Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peyrusse le Roc, Charlemagne's dad conquered this area

In our trip to France we visited some obscure sites. One that gets a lot of blank stares, even from Frenchmen, is when I say I visited Peyrusse le Roc.

I happened to find a listing of it while browsing through the Michelin Green Guide for Languedoc Rousillon Tarn Gorges. I had been considering visiting Peyrepertuse during our trip and saw the nearby heading of Peyrusse le Roc. There was a mention of ruins and that the area had once been conquered by Pepin le Bref, better known as the father of Charlemagne.

Ultimately we did not visit Peyrepertuse. In the guides were warnings about severe winds and safety. If the winds are too strong, tourists are not allowed to climb the ruins. The drive to get to Peyrepertuse would have been about three hours. I did not like the idea of driving that far with no guarantee about whether or not we could even climb the ruins once we got there.

Instead, I chose to visit ruins which I hoped might date back to the eight century and had a link to the Carolingian dynasty.

The Michelin Green Guide said that the site was closed on Mondays. As it turns out, the ruins are always accessible. It is the tourist office that is closed on Mondays and, like elsewhere in France outside of Paris, it is closed between the hours of noon to two as well. The tourist office sells a brochure with pictures and a brief history of Peyrusse le Roc for 3.5 Euros. (At least that was the price two years ago.)

Getting to Peyrusse le Roc was an adventure all in itself.

The village is about two and a half hours north of Toulouse and about half an hour south of Figeac in a region known as the Rouergue.

Before our trip to France we purchased a Garmin Nuvi as well as a package of French maps. I was unable to find Peyrusse le Roc either by the site indexes or by even typing in the name. As far as my GPS unit was concerned, Peyrusse le Roc did not exist. We were left to navigate our route the old-fashioned, low tech way: maps and road markers.

We kept the GPS unit on just to show us what road we were on, and at one point I laughed because it stopped doing just that. It appeared as if we were traveling overland as the D287 looked as if it disappeared.

It didn't but the satellite did not seem to recognize that fact.

Here is an aerial view via Google maps so you can get a sense of the area.

View Larger Map

Only upon arriving at the village did the Garmin reluctantly acknowledge its name.

The village itself is small and very quiet.
It was the only village in France where I did not see a boulangerie or a charcuterie. Nor did I see any restaurants.

I was glad we packed a picnic lunch.

The present day village is on the hilltop and to get to the ruins, you wind up walking up and down steep grades. Over the course of that day I walked inclines more times than I care to remember. My knees and shins were complaining that day and the next.

Talking with the woman in the Tourist office was of little help in my research. She spoke no English and so our communication was based solely on my limited French skills. I wanted to know what was still standing that was conquered by Pepin le Bref. As I said his name, she perked up and nodded in recognition. However, I could not convey to her the essence of my inquiry. Alas, she resorted to telling me again and again where to start my tour.

Their tourist guide indicates that the first mention of Pétrucia (a previous name for Peyrusse le Roc) was in 767 when Pepin le Bref advanced in Aquitaine in pursuit of Duke Waiffre. I discovered that Pétrucia was a previous name by a quick Google search. At first I thought it was the name of an unfamiliar historian.

I found a monograph titled: PETRUCIA-PERYUSSE (Histoire politique, administrative, économique et sociale d'une commune française)
It is available for 35 Euros.

The following is an automated translation, forgive any irregularities. At least it does not include references to convents of chocolate éclairs.

"A site as impressive as Peyrusse-le-Roc, situated at an altitude of 465 m, with the remains of the ancient and imposing Rupes Peruciae and walking paths, also riding high, has even today in early 3rd millennium, an evocative dramatic. This is even more sensitive for someone who, as the author of this work, has ancestral links with the locality, once formidable fortress, "eagle's nest surrounded by a fortified wall" is found, Indeed, the evidence in this book, a notary Gleyrose in 1598, a Mr. Jean-Louis Gleyrose, practitioner in 1778 and a citizen Gleyrose Mayor in 1793. Here, the ties of blood feeding the aesthetic emotion and passion of the researcher and we are more surprised than Paul Gleyrose, descendant of the above, we present here a dense monograph also includes the history of Petrucia-Peyrusse, origins prehistoric till the year 1900, with its colors of epic (role of the city in the war against the English), but also its demographic, economic and social (poverty of some of the inhabitants, after 1789, and "lack of relations" with the surrounding villages) and a complete and detailed portrait of the little town in the late nineteenth century, once important capital of royal bailiwick, a clear vision and contrast always faithful to the documents d 'archive.
Long the city, the preferred site, named in official documents, sometimes Oppidum Petruciae, Villa Petruciae, Rupes Peruciae or Castrum Petruciae derives its power from its topography, albeit at a price of almost incessant wars, the eighth century (seat of Pepin the Short) through sixteenth (unsuccessfully attacking the Calvinists in 1568), through acts of armed resistance against the agents of the kingdom (XII century), the Albigensian war (early XIII century), the long conflict between France to England (XIV century) and the struggle of two rival factions, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians (XV century). Reporting directly to the counts of Rouergue, because of its position high up, she sees her fate tied to them (from 849) until the royal sovereignty necessary, with Hugh Capet and his descendants. But from the sixteenth century, lost its place as a stronghold (discovery of gunpowder, advances in artillery, pacified regions around), Peyrusse its activity will fall until 1789, while tax burdens, they , heavy. The abolition of privileges is greeted with joy by the inhabitants, but "no drop of blood was shed (the city) during the Revolution." In 1848, the communal life "seems to get some momentum," the ways of improving communication: Peyrusse the beautiful, picturesque village Aveyron, becomes little by little, aflaming torch high in the past."
As we came upon the ruins, my husband took one look at the structure and announced that he was not climbing it. He also said that my life insurance policy was up-t0-date and if I wanted to climb it to go right ahead.

