Monday, July 27, 2020

Jenny Has Five Questions for Author Rachel Lynn Solomon


Okay, I admit that lots of YA authors have earned the title of my favorite, depending on what book I’m reading at the moment, but today I’m thrilled to welcome one of my super star favorite YA authors, Rachel Lynn Solomon, to the Boswellians Blog! The stories Rachel creates are always rich with a complexity of emotions, meaning you'll be thinking about the choices her characters make long after you've turned the last page. Her lovely and expressive writing caught my attention in 2018 with the publication of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, a heart-wrenching story of a messy sibling relationship that left me in tears (always a plus!) She followed up the next year with Our Year of Maybe, which has a fabulous new cover in paperback. When Sophie’s gift of a kidney frees Peter to follow dreams that don’t include his best friend, Sophie is devastated and forced to rethink everything she’s expected and planned for. 

I’m so excited to chat about Rachel’s new book Today Tonight Tomorrow, which takes her usual complicated, beautifully drawn characters and blends in cleverly written, laugh-out-loud banter. High school rivals Neil (valedictorian) and Rowan (salutatorian) have no idea how adorable they are together (or that everyone assumes they’re hooking up). The two go all out to best each other one last time before college in an all-night journey of self discovery, non-stop bickering, and something that might be simmering passion (or just close proximity in too many dark places) as they race through the streets of Seattle to win a senior class scavenger-hunt known as Howl. Publishers Weekly gave Today Tonight Tomorrow a starred review, saying, “This funny, tender, and romantic book is fresh and wholly satisfying.” 

JENNY CHOU: Rachel, thank you so much for joining me on the Boswellian’s Blog! I always like to start by finding out about the problems the main character is facing, because it doesn’t matter if an author is writing picture books, middle grade, or YA, every protagonist stumbles over some sort of obstacle on her way to the end of the book. I adore Rowan, and she sure has a lot going on! Tell us about her. 

RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON: Thank you so much for having me, Jenny! You’ve been such a champion of my books, and I’m tremendously grateful. Rowan is probably my favorite character I’ve written. She’s a Type-A overachiever, co-president of the student council, and secretly: an aspiring romance novelist. I’m always drawn to ambitious characters, and the challenge here was writing someone with this very clear goal who’s also deeply afraid of people judging her for it. Rowan is optimistic, a bit of a dreamer, and sometimes she’s so enamored with her vision of the future that she struggles to slow down and enjoy what’s going on right in front of her. 

Over the past four years, she’s also maintained a rivalry with Neil, her co-president and perennial headache. She’s convinced she despises him, even though she texts him every day and thinks about him constantly. Spending so much time in close proximity during these last twenty-four hours of high school causes a lot of new feelings to develop (or maybe latent feelings to surface) as they shed their insecurities and question what the future holds for them, both separately and together.

JC: What do you hope readers, and especially teens, take away from Today Tonight Tomorrow?

RLS: At its core, this is a book about being open and honest -- with yourself, with your friends, with the enemy who maybe isn’t an enemy anymore. It’s about embracing what you love without shame, which society unfortunately, unfairly, and disproportionately attaches to the interests of teens and women above all other groups. Mostly, though, I hope Today Tonight Tomorrow brings readers joy. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing a book, and I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

JC: Your writing in Today Tonight Tomorrow feels like a love letter to Seattle, the city where you write, tap dance, collect red lipstick, and live with your husband and your tiny dog. While reading about Rowan and Neil and their internal journey of self-discovery, I was just as fascinated by their literal journey to Seattle’s one-of-a-kind, sometimes kitschy landmarks. The Gum Wall. Orange Dracula Dimestore. Rainbow crosswalks. The Red Hall. The not-to-be-missed Best View in Seattle. What advice do you have for writers trying to create such an evocative setting, the way you did?

RLS: I’m so glad to hear that! I’ve always been drawn to stories that are love letters to cities, and from the beginning, that was what I wanted this book to be. There’s much more to a city than its geography - there’s a feeling you get when your heart pulses along with downtown traffic or a raspberry sunset caps off a perfect summer day. Exploring how your characters relate to their setting also helps it become a character itself. What do they love about it? What annoys them? What would they make fun of about it? What would only a local know about it?

Rowan in particular is terrified of leaving Seattle and everything she knows, and though she has a summer ahead of her before she goes to college, this night sort of functions as a goodbye to this place she’s spent her whole life.


JC: If you could tell your naive, unpublished past self anything about querying agents, selling your novel, working with an editor, or anything else about the sometimes mystifying world of publishing, what would it be?

RLS: The goalpost is always moving. I used to get trapped in thinking that if I just made it to the next step of my career, whatever that happened to be, then I’d feel professionally fulfilled. But as soon as you get to that next step, there’s something else you want. I was a little like Rowan in that way - I thought so much about the future that I struggled to celebrate my successes because I was always playing the comparison game.

It took me a while to accept this aspect of publishing and to even embrace it. Yes, the goalpost is always moving, but that also means that as a writer, I’m always improving, always pushing myself. It’s still surreal that I have my dream job, and I want to enjoy the writing itself as much as I can.

JC: Let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! Are there any new releases you’re super excited about and would like to suggest to YA readers?

RLS: Ooh, this is a fun one! Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan - the first chapter is the most adorable meet-cute I’ve read in YA, and the book contains so many important conversations about mental health. (The author includes content warnings on her website.) And then I’ll cheat a little with something that isn’t out yet - I loved Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest, a delightful contemporary YA romance that reminded me of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and releases at the end of August.

JC: Thank you for joining me on the blog, Rachel! To keep up with Rachel Lynn Solomon’s latest writing news, including info on her upcoming adult romantic comedy debut called The Ex Talk, blog readers can follow her on Twitter at @rlynn_solomon and Instagram at rlynn_solomon.

On Thursday, July 30th, our friends at Third Place Books in Seattle will host Rachel Lynn Solomon in conversation with authors Becky Albertalli (Simon VS the Homo Sapiens Agenda) and Marisa Kanter (What I Like About You) for a free virtual event. Join in the fun by registering here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Tim on Ever-Evolving History


Hi from Tim! It feels like an exciting time for teachers but also a daunting one. New and flexible teaching strategies are needed for the fall, no matter how many kids are back in classrooms, and a constant re-examination of our history is more urgent than ever.

