Best reading of 2019: Nonfiction, Literary Fiction, and One Purely Perfect Short Story

December 31, 2019 at 10:50 pm (Best of 2019, Book review, books)


The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, by Orlando Figes

    Stealing the Show: A History of Art and Crime in Six Thefts, by John Barelli with Zachary Schisgal

Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed America, by Jared Cohen

    Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, by Claire Harmon

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Author Hallie Rubenhold

Renaissance by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Schumann: The Faces and the Masks, by Judith Chernaik

Robert and Clara Schumann

The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest To Break an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox

    Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, by Rachel Monroe

Little Dancer, Age Fourteen: The True Story Behind Degas’s Masterpiece, by Camille Laurens

In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

Becoming, by Michele Obama

The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, by Eric Foner

Lee C. Bollinger, President of Columbia University (left), presents the 2011 Pulitzer History Prize to Eric Foner.

[While pursuing his doctorate in American history at Columbia, my brother Richard had the great good fortune to study with Professor Eric Foner.]

  A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Lucky man, Hisham Matar, to be able to make this pilgrimage to a place steeped in such a gorgeous heritage. And such lovely writing:

The play of understated exteriors and magnificent interiors, of calm serenity on the outside and deliberate care and thoughtfulness on the inside, of a modest or moderate face concealing a fervent heart, is a Sienese habit, a magic trick the city likes to perform. It does this not only out of the desire to surprise but also, I felt during those early days, to demonstrate the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold.

Your friend forever, A. Lincoln : the enduring friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, by Charles B. Strozier. This book was the perfect companion volume to Louis Bayard’s Courting Mr. Lincoln, of which more below.


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan. Oh. Ian McEwan, you cunning artificer! You had me mesmerized, from the very outset, by this strange and disturbing invention.  (Ian looks great, but that cover creeps me out.)

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Oh dear…a book I wanted so much to like. And there were some memorable moments; of course there were; Kingsolver is such a gifted writer. But I have rarely read a novel in which the dialog was so annoyingly unbelievable. I kept wanting to exclaim, “C’mon, Barbara, real people don’t talk to each other like that – in long, rambling disquisitions on weighty topics – commentary that is more like a  series of rants than anything else! (I got through it, but barely.)

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. I just finished  this novel, and I believe it will haunt me for a long time. Among its many singular attributes, it takes readers to a place most of us know nothing about: the Kamchatka Peninsula,

Short story

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” by Hugh Walpole. As sensitive and moving an exploration of human affection as I’ve come across in a long time.

Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE

A final word on this year’s reading: I just completed a rereading of Courting Mr. Lincoln, and I think it is  brilliant. Not just in its category of historical fiction, but as a novel in any category, or just in its own category. Actually, with its wit, wonderful recreation of Springfield, Illinois in the 1840s, meticulous writing, and above all, bringing to such vivid life those  two singular individuals, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, everything about it is superb. Why has this book not garnered more notice? Lately I’ve started so many novels only to set them aside in frustration and dismay. But Courting Mr. Lincoln is a triumph. Kudos to you, Mr. Bayard!

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In Hoffa’s Shadow: a Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth, by Jack Goldsmith

December 26, 2019 at 7:41 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

  Few people are able to write about this complicated subject with the kind of inside knowledge possessed by Jack Goldsmith. Chuckie O’Brien, who was Jimmy Hoffa’s indispensable foot soldier up until the time of his disappearance, was also, for ten years, Jack Goldsmith’s stepfather.

This story, turbulent and fascinating as it is, has a special meaning for those of us who came of age in mid-twentieth century America. I remember the Teamsters Union as a force to be reckoned with, constantly in the news. So was the Mob – the Outfit – whatever you wanted to call it. The two were, in certain instances, intertwined.

Chuckie O’Brien was a loving and devoted parent. He entered Jack Goldsmith’s life at a time when the youth was in need of a father’s care and guidance. Jack was so grateful for Chuckie’s devotion that he changed his last name to O’Brien. But on reaching adulthood, Jack began to see things differently. He was ambitious, wanting to make a name for himself and possibly serve in the government as a lawyer. How would he ever obtain and keep security clearance if his connection to Chuckie O’Brien came to light, as it inevitably would? And in addition, Jack had come to see his stepfather in a different light, as an uncouth, uneducated man whose choice of associations was, to say the least, dubious.

