewhere in the NYC area there are two more museums with oodles of Tiffany glass. I wished I’d had time to visit both of them. I’d never have thought of doing so had I not read this book. Next time.

If you like Vreeland’s style of writing (I certainly do) then this book will be good reading. I certainly thought it was. You’ll come away from it with a whole new appreciation for the intricacies of creating leaded glass in whatever form you see.

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