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Book Review: The Black Count

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss

I have never read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, but I have a copy.  I have been a bit intimidated because it is so long, but maybe I need to!  The book was published in 1844; the adventure story of a man who is falsely imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, and learns about a huge treasure.  He is committed to gaining his freedom and finding the treasure! 

While The Count of Monte Cristo is fiction, I never knew that the story is loosely based on the life of Dumas’ father, also named Alexandre Dumas.  The father was born on Saint-Domingue, a French sugar colony on the island of Hispaniola, which is now Haiti.  He was born a slave, the son of a French nobleman and an enslaved woman.  Remarkably, the French laws at the time of the French Revolution were very favorable to free blacks and allowed them to be educated, to be accepted into society and even possess titles in French society, both in France and in the colonies.

The Black Count is about the father of the author Alexandre Dumas, and his life.  It details what is known about his birth and parentage, so his father bringing him as a teenager and a slave to France to be educated in one of the best boarding schools.  Later he obtains his freedom and makes his mark in the French military.  This is the time period of the French Revolution, and while this was one of the best times to be a person of color in France, he also had to carefully navigate the dangerous political climate.  The elder Dumas was a genius at commanding troops, moved up quickly through the ranks of the military, and established himself as one of France’s most talented generals. 

As Napoleon gained power, Dumas lost favor and was ultimately imprisoned by one of the independent nation states in Italy, who considered France an enemy for having conquered them previously.  This imprisonment was the impetus for the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.  The Black Count covers his imprisonment and failing health, as well as his life after he obtains his freedom.  Unfortunately, under Napoleon’s rule, life for people of color was much more difficult, and the father Dumas lost much of the status and fortune he had attained.  He died young of cancer, leaving his wife and children in poverty.

Overall, this book was not what I was expecting – it was much more.  It dove deeply into the details of the French sugar colonies, the French Revolution, Napoleon’s campaigns, and the treatment of slaves and free people of color by the French government of the period.  I learned a lot!  I would recommend this book both for people who are interested in Alexandre Dumas and the Count of Monte Cristo, and another perspective on the French Revolution and the early Napoleonic period.  Very well written and researched. 

4 stars. 

Book Review: Before We Were Yours

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate

This is a novel of family. 

Rill Foss is a 12 year old girl in 1939, living on a shanty boat near Memphis, Tennessee when her parents have to go to the hospital with a difficult delivery of twins.  Soon, the authorities show up to take Rill and her four siblings to an orphanage with allegations that they are not being properly cared for.  She has no idea the fate that awaits them.

In present day, Avery Stafford has lived a privileged life.  Her father is a Senator who has cancer, and she has come home from her up-and-coming career as a lawyer to help her father with his campaign and work.  While there, she meets a woman in a nursing home who insists that Avery’s bracelet, a unique family heirloom, is her own.  Avery begins to dig into this woman, who claims to know her grandmother, but she has no idea what her investigation will reveal.

Wingate draws on the true story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and Georgia Tann, a woman whose deceit and criminal dealings separated thousands of children from their families between 1924 and when the home was finally closed in 1950. If you don’t know the story of this infamous woman and the orphanage she ran for almost 30 years, it is a fascinating and heartbreaking story.

The novel weaves the story of the past and the present, leaving the reader trying to piece together the relationships between the characters.  Are things really as they seem?  I was both intrigued and heartbroken at what happened to Rill, her siblings and her parents after they were ripped apart.  And trying to process the unimaginable decisions these women made as adults, to try to maintain their ties to family after the trauma they endured.

A sad, but beautiful novel.

5 stars.

 

Retirement Diaries: Dead of Winter

Oh boy, winter is taking its toll. A few days ago it was fairly mild and I went for a relatively long walk on the roads close to home.  The next day the temperatures were in the teens and that’s where they have been since.  I bundled up and stayed warm on a warm in the colder temps, except for my cheeks.  It is my cheeks that freeze.  I didn’t walk as far as I wanted because my face was too cold.  In other news, I now own snow boots for the first time since I was about 10 years old.  I tried them outside on that cold walk for the first time, with thin socks.  They kept my feet warm and toasty!  I think that will solve my cold feet problem when we are ice fishing, especially since I will be wearing thick winter socks!

And spring will be here in two more months!  I cannot wait.

