Saturday, December 31, 2011

More thoughts on Pope Joan and a review of my novel

I wanted to alert my blog readers that REELZ channel will be rebroadcasting the movie Pope Joan on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.  (Edited due to incorrect times being listed previously.)  December 31st broadcast time is 4 pm EST, 1 pm PST and January 1st will be shown at 10 am EST, 7 am PST.  Both episodes are shown back to back.

The movie is divided into two parts that are each two hours in length.  I thought on the second night there were to be interviews with the author, but those extras were put into other shows on the network to help publicize the movie's broadcast and can also be found on their website.

There were 25 additional minutes to the film from the theatrical release that I saw at a film festival.  Having only seen it once before, I am unsure of exactly how many things were added in the REELZ channel version that had not been in the theatrical release.

There was one scene that seemed new to me that is worth noting.  It is of a "trial" by Joan's father of the local midwife as being a witch.  She is thrown into a river after being bound. After she drowns, Joan's father declares that the woman was innocent of being a witch and that Heaven should have mercy upon her soul.

There was no attempt upon saving her or by retrieving her corpse from the river.  At least none shown on screen.

Another scene I did not remember was a raucous one in the bishop's palace.  A young Joan (Johanna) and her brother John (Johannes) enter the palace at dinnertime.  They are reporting to the schola, but she has to first prove herself worthy to enter since enrolling a female is unprecedented.

As they enter the grand dining room there are tables filled with people eating and carousing.  One man stands up, bends over baring his backside and cheers greet him as he provides the entertainment.  Another person is holding a lit candle whose flame is enhanced by the productive emissions from this gaseous man.

Yup, the movie depicts medieval fart lighting.

Having a small interlude like that takes away some of the hyper-glossed shine many movies set in the medieval era where the knights are dressed in shining armor and the ladies are sporting perfect lipstick,  eyeshadow and mascara.

I recommend that any medievalist who hasn't watched this movie to make an attempt to watch it tonight and tomorrow if possible.  It is well done and depicts the difficulty women had in the ninth century.  This movie can be enjoyed as pure historical fiction if you do not believe that the legend of Pope Joan was based on a real woman.

Speaking of medieval mascara, I will be joining Carl Pyrdum soon on his blog in a (Bad) Medieval Movie Review.  We will be critiquing the movie Ever After starring Drew Barrymore.  Talk about your medieval mascara!  I will post a link here when that goes live on Carl's popular Got Medieval blog.

And lastly, medievalist blogger Steven Till posted a review of my novel Quest of the Warrior Maid. Here is a link to his review.

Here is wishing my blog readers to have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2012.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pope Joan: the legend, the novel and the mini-series from REELZ channel

I started this post a year ago, and its drafting suffered from a case of analysis paralysis. It was thus confined to the oubliette known as the drafts folder. However, with the recent news that the movie Pope Joan, based on the internationally bestselling novel of the same name by Donna Woolfolk Cross, is going to be televised in the United States by REELZ Channel, I became inspired to finish this post.

The movie will be broadcast as a miniseries on December 18th and 19th starting at 8pm EST.

It will be the director's cut and include 25 more minutes than was included in the theatrical release as well as an interview with author Donna Woolfolk Cross.

Theatrical release is kind of a misnomer for the US market as it was never released here. The movie was released in Europe, but was only shown in a few premieres and film festivals in the United States. Why? I can only speculate. Other movies of merit have also had difficulty in being distributed while numerous clunkers open every week to thousands of screens nationwide.

That's the risk of getting excited when talking about "show business." Many times there isn't any logic applied.

Marquee from the Castro Theatre for the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival. Yes, I am aware of the irony provided by the film title above that of Pope Joan.

I am one of the one of the few privileged people in the U.S who has seen this film because I attended a film festival in San Francisco in October 2010. I wanted to share with the medievalist blogosphere my feedback on this movie as there is now an opportunity for others to see it now that it will be televised.

I loved the movie and am eager to watch the miniseries, burn it onto my private DVR at home so that I can watch it again whenever I like, since it is still not available yet on DVD in the U.S.

The Legend

Before I discuss the merits of the movie, I would like to first address the legend.

Pope Joan is a legendary figure whose very existence is debated by historians and theologians.

According to legend, a woman disguised herself as a man using the name John Anglicus and rose in the ranks of the Catholic Church to become Pope John VIII during the ninth century.

The official position of the Catholic Church is that this is a falsehood and that there has never been a female pope.

I feel that just because the Catholic Church denies her existence and there is no consensus by historians, this should not dissuade people from enjoying the novel or the movie.

Historians argue over whether or not there was an historical figure that the legendary King Arthur was based upon, and - if he existed - the time period of his reign and where Camelot was sited.

I believe that Medievalists who enjoy Arthurian legend, should also enjoy the legend of Pope Joan.

There is circumstantial evidence to support the conclusion that such a woman existed, but rather than attempt to persuade anyone by listing it here I will use a different appeal. I want my fellow medievalists and lovers of mythic fiction to forget about evaluating the historical evidence on this particular legendary figure, and allow yourself to explore the what ifs provided by such a legend.

Imagine what it would have been like to be a woman of the Middle Ages who yearns for a life beyond her station, but have such avenues as entering a monastery denied to you because of the accident of being born a woman. The only way to subvert that blockade would be to use subterfuge. Then imagine how difficult it would be knowing that every day you had to be on guard lest your true sex become revealed, and with that possible torture and death as punishment.

As a woman, I want to believe Pope Joan existed. Much more than I care whether or not Guinevere existed.

Because I want more positive historical role models of women. Compared to men, there are few women in the historical record and most of them are known because of who their fathers were, who their husbands were, or who they slept with.

Women in the historical record are usually born into a position of power or rose to it due to their beauty and sexuality.

The legend of Pope Joan is of a woman of humble origins who rose to a position of power due to her intellect.