I've always thought that history evolves. We can put up monuments, but there’s nothing permanent about the past because we keep learning personally, and historians keep uncovering new information. My 5th grade students learned about American history in detail for the first time with me. They were always shocked to hear that George Washington owned slaves his whole life, and we learned together that Thomas Jefferson had a child with a girl he owned who was 16 years old. American history can be tragic, confusing, inspiring, and funny, all at once. Before the United States was born, one Ohio Indian town apparently had a flagpole and kept both French and British flags on hand, flying a symbol of loyalty to whichever army was nearby as Europeans fought to control the continent. Our history presents teachers with an enormous challenge, to look at both the greatness and the horror of our nation from a racially diverse set of viewpoints. The good news is that our truth is certainly not boring, and also that we have a diverse group of skilled authors writing fiction and non-fiction history for children. These are just a few of those engaging books to help them as they begin understanding us.

Virginia Hamilton is a Newbery Award winner who isn't well know these days but wrote the greatest historical novel for middle level kids (ages 10 to 13 or so) that I've ever read. The House of Dies Drear is the story of a boy named Thomas whose history professor father moves the family into an Ohio home that served as a station on the underground railroad. From the moment they arrive, something is wrong, and the spooky plot takes on elements of mystery and suspense. This house must be haunted. The reason is amazing, and along the way we learn details about the subtle ways escaped slaves navigated to freedom.

Christopher Paul Curtis is one of our finest middle grade writers. The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963 is an excellent novel, funny, intense, a little raw, and climactic as the Watson family takes their troubled teenager from Michigan to Alabama in order to straighten him out at grandma's house. They end up in the middle of perhaps the greatest tragedy of the civil rights era. It's a story told with heart by 10 year old Kenny, so it was perfect for my fifth graders as they learned about America. Curtis also won the Newbery for Bud, Not Buddy, a depression era novel of a ten year old boy who runs from foster care looking for his father, and Elijah of Buxton, set in a Canadian town founded by escaped slaves from the American south.

Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963, by Sharon Robinson, is the story of the year Sharon turned 13, in January of 1963. It was a world-changing, heartbreaking year for the civil rights movement, and she lived at its center. Her father, the baseball legend and lifelong activist Jackie Robinson, was deeply involved with raising money for the cause, working side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, so Sharon heard firsthand about the roller coaster ride of the movement. This is an enlightening story of the pivotal year in American history, but it's equally a tender story about the loving family of an American hero and the story of a girl just becoming a young woman. The book is honest and clearly explains ideas of racial inequality in ways that children will understand. It's a gift to lovers of history and baseball.



Joseph Bruchac was my go-to author for middle grade and young adult books written from a First Nations perspective. His exceptional writing ability and prolific writing production, along with his own Abenaki ancestry, gave his books the quality and credibility that made me keep going back. He's probably best known for the novel Code Talker, about a Navajo teenager who joins the Marines during WWII. It's based on a true top secret project. The Navajo's Indigenous language was used as a code so complex it couldn't be cracked by the Japanese. Bruchac's biographies, such as Sacajawea and Pocahontas, are riveting, and his horror stories based on Native American legend, such as Skeleton Man and The Dark Pond, were creepy enough to delightfully frighten my 5th grade reluctant readers. Look for his Peacemaker, coming in October, a story of how warring nations came together to form the Iroquois Confederacy because of one man's legendary persuasive power.

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, is the beautifully written story of a girl born to wealth on her family's Mexican ranch, a girl accustomed to care from servants until tragedy changes everything. Esperanza flees to California with her mother during the Great Depression, and settles in a farm workers' camp where the labor and constant danger are like nothing she's ever faced. It's a story of survival by force of will and also a story of love for family above all else. Esperanza is an inspiration! My students also loved Muñoz Ryan's Riding Freedom, about a girl raised in a boys' orphanage during the mid-1800's who had a special gift with horses, and she wanted to do things which weren't legal for women of the time. She figured out a way!

Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park, is richly developed Americana, and I am deeply grateful! In her author's note, Park says it's a story she's been writing nearly all her life. "It is an attempt to reconcile my childhood love of the Little House books with my adult knowledge of their painful shortcomings." To reconcile the attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's characters toward people of color while honoring the books, Park gives us 14-year-old Hanna, the half Asian daughter of a white father and a mother who was both Chinese and Korean. After her mother's tragic illness and death, Hanna and her father leave California in 1880 for the Dakota Territory, where four Little House books were also set. Hanna will need all the loving wisdom Mama gave her in order to be strong in the face of challenges and injustices from people who have never lived around a Chinese person and react very badly. Newbery Medal winner Linda Sue Park has given us a beautiful picture of a girl who is strong and determined, a girl who will search for ways to treat everyone justly, and to find just treatment for herself.

Who Got Game? Baseball: Amazing but True Stories, by Derrick Barnes, gives kids who love baseball a reason to get excited during a time when the game is on hold and also a way to learn important history. Barnes, the award-winning author of the picture books Crown and The King of Kindergarten, tells stories that are each brief but dramatic, and clearly laid out for understanding. It makes this a nice book to share with early readers, and it will also interest kids up to 12 years old. These stories are often not about the usual big names but rather about the underdogs who succeeded, the great comebacks, the courage of people like the Negro League players who were pushed aside but made it into baseball anyway, and of course the strange statistics that baseball lovers talk about endlessly. It's funny, and fascinating! Barnes belts it out of the park!

There are also many picture books which add to the study of history. The one I've loved the most lately is called A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation, written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, the brilliant children's book artist who has received far too many awards to list. It's a behind-the-scenes look at how Dr. King wrote and delivered the I Have a Dream speech, a visually spectacular and highly informative view of the historical context and the people surrounding Dr. King that day. With the depth of information, this is probably not for the youngest picture book crowd, but I feel that anyone interested in the topic will love it, at any age.

I also admire a more recent picture book by the team of Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, the pair who won both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards for a sweet story called Last Stop on Market Street. Their Carmela Full of Wishes shows us Carmela making birthday wishes, with the help of her brother, her birthday bracelets, and a fuzzy dandelion from a sidewalk crack. She's finally old enough to move through the neighborhood with her brother on an errand day, and her most important wish is that dad will get "his papers fixed so he could finally be home." It's lovely in every way! And we have lots of copies, with signed bookplates, of an important new picture book by the same illustrator, Christian Robinson, about life in all its forms, called You Matter.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Jenny on Christian Robinson's School Visit - You Matter!


