“What was this book about?”

JacketBooks on Tap read The Ten Thousand Things  by Maria Dermoût at Champion Brewery on December 8. None of us had read of it before, but a few of had seen it mentioned in Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The book takes its title from a Tang Dynasty poem and for the astute reader sets the theme: all of life is connected and repetitive. One very observant reader caught on to the fact that it is technically a frame novel, starting and ending with commemorations of the dead.

Written by a woman born in Java to a Dutch family that had been in the area for four generations, the novel is both European and Indonesian with strong influences from local folklore, Buddhism and natural philosophy. It is likely set on Ambon Island in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia (formerly the Spice Islands), where Dermoût lived and where her son was born. She details the natural beauty of the area, describing the Small Garden-cum-plantation where generations of the Dutch Kleyntjes family has lived, the seashells, the flora and the landscape. This close observation draws on the work of naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius who worked on Ambon and the area’s animism and Buddhism. It also lends a magical realism flavor and makes the book timeless and out of time.

What there is of a plot centers around Felicia, the granddaughter of the Small Garden owner. Told by her grandmother to have courage, she leaves with her weak father and rich mother for Europe, has a disastrous marriage and returns alone to the Small Garden with her young son. Grandmother and granddaughter work closely to raise money using the products of the plantation and selling them in the town on the main part of the island. Felicia’s son grows up, joins the army (against the grandmother’s wishes) and is killed in service, a death Felicia brands a murder. It’s murder that connects the other plots, and it is these victims who join Felicia at the commemorations at the start and finish of the book. At the climax, Felicia truly listens to her son (although he is dead) and for the first time has empathy for the murderers and their victims. She only glimpses this universal balance with the perspective of age but does seem to be newly committed to it.

So what were we drawn to in this unusual novel? The atmospheric descriptions made us want to visit the island. Its tight focus also seems accurate for remote island life. The duality running throughout the book kept it interesting: it isn’t clear if all the murder victims were in fact murdered, if the traveling bibi cursed the family, if Raden had more than a filial relationship to his step-mother, if the Commissioner had a wife, if the three girls are the same as the ones in the nightlight or if Pauline killed the sailor (and if so, the right one). This duality was also see more subtly in such things as Felicia’s name (her grandmother thought it a jinx and Felicia certainly had sorrow in her life) and the black mussel sauce and the white mussel sauce the grandmother is known for.

The novel is strongly matrilineal, with the women controlling the action even in chapters focused on men. Raden cannot continue in school because his step-mother refuses to sell her jewelry to fund him, the women in the Commissioner’s household may have murdered him but definitely close ranks after his death and Constance and Pauline are at the heart of the household supposedly run by the official and Moses. Raden was of particular interest as a Indonesian student working for a European professor. Before starting the book some of us were worried that this 1955 book set in Indonesia written by a white woman would be contain ugly racism. However, Dermoût gives voice to all characters and upended our expectations. While not perfect, it is an intriguing look at a time and place we hadn’t read much about and ends on a realistically hopeful note.

More Information:
About the author
About the book
Ambon Island map
Naturalist Georg Eberhard  Rumphius
River of Doubt by Candice Millard (similarities to Professor)
Speaking of islands, information about the USVI’s hurricane recovery needs

Books on Tap Information:

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Books for Better Baking

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Whether you’re looking for some new recipes to spice up the holidays or just want to become a more efficient baker, the library has many different books to help you out. Try one of these baking cookbooks for insight and inspiration:

The Fearless Baker: Simple Secrets for Baking Like a Pro by Erin Jeanne McDowell – A popular baking columnist for the online community Food52 explains how to master, innovate and personalize favorite baking recipes, including Apple Cider Pie and Strawberry Popovers, through the mastery of the principles behind how ingredients interact.

A New Way to Bake from the kitchens of Martha Stewart – A collection of classic recipes inspired by recent trends in healthier ingredients, from whole-grain and nut flours to alternate milks and sweeteners.

One Pan & Done: Hassle-Free Meals From the Oven to Your Table by Molly Gilbert – A follow-up to Sheet Pan Suppers shares 135 new recipes for single-pot meals, instructing busy home cooks on how to make creative variations of meat and vegetable dishes as well as a variety of treats.

BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks – A collection of recipes and variations that celebrates classic American desserts, covering everything from chocolate chip cookies and ice cream sodas to fudge brownies and blueberry muffins.

The Harvest Baker by Ken Haedrich – A collection of sweet and savory recipes that incorporate a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and herbs into all types of baking features such options as muffins, scones, flatbreads, calzones, cookies, cakes, and pies.

Better Baking: Wholesome Ingredients, Delicious Desserts by Genevieve Ko – A seasoned baker offers secrets for making desserts that are healthy but put taste first, using flavorful whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruit and the right balance of butter, oil, and sugar.

The Everyday Baker: Recipes & Techniques for Foolproof Baking by Abigail Johnson Dodge – over 150 recipes, with step-by-step photographs, for the home baker, including donuts, scones, cookies, turnovers, pies, cakes, baguettes, croissants, and tarts, complemented by must-know tips and techniques.

Baking Chez Moi: Recipes From My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere by Dorie Greenspan – A collection of simple contemporary French dessert recipes, including Parisian macarons, bubble eclairs, fall-market galette, and apple tarte flambâee.

“Edison gets the audience. Westinghouse gets the excellence. Tesla gets the ideas.”

lastdaysofnightThe Brown Bagger’s discussed Academy-Award winning author Graham Moore’s second novel, The Last Days of Night on November 16. The historical-fiction centered on the light bulb rivalry between inventors George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. Of course Nikola Tesla had a role in this war of currents, but the novel followed Westinghouse’s young lawyer, Paul Cravath, and his quest to win an impossible lawsuit against Thomas Edison.

Both Westinghouse and Edison wanted their current to provide electricity to America- Edison tried to discredit Westinghouse’s Alternating Current by saying it was dangerous, so that he could supply America with his Direct Current. However, it was proven that A/C current was safer than D/C current. The story itself followed the actual war of currents, in a more compressed time frame. The characters in the story were well-developed- Edison was portrayed as a man who was only interested in name recognition, which he achieved, even at the loss of the company he started. Westinghouse was depicted in a kinder manner, and as someone who wanted to make the best products possible. And, Tesla was portrayed as an eccentric genius who just wanted to invent and did not care about money.

Paul Cravath was fresh out of law school when he took this case, and while he was smart, he was inexperienced and made some mistakes. However, by taking Westinghouse as a client he was introduced to the more glamorous side of New York and meets Agnes Huntington, an opera singer with a mysterious past. Cravath had to take continually bigger risks throughout the lawsuit but doing so meant that he would change as a person, and possibly lose those that he cared about.

The Brown Baggers overwhelmingly loved this novel! Many felt that the book provided a great background on the history of light bulbs and the nuances of patents. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter made the content even more relevant for today’s world and most agreed that the writing was very descriptive- almost as if it were a screenplay. There was a lot of legalese in the book, but not so much that it was hard to follow. Many felt that the novel was both emotional and fascinating- it was a page turner!

Reviews of the novel:
New York Times Book Review
Washington Post

Interview with the author:
NPR

Books mentioned during the discussion:
The Riverkeepers by John Cronin and Robert F. Kennedy
Thomas A. Edison, Young Inventor by Sue Guthridge

The Brown Baggers will meet again on December 21 at 12pm to select titles for the next 12 months- bring a treat to share and participate in the *book swap (new this year) if you want!

*Book swap- bring a book or two to trade- any leftover books will be donated to the Friends of the Library Booksale.