The Everybody Reads project, focusing on Stubborn Twig, the story of a Japanese immigrant family, reminds me of another immigrant story I read not so very long ago -- All That Matters by Wayson Choy. It is 1926 and from the deck of a ship, Kiam-Kim, First Son, sees the distant peaks of Gold Mountain near Vancouver, British Columbia. He is three years old. He, his Father and Grandmother Poh-Poh have been sent away from their Toishan village to Canada to escape the famine and civil wars raging in China. Sponsored by Third Uncle, they are to find work and send back money to help the ones left behind. Every sojourner is expected to return to their home in China when things improve. As things happen, the family does not return to China, but settles into the Chinatown community in Vancouver.

This story of First Son growing up in the 1930s and 1940s Vancouver is filled with tales of Old China, ghosts, war, cultural divisions, “face” and family honor, ancient traditions and a mixed race triangle.

I liked the story so much that I next read The Jade Peony which is actually the first book in this family's story. Sister Jook-Liang dreams of becoming Shirley Temple and escaping the ways of old China; adopted Second Brother Jung-Sum struggles with his sexuality and finds his way through boxing; third brother Sekky, not comfortable with the old ways, plays war games with his friends. He comes to understand the tragedy of real war when his 17-year-old babysitter dates a Japanese man.

I later learned that 18 years after watching his mother die in a hospital, the author Wayson Choy received a phone call from a woman claiming that she has see his "real mother" on a streetcar. He recounts his search for the truth about his family secrets in Paper Shadows: A Memoir of a Past Lost and Found. This intriguing story complements and enriches the reading of his two novels.

Have you ever started a book and thought, "I don't like these characters or the way this story seems to be developing." only to keep reading and by the time you arrived at the last page thought, "Wow, that was a good book"? This happened to me as I read the 2007 Giller Prize winner, Late Nights on Air by the Canadian Elizabeth Hay.

I didn't much care for the characters - Harry, the washed up station manager of a radio station in Yellowknife that is soon to be replaced by a television station; self destructive Dido who has fled her affair with her father-in-law and now is torn between two other men; Gwen, the newcomer, so unsure of herself, but assigned to learn about radio broadcasting by covering the late night shift; Eleanor, lonely and wondering if it is time to leave Yellowknife; Eddy, the charming, but secret misogynist; Ralph, "a man of books and pockets, and pockets stretched out of shape by books."

Disturbing emotional and sexual upheavals and undercurrents in the first part of the book almost made me quit reading. I persevered and came to realize Elizabeth Hay's power to cast a spell.

The characters interact against a backdrop of a great change that may come to the Northwest Territories. 1975 is the year that a judge is making an inquiry into the proposed construction of a gas pipeline across the Canadian North that would threaten the environment and the native way of life, the year before a television station begins to broadcast in Yellowknife, the year before great changes come to the area.

Inspired by a radio drama of John Hornby, who traveled throughout the Northwest Territory before starving to death, Gwen, Harry, Eleanor and Ralph embark on a canoe journey to retrace Hornby's route. In the descriptions of this journey, the whole area becomes another character in the book.  The book becomes a meditation on the fragility of life and love, and fighting against the odds.

Later, Gwen is musing on the fate of a forlorn fox who has invaded her urban neighborhood. "The phrase that came to her mind was 'the long and sudden of it.' We go on and on through the long months of our lives until we hit a sudden moment that stuns us...By the battle-scarred look of him, he'd been fighting against the odds for a long while...The fox had seemed magical to her. A creature from one world passing through another."

How perfectly she sums up this lovely book.

I've found a good book for people who like to read travelogues. In the Steps of St. Paul by H.V. Morton is a gem. Not only is it a good introduction to the travels of St. Paul, but also a modern (1936) travel journey complete with humor and wonderful scenes of interaction between the author and the people that he meets.

The author is visiting the Turkish city of Konya and has found a modest-looking hotel owned by Russians:

At dinner that night a smiling, collarless waiter placed before me a roughly-hewn scrap of meat and potatoes which had been painfully cut into thin slices and then subjected, before a slight heating, to a bath in one of the more revolting oils. From the expression of eager expectancy on the faces of waiter, proprietor and proprietor's wife, I gathered that this was either a speciality or a death verdict. Sawing off a portion, I took an apprehensive mouthful, whereupon the waiter bowed, grinning all over his face, and the proprietor came forward and, also bowing, pointed to my plate, and said with some difficulty:

'Beef-roast!'

Then I realized that in this far-off place the pathetic sweetness of the human heart, that transcends all barriers of race, had devised a little compliment to England. I rose and told them in sign language that the meat was superb. They laughed and bowed with delight. And when the room was empty for a moment, a little hungry dog that had slipped beneath the table was a friend in need and -- indeed!

And who can resist wanting to travel to the islands of the Aegean Sea after reading a description like this?

I have seen the islands of the Aegean dried up like last year's walnuts, seamed and wrinkled by the heat of the sun, their moisture sucked up and hidden in the fruit of the fig-tree, the melon, and the pomegranate. But in the spring these islands sing to the sound of torrents falling through pinewoods to the sea. They shine like emeralds, green with growing corn, with fig-leaves like green fingers held to the sun, with vine-leaves running over the ground like small green fires of the earth.

Reading the introduction to In the Steps of St Paul by Bruce Feiler, I was reminded that he has written his own book of travels in Bible lands called Walking the Bible. It will be interesting to compare his viewpoint to the very British attitudes of H. V. Morton.
 

When baking a cake, do you know why room temperature ingredients are essential? The science is that "adding cold ingredients will cause the batter to "seize," or shrink and deflate, which will compromise the cake's texture, making it dense instead of light."

This is just one of the many explanations in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. She is famous for using locally grown, seasonal vegetables at her Chez Panisse restaurant. This latest book is filled with her ideas about using the freshest ingredients, cooking simply and making the meal one of delightful togetherness. And, she recommends tasting as you cook. What's not to like?

Nearly every chapter explains something about why we do this or that in the kitchen. Do you know any other books that explain the science of cooking or baking? 

I've found another book to add to the library list Slender Stories for Long Summer Days.

Mr Fooster Traveling on a Whim: A Visual Novel by Tom Corwin is an allegory of a young man who ventures out into the world with a sense of childlike wonder, a letter from his uncle in his pocket, his compass and an old bottle of bubble soap. He muses as he walks along, "Why were ducks so fuel-efficient? How come you never see baby pigeons? Who figured out how to eat artichokes?"

It is a quirky little story with a series of surprises. It is about noticing, about paying attention and expanding the senses.

The expressive illustrations look almost like woodcuts. Created with ink pens and artist's brushes, Craig Frazier, the illustrator has added much to the charm of the book. He is also the illustrator of Stanley Mows the Lawn,  which you'll find in the picture book section of your library.

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