And so he reverted to the name Jack Goldsmith and proceeded to ascend the career ladder, serving for a time in the Justice Department. He is now a member of the faculty of Harvard Law School.

But that is not the whole story. Not by a long shot.

It has to be said that in the course of his adult life, Jack Goldsmith came to a new understanding and a realization with regard to his stepfather. This is how he concludes the introduction to the book:

The uneducated union man, it turned out, had a lot to teach the professor.
What follows is an account of what I learned.

Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 coincided roughly with the building of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (It opened in 1976.) For years, this “Jersey girl” heard the rumor repeated that Jimmy Hoffa was buries somewhere underneath the Meadowlands structure. In 2010, the stadium was demolished; no human remains were found to be present.

In Hoffa’s Shadow is the fruit of seven years of intensive research. But this was more than a fact finding mission. It was also an act of contrition, Goldsmith’s chance to make amends to the man who gave him unconditional love at a time when he desperately needed it. As such, it is a surprisingly moving work, as  well as being beautifully written and revelatory on many levels. Highly, highly recommended.

Chris Nashawaty has written an especially astute review in the New York Times.

WXYZ in Detroit aired this segment in September:



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Happy Holidays to All!

December 25, 2019 at 11:46 pm (Christmas, Food)

I expect that many of you enjoyed a Christmas turkey or ham for dinner today. This is a wonderful tradition!

However, here at our house, we did something slightly different….

May I present the Christmas Frittata!

(Photography by Ron)

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Further works of beauty, for Christmas

December 25, 2019 at 1:54 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Little Garden of Paradise, Upper Rhenish Master

Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor, Jan Van Eyck

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Gerard David

Virgin and Child, Stefan Lochner

Madonna of the Goldfinch, Raphaello Sanzio (Raphael)

Virgin of the Rocks,  Leonardo da Vinci

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Musical Interlude – and a Poetical Sentiment – at Christmas Time

December 22, 2019 at 2:23 pm (Christmas, Music)

A commenter issues a warning:

‘Monsieur le directeur: faites attention à votre pied.’

Another, in English, says much the same but adds: ‘History repeats itself.’ What history?

Well, it seems that Jean Baptiste Lully, composer of this irresistible ditty, was conducting in the same manner as Monsieur le directeur above, when he inadvertently stabbed himself in the foot with the long staff he was using. The wound became gangrenous. Lully refused to have the infected limb amputated and the infection spread, ultimately causing his death in 1687 at the age of 54.

Here’s an enthusiastic (if tongue-in-cheek) comment on this film clip:

‘Nice to see remaining film footage of this important historical event!’

And it is in point of fact an historical event. For a description of what actually occurred, read Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment, by James R. Gaines. Oh, and the piece being played was composed by Frederick himself, an accomplished musician.

Here are three more beautiful works in honor of Christmas:




by John Betjeman
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.


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Best Reading in Crime Fiction 2019: Part Two

December 21, 2019 at 2:42 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Karin Fossum

Jill Ciment

Dervla McTiernan

Killing with Confetti by Peter Lovesey. Always reliable, always enjoyable

The Whisperer by Karin Fossum. Okay, I put it on the list, but this would never be my favorite Fossum novel. The writing was excellent, as always, but the narrative was almost entirely given over to an interiority that quickly became, for this reader, downright suffocating. The plot was somewhere betweem slow and inert.

Unto Us a Son Is Given by Donna Leon. Up to Leon’s usual high standard. Trace Elements, the twenty-ninth novel featuring the indefatigable Commissario Guido Brunetti, is due out on March 3 of the coming year.

Joe Country by Mick Herron. Another entertaining entry in the Sough House series

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. A trial concerning an unspeakable crime gives rise to a powerful and illicit passion.

The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan. A worthy follow-up to The Ruin.

Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith. Everything he does delights me! I’ve chosen this book for my 2020 Usual Suspects presentation and discussion.

Cold Wrath by Peter Turnbull. A procedural set in York, with a cast of characters that I feel as if I’ve known for a long time. And no wonder – this is the twenty-fifth entry in the Hennessey and Yellich series!

A Suspicion of Silver by P.F. Chisolm. The ninth entry in an historical series that I love.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Marilyn Stasio opens her New York Times review with this lively exclamation:

Oh, goody! An 800-page novel about the peasant uprisings of 1549!

This venerable crime fiction reviewer goes on to  state:

Sansom describes 16th-century events in the crisply realistic style of someone watching them transpire right outside his window.

All I can say is, it just flew by…all 800 pages of it!!

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly. The king of the American procedural just keeps getting better.

A Rising Man, A Necessary Evil, and Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee. Here’s a new series that takes place in India just after the First World War. Mukherjee really hit the ground running with these books. A Rising Man is excellent; so are the two that follow it. All you need to do is look at the awards and nominations garnered by these novels.
I just finished Smoke and Ashes, and though I very much enjoyed it, I do want to register a critical note. Toward the novel’s conclusion, a situation arises in which a dastardly plot endangering many lives, must be foiled as soon as possible. I thought this section of the narrative was longer and more convoluted than it needed to be; moreover, Captain Sam Wyndham, the series protagonist, was constantly running from one place to another, putting out fires literally and figuratively and seeming to be the only person able to intuit what the enemy was up to.

I thought it was a bit over the top.

Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts. Another classic worthy of rediscovery. I particularly like this author’s writing: it’s succinct, vivid – and not dated.

Freeman Wills Crofts, 1879-1957

Diary of a Dead Man On Leave by David Downing. Quoting myself here:

The setting is pre-World-War-Two Germany, in Hamm, to be specific, in the far north of the country. Josef Hoffmann has come there in order to do work on behalf of international Communism. But he becomes involved in the life of Walter, the young son of the woman who runs his boarding house. Gradually he becomes like a substitute father to the boy.

As Josef’s emotional commitment to Walter grows, his commitment to “the cause” recedes. Eventually he must make a crucial decision.

What could be better than espionage with a beating heart at its center? I loved this book and would definitely read another by this author, David Downing.

Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman. Having read and very much liked two of Fesperman’s earlier books – The Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son – I kept meaning to get back to him. With Safe Houses, I accomplished this return, and I’m glad that I did. Fesperman, a former foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, knows well the secret world, and brings it and its denizens vividly to life.

Dan Fesperman

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear and Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny. Both these titles were Usual Suspects selections. I’ve put them together because in both cases, they are written by highly regarded authors whose novels sometimes work for me and sometimes don’t. I remember the Winspear title as having its worthwhile moments and an appealing protagonist in Maisie Dobbs. But the narrative was all over the place and rather hard to follow.

And as for Louise Penny, well I must register a mildly dissenting voice amidst the swell of admiration on the part of her many fans. I know her readers are charmed by the cast of characters in their almost magical village of Three Pines somewhere in darkest Quebec, but alas, I sometimes find them more annoying than endearing. I admit,though, that I have had some good reading in this series. Bury Your Dead, my favorite entry, takes place in Quebec City and brought the place so vividly to life that I wanted to drop everything  and go there at once!

Maigret and the Nahour Case by Georges Simenon. I recently told my fellow mystery lovers in Usual Suspects that I read the Maigret novels as palate cleansers between longer and more involved reading matter. I do not mean to deprecate them; rather, to me the Maigret stories are gleaming jewels of the mystery world.

Love this cover – Love that car!

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Loved it – Just the kind of meticulous, action-packed British police procedural that I find utterly satisfying. It was a Suspects selection (thanks, Carol!), but I’d already read it.

Although I’ve not quite finished it, I want to slip The Old Success by Maryland resident Martha Grimes onto this list before I finish. I have a sentimental attachment to this series, as you’ll see.

