Contrast

Tourists were cycling in shorts and sleeveless tank tops today. I could tell they were “from away” (a wonderful phrase I picked up in Maine) not only because they were clad for summer in January, but because they wore actual bike shorts—and helmets. A local cyclist is more likely to ride in jeans and have long gray hair flowing out from under a ball cap, while dangling a grocery bag from one hand or pulling some sort of wagon with his dog in it.

Another tourist I saw today, a man with cropped silver hair, was sunbathing shirtless outside his camper at the lake. No hat. No sunglasses. Getting a tan, of all things. I didn’t think anyone did that anymore, but if you’re from some snowbound Northern state, it might be hard to resist a sunny, fifty-seven degree day in the desert. Meanwhile, I was wearing long pants, two layers of shirts, gloves, a visor hat, wrap-around goggles, and sunscreen.

I enjoy winter here in southern New Mexico, but its beauty is familiar. If I imagine what this day would have felt like should I have been suddenly transported here the year I had a job in Maine, and the snowbanks were as tall as I was, I’d have thought I’d gone to heaven. Back then, I walked to work wrapped in a windproof snowsuit, taking cautious steps on perpetually icy sidewalks. I know I don’t live in paradise. Our community has its problems, and we need rain the way those half-naked Northerners need sun. It’s good to see them. They remind me to appreciate the ordinary and to realize it’s actually extraordinary.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Zia Summer by Rudolfo Anaya

A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.

Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.

One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)

Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.

The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.

*****

New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.

 

An Evening Out in T or C

The Austin Art Factory, an outdoor performance venue accessed through an alley, is attached to a warehouse used by the New Mexico Film Office, full of lighting equipment and props ranging from ratty old chairs to enormous books and a variety of weathered signs, including a wall-sized one for the New Mexico State Prison that served as the backdrop on Sunday July 2nd for a traveling circus (all humans, no animals) from New Orleans. The audience was seated on rows of blue plastic chairs and a few wooden benches under a corrugated metal roof. Behind us was a stack of trunks about eight to ten feet high. To the right was the warehouse, where the performers had their backstage area and the audience could find rest rooms. To the left was a gravel-paved yard whose chain-link fence is decorated with art made from New Mexico license plates (the yellow ones). My favorite is a Volkswagen Beetle. An old tow truck sits in the yard, full of random objects, perhaps as a work of art, perhaps as storage.

The show opened at 6:00 p.m. with a guest performance by local acoustic duo Desert Milk. After that beautiful, mellow music came circus side-show acts such as knife-throwing, dancing barefoot on broken glass, and breaking a cinderblock on a man’s chest while he lay shirtless on a bed of nails. An acrobat squirmed her way in and out of a birdcage. The weirdest act was done by a woman who drove a long sharp nail up her nose with a sequined hammer and had an audience member pull it out with her teeth. A cowboy performer did rope tricks and pistol-twirling and whip-cracking, cutting a rose in half with a whip while he held the flower between his teeth. The emcee talked too much and used “exciting” and “excited” so many times she could have killed the excitement she was trying to rouse, but I had to forgive her because, after all, she did drive that nail up her nose.

The best part of the evening: the aerialists.

T or C’s Jeannie Ortiz floated with dancelike grace and power in fluid, seamless weavings of her body and supporting drapes of fabric. Without a break in her flow, she wrapped a limb or her pelvis in the silks and moved from backbends to splits to side arcs and inversions in perfect concentration. Her art was ethereal and meditative and yet awe-inspiring at the same time. As I watched her suspend herself with the silks attached only at the feet and ankles in a split, I knew what this was asking of her at the muscular and biomechanical level, probably her most impressive feat when it came to strength, though the audience expressed more enthusiasm for the aesthetically stunning moves. And there were many. This was not just athleticism but visual art, dreamlike and magical.

The circus aerialist was equally strong but performed at a higher speed in a spinning hoop. She did the near-impossible, hanging upside-down only from the edge of her heels or from the curve of her buttocks and then transitioning to a new pose without any loss of control or use of her hands. The style of her performance was showy, smiling and making eye contact and striking applaud-me poses. And applaud we did. She earned it. But I think the audience applauded Jeannie even more. Not only because she’s local, but because she never once demanded that we appreciate her. She simply gave her art with quiet grace.

This being T or C, the audience, of course, was almost as colorful as the show. And the sky, as I walked home, was filled with brush-stroke clouds in all directions, remnants of a failed attempt at a thunderstorm, streaking the horizon with gray silks of aerial rain.