I Love That.

Really. Beauty fades, but knowledge grows over a lifetime. To have a woman become successful due to her reason and wits is inspirational to me.

This is similar to my preference of the archetype of Athena over Aphrodite.

To have a woman hide the most basic aspect of her personhood so that she might aspire to be literate and live a life of scholarly theological pursuit is a testament to her own desire for learning.

Then to have her dedication for knowledge be recognized by her peers and have her advance within the hierarchy is even more impressive.

Knowing the sordid history of discrimination against educating women and the necessity of lawsuits to allow for their entry into schools and universities, it is understandable how it would have been far easier centuries ago for a smart female to avoid denial by passing herself off as a male.

And history is rife with examples of women who cross-dressed to survive and even to thrive in a male dominated world. I came across an example today of a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania whose dissertation is entitled: “Legendary Effects: Women Saints of the Legenda Aurea in England 1260-1563.”

Therefore, please do not let the controversy of a female pope dissuade you from enjoying the novel and the movie. I have my doubts about the historicity of King Arthur, I but still enjoy watching the movie Excalibur regardless of its historical inaccuracies.

The Novel

Donna Woolfolk Cross stumbled upon a mention of Pope Jeanne one day while doing research. She dismissed it at first as being a misspelling of Pope Jean. Later, she pulled down a reference tome and looked up a listing of popes and discovered that there was a mention of Pope Joan who was dismissed as being nothing more than legend.

Intrigued, Donna began to investigate and soon found herself immersed in ninth century European lore and intrigue. She spent seven years researching this novel and traveled to Europe several times.

Donna chose to write the story of Pope Joan as a novel rather than a non-fiction book because there were too many gaps in the storyline. Using her imagination, she filled in those gaps and wanted to tell the story of a brave woman who defied the expectations of females of the middle ages and strove to become educated.

The novel is told through multiple points of view and provides insight into the varying perspectives different people in society would view the subject of educating women and girls.

The Movie

For my friends in the medievalist communities, I want to assure you that this movie shows the medieval period in all of its gritty glory. There is not the high glossed shine of some movies set in medieval times with a romanticized look and women appearing to have mascara, lipstick, and wearing silken finery. Not in this movie. Thankfully the smells of the farm animals and the unwashed masses are not transmitted through the screen to the audiences.

Nor does this movie portray idealized righteous kings. Charlemagne's grandson Lothar is shown feuding with the papacy. I was happy to recognize that the crown worn by Lothar appears to be the one that once belonged to his grandfather.

A replica of Charlemagne's crown from the Rathaus in Aachen, Germany

Similarly, the armor worn by the knights in this movie is scale armor and is not the brightly polished plate armor depicted in medieval fantasies such as Excalibur.

There is also not the problem of modern sensibilities being injected into the past as if the only difference between life then and now was wardrobe and hygiene.

Instead, it is clearly shown as a time when women had little power of their own.

Overview of movie with minimalist spoilers

Here is the theatrical trailer:

Johanna (Joan) is born the same day that Charlemagne dies (January 28, 814), and is the beginning reference point for the story. There are also mentions of the Saxons having been forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne and those who refused having been put to death.

Johanna's father is a village canon and is a cruel man with a violent temper.

Naturally curious, Johanna pays attentions to the lessons her father gives to her two brothers and discovers that she comprehends and remembers more than the younger son. She begs her oldest brother to teach her to read and write. He does so, but only in secret.

Later her father is horrified to learn that his daughter has become literate. An opportunity presents itself for Johanna to leave her abusive father and attend a school. She begins a new life where she is once again ridiculed for being female and seeking to be a part of the male world.

The local bishop allows Johanna to enter the schola in Dorstadt. He is shown as a man who enjoys wine, women and song. He finds the prospect of a girl in the school to be an amusing novelty and calls for her admission over the objections of the schoolmaster.

Violence in the movie is unflinching, but is merciful in its brevity. A finger is chopped off to remove a ring with ease, a head lopped off with a single stroke of a sword, as well as the aftermath of a Viking raid where dozens of corpses are lined up to help with identification of the dead.

Johanna reaches a crossroads in her life and finds that her best chance of survival is to assume her brother's identity and enter a monastery. There, for the first time in her life, she is given the recognition she deserves for her piety and her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, but only because she is believed to be a man. She is called Johannes Anglicus (or John Anglicus). Anglicus in reference to her father being English.

During her time in the monastery she works as a healer and translates books by Hippocrates from Greek to Latin. Her knowledge of medicine is what brings her acclaim, but also possibly her downfall. At one point after working with the sick, she develops a fever and is almost forced by her fellow monks to disrobe for treatment. It is the fear of being discovered as a woman that forces her to flee the monastery.

After her recovery from illness, she decides on a pilgrimage to Rome. It is there that she achieves her life's destiny.

Pope Sergius is near death. The physicians have bled him repeatedly and he looks doomed.
John Goodman plays the part of gluttonous Pope Sergius. Goodman was made for the role. Not only the body type, but he shows the range of behavior similar to a pendulum swing from violent excess when drunk to having a keen intellect when sober.

Anatole Taubman is the conniving Anastasius who plots his own ascension for the papal throne. He is afraid that if Sergius dies too soon that he will passed over in consideration. He needs time to consolidate his power and in desperation, he seeks an outside healer, John Anglicus, whose good works have come to be renowned since his arrival in Rome.

Taubman played the part of Remigius in the mini series Pillars of the Earth (being rebroadcast starting December 3rd also on REELZ channel). After Pope Joan and Pillars, he may get typecast as wily, untrustworthy, utterly ambitious villains. The good news for him is that there are many of those roles in movies so he could have a long film career.

