The Black Painting

When I visited the Prada museum in Madrid, the focus was Diego Valazquez’s intricate “Las Meninas,”  but the image of one of Goya’s “Black Paintings” – the disturbing portrait of  Saturn Devouring His Son  is hard to forget.  Neil Olson imagines a mysterious missing addition to the famous collection the seventy year old artist painted on his walls – a self-portrait of Goya which hangs in the study of a wealthy collector, who uses it to control his family in the story of The Black Painting.

51jz+yvAOjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The power of art to evoke personal epiphanies is one of Olson’s themes as he weaves a complicated tale of greed and anxiety in The Black Painting.  The painting covered the wall behind the locked door of the Morse patriarch’s study, and was rumored to cause death and madness.  The famous painting was long ago stolen, when the grandchildren were young,

Before he dies, the family is summoned to Owl’s Point to hear Alfred Arthur Morse’s conditions for distributing his wealth – the mansion as well as an extensive art collection.  When she arrives at the mansion, Teresa, a student of art history,  finds her grandfather dead, his face contorted in an expression of horror and his gaze fixed on the spot where the Goya painting once hung,   The mystery of its thief and the patriarch’s diabolic intentions for his progeny create a thrilling story of deceit, corruption, and dark family secrets.

Olson cleverly allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the creepy details of the Goya painting , which is never actually described in any detail—a device that allows the reader to create a personal image of horror.  A gripping tale you will read in a sitting…




White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.

A Book List from Independent Booksellers

If you are looking for a good book, two local independent booksellers in Carmel, California have some suggestions.  Many titles were new to me (but then I tend to stick to fiction) so I checked out their reviews and summaries, and offered a quick assessment.

Here’s the list:

  • Reactions by Theodore Gray – the third and final installment in the trilogy of The Elements, Molecules, and Reactions – chemistry in pictures and stories. Gray offers molecule quilts too – I may find that more interesting.
  • Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman – based on the popular food blog, this cookbook promises to rival Ina, Nmartha, and Nigella with recipes and food ideas from a recovering vegetarian.  I love cookbooks and am always happy to find a new one.
  • The Undiscovered Islands by Malachy Talkack – National Geographic promises it is “Packed full of intelligent musings on everything from religion to astronomy, alchemy to the occult…an exploration of two dozen islands once believed to exist but no longer on the map.  This one might make it to my to-read list, if I can find it in the library (unlikely).
  • Van Life by Foster Huntington – photos of life on the road.  I’m not a fan.
  • Going Into Town by Roz Chast.  I read it, loved it, highly recommend it.
  • Grant by Ron Chernow – biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I never made it through his Hamilton, so will probably skip this one.
  • The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – Police detective Gemma Woodstock works to solve the murder of a former classmate in this debut mystery.  This one has possibilities for my audible wish list.
  • Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan – the author’s memoir.  I’m not big on memoirs, so will probably skip this one too.
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfield – New York Times calls this “a powerful novel about a search for a missing girl that’s also a search for identity…”  and notes a comparable book would be Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  A winner – going on my to-read list.
  • The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After Happiness by Heather Harpham – NPR says  “…Harpham relives the heartbreak, hope, and terror she experienced as she watched her infant daughter cross the abyss of a life-threatening disease. Into this tension-torqued story of sickness and health, she works in the fraught tale of her own evolving relationship with {her ex-husband}.” Might be good if you liked When Breath Becomes Air, but I think I will skip it.
  • The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas -mixed reviews about a fictional novelist who marries when she would rather write.  I might give it a try.
  • The Kinfolk Entrepreneur: Ideas for Productive Work by Nathan Williams -introduces readers to creative business owners around the globe. … a chocolatier among them.  Has pictures, so might be worth a look.

Have you read any of these?

Penny Vincenzi

British best-selling novelist Penny Vincenzi died recently at 78.  A profilic writer, Vincenzi focused on strong female heroines – a little romance and sex mixed with family secrets and intrigue.  I’ve read a few of her books, but can’t remember the plot of even one; I do remember them being long, with more plot than the usual romantic Chick Lit.

When asked if she aspired to write more “highbrow material,” she said she didn’t:

“I have a strong aversion to people saying the kind of novels I write are escapist.  Books ought to be escapist.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a good old healthy slug of glamour and glitz.”

51fO4NCUIpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Her writing has been compared to Barbara Taylor Bradford and Julian Fellowes, and her bestsellers include The Decision, The Best of Times, Absolute Scandal, and her latest (2017) A Question of Trust.

Maybe I’ll try her again.  Escape is good.


Thrillers with Heat – Sunburn and The Dry

Set in Australia, Jane Harper’s The Dry has a dried-up river and bush ready to burn; Laura Lippman’s Sunburn leaves its mark in familiar ground for this reader – Baltimore, Ocean City, and Delaware.  Both are gripping tales of murder with compelling twists and surprise endings – both are page-turners.

shopping-1In The Dry, the brutal murders on a farm bring federal agent Aaron Falk back to the town where he and his father were banished years earlier when Aaron’s friend was found drowned in the river.  When Aaron returns for the funeral of his best friend and his family, he uncovers raw wounds the town has never forgotten, and suspicion that he was responsible for the girl’s death twenty years earlier.  Mysteries around the all murders seem connected, and as he stays to investigate, the story leads him to surprising revelations about the people he thought he knew. The villain is cleverly concealed until the very end, and not one I suspected.

UnknownIn Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy.  Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born.  The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her.  Will he turn her in or run away with her?  Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all.  It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.