It is official.  I now have a Minnesota library card.  It is certainly a rite of passage.  My Washington library card has been in my possession since the early 1980s, when our library first started issuing library cards.  I have the original card still, having never lost it.  Several years later they added barcodes to the library cards with a sticker on your existing card, and about 20 years ago they asked me if I would like a new card with the barcode pre-printed on it.  No way!  I am proud to still be carrying around my original library card!  Do other people think like me, or am I weird?  I get this from my dad, who always taught me that you take care of things so they last.

A local brewery had a puzzle contest last week.  We wanted to go but had a conflicting appointment that evening.  So instead we tried at home to beat the winning time of 1 hour, 32 minutes, for a 500 piece puzzle.  Unfortunately, we picked a puzzle that had super frustrating pieces!  They all fit together too well, so we ended up having to rearrange the solid colored areas multiple times to fit the “correct” fit.  I think we would have done better otherwise, but as it were, we finished our puzzle in 4 hours and 17 minutes.  With a time that bad we can only get better!

Yesterday we went to a craft beer tasting and had fun tasting several beers, ciders and packaged craft cocktails.  Of course I liked the ciders best.  We had some yummy jerky too! I’m also now the proud owner of a drinking horn – it’s made from a cow horn.  I never even knew I needed one!  It’s too pretty to drink from though, so I’m going to see if my mom can fashion a beaded chain to hang it.  I liked the one with lots of white on it.  Fun fact: drinking horns used to be made from the horns of Aurochs, a prehistoric cow species that modern cows descend from.  They existed for a couple million years until clear cutting of the forests of Europe and the loss of habitat resulted in the last Auroch dying in Poland in 1627.

I booked a trip back to Washington for a few weeks in February.  I’m so excited to see my friends and family!  And not be freezing!  I hope it doesn’t rain the whole time.  I want to have some beach time, and look for agates!

So that’s my world.  Nothing earth shattering or particularly exciting, but I’m content with reading, puzzles and the occasional social outing.  I hope you are all well!

 

Circus Trip 2018: Hovenweep National Monument

Day 83, Saturday, October 6, 2018
Hovenweep National Monument, Montezuma Creek, Utah

Hovenweep is one of the most amazing places I have ever been in my entire life.  I know people say things like this a lot, but it is truly incredible.  When people ask me what my favorite place on this trip was, Hovenweep always comes up at the top of the list.  It is a hidden gem for sure!  It is also remote; I drove for miles down farm roads and gravel roads, even wondering if I was going the right way, but I was.

Hovenweep was first discovered by white men in 1854, when William Huntington came across the ruins while on a missionary trip for Brigham Young.  It was designated as a National Monument on March 2, 1923, President Warren Harding after years of concerns about the artifacts being stolen and destroyed by explorers, ranchers and others.  Despite a long history of protection, archaeological studies really weren’t done here until the 1970s. Visitation now is still very low, 39,970 people visited in 2017.

When I was there, camping was first come, first served; there are 31 campsites and there is a length limit for campers.  That said, it is soooo worth it to camp there!  It has flush toilets but no showers, and when I was there it was only $15 a night.  I got there about 3:30 in the afternoon and my first stop was at the Visitor’s Center to get some postcards and my National Parks Passport stamp. 

Then I did the loop hike of the Tower Group – it was 2.5 miles and went along the edge of Little Ruin Canyon and past several dwellings, tower and other structures built by the Puebloan people.  It was sunny and warm!  I was so fascinated by the dwellings, which provide a peek into a different style of Puebloan building.  These structures were not built into alcoves of the canyon, like the ones at Mesa Verde.  They were also not pit houses, although they were mostly built on the mesa top.  A few structures were built in the canyon itself, and many were built over the seeps and springs that are in the area. 

These people were certainly expert builders; they didn’t level the ground to build their structures, instead they shaped their construction to work with the topography.  They often built on top of large stones and outcroppings that already existed at the site.  Historians believe that the people who built these structures lived here around 1300 A.D, although there is evidence of human habitation in this area as far back as 8000 B.C.  These towers and stone houses are very well preserved.

As you walk the rim of the canyon, you pass by multiple towers and stone houses; I was in awe of these beautiful structures and once again found myself wondering what the lives of these people were like.  When you hike out here, there is almost no external noise.  I was completely alone for most of the hike and it was so quiet, save for a few birds.

I saw lots of lizards because of the warm temperatures too – I loved seeing them! 

At the end of the hike, there is a section where you climb down about 80 feet to the canyon floor and cross over to the other side to climb back out.  It wasn’t too tough though; 80 feet is nothing! 

