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Category Archives: Historical

Cooking for Picasso

Cooking for Picassopicasso

by: Camille Aubray

Ballantine Books, New York, NY  2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-17765-1

 

This book was delightful, like reading a painting.  The colors, textures, and tastes both in the food and the setting were rich and satisfying.  The story itself reads like the memoir of someone exploring their family history.  It was so compelling I really wanted it to be true.

This is historical fiction at it’s best.  The historical characters are brought to life in a way that advances our appreciation, knowledge and understanding of their work and place in history.  It humanizes them and makes them three-dimensional, people rather than characters. Given that the predominant historical character in this novel is Picasso, humanizing him is a challenge.

Picasso is central to the story, but he actually only appears in a few scenes.  When he does he is given credibility in his character and his actions by his association with his work.  The period of interacting with the artist is right after he has painted his Minotaur series.  It is common, in art history, to see an artists work as autobiographical and here Picasso is clearly cast as his minotaur.

Describing Picasso’s appearance is easy, but conveying the sensual appeal of this temperamental bull of a man is harder.  In this case the attraction was not because of his wealth or notoriety.  Although he opened the door for escape from a small, controlled life, he wasn’t ever going to be the door.  His appeal, his animal magnetism, was simply a part of who he was and it is very much a part of this book.  His presence is persistent even when he is nowhere near the scene.  The age difference wasn’t appalling because of the period and because clearly the grandmother was (maybe for the first time in her life) making her own choices.  It’s an “eye’s wide open” relationship.

The art that is referenced also helps to build the credibility of this fiction.  The grandmother who cooked for Picasso is cast as the figure in a work where the identity of the model is still debated.  The family heirloom that makes an appearance in a rare Picasso still life, painted in the same period, allows the granddaughter to truly believe the family legend.  The historical novel construction, where everything is fantasy except the things that are historical is also the basis of this story.

The granddaughter/protagonist is given, in secret, her grandmother’s recipe book.  The mother offers “from when she cooked for Picasso”.  There is nothing indicating Picasso specifically in the notes.  Everything is coded with initials.  The family dynamic is toxic and with the sudden death of the stepfather the granddaughter is cut off from her mother.  She can not ask for any more clues or information about the grandmother’s story.  It’s all a little mythic.

She finds her mother has signed up for a cooking class, in France, and suspects that her mother intended to explore the relationship between the grandmother and Picasso.  The granddaughter undertakes the journey and search for herself and finds a bit of her family story and a lot of her own.  When she runs across a “coincidence” where the actual history matches up with the family story her faith in the story builds.

Much of the narrative is actually written in the grandmother’s time and point of view.  We get a sense of the family history as it happened.  We begin to understand how the family dynamics became so toxic.  Art, whether it be paining, or pottery, or cooking, appears again and again as the key to salvation of the soul.

I did google the paintings as they were referenced to add a visual dimension to the storytelling.  Picasso is so stylistically indescribable, and yet I was pretty sure I recognized the paintings from the descriptions in the tale.  I wasn’t familiar with the series of paintings that, in this story, are the portraits of the grandmother.  Reading her reaction to the paintings and then viewing them for myself added both understanding and appreciation of the artist’s eye that becomes a family trait.

Although it is not necessary, I do recommend at some point in reading the book to spend some time viewing Picasso’s work.  This period in particular, where he “disappeared”, is a shift for him as well.  The novel allows us to speculate that the relationship with Picasso had an impact, not only on the family in the story, but also on the great artist himself.

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Hard to Die

Hard to Dieunknown

by: Andra Watkins

Word Hermit Press LLC   Charleston, SC

ISBN:13978-0-9908593-7-6

 

I tagged this book with “historical fiction” because the characters are certainly historical.   The primary character is Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr (remembered primarily for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel).   Theodosia died under “mysterious circumstances” and therefore has found herself in Andra Watkins Afterlife series.

Those whose deaths are unresolved find themselves in Nowhere.  They have limited memories of the circumstances of their deaths, and no memories of their time in Nowhere.  Each has a “conductor” who charges them to help a living person make a better choice in their lives.  The dead have 13 chances to find resolution or they will be trapped forever in this in between place.

Theodosia’s life was filled with political intrigue.  Her father was tried for treason.  Her godfather was probably a spy.  She herself was highly educated and involved with many of the movers and shakers of her time.  (She makes an appearance in the musical Hamilton.)  It is not a surprise that her Afterlife story would also be filled with spies, treason, and political intrigue.

Set in the Hudson River Valley near West Point, the geography and legendary history of the area also play a role in the story.  The scenes in New York City revolve around Grand Central Station and its starry skied ceiling.  Theodosia is having her past life in 1950.  Her mission is to help one of the West Point cadets make a good choice towards a better life.

Unfortunately for Theo,  Nowhere is hardly a solitary place.  There are several other characters from Theodosia’s life who are also struggling with resolving their deaths.  The interplay between what has past and what is happening in the story, still our history, adds to the intrigue and suspense.

Andra’s novels bring historical characters into three dimensions. She makes her characters come to life and places them in settings that contribute to the story telling. Hard to Die grabs the reader from the start and hangs on tightly through all the twists and turns. I’m not sure I like Andra’s Theodosia, but I found her fascinating. Looking forward to more Nowhere novels.

 

Also by Andra Watkins:

toliveforever

 

 

 

 

To Life Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis   This is Andra’s first novel and the first in the Afterlife series.  Meriwether Lewis is quite the character and the harrowing run towards the place of his death along the Natchez Trace adds color and history to the story.

notwithoutmyfather

Not Without My Father   A memoir of her journey as she walked the Natchez Trace, her father along as her back-up and support.

natcheztrace

Natchez Trace: Tracks in Time   The photo journal of Andra’s walk

 

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