Other familiar faces on the screen include David Wenham, Faramir of Lord of the Rings fame. He plays Count Gerold, a kind man who took pity on Johanna when she first came to the schola in Dorstadt and offered lodging in his family's home for her. They develop a strong bond as Johanna grows from a child to a young woman.

Johanna Wokalek plays the title role from late teens to Johanna's death in her forties. She does a marvelous job of playing a character who has mastered patience in the face of adversity. Many actors are called to gain or lose weight for parts, but not many actresses are asked to be tonsured. Part of my brain while watching the movie was paying attention to the length of hair stubble appearing on the crown of her head.

I fully recognize that stories told in movies are different than they are books. They are two different mediums and you must recognize that what works in one format must change in order to work in another. Several plot points of historical relevance were omitted from the movie for time considerations. This includes leaving out the sacking of St. Peter's, a fire in the Borgo that destroyed much of the Vatican, the reign of Pope Leo IV, and flooding of the Tiber River.

Those are all in the novel, but not in the movie. At least those were not included in the theatrical release of the movie. Perhaps some of those exciting historical events will be a part of the restored 25 minutes of the director's cut.

The version I saw worked as a dramatic vehicle even if it was streamlined from the events of the novel. It has all the foreshadowing and plot points necessary to tell a story that holds together. The acting is wonderful.

There are some historical inaccuracies, but those are explained by Donna Woolfolk Cross in her detailed author's notes at the end of her novel. She admits that she made some adjustments "in the interest of telling a good story." This includes changing the timing of a Viking raid in Dorstadt to coincide with a major plot point.

All in all, the novel and the movie represent good historical fiction of a legendary character.

I urge my medievalist friends to watch the miniseries and discuss it amongst your friends, classrooms and colleagues. If nothing else, as an example of a what a good medievalist movie looks like.

Full disclosure:

I first met Donna Woolfolk Cross in 1997 when she came to Sonoma County and did a benefit book signing for an organization I was president of at the time. My husband and I spent an enjoyable day with Donna and her husband Richard prior to the evening's event.

We have corresponded periodically ever since.

At the time when we met, the trade paperback version was a new release and she was just beginning her major method of promoting her novel by doing author chats via speaker phone to book groups. She has done that several times each week since then. There is a set of questions at the back of her book to stimulate discussion in book clubs and then she calls and joins the conversation in progress.

The clubs arrange a time for Donna to call by sending a message to her website . She has talked to thousands and thousands of book clubs this way over the last thirteen years and speaks with classrooms as well.

Her persistence in championing her novel served as an inspiration of my first ever blog post where I highlighted those efforts as well as those of Richard Zimler's in getting his first novel published. That post is titled Never Give Up.

Each time Donna speaks with a book group, she has the hope that the participants will tell others about their positive experience of speaking with an author and having the ability to ask questions about their novel. This positive word of mouth (WOM) campaign has led to her trade paperback being in its eighteenth printing in the U.S. alone.

Pope Joan has been translated into thirty-one languages, was ranked #1 for three years on Germany's bestseller list and is number one on the list of longtime bestselling novels in Germany.

This is borne out by my finding a copy of her novel in the train station in Aachen, Germany this summer.

Here is the wall of historical fiction:

And if you look closely you can see the word "Papstin" on a red paperback cover. That is Donna's novel.

After the movie, I was able to grab Donna for a quick photo. It was nice to see her again, and I wish her continued success with her novel of a legendary woman.

To further help out a friend, I am going to list her new social media sites to help promote the miniseries and the novel.

Pope Joan the blog
Pope Joan the Book Facebook page
Donna Woolfolk Cross on Twitter

Please spread the word about the upcoming miniseries. I also want to read reviews about it across the medievalist blogosphere after it airs.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Knights of Mayhem, Review of the Reality TV Show

Troupe of jousters in Carcassonne, France - Summer of 2011

This past week I watched two back-to-back episodes of the National Geographic Channel's reality series "The Knights of Mayhem."

I do not normally watch that channel and was not even certain if my satellite television subscription carried it. I learned of the series due to a blog post by Steven Till that included a video clip from CBS News Sunday Morning about jousting and two dramatically different styles.

One group is led by Jeffrey Hedgecock and is the force behind the Tournament of the Phoenix. The other group is the Knights of Mayhem led by Charlie Andrews.

Jeffrey Hedgecock cares about historical authenticity and safety, whereas Charlie Andrews gleefully declares, "This ain't no dinner show, this isn't no balsa tipped re-enactment. This is the real deal." (sic)

Danger is part of the allure of the sport for him.

"And if you come in here to play you will get hurt. The only question is when and how bad."

To prove that point Charlie lists the following injuries suffered by his type of jousting: concussions, broken collar bones, separated shoulders as well as his own broken ribs that led to a punctured lung and a pulmonary embolism.


The major difference between Jeffrey Hedgecock's style of jousting and Charlie Andrews is the lances. Andrews' lances are solid hemlock poles whereas Hedgecock's are tipped with balsa wood so that they are designed to break easily on contact. Also unhorsing your opponent is encouraged by Andrews and penalized by Hedgecock.

I have watched many displays of jousting in the last ten years. Yes, they were choreographed, but that does not mean they are without danger. One exhibition had a knight being hospitalized because a lance injured his groin.


No amount of choreography can control what happens when a lance splinters. King Henry II of France learned that the hard way when he was jousting at his daughter's wedding and a stray splinter flew into his helmet's visor slit and penetrated one eye. He died from an infection brought about by that injury. That sure put a damper on the wedding festivities.

The potential for injury is not why I enjoy watching jousting, but the violent aspect of the sport was borne out by the two episodes of "The Knights of Mayhem" that I watched. One of the knights is named Brian and he was thrown from the back of his horse in a tournament in Sonora, California and suffered a concussion. He was taken by ambulance from the fairgrounds to a local hospital where he was treated and a brain scan showed he had suffered from bleeding on the brain.

That's really nice.