*****

Follow this link to a New Mexico Magazine feature on Twenty Things to Love About Truth or Consequences. The slide show at the end of the article includes, among other images, Jeannie Ortiz on aerial silks and some of license plate art.

Something for Real

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. January 1 is just another day. I decided to change my life for reasons that have nothing to do with the transition of numbers on a calendar. A plan I’ve been gestating for years is finally real. I made the commitment. I have a lease. My future landlady and I signed it on Main Street, Truth or Consequences, at an outdoor table in front of Passion Pie Café the morning of Wed. Dec. 28th. Friends in T or C have congratulated me, telling me it’s the best decision I ever made. The to-do list is growing. It’s hard not to keep thinking about it or imagining disasters that could intervene in my plan. I’m glad I have writing to focus my mind and yoga and meditation to quiet its hundreds of questions, or I’d be spinning inside. I’m focusing on the constructive work of getting ready and on trusting life’s unfolding process, trusting the flow of synchronicities that made this change possible. The process of winding down one phase of my life and beginning the next will be complicated even though the goal is simplicity. I hardly own anything but I’m going to own even less. Travel less, need less, and be more. Retire early and fully embrace T or C. Art. Hot springs. The Rio Grande. The desert. People who get me. I love the place. It’s been my heart’s home for years. At the end of this academic year it will be my full-time home. I may teach a college course or two online, teach a few yoga classes around town, but writing will be my full-time occupation.

“I’ve been a dreamer so long now. It’s time I did something for real.

There’s just no point in being alive if you don’t live the way you feel.”

    From the song “Something for Real” by T or C artist Don Hallock.

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Feliz Navidead

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This third installment in the Santa Fe Café mystery series is tightly plotted, funny, and as full of local color and eccentric characters as the others. Ann Myers does a great job with the flow of the series—neither too much nor too little backstory. It’s a delicate balance that not all series authors have mastered. A new reader could pick this up and not be lost, and someone who has followed the series can enjoy it without any sense of interruption.

Protagonist Rita Lafitte’s rather conventional mother is visiting her in the City Different, encountering Rita’s eccentric friends and colleagues, hot chiles, devils in a Christmas pageant, and of course, Rita’s odd luck—if one can call it that—of running into murder scenes. There is some dark humor in the choice to set a murder in the middle of Christmas festivities, but it works. There’s also plenty of light humor, character-based and authentic.

The mystery revolves in part around the process of repatriating an old family collection of Native artifacts to their tribes. The conflicts in the wealthy heiress’s family—which includes Rita’s ultra-Santa-Fe-spacey-spiritual neighbor Dalia—and between the experts hired to help with the collection lead down some twisting paths, while several intriguing side plots make for more suspects and more motives. I was right in step with Rita in trying to solve the mystery, which to me means it was set up well.

Rita and café owner Flori’s amateur sleuthing is written to effectively make the reader suspend disbelief, an important aspect of this genre of mystery. Their interaction with Rita’s ex, Manny, who is so often the cop on the case when she’s investigating on her own, is well done. Manny isn’t all bad, and neither is his police work. He comes across as a competent if sometimes annoying officer, and a caring father as well as the kind of man you wouldn’t want for a husband. Celia, Rita’s artistic teenaged daughter, gets involved in the sleuthing this time, a fun change of pace. I love the relationships in this series, so it was great to meet another member of Rita’s family with her mother’s visit. It was also good to see how her romance with criminal defense lawyer Jake Strong develops. Jake’s character is given more depth and flair in this story. I got to know him better and therefore liked him better.

One thing I especially enjoyed about this book is that it gets outside of the downtown area into some other neighborhoods of Santa Fe, while still giving a view of holiday events around the Plaza and Canyon Road. (I expect it will make quite a few readers want to schedule a Christmas vacation there.) The diverse characters include one of Flori’s old schoolmates—another peculiar octogenarian—and her grandson. To avoid spoilers, I will say no more about them, but they were my favorite new additions to the cast of this series. And Flori’s latest weird hobby is her best yet. As always, there are recipes for some of the foods that are served up during the course of the story. I enjoyed the plot so much I tended to forget the culinary theme, but readers who love to cook will not. (Actually, the fact that I hate to cook and still enjoy these books so much says a lot.)

Other books in the series include Bread of the Dead and Cinco de Mayhem. Click on the titles to see my reviews, and on the author’s name for my interview with Ann Myers.

 

Wobbly

I had to share this wonderful image of Truth or Consequences. There’s a scene in Ghost Sickness that takes place right here, on this sidewalk in front of Passion Pie Café. And I wanted readers who haven’t been to T or C to get a glimpse of my town. I highly recommend the photography blog this came from, Always Backroads.

