THE ARTFUL READERS CLUB

THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT

by ALEX LASKER

Stunning, extraordinary, profound, thought-provoking and emotional… a must read for all elephant lovers! This is a deftly told epic story that brings the beauty and the wild cruelty of Africa vividly to life. (It also reminds us that humans don’t deserve to live on this planet!) “The Memory of an Elephant” by Alex Lasker tells the story of the elephant, ISHI. In fact, it’s Ishi’s own “first elephant” voice…his perceptions that begin the novel… and a broader, omniscient third person narrative voice that fills in where needed.

Ishi’s journey takes place in a variety of places between 1962 (when his family and his herd were killed by poachers and he was found by a young, local tribal boy who arranged care for him at a Kenyan animal orphanage. We follow characters (and Ishi) around Kenya, London, New York and back again to the plains of his birth in Kenya for his final journey, returning to the place where he was nurtured and cared for as a young, orphaned calf by a family of very caring “two leggers” and specifically by his friend and guardian…the young Kikuyu boy named Kamau who found him. It is in the human lives touched by Ishi and his growth and development over time that this story fully captures the reader. (This novel reminds us that man’s cruelty extends beyond humans and into the innocent animal kingdom…exactly why I give to organizations that protect these awe-inspiring, impressive, sentient beings.) I’ve had the privilege of visiting these elephant orphanages and believe me, it’s exactly like caring for a new baby…requiring constant attention and most of all, LOVE.

Alex Lasker’s book, with its generosity of imagination and it’s spirit of empathy, will re-focus the elephant in your heart. This was a marvelous read that I may, at some point, revisit!

ARTFUL READERS CLUB

THE RAGGED EDGE OF NIGHT by Olivia Hawker

It all started with a notice in a German Catholic periodical, ESPRIT, in 1942. This set in motion the story of THE RAGGED EDGE OF NIGHT by Olivia Hawker…historical fiction about a former friar, a widow with three children and a small rural town during WWII called Unterboihingen in Wuttemberg, Germany. Here’s the cover I created for the novel…

This is a true story about Franciscan friar, Anton Starzmann, who was a music teacher for special needs children. The Nazis took the children, deeming them “unworthy of life” and shut down Anton’s religious order. Stripped of his beloved children and his life as a friar, he responded to a notice in a Catholic periodical (as seen on the book cover I created above,) married the widow who placed the notice and moved to her little town in Wuttemberg, Germany. As Anton adapted to the roles of husband and father, we learned what life was really like in the country, where threats existed but bombs were mostly at a distance. Although filtered through a somewhat religious lens, (as would be expected from a former friar,) it was nonetheless believable. The book focused on relationships and the lives of real people…a touching story of courage and morality in the face of evil. It showed the importance of small acts of defiance from German people who wanted to resist and found ways that didn’t endanger their families.

The author’s writing is lyrical, beautiful, eloquent, poignant and thought-provoking. It contained elements of hope in a damaged world, as Hawker was even able to put a credible, compassionate face on the soldiers who were committing unspeakable deeds (against their will.) Within the pages of THE RAGGED EDGE OF NIGHT, author Olivia Hawker offers us yet another point of view…that of the German people. This book is the most comprehensive and sympathetic coverage of the everyday life of the German people under the Nazi reign that I’ve ever read! Highly recommended!!

ARTFUL READERS CLUB:

“ONE FOR THE BLACKBIRD, ONE FOR THE CROW”

by OLIVIA HAWKER

My Book Cover Art

THE SETTING:

It’s 1870 on the eastern Wyoming prairie, in the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains. Two families (the Bemis family and the Webber family) with adjoining homesteads eke out a living on their farms, about 20 miles from the nearest neighbor or town.

THE DRAMA:

When Ernest Bemis discovers his wife, Cora, involved in an affair with their only neighbor, Substance Webber, mild-mannered Ernest shoots and kills Substance then surrenders himself to local law enforcement. He’s sentenced to two years in prison, leaving both families without a “man of the house.” With winter approaching, Cora asks Substance’s widow, Nettie Mae, if the two families could share resources. Reluctantly, she agrees to let Cora and her 4 children move into her home, joining her and her teenaged son. It’s a long, hard winter for these two women living under the same roof…with such trauma behind them.

THE REST OF THE STORY:

Olivia Hawker’s poetic and lyrical storytelling whisked me away to the raw, gritty pioneering days as she wove a story of resilience, acceptance, forgiveness, family, friendship and survival, jealousy, resentment and guilt… under the most difficult and awkward circumstances possible. Overflowing with beautiful language, lovely images and finely drawn characters, I could feel the cold, the harsh winter winds and even the dirt that came with farm living on the prairie. To say Nettie Mae and Cora wanted nothing to do with each other is mildly stating the situation, but as they stared down an impending Wyoming winter with no men to work their farms and no other neighbors within miles, they realized they must rely on each other and their eldest teen children…Nettie Mae’s Clyde (16) and Cora’s Beulah (13)…both responsible and knowledgeable about the workings of a farm, to survive the brutal winter. This story is all about connections and the long-lasting consequences of the decisions people make when they lose connections: between family members, between neighbors and community members, between humans and the natural world…and the connection of humans with the world after life has ended. It’s an epic novel and well worth the read. Olivia Hawker is at the pinnacle of her storytelling!