The following episode, Brian discussed his injury and what it could mean to his family if he were to be injured again. But then he decided to forget about further risks to his health and safety out of a desire to win money. He took part in a tournament in Texas because he wanted to win $20,000.

In that tournament Brian was unhorsed two more times and risked getting further concussions. I thought of the recent medical investigations being performed on former professional football players and how repeated concussions have impacted their health years after retirement.

The risk to benefit ratio for concussions/prize winning seemed awfully skewed to me in regard to this extreme version of jousting that Charlie Andrews advocates. Twenty thousand dollars while a lot of money is a drop in the bucket when it comes to paying medical bills for those kinds of brain injuries.

Another aspect of the show that bothered me was the treatment of a new recruit named Joe. He was ordered by Charlie to suit up and joust against him without having been properly trained. Joe does not have extensive equestrian experience and was fumbling with his reins and lance while the horse refused to go near the lists.

Charlie then hurled expletives and insults at Joe as if humiliation would make him an expert horseman.

I was flabbergasted at that display and began my own verbal outbursts at the screen.

"He needs to practice with a quintain first!" and "How can you expect him to joust when he can't even ride?"

Besides that, knights who jousted had their hands full with the lance and shield. They had to be able to control and guide their horse with their legs. This newbie certainly could not control his horse and did not have even the beginning skills of how to hold a lance. To ask that someone that inexperienced to suit up and joust was stupid and cruel.

Then again, when it comes to the formula for successful reality television series you need to have a villain to root against. Charlie Andrews with his foul mouth and ego driven personality seems to be the central casting choice to be "the heavy" in this series.

His counter balance is Patrick Lambke who appears to be the softer and more humane co-founder of the troupe.

However, in the second episode there was a purchase of a new horse. Charlie states that he is the source of the funding of armor and transportation of the horses to the various sites of competition. He is the one bankrolling his brand of sport and his troupe. He complained about the high cost of this new horse, and then was disgusted when the horse was delivered. He felt it was too small.

Are you kidding me? He bought a five thousand dollar horse without seeing it first? Really? Did he just go by online pictures or a video?

Patrick was shown engaging in a soliloquy about this new horse and hoping that he would forge the bond between horse and rider that Charlie had with his.

That is a nice sentiment and aspiration. The problem I had was that Patrick tried to compete with that horse, but without ever mounting the horse wearing full armor.

Once again, are you kidding me? You get a new horse and you don't bother to train with it before wanting to enter into a competition?


A horse is not a car. You cannot simply get on a horse's back and hope that it will respond like a car will when you depress the gas pedal.

If using solid hemlock lances are more dangerous to the competitors than balsa tipped lances used by others who joust, then you should be more and not less concerned with the fundamentals of horsemanship *prior* to engaging in an activity that can harm your health and safety.

And this ragtag group of foul mouthed biker dudes is who the National Geographic Channel chose to highlight with a reality series. I wonder if the cable executives considered any other troupe to create a jousting series.

If given the opportunity to see either troupe perform in person, I would prefer seeing Jeffrey Hedgecock's rather than someone who egotistically proclaims, "I am the merciless god of this universe."

I fully understand why Charlie Andrews' troupe has only a few members.

There is one benefit of my viewing this reality show: Charlie may help to inspire my writing of my antagonists Mandricardo and Rodomont, because he is utterly without honor.

(P.S. The photograph at the top of this blog post was taken during our trip to France this summer. I did not want to use any photos from the National Geographic Channel or the KoM, because I did not want to ask for permission to use their copyrighted works.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Guest blog post on Freda's Voice

For those readers who are new to my blog and would like to see my numerous posts about my travels in France and Italy as well as see many gorgeous photographs from those places, please explore these posts tagged with travel.

The blog Freda's Voice was kind enough to host a question and answer post for me and my novel Quest of the Warrior Maid.

I talk about writing, Greek mythology, drama and mention my favorite novel of all time.

Please stop by and check it out.
Also, for those in Northern California, I will be reading at a new event this evening. It is called "Dine with Local Authors" being held at Gaia's Garden, 1899 Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa at 6 pm. I will be one of seven authors who will be reading from our work.

Please stop by if you can. (Four dollar minimum for the food, but the entertainment will be well worth it!)

Thanks and now back to NaNoWriMo.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Guest post on the Graveyard Shift

My friend Lee Lofland was gracious enough to allow me to write a guest post on his wildly popular police procedural blog The Graveyard Shift.

Please check it out, my post is about writing about laboratory procedures in fiction as well as getting the correct historical terms as well. I also have some nice photos from Hotel Dieu that dates back to the seventh century in Paris.

Back to NaNoWriMo!


Monday, October 31, 2011

Upcoming literary events in Sonoma County

November promises to be a busy month for me. I decided to take the plunge and participate in NaNoWriMo, which for those who haven't heard of this before is short for National Novel Writing Month. A fast and furious thirty days where the goal is to write 50,000 words. Quality is not the underlying goal, but instead it is quantity. Why? This is to encourage writers to silence their inner critic which can make you stop and re-read every sentence as soon as it is written.

That need to self-edit needs to be restrained so that your creative side can have free rein and possibly come up with something wonderful.

It will be less likely to happen if you spend an hour agonizing over the position of commas and debating whether or not the word "that" belongs in a specific sentence. Honestly, I have been there and I know how insane that type of editing can be on one's psyche.

I have an advantage of many of the NaNoWriMo participants because the sequel to my novel Quest of the Warrior Maid is outlined in great detail. I just have not allowed myself to start writing it in earnest because I have been trying to market my first novel. So I have a plot and a detailed one at that. I just have to start putting my thoughts down in the first draft format.

Beyond NaNoWriMo, I will be reading from my novel in the Odd Month Reading sponsored by Redwood Writers at the Windsor Public Library.

