Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Though I find stories of heroines from the renaissance, medieval saint’s lives, and stories about art forgeries fascinating, these are not the best subjects for books blogs. I mean, there’s just not enough widespread interest in these topics. But that’s one of the great things about the library isn’t it? Everyone can find something they are interested in to read and enjoy. So I am taking this opportunity to transition out of my “I Geek Art History” mode into something more widely enjoyed…food!
I saw this book pop up on our new book feed and I almost ran down to the rotunda to check it out. Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales…oh my! The pictures look good; the food tastes better. Here’s an overview of what I made, how it tasted, and what I recommend.
“My doctor told me I had to stop holding intimate dinners for four unless there are three other people.” – Orson Welles
Recipes: Tacos of Roasted Poblanos and Cream (p. 16), Tomatillo-Árbol Salsa (p. 134), Refried Black Beans (p. 148)
Tunes: Moondance by Van Morrison
Before I begin talking about this meal, I will give a little information about my cooking style. I view recipes as suggestions, not rules. As a result, it’s common that I make substitutions (in this cookbook, oregano for epazote leaves) and I often don’t measure. I also live alone and frequently halve recipes. Some people like cooking once and then having the same thing as leftovers for a week but I get bored! I must confess, there is one ingredient I never halve: garlic. Sometimes I halve a recipe and add more garlic than what the full recipe asks for. A little extra garlic never hurt anyone (unless you’re a vampire, in which case you wouldn’t like these recipes anyway!).
This evening found me roasting both tomatillos and poblanos. I am not sure I toasted the tomatillos long enough to get much of a smoky flavor out of them. Another recipe I have found advises dry roasting tomatillos in a pan for closer to 30 minutes. In the future, I would like to repeat this salsa but roast the tomatillos in the oven like you would tomatoes (halve, place on baking sheet, drizzle with oil and salt, 450° for maybe 40-50 minutes). However you decide to prepare your tomatillos, they’ll go well with the remainder of the ingredients. Depending on your preference for spiciness, you may use less árbol chiles (they had me shedding a layer on a cold winter night) and I will likely add a couple tablespoons of lime juice next time I make this. The salsa was fresh and earthy and continues to be quite delicious with tortilla chips.
The tacos themselves were tasty, though I may add bacon to them next time as a recipe later in the book does. (Is bacon ever a bad addition??) A note to readers and my future self: it is much easier to char the skin on poblanos that can lay flat on the burner rather than peppers that have a bend in them. The black beans were an earthy, delicious, and simple accompaniment. It was as I was making my black beans though that a sad thing happened…as I was reaching into the cupboard a jar of spicy mustard came tumbling out. I am happy to say the jar didn’t break and no mustard was lost however my blender that it fell on was not so lucky. To be truthful, this blender had seen much better days and I wasn’t that sad to lose it. But I was bummed that I had no way to make the Mexican Limeade from the cookbook. I’ll be watching sales on blenders and making the limeade in the near future.
“My weaknesses have always been food and men – in that order.” – Dolly Parton
Recipes: Potato and Chorizo Tacos (p. 39), pickled red onions, Fresh Green Salsa (p. 133)
Tunes: Robinella and the CC Stringband
Wow, this was a good meal. I generally like chorizo a lot so I can’t say I was surprised. I added eggs instead of potato to the tacos. I garnished them with pickled red onions (I used a recipe that I really like from bon appétit Magazine instead of the one found in the book) and the fresh green salsa. If you check out this book and only make one thing, let it be this salsa. I made the alternate recipe for the salsa adding more jalapeno peppers and avocado and it was fantastic! It was light, creamy, and a little spicy. And the combination of the fresh salsa, sweet and tangy onions, and spicy chorizo was excellent, plus it was pretty. As my mom always says, “pretty is important” when it comes to food. I have repeated this meal since I first made it and enjoyed it each time.
There are a number of other things I didn’t get a chance to try that sounded great from this book: Thick Mexican Hot Chocolate; Ground Beef, Olive and Raisin Tacos; and Yucatán-Style Pork Tacos. I was tempted by the Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream since I have made some before and it was excellent. If you are ever up for a little more intensive recipe I would recommend this one: Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream Cake with Orange Meringue. Definitely take a look at this book if you get a chance and enjoy your tacos, tortas, and tamales!
Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: flavors from the griddles, pots, and streetside kitchens of Mexico
I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo". A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork. I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.
Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici. We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums. The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II. We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.
The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists. The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time. Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists. Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope. Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.
Spike has done a lot of research to write this book. I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants. In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end. There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael. The format of the book also seems a bit strange. The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer. It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though. It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!
Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine
In my last blog, I talked about a dual biography I had read about Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, two daughters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Katherine of Aragon was for quite a while Queen of England being Henry VIII's first wife. In divorcing her, Henry broke with the Pope and Roman Catholic Church who refused to annul his marriage. The woman he took as his second wife was the infamous Anne Boleyn, who ended up being tried for treason and beheaded in 1536, three years (and four pregnancies that failed to produce a male heir) after her marriage to the king. Sister Queens peaked my interest in the Boleyn family and Tudor England and I have decided to explore a few of the many books written about these historical characters.
