Friday, January 25, 2008

Martin Van Buren - President # 8

Ahhh...Martin Van Buren! President #8. I decided it'd be good to get the first President of the year over with early so that I don't get stuck with two books to read later in the year. For Martin Van Buren I choose once again a book from the American President's Series.

Martin Van Buren, Ted Widmer

I bought the book used off of for like $3.00 - yay! It was only 200 pages, so I felt pretty confident about reading it. It was filled with lots of interesting tidbits:

- MVB was the first President to hail from New York
- MVB was the first President of non-English descent (he was Dutch!)
- MVB began what is now the Democratic Party
- MVB was the first man to run for President as an Independent (this was after he was already President).
- MVB was the fifth longest living President

As for the book...This book briefly covered his life; early years, his rise to political fame, his Presidency and his retirement. Widmer, does a great job in just 200 pages of giving the reader a sense of who Martin Van Buren was. He also does a great job of making you realize why Martin Van Buren should be remembered and pointing out all the great things he accomplished in the name of democracy, without overselling him and making the reader believe he should go down in history as one of the most important Presidents. This book is a good read for the regular reader, one who does not normally read non-fiction or biographies. I did not find it too dense and it flowed nicely.

I have to say my expectations where low for MVB, but I found him to be pretty darn fascinating. Next up William Henry Harrison, or as many of your may remember, Tippecanoe and Tyler too!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Frick Collection

Ten days in Italy trying to soak in as much culture and as many sights as we possibly could, definitely left us realizing that we hadn't done nearly as much as we wanted to in our first year in NYC! So this weekend we decided to venture out and see a new NYC sight.

We choose The Frick Collection. It is located at East 70th Street and 5th. It is the collection of Henry Clay Frick, when he passed in 1919 he stated in his will that after the death of his wife, the home was to be turned into a museum. We had heard many good things about this museum, which is why is was our pick.

We got their in the early afternoon and agreed that we would not spend more than 2 hours there. Having toured many museums together now, we have come to the realization that 2 hours is our limit in a museum, after the 2 hour mark, it's just not fun anymore.

Our tickets came with audioguides, which we were both very happy about. We went downstairs to see the special exhibit on Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780), which we both enjoyed. Then we went back upstairs to begin looking at the permanent collection. The museum really is a house (or a mansion really)! There are a couple of rooms that feel more like you're in a gallery but most of the time you are walking through Frick's study or dining room or living room.

The art collection really blew me away. I didn't have high expectations that I was going to know many of the artisits, I don't know why. But lo and behold there were plenty of artisits that I knew, El Greco, Renoir, Vermeer, Valezquez, Lippi, Rembrandt, Whistler, etc. The audioguides were great, the perfect amount of information on each piece and you could listen to only what you wanted to.

We wandered through the mansion, sometimes together, sometimes on our own, just taking in the beauty of the collection that Mr. Frick had put together. The best part though is that the house has an indoor courtyard, which in NYC is a little bit of heaven. It's beautiful and so peaceful so we spent some time just sitting in there and talking.

There were so many beautiful pieces that it is difficult to choose my favorites but some of my favorites were:

St. John the Evangelist - the way this particular picture was lit up in the museum made it really stand out.

St. Francis in the Desert

Virgin Child with Saints and Donor

OK that's just to name a few - but if you go to the website you can see a lot of the collection. It was a wonderful afternoon spent and I'm looking forward to our many more NYC adventures!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Book Reviews - Big Update

Ahhh....books, I love books! I have to say that at the end of 2007 having lost my commute (my prime reading time) and being all caught up in the holidays and getting ready for our vacation my reading kind of fell to the wayside, which was sad! However, in 2008 I've already got some books under my belt. Here are the reviews.

First Man in Rome, Colleen McCullough (3 Stars)

I picked up this book because having found many books written about Florence during the Renaissance I was excited to have found a book so favorably reviewed about Rome, especially Rome during Roman times.

The First Man in Rome, covers many subject matters & characters, but if I had to paraphrase it I would say it was about Rome during the time that "the new man" entered the scene. Gaius Marius, a new man, has money, power and desire to hold a consulship in Rome, however he is missing the family name and history that one needs in order to climb the Roman Senate ladder. Gaius Julias Ceasar as well as Lucius Cornelius ("Sulla") on the other hand have the all important name but no money. Over the course of the book the reader follows all of these characters as they work towards that top spot, whether for themselves or their family. McCullough thoroughly covers military campaigns in both Africa and Gaul as well as covers the workings of the Senate.

While I definitely felt I learned a lot from this book, I would say that it was not an enjoyable read. More so a book that I plodded through to get to the end. (It felt as long as it was in other words...) There wasn't enough everyday life in the book to lighten the load of the politics and military campaigns which dominated the storyline. I would agree that it's not a book for everyone, I'm glad I read it but I won't be picking up the other books in the series to see what happens...