The theme will be:

Rain! Here it Comes!
Ready or Not!

SATURDAY, November 12 , 2011
1:00 – 3:00 PM
Windsor Library
9291 Old Redwood Hwy.
Windsor, California

I plan on reading from a chapter where the leader of the Islamic forces is planning an attack on the fortified city of Paris and the weather promises a terrible thunderstorm that evening.

The next day, Sunday, November 13th my writers' club monthly general meeting will be held from 2:30-5 at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. Our guest speaker will be Terri Farley, author of the well known Phantom Stallion series. Her topic will be "Writing a Series isn't Child's Play."

Then on Monday, November 14th I signed up to participate in the Dine with Local Authors event at Gaia's Garden, 1899 Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa at 6 pm. Seven local authors will be reading from our work after eating dinner with friends and fans of the local literary community.

Hopefully, between those events and Thanksgiving I shall get somewhat close to "winning" NaNoWriMo by composing 50K words.

Wish me luck, and for those who live in Northern California, please stop by at some of these events if you can.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Travels in Italy or Milan, Part 2

I started my travelogue of my trip to Italy with this post. I promised that I would blog again about that amazing trip and so now I have Part 2 of my time in Milan.

One important piece of information that we learned about Italy before we left was the dress code in regard to entering churches. The Italians are formal and require that shoulders and knees be covered.

I went shopping prior to this trip to make sure that I had quick drying shorts that were long enough in the leg to cover my knees and likewise a nice travel friendly top that covered my shoulders. I was planning on visiting St. Peter's Basilica during my time in Rome and did not want to be turned away due to "immodest" dress.

We arrived in Milan after a long flight from Boston and were feeling a bit exhausted/excited. After checking into our hotel, we took showers to help us feel refreshed and changed our clothes from the ones we had worn on the airplane. I expected that we might visit the Duomo that afternoon, so I wore my appropriate long shorts and capped sleeve shirt. My husband's shorts were almost knee length, but we shared the opinion that middle-aged men's knees were not seen as being scandalous as much as women's knees.

Once we finished our lunch, toured the Teatro Alla Scala, and walked through the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II we were ready to visit the Duomo.

Here is a picture of that amazing cathedral.

A golden statue of Saint Mary adorns the top of the Duomo.

My husband had a brand new camera and was busily snapping various pictures. I assumed that he would have taken all the same ones I would have. Wrong. He only took one photo of the Duomo to get a sense of its grandeur.

It is a shame that he did not take any photos of the piazza in front which was a major gathering spot of hundreds if not thousands of people. There was a vibrancy being among people who were there enjoying the sunshine and each others' company.

He took pictures when I asked him to and here are some horse statues nearby the Duomo and have a strange modern art sensibility to them.

I thought it looked like a pile of salt that the black horses were struggling to emerge from or risk drowning. And then well, there is one horse that seems to be having difficulty of a different nature.

I have a new editing tool and discovered how I can add captions. This opens up new vistas of blogging for me. Who knows what mischief I will wreak?

Scott took several photos of the carvings on the front of the Duomo. This one reminds me of Sonoma County in harvest time, however we don't have grape clusters anywhere near this size.

Here are a few others with Medievalist aspects to them such as a priest riding with a contingent of armed foot soldiers.

And here a king is being thrown to the ground as his horse is wounded.

Could one of my Medievalist friends who reads Latin interpret the wording surrounding this panel. I see the word "sex" near the king's elbow and would like to know what it means in context and translation.

We did not have difficulty getting into the cathedral, but we did have our bags searched before we were allowed inside. I believe we might have been denied entrance had my knees and shoulders not been covered.

Here you can get an idea of how large the cathedral really is. I have seen conflicting reports as to the ranking of the Duomo di Milano in relation to other cathedrals, so I will just say that it is quite large and impressive both inside and out.

Next comes a statue of Saint Bartholomew who according to one legend was flayed alive.


His statue is shown with defined musculature and draped with his own skin.

I will leave you with an image of an eagle in the stained glass. Eagles are the symbol for my hero Ruggiero, so I have gotten into the habit of snapping pictures of eagles whenever I see them. (Or asking my husband to be sure to take one for me.)

The Duomo also allows for tours of its rooftop so that people can get a view of additional spires and statues that adorn the top of the cathedral as well as an incredible bird's eye view of the city. Alas, we ran out of time and never had the chance to take that tour. Tickets are sold at a building a block away from the cathedral.

After all of that, we headed back to our hotel and went to bed early hoping that we would be able to sleep off our jet lag and be adjusted to Italian time.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Review of The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

This review is an overview and does not contain spoilers.

I mentioned before in a previous post how much I adore the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.

I find Riordan's take on Greek mythology to be fun and light-hearted, but with a deep knowledge and respect for the source material. The first series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, was completed in five volumes and it seemed that the ending wrapped everything up neatly. The World As We Knew It Was Saved and we could all go back to living our lives.

Heh, heh, heh.

Rick realized that there was a built in sequel utilizing little known stories from Greek Mythology and inserted a prophecy at the end of The Last Olympian to use as a starting point for his new series The Heroes of Olympus.

This new series expands his universe to include Roman mythology. I was of the opinion that Roman mythology was pretty much the same as Greek mythology with different names for most of the gods and goddesses with a few additional minor Roman deities.

Riordan shows that the two sets of mythologies are not equivalent and that the Roman gods have different personalities and aspects from their Greek counterparts. I find this to be way cool.

Son of Neptune is the second book in this planned five book series and it is released today.

Without including spoilers, I want to encourage those who love Medievalism and mythology who have not read the books to start reading them and to begin at the beginning with The Lightning Thief.

Riordan's style encourages a desire to learn more about both Greek and Roman mythology as well as ancient history.

In the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series, the Greek demigods were kept in a camp protected by magical boundaries against monsters. This was Camp Half-Blood off Long Island Sound. Click to see an interactive map of Camp Half-Blood.

