Kufwasa

I discovered this beautiful concept while researching Zambian culture for my work in progress. Kufwasa is a word in the Tumbuka language that means a blend of patience, mindfulness, flow, enjoyment, and something unique to the understanding of people who live in a traditional African culture which may be hard to put into English words. My goal in reading about Zambia was to understand more about a minor character, Mwizenge Chomba, who has been in my series since book two, Shaman’s Blues, but is about to play a larger role in the book I’m writing, the seventh in the series. I wanted to make sure I got his background right, his way of seeing the world. I’m not sure I’ll find a place for describing kufwasa in the book, but it should exist in the character himself, in the world view he grew up with.

Kufwasa implies doing one thing at a time, with full concentration and a kind of serenity, or it will be neither done well nor fully experienced. My character was raised in a remote village, so his family members would have planned one major activity a day. When you get around on foot, by bicycle, or in old and unreliable vehicles, travel and errands can’t be hurried. Cooking can’t be rushed, either, using traditional methods. A society without distractions enjoys taking time to talk and laugh and tell stories over these slowly prepared meals. In the twelve hours of equatorial darkness, married couples have plenty of time for kufwasa in their relationships. (I liked coming across this idea about marriage, because my Zambian character is married to an American woman who writes romance novels.) Love thrives on kufwasa.

It’s funny how I can discover something about a character that makes perfect sense even though I didn’t know it at the time I introduced him. Mwizenge appears in Shaman’s Blues as a singer and drummer in a world music trio. Live music of all kinds is a big part of Santa Fe life, and I’ve enjoyed African drumming and dance groups there, so he simply showed up the way characters do as someone likely to be in Santa Fe. I understand now why he feels at home there, so far from his village. He carved his own drum with kufwasa back in Zambia and grew up with music and dancing as community events. Compared to the high-pressure lifestyles of some parts of the country, the pace in New Mexico comes a little closer to kufwasa.

Next time I find myself trying to do too much too fast, I hope I can slow down and remind myself to practice kufwasa.

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Shaman’s Blues e-book 99 cent sale

Now through April 5th,  Shaman’s Blues, the award-winning second book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, is on sale for ninety-nine cents on all e-book retail sites. Click on the title for sales links and more about the book.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: The Painter

While this is a novel about crime at one level, a nerve-stretching, page-turning suspense story, it’s also the story of a man’s soul, his deepest loves, his darkest corners, his inner light, his passions, and his art. Heller gets inside the process of Jim Stegner’s whole being. When you read this book, you, feel as if you are Jim. You wade into his favorite fishing streams with him, experience his blinding rages with him, fall into the flow of creative inspiration with him, and feel every twist and turn in the road with him, as he navigates his grief over his teenaged daughter’s death, his fame, and his conflict with a dangerous man whose family doesn’t forgive or forget. Ever.

Jim is no saint, but he stands up for the weak, and he does it with fists. When he sees a man beating a horse, Jim fights with him in front of witnesses, breaks the man’s nose and liberates the horse. And so begins Jim’s trip to hell. There are stops in brief but intense heavens of love, painting and fishing, but this time Jim’s inner demons have pulled in some real ones, and they won’t leave him alone.

The landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is so alive as seen through this painter and fisherman’s eyes that it’s virtually a character in the book. The people in Jim’s life—his model Sofia, his friends, his oft-remembered late daughter, the police who question him—are vivid and multi-dimensional, and even the passing minor characters are so finely portrayed they seem to have lives beyond the story. The scenes revolving around art in Santa Fe are drawn from life: the wealthy collectors, the galleries, and the lionizing of the famous man. As scandal and suspicion grow around Jim, so does the value of his art. The confluence of the public pressure for pictures and interviews with the inner pressure from his emotions and the sense of being hunted like prey come together in an explosive and unexpected conclusion.

For an interview with the author about this book, go to

http://www.peterheller.net/media/peter-in-the-media/

and click on the video for The Painter. The story behind the book is as fascinating as the book itself.