Always Backroads

wobblyMain Street, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, USA.

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Walking into a Story in Santa Fe

Inside an old bowling alley in Santa Fe lives a multi-dimensional work of art. The House of Eternal Return blends written word, video, sculpture, paintings, textiles, and architectural space to immerse visitors in a mysterious story. When you go through the doors of a Victorian house built inside the former bowling alley, you find evidence of a family’s seemingly ordinary life, but as you explore you find that something strange has happened to the people, and to nature of time and space and reality. The characters and their story have to be discovered through the artifacts in the house, ranging from photographs to drawings to journals. For example, if you open the pages of a diary in a child’s room, you learn more about the mystery. If you don’t, you find clues elsewhere.

Behind the refrigerator is another world. If you open the fridge, you leave ordinary reality. Or you might exit another way. The upstairs goes in and out of altered worlds. Some are serene, some adventurous, some disturbing though not terrifying, just intensely strange. The psychedelic nature of this art installation is hard to describe. There’s so much to explore, so many aspects to the story—moving, transcendent, bizarre—that I can see why people buy a year’s pass. One visit isn’t enough for a full discovery. I crawled through a hole in a closet to find a piano under a glass ceiling like a starry sky. I clambered down a winding narrow staircase to a mystical cave full of music and crystal-like forms. Much of the art is interactive. You can play pianos and unique percussion instruments built into the sculptural walls; you can turn pages and decide if you’ll leave that journal open or closed; and you can press buttons to get sound and light effects. There are hidden nooks with video screens showing episodes of the residents’ past. Some videos only start if you choose to sit in the chair in front of them, and they seem to react when you get up to leave.

I recommend this art space to anyone who loves to play with reality, and who will not be overwhelmed by occasional flashing lights, moments of chaotic sound, tight narrow spaces, spiral staircases, and a general sense of being unmoored, floating in a sea of dreams. After spending a few hours in it, I found that meditation after my yoga practice was deep and blissfully silent. The chains of thought-to-thought busyness had been broken and my inner space was open wide.

Later, when my left brain came back online, I reflected on the story-telling genius of The House of Eternal Return. The objects in the normal-time-and-space rooms hint at the inner life of the characters and at the events that happened to them, and visitors end up collaborating at uncovering clues. One person notices a document and reads it. Another discovers a crawl space. Another emerges from an unexpected place—like the refrigerator. It’s like sharing a 3-D novel—part science fiction, part mystery—with other readers.

When I write a book, I can improvise the plot as I go. More often, I know where it ends and then try out different routes to get there. Free-flowing as the initial process is, however, the end product is a linear narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. The story in The House of Eternal Return is told in a nonlinear way, with multiple options for how visitors experience it, but the process of creating this vast, multi-chambered work of art had to be as precise as the design of an aircraft. If you’re a story-teller, this aspect of it may intrigue you as much as the interactive masterpiece itself.

Petrichor—An Ode to New Mexico Rain

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The smell of rain in the desert is so special it has a name: petrichor. As moisture touches rocks and soil that have been hot and dry, they release a scent of minerals and plant oils and something else I can’t place. It’s the smell of life, I think.

When I crossed the state line from Texas into New Mexico last week it was pouring, with lightning so intense it flashed pale purple. At the same time, the last faint light of evening shifted through rain on the horizon like a pale gray aurora borealis. I parked at the rest area at Glen Rio and got out and danced in a backward spin, softly singing Michael Hearn’s lovely sweet song “New Mexico Rain,” not caring or noticing if anyone saw or heard me. It was that good to be back and to have my homecoming blessed with a storm.

Today we had a long, gentle rain, the kind the Navajos call female rain. I went running in it, on a favorite trail at Elephant Butte Lake State Park. Quails peeped, crickets chirped, and there were no other sounds but the rain, my steps and my breath. The sand was firm under my feet, the lake glowed silver-blue, and low puffs of clouds floated across the flat cone-top of an extinct volcano, making it look as if it had come back to life. The subtle greens of plants whose names I don’t know—feathery and blue-tinged, needle-like and yellow-green—glowed in the diffuse light. Wet lava rocks shone black or red as their pores soaked up the water. At each curve in the trail, the rain scent varied, mingling with juniper at times, stronger when the rain increased, fainter when it faded. Normally, I work on plot problems, writing scenes in my head as I run, but today my mind was quiet, my attention captured by sounds, textures colors and petrichor.