And now, in The Son of Neptune, we are introduced to the camp for the Roman demigods. Here is a link to interactive map of Camp Jupiter near the Berkeley and Oakland Hills in California. It is different because the Roman cities were different from Greek ones. There are baths, a forum, a colliseum and even a circus maximus. How cool is that?

There was even a line in this book mentioning the division in the old Roman Empire between the Western and the Eastern empires with the Greeks maintaining control of the eastern half. This was then to be replicated in subsequent generations when the center of Western Civilization might migrate and explaining why Camp Half-Blood for Greek demigods was on the east coast and Camp Jupiter for Roman demigods was on the west coast.

I enjoyed that touch, and know that Riordan probably did not plan this detail when he first set up the Percy Jackson universe but recognized it later and decided this synchronicity needed to be mentioned in passing in the text.

So to me, this is learning history on the fly for my son while entertaining him and engaging his mind.

In The Son of Neptune, Riordan expands his universe with more characters that are heroic and some seem downright creepy. Octavian is a Roman demigod with a talent for reading auguries. Rather than opening live animals and examining their entrails, he uses stuffed animals and looks at the stuffing. For kids who snuggle every night with teddy bears, that might be a more disturbing image than reading about a live animal being vivisected.

Either way, the character of Octavian is one who bears watching to see if he will betray everyone for his own personal gain.

A new hero in this book is Frank Zhang who has Chinese heritage *and* an echoing tenuous connection to life as did Meleager of the Calydonian Boar Hunt fame. I had forgotten the details of Meleager's story from Greek mythology, but it was found easily with a Google search. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Riordan's ability to weave in such details in his narrative demonstrating his love for the source material.

Overall impressions:

The story is fast paced with a great dollop of humor and inclusion of myth and history. One scene had Percy and his friends hiding under the furry blue butt of a Hyperborean giant. This brought about the mental image of Rudolph and Hermie being between the Bumble's legs.

And later, Riordan had Death using an iPad. I laughed out loud at both of these absurdities that he included to amuse his readers.

I recommend this book highly as well as all the preceding novels and I look forward to reading The Mark of Athena next year. Especially since my favorite goddess is named in the title.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sonoma County Book Festival

This past weekend was the twelfth annual Sonoma County Book Festival. It has grown to eight different venues and stages for readings and panel discussions, as well as four different areas for the over ninety vendors.


Here is Fourth Street in Downtown Santa Rosa which was closed off this year to traffic to accommodate the event.

My writers club had two separate tables, one for membership and another for advertising our various programs and upcoming events. Redwood Writers has become so vibrant and popular that it sponsored four other tables for our members to showcase their books on a rotating basis. Each table had two authors on two hour shifts, so a total of thirty-two members had an opportunity to sell their books as a benefit of belonging to our club without having to pay an exhibitors fee.

That was a great opportunity and one that I utilized. I was also scheduled to read from my novel Quest of the Warrior Maid. To help put myself in a festive mood, I decided to wear a period costume.

My outfit may not be accurate ninth century apparel, but I have limited sewing skills. Many people complimented me on my dress, so if nothing else - I stood out from the crowd by dressing Medievalish.

With my friend Kate Farrell.

Here I am with Teresa LeYung Ryan

Ana Manwaring organized the Redwood Writers Village Stage with twelve different groups who each had multiple readers. That is a lot of organizing. Our podium was created by her husband. It is a hollowed out redwood stump and we were in front of a grove of redwood trees. How fitting for Redwood Writers.

Ana Manwaring introducing me.

I am reading a scene from Quest of the Warrior Maid.

Ana requested that I read a "spicy" scene from my book, so for those who have a copy of my book - it was chapter 28 - a scene on Alcina's island.

It was fun and I had several people tell me later in the day that they enjoyed the enthusiasm I showed in my presentation.

Here is a close up of my jewelry. Yes that's a sword pendant I am wearing as well as Occitan crosses for earrings.

After I read, I introduced another club member's new work.

Robbi Sommers Bryant reads from her new novel The Beautiful Evil.

Our writing club's vice-president Jeane Slone has created a wonderful program for Sonoma County authors with independent coffee shops. There are now eighteen coffee shops selling over seventy titles by forty-seven Sonoma County authors. The coffee shops love it because their customers get to browse while they are waiting for their lattes, and the owners do not have to do anything with the books. Jeane visits them regularly to rotate and refill titles. Here she is talking with two festival goers about the program.

Here is a picture of the list of coffee shops in the program.

And here is an easier to read list of the independent coffee shops who are carrying local Sonoma County authors' books:

Apple Box Coffee shop: 224 B St., Petaluma
The Barking Dog Roasters: 18133 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma
The Barking Dog Roasters (II): 201 W. Napa St., Sonoma
The Bean Affair: 1270 Healdsburg Ave, #101, Healdsburg
Bungalow Coffee and Tea: near Molsberry Market, Larksfield
Café de Croissants: 6580 Oakmont Dr., Oakmont
Café Noto: 630 McClelland Dr., Windsor
Community Café: 875 West Napa St., Sonoma
The Dry Creek Store: 3495 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg
Golden Bean: 101Golf Course Dr., Suite A3, Rohnert Park
Gypsey Café: 162 N. Main St., Sebastopol
Kenwood Farmhouse Gift shop: 9255 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood
Local Folkal: 117 N. Cloverdale Blvd., Cloverdale
Midtown Café: 1422 4th St.. Santa Rosa
Muffin Street Baking: 52 Mission Circle, Santa Rosa (McDonald/Mission shopping center)
Off the Track Coffee shop: 6544 Front Street, Forestville
Pearson & Co. Expresso & Catering/McCoy's Cookware: 2759 4th St., Santa Rosa (Near Farmer's Lane, next to Safeway)

Jeane told me that my book is currently at The Bean Affair, Café Noto, and the Bungalow. There were a few others, but she rotates the stock so that the coffee shop regulars will have different titles to browse.