The Man with a Load of Mischief and The Old Fox Deceiv’d were hot off the press in the early 1980s when I first read them. I had just started work at the library, and was commencing on my own Magical Mystery Tour, as it was. I was at once charmed by Grimes’s style and her unique, and uniquely appealing cast of characters. And I’m happy to report that, after all these years their attraction has not lessened one bit. Richard Jury of Scotland Yard,  Lord Ardry, aka Melrose Plant, and the other denizens of Long Piddleton – they’re all still very much on the scene. Plus we’re introduced to three singular  denizens of the animal world; namely, a horse, a goat and a dog, named respectively Aggrieved, Aghast, and Aggro. That’s the kind of thing Grimes does that pleases me no end!

And so I salute you. Martha Grimes, on the occasion of this, your twenty-fifth Richard Jury novel.

Val McDermid

David Downing

Martha Grimes



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Best Reading of 2019: Crime Fiction, Part One

December 16, 2019 at 3:48 pm (Best of 2019, books)

Paul Doiron

Deborah Crombie

Jane Harper

Stephen Mack Jones

Almost Midnight by Paul Doiron  Why is this Maine author so little known? Come on, crime fiction lovers: Grab The Poacher’s Son and get going on this excellent series!

Agent Running in the Field by John LeCarre. Pure LeCarre; i.e. pure delight.

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie. Liked it, but not quite as much as Water Like a Stone

The Dry, Force of Nature, and The Lost Man by Jane Harper. Australia comes vividly to life in these novels. Jane Harper is new on the scene, but she has hit the ground running!

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware. This author is also on a roll. This novel, her fifth work of domestic suspense, is a sort of updated riff on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. In general, I liked it, but I had some issues with it as well. (See my review.)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson. This is the fifth novel featuring private investigator Jackson Brodie, and in my view, it’s the best since the first one, Case Histories.

Dead Man’s Mistress by David Housewright

The Sentence Is Death by Anthony Horowitz. If you’re not yet on the Anthony Horowitz bandwagon – well, step right up! You can start with this one, but it would be better to begin with The Word Is Murder, the first entry in the Daniel Hawthorne / Anthony Horowitz series. (Yes, the author is also a character in these novels. After all, Hawthorne needs an amanuensis, someone to write up his exploits. Remind you of someone?)

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. A rich stew of Baltimore history, as it played out mainly in the 1960s, this novel is yet another example of crime fiction authors utilizing actual crime as an element of their narratives. Not quite in a league with Lippman’s stunning What the Dead Know, but still very engaging.

Rules of Prey by John Sandford. It was about time I read one of Sandford’s ‘Prey’ novels; he’s been churning them out since 1989, when Rules of Prey first appeared. I was somewhat apprehensive; would the narrative be saturated with violence? Now I read this book back in February of last year, so my recollection is imprecise. I do know that in general I liked it and would happily read another entry in this long running series. (Number 29, Neon Prey, came out this year.) This is yet another example of a felicitous Usual Suspects selection. (Thanks, Chris!)

Overture To Death by Ngaio Marsh. Like me, Mike is fond of the Golden Age authors. Good choice, Mike!

Shiver Hitch by Linda Greenlaw. Our discussion of this title has been postponed until next year.  I read it some months ago and liked it, but by next August, I’ll have mostly forgotten the particulars. Hey – I already have! Anyhow, I do recall that it’s yet another title with the Maine setting put to effective use, and with a likeable and admirable protagonist called Jane Bunker (and yes, I had to look up that name).

Anthony Horowitz

John Sandford

David Housewright

Kate Atkinson

Linda Greenlaw

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Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, by H.W. Brands

December 14, 2019 at 2:49 pm (Book review, books, History)

I was  casting about for a single word or phrase to describe this book. I came up with:


The Sand Creek Massacre. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. The Wounded Knee Massacre. Shooting, knifing, scalping, mutilation – there seemed to be no end to the carnage.

And yet…there were moments of grace, of peace, like this one, taken from A Day with the Cow Column in 1843 by Jesse Applegate, one of the leaders of what became known as The Great Migration of 1843.