You Matter.

These two simple words give Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson's new picture book its title, but they also send an important message to readers: We are all connected, and we all matter. At the beginning of June, Boswell hosted the final school event of the semester with students from Elmbrook and Glendale / River Hills elementary schools, and Christian visited us virtually from his home in California. He started the conversation by telling kids that he wanted to say 'you matter' with words but also show it with pictures.

Christian has illustrated books by many authors, but only recently began writing his own stories. The result is a book filled with empathy for others, from the giant T-Rex who can't scratch his mosquito bite to an astronaut looking down at earth, far from home. The collage artwork is bright and cheerful and does a beautiful job capturing emotions familiar to all of us.

Through writing You Matter, Christian had a lot of fun finding his own voice. He went on to tell kids about his love for drawing and creating art, and how right now, with so much anxiety in the world, his studio is his happy place. next, we all got a virtual tour so we could see his paper for sketching and working his ideas out, and the pictures pinned to his wall that give Christian a sense of how a project is coming together.

Click this sentence to follow its link and watch a short video clip of Christian working on You Matter in his studio.

Christian told students about his background. He was born in Los Angeles in 1986. His grandmother raised Christian and his brother in a tiny apartment they shared with two cousins and his aunt. With all that family crowded around, there wasn't much room to call his own. Christian loved to draw pictures, and art was a way of creating his own space. On the page, he was able to have some say over what the world could look like. Now he lives in Sacramento with his boyfriend, John, and their cute but sassy greyhound, Baldwin.

Christian read his delightful book, You Matter, to the audience, too!

Then he talked about using a storyboard to create a book, because he likes to start small, with pictures drawn on Post-It notes. He doesn't worry about getting everything right in the beginning. The little notes are perfect for making lots of mistakes. He spent two years working on this book, writing and rewriting. He loves working with different materials. For his collages, he uses construction paper and glue.

After his presentation, Christian took the time to answer questions from the students. They had lots - a total of 1806, in fact! No, he didn't get to them all, but here's the first great questions he answered:

Q: What book are you working on now?

A: Christian just turned the illustrations for Milo Imagines the World (Coming in Feb, 2021!), a new book written by Matt de la Peña about a boy and a girl on a train who are going to visit their mother in prison. The boy imagines stories for all the passengers, and one of those stories has a surprising ending. Christian thinks, and I agree, that it's really important to tell the stories of kids going through all sorts of things.

Christian ended his presentation with a drawing demonstration and a reminder to kids everywhere that they matter. You Matter is now a New York Times bestseller! Follow Christian Robinson on Instagram and on Twitter.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Jen Finds Fantasy's Roots in Mythology, Fairy Tales, and Folklore


I’m more of a fantasy reader if I have to chose a seat under under the whole Sci/Fi Fantasy umbrella. I loved reading Greek myths when I was younger, and reading fantasy books that incorporate myths or folklore are my jam.

What do I think of as a myth? How about -  a classic or legendary story that usually focuses on a particular hero or event to explain mysteries of nature, existence, or the universe without much basis in fact. Myths exist in every culture; a culture’s collective myths make up its mythology. Here are some fantastical books that bring myths jumping right out of the page!

City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is one of my favorites. The first in the Daevabad trilogy*, this lyrical historical fantasy brings to vivid life ancient mythological traditions of an Islamic world. Set in the 18th century Egypt, a young woman with an uncanny gift for healing unleashes a supernatural being and sets in motion an otherworldly adventure.

*Side Note - Book 3, The Empire of Gold was just released June 30th.


Another example of mythology making its way into a fantasy novel is Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone. The first in the Legacy of Orisha series that's set in a kingdom with traditions and mythology reminiscent of Nigeria and greater West Africa. Eleven years ago, Zelie’s mother was murdered on the night magic left her people, a night known simply as “The Raid.” The brutal King Saran ordered the slaughter of all Maji, thus keeping the next generation under his heel. But that was then, and this is now. By coincidence or maybe divine intervention, Zelie has a chance to restore magic to her people. It’s a long and treacherous journey - one that will change Zelie and her companions forever. A compelling tale filled with magic, betrayals, danger, and heroines who are forces to be reckoned with. Children of Blood and Bone is explosive, and I loved everything about it!

Next, is from Silvia Garcia Moreno. Her latest, Mexican Gothic is a Gothic novel and not a fantasy. But I enjoyed it so much that it made me want to read more of her works.

I think I’ll dive into Gods of Jade and Shadow, which is a fantasy steeped in mythology and is out now in paperback! The Mayan God of Death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore. The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. Yet a new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true. In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatâan to the bright lights of Mexico City and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Moving on to Fairy Tales, which I think of as a story often intended for children that features fanciful and wondrous characters such as elves, goblins, wizards, and even, but not necessarily, fairies. Fairy tales are often traditional; many were passed down from storyteller to storyteller before being recorded in books.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (the first in The Winternight Trilogy) is an enchanting mix of fairy tale, fantasy, and historical fiction, set in medieval Russia. Nestled between the northern wilderness and civilization is a village where old and new traditions live side by side. Vasya, the last daughter of Pyotr and Marina, is born on the howling winds of autumn. She is different from the others in her village. Like her grandmother, she is gifted with powers that are her birthright. As time goes by, Vasya will be tested. Caught in the conflict between the old spirits and the new religion, Vasya must do everything in her power to save her family and village. Katherine Arden’s novel is a rich, mesmerizing novel. It’s the fairy tale you’ve been waiting for!

Another topic that interests me is Folklore, which refers to tales people tell. Traditionally passed down by word of mouth rather than written in books, though many books have been written with folk stories as their inspiration.

One awesome collection is A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman. It’s a collection of short stories by sixteen bestselling and award-winning authors who reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia. This collection has something for everyone, from fantasy to science fiction to contemporary stories of spirits, magic, family, love, and heartbreak are combined with elements from modern teens’ lives. In a starred review, Kirkus calls this “An incredible anthology that will keep readers on the edges of their seats, wanting more.”