There’s not one special memory linked to this scent, just a sense of place. Of the earth itself within the borders that delineate New Mexico, a place where the Pueblo people are dancing for the rain. When that rain touches me, I feel as though something is released in me as well from the rocks. My heart knows who I am.Siler_pincushion_cactus_(6002291928)

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: J. Michael Orenduff

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Last week I reviewed the Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe.

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/a-new-mexico-mystery-review-the-pot-thief-who-studied-georgia-okeefe

I’m delighted to have the author as my guest today.

 Bio: Mike Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico. A former president of New Mexico State University, he took early retirement from higher education to pursue his career as a fiction writer. His many accolades as an author include the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery, the Epic Award for best mystery or suspense e-book, and the New Mexico Book Award for best mystery or suspense fiction.

AF: You’ve been a professor at various colleges. What did you teach? Which class did you most enjoy teaching and why?

JMO: I taught philosophy (primarily logic courses) and mathematics. The mathematics courses were what are now called developmental. They used to be called remedial, but someone decided that’s politically incorrect. That may be, but remedial is a more accurate description. It is no blot on students who are not skilled at math. Good math teachers are rare in the public schools, so students often show up at college unprepared for college level math courses. My courses were a remedy. My favorite teaching experience was the pre-algebra courses I taught at Central Wyoming College. Many of my students were from the Wind River Reservation. The most rewarding thing about teaching is not standing at the blackboard writing the steps of some arcane proof. It is having a student say, “I thought I couldn’t do math. But now I can.”

AF: What’s your favorite place you’ve lived outside of New Mexico? Could you share an anecdote or memory from that place?

JMO: I lived in La Serena, Chile for a summer while my wife was teaching at La Universidad de la Serena. It was an idyllic life. I shopped each day at the market for food and fresh flowers, both of which were waiting when my wife arrived home from work. La Serena is in the northern desert area of Chile, so it was like New Mexico except it’s on the Pacific Ocean. Albuquerque with a beach. And even more Spanish being spoken. Two of my favorite memories from northern Chile are seeing the southern cross in the beautiful clear skies and being stranded in a small fishing village twenty miles north of La Serena after travelling there in a collectivo (a taxi into which six people are crammed to go to a place with no bus service). It was easy to find a collectivo in La Serena, a large city. But Las Casetas was a village and had no collectivos. Hence, no means to return. As we stood by the road wondering what to do, a man in a small Japanese pickup pulled over and asked us if we wanted to go to La Serena. We crowded into a bench seat designed for two people and had a delightful conversation with him on the ride south. I offered to pay him. He declined. I offered to at least pay for his gasoline. He declined again, saying he was going there anyway, so no extra gas was being burned. He told us about his wife whom he obviously adored. When we arrived in La Serena, I finally coaxed him into accepting money by holding out enough pesetas to buy flowers and saying, “This is for flowers for your wife.”

AF: Your books make me want to pay more attention to very old Native pottery. What would be the best places to go for a (legal) pottery tour of New Mexico?

JMO: Of course the shops and museums in Santa Fe are the places most people associate with ancient Native pottery, but my favorite place is Western New Mexico University in Silver City. Their museum has the largest collection of prehistoric Mimbres Mogollon pottery and artifacts in the world, including pottery and artifacts of the Upland Mogollon, Casas Grandes, Salado, and Anasazi. And as an added benefit, you can tour the Gila Cliff Dwelling just north of town and see artifacts in situ and where the people lived who made them.

AF: You share my love of T or C. I noticed that every place you mention there is real. What about the places in Albuquerque? I found myself guessing that every location except Hubie’s shop might also be a real place, but I seldom dine out in Albuquerque so I’m not sure. Are they? What’s behind your decision to use actual places rather than fictitious versions of them?

JMO: You guessed it. Every place is real. The only fictional ones are Hubie’s shop and Dos Hermanas. All the other places are real, even Sharice’s condo. Georgia O’Keeffe said that she preferred painting flowers instead of models because flowers, “are cheaper and they don’t move.” I prefer real places because it’s easier to describe them than to make up new ones. And I like to give them free publicity.

 AF: What made you choose the White Sands Missile Range for Hubie’s latest pot thieving adventure?

 JMO: There were several reasons. Perhaps the most interesting one is a real event that happened there is 2001. A man hunting Oryx found a Chupadero black-on-white water jug dating back to around 1300. Where else could that happen? Especially the Oryx part.

AF: Why Georgia O’Keeffe in the title?

