Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Book Review: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset and translated by Tiina Nunnally

Kristin Lavransdatter was written in the early twentieth century about a fictional woman from fourteenth-century Norway. Kristin's family is fairly well-to-do, her father being a well-respected landowner and public figure. Kristin is a bit spoiled and more than a bit willful, leading her into many hard situations. The book describes a few episodes from her youth but most of the focus is on the adult Kristin. She is betrothed to Simon by her father but refuses the match because she has fallen for Erlend Nikulasson, a semi-disgraced knight with a checkered past and an uncertain future. Their marriages goes through a lot of ups and downs as they have more children and Erlend's political standing shifts through a combination of luck (both good and bad), his own willfulness, and his mediocre judgment. The book ends with the event that ended a lot of things in the middle ages--the Black Plague.

Even though the characters are only of marginal nobility, the book still has an epic feel to it. The details of the life they lived long ago is thoroughly described and convincing. It's easy to picture their houses and food and countryside, among other things. It's also epic in covering most of Kristin's life. The book was originally published in three volumes (much like The Lord of the Rings), so it is over a thousand pages long. It's also epic because it's never boring. Some stretches are depressing and hard to get through, but they are fascinating and Kristin is likable enough to keep readers going.

The book is also very Catholic. The characters' faith life is constantly referenced and the culture was full of religious stuff. Kristin goes off to a convent for some preparation before her marriage to Simon, though the particular convent was a little too loose with young women who came for that formation year. The characters are always going to church or on pilgrimage. The church's hierarchy is almost as important to the story of their lives as the civil government. Priests are trusted advisors for the most part. Catholicism is a natural and ubiquitous part of their lives.

I enjoyed the book a lot, though it did take me quite a while (from Christmas to early April) to finish it. I tried reading one chapter a day, though some days I missed because of life being too busy. There weren't many make-up days. Still, I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

Highly recommended.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Book Review: The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

The Chancellor and the Citadel by Maria Capelle Frantz

An isolated medieval-looking walled town is holding off outsiders in an attempt to preserve themselves. The Chancellor is the citadel's guardian, though even she has doubts about her role and her efficacy. She confronts one group of squatters just outside the citadel, only to have the situation spiral out of control. In a moment of guilt or compassion, she brings one of the injured enemy children inside in hopes of healing. In the whole situation, so many things need to be healed.

The book is an amazingly fast read, like ten minutes. Unfortunately, it also lacks depth. The situation has a lot of potential that is glossed over in a quick resolution. The art is surprisingly apropos of the story. Simplicity and directness in the art make it easy to understand the emotions of the characters. I just wish it had more depth or more to say.

Mildly recommended.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Captain Marvel (2019)

Captain Marvel (2019) co-written and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree warrior in training who has very strong powers (in addition to super-strength and endurance, she can shoot power beams from her hands). She's about to go on her first mission, the rescue of a Kree spy from a world on the Kree-Skrull border. The Skrulls have been at war with the Kree for countless years. They are green shapeshifters who are nothing but trouble. The rescue goes south and Vers is captured by the Skrulls. The Skrulls try to get secrets out of her brain but all the mental regressions show them bizarre, non-Kree memories. Vers has no memories before six years prior; these memories show there's a lot more to her story. She manages to escape, only to wind up on Earth circa 1995. She teams up with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who helps her investigate her past and why both the Kree and the Skrulls are interested in a failed US Air Force/NASA project.

Marvel is brilliant at telling stories about people, inserting humor and drama in just the right amounts to make entertaining films. This one is no exception, though it's not as great as others. The movie flirts with a theme about reconnecting families and loved ones, though that's very secondary and underdeveloped (unlike the theme of importance of family in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Black Panther). Vers eventually transforms into Captain Marvel after she discovers her Earth life as Carol Danvers. Her character is a bit all over the place, though much could be chalked up to her amnesia. The non-romantic chemistry between her and Fury is strained at points. The big plot twist about the Kree-Skrull war is also not entirely convincing. Really, the script is to be blamed for most of the problems. Even with its flaws, the film is entertaining and a good warm up for the next Marvel film.