It's hard to see with the shadow, but Jeane is holding up a copy of my book.

Jeane had a great day talking with festival goers, selling a few books and seven more authors expressed interest in having their work entered into the program.

Here I am at my half of the table with my books, book marks, and post cards. I also have an artist's drawing of the Guédelon project to help set the mood. I also set out an Occitan flag that I purchased on my last trip to France.

The bright yellow cross on a field of red is used throughout the Midi-Pyrenees region and even appears on their license plates. It was a symbol of the counts of Toulouse and now represents a regional pride. The design may not date back to the time of Charlemagne, but it is associated with the area where my heroine Bradamante is from and therefore I like it.

Besides the colors are vivid and eye catching. I also found it and my costume to be conversational ice breakers.

Here are some more pictures from that glorious autumn day.

Schmoozing with my friends Pat Morin and Barbara Truax.

Barbara Truax and Catharine Bramkamp checking out Carol McConkie's new book Fat Girl Fairy Boy.

Goofing around with Cindy Pavlinac.

Hanging with "Fear the Beard" SF Giants fan Roger Harris.

And my table was graced with the Cindy Pavlinac's famous road tripping pooch Merlin.

All in all it was a glorious day. The weather was perfect this year. Now, I need to order more authors' copies of my book as I am down to my last copy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Video of OMF and an opportunity to hear me read

I should have mentioned this earlier, but I will be reading a chapter from my novel Quest of the Warrior Maid tomorrow at the Sonoma County Book Festival. I will be reading at 10:45 in the morning at the Redwood Writers Stage.

Ana Manwaring is organizing our stage and asked me to select a short passage that was "spicy." So you are forewarned about the content and please don't bring small children with along with you to hear me read.

For those who have already have a copy of my novel, I chose Chapter 28 a scene on Alcina's island.

Redwood Writers is also sponsoring four different tables for our members to sell their books in two hour shifts. So if you are at the festival, stop by say hello and then pass on by later and meet more of our members. My shift is from 2-4 in the afternoon. Look for the red flag with the bright yellow Occitan cross on it. (The symbol of the Counts of Toulouse.) I bought that flag as a souvenir from my latest trip to France which I promise to blog more about in the future and share more pictures.

I also wanted to share with you a video that was posted on Youtube about the Ozark Medieval Fortress. I love that project!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ozark Medieval Fortress and the History Channel

I enjoy watching the History Channel and its companion, the History International Channel.
Besides documentaries, they also have a few original shows that feature archaeologists, pawn brokers and yes, even a stand up comic whose stage name is "Larry the Cable Guy."

Larry's show "Only in America" recently filmed an episode at the Ozark Medieval Fortress. The easiest thing would have been for him to interview the workers while the cameras recorded the efforts of the blacksmiths, masons, quarriers, etc. Instead, he donned a tunic and joined the crew as a volunteer as the cameras rolled.

The Ozark Medieval Fortress blog has posted pictures of a sweat-soaked Larry showing that he put in an honest day's work. I am looking forward to the 2012 broadcast of that episode and hope that it brings greater awareness of this wonderful Medievalist project in the middle of America.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Washington National Cathedral damaged by recent earthquake

Since my last post about the 800th anniversary of the Reims Cathedrale in France, a large 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Virginia and among the structures damaged was the Washington National Cathedral.

My friend Jeff Sypeck lives in Washington, D.C. and he regularly posts pictures on his blog taken from the cathedral. Jeff specializes in showing pictures of gargoyles and pairing them with poems. Last week one of his blog posts discussed the damage to the cathedral and included a link to a fundraising plea to help repair the damages caused by the quake.

Last summer my family visited Washington, D.C. and we were fortunate to spend an hour in that magnificent church. In trying to help raise awareness of the the cathedral's need to raise funds, I decided I should share a few of the pictures I took with my blog readers. I enjoy gargoyles and statues, but after being in many cathedrals during my travels, I have found that my eye is drawn more to stained glass and the colors created within the churches.

Here is one where my flash was employed.

It is nice, but I discovered that stained glass windows look more dramatic when you turn the flash off.

I also like seeing the light as it is observed at an angle.

This next photo was taken in the early afternoon and I love that one stained glass window projects a ray of intense scarlet light in the middle of the nave.

This link shows the damage suffered by the earthquake, and also includes how you can help. The cost is expected to be in the millions, and every donation of any amount will help.

After visiting the cathedral, my family was fortunate to be able to meet and have a delightful dinner with Jeff Sypeck. I had corresponded by email with Jeff for several years about Charlemagne and medievalism, writing, etc., and it was nice to be able to finally meet him.

If you can, please try to help out one of my favorite medievalists whose favorite local medievalist site needs help.



Monday, August 22, 2011

Reims Cathedrale Light Spectacle, until October 23rd

I thought it might be nice to start off with an eye-catching photo to help grab your attention.

I apologize for the hiatus in blogging, but try as I might to emulate my friends who can blog while they are traveling, I am not able to do so. Not even when I have wifi access and a portable keyboard.

That comes from being generally exhausted at the end of the day.

I have a lot of material for my blog about my travels to Milan and Rome in June as well as my trip in July and early August in France, Belgium and Aachen, Germany.

My first post about my trip to France is about the spectacle in Reims to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the cathedral. I wanted to share this with my readers while there is still the opportunity for people to see it. I do not know if they will ever show this spectacle again once it is over. It would be a shame if they did not, but I did not hear plans of their doing it again next year.

Reims has an amazing light show using high power projecters on the northern façade of the cathedral. These are not mere beautiful lights on the outside of a building, these are images specifically designed for this particular building and all of its numerous sculptures.