I made dinner and sadly missed most of the sunset, and then I got a text from Carol saying she had changed her plans and had arrived at Hovenweep!  We ended up sharing my campsite that night, a bottle of Michigan Marquette wine from 12 Corners Winery.  It was a bottle I had purchased when I spent the day with my cousin back in Michigan; it was delicious!

Carol and I sat at the picnic table talking, and watching the most incredible dark skies.  You could see the Milky Way spread out across the dark sky and it was huge.  I have never seen the Milky Way pop the way that it did that night; it completely filled the sky with bright stars.  I can’t even describe how beautiful it was.  I need to get back into timed exposures with my camera and night photography!

Having a bottle of wine with a friend while watching the Milky Way that night was truly one of my favorite life experiences.  Simply incredible! 

 

 

 

 

Circus Trip 2018: Mesa Verde, Long House

Day 82, Friday, October 5, 2018
Mesa Verde National Park, Wetherill Mesa

It was my last day in Mesa Verde National Park.  That morning I got up about 6:30, because I had a big day waiting for me!  I got changed and on the road about 7:30 am.  My ranger-led tour of Long House was at 9:30, but it was about an hour and 10 minute drive to the meeting point on Wetherill Mesa.  I arrived in plenty of time.

My tour of Long House was awesome!  It is a 2.25 mile hike, mostly flat and on a paved trail.  Long House is one of the later cliff dwellings, and it is as large as Cliff House.  The ranger explained what historians know about the Puebloan people who lived in this dwelling.  To get into Long House you have to climb up two ladders and climb down one small one to get back out at the end.  The ranger also showed us some black and white pottery shards that were found at the site. 

On the tour I met Carol, a young woman from Wisconsin who was living in Chicago and finishing her Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy.  She was on a solo road trip like me!

Carol and I hiked to Step House afterwards, which is a one mile round trip hike near Long House.  It is self-guided, but a ranger is there to answer questions.  Step House has a rare reverse pictograph where someone long ago put their hand up and blew pigment around it.  It was cool!  There used to be a Bighorn Sheep petroglyph there, but the National Park Service removed it for safekeeping in the 1960s.

After our Step House hike I said my goodbyes to Carol and got back on the road.  I really enjoyed my time in Mesa Verde, but it was time to see new places.  I was headed to Hovenweep National Monument next!

 

 

Retirement Diaries: Welcome 2023

Well 2023 is starting off at a leisurely pace so far.

The weather has been pretty decent for the dead of winter in Minnesota, and surprisingly, I am finding myself getting used to the cold.  Yesterday it was 30 degrees though and that’s warmer than it normally is this time of year here.  There are patches of clear gravel here and there and I even found an agate a few days ago.  But in my defense, I went out without a hat or thermals, and went for a walk after dark when the temperature was dropping! The historic train station (now the Chamber of Commerce) without cars parked in front of it was a bonus.

I am definitely hunkered down for winter though.  Generally I’m content to stay home and hibernate.  I suppose that is the difficult part of a cold climate.  I probably need more Vitamin D, but that isn’t any different than the Pacific Northwest, where you don’t see the sun for weeks in the winter.  At least here, I still need my sunglasses sometimes.  I want spring!  I want travel!  I want camping!

Two nights ago I finished a 2000 piece puzzle that I started a few days after New Year’s.  It started off slow with a mostly solid blue border, and sorting pieces took a couple of hours, but once we got started on the middle it went really quickly.  It was a great thrift shop find with all of its pieces!

We had a Sunday Funday and went to the brewery a few towns away.  Their Facebook page had a “Fancy Aran Sweater” advertised, which was a Coffee Stout beer (with a very mild coffee flavor), with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs on the rim, then two toasted marshmallows on top.  I had never thought to dip my marshmallows in beer, but it was delicious!  Plus I’m not much of a dark beer drinker, but I really enjoyed it!  So much that I had two.  And we bought the ingredients and a growler of the Stout beer to make it at home.  Definitely a win, and super easy to make!  What a great camping beverage when you are making smores anyway!

I met with my book club last night – it’s a very small group of ladies (generally three, but there were five of us this time!), but they are my first friends in Minnesota.  I hope I’ll be making more soon, but that is a little challenging when you don’t go to work everyday.  It was fun though, and I am enjoying the books we are reading.