About the artist who inspired the author to create Jim Stegner:

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A New Mexico Mystery Review: Done From Life by Elspeth Grant Bobbs

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Art and Murder in 1950s Santa Fe

 Rumor has it that a number of the characters in this book are based on real people who were part of the art scene in Santa Fe in the fifties. The author was part of that scene, married to an artist, but she didn’t write the book until 2011 when she was in her late eighties. Her ability to immerse her perspective in a fifties mindset without a single slip or anachronism is impressive. It makes the book fascinating and often startling, as the narrator, feisty young Mary McIntyre—Mac to most people—takes the sexism around her for granted, casually describes a fashion of the time as a “squaw dress” without the slightest sense that the word could be offensive, and tiptoes around the fact that someone is gay with what was no doubt open-mindedness and acceptance for those times. I’m not complaining about these features of the book; it’s realistic and well-done. The time period is neither romanticized nor denigrated, shown as it was in society overall, and in particular in Santa Fe (fictionalized as Villa Real, part of the city’s full name, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis, the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi).

The characters are irresistibly both likeable and flawed, none of them fatally. Except, of course, one—the killer. Mac, who moved to Santa Fe for her health after spending time in a sanitarium (a true-to-life aspect of fifties New Mexico), works for the local art association. Three of its senior members, established artists, have recently died in accidents. During her illness, Mac read a lot of mystery novels to pass the time. For a lark, she and her neighbor, struggling artist Bill Thorpe, start plotting a mystery novel as if the deaths had been murders. Then, the more they think about it, the more they suspect it’s what really happened. Mac’s problem: she knows and likes all the suspects. Including Bill.

As Mac recovers her health and her looks, she basks in male attention, not hesitating to date two men at once, one of them married, taking unabashed pleasure in the situation and at the same time learning more about the murders that the police are sure were accidents.

As I read, I absorbed new information about an artist’s life and work, got a feel for a city I know and love as it was sixty-odd years ago, and enjoyed working out the puzzle in Mac’s engaging company. I suspected who had done it, but not how or why, though all the clues were well laid. So were the red herrings. Bobbs handles what is normally the worst scene in any mystery—the confession scene—with genuine originality, eliminating almost all of the clichés. At the end, Mac’s decision how to handle her knowledge is morally ambiguous, but her reasoning is clear.

A special charm of this book, for those who know Mrs. Bobbs’ contributions to Santa Fe, is that Mac’s hobby is gardening. Mrs. Bobbs’ gardens at La Querencia are legendary, making her a Santa Fe Living Treasure. The gardens, in fact, are her claim to fame, and it’s quite possible there are many people who know of her for this achievement and don’t realize she wrote a mystery.

In lieu of the usual author interview, I’ve linked to a blog post that features pictures of the author’s gardens and to a wonderful article from New Mexico Magazine that is better than anything I could have done. After reading it, I felt as if I’d spent time in Elspeth Grant Bobbs’ delightful presence. Enjoy.

I do have to point out a shortcoming in this book. I wish the copyeditor had done justice to it. Sunstone Press should have someone who is more attentive to detail do it over, fixing simple things like run-on sentences, a few unclear lines of dialog, etc. that the original editor should have corrected before publication. These oversights annoyed me considerably at first, but I became so immersed in the story that although I still noticed the problems, I ceased to be so distracted by them.

 

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.

A New Mexico Mystery Author Interview: Ann Myers

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I’m happy to have Ann Myers, author of the Santa Fe Café Mysteries, as my guest today.

AF: Where did the inspiration for this story begin?

AM: Bread! I love baking and trying new recipes. I was baking up pan de muerto around the time I was brainstorming a culinary cozy and thought it would make a great title. Plus, it’s a marvelous bread, like a brioche but even better with anise and orange flavors and you can shape it like a skull and crossbones. What other bread has all that?

AF: Your book shows your love for the City Different. What’s your history with Santa Fe?

AM: This is where my main character Rita and I share a bit of similarity (along with our inability to dance). I’m originally from Pennsylvania and have lived in Louisiana, Japan, Ohio, and Florida and now Colorado. All great places, but like Rita I was instantly enamored with New Mexico and Santa Fe. Lucky for me, I get to go there a lot since moving to Colorado ten years ago. My husband researches water issues in New Mexico. It’s a never-ending project, and one I heartily encourage since it means summers and holidays in Santa Fe.

AF: Rita’s appreciation of food, kitchens, kitchen gadgets, and the art and meaning of cooking makes me think you must be a great cook yourself. Have you ever done it professionally or are you an enthusiastic amateur?