The show premiered on May 6th, on the same day that the cathedral's building began 800 years ago. My husband and I saw it on Saturday, July 30th at eleven o'clock at night. We were there along with thousands of people patiently waiting on the street for the event to begin.

Here is the unadorned cathedral at night.

It is beautiful, but nothing like we were soon to witness. As soon as all the lights of the street and surrounding areas were extinguished, the crowd's sense of anticipation grew. We were not disappointed.

After dazzling us with the side of the cathedral all alight with color, the show shifted to re-enacting its construction. This began with bright white architectural lines appearing on the darkened surface.

Then came the scaffolding and the workers. We could even see the workers as they walked along the wood scaffolds and wielded hammers.

Then this scene transformed into modern dance on the side of the cathedral where generations of French kings were coronated.

Here are links to the official website for the cathedrale and the office of tourism. The last showing will be Sunday, October 23rd and please note that it is not shown every night of the week. If you are interested in seeing it in person, I recommend contacting the tourist office ahead of time with the your travel dates in mind to make sure that they will be airing this spectacle that night. There is some contradictory information on the different webpages on the remaining show dates and I would hate for someone to travel thousands of miles and be disappointed.

Here is the face of the smiling angel which has become an iconic symbol of the city of Reims.

I also wanted to share with you a portion of the show that I recorded with my hand held camera, sans tripod, in the midst of a crowd of thousands. I thought my blog readers might like to see the sequence from drawing board to construction.

Enjoy and please let me know if anyone else has seen this show or if I have inspired anyone to make travel plans.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Travels in Italy or Milan, Part I

I am now safely home from my quick trip to Italy. I had hoped to blog while there, but lack of access to free wi-fi at the beginning of the trip and exhaustion made it difficult to follow through with my good intentions.

We had one less day in Italy than we had hoped for due to a flight delay in the take off of our first leg, a missed connection, and an unplanned overnight in Boston. So rather than arriving in Milan on Sunday, June 12th, we arrived on Monday, June 13th.

The trick with adjusting to such dramatic shifts in time zones is to try to adjust to your new surroundings as quickly as possible. So while we had lousy sleep on the airplanes on our way to Italy, my husband and I forced ourselves to stay awake as long as possible on the Monday so we could wake up Tuesday morning and have our body clocks "reset" to Italian daytime.

Our first order of business after checking into our hotel was to find someplace to eat. Scott had looked in a guidebook for suggestions and copied down the address. I had purchased a good street map of Milan before we left and felt it was a wise investment.

The Metro system in Milan is easy to navigate once you understand its structure. There are a few colored lines with transfer stations and you look for the name of the end station to determine which direction you need to travel. We were able to use the automated vending machines to purchase metro passes with unlimited travel for three days for only five and a half Euro a piece. I thought it was a great deal especially considering how often we used the Metro over our short stay in Milan.

We found the small Caffe Verdi that had moved into the location of the restaurant whose address Scott faithfully copied down. It was a small restaurant near the Teatro Alla Scala opera house.

We shared a mixed green salad with parma ham and a pizza with parma ham. Mmmmm, it was a great choice. The flavors were incredible and as we sat and decompressed, we began planning what we wanted to see in the area before we collapsed.

One of the places I had put on my "must see" list was the museum associated with the Teatro Alla Scala.

It is one of the most famous opera houses in the world and since Orlando furioso had inspired many operas, I wanted to go there. We discovered that no photography was allowed and had to check our camera bag at the door.


I would have loved to have taken some pictures of the ornate opera house and some of the costumes on display. Not only are you able to see the objects on display in the museum, but visitors can peak inside the gallery itself. We were fortunate to see the stage being set with different theatrical lighting applied and tested.

After the self-guided tour we were ushered into the gift shop on our way out. There were plenty of souvenirs about the opera house itself and some notable operas had their own separate listings on bags, coasters, umbrellas, etc. Try as I might, I could not find anything with Orlando furioso. I asked about this, hoping that I was overlooking the location of these items, but was told that it was not a popular enough opera to warrant having souvenirs.

Scott meanwhile was checking out a statue of Leonardo across the street.

Leonardo spent several years in Milan and has an entire museum dedicated to him. The mural painting of Leonardo's famous "The Last Supper" is in Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Reservations are mandatory in order to see that famous fresco and alas, once we had confirmation of our trip it we were too late to get a reservation to see it on the days we would be in Milan. More on Leonardo in another post.

We then set out for the Duomo, and walked through an enclosed shopping gallery, the Gallerie Vittorio Emanuele II.

The gallery is named after the first king of unified Italy who reigned 150 years ago. All over Italy, they are celebrating their sesquicentennial as a nation with their nation's flag flying everywhere. It is hard for me to believe that the United States is "older" than the modern country of Italy whose history dates back thousands of years, but until 150 years ago the Italian peninsula was divided into separate kingdoms. Vittorio Emanuele II unified Italy.

Milan is known for its high fashion and it is readily apparent from window shopping and recognizing various designer names such as Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, and Prada. Frankly, I preferred the people watching over contemplating buying high fashion direct from the source.

I love mosaics and wanted to share with you two different mosaics from the center courtyard of the mall. Here is the symbol of Rome of the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus with the slogan of S.P.Q.R. Senatus Populus Que Republicus.

The other mosaic is of a bull who is the symbol of Milan. There is a local bit of folklore that it is good luck for you to step on the bull's testicles, better luck if you "spin" on them. We had watched Rick Steves' PBS show on Milan and saw this local custom. In his video, and in his guidebook, the testicles are visible but there is an obvious indentation due to the strange wear pattern of the mosaic tiles.

It appears that the city decided to surrender to the custom and create something more durable. There is now a cement cylinder which makes it easy to take your little spin. And yes, I did not want to pass up a chance for good luck and tried it myself.

Our next stop was the Duomo. I will save that subject for another post.