MUSIC, ART…and SO MUCH BEAUTY

MUSIC, ART, NATURE… FILL ME UP

A weekend immersed in nature, art and music…heaven to me! Michael and I spent a few weekends ago in Ithaca, N.Y. It’s a sweet university town (Cornell University and Ithaca College) known for its natural beauty. In the heart of the Finger Lakes, it has more than 100 waterfalls, gorgeous gorges and challenging hiking trails.

But, we weren’t there to bask in Ithaca’s natural beauty THIS TIME. We were there to soak up the wide variety of street art/graffiti gracing buildings around the city…and MOSTLY, we were there to experience, LIVE, a South African Zulu singing octet who I’ve wanted to hear since I started traveling to Africa 30+ years ago. They’re an acapella choral group made up of 8 family members. Founded in 1964, their sole purpose was (and still is) to bring their people…actually ALL PEOPLE, a message of hope peace, love and harmony. It was especially important when they started, as South Africa was in the midst of the racially driven APARTHEID and their upbeat messages were musical gifts! It seems that the world needs them now as well…

Since their founding, they’ve been nominated for 19 Grammys and won 5. Their soundtracks can be heard throughout many movies, but they’re best known to us for their collaboration with American singer-songwriter Paul Simon on his 1986 Grammy award-winning GRACELAND album. Their harmonies are legendary, as they relate their traditional stories, history and culture through their music. They’ve performed all over the world, for royalty and for general audiences. Their energy and fun personalities are evident in all they do…they’re a DELIGHT to watch and to hear. GRATEFUL!!!

“Homeless” from Paul Simon’s GRACELAND album
“Long Walk to Freedom” from Movie about the life of Nelson Mandela

HOW CAN WE HELP?

MY FAMILY IS MY HOME

Although our time in Toronto was filled with music, shoe-shopping and lots of eating, Michael and I also did our part helping Michelle with volunteer clothes-sorting for a locally based charity called SAFETYNET…something she and her neighbor do almost every Sunday. SAFETYNET is an organization that provides wrap-around services that encourage independence and helps break the cycle of poverty for those in need. If a family is suffering financial hardship, be they immigrant or local, their community is there to help. They not only offer free clothing but also tutoring, music lessons, furniture, kitchen items and bicycles. For the items they do NOT offer, there are other local organizations that DO offer these services.

We went through the donated clothing and accessory items very carefully, looking for rips, holes, stains and broken zippers, buttons, etc. The clothing that’s finally offered to families is clothing they’d be proud to wear and happy to own. When you go through your closets, please keep this in mind as you choose which pieces to donate.

We have similar organizations in my home town, Syracuse, that offer the same services for families in need…as well as opportunities to volunteer time and goods…making the climb out of poverty so much easier for those making that journey. This volunteer time was a time that touched our hearts and made us aware of the need in every community, everywhere. Here’s some visual information about our time at SAFETYNET… double tap on each photo to see it completely.

My hope in posting this is that we all realize that there are those living among us who are in dire need of help. Consider donating your gently used items to one of these service organizations…or consider volunteering your time to help keep these essential organizations afloat. There will ALWAYS be families who are in need of their help.

ART CATCH UP…POTPOURRI

ITCHING TO TRAVEL…

Do frequent trips to Canada count? Since Michelle’s and my trip to Italy in October/November 2021, we’ve been to Canada to see our dear family. Italy just whet our appetites to travel more…we’re used to journeying far and wide…anywhere we wish to go. Because of COVID, our passport has been inactive . Michael and I had to postpone an African journey in October and a Christmas trip to Germany and Austria to visit the Christmas Markets…a riverboat trip that we love. Plus, Michelle and I had to postpone our Ethiopia/Tanzania trip that we’d be doing right now! Looking ahead with hope and anticipation, though. I think we’ll be in Italy again in May to celebrate my 80th birthday, Michael and I have rebooked our Africa trip as have Michelle and I have done . So, we have lots on the horizon, but nothing soon enough to ease the itching! Enough whining… The purpose of this posting is for me to document some of how I’ve been spending my time…working out to stay strong, reading some good and not-so-good books…and creating art in addition to visiting with friends. Here it comes…

FIRE AT NOTRE DAME, PARIS

That’s a lot of art and a very satisfying way to pass the time… experimenting, researching topics I don’t know a great deal about…again, LIFE IS GOOD. Thanks for checking in. Stay healthy and keep a smile in your heart .