I was thrilled to hear that sentiment.

If you look closely you can see a rickety ladder leading up to the top of that rock. Then there is a skimpy little railing that surrounds the top portion.

I decided against climbing it. I took copious pictures from beneath and did not wish to discover firsthand the wonders of the French health care system.

We were told by a couple who were return visitors that on Bastille Day firecrackers are set off at the top of these ruins. I cannot imagine climbing up or down those ladders in the dark. The thought of setting off explosive devices on that summit....YIKES!

Here is an even closer look at the stairs and surrounding fence.

I am reprinting the top photo so you can see the brave soul standing on the top of the big rock.
That was not me. Although I do think the view from up there would have been spectacular.

There was an artist's rendering on the back of the tourist guide showing a wooden structure with a pitched roof between the two towers. I do not think that castle could have been thought of as spacious or comfortable. I can also only imagine how many fatalities occurred during the construction of that edifice.

The guide also says that this iconic structure dates to the 11th century, so that is past the time of Pepin le Bref. I do not know what was standing that Pepin conquered, but most likely it was destroyed. Either at the time or over the centuries.

To take those pictures I first had to walk down a steep hill to get to the base of the ruins.

Beneath the structure is the sign designating it as the Château inférieur. Clicking on the photo will enlarge it for you so that you should be able to make out the words including "de l'epoque carolingienne."

After taking my pictures at the base of the chateau, I went through a doorway in the wall that surrounded it and ventured onward and downward.

Next up was the ruins of Notre Dame de Laval. Here is the marker for that.

Here are ruined pointed arches that are now covered with foliage.

This next picture you can see where the church ruins are in relation to the Château inférieur. Just look at the top of the picture to see the familiar tower.

I love this next picture because it is a jumble of stones and vegetation. As if the earth is slowly reclaiming its bones from Man.

Here is another picture of the church's ruins with various shadows playing over its remains.

Next are the ruins from a hospital dating back to 1213.

Here are two signs denoting its significance.

Here is the exterior of the hospital which does not look all that bad, but...

from another angle you can see that it is not fit for patients to be seen today.

Then the path curved and I discovered moss covered steps leading back to the village.

There were some structures not in ruin such as the beffroi, what we call a belfry.

Here I am at the end of the day after walking up and down the hill to the village one too many times.

Monday, November 16, 2009

American cultural education, suggestions requested

It has been so long since I have written a substantive blog post and for my followers and readers, I humbly apologize.

I have had many different demands on my time and while I wanted to blog, I began seeing its lure as a source of possible procrastination from accomplishing other things that needed to be finished. Hence the cyber silence.

I will be resuming my travelogue of places I visited in France because there are still many sights that I know people will be interested in and perhaps have not heard of before. Such as the village of Peyrusse la Roc that was once conquered by Pepin le Bref.

Here is a taste of what is to come.

Charlemagne's father may not have conquered this particular ruin, but he did conquer whatever was standing there in the 8th century.

In the meantime, I wanted to ask my readers for some suggestions. My husband and I are hosting an exchange student from Belgium for the school year and we wish to make sure she has as complete of an American cultural experience as possible.

There are many ways where I am trying to help her become as "Americanized" such as teaching her the subtleties of American English versus the Queen's English which she was taught in Belgium. For example the country France should be pronounced as if it rhymes with pants and not ambiance.

The word "can't" has to sound like pant and not Immanuel Kant.

I have a working checklist of things for her to complete and I wanted to ask for additions to the list that I may have overlooked. The ones with the X after them have been completed, the rest are things are waiting to be tasted, seen or experienced.

American food:

corn on the cob X
apple pie X
pumpkin pie X

strawberry shortcake X
hot dogs X
barbequed ribs X
pot roast X
Kraft macaroni and cheese X
potato salad
tater tots

steak X

Thanksgiving turkey / dressing

Mashed potatoes & gravy

Prime rib

Fast food restaurants:
McDonald's X
Burger King X
Arby's X
Taco Bell
Kentucky Fried Chicken


The Wizard of Oz X

Back to the Future X

What’s Up Doc? X

West Side Story X


Sound of Music X

South Pacific

Annie Get Your Gun

Star Wars

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure X

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey X

The Breakfast Club X

National Lampoon’s Animal House

Blazing Saddles

Young Frankenstein

Some Like it Hot

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory X

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid


How the Grinch Stole Christmas X

Charlie Brown Christmas X

Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

All in the Family
The Cosby Show
Family Ties
Barney Miller
Dark Shadows


High school football games X
putt putt golf
hiking X
picnic on the beach X

Thanks in advance for your feedback,


Thursday, October 1, 2009

A new blog on Paris and website update on the Ozark Medieval Fortress

I have been extremely busy this last month and have not had much time for blogging.

I hope to remedy that soon by continuing my long drawn out travelogue series on my trip to France.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with my readers a blog by my friend Molly Dwyer who is doing research for her second historical novel and is living in Paris for three months.