Thursday, April 25, 2019

James Monroe's Highland, Part II

A continuation of yesterpost...

A docent lead us around James Monroe's Highland and into the upstairs of the Guest House where we saw some of the original furnishings.

First, we stopped at the archeological site where she described what the original house was like. The first house was rather small. She described it as their "starter house." Larger houses are on the other estates. This one had a nice, cosy feel. It burned down in the 1830s.

Docent with house description

Layout of the house

We walked over to the other side of the Guest House, with only the top floor visible from outside.

Guest entrance to the Guest House

Inside several pieces owned by the Monroes were on display, including several items they brought back from France.

French clock

A lot of furniture from the late 1700s and early 1800s was influenced by the rediscovery of Pompeii, causing a bit of a classical craze. This desk was in an earlier style and has a removable hutch, presumably for ease of transport.

Desk with hutch

The bedroom has a dresser from the Monroes along with an ornately carved bed.

Dress and dresser


Since Monroe was president after the White House was burned down during the War of 1812, he and his wife did a lot of redecorating in the new presidential mansion. One tradition they started was purchasing their set of Presidential China, which they kept after they left office. Each new president commissions new china with new designs. Modern presidents do not keep the sets--they are in a White House museum or warehouse somewhere (probably right next to the Ark of the Covenant).

Presidential china

I was impressed by a small sculpture of a sculptor sculpting a bust.

A bit meta, as they would say today

The dining room wasn't terribly big but the table did have a leaf-system to make it larger or smaller, depending on the number of guests. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello is only two miles away, so the two men often visited each other.

Dining table

In the sitting room is a tea set and a bust of Napoleon. This particular bust was one of twelve hundred commissioned by Napoleon himself and given out at his coronation. Monroe attended the coronation. Of the many busts, only five are still known to be in existence, this being one of the few remaining.

Tea set

Napoleon's door prize for attending his coronation

The docent also talked about the dendrochronology used to identify different parts of the building. By taking small samples of the wood used in construction, scientists can determine when the buildings were constructed.

Massey House (1870s), 1850 addition (1850s), and Guest House (1818)

She said that they plan to move the Massey House at some point so they can do more archeological research on the first house. They will move the building to another part of Highland.

The slave quarters are not far from the house and have a small, square smoke house on the end.

View to the slave quarters and smokehouse

Further back are some livestock exhibits with actual livestock! My youngest son was fascinated by the roosters who crowed even though it wasn't morning.

Rooster and hens

Donkeys were used back in the day as work animals for the farm. Some obligingly walked by for photos.

One donkey

A slightly faster donkey

Since we visited in April, many of the flower gardens were in full bloom, making some very fine smells and sights.

One patch of flowers

The bud just opening

A full bloom

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

James Monroe's Highland, Part I

James Monroe's Highland is the most consistent home that the fifth President of the United States had. Monroe built the house is 1799 and used it throughout his political career. He held many offices: Governor of Virginia; Ambassador to France, Great Britain, and Spain; and Secretary of State and of War. The main house was built in 1799, though visitors today have to stop first at a modern visitor's center just off the parking lot.

Highland Visitor Center

When we bought tickets to the tour, we discovered a unique opportunity. Included with admission is an "augmented reality" headset. A pair of special glasses and of normal headphones plug into a small pack that identifies where you are on the estate and plays video and audio descriptions of the location along with a lot of historical information.

Augmenting their experience!

Map of the augmented reality tour

The first stop on the AR tour was looking out over fields as the agriculture of the land was discussed. The Monroes mostly grew grain here in the early 1800s. Cotton soon became the dominant cash crop but the local soil and climate were not conducive.