Big Hugs,

abbyj

THE ARTFUL READERS CLUB

“FOUR NAILS” by G.J.BERGER

Once upon a time, there was a young Indian boy…an elephant trainer… named Ashoka. Forced into slavery to help his family survive, he became known an “elephant whisperer” of sorts, after successfully training Four Nails, an unusually enormous, wild elephant. He eventually became head mahout in Hannibal’s army as they marched to war against the Romans.

MY COVER for this book…

In 218 BC, 28 year old Hannibal Barca, his soldiers and his 37 African battle elephants marched on an epic journey from southern Spain to the plains of northern Italy. To surprise the Roman Empire’s army, though, he took an unexpected route to Rome by crossing the Alps.

In a saga told by Ashoka, we read what the world would have been like then…fiction and fact woven together, sprinkled with love between a human and an elephant. Massively researched, GJ Berger’s writing immersed me in an ancient, distant, foreign culture making me fully invested in the outcome of Ashoka and his companions (both human and animal.)

The battle scenes were especially riveting and written with a well-balanced amount of strategic description as well as vivid imagery, but I think this was more of a coming of age tale (and a big, thick tale it was) because we saw Ashoka rise from an inexperienced and innocent 11 year old boy to a knowledgeable, honest, emotionally mature, ethical man. I traveled a journey, experiencing both personal triumph and tragedy…captivated by it from beginning to end!

If you love historical fiction and elephants, this book is for you! Most unusual…

CIAO, ITALIA

TRAVEL MEMORIES LIVE IN MY HEART…

October 23rd is Michelle’s birthday so we decided to plant ourselves in her most favorite place for her special day…ORVIETO, ITALY! We arrived the day before her COMPLEANNO and stayed at the HOTEL PALAZZO PICCOLOMINI (that offered us the most wonderful views of Orvieto rooftops…sunset to sunrise)

Happily walking through the town we know so well, many friends, upon seeing her, wished her BUON COMPLEANNO. She was delighted. We celebrated that evening at her friend’s new restaurant, RISTORANTE IL GIARDINO da GIOVANNI, where we feasted like royalty! Grazie mille, Giovanni!

We spent several wonderful days reacquainting ourselves with the town and visiting with the people we’ve loved for so many years (after missing it and them for almost 2…due to Covid and closed borders.) Orvieto sits majestically high above the valley floor atop a huge chunk of tufo volcanic stone, overlooking cypress-dotted Umbrian plains…a true medieval hill town with a rich underground of Etruscan caves. Here are some highlights of our town at the top of the rock…one of the most outstanding hill towns in Umbria…

LA CORTE DEI MIRACOLI DI ALBERTO BELLINI…THAT’S ALBERTO CREATING HIS MAGIC
…AND CHEF LORENZO CREATING HIS!
MARKET DAY HAPPENS TWICE EACH WEEK
TRUFFLE HUNTING WITH DOGS WHO SPECIALIZE IN FINDING THESE GEMS
WE DO LOVE OUR ITALIAN GELATO
OUR MOST FAVORITE MEAL, NIDI…LARGE STRIPS OF PASTA WRAPPED AROUND PECORINO CHEESE AND HONEY…YUMMMMMMM
ANTHONY at THE BLUE BAR MAKES THE BEST DRINKS…AND SINGS, TOO…DEAR FRIEND
LONGTIME FRIEND, CHEF LORENZO
COOKING CLASS WITH CHEF LORENZO
THE BADIA FAMILY…FEDERICO and HANNAH CREATE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL LEATHER GOODS, SPECIALIZING IN CUSTOM SHOES AND HANDBAGS AS WELL AS ACCESSORIES…SEBASTIAN IS THEIR APPRENTICE
ORVIETO ON TOP OF THE TUFO VOLCANIC ROCK
ORVIETO’S SPECTACULAR DUOMO
ACTOR, STANLEY TUCCI, IN ORVIETO FOR HIS CNN SERIES, “SEARCHING FOR ITALY”

Our next stop was Siena…We were driven there by our friend, Jude.

Siena is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and the Palio… a horserace held twice a year (not when we were there, unfortunately.) Our hotel (HOTEL MINERVA) was located at the bottom of a big hill that we had to climb each day to be in the “happening” part of the city. That was okay though, as we had the most wonderful room with our own PATIO overlooking the city, when we wanted to rest.