She has far more energy than I did when I was in Paris for a week, because she has blogged every day. Molly gives her insights about the historical places she has visited as well as what it is like to be An American in Paris.

Check it out, I think you will be delighted.

I also wanted to let my readers know that the website for the Ozark Medieval Fortress has recently been updated. It looks wonderful. I am looking forward to when I can visit the site in person.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One Large and Ugly Garden Gnome

I wanted to wish my readers in the United States a safe and happy Labor Day weekend.

During my weekend plans, I will be traveling past what I consider to be the largest and ugliest lawn ornament I have ever seen.

I finally took a snapshot of it, so I thought I would share this monstrosity with others.

It is huge. Probably about ten feet tall, although I have never measured it. Click on the image so that you can see it blown up real big to get a true picture of how truly ugly it is.

I call it the BFGG. Similar to Roald Dahl's BFG, but while the letter B stands for Big, the letter F does not stand for Friendly.

Must Not Sleep. Garden Gnome will eat me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Artistic Drawings of the Ozark Medieval Fortress

Here is my first update in regard to the planned Ozark Medieval Fortress that will be opening to the general public in the spring of 2010. My first post on this amazing project with pictures of the construction which started in June of this year can be found here.

Noémi Brunet shared with me the following drawings and gave me permission to post them on my blog.

This is what the Ozark Medieval Fortress should look like in the year 2010.

In the year 2020

And what it should look like when it is finished, projected to be in the year 2030.

May we all live long enough to see it completed!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

I have been overdue in making this announcement, but I was given my first ever blogging award last month. It is the Kreativ Blogger Award and it was given to me by Nicole Krueger of Books and Bards. Nicole has a recent post showing a list of some "lesser-known editing and proof-reading marks"which I found amusing. She also won a "flash fiction" contest that my friend and fellow Redwood Writers club member Ann Wilkes posted on her blog.

Nicole discovered my blog through a post I made regarding my thoughts on the Twilight series.

The rules of this award are that the recipient is to list seven things that they love and choose seven other bloggers to honor.

Here are seven things I love:

1. Chocolate. I prefer really good chocolate. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate covered almonds, chocolate covered strawberries, raspberries with chocolate. Mmmmm.

2. Wine. Especially wine that pairs well with chocolate. I also love big, bold red wines that taste of fruit and not filled with tannins. Zinfandel is my favorite varietal and Fred Scherrer is my favorite winemaker.

3. Sunshine and warm weather. I grew up in Michigan which was cold and overcast most of the year, so I appreciate living in the wine country of Northern California and not having to worry about shoveling snow or wondering about wind chill factors.

4. The ocean. I live about a 45 minute drive from the gorgeous Sonoma Coast. I enjoy watching the waves crash on the shore and am reminded of the transitory nature of human existence. Mother Nature is far more powerful than Man's shelters.

5. Traveling. I love seeing new sites as well as taking friends to see some of my favorite places.

6. History. Pair that with my love of traveling and you have a research based trip to historical sites.

7. Entertaining. I love sharing good food and wine with my friends. Especially if it is food that my husband has created. He has earned quite the reputation for his cooking skills.

Now onto sharing the blog award with others. I will admit that I follow a lot of blogs. When I take the time to read blogs, I will come across links to other blogs that look intriguing and then subscribe to them. Subsequently I have approximately over 100 blogs in my Google reader. They are an eclectic mix of agent and author blogs, writing and marketing blogs, medievalist blogs, and well - miscellaneous blogs - to boot.

I am regularly overwhelmed by the number of unread blog posts waiting for me to read and so I wind up scanning the titles of the blog posts before reading or ruthlessly clicking "mark all as read" in my attempt to streamline the process. I dislike unsubscribing thinking that I will miss out on something really cool.

The bloggers that I have chosen to give this award to are bloggers whose work I admire.

1. One of the first Medievalist blogs I came across was Richard Scott Nokes' Unlocked Wordhoard. He is a professor of Medieval Literature at Troy University in Troy Alabama and his blog serves as a clearinghouse for medievalist blogs with his regular feature Morning Medieval Miscellany which provides links to posts he thinks are worthy of attention.

It is due to his blog that I have discovered many other Medievalist blogs, including

2. Jeff Sypeck's Quid Plura? blog. Jeff wrote the book Becoming Charlemagne: Europe, Baghdad and the Empires of A.D. 800 which I found helpful in my research about the historical Charlemagne for my novel. Jeff's blog also includes helpful links, but his original posts about the nexus of Medievalism and pop culture are quirky and entertaining.

3. Erika Mailman. Erika wrote a wonderful novel The Witch's Trinity set in 16th century Germany focusing on one community's shared hysteria surrounding witch trials. Many of her blog posts deal with the historical aspects of superstition regarding witchcraft (including fabulous woodcuts), but many posts also concern current day persecution of people accused of being witches.

It is not just a horrible nightmare of our past.

4. C.W. Gortner is another historical novelist blogger. Christopher had a recent post "Don't Defame the Dead" where he passionately defended the medium of historical novels against criticism by some historians. I found that post to be thought provoking for me since I had taken some historical methods classes when I was in graduate school. I understand both perspectives, and recognize my own struggles with trying to adhere as closely to historical reality as possible while also having an eye to the needs of storytelling without boring the reader.

His book The Last Queen is about Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood.

Some late breaking good news for Christopher. His next novel The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is scheduled to be released on May 25, 2010.