AM: Just an amateur cook and a very enthusiastic eater. Perhaps a little too enthusiastic? And, yeah, kitchen gadgets…I have a bit of a problem there too. Do I really need that raclette griddle that’s been languishing in my basement for years? Or the heavy cast-iron ebelskiver pan I was sure I’d use all the time, or the ice cream maker? Surely I’ll be making ice cream and round pancakes any moment now, so of course I’m hanging onto them. Lately, however, I’ve gotten better about sticking to small items, like cute old cookie cutters and cookbooks. You can never have too many cookbooks…

AF: What’s your favorite Santa Fe restaurant and why? You mention a few real ones in the books. Is that your tribute to them? And is Tres Amigas based on a real place?

AM: Oh, what a hard question. Santa Fe has so many great restaurants. My husband and I have a long list of places we have to visit when we’re in town, and the list keeps getting longer. One of my favorites is Tune-Up Café, which I couldn’t resist mentioning in the book. They make the best breakfast chiles rellenos with fried eggs and refried beans. So good! I also love Clafoutis for their fabulous French pastries, and I can always go for sopapillas, something I’d never make at home. I draw the culinary line at deep frying.

Tres Amigas is all fiction, or perhaps a mashup of some of my favorite cafés. I wanted someplace warm and cozy, serving up comfort-food favorites. The place I dream of having down the street from my house.

AF: I found details like Cass’s process making jewelry of fascinating. What was the most fun part of researching the book? What was the hardest part?

AM: Thanks! At the time I was writing Bread of the Dead, a friend and I were trying our hands at soldering and jewelry making. “Trying” is the key word for me. Whereas my friend was merrily wielding a giant flame, I was terrified by my tiny kitchen torch (which can melt metal, by the way). I did manage to master crème brûlée, and I learned a lot of about jewelry making, which I added to the book with Cass’s character.

Researching the food was also fun—and tasty! I’ve acquired a big stack of New Mexican cookbooks, including some great older ones with recipes from home cooks. Some of the recipes are simple in terms of ingredients but turn out so delicious. Like green chile stew, a basic stew but with loads of roasted green chiles. I’ve also enjoyed learning about Pueblo culinary traditions, both through reading and—better yet—attending Pueblo feast days, when residents invite family, friends, and strangers into their homes to eat. Such generosity and an amazing culinary feat to keep up a buffet for unknown numbers of guests. I always think of my family and how we’d stress out seeing hungry people lined up on the sofa, waiting to rotate in for a place at the table.

One of the research challenges I hadn’t anticipated was fitting my fictional places into the real landscape. Rita’s casita, for instance, is on a well-known street, although I didn’t have a particular address in mind. For Tres Amigas Café, I had a general idea of the location, but after my husband read the book, he thought it was somewhere else. In Feliz Navidead, I added an entire fictional hotel to the historic downtown since I wouldn’t want to be staging murders in real places. That took a lot of walking around and scoping out empty lots and worrying about how to make the fictional setting mesh with the actual one.

AF: Who are your favorite authors—mystery or other?

AM: I’m a huge mystery fan. It’s hard to pick favorites, although I adore British mysteries, such as those of Martha Grimes and Elly Griffiths. I’m also always reading cozy mysteries of all sorts. I love the everywoman heroines of cozies, as well as the craft/culinary/DIY themes. I’ve also recently discovered audiobooks, which I listen to at the gym or when working around the house. My local library has all the Hamish Macbeth mysteries on audio, and I went through at least a half-dozen while painting our house this fall. Fun to hear the Scottish accent read aloud and to imagine the bleak moors.

 AF: Tell me about your work in progress.

AM: Two more Santa Fe Café Mysteries are with my publisher right now! Cinco de Mayhem will be out in March 2016, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. In this book, Rita takes on a bully French chef, a corrupt food inspector, and a killer to help her friend Linda. She also has to come up with a perfect dinner date menu, a Southwest-French feast featuring a green chile and cheese soufflé.

The third book, Feliz Navidead, let me think of Christmas all last summer. So much fun, but also a little difficult to conjure images of snow and farolitos when sitting in front of a swamp cooler in our broiler Santa Fe rental casita. I won’t give away too much, but there is a devil involved and pie. I’m still trying to settle on the perfect pie recipe. So far I’ve tried a green chile, apple, cheddar (wow!) and a pumpkin brûlée. I’m thinking chocolate and red chile with a cookie crust should be next. Or maybe I’m delaying to have an excuse to make and eat more pie…

AF: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?