Siena is larger than Orvieto and full of activity. It didn’t look as though there were too many shut-downs because of Covid. We were required to wear our masks in every shop (as we were in Orvieto,) and had to show our vaccination cards if we chose to eat inside a restaurant. We felt quite comfortable in Siena and marveled at the wonderful sites, narrow, cobbled streets, shrines throughout the city ensconced in its outside walls and were in awe of the city’s Duomo, its Crypt and its Baptistry…that strong church influence that we always find throughout Italy. Here are some of our outstanding memories in photos…

OUTSIDE AND INSIDE THE DUOMO

THE CRYPT AND THE BAPTISTRY (built in the 1300’s) are feasts for the eyes with ancient frescoed walls, figures, illuminated books…

If the Duomo complex is the soul of Siena, Il Campo is its heart. Piazza del Campo is the focal point of public life in the historic center of the city. Starting as a marketplace and meeting spot for area villages in the 1300’s, it’s considered one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares. Surrounded by shops, restaurants, hotels and living spaces, the Torre del Mangia and the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) stand at the head of the shell-shaped piazza. The Torre and the highest point of the Siena Cathedral are equally tall as a sign that the church and state had equal power.

The Fonte Gaia is a monumental fountain…a focal point…of the Piazza del Campo…believed to be dedicated to the bride of God and patron of Siena, the Virgin Mary. It has a central relief of the Madonna and Child and is framed by stories of Genesis.

We had such a good time in Siena…leisurely, relaxing and fascinating walking all those narrow, serpentine, cobbled streets with our eyes wide open to take in all the eye candy. Here are some glimpses of Siena…

SHRINES are common to see throughout Italy and Siena is no exception. There were some lovely shrines ensconced in outside walls throughout the city…like these

…and door knockers…

We took a day to spend with our friend, Lucianna, in Cortona…just a short car ride away.

CORTONA is an ancient hill town dating back to the time of the Etruscans. It’s a hilly, walled town and boasts age old masterpieces of art by beato Angelico, Lorenzetti, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Luca Signorelli. Unfortunately, the Diocesan Museum was closed so Michelle wasn’t able to see them. I have seen them before on previous visits. Here are some of the sights we did see…

We left Siena and Italy in general, with a heavy heart, not knowing when Covid restrictions would permit us to return. Lucianna’s friend, Lello, drove us from Siena to Fiumicino Aeroporto in Rome where we spent the night before our early morning flight home. We saw some lovely landscapes along the way…

After our Covid test at the airport, we returned to our hotel and happily, had dinner with longtime friend and Italian teacher, Bianca and her roommate, Giulia. It was wonderful hugging Bianca once again…and meeting Giulia. Bianca’s husband, Max (who’s an opera singer) was on his way to Switzerland to perform and couldn’t join us. We missed him!

Ciao, Italia… spero di tornare presto.

ARTFUL READERS CLUB

THE STOLEN LADY

by LAURA MORELLI

My art for a different book cover…

Books have the power to transport us, to allow us to escape to another time and place just through the written word. That’s the closest thing to magic I know! THE STOLEN LADY by Laura Morelli is a historical fiction novel that has as many layers as a beautiful Renaissance painting. From 16th century Florence, (Italy) to World War II France, this is an exceptionally well researched story about a handful of courageous, resourceful employees struggling to keep the masterpieces of the Louvre out of the hands of the Nazis. The fast pace, intriguing characters (several based on actual historical persons,) and clever plot connecting them all, makes for a most enjoyable novel.

If you’re a lover of art history and have an interest in how Leonardo DaVinci’s created his Mona Lisa… if you want to be pulled into the spell of the painting’s creation, meet the enigmatic woman who became Leonardo’s most famous subject and learn of the dangers that nearly destroyed her portrait…in addition to a view of DaVinci himself…his lifestyle and how he utilized his engineering and scientific genius in other areas, this book is for you.

I especially appreciated that there are some supplemental materials at the end of the book that told about Morellli’s extensive research. The section entitled “In Lucie’s Words”, memoir excerpts from Lucie Mazauric, Louvre archivist, is worth a read. This novel’s intertwining of narratives and perspectives gave me a deeper appreciation and understanding of the life, times and survival of Mona Lisa. THE STOLEN LADY offers some impressive storytelling backed by solid research. Highly recommended!!

ARTFUL READING CLUB

“THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS”

by Kristin Harmel

Kidnapped from her German parents and raised in the forest, Yona was trained to survive in the most difficult of environments. Destined to become a hero as she moved from childhood to adulthood, survival training proved valuable in her saving many innocent lives…lives of those she met deep in Poland’s forests (where she was raised,)…Jews forced to escape and hide to evade Nazi capture during WWII Europe.

A unique take on WWII historical fiction, THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS‘ author, Kristin Harmel, offers an extraordinary story of survival, resilience, identity, strength, secrets, family life and…always…hope. Harmel brings the reader into the hearts and minds of these desperate people, mixing reality with spirituality and even a bit of magic.

Loosely based on true stories of survival against overwhelming odds, this is a meticulously researched, heart-racing, heart-wrenching tale with a unique twist that sets it apart from other historical fiction WWII novels. It’s UNPUTDOWNABLE and highly recommended!