5. Lee Lofland's The Graveyard Shift blog covers a wide range of topics related to law enforcement and regularly has guest posts from experts. His blog should be required reading for anyone writing mysteries, using any law enforcement characters or is interested in a career in law enforcement. Lee is a retired police officer/homicide detective, author of the Writer's Digest book Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers and is an all around good guy.

Speaking of law enforcement and mysteries...

6. Tess Gerritsen is the New York Times bestselling author of the Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles series. She writes spine tingling and multi-layered thrillers which resonate with her attentiveness to detail and a knack for taut storytelling. Tess is a warm individual and a generous author willing to "pay it forward" for other writers. Her blog is one aspect of her generosity because she provides insight about what it is like to be a full time author.

I do my best to follow the trades by reading Publisher's Lunch and PW Daily as well as agent blogs, but they cannot provide the same perspective that Tess does on her blog. In particular, she alerted me to the downside of what might be a trend by publishers to cut costs in regard to phasing out printed galleys.

I was astonished to read the tone used in an email from a publisher to her when they were hoping she would provide a blurb for a forthcoming book for one of their authors. They seemed ignorant of concepts put forth by Dale Carnegie years ago in trying to win friends and influence people. I hope that most publishers who are seeking blurbs from famous authors would adopt a "pro-choice" attitude and offer options as to how galleys would be submitted to them: paper or PDF. Eliminating printed versions might lower the publisher's printing and postage costs, but it might also prevent their forthcoming books from getting some coveted blurbs which could help boost sales.

It would be well worth the tine and effort for aspiring writers to poke around through Tess' archives to discover other gems about the publishing industry. By the way, her latest book The Keepsake is due out in paperback August 25th!

7. And lastly is my friend John Granger's The Hogwarts Professor blog.

John takes literary criticism to heart. His analyses of the Harry Potter series is among the best I have read. He looks deeply into the text and recognizes symbols of literary alchemy that I had never known before. I have garnered a new appreciation for the series due to his scholarship.

He has several books exploring many different aspects of the Harry Potter series. One of his most influential books was Looking for God in Harry Potter which rebuts the criticism in some circles that J.K. Rowling's books are promoting witchcraft and are therefore worthy of being banned or burned.

John's most recent book is Harry Potter's Bookshelf: The Great Books behind the Hogwarts Adventures.

John has now turned his attention to another series to analyze. It is the Twilight series and his blogging on that subject can be found at the Forks High School Professor blog.

Hopefully these links will help my readers discover and enjoy a few of my favorite blogs.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ozark Medieval Fortress - Opening May 2010

Workers in the quarry

Ground has been broken to build a medieval castle in the United States of America.

Stone by stone it is being built.

Each stone is cut by workers using hammers and chisels, then the stones are hewn by hand to the exact shape wanted by masons.

The masons carefully lay the stones down with mortar hand mixed on the site.

Workers in front of a partially constructed wall

The castle walls will be six feet thick and will stand forty-five feet high. The fortress will also have a drawbridge and a moat.

Close-up of the wall

This building project will be done year round and it is projected that the fortress will be completed in twenty years.

It is the Ozark Medieval Fortress being built in Arkansas, not far from Branson, Missouri.

Construction started in June 2009 and will be open for visitors in May 2010. Visitors will be able to see an active construction site and ask questions of the craftsmen. It is a wonderful opportunity to see how things were done before the advent of power tools.

I learned of this project via an email the other day. The creative forces behind the Ozark Medieval Fortress are the same ones who created Guédelon in France.

They discovered the blog post I had written about Guédelon and sent me an email telling me about their new project in Arkansas.

I had the wonderful experience of speaking with Michel Guyot's wife Noémi Brunet by phone the other day about Guédelon and the Ozark Medieval Fortress projects.

Noémi gave me permission to use these photographs to help illustrate my post.

An aerial view of the site.
On the left is the quarry, on the right is where the fortress will be built.

According to their website they are hiring right now.

They are in need of master stonemasons but this kind of project will need carpenters, blacksmiths, tile makers, rope makers, basket weavers and more. It is a veritable community of craftspeople whose skills are needed in the construction of castles.

The first of many workshops to be built.

They are also looking for people who would like to volunteer.

At Guédelon they have many volunteers who spend a portion of their holiday time helping in the construction. Some work as blacksmiths, while others cut down trees for scaffolding. They have some volunteers who enjoy the work so much that they come back year after year during their breaks from their regular jobs to spend time at Guédelon.

We used to have good old fashioned barn-raisings where a community would come together and help build a barn. Well if the idea of helping to build a castle intrigues you, even if it is only for a week or so, they would like your help.

You would not have to permanently move to Arkansas or change your career, but you can go and volunteer when you have some spare time.

Architectural drawing of the plans for the fortress.

A maquette of the future fortress.

Noémi was very interested in reaching out to the Medievalist communities in the United States and to tap into a potential volunteer pool. I am going to do my part to contact those who I think will share an interest in this living history project.

For more information about the project or how you can volunteer you can contact them via their website.

Another aerial view, this time showing the broad outlines of the future fortress.

I will be posting more on this subject in the future. I am certain of that.

In the meantime, please spread the word.

Edited to add: here is a link to my first update on this project which includes architectural drawings of what the finished fortress should look like in three different phases.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

Here is a review (without spoilers!) written by a friend of mine about a debut novel recently published in trade paperback. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy by Anna Elliott and published by Touchstone (Simon and Schuster.)

Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

A new version of the fabled legend of Trystan and Isolde, Twilight of Avalon is a hearty brew of goddess magic and ancient text, told from the point of view of the surprisingly wise and adept Isolde. Elliott’s debut novel, first in a trilogy, relies on the earliest written verses of the legend, yet brings us vivid characters, witty and wry, with modern complexities and motivations. Written in the tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Mary Renault, Elliott’s Twilight of Avalon humanizes the legendary characters of Trystan and Isolde, translating them from the iconic, bigger than life, tragic figures to clever conspirators on a dangerous, breathtaking adventure. The characters’ real courage and skill, coupled with the magical heritage of Avalon, weaves a new bright texture to the tapestry of this medieval lore.

Review by Kate Farrell, Author, Girl in the Mirror.

Anna Elliott is willing to talk via speakerphone to book groups about her novel. I enjoy meeting authors at books signings and being able to ask them about aspects of their book or the writing process. However, it is not possible that every author I am interested in will be able to visit my local bookstore. So I appreciate it when authors are willing to make themselves available using our modern communiation technology to "virtually" meet their readers.

Speaking of the legend of Tristan and Iseult...a few years ago my friend Kate Farrell and I attended the West Coast premiere of Patrick Ball and the Medieval Beast's The Flame of Love: The Legend of Tristan and Iseult.

It was a mixture of spoken word and medieval musical accompaniment. It was beautiful. Patrick Ball is a world renowned harpist and his website now has audio clips from that show. Patrick has many CDs of his shows including some dedicated to the music of the famous Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan. He has a busy touring schedule and you should check it to see if he is coming to a venue near you.

Happy Summer Solstice everyone,


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Contest to help launch new edition of Pope Joan

Today June 9th is the launch date of a new revised version of Donna Woolfolk Cross' novel Pope Joan. I met Donna ten years ago when she visited Sonoma County and was kind enough to offer to do a benefit signing for an organization I headed at the time.

I am happy that she has had such wonderful success with her novel and wish her well on the launch of the new edition and with the forthcoming movie adapted from her novel.

From her email updates comes this information:

Pope Joan Updates
from Donna Woolfolk Cross

Hello Pope Joan Readers!

Ready to walk the red carpet with me? See below!

Has any author has ever owed so much to her readers as I do? I doubt it. Abandoned by its previous publisher, Pope Joan, labor of my heart, the product of seven years of research and writing, should by all rights have had a shelf life somewhere between lettuce and yogurt!

The fact that it's still in print is testimony to the power of grass-roots promotion--to the kindness of readers who passed the word (not the book! never the book!) along. Heartfelt thanks to all who have supported my poor orphaned novel over the years.

At long last, Pope Joan may have her day. As I mentioned in the
March Update, I now have a wonderful new publisher, Three Rivers
Press. Together, we have created a whole new edition of Pope Joan.

The new version has:

  • larger print (no need to squint to read it anymore!)

  • corrections and additions to the text

  • revised and updated Author's Note which includes new information in support of Joan's historical existence

  • a new list of "Best of the Best" reading group questions, gleaned from my many years of chatting by speakerphone with reading and school groups all over the U.S., Canada and Europe.

The new edition will arrive in bookstores tomorrow, June 9th. And it's important that it "hit the ground running." The more briskly books sell right on/after June 9th, the more likely Pope Joan will finally "make her mark" on a U.S. bestseller list.

To help encourage summer sales, I've come up with a fun and unusual idea, which should appeal to anyone who has ever dreamed of walking a red carpet.

Join me and my family as we walk the red carpet on the night of the Pope Joan movie premiere!

... Includes two tickets to the movie premiere,
plus round trip airfare for two from any location in the continental United States or Canada, and one night hotel accommodation for you and your guest to share.

Want to participate? Simply buy the new Three Rivers Press edition of Pope Joan during the months of June or July 2009 and send me the original receipt. In August, I'll pick randomly from the pile of receipts to select someone and their guest to join me at the U.S. movie premiere in the fall (exact date still to be determined).

And... a special bonus for anyone who purchases the new edition of Pope Joan on its release date, Tuesday, June 9th.
Learn more at the link below.


Link to the official Pope Joan Red Carpet entry information here.


It's an innovative--even somewhat quirky-- idea, which is why I believe Joan herself would have liked it. It's also a very small gesture of appreciation to my wonderful readers who have done so much for Pope Joan. With your continued support, perhaps this inspirational woman, long forgotten to history, can finally get the recognition she deserves!

Donna Woolfolk Cross

June 2009

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My thoughts on the Twilight series

This essay has been in the works for some time. I was inspired to read the series when my friend John Granger was challenged to compare the Twilight phenomenon to the Harry Potter series. Many have asked if Twilight is the new Harry Potter because both are fantasy series whose popularity increased over time and had crazed fans at bookstores' midnight release parties. Both John Granger and Travis Prinzi have weighed in on their thoughts on the Twilight series, but it has taken me longer to chime in with my response.

In my own humble opinion I see little similarity between the two series. The Harry Potter series is intricately plotted and layered with all kinds of obscure symbolism and rich meaning. The Twilight series appears far more straightforward with its strength on the romantic love story between the lead characters rather than having a complex plot structure with intricate mythological subtext and alchemical symbolism as the Harry Potter series does.

I have read the entire Twilight series as well as the online partial manuscript of Midnight Sun that was abandoned by Stephenie Meyer after it was leaked onto the internet.

I have also watched the movie a few times.

This analysis is a broad overview of the series and contains some spoilers. So those who have not read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and were considering either reading it or watching the movie adaptations are forewarned.

Some of the questions I see posed most often is "why is it so popular?" and "why is it less likely for men to like this series as well as women?" That last observation alone makes the Twilight series different from the Harry Potter series, because in my own experience I know many men who are just as obsessed as women with the series (as well as children.)

I believe the answers to the gender gap and the popularity of the series can be discerned by understanding the character of Edward Cullen and his impact on readers.

The other day I overheard a work colleague talking with one of her friends. They were discussing the Twilight series and this woman I didn't know proclaimed that Edward Cullen was her boyfriend. I suppressed a laugh because she would have no idea how much I have over-analyzed this series. If I discussed my thoughts with her, I might have lessened her ardor for him and the series, but then again, maybe nothing would.

That is because Edward Cullen is not only Drop Dead Gorgeous, he is perfect. He is so perfect that no mere mortal man could ever measure up to Edward's perfection as the ultimate fantasy male.

Edward has perfect hair, the perfect smile, perfect chiseled features, perfect six pack abs, and a perfect musical sounding voice.

Did I mention he was perfect? Stephenie Meyers wants to make sure her readers know how perfect Edward Cullen is by using the words perfect and perfection to describe him multiple times throughout the story.

Here are a few descriptions of him:

His hair was dripping wet, disheveled – even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel. His dazzling face was friendly, open, a slight smile on his flawless lips. Page 43

He smiled widely, flashing a set of perfect, ultrawhite teeth. Page 50.

I was in danger of being distracted by his livid, glorious face. It was like trying to stare down a destroying angel…He paused and for a brief moment his stunning face was unexpectedly vulnerable. page 65

There's more. Much more. Bella Swan as the narrator is quite redundant about her adoration of Edward's physical features.

It is a wonder the filmmakers were able to cast any actor to play the part onscreen. Few living men would feel comfortable trying to measure up to that kind of advance billing. Even Robert Pattinson was insecure about showing his chest for the film because he did not think he could live up to the perfect Adonis-like physique described in the text.

But, there is more than just his good looks which makes him attractive. He is also aloof to the point of being unobtainable. The rare earth element unobtainium makes him even more desirable.

But wait - there's more. Edward is also a virgin.

Not your average run-of-the-mill, "I just haven't slept with anyone yet" virgin. Noooo. He is a Virgin in every way. Not only has he never had sex before, he has never even had sexual thoughts before.

He is pure.

Poor gorgeous Edward has the blessing/curse of being able to hear other people's thoughts. Every vengeful, spiteful, prideful, lustful, deceitful, inane thought someone has is easily discerned by Edward. He can try and ignore the thoughts of others as if it were merely background noise, but no one's mind was ever a mystery to him.

This changes when he meets Bella Swan and discovers he cannot read her thoughts. Even though she has is likely to have similar thoughts to other teenaged girls who are drooling over him, he cannot sense them. This makes her an enigma and she therefore fascinates him. She also has a scent that drives him wild.

Wild to the point of madness. Which makes him all the more dangerous. And Edward is a bad boy. In fiction, and sometimes in Real Life, bad boys = Dead!Sexy.

Bella and Edward clash, but Bella detects mixed signals on his part. This confuses her and makes Edward seem all the more alluring.

She becomes so enamored by his beauty that even after she discovers his Dark Secret, she does not care.

For those unaware, Edward Cullen's Deep Dark Secret is that he is a vampire. However he is not in the Bela Legosi/Christopher Lee/Jonathon Frid/Frank Langella vein of vampires. Nope. Edward is basically a "defanged" vampire and has been rendered almost harmless.

This is the aspect of the series that I find the most problematic. If Meyer didn't like vampire lore, I feel she should have chosen another mythological creature or tried creating a new fantastical creature.

Instead, Stephenie Meyer made her "good vampires" so tame that they lack most of the trademark markers of the cursed Undead.

It is as if she went through a checklist to deep-six anything that made her squeamish. The italics denote my imagining Meyer's thought processes as she determined the rules of her Twilight universe vampires.

Drinking human blood? That is for the bad vampires, but ewww. Not for my hero. I'll make him a "vegetarian" subsisting on the blood of animals. Oh and allow him and his "family" to gorge themselves so they do not have to feed on a daily basis. A few times a month should do it - otherwise it might interfere with plotting. Edward will just have to suffer from thirst because he cannot leave Bella's side when her safety is threatened by the bad vamps.

Sleeping in coffins? Ugh. Creeeeepy. How about vampires never sleep? Yeah, imagine all the things you could get accomplished if you never slept.

Have them be driven away by crucifixes? Nah. That might imply they were demonic. Can't have that with my hero. Instead, I'll feature a gigantic crucifix in the vampire household as a religious relic.

Unable to walk about during daylight hours? Er, no. He just has to avoid the rays of the sun. I shall choose a setting that is overcast most of the time. Edward has to be able to be outside during daylight because otherwise the set up of my romantic couple meeting in high school would not work. And I have to make Bella be a high school student because I want her to be a virgin as well. It would be less likely for an attractive young woman to believably be a virgin by college age. I know, I'll come up with something no one would expect as to why vampires cannot go be seen in the daytime. Vampire skin is iridescent in sunlight like cut diamonds. Sunlight will make their skin all sparkly. :swoons at the thought: Sparkly vampires. Mmmmmm.

The sparkly vampires aspect is something that gave me the most difficulty in the series.

I normally avoid reading urban fantasy novels which have vampires in them. That is because of my tendency to nitpick to death aspects of vampire legend. I grew up watching "Dark Shadows" on tv as well as many vampire movies until I knew the Hollywood vampire lore by heart.

This was best exemplified by the George Hamilton spoof, “Love at First Bite.”

Vampires can’t see their images in mirrors, they sleep during daylight hours, they cannot not stand garlic or crosses, they have to be invited inside someone's home, can turn into bats, and it takes three bites to turn someone into a vampire. Three bites. If a woman who was bitten by a vampire did not receive three bites, she was safe.

At least that was the state of vampire mythology “Hollywood style” when I was growing up.

In high school, I had to write a ten page research paper. We could choose any topic under the sun. I chose vampire lore. Why? I thought it would be fun. I discovered that the Hollywood treatment of vampires does not necessarily follow the legends. You did not need three bites to become a vampire. You could be bitten once, survive the encounter and then when you died eventually you would then become a vampire. Or you could be bled slowly, survive multiple bites over the magic number of three and when you finally died you would become a vampire. I learned lots of weird vampire trivia that I dust off occasionally like parlor tricks to spice up conversations with people. I no longer have the citations, but many of them came from renowned vampirologist Reverend Montague Summers and his books The Vampire in Europe and The Vampire his Kith and Kin.

For instance once werewolves are killed, they will rise up to become vampires.

Frankly, once I discovered that particular bit of lore, I wondered why no one in Hollywood has used it. Come on, we are talking about a built-in sequel here.

You could become a vampire if a cat jumped over your coffin. So be sure to keep the kitties away from Aunt Martha when she is laid out to rest in the front parlor.

Other methods of becoming a vampire included excommunication and weirdly even the gaze of a vampire can sometimes transmit vampirism. Should a vampire gaze upon a pregnant woman, that cursed child is doomed to becoming a vampire after death even if they life a long full life.

Vampires also had an uncontrollable urge to count things, such as thorns or poppy seeds. So rather than making your room smell like a garlic factory, you could just throw a handful of poppy seeds outside your bedroom window rendering the potential night time visitor into the comical sight of a creature picking up individual seeds and saying, "one poppy seed, two poppy seeds, three poppy seeds, ah, ah, ah, ahhhhh."

After learning the strange beliefs surrounding vampire legends, and after having watched Frank Langella as Dracula, I felt that I had no further need to see another vampire movie. To me, no one could ever out do Langella in his prime and I was afraid that I would simply nitpick over a Hollywood screenwriter twisting the legends into directions I would not care for.

Hence my reluctance to read urban fantasy and why some of Meyer's changes to vampire lore bugged me more than it would your average reader and/or movie goer. I dislike it when certain aspects are altered too far from what I consider to be the core vampire lore.

The biggest difference in Meyer’s character of Edward Cullen from traditional Dracula-like vampires is that Edward does not accept and/or revel in his status as a vampire. This ups the angst quotient. He is a vampire who deliberately goes against his own nature.

He is immortal and has been a vampire since his death at age seventeen from the Spanish influenza in 1918. The age difference between Edward and Bella disturbs some of the commenters on the Hogwarts Professor boards. I understood Meyer’s age choice due to the constructs of wanting a believable reason for Edward being a virgin. Impending death by flu was a convenient choice for Meyer since Edward would have died without trauma and it is a time period where we romanticize that men were more gentlemanly toward women and that women were more protective of their virtue. It is doubtful that a really good looking guy like Edward would be a virgin at age seventeen if he lived in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, etc. Then making him live without love for nearly a century increases the angst and Edward Cullen’s character is all about angst.

Edward lived with three other vampire couples for nearly one hundred years while he was alone. He did not realize that he was waiting for his soul mate Bella to be born. Once he discovered that his strange feelings toward this human were due to love, he began doting on her. Edward loved Bella completely, wholly, even obsessively. He loved the blush in her cheeks and the sound of her heart fluttering. If she were to become a vampire, those mortal things would disappear.

Edward loathed his own inhuman existence (oh, the angst!) and did not wish that upon the woman he loves. Instead his preference was to have his own version of courtly love with her. He kissed her and cuddled with her, but refused to go any farther lest he might lose control and possibly crush her skull, pelvis, etc., in the heat of passion.

This is a far different kind of relationship from the Classic vampire/human relationship typified by Hollywood movies. Generally we see a predator seeking to quench his thirst amongst humans and he discovers a woman he finds attractive. He wants her to satisfy more than just one appetite. He stalks, attacks and claims dominion over said prey. Then someone near and dear to the victim tries to rescue her from the fate worse than death. Stalking of the vampire begins and the end of the story is the destruction of the undead.

Not in this story. Because Edward Cullen is not Dracula. He has a conscience and actively denies his own true nature, which again drives up the angst quotient. He is a tortured soul. (That is if vampires have souls.) Because Edward is protective of Bella’s status as a living, breathing human he becomes the antithesis to “normal” vampires. This conflict of normal/abnormal vampire behavior drives the storyline in each of the four volumes and leads to showdowns with “bad” vampires in each book.

Another source of conflict in the story is the differences between what Bella wants and what Edward wants. Edward wants to simply love Bella and watch her grow old, die a normal death and then he would want to have his own existence end so that he did not continue on without her. Bella does not like that scenario. Because Edward not only has immortal life he has eternal youth.

He will always be gorgeous.

He will never get older, fatter and balder.

Being human and alive, Bella will grow older. Her body will start to sag. Her face will become lined. Her hair will thin and grow gray.

In Edward’s preferred future, someone will one day make reference to Edward and assume that he is Bella’s son or grandson.

To Bella, that is a nightmare.

She would rather die and become a vampire so that she can also have eternal youth and eternal beauty. Bella does not have a death wish, nor does she have a fascination with death as I have heard some people contemplate. It is simply Bella wanting to be Edward’s partner in every way and for eternity.

Edward in his sacrificial denial of self, resists Bella’s entreaties. He not only refuses to “turn her” into a vampire, but he continually refuses to satisfy her sexually. This aspect of the book is also a source of great discussion.

I have seen some parents think that Bella and Edward not having sex is something that is good for teenaged girls to read.

:Ahem: I think that this is a perfect situation for parents to read the books and then lead a discussion with their teenaged daughters as to what are realistic expectations from their teenaged boyfriends.

Know that once Bella and Edward openly profess their undying love for one another that they do not want to be apart from each other. This leads to Edward being a regular visitor to Bella’s bedroom. This is done without her father’s knowledge, let alone permission. Edward cannot sleep, but Bella sleeps in his ice-cold arms. She continually tests his resolve to not give into desire and consummate their relationship.

She is the sexual aggressor and he is the one holding out.

Again, this type of thing makes Edward Cullen into the perfect romantic hero. At least for virgins who would like to retain their virtue and “good girl” reputation.

Normal teenaged males with raging hormones will not be interested in simply cuddling if they are invited into a teenaged girl’s bed.

There’s the romantic fantasy of having someone like Edward Cullen proclaiming his undying and unconditional love, being protective, generous, and not taking sexual advantage of a vulnerable girl and then there is the reality of real live boys/men who cannot measure up to such idealized standards.

The strength of the Twilight series lies not in complicated plots, but in showing the depth of feeling between two characters who love each other unconditionally. It is the raw emotion between Edward and Bella that drives this series and created so many dedicated fans. Because there is a desire to love someone in a similar unswerving manner and have that kind of depth of passion returned.

But no human man can ever live up to the romantic ideal of Edward Cullen, which in my opinion is a bigger reason to classify this series as romantic fantasy more than the vampirism.

Your thoughts on this series are welcomed, as well as your questions.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Review of Mother of the Believers

A few weeks ago I saw a guest post by Kamran Pasha on Christopher Gortner's blog. He discussed why he thought his debut novel Mother of the Believers would stir up controversy with Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

After reading Pasha's essay, I knew I had to read the book.

Here is the review I posted on Amazon, Barnes and as well as Good Reads. Please note that I do not include any plot spoilers.

Good historical fiction transports readers to a different time and place. Wonderful novels immerse their readership in worlds so realistic that it is disorienting to stop reading and re-enter day-to-day life. Kamran Pasha takes his readers to the seventh century in the Arabian peninsula. It is an uncommon time and place for novels, but one that provides rich dramatic material.

The subtitle accurately describes this as “a novel of the birth of Islam.” Pasha tells his tale through the eyes of Aisha, one of Muhammad’s wives, who had been born into a family of believers. The followers of Muhammad and his faith were still quite small at the beginning of the story, but they were being watched closely by the powerful families in Mecca.

This small band of followers were viewed first as an amusement, later as an annoyance, and finally as a threat by the power elite. There were assassination attempts, plots to isolate and oppress them economically, and later outright declarations of war against the Companions of Muhammad.

Pasha wove a beautiful tale showing the humanity of these historical figures. This novel is designed to be enjoyed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as the customs of Islam are subtly explained in the text. It is a wonderful story detailing the history and culture of one of the great religions of the world.

In these troubled times, it is important to remember that what unites us is greater than that which divides us.

I recommend this book highly.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review of The Last Queen - the story of Juana la Loca

This is a long overdue review of a novel that I loved.

C.W. Gortner's debut novel The Last Queen will be released in trade paperback on May 5th.

So in trying to help in his book launch, here is my review:

Good historical fiction not only entertains readers by transporting them to another time and place, but also informs. Often you can learn more through fiction than you can through dusty tomes written by historians.

Such is the case in Gortner’s brilliant novel The Last Queen. I was ignorant of the lifestory of Juana of Castile until I read this book, and I wonder why her story isn’t more popular. It is filled with passion, intrigue and betrayal by those who should have supported and defended her.

Juana was the daughter of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who I knew growing up as the patrons of Christopher Columbus. She was the sister of Catherine of Aragon, the queen of England and first wife to King Henry VIII. She was married to Philip, the Archduke of the Hapsburg Empire and mother to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.

And because of deaths in her family, she inherited the title of Queen of Castile.

Her story is well known in Spain and Europe, but is relatively unknown in the United States. Gortner brings to life a woman who history has marginalized as being “mad.” This is Juana’s side of the story and it leads me to think that the official historical record may have been propaganda covering the truth of “Juana la Loca.”

I highly recommend this book.

For those in book clubs who would like to schedule a chat with Christopher, you can contact him via his website. He also has a wonderful blog that I follow.

Happy reading!