The stories are endless when it comes to reading Fantasy books that draw from folklore, myths, and fairy tale elements, which can make for an enriching reading experience. Be prepared to fall down the rabbit hole.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Madi Loves Crime! The True Crime Blog


From Madi: I have never been shy to talk about my love of true crime. Books, documentaries, podcasts, anything dissecting and exploring the subject will have my attention. So even though an entire bookshelf of my very small apartment is full of different true crime books, I keep buying and reading more. But I noticed something about my collection: almost all of the books are black and red. Yes, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is black and yellow, and The Stranger Beside Me is more of a musty blue, but it is still overwhelmingly red and black. So I took a look in my macabre assortment and picked out some of the best reads that also happen to color coordinate.

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith was one of the first true crime books I ever read. I listened to it on audio book during a cross country drive - you know, to relax. It was so enthralling and so terrifying that it cemented true crime as my new favorite genre. I actually don’t own my own copy, as I didn’t want a short and squat bright yellow mass market. But recently, I was going through our true crime section when I found a new edition that - surprise! - is a red and black paperback. It still includes pictures of the ciphers and notes sent to San Francisco newspapers, just now in a more appealing red and black form. Of course, the stylish cover is just an added plus - the book itself is definitely one of my favorite true crime books ever written.

If you’re looking for more of a true crime anthology, I suggest yet another black and red book: Unsolved Murders by Amber Hunt and Emily G. Thompson. This book includes some famous examples like the Zodiac Killer and the Black Dahlia, it also includes some lesser known murders that are still shrouded in mystery. I have been knee deep in my crime obsession for about four years now, and this book still introduced me to cases with which I was unfamiliar. It includes twenty-one unsolved cases in total, and it is the perfect spooky sampler.

Perhaps the best-known true crime book is the original black and red tome: Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. I tried reading this for the first time as a freshman in college, but was so scared by the crime scene photos (which are edited to be less gruesome, I might add) that I just returned it to the library so I would stop having nightmares. A few years later, I picked up another copy and couldn’t stop reading. Though it is admittedly one sided since Bugliosi was Manson’s prosecutor, it is regarded as the truth behind the Manson cult and the infamous murders they committed in August of 1969. The little details about how the case gradually broke open still give me chills. If you are a true crime fan, this is essential reading.

There is a new book about the Manson family that just came out in paperback, and though I am admittedly only halfway through it, this bright red book has already earned a prominent place on my shelf. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill aims to find what Bugliosi missed or perhaps even omitted. I know it seems like everything that can be written about the Manson murders has been, but this book offers different angles I have yet to read about (and I spent a semester in college learning about the cult). This book solves the single perspective problem of Helter Skelter by exploring who might not have been so forthcoming during the initial investigation. It is a truly fresh take on something that happened over fifty years ago.

As strange as it might sound to categorize something true crime as a coffee table book, that’s kind of what He Had It Coming by Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather is like. It’s not full of gore like Helter Skelter (unless you are disgusted by bedazzled leotards), but it does include things like newspaper clippings and police files to get a firsthand understanding of the women who inspired the musical Chicago. It also includes how these murderesses and their crimes became a Tony winning Broadway show and an Oscar winning film, so if you enjoy murder and show tunes, you are in luck. It’s definitely the tamest of the books on this list, but still black and red and worth reading.

I know that there are so many different true crime books out there in so many different colors, but who says creepy can’t be chic? If you’re the kind of person that likes a shelf to double as décor, this is definitely a great collection that can be used as a style piece. Whether you want a classic or a new take on true crime, one thing is for sure: there’s a good chance your book will match a color theme.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Around the World in Eight Cookbooks - Part 2


You waited, he delivered - here's part 2 of Conrad's culinary journey around the globe! If you missed it, read part 1 right here or just scroll down the blog!

Smitten Kitchen​ by Deb Perelman. My daughter loves this book, and I am utterly unqualified to go against anything she has to say on the matter, so I won’t. She is, as usual, quite right. Normally, I abhor vegetarian cooking that merely substitutes vegetables for meat. Were I to become a vegetarian or vegan, I would go whole hog (so to speak) and adopt a cuisine that never really came about as an attempt to wean carnivores from meat. Having said that, I would probably bow to the inevitability of my own inconsistency, and would eat this dish.

 Mushroom Bourguignon

2 Tbs. olive oil, 2 Tbs. butter, softened, 2 Lbs. mushrooms (criminis or portabellas, something dark and earthy), in chunks, 1 Cup pearl onions (or just a bunch of white onions cut into small chunks … let’s face it, peeling all those tiny onions is more trouble than they’re worth. Or I guess you could always buy them frozen.), ½ Carrot, diced fine (or you could even, GASP, use a whole carrot!!!!), 1 small yellow onion, finely diced, 1 Tsp. fresh thyme (or dried), Salt and pepper to taste, 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 cup red wine (the better the wine, the better the result …),  2 Tbs. tomato paste, 2 Cups broth (mushroom broth, if you can find it, otherwise any vegetable broth or even beef), 1-½ Tbs all purpose flour

In a dutch oven, over high heat, melt 1 tbs of the butter with 1 tbs of the olive oil. Sear the mushrooms and onions until they take on color (3-4 minutes). Remove from the pan. Lower heat to medium, add the 2nd tbs of oil. Add the carrot, yellow onion, thyme, and a few pinches of salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes until onions start to brown. Add garlic for 1 more minute. Add more salt and pepper. Add wine, scrape the bits of stuff from the bottom of the pan, turn the heat way up, and reduce the liquid by half (4-5 minutes). Stir in tomato paste and broth, bring to a boil, then drop heat to simmer another 10-15 minutes until everything is done. Combine flour and remaining butter, and add that. Stir together. Taste for seasoning, adjust things accordingly. Serve over egg noodles with sour cream and parsley.

This recipe comes from Sunset Mexican Cookbook​ by the Editors of Sunset Magazine - this is another of my mom’s cookbooks and I doubt it’s in print anymore - there are lots of Mexican cookbooks that would have this recipe in them. Try The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy (ed. note - currently backordered, call the store about this one if you're interested, or for another suggestion!)

Guidado de puerco con tomatillos

 Mexican food has really been on the short end of the stick when it comes to respected international cuisines. It is second to none! It is so much more than tacos and enchiladas, although, to be fair, tacos and enchiladas are pretty good eating! This dish is just ridiculously good.

2 ½ lbs boneless pork (shoulder? Tenderloin? Whatever… pretty much anything), 2 Tbs vegetable oil, 1 large onion, diced, 2 cloves garlic, minced (I use more, of course), 1 ½ Cups chopped fresh (or canned) tomatillos, 2-3 diced jalapenos or serranos or whatever type of hot, green chili peppers you like, and however many you like for flavor and heat, 1 Tsp dried marjoram, ¼ Cup chopped cilantro (okay, here I’m good with that), ½ Cup water, Salt

Trim fat from pork and cut into 1 inch cubes. Heat oil in 3-4 quart pan over medium heat. Add meat a bit at a time in batches so it browns instead of greys (all sides). Remove from the pan. Add onion and saute until translucent. Return meat with its juices. Stir in garlic, tomatillos, chilies, marjoram, cilantro, and water. Cover and simmer until meat is tender (about an hour) - you can also do this in the oven at 350 degrees.  Spoon into a bowl and serve with sour cream and cilantro sprigs.

And now to get fancy.

The Africa News Cookbook​ by Patricia Ford (this is out of print - my copy is pretty old and thumbed. Try The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent by Jessica B Harris) African cuisine is too varied for a single book to do “it” justice - this recipe is West African, specifically from Ghana.

Hkathenkwan (Groundnut Stew)

1 chicken, cut up into 7-8 pieces, or 2-3 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken cut into 2 inch cubes, 1 inch of ginger, peeled and sliced, ½ an onion, 2 Tbs. tomato paste, 1 Tbs peanut oil, 1 Cup diced onion, 1 Cup diced tomatoes, ⅔ Cup peanut butter, 2 Tsp salt 2 chilies, crushed (or 1 tsp cayenne, or to taste),
1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed, 2 Cups fresh or frozen okra, cut into rounds

Boil chicken with ginger and the ½ onion in 2 cups of water. In a separate large pot, heat peanut oil, add tomato paste, diced onion, and tomatoes. Stir occasionally and cook until onions are soft. Remove chicken from its pot and add to cooking tomatoes, also add ½ of the stock it was cooking in. Add peanut butter, salt, and chilies. Cook for 5 minutes. Add eggplants and okra. Continue cooking until everything is done. Add more broth as needed. It should be a thick stew when finished. Serve over rice.

And now to get crazy elaborate, but so worth it!

From Paella​ by Alberto Herraiz: There is no dish in the world that I like more (to cook or eat) than paella, Spain’s national dish. A paella can be really basic and simple (it developed as a way to handle leftovers) or incredibly intricate and involved. Like a tagine, paella is named after the vessel it cooks in, which is essentially a flat frying pan. You can easily make do with any flat-bottomed pan or pot you may have at hand. You need to prepare before you get down to business:

Sofrito (basically, tomato sauce)

2 Tbs olive oil, 1 tomato, diced, ½ red onion, diced, ½ red bell pepper, diced, 3 cloves garlic, minced, Salt, and pepper

Heat everything in a small pot until hot, then drop to simmer. Mash things up as they cook until you have a thick sauce, Transfer to a small food processor, and process into a sauce. Add a pinch or two of smoked paprika. Set aside until ready to use.

Fumet (basically, a broth)

Combine until you have 2 cups: ¾ Cup clam juice, 1 Cup chicken stock, and ¼ Cup white wine. Add onion skins, 6-8 black peppercorns, whole herbs, shrimp tails - whatever you think will enhance the flavor. Bring to a quick boil then drop to a simmer. Let it simmer for at least an hour. Keep adding more juice/stock/wine to stay at 2 cups. Strain out all the crud so you just have broth. Put back on super low heat. Add a pinch of saffron.

And finally, The Paella:

1 ¾ - 2 Cups fumet, ¼ Cup olive oil 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced, 15-20 medium sized shrimps (about ½-1 lb), A whole chicken in pieces or 1-2 lbs boneless skinless chicken but cut into bitesized pieces, 4-5 small pork sausages or the equivalent in Spanish (not Mexican, too spicy) chorizo or andouille), cut into rounds, ¾-1 Lb squid, about ⅔ sacs cut into rings, and the rest tentacles cut however you wish, 1 Cup bomba rice (Spanish, small grained rice that readily absorbs liquid, arborio is an okay substitute, but is really not the same thing - you could use long grain, if you must), ½ cup or slightly more of sofrito, ½ Tsp (or more) of Spanish smoked paprika, ¼-½ Tsp (or more) of saffron threads, Salt

Relax. Take a deep breath. Ready? Having made the sofrito and fumet separately, and chopped and diced everything so you have them when they are needed:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Heat olive oil in your flat bottom pan over low heat until it is hot. Turn heat up to medium and add the garlic, fry until it’s golden brown. Add the chicken to the center of the pan. Brown on all sides. Push to the edge of the pan. Add sausages. Brown. Push to edge with chicken. Add squid. Cook until the sac rings swell and become white. Push to edge with chicken and sausage. Add shrimp. Cook until they turn pink. Mix it all together. Drop heat to low and add rice. Mix thoroughly until rice is everywhere. Do not let the rice burn. Add sofrito and mix thoroughly. Add remaining paprika. Mix, you know, thoroughly. Pour in fumet. Add remaining saffron and mix (sigh) thoroughly. Cook on low for 17 minutes. Turn heat up to high, and cook for another 5 minutes. Stir constantly and don’t let it burn to the bottom of the pan. Scrape it up. Taste to make sure rice is mostly done (al dente, as it were) and for seasoning (keeping in mind that the flavors will intensify in the oven). Put it in the oven for 12 minutes. Remove and let sit for 5 minutes.

If it has slightly burned to the bottom while in the oven, you have done well! That is called the socarret (crust) and is prized as the most flavorful part of the dish. Serve with a big salad and a nice glass of sangria or fruit juice.