Now, I thought that my family could be dramatic at times, but it is nothing compared to the Boleyn family! Anne had two siblings, Mary and George, and was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard. Shortly before finishing up Sister Queens, I was browsing the shelf and found a book solely devoted to Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir and decided this is where I would begin my survey of the Boleyn family. According to the introduction, Mary Boleyn has historically been portrayed inaccurately in a number of publications, and even more so in recent fiction works. I have to confess that I didn't know Anne Boleyn had a sister until reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory a few years ago. I knew this was a fiction title, but I did draw some conclusions about Mary based on it when I should not have. (This can many times be an issue when reading historical fiction…where does the history stop and the fiction start?) In this book, Mary becomes Henry VIII's mistress and bears him a son named Henry. Well, in real life, Mary really did have an affair with Henry VIII. And did she bear him a son? This we know to be untrue since she did not have a son until years after the affair had ended. Her daughter, however, may have been Henry VIII's illegitimate child. There is no proof that this is actually the case, but Weir provides evidence for this by analyzing different monies and honors that were bestowed on Mary's daughter and her family throughout her life.
Provable facts about Mary Boleyn are few and far between. We do not know when Mary and the King's affair took place, how long it lasted, how it started, why it started, or how either person felt about the affair. Our main proof that it happened comes later in the years after it had ended when Henry was trying to cover his bases and make sure his marriage to Anne would be considered legitimate. Only two letters remain written in Mary's own hand, and compared to her well known sister, she is not often mentioned in other sources. Another hypothesis Weir spends time considering is the idea that Mary may not have been mistress to just one king, but two! In addition to Henry VIII, there is some evidence that she may have also been the mistress of Francis I, King of France. Her embarrassed family tried to keep this a secret as well as keep Mary in the shadows for much of the rest of her life, according to Weir, which may be why we have so little contemporary information about her.
Truthfully, I am not sure I gained much concrete knowledge from this text. There is so little verifiable information on Mary Boleyn. This does not, however, mean that I didn't enjoy the book. This is a very well researched book in which Weir pokes holes in many past assumptions historians have unfairly made about Mary. Weir does a good job holding up Mary, giving her the benefit of the doubt where she has simply been critically judged and pigeonholed in the past. As a woman of the court in Tudor England, she had little control over her life but exercised her strength when given the opportunity. My favorite part of the book is when Weir talks about Mary's second marriage. William Stafford was "below" her status but she married him in secret for love rather than familial gain. In a letter to her sister, then queen, and King Henry VIII she writes, "So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him…For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well". As you can see from this short snippet of the letter, Mary is unapologetic and unwavering. She took a huge risk in her second marriage, and paid consequences for it, but she held strong to the marriage and husband she had chosen. This is how I will choose to remember Mary Boleyn.
Mary Boleyn: the Mistress of Kings
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain of the 15th century were important figures in history. Sister Queens tells the story of two of their daughters, Katherine and Juana. Born Spanish princesses, both women became queens - Katherine was the wife of Henry VIII, King of England, and Juana married Phillip of Burgundy before becoming heir to her parent's kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. Both women were raised to fill the role of queen to further the goals of their country of birth and produce heirs. It seemed this was well underway with the politically advantageous marriages they had secured, but things began to turn for the worse quickly, especially in Juana's case.
Juana's marriage started out well, but she was soon forced into submission by her husband, Phillip. Developing her own method of retaliation to this treatment she would throw tantrums and refuse to eat or go to church for days. These acts fueled her adversaries' claims that she was psychologically unsound. After Phillip died, she had an opportunity to escape this tyranny but only for a short time, for soon after, her father had her confined in Tordesillas. Once her father had died her captor swiftly became her own son. Portrayed throughout history as "Juana the Mad", author Julia Fox sheds new light on the ways Juana fought against her oppression. The figure history has passed down to us seems to be very different from the actual person Juana was.
Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII also went through ups and downs, as those who have even a slight idea of how Henry VIII lived probably know! Much more extant information survives about Katherine than Juana, and through her letters and actions readers get the impression that she was a very strong and determined woman, one which did not obey the notion that the world in this time should be controlled by men. Leading England in battle, negotiating marriages for herself and other young women, for many years being the primary confidant and partner of her powerful husband…she was resilient and independent. She had learned the art of politicking from her mother, which she had all but mastered. But the tides began to turn for her after a number of failed pregnancies, her later life destined to be much different from her earlier years.
This book gives readers very interesting insight into the world of the 15th and 16th century European leaders. Author Julia Fox uses great primary references to help us understand what may have been going through the minds of the characters found within the pages of her book. The subtitle to the book is "The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile". Their lives were indeed tragic, but noble as well. Fox does a great job of intertwining the lives of the sisters. She is also very good at showing the development of the characters throughout the story. Readers can see how the events in their lives changed the characters' personalities and how specific individual characteristics became more dominate with time. This double biography has been a read I have thoroughly enjoyed!
Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile