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!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review of Disney Earth

Last night we saw Disney's Earth.

It was a feast for the senses.

The movie showed the Arctic, the Antarctic, forests, rain forests, mountains, deserts, savannahs rivers, waterfalls, and the ocean.

There were gorgeous shots that panned over vast expanses of land.

James Earl Jones provided the narration. He has such a wonderful voice and the narrative lines were at times very light and humorous. Other times the reality of the effects of climate change on the lives of animals caused a more serious tone to be adopted.

It was beautiful. Well worth the cost of admission to see areas of our world that unless you had aerial transportation and an unlimited personal budget you might not otherwise ever see.

One of my favorite parts was seeing various exotic birds of paradise in the equatorial rain forest and their mating dances.

It was spectacular to see slow motion photography of a great white shark jumping out of the ocean water and consuming a seal in one snap of his jaws.

There is also a slow motion chase by a cheetah and a night vision scene where a pride of lions goes up against a herd of elephants. I did not realize that lions working together could take down a full grown elephant.

Yikes. It serves as a reminder of just how powerful the Queen of the Jungle can be. (I say this because lionesses are the ones who actually do the killing. Ye Olde King of the Jungle is waiting until the food is brought to him and then he eats first.)

One more thing, be sure to stay and watch the credits. You will be rewarded by seeing some of the camera crews getting various shots. Some are in the Arctic, others in the ocean and one has a close encounter with his helium balloon and a baobab tree.

The movie is suitable for all ages. Even little ones.

And a quick announcement before I end this post. I am guest blogging on my friend Lee Lofland's blog again. Today's topic is gardens and art in Paris. Please feel free to stop by there, take a look at some beautiful travel photos and say hi!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guest blogging on The Midnight Shift

My friend Lee Lofland asked me to share some of my France photos for his blog's regular feature "Weekend Road Trip." Today I have a few photos from my trip in Paris, including some from Notre Dame Cathedrale and the Louvre.

You can find that post here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Montauban, A City of Art and legends

Memorial to the 1870 war by Antoine Bourdelle

In my trip to France there were a couple places that I had to visit. One was Paris and another was Montauban.

I could find plenty of Americans who had been to Paris and were willing to offer advice about places to see and things to do, but I could not find anyone who had been to Montauban.

And that is a shame.

Montauban is a beautiful city in a gorgeous part of France and it deserves more tourists.

I needed to visit Montauban because one of the heroes in the legends of Charlemagne is Renaud de Montauban. Renaud is the eldest son in the famous French poem Les Quatre Fils Aymon or The Four Sons of Aymon.

Renaud's sister Bradamante is the heroine of my story. Therefore I found it necessary to for me to set my novel in the area surrounding Montauban.

Even though it is not historically accurate to the time period of my story. Blame it on the poets who wrote the Matters of France. They were fabulous dramatists, but not well versed on history.

The city of Montauban was founded in 1144 and Charlemagne died in 814.

However, trying to divorce Renaud from Montauban would be like trying to take Robin Hood out of Sherwood Forest.

Or using another Italian city other than Venice when refering to Leonardo. Perhaps Leonardo de Firenze.

It wouldn't work.

By my accepting the idea that dramatic necessity required my using Montauban, it mentally freed me to include similar historical inaccuracies when I deemed it a plot necessity.

That also meant my visit to Montauban was less demanding when it came to fact finding. I needed a sense of the surrounding area, but there would not be any buildings dating back to the time period of my story.

I also wanted to find examples of the legends of Charlemagne influencing their art and heritage.

Unfortunately, that was the most disappointing aspect about Montauban. I had tried via email to connect with any historians, professional or amateur, who were fans of the Matters of France. The Tourism Office sent me a lead, but I did not receive any reply.

It was not the first, nor shall it be the last time an email query receives no response.

My disappointment increased during our visit to the tourist office. I asked if there was anything such as a statue, a mural, streets, etc. in honor of Renaud de Montauban.

The only thing they knew of was a stone face on the side of the Ingres Museum thought to be of Renaud de Montauban. You can see it if you stand on the Pont Vieux and look at a certain angle.

Here is the Pont Vieux or "Old Bridge" over the Tarn River. This bridge dates back to the 14th century.

And here is the stone face that reportedly belongs to Renaud de Montauban.

While having found this face in order to take a picture seems worthy of earning points in a scavenger hunt, I was expecting more for this literary hero by the city of Montauban.

I had hoped to find statues, sculptures, paintings, or possibly a mural. I would not have been surprised to find streets being named after Renaud, Aymon, Guichard, Alard, Richardet and Bradamante. Maybe even a restaurant or two.

Les Quatre Fils Aymon Café.

As far as I know, that name is still available.

Something to demonstrate pride and ownership of this legend by the city of Montauban.

No other city or town can lay claim to being the home of Renaud.

In Chantilly I saw this painting depicting Renaud's magical horse Bayard who could expand to accommodate all four sons of Aymon on his back.

I asked the people working at the Tourism Office why there was not anything else celebrating their literary heroes. I wound up annoying them since they are not in control of artworks for the city or naming streets.

Their only answer to me was that this was only a story.

Only a story.

Rocamadour claims they have the sword Durindal embedded in the side of a rock (similar to Excalibur.) This was the sword of Roland made famous in the epic poem Chanson de Roland. I do not know how they claim it came to their town, but if Roland were to have thrown it as he lay dying in the Roncesvalle Pass and it flew through the air to Rocamadour he would have to have made one helluva toss.

That sword would have to go about 190 miles or 308 kilmeters by my quick and dirty measurment on Google Earth from Roncesvalles to Rocamadour.

Yet Rocamadour uses that bit of legendary lore to lure tourists. It is based on a story.

Carcassonne uses a legend to describe how their town was named. The legend involves successfully withstanding a siege by the Emperor Charlemagne.

They made up their own legend of Charlemagne. It's not true, but it makes a good story.

Portland, Oregon has bronze statues in a park dedicated to characters written by children's author Beverly Cleary. Statues based on stories.

I remember a restaurant on the campus of Wayne State University in Detroit named Friar Tuck's. There is no legitimate claim to the legend of Robin Hood by a college town restaurant/bar in Michigan, yet they proudly used a name they thought would be inviting to patrons.

A name based on a story.

I love the vibrancy of the city of Montauban. I love its history and its surrounding beauty, but I think the city is missing out on tourist dollars. Tourist dollars that are waiting to be claimed.

My plea to the city of Montauban is for them to honor Renaud de Montauban and his fair sister Bradamante through artwork.

Carve it and they will come.

Paint it and they will come.

If nothing else, do this because I want to come back and take pictures of that artwork. I also want my picture taken standing near them.

Okay, enough babbling about what I did not find in Montauban.

Here are some photos I took of a city known for its beautiful brick architecture. Montauban is sometimes called Toulouse's "little pink sister" due to the color of the bricks. The vibrant color is due to the rich color of the soil.

This next picture is from the Place Nationale in the heart of downtown Montauban.

Our visit was on a bright sunny day and unfortunately the carved inscription is washed out in this photo.

Here is a closer look.

On the left is the Occitan Cross which was the standard of the Counts of Toulouse and on the right is the standard of the city of Montauban.

Here is a nice colorized version of Montauban's standard taken from the pages of Wikipedia.

Next comes tables for the lunch crowd on the Place Nationale.

We chose to eat at a restaurant whose tables were underneath beautiful arches.

Our first stop of the day before we went to the Tourist Office was actually the Farmer's market held on the other side of the Tarn River.

We were unsure where the market was, but was told it was near the Pont Vieux. We parked near the Ingres Museum but did not see any sign of the market. Then we saw women carrying bags laden with fresh produce. We set off trying to find where they had come from and after crossing the bridge soon discovered a large open air market teeming with people and the bounty of the land.

The fruits and vegetables were wonderful. Chasselas grapes are a specialty of the region and were bursting with flavor.


I sampled brioche for the first time in my life and we bought a marvelous apple tart for dessert.

We had the best bruschetta of our lives using heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil we bought at that market.

After our lunch we visited the Musée Ingres named after Montauban's most famous artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867).

The building at one point was an episcopal palace, later it was a town hall and finally became a museum. It houses paintings by Ingres, sculptures by another famous Montauban artist Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), as well as other artwork and Gallo-Roman artifacts. The basement of the building is called the Black Prince room another reminder of the longreaching impact of the Hundred Years' War.

One of the most famous paintings by Ingres was inspired by the Matters of France. It is Roger délivrant Angélique. (1841)

The original hangs in the Louvre.

Here is a better version I found on the web.

Ingres was so fascinated by Angelica that he has another painting without Ruggiero. I apologize, but the lighting was not ideal at this point in the day and this was the best photo I could manage.

I do not care for the character of Angelica in either Orlando Innamorato or Orlando Furioso. She is more in the archetype of Aphrodite and I prefer the character of Bradamante who follows the archetype of Athena.

Too bad Ingres did not depict Ruggiero and Bradamante together. Or Renaud de Montauban.

Enough pounding on what I want versus what they have.

Here's a painting that impressed me. It is Le Songe d' Ossiane by Ingres.

A Gallo-Roman mosaic dating back to the fourth century.

There was also a few display cases with Greek pottery.

On the way downstairs there is a wood carving showing the patron saint of Toulouse, Saint Saturnin being martyred by being tied to the back of a bull.

Downstairs are more mosaics. You can tell by the color of the tiles next to the bricks that the materials were made in the nearby area.

A close up on the fine detail of the mosaic.

I would love to have something that intricate and beautiful in my house.

Then the room of the Black Prince. Check out the vaults on the ceiling.

Some stone sarcaphagi.

An old stone fireplace.

The close up is of a bear and a dog holding the crest.

On the left side of the mantle is the Wild Man of the Woods.

And on the right side is the lesser seen Wild Woman of the Woods.

Yay for equal representation!

One of the most disturbing things we saw in our travels in France was le banc de question.

Otherwise known as The Rack.

Here is a nice picture of colored glass to cleanse your palate.

And to leave you, here is the marvelous spread of food that my husband lovingly prepared for our dinner including the fresh fruit and baked bread we bought at Montauban's farmer's market.

It was a good day. The next day on our travels brought us to the town of Peyrusse le Roc. A town reportedly that was once conquered by Charlemagne's father Pepin le Bref.

I shall be sharing some of my pictures of my travels with my friend Lee Lofland on his blog this Saturday. Feel free to stop by.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflections on a Magical Game and its legacy, 30 years later

My son said yesterday, "Mom, I didn't think you liked basketball."

Well, I do not play basketball. This white chick cannot jump or shoot hoops.

I also do not watch random televised basketball games just to pass the time.

Nope. I only watch basketball when there a team that I care about is playing. And there are only two teams I care about:

The Detroit Pistons and Michigan State Spartans.

Thirty one years ago I heard after the fact, that Michigan State University (MSU) had almost won the NCAA championship in basketball. They lost to Kentucky who went on to win the title game.

MSU had this phenomenal freshmen who great things were expected from in the future. He led his high school team to win the state championship and many thought it inevitable he would lead MSU to the national championship as well.

His name was Earvin Johnson. The nickname that he picked up in high school was "Magic." This was because of his uncanny ability to know exactly where his teammates were on the court and pass the ball without looking at them.

I was still in high school at the time, but I was looking forward a few years down the line to when I would be in college. Many in my family were MSU alumni, and it offered my chosen field of study as well. MSU was my first choice.

I started thinking of myself as a Spartan. I decided if MSU was fated to win the NCAA basketball tournament in 1979 that I should pay attention to the entire season.

So I did.

I watched every televised game that season. The games that weren't televised, I listened to on the radio.

Every game. Even the heartbreaker where MSU lost to Northwestern.

I followed the stats of all the Big Ten schools.

I still remember the names of the starting players.

Earvin Johnson.

Greg Kelser.

Jay Vincent.

Terry Donnelly.


Mike Brkovich.

I happened to like Brkovich because I thought he was cute. Not dreamy, just cute.

Jay Vincent and Earvin Johnson had been cross town rivals in high school. Then they were teammates in college. T-shirts were made bearing the slogan "All the Way with Earvin and Jay" proclaiming the aspirations of Spartan fans to win it all.

Knowing how important Jay Vincent was for the team, I agonized when he was sidelined for awhile because of an injured foot.

I remember during one game a second (or third) stringer play with the last name of Huffman played for a few minutes. He stopped in the middle of the court to tie his shoe. An announcer was so taken aback by that unusual sight that he proclaimed from henceforth that player shall be referred to as "Shoes" Huffman.

There weren't many people in my high school who shared my interest, or obsession, in Spartan basketball. I remember my friend Debbie also wanted to go to MSU. She was about the only person I compared notes with during that fateful season. Except for my MSU alumni relatives who I met sporadically at family functions.

Otherwise, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy without really sharing it with anyone else.

That is, until the NCAA Tournament began.

The announcers began playing up their expectations for Michigan State. Preferential treatment toward my favored team? It was fine by me.

Then there was talk about another team which was thus far, undefeated. It was a little known team out of the basketball crazy state of Indiana. It was not the Big Ten conference Indiana University home of the lunatic coach Bobby Knight. No, it was Indiana State University. Their leading player was named Larry Bird.

The general public in a short period of time became fascinated by the match up of "Magic" and Bird.

I cannot say why this struck a chord in the general public.

I was going to watch the game because the school I wanted to attend was playing for the national title. If they had lost an earlier round, I would not have watched.

The game was fabulous, although what I remember best are the images after the game was over. Earvin Johnson helping to cut down the winning net and Larry Bird crying in his towel.

Both images were captured in photographs the next day in the Detroit Free Press.

I was deliriously happy the night we won.

The game was the most watched game in NCAA history. To this day.

A few weeks afterward, a teacher stuck his head into our classroom to pass on the news that "Magic" Johnson was the very first player picked in the NBA Draft.

I had mixed emotions at the news.

I had hoped he wouldn't go pro just yet. He was still a sophomore at State and I selfishly wanted him to stay and win two more years of NCAA titles. Before the term was coined I wanted a Threepeat. I was greedy.

I also knew that a single injury could end an athlete's career.

So I understood that it would be better for him to turn pro while all eyes were upon him and he was in demand.

Getting past my own selfishness, I was thrilled that a player from MY team was the number one draft pick. I took it as an affirmation of my beloved Spartans.

That 1979 game between Michigan State and Indiana State is heralded as a turning point in NCAA tournament history. It also helped reinvigorate the NBA once Magic and Bird transferred their magic to the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Thirty years later and the NCAA wanted to mark the anniversary of that landmark game. They are having Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Larry Bird give out the game ball to the winning team.

And thirty years later Michigan State University is once again in the NCAA Finals.

This time, the game is being held in Downtown Detroit.


Or as they say in Detroit: Deeeeeeetroit.

Or sometimes: Day - Twah.

(I know there's no "s" in Detroit, but when Detroiters want to sound like they're pronouncing their town in French, they say Day - Twah.)

Detroit is only an hour and a half drive from East Lansing, home of Michigan State University.

Ford Field will be filled with Spartan fans. Look for a sea of rabid green supporters making a lot of noise.

With this tough economy, there's not a lot to cheer about in Michigan. The MSU Spartans right now have captured the hearts and imagination of Michiganders.

And Michiganders are not known for showing passive approval. They are known for raucous crowds at rock concerts and boisterous cheering at sporting events.

There will be no golf claps.

I will be watching and screaming myself hoarse in the comfort of my living room while wishing I were in the nosebleed seats in Detroit with my friends.

The University of North Carolina will have their supporters cheering for them.

They even have the blessing (or burden) of being picked by President Obama as the team predicted to win it all.

But I do not think the Tar Heels can win.

They will be in a hostile arena, surrounded by crazed Spartan fans.

And the Spartans will have an X Factor in play.

They want that game ball from Magic Johnson.

It is their legacy.

And it is their time to shine.

Go Green! Go White!

Edited to add:

My heart was broken. I saw the basketball rim the hoop and refuse to fall into the basket many times for the Spartans. As if the basketball gods simply did not want my favored team to win.


I remember being in high school and attending a home football game in Spartan stadium with my mother. It was a non conference game against Miami of Ohio. It was at the beginning of the season and did not mean much. However, do not tell that to the fans of MSU.

At one point the visiting team was close to getting a touchdown. The fans in the stands did not want that to happen. We cheered.


So much so that the officials had to call a time out because the opposing team could not hear their quarterback giving his signals.

Then they tried a second time.

We cheered louder.

The announcer gave us a warning from the officials that if the team couldn't hear the signals for a third time that our beloved Spartans would be penalized due to the interference by the crowd.

So we quieted down. Someone then decided to wave their arms over their heads. It spread like wildfire. Soon the entire stadium (save for the bloc of seats reserved for visitors) were waving their arms. Capacity of Spartan stadium is 75,000. Imagine 120,000 arms being waved at once. There was this eerie sound like a massive flock of birds flying overhead.

Our opponents did not score.

Because the fans would not allow it to happen.

That is the type of home court advantage that I expected in Ford Field. I expected the massive green and white fan contingent to lift the spirits of the Spartan players to a level where they could not lose.

Except they did.