These books and dishes are far from comprehensive. I could have easily chosen eight different recipes from each book, or eight different books for each cuisine, or indeed, eight different cuisines. Enjoy any of these or similar recipes they may inspire. They are basically straight out of the books, but are mere launching pads for your culinary excursions. Your imagination is the only limit.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Around the World in Eight Cookbooks - Part 1


From Conrad: Cooking is an act of creation. All recipes are mere templates for endless exploration and expansion. You make the dishes your own. A good rule of thumb for making a dish you’ve never tried before is to find 2 or 3 versions of it, compare what’s the same and what’s different, and choose what looks good to make it your own. That said, the following is a list of eight dishes from eight cookbooks from eight cuisines. The dishes chosen are not necessarily representative, but are ones that I like and that, I feel, have made me a better cook. Some of these books are out of print, but any good equivalent cookbook would do.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking​ by Marcella Hazan (this is in print and is considered a, well, classic) I love her. She’s prickly and opinionated and a stickler for authenticity, but she does unbend a little for less choosy people. She staunchly defends Italy’s place among the world’s great cuisines (as though that’s in doubt). And, mostly, I adore her because she got me to challenge myself to make something other than spaghetti. While tut-tutting that any true pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, she nonetheless gives us this:

Pesto by the Food Processor Method 

2 Cups tightly packed shredded fresh basil leaves, ½ Cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 Tbs. pine nuts, 2 garlic cloves, minced, Salt, 3 Tbs. softened butter, ½ Cup freshly grated parmesan-reggiano cheese, 2 Tbs. freshly grated romano cheese

Briefly soak and wash basil leaves in cold water. Pat dry and gently shred them. Pack them into the bowl of a food processor with the olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt. Process until uniformly consistent. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the two cheeses by hand until fully incorporated. Mix in butter thoroughly.

Et voila! Pesto!! I ignore her directions and use more pine nuts, more garlic, I use whatever hard Italian cheese I have on hand (Parmesan, Romano, Pecorino, whatever), and more butter. I also don’t bother to move everything to a separate bowl and mix by hand. I just add the cheese and butter to the food processor and let it do the work. But I am a heathen.

Indian Cooking​ by Madhur Jaffrey (this particular book is out of print, but she has newer editions that are essentially the same, or even expanded on - try Madhur Jaffrey's Quick & Easy Indian Cooking or Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook). Jaffrey makes no bones about this being a version of Indian cooking utterly subverted to accommodate a Western kitchen. It’s the first cookbook she wrote, and is very much informed by her homesick desire to replicate her
mother’s cooking, after she moved to England to go to school. This dish is very simple, and has nothing to do with our usual perception of Indian cooking. It is not a curry, but it is so very flavorful and easy to prepare that you might find yourself using this recipe whenever you make green beans.

Gujerati-style Green Beans

1 lb. green beans, cut into 1-2 inch lengths, 4 Tbs. vegetable oil, 1 Tbs. whole dark brown mustard seeds, ½-1 dried red chili pepper, crushed, 1 Tsp. salt, ½ Tsp. sugar, Freshly ground black pepper

Blanch beans (boil in water for 3-4 minutes until just tender). Heat oil in a frying pan big enough to hold the whole finished dish. When hot, add mustard seeds. Fry until they start to pop. Add garlic and saute them both until garlic is fragrant and takes on color. Add chili pepper. Stir about a bit. Add beans, salt, and sugar. Saute for another 7-8 minutes or until all flavors have melded together. Add a few grinds of pepper and you’re done. Easy-peasy!!!

Tagine: Spicy Stews from Morocco​ by Ghillie Basan (I think this is in print. If not, she has another book that’s almost exactly the same - try Easy Tagine: Delicious Recipes for Moroccan One-Pot Cooking)

A tagine is an earthenware (usually) cooking vessel with a conical lid and a shallow bottom for simmering meat and/or vegetables in small amounts of liquid. If you don’t have one, any pot will do. It is eaten throughout North Africa, but regional variations can be quite different from one another. Tagines can be as varied as the individual cooks who make them.

Spicy Carrots and Chickpeas with Turmeric and Cilantro​ (I find it kind of weird that, in America at least, coriander leaves are almost always referred to as cilantro, which is the Spanish word for it).

3-4 Tbs. olive oil 1 onion, finely diced, 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced, 2 Tsps. ground turmeric, 1-2 Tsps. ground cumin seeds, 1 Tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more, depending on how hot you want to make this), ½ Tsp. ground black pepper, 1 Tbs. dark honey, 3-4 medium carrots, sliced diagonally,  2-14 oz. cans of chickpeas, 1-2 Tbs. rose water, 1 bunch of coriander leaves (sigh, cilantro), finely chopped, 1 lemon sliced into wedges

Heat oil in the base of the tagine or, you know, whatever. Add onion and garlic, and saute until soft. Add spices, black pepper, honey, and carrots (in that order, letting each bit get mixed in before adding the next). Add enough water to cover the base of the tagine (or, you know....), cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until carrots are tender. Add chickpeas, more water (if needed), and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, rose water, and cilantro. Serve over couscous with lemon wedges.

I generally omit the rose water (as I find it repulsive) and vary the amount of cayenne pepper to suit the tastes of whomever I’m sharing this with (like salt, it can always be added, but not taken away).

I use The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook​ by Gloria Bley Miller, but I’m almost certain this is out of print. My copy was given by my dad to my mom for her 45th birthday. It’s a beaten up old wreck, but I love it! Pretty much any generalized Chinese cookbook would do - try All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China or Chinese Takeout Cookbook: From Chop Suey to Sweet'n Sour, Over 70 Recipes to Recreate your Favorites.)

Stir-fry Asparagus with Sesame Seeds

1 bunch of asparagus, bottoms snapped off (as one does), sliced diagonally in 1 inch lengths, 2-3 Tbs peanut oil (or any oil that takes to high heat without becoming some horrid burned thing), 2-3 scallions, sliced thinly into rounds, 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced, ⅓ cup tamari or soy sauce, ½ Tsp. cornstarch, 1-2 Tbs. oyster sauce, ½ Tsp. sesame oil, Salt, 2-3 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds

In a small bowl, mix together the tamri, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Heat oil in a wok (or a large frying pan) until very hot. Did I say very hot? I mean, VERY hot. Add scallions and garlic. Stir about, but don’t let the garlic burn as it will become super disgusting. Add asparagus. Stir-fry until it turns bright green and softens a bit. Add the tamari mixture and stir about until asparagus is uniformly coated. Taste a piece of asparagus to make sure they’re actually cooked through. Empty into a serving bowl and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over it.

This is a pretty basic way to stir-fry almost anything. You can mix up what kind of sauce you use and end up with perfectly delightful variations for the rest of your life.

More cookbook adventures coming soon!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The South!


From Chris: Jen asked us to curate a mini-collection of themed books for a new series on the Boswell Instagram (the Jenstagram) page. And so, I set out to do just that. Why the South? Well, because it's finally getting to the point of hot and humid here in Milwaukee that someone like me, who grew up a few degrees of latitude below the great lakes, thinks it's finally beginning to feel like summer. Yes, it generally takes until mid-June here before I think, "ah, time for boat drinks."

FLORIDA!
The Blurry Years, by Eleanor Kriseman - One of my absolute indie press favorites from the last few years. It's set in the outskirts of second-rate resort towns along the Florida coast, a place the book captures so well you might just catch a whiff of sunscreen-spilt-liquor-salt-air breeze when you open the pages. It's a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up and her difficult relationship with an alcoholic mother. Kriseman isn't afraid to write into the push-pull tension of loving the place you're from but at the same time learning you'd better leave before it breaks you. Two Dollar Radio is (quite rightfully) known for their recent run of fantastic #ownvoices books, but that should be no surprise - they've always been a leader in publishing authentic voices, and Kriseman's book fits into what I think they do best - present the lives of America's white trash working class without adornment or apology.

ALABAMA!
Boys of Alabama by Genevieve Hudson - Dark, humid, sweet, dirt, football, religion, death, sex, magic - all words that describe Alabama and this book. A sensitive teenager, Max, the child of German immigrants, joins the high school football team. In a story like a fable, Hudson makes the familiar of the deep American South foreign through eyes of a German family in order to question the place’s most deep-rooted beliefs. Especially captivating is Hudson's take on the wonder and fear of sexual discovery, which is explored in passages both metaphorical and real. If you like neat and tidy, this isn't the book for you - the ending packs an emotional wallop and lives are changed irrevocably, but the hows and whys aren't always told in straight lines, or even strung together at all. That said, this moody, atmospheric novel explores a cult-like enmeshing of high school, sports, religion, and strange rituals that exposes an American region still struggling to understand itself.

MISSISSIPPI!
The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee - Well, if you’ve ever said to yourself, ‘Man, I sure wish Taxicab Confessions was set in Mississippi and the stories were told by a UFO chasing, Shakespeare worshipping Buddhist with anger issues,’ then boy oh boy do I have the book for you. This is one glorious, delirious cruise into the depths of the downtrodden folks of the South as told by your new favorite person, Lou, a cabbie trying desperately to be as compassionate as is reasonably possible and maybe even scrounge up a little truth, all while not getting himself killed by an idiot taking driver’s seat selfies.

LOUISIANA!
(Well, and many other places, to be honest)
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata - A once sentence description of this book is sort of possible, but will never do the story justice, as it swirls, expands, and fractures into so many different directions - suffice it so say, Zapata's written a love letter to storytelling, heritage, and theoretical physics. This one reels from the US occupation of Santa Domingo to prohibition-era New Orleans to the Russian Revolution’s aftermath from Petrograd to Belarus to Chicago, and later, from Tel Aviv back to Chicago, and to New Orleans again in the days after the storm - which are captured especially sensitively: the horror of the storm's aftermath, the fear of police gone rogue, the paths of boats in canals that were, days before, the city's streets, and the coming-together that saved many in the city.

SOUTH CAROLINA!
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix - Oh, this one's just a blast. It's Hendrix's best since My Best Friend's Exorcism. A riff on the classic Dracula story, vampire fans will love it, but on top of that it's soaked in pop culture with a pinch of 90s nostalgia. In an interview (and I am paraphrasing a half-remembered interview from months ago, so please understand if I don't have this exactly) Hendrix said he wanted to write a book that captures the all-too-often overlooked strength of the women that many people, even in the "post-feminism" 90s, thought of as still "just a housewife." And boy, does he ever! If you like campy horror with a side of pecan pie, this is your book.

MISSOURI!
(Which, I know, floats between classifications as The South and The Midwest, but roll with me here, because...)
... The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel is set in (as the publisher copy says) "a small town with big secrets in the poorest part of the Missouri Ozarks" - and I think it's pretty fair to say that Engels captures a distinctly southern-feeling place in this thriller. There's murdered children, a meth-cooking, trailer-in-the-woods living mama, a strip-club owning, woman-beating ex-boyfriend, in a small Missouri town where the high water mark is a job at the car dealership. I admit, I first thought, oh no, not another dose of poverty porn, but boy, was I wrong. Engel digs into the tropes of the rural crime novel and uses them to tell a story that gets to the heart of what it means to be a woman in a world that only cares about what it can take from women. And something I especially appreciated about the book - you can write it off by calling it "just good old fashioned honest and plainspoken," but the book makes a point to confront class divisions head on in the voices of its characters who, admittedly, would probably not often refer to “the class divide,” though they’re acutely aware of it. It's a solid novel about a woman finding strength in a dark, tough, misunderstood place.

WEST VIRGINIA!
Snakehunter by Chuck Kinder - And okay, so my native West Virginia is another particularly tricky-to-classify place (and maybe a little scary, too, but you know what, maybe we kinda like it that way) because since its inception it's been considered at once the northernmost Southern state and the southernmost Northern state. Really, it's Appalachia, but you know what? I'm including this one anyway, just because I want to, and we mountain people do what we want. If you want a book that's full of the kind of magic that's conjured in a kitchen of elders telling stories while they string green beans, you'll never do better than Snakehunter. It's a coming-of-age story set in the southern hollers of coal country told by a young man who learned storytelling by hiding under the kitchen table and listening. Kinder captures things like the snake-handling church of Scrabble Creek, and hey, true story! The snake-handling congregation in this book is based on a church that was just up the hill from my father's high school, and he remembers Friday-night services that drew crowds that rivaled the school's football games. Ahead of its time when it was originally published in the 70s, now's your chance to catch up to the great Sasquatch of American Letters, the Captain himself, Chuck Kinder.

And, how about a sneak peak of a couple books of the South that are coming in the next two months? Yeah?! Okay!

FLORIDA (Again)
I love love love Florida Man, the latest from Tom Cooper, out on July 28th. Cooper's Florida is the south of the south; swampland and jungle, sandy sinkholes, and the always impending doom of the next big one making landfall. This is a little like Tom Robbins decided to take on the panhandle, a generational saga of a roadside attraction running, swamp tour giving loser who, come murderous hell or hurricane, is never leaving the beach. It’s a crime novel inasmuch as, yes, crimes occur, but that’s just because crimes petty and heinous are simply a part of the everyday milieu of your average Florida man. What is it really? Some sort of magic trick.