Our chickens are laying more and more, now averaging two eggs per day but we have gotten three eggs on a few days.  I have lost count, but I do know we have gotten at least 25 eggs!  I can’t even imagine how many eggs we will have in spring! 

 

 

Circus Trip 2018: Mesa Verde NP

Day 81, Thursday, October 4, 2018
Mesa Verde National Park, Chapin Mesa

Can I just say that I love Mesa Verde!?  I visited this park once before in 2014, and I was so excited to come back and explore more.  I wrote about the history and my visits to Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Cliff Palace, as well as seeing the wild horses that live in the park, if you want to take a trip down memory lane…

On Thursday morning I left camp about 8 am, and on the way out I saw several Mule Deer – there were about a dozen of them!  I stopped to take photos from my car of these beautiful animals with their huge ears.

I drove up to the Chapin Mesa, and did the loop road to visit the various viewpoints and overlooks.  The various stops show the different time periods of habitation in the park, from the period when the Puebloan people constructed pithouses, which were partially sunken in the the earth and had poles erected with mud covering them. 

Over time, they began building pole and mud homes directly on the top of the mesa.  Later still, their most advanced construction came along; the cliff dwellings that these people are most known for.  The cliff dwellings were first built on top of the mesa, beginning about 1200 they were built into alcoves in the cliffs to provide protection from the weather (and possibly from other ancestral tribal people).  They were elaborate dwellings made from handmade bricks and support timbers.  Some of the largest cliff dwellings here had dozens of rooms, and may have been home to hundreds of people.

Each stop along the tour has interpretive signs, so you can see the progression of the society.  In all, the Puebloan people lived here between 550 and 1300 A.D., but the period of time when they lived in the cliff dwellings was the shortest period – only about 100 years.  By about 1300, these dwellings were deserted and the inhabitants had moved on.  Researchers do not know why.

My favorite stops are at Spruce Tree House, which is the best preserved cliff dwelling, and also one that you were able to hike down to when I was there in 2018.  Unfortunately, it is current closed to visitors due to falling rocks above.  I also really enjoyed the Sun Point Pueblo, Sun Temple and the Fire Temple.  From the Fire Temple you get an excellent view across the canyon of one of the cliff dwellings in the park.  I went on a tour of Cliff Palace in 2014, so I didn’t do the tour this time around.  There is an excellent downloadable audio-tour available on the Mesa Verde National Park website if you would like to learn more!

Square Tower House is another cliff dwelling that you can tour during brief periods during the year.  It wasn’t open for tours when I was there, but there must have been researchers there, because when I looked down from the overlook there were people there.

While I was on my driving tour of the viewpoints, I almost got caught in a huge hail, thunder and lightning storm, but luckily I made it back to my car just in time!  The sky had looked pretty ominous and I had been watching it, so I’m glad I got under a roof quickly when the sky looked like it was going to open up!  I sat in the car to wait it out, there was water running everywhere!

After my tour of the loop road, I went to the Cafe at the Chapin Museum for an early lunch.  I had a steak salad; it was good, but the steak was a little tough.

Next I did one of my favorite hikes of the trip; the Petroglyph hike!  This 2.5 mile hike was definitely on my bucket list. The trail starts at Spruce Tree House, but is considered a back-country hike and you are supposed to sign in at the Museum so they know who is out there.

Sadly, a man named Dale Stehling disappeared on this trail in June 2013.  Although the area was extensively searched, no trace of him was found.  In fact, Stehling remained missing until September 2020, when a hiker called in an anonymous tip.  Stehling’s bones were finally found with his identification in a remote canyon that is closed to the public, about 4.2 miles from where he had gone missing.  This area had also been searched in 2013, so there are certainly more questions than answers.

Despite the tragedy, the Petroglyph hike is an amazing hike.  It is remote, despite being so close to the Chapin Museum, one of the most heavily populated parts of the park.  It leads to a panel of Petroglyphs about 1.4 miles from the trailhead, with about 30 petroglyphs.  It is fascinating to see this language left by the people who lived here over one thousand years ago.  The hike is a bit strenuous, winding through the canyon at the base of a cliff, often with steep dropoffs on the other side.  The trail isn’t always super obvious, and I could see how easy it would be to get lost if you weren’t paying attention.  I was alone for the entire hike.

The most challenging part of the hike is where you have to use the foot and hand holds that are carved into the rock to scale the cliff and return to the top of the mesa.  I was pretty nervous to try this part, but I also didn’t want to double back!  I really had to psych myself up but I managed just fine, and I was so proud of myself!  It was amazing!  Once you are back on top of the mesa you just walk around the canyon to get back to the museum.  It was such a fun hike!