 JMO: After starting out with a bunch of dead white males with no connection to New Mexico, I finally tumbled to the realization that I should use people with NM connections such as D. H. Lawrence. Then I decided a woman in the title would be good. And I chose O’Keeffe because she is strongly identified with NM but also because I had a small personal connection with her. In 1985, I was serving as the academic vice president at West Texas State University, known as West Texas State Normal College when Georgia O’Keeffe taught there from 1916 to 1918. We were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the school’s founding and looking for something to make the event special. I decided we should ask O’Keefe to grant us the right to make prints of a painting she had done while teaching there and allow us to sell those prints to fund scholarships. I gave the task of approaching Ms. O’Keeffe to my wife, whose charm and grace were best suited to the task. And it helped that she is also an artist and an art historian. O’Keeffe granted her request. So Georgia O’Keeffe helped me raise scholarship funding and also inspired me to write the latest book in the series.

 AF: Who are your favorite mystery writers? What is it that makes them stand out?

JMO: In no particular order and with apologies to the many others whom I like but didn’t pop to mind: Simon Brett, Michael Bond, John Mortimer, Mary Jane Maffini, Aaron Elkins, Carl Hiaasen, Leann Sweeney, Lawrence Block (but only his Bernie Rhodenbarr series), and Tim Hallinan (especially his Junior Bender series). What makes them stand out is clever humor.

AF: Did you know you were going to write a series when you wrote the first Pot Thief book? Which book in the series was the most challenging for you to write and why?

JMO: I knew it was to be series, but I didn’t know the titles would all start with The Pot Thief Who Studied…. In fact, the working title of the second one was The Pot Thief Who Gazed at the Stars. What was I thinking?

The first was the most challenging because I had to create everything from scratch. The rest somewhat less so, but I try to have the characters grow and develop as people do in real life.

AF: Any idea what the pot thief will study next?

 JMO: Edward Abbey. Like Hubie (and me), he was a graduate of the University of New Mexico.

AF: One of my favorite writers—and a good match with Hubie. I look forward to it.

 

 

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe

O'Keeffe cover 3

This is not an interstate kind of a story; it’s a back road drive with a raconteur at the wheel. There’s a wonderful pot in a remote place, and it takes a bit of a hike and some excavation to find it. Brush off another layer, and there it is, an intact marvel of original workmanship. The old pots which the narrator, Hubie Schuze, admires were made by hand, not on a wheel, and their shape shows it. Not perfect—and not meant to be. That’s part of their character. This book is not shaped like a standard mystery novel, either. Don’t expect it to be. Just ride the back road. Hubie knows where he’s going (though you may wonder about that at times).

The prologue takes off like a rocket. Then, during the first few chapters, new readers may go through what I’ll call “orientation to Hubie,” getting used to the flow of his entertaining and often educational ramblings on topics historical, artistic, culinary, and unclassifiable. (Established fans of the series already enjoy this as much as solving the mysteries.) If you’re new to the Pot Thief and decide to start here, don’t worry, keep reading. Once Hubie gets out in the desert to illegally “rescue” an ancient pot, the story, his character, the setting and his deep reverence for the artifacts he finds and sells come together into a lively, colorful tale that’s both a clever mystery caper and a sweet, delightfully off-beat love story. There’s a lot of wordplay, for fans of that type of wit. However, the humor I liked most in this book was that which came authentically from characters and situations, and there’s plenty of it. Hubie’s sincere and awkward attempt to put his girlfriend at ease in a delicate situation is hilarious, all the more so because it comes from his heart. A sudden turn of events near the end is so perfectly timed and phrased for comic effect, I think my neighbors heard me laugh when I read it.

The New Mexico landscape and locations—from Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences to the vast emptiness of the White Sands Missile Range—are portrayed well. Hubie’s idiosyncratic meanderings are part of the New Mexico feel of the book. I can easily see him in the mini-park in the median in Truth or Consequences across from Black Cat Books and Rio Bravo Fine Art. I can’t decide if he would get on my nerves or amuse me if I sat with him—probably both—but he fits perfectly. (There seem to be a lot of smart, eccentric, single, middle-aged men in T or C.) Orenduff has created a unique character in Hubie, and his own style of mystery—intelligent, non-violent, and funny, with the murder aspect secondary to other puzzles. The red herrings are effective, the clues are laid well, the solution is surprising, and the end is satisfying.

If you haven’t yet discovered the earlier books in the series and want to start at the beginning, the titles, in order, are:

The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier

The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

The Pot Thief Who Studied D.H. Lawrence

The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid

The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe (release date: Jan. 26, 2016)

 Next week I’ll have an interview with the author, J. Michael Orenduff.