Just Add Love by Irris Makler

‘When you cook with your grandmother, you learn a lot more than the recipe.’

I learned about this beautiful book after reading Lisa’s review.  I put my name down to borrow a copy from my local library and, almost twelve months later, had a chance to read it.  It was well worth the wait.  Not so much for the recipes (although they are a delight) but for the stories.  These are extraordinary stories from Jewish women (and two Jewish men) now in their 80s and 90s who survived the Nazi genocide.  These are people who lost so much and have managed to rebuild their lives.

Their stories are accompanied by beautiful photographs (of people and food) and recipes which represent history, culture, and adaptation.  The recipes are from Europe, Russia, Central Asia and North Africa.

This is a beautiful book, and one I would like to buy a copy of for my own bookshelf.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

‘What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road?’

On the surface, this is a novel about a man who has established a quite rigid routine as his way of navigating life.   Micah Mortimer, aged 44, is the maintenance superintendent of the block of flats where he lives in Baltimore.  He has a business providing IT support as the ‘Tech Hermit’, he runs each morning (at 07:15 am) and he has a well-defined cleaning regime.  Micah takes life literally and steadily, and so his life might have been lived in its entirety until events forced change.

‘He hated it when women expected you to read their minds.’

Micah has a woman friend, Cassia (he refuses to call anyone in their late thirties a ‘girlfriend’).  How is Micah supposed to react when she tells him that she is facing eviction because of her cat?  He hardly has time to process this when a teenage boy, Brink Bartell Adams, turns up claiming to be his son. 

This is a beautifully realised, low key story about people and relationships. Micah knows he is not Brink’s father but feels responsible for trying to reunite Brink and his mother.  In the meantime, he and Cassia break up.

‘Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.’

Through the description of Micah’s routine, the chaos of his dinner with his extended family, his efforts to understand why Cassia is disappointed, his carefully ordered routines and his interactions with others a clear picture of Micah emerges.  But he is more complex than he appears.  Will the future be different?

‘The only place I went wrong, he writes, was expecting things to be perfect.’

I really enjoyed this novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Evening and The Morning by Ken Follett

‘It was hard to stay awake all night, Edgar found, even on the most important night of your life.’

A prequel to ‘The Pillars of the Earth’?  I could not resist this.  I first read ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ in 1990 and have reread it twice since.

The novel opens in 997 CE, with Edgar the boatbuilder’s son stealing out of his family home in the middle of the night.  A Viking raid that same night turns his family’s life upside down.  They lose their home and livelihood and must start life again on a farm at the small village of Dreng’s Ferry.  The land is not great and neither Edgar nor his brothers are farmers.  But they persist.

Meanwhile, Ragna, a Norman noblewoman falls in love with an English earl.  They marry, but she finds life as his wife in England is not quite what she expected.

The novel covers a ten-year period.  There is a readable mix of good and bad characters, of hardship and triumph.  Edgar has plans, suffers setbacks but continues.  As does Ragna.

I enjoyed this novel.  It is over 800 pages, but I found it a quick and easy escapist read, a fitting prequel to ‘The Pillars of the Earth’.

What did I enjoy the most?  Mr Follett’s description of place and time took me into the world he created and following the story of a couple of the characters kept me there.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Spice Route by John Keay

I first read this book about eleven years ago, but recently found myself revisiting it.

‘..the allure of spices lay precious in their glorious irrelevance ..’

If you’ve ever wondered about what exactly constitutes a spice, where most spices came from and why they were so valuable, then this book will give you a great overview.  Did you know, for example, that mace and nutmeg come from the same plant?  Or that salt (which is a mineral) is alone in adding intrinsic preservative value to food?

I found this book provided a perfect blend of the exotic, the heroic and the mundane.  The story of the journeys which resulted in the discovery of spices, the desire for the rare and the risks associated with transportation make for fascinating reading.  Long before a formal stock market existed, futures were made and lost in this precious trade.  The spice trade is a fascinating juxtaposition of an historical process spanning three millennia, a geographic progression that encircles the world and a trade in commodities that have little intrinsic value.