NORTH CAROLINA
I also can't wait to get Randall Kenan's new story collection, If I Had Two Wings, into peoples' hands when it arrives on August 4th. This book is something special. Kenan so well captures the atmosphere of Down East North Carolina that you’ll feel the thick inland air close on your skin as you read. Each story is a masterclass in subtle surprise, full of the gentlest delight and horror, and each life – those being lived and those long past being resurrected – is rendered so fully that once you close the pages you’ll feel you’ve also spent a lifetime in Tims Creek. You won’t want to leave.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Kay on the Fiction of Art and Artists

From Kay: A favorite sub-genre of mine is what I call ‘Art and Artist Fiction,’ and I’d like to share some of my favorite books. They range from historical fiction (most common) to comedy, mystery, and a (borderline) thriller. I’ve even snuck in one biography that has a very narrow focus. Subjects include individual artists, specific works of art, collaborations, art collectors/collections and gallery owners. While all the books are instructive in varying degrees, they are, most importantly, engaging, entertaining, and well-written. Listed in roughly chronological order, the first book takes place centuries ago.

As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel by Rudy Rucker is smashingly good historical fiction that immediately throws you into the sixteenth century. Born in the early 1500s, Bruegel lived largely in the Lowlands (Belgium, The Netherlands) during a time when inquisition-style Spaniards were largely in control. Influenced strongly by Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel’s paintings depict the coarseness, crudeness, confusion, and cruelty of the times. Each chapter carries the title of one of Bruegel’s paintings, along with a black and white illustration of it, and the chapter is roughly themed accordingly. I guarantee you'll be thankful you live in the 21st century.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland. Vreeland richly describes the extraordinary circumstances under which Renoir painted one of his most famous paintings, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Renoir impulsively decides to complete, in a very narrow window of time, a huge painting on the terrace of a friend’s restaurant/hotel on the Seine, not far outside Paris. Renoir quickly purchases his canvas and paints, and rounds up fourteen models to sit for the painting over eight consecutive Sunday afternoons. Crazy? Yes! Does he succeed? Fabulously! The simple joy of a sunny Sunday afternoon spent with good friends, food, wine, and conversation brilliantly comes across in Renoir’s painting and in Vreeland’s luscious writing.

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks Spent in Arles by Martin Gayford. This biography tells the tale of Gauguin and van Gogh’s brief time together in van Gogh’s tiny yellow house in Provence. Gauguin had reservations about the collaboration, and van Gogh was excited but also anxious, yet neither voiced their concerns. Onward! Gayford brings to life the little town and its inhabitants, the countryside, the artists’ daily activities, their conversations, and their many disagreements. The art produced and the methods used by both artists are also part of the story. If not for the volume and quality of paintings each artist completed during their tumultuous time together, one might wish they had acted on their reservations (pun intended) and cancelled the collaboration. Then again, van Gogh may have traveled the same disastrous road afterwards anyway.

The book above and the book below could hardly be more different.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore. If you’ve read Christopher Moore, you already know you’ll be in for a fun romp. The story is filled with many of the famous artists of the Impressionist period, with whom Moore takes many, many liberties. The book contains handsome reproductions of famous works by the artists, some of which curiously don’t seem to contain any of the starring ultramarine pigment of the book’s title. Did I mention the setting is Paris? What’s not to love?

The Collector’s Apprentice by BA Shapiro. Dive into the rapidly evolving art world of the 1920s with Shapiro’s latest book that is part historical fiction, part pure fabrication. The Paris art scene is populated with the likes of Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein. Complex ideas about influences and confluences within the remarkable Post-Impressionist art world are folded seamlessly into the dialogue. You’ll be swept into a quiet tale of intrigue starring a wealthy American amassing a huge collection of contemporary European art (based on the real collector Albert C Barnes), a young lady (probably loosely based on a Barnes employee) and a savvy con artist from America (pure fiction). The story will take you for a couple of unexpected spins before letting you go well satisfied.

Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland. Lisette is 100% Paris born and bred. With great reluctance, she accompanies her husband to Provence to care for his dying grandfather, Pascal. Pascal owns seven paintings by renowned Impressionist-era artists including Pissarro, Cezanne and Picasso. What Pascal really wants is to tell stories about how he met these artists, why they gave him paintings, and what he loves about each one. Lisette becomes an eager listener. WWII calls her husband away, and much to Lisette’s own surprise, she stays in Provence for quite some time after her husband dies in the war; she has important tasks to complete before she returns to Paris. To tell more is to give away too much, but I loved the characters, the setting, and the conversations about the art, the artists, and Pascal’s descriptions of Paris. By the way, this book is entirely fictional.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. This is a fictionalized account (approved by the artist) of Marina Abramovic's 2010 art performance at MOMA where she sat face-to-face, eye-to-eye, with museum visitors, one at a time, for 75 days. She sat unmoving, in the same pose every day, her expression unchanged except for occasional tears. The performance had surprisingly deep effects on both visitors who sat with her and visitors who simply observed the performance, some of whom returned day after day. The story focuses on several fictional characters' almost obsessive attraction to the performance and the effect it has on their lives. Not unlike the apparent enchantment of the performance, it was hard to tear my eyes from the pages of this book.

The Art Forger by BA Shapiro. Shapiro uses a real-life event to jump off into a wonderfully crafted, completely fictional tale set years later. The 1990 theft at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum remains the largest art heist in history. (Warning: my single visit to the museum occurred just weeks before the theft, so I'm certain my love of this book contains some bias.) The thirteen stolen pieces include works by Vermeer (1), Manet (1), Rembrandt (2) and Degas (5); none have been recovered. Shapiro’s story takes place about 12 years after the heist. Claire works as a freelance art reproductionist (she copies famous art works) in addition to painting her own work. A premier local gallery owner contacts her for a ‘secret’ job that he can’t tell her about until she agrees to do it. Let’s just say it involves the heist and a lot of money. The book describes painting techniques in some depth, which I found fascinating; I especially enjoyed learning about some of the bizarre techniques used by forgers. Add a couple of mercurial and self-absorbed characters plus several plot twists and turns, and voila: The Art Forger is a great example of light cultural entertainment!