For those without the AR kit

The house garden

The 1980s recreation of the slave quarters has displays on typical guest rooms in addition to the conditions under which the slaves lived. The 1810 census listed 49 slaves at Highland, though Monroe had other properties in Virginia and would move the slaves around depending on what projects were happening where.

Slave quarters

What a guest room would have looked like in early 1800s

A work room for the slaves

Living quarters for the slaves

The oldest building still on the property is actually three separate buildings added together. The original guest house was built in 1818 (on the left in the picture below). An addition was built in the 1850s with a few extra rooms. The yellow house is the Massey House, built in the 1870s by much later owners of the property.

Seeing the three buildings

Guest house with 1850 addition on right

In the basement of the guest house is another small exhibit on slave labor at Highland. The AR did a great job showing the people who were being described.

The kitchen area of the guest house

Candle making equipments

In front of the Massey House is a stone outline of the foundation of the 1799 house. That house burned down in the 1830s. Part of the foundation extends under the Massey House.

Outline of original house

AR looking at the original house

A white oak tree that dates back to the Monroe era

Front view of the Massey House

One of the old mile markers

Down an avenue of shrubbery is a statue of Monroe by Attilio Piccirilli from Venezuela. It's a tribute to the Monroe Doctrine, which committed the United States to opposing any further colonization by European countries in the Americas.

What's down that path?

Monroe looking scholarly

Close up of the statue

As we finished the AR tour, our physical tour began. More on that in the next post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Book Review: Royden Lepp's Rust: Secrets of the Cell by Royden Lepp

Royden Lepp's Rust: Secrets of the Cell by Royden Lepp

For my review of the first volume, go here.

Brothers Roman and Oswald still struggle to keep the family farm going, using robots and hard work to keep everything in order. Newcomer Jet Jones has been helping out as much as he can. He has some mystery about him--he never takes off his goggles or jetpack, even when coming to dinner. When Roman reprograms an old war robot to do farm work, it goes haywire and attacks Jet. Meanwhile, Oswald is off visiting an old man who knows a lot about the cells that power the robots. He tells Oswald enough to make him more suspicious of Jet.

The story is moving forward slowly but is still dolling out interesting information in hints and tidbits. The art style is really good--simple and expressive.


Monday, April 22, 2019

More Exit The Game Games

The Exit The Game series is a set of games that are escape rooms in a box. We've played a few of them so far. See other reviews here and here.

The Forbidden Castle is a level four difficulty game. The story is that players go to a medieval castle and get locked in by the guy that has been behind the other Exit games (though there really isn't an on-going story, so the games can be played in any order). In a fun twist, the solution dial has a bunch of keys that have to be lined up properly (the top, middle, and bottom of the key). Describing which key part should be lined up was a little challenging. Clear communication is key!

Tricky solution dial

The game involves a lot of chopping and folding of cards and components. The castle theme is well represented--there's a suit of armor to put together, a tapestry to weave, etc. We had a challenging time and one puzzle didn't line up quite correctly for us, but we had fun and recommend this game.

The Mysterious Museum is a level two difficulty game. Players are on a trip to the Florence Museum of Science and Technology to see an exhibit on Columbus's ship, the Santa Maria. The book of clues works a little different than in other games. Players need to solve a puzzle before they can turn the page, so the first page is the lobby, the next is the museum's first exhibit, and so on.

Lobby with clues and stop sign

This mechanic introduces a fun twist in the game's narrative that we enjoyed a lot but I can't describe otherwise I would spoil the surprise. I found it most enjoyable. The puzzles weren't too challenging. The solution was satisfying.

The Sinister Mansion is a level three difficulty game. Players are invited to a neighboring mansion to check on the cat, but as usual it's a trap and they get locked in with a ton of puzzles barring escape.

The game was fun but felt a little average. After playing several different games, certain types of puzzles become very familiar. That makes the games easier and makes the puzzles more or less enjoyable depending on your attitude toward similar problems. We liked being able to solve stuff quickly. Also, it felt like we were going in the right direction.