So, if you have ever wondered about the stories behind those small packets or glass bottles containing  those mysteriously named ingredients that so many of us use in our cooking, you may like to read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Jane Austen’s Sewing Box by Jennifer Forest

I’m revisiting some of my craft books.

‘Craft Projects and stories from Jane Austen’s novels’

So, Gentle Reader, you are interested in the crafts practised in Miss Austen’s novels?  Perhaps you wondered about all of that stitching that genteel women pursued while discussing life and marriage?  How did they do it and what materials were used?

In this beautifully illustrated book, Ms Forest provides a social history of the late 18th century as viewed by Miss Austen and her characters.  She includes snippets of the novels relevant to the craft projects described and illustrated.

Which crafts? Mainly fancywork: the type of decorative work undertaken by ladies while visiting.  There are eighteen projects in this book: each illustrated and with clear directions so that you, Gentle reader, can also make pieces familiar to Miss Austen and her characters.  You can make a muslin cap; a reticule; a workbag and linen pillowcases.  You could even make a man’s cravat, and diagrams show the many different ways in which a cravat can be tied.

Perhaps you chose instead not to make any of these projects but instead to enjoy a link with Regency women during what was a beautiful period in arts, craft and design.  Many of the projects in this book (particularly the workbag and the huswife) would be useful to women who enjoy similar handcrafts today.  These two projects in particular are ones I intend to undertake.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

‘Carelessness was an underestimated threat to civilization.’

Forty-seven people die at an internment camp in Indonesia.  Dr Henry Parsons, renowned microbiologist and epidemiologist is sent there by the World Health Organization to investigate.  He quickly discovers that these people have died from an acute haemorrhagic fever.  Meanwhile, the man who drove him to the camp leaves Indonesia to undertake his pilgrimage to Mecca. He joins millions of others undertaking the Hajj pilgrimage.  He is infected.

Dr Parsons travels to Mecca, to try to convince Saudi Arabia to quarantine the pilgrims.  The infections spread, suspicion between nations leads to acts of war.  Dr Parson wants to travel home, to the USA where his family is but first travel and then communications break down.  And in the meantime, the virus spreads rapidly with a high mortality rate.

What caused this virus?  Can it be stopped?

If I had read this novel twelve months ago, I would have thought of it as a (mostly) speculative thriller.  Reading it now, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is far more discomforting.

Mr Wright has written a fast-moving thriller which occasionally slows down to incorporate history and facts about viral diseases.  I found it equally fascinating and scary.  It is a reminder that for all our apparent knowledge and sophistication, for all our medical technology, viruses still kill.  And there is a twist in the end that will have some smile knowingly.

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Rage by Bob Woodward

‘I bring rage out.  I do bring rage out.  I always have.  I don’t know if that’ s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is I do.’ (Donald Trump in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa 31/3/2016)

I have been reading a lot of books about Donald Trump.  I picked up this one for two reasons:

  1. Bob Woodward is not a former Trump staffer or disgruntled former employee; and
  2. All but one of the interviews was recorded.

I thought that the first should make the book more objective and the second would mean that Trump could not claim to have been misquoted.

A few people I know will see this book as yet another hatchet job on their wonderful president while others, like me, will see it as proof that somehow a divisive, erratic and impulsive man has been elected to the highest office in the USA.

I read about Donald Trump because I am looking to try to find his vision for the USA’s future, some hint that he wants to unite and lead the USA, something other than the name-calling, self-obsessed behaviour I see reported in the media and evident from his own tweets.

I read in vain.  Instead, I found myself agreeing with Mr Woodward:

‘As I listened, I was struck by the vague directionless nature of Trump’s comments.’

And with this:

‘Our conversation had gone from interview to confrontation.  He did not seem to understand or accept my central point – the President of the United States had no business asking for a criminal investigation of his political opponent.’

And when we come to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the introduction of travel restrictions to the USA:

‘Despite the conclusive evidence that at least five other people wanted the restrictions – Fauci, Azar, Redfield, O’Brien and Pottinger – in an interview March 19, President Trump told me he deserved exclusive credit for the travel restrictions from China.’