It is not yet 8 o’clock when the first watch is to be set; the evening meal is just over, and the corral now free from the intrusion of cattle or horses, groups of children are scattered over it. The larger are taking a game of romps; “the wee toddling things’ are being taught that great achievement that distinguishes man from the lower animals. Before a tent near the river a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air, which, as they float away over the quiet river, seem a lament for the past rather than a hope for the future. It has been a prosperous day; more than twenty miles have been accomplished of the great journey….

But time passes; the watch is set for the night; the council of old men has been broken up, and each has returned to his own quarter; the flute has whispered its last lament to the deepening night; the violin is silent, and the dancers have dispersed; enamored youth have whispered a tender “good night” in the ear of blushing maidens, or stolen a kiss from the lips of some future bride for Cupid here, as elsewhere, has been busy bringing together congenial hearts, and among these simple people he alone is consulted in forming the marriage tie.

Earlier in the day of this particular journey, a woman had given birth. Mother and infant were doing well.
Near the end of this book, there’s a chapter entitled John Muir’s Last Stand. The ‘stand’ in question involved the building of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, a project to which John Muir was vehemently opposed:

“These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, life them to the Almighty Dollar….Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

Don’t know about you, but after I read  this, I wanted to stand up and shout, YES!! And I couldn’t help thinking, with apologies to Wordsworth:

John Muir, thou shouldst be living at this hour;
America hath need of thee…

John Muir, c1902

Finally, there is this speech, a model of eloquence and heartbreak, spoken by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce:

I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ He who led the young men [Olikut] is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, 1877

As you have no doubt gathered, Dreams of El Dorado was a wrenching reading experience. Yet at the same time deeply learned and memorable, beautifully written and meticulously researched. I do recommend it – but fortify yourself.

‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….’

H.W. Brands has appeared on C-Span BookTV to discuss this book.


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An excellent time was had by all!

December 2, 2019 at 3:14 pm (Art, Family)

A photo essay in celebration of family.

Day One: On Opening Day!!


I went (with Etta, Welles, and their Mom and Dad and  some friends and their children). I watched (among numerous other shrieking and burbling youngsters). And I enjoyed it!!

Day Two:

Mighty Wellesy at the bat!

Day Three: Return to the Art Institute!

First: the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights. After a lifetime of collecting, Mr. Rubloff ultimately ended up donating some twelve hundred of these to the museum:

Truman Capote called these precious objects “Some fragments of a dream.”

Etta and Welles love them, and so do I.

And now, on to the Thorne Miniature Rooms, some of which have been decorated  for the holidays (but not the ones I photographed, alas):

The special exhibit featured the works of Andy Warhol:

Ah yes – the sainted Brillo boxes!

I feel as though I’ve seen these images time and time again, so for me there were no surprises in this part of the exhibit. One thing I did learn was that Andy Warhol had considerable draftsman skills. He even illustrated some children’s books. This was early in his career.

Yes, different media were represented.

I thought Etta and Welles would get a kick out of these sixties artifacts, but instead they seemed bemused and genuinely puzzled by what they were seeing.

When we go to the Art Institute, we make it a policy to check in with our favorites:

Etta and Degas’s Little Dancer. She’s been photographed several times now with this sculpture, always making sure that her feel are correctly positioned.

Un dimanche apres-midi a L’isle de la Grande Jatte,  by Georges Seurat, called ‘the Dot Painting’ by Etta

Every time I go to the Art Institute, something new enchants me. This time it was Portico with a Lantern by a follower of Canaletto, 1741-1745

We had lunch at the excellent Terzo Piano Restaurant in the Museum’s Modern Wing. Ron and Ben joined us.

Erica, Welles, Etta, and Ben. Kids hard at work on their art. Menus Warhol themed

A trip to  the Museum Shop is always a highlight of these visits. One of the items on sale was a blue plush cat based on a Warhol drawing. You can just barely get a glimpse of it peaking out of the top of Welles’s shopping bag.

Once in the store, he’d fallen instantly in love with this fluffy feline! It is now safely ensconced in his bedroom and named Cutie Pie.

That afternoon, Etta and Welles attended a Gingerbread House workshop and returned home triumphantly carrying these:




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