AM: How about a recipe for New Mexico’s official state cookie, the bizcochito? It’s a yummy, anise-flavored shortbread cookie, perfect for any special occasion and the upcoming holidays.

Bizcochitos

Bizcochito traditionalists swear by lard for the proper flavor and texture. If you can’t find good lard, or prefer not to use it, shortening or butter can be substituted. You can also spice up your cookies by adding some chile powder to the cinnamon sugar. Delicious!

Makes three to four dozen cookies, depending on cookie cutter size

Ingredients

1 c lard (or butter or shortening)

1 c sugar

2 eggs

2 T anise seeds

1 t vanilla extract

½ t salt

¼ c brandy, sweet wine, or an anise-flavored liqueur, OR apple or orange juice

4 c all-purpose flour

1½ t baking powder

Cinnamon-sugar topping

¼ c sugar

1 t ground cinnamon

¼ t (or more) red chile powder (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a stand or hand mixer, in a large bowl, cream the lard or butter until it is light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, sugar, vanilla, and anise seed.

In separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir the lard mixture into the dry ingredients, along with the brandy (or juice). Mix until you have a dough that is soft but not sticky. If you’re baking in a dry region like the Southwest, add a little more orange juice or brandy if the dough seems too shaggy or stiff. Form the dough into a ball.

Place on a lightly floured surface and roll out to about ¼ inch thick. Cut the cookies out, using your favorite cutter. Small round or rosette shapes are popular. You can also forgo a cookie cutter and simply cut the dough diagonally to form diamonds. After cutting, dip the front face of each cookie in the cinnamon sugar mixture (you might have to press the sugar in and/or sprinkle a little extra sugar on top). Place the cookies on the baking sheet, leaving a little space in between.

Bake until lightly golden and puffed, about 11 to 13 minutes. Cool on a rack. Bizcochitos store well in containers, if you can resist eating them all.

*****

Thank you, Ann. This has been delightful.

For more about the Santa Fe Café series and more recipes, go to http://www.annmyersbooks.com/

and https://www.facebook.com/AnnMyers.writer

 

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Bread of the Dead

 

bec99b44a2fd5c6e3780eab3ea253edbIn some ways this is the coziest of cozy mysteries, full of food and folk art, but in other ways it’s not typical of the genre. The victim is not only important to the amateur sleuth but to the reader. He’s the most deeply appealing and complex character in the story. In a light sort of mystery, the loss of such a person is unusual. It gives the protagonist a strong reason to do that otherwise unbelievable thing—amateur sleuthing—and it also makes the story function on two levels: solving a puzzle with all the usual elements of a cozy; and contemplating life, death and legacy, good works and grieving. The mood and meaning of the Day of the Dead festival—reconnection with the beloved departed—is central to the story and is set beautifully at the beginning.

Myers has a wonderful way with words and uses culinary imagery with flawless precision, true to her narrator’s point of view. Foodies will love this book. The amateur sleuth, Rita Lafitte, is a cook, and the food theme is woven smoothly throughout. Recipes and their meaning to friends and family form a framework that turns the plot in a way that even a kitchen-impaired reader like myself could enjoy.

The Santa Fe setting is rendered in detail that will satisfy any would-be visitor who hasn’t been there yet and wants to take a fantasy trip, and will spark memories for those who have visited before. At times, I felt as if the author had tried a little too hard to fit as much local color in as possible, but overall the portrait of the City Different and its environs was painted well, from Pueblo speed traps to purple taxis to the famous Plaza—and the food, of course.

A few of the characters and events are entertainingly over-the-top, while others are realistic, another aspect of this book’s dual personality. I found the spiritual materialism of Broomer, the irritable owner of an expensive Zen garden, unfortunately true to some aspects of Santa Fe life. The arts center for teens reflects a fictitious version of a real and vital part of the city.

I can’t say why I suspected the real culprit early on, and I was frequently thrown off the trail by other suspects and plausible motives. The final solution and the revelation still came as a surprise, as the various strands of the story came together in one of the most elegantly crafted discovery scenes I’ve read.

If you’re a cook, you’ll enjoy the final section: recipes for foods related to the story, including the Bread of the Dead.Day_of_the_Dead_Coyoacan_2014_-_136

Next week, look for an interview with Ann Myers.

http://www.annmyersbooks.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24392805-bread-of-the-dead