What motivates the man, I wonder, that he needs to rewrite history in this way?  The best leaders seek (and take) advice from experts.  It is a strength to do so, not a weakness.  And it is a courtesy to acknowledge others.

I kept reading.  The USA is a divided nation, and whoever wins the US Presidential election in November 2020 will struggle to reduce the divisions.  I fear that Donald Trump will be re-elected: his supporters think that they have nothing to lose, his opponent will struggle to gain traction in an environment where any publicity (no matter how negative) is good publicity.  And Donald Trump is an expert in gaining publicity.

My conclusion?  I agree entirely with Mr Woodward’s conclusion:

‘When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Here Until August by Josephine Rowe

‘It strikes me that this is what strangers do.  Make offerings before stepping over the threshold of another’s house.  That is what we are now.’

Ten short stories about time.  About living and remembering, about recounting events.  Set across the world: different locations, different people with different experiences.  I read each story, take it in, imagine what came before or what might happen next.  The people (and events) become real.

How does Ms Rowe do this?

‘Sinkers’ took me to the Snowy Mountains, where the drowned town of Adaminaby lies under Lake Eucumbene.  And reminded me of the other drowned towns of Jindabyne and Talbingo.  But it is not the landscape which held my attention in this story (familiar as it is) but the impact on people.

‘Chavez’, a longer story, took me into the world of an agoraphobic woman looking after her neighbour’s dog.  It is meant to be for a short period only, but events elsewhere in the world have an impact.

Returning to the first story, ‘Glisk’, I learn that a ‘glisk’ is a Scots word meaning glance or a twinkling. And in this story, there are two events which take place in an instant and which are important in the life of Fynn, whose story is being narrated by his half-brother Raf.  Lives are changed, defined, and sometimes destroyed by such moments.

 People move across the world, into and out of the lives of others.  Relationships and perceptions evolve.  Time is not static, nor is it linear.  I have mentioned three stories and perhaps they are my favourites for now.  But when I reread these stories, and I know I will, my focus may shift. 

‘This is not what we do.  This is not how we get close to each other, by making ourselves seem defective enough to safely befriend.’

If you enjoy beautifully written self-contained short stories that invite you to think, then you may enjoy this book as much as I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis

‘Dolores wasn’t the name her mother had given her when she arrived in the world.  Feet first.’

We meet Dolores outside a convent in June.  She is sixteen, she is ill, she falls, she is taken in.  Who is Dolores, and where did she come from?

‘When does Dolores’ story begin?  From the first memory and then again from each variation of that same memory that comes after.  Dolores was always reaching towards her past.  Cold hands grasping in the dark.  She was always gesturing, somewhat slyly, towards her future.  If anything, her story must start somewhere in the middle.’

We never learn Dolores’s real name, even though we spend quite a bit of time with her in the past.  Dolores is not (and will not be) the first young woman to be beguiled by the first young man to show her attention.  But Angelo’s interest is transactional rather than romantic, and then he offers Dolores to others.  Dolores becomes pregnant, Angelo abandons her and does not answer her calls.

‘How many times did she call before his phone was switched off?  Twenty, maybe more.’

Dolores travels to her cousin in Seville.

‘In another hemisphere, on the other side of the world.’

We never know where Dolores came from.  This part of the past is not shared with us.  It is enough to know that Dolores made an escape (of sorts) although I wonder if her mother suspected her pregnancy and agreed to let her visit her cousin (and persuaded her husband to agree) after Dolores’s cousin paid the airfare.  I wonder, but it is not an important detail.

In the convent, Dolores seems to find some comfort in the rituals.  It is a small convent with elderly nuns, with a few novices seeking to take vows.  She remembers the past and seems to be ignoring what is ahead.  But there are dangers, even in a convent.

And the ending?  What choice does Dolores have? What does she want to do?

I read this in one sitting because I needed to know how it would end.  I felt sorry for Dolores.  I wanted to know those parts of her story hidden from us: the dreams and ambitions of the young woman we only know as Dolores.  I wanted to know what her future might hold.  Would she return to (and remain in) the convent?

This is Ms Curtis’s first book, and what a powerful story it is.  Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2020

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