That evening I took a shower a the campground facilities, and was treated to my first, “don’t poop in the shower drain,” sign.  This friends, is why you always wear shower shoes when camping!  EWWW!

That evening I got to bed about 10 pm, because I had to be up early for my Long House tour in the morning!  I was awakened at 2:12 am by a coyote howling, but managed to get back to sleep after he stopped.  There’s nothing like camping in a National Park!

 

 

 

Circus Trip 2018: Durango, CO and Mesa Verde NP

Day 80, Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Durango, CO and Mesa Verde National Park

That morning, I got up at 7 am and left the campground just after 8; I passed a lot of cute towns on the way and the Aspens were a beautiful yellow.  I stopped along the side of the road several times to take photos of the scenery.  It was so stunning!

I tried to go to Chimney Rock National Monument, but it had just closed for the season!  One day I will have to go back and check it out, because it looked really cool!  For now, the view in the distance will have to suffice.

I got to Durango, Colorado at 1 pm, and stopped in at Animas Brewing Company.  I had an IPA and a Traditional Pastie, with sirloin steak, potato, onion, and carrot.  It was delicious, even though it had onions.  Durango was another town I want to see more of!

After lunch, I drove on, and went through Mancos, a cute town that I definitely want to see more of.  I got to Mesa Verde at 3 pm.  At the Visitor Center, I signed up for the 9:30 am tour on Friday of Long House, one of the Ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings.  It was a dwelling I had never seen before, so I was excited to get a spot. I also booked two nights in the Morefield Campground, which had plenty of empty sites to choose from.

With a few hours before dark, I drove up to see the view at the Park Point Fire Tower.  It is such a nice view and I lingered there for a while, enjoying it. 

That evening I dealt with the more mundane tasks of living on the road – laundry!  I met a couple from McMinnville, Oregon and enjoyed talking with them while I waited for my clothes.  When I got back to camp at 8 pm it was dark and I was ready for a good night’s sleep!

Book Review: Cold Snap

Cold Snap, by Marc Cameron

Cold Snap is the latest in the Arliss Cutter series by Marc Cameron. In this action-thriller, Arliss Cutter and his partner Lola Teariki are Federal Marshalls looking into a series of murders, marked by body parts that have washed up around the bays near Anchorage, Alaska.  They finally get a good lead on a suspect when Cutter is tasked with escorting four criminals via bush plane over the Alaska Wilderness.

Cold Snap (Arliss Cutter, #4)

Unfortunately they come across an emergency situation on the flight and things go downhill quickly.  Soon Cutter is involved in a fight for his life and the men he is supposed to be transporting don’t exactly want to see him get out of it alive… 

The book is fast paced and keeps the reader on their toes.  A number of twists and turns kept me interested until the last page.  Cameron has done his research and his knowledge of law enforcement procedures and wilderness survival is apparent in his writing.  Cameron also weaves in a number of subplots that don’t have a resolution in this book; to keep the reader wanting more.  I’m not sure I’ll go out and seek more in this series, but if another fell into my lap…

Marc Cameron is also the current author of the Tom Clancy novels, so fans of Tom Clancy thrillers will like this one too.

3 stars.

Note: this novel was received through a giveaway on Goodreads.

Book Review: Ellen Foster

Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons

“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”  The first line of Ellen Foster is certainly memorable! 

Ellen Foster

This novel is the story of eleven year old Ellen Foster, a girl growing up in extreme poverty in the rural south.  Her mother is frail and dies of illness, leaving her in the care of her alcoholic, abusive father. 

After running away from home and bouncing around between a few of her mother’s relatives, who aren’t too keen on caring for her either, Ellen concocts a scheme to get herself adopted by a foster family in town. And her plan works. 

The book is both heartbreaking and endearing, but I found it incredibly hard to believe.  This eleven year old is wise beyond her years, and somehow has no residual trauma from losing her mother, being abused, losing her father, and being rejected by both her aunt and her grandmother.  She carries no anger towards her foster family, no conflict with the other children who live in the home and no issues in school.  That doesn’t happen in real life.  Especially not from a child who is dreaming up ways to kill her father.

That said, the story was entertaining, if not more than a little dark, and I did find myself rooting for her to have a happy ending, microscope and all…

3 stars.