The Magician's Guild, Trudi Canavan (4 Stars)

I picked this book up because I was missing on Harry Potter, there I said it! I had never really ventured into the world of Science Fiction prior to HP. My sister's boyfriend recommended this series to me.

In the first book in the trilogy of the Magician's Guild, the reader meets Sonea, a girl from the dwells (poor neighborhood) who one day realizes she has magical powers that she never knew about. The Guild is concerned because a magician who's powers are self-discovered as opposed to cultivated tend to be especially strong Magicians. Sonea, afraid of the Guild, makes a "contract" with the Thieves asking them to hide her. The chase begins, and continues for half of the book. Faced with the decision to join the Guild or try to survive on her own, Sonea struggles with whether or not the Magician's of the Guild are trustworthy.

The book was not a difficult book to read, easily could be read by any child who read HP. I will say that in the beginning I wasn't overly impressed but as the story developed I was sucked in more and more. I will definitely be picking up the next two books in the trilogy and hope they will be just as fun. This in no way compares to the magic of HP but I'm glad I'm continuing to explore the Science Fiction world of literature because I think it holds a lot of potential books for me to enjoy!

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (5 Stars)

Many of you already know the story, a man and his son are heading south, in a post apocalyptic United States. The Road is their story of survival, human nature, and love.

I had heard mixed reviews about this book so I tried to go in without any expectations and I think that helped me appreciate it to the fullest. It is a book that will stay with you for days and that will have you question, "What would I do in this situation?" more than once. As many a reviewer has said before me, it is "hauntingly beautiful" and I truly think that is the best way to describe it.

It is a worthwhile read.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (5 Stars)

I've decided that 2008 is "the year of the classics." So to start it off, I picked up this book after about 12 years and I have to say I loved it just as much the second time around. Fitzgerald's descriptive ability is effortless and filled with beautiful imagery that stays with you forever. Everything just jumps off the pages and makes you feel as if you are in the book itself, partying at Gatsby's mansion or lounging with Daisy Buchanan. It is a beautiful book, a MUST read, and definitely a true classic!

Movie Reviews - Big Update believe it or not I've actually seen quite a few movies over the past couple of weeks. I was psyched because they played good movies that I wanted to see on the plane and that never happens. So here they are...

Stardust - 4 stars

On the way to Italy I looked up from reading and realized this movie was playing. If you remember I read this book a couple of months ago in preparation for the movie coming out and then I never ended up seeing the movie! I was so excited, so instead of sleeping I stayed up and watched.

Stardust takes place in the city of Wall, England. Tristan Thorn is in love with Victoria, a girl from town. One night while they're talking he professes his love for her and she laughs him away. He says he would do anything for her, even catch that falling star (cue falling star) and she accepts his challenge. Victoria gives Tristan one week to bring back the star otherwise she's going to marry someone else in town.

Tristan sets off towards the wall that no person in town is supposed to cross over and enters the fantasy kingdom of Stormhold where he searches for the falling star and has many adventures along the way!

I have to say that I really enjoyed the movie, it was fun, it made me laugh at parts and I got lost in the magical land. I thought it was actually better than the book, more action packed. It was certainly an enjoyable movie for a long flight!

Jane Austen Book Club - 4.5 stars

This was the first of 3 movies they played on the flight back, just to give you a sense of how long that plane ride really was!!! I was excited to see this movie, even though I hadn't yet read the book, because it looked like a fun movie. Jon of course was like, "Is this a chick flick?" I said yes and he shrugged his shoulders saying, "Well, what else am I going to do?" So we settled in for the movie.

The Jane Austen Book Club is about a "circle of friends" and two newbies who are drawn together because of life experiences and decide to start a book club that will discuss only Jane Austen books. As they read a book each month the movie also delves into things going on in their personal life...divorces, injuries, falling in love, falling out of love, affairs, loss of loved ones, etc.

The movie is definitely very "romanticized" but sometimes that's what movies should be, and in this case it completely won me over, I laughed out loud at parts, I cried, and I loved that it revolved around books!

It is definitely a guilty pleasure movie that I will enjoy probably many more times in my life:)

The Nanny Diaries - 3 stars

So we didn't watch the 2nd movie because it was some violent, shoot 'em up, Italian flick and I just couldn't watch 3 movies in a row! Then The Nanny Diaries came on and I once again decided to put my book down and escape into a movie world.

In the Nanny Diaries, Annie graduates from college and doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. She feels pressure to go into the financial industry but doesn't think that's where she wants to be. Because she's not ready to make any "real" decisions she decides to nanny for a summer and then make decisions regarding her life. Unbeknownst to her Nannying isn't as easy as it seems. She gets entangled in the families problems and finds it difficult to just leave them when she knows that she the end she learns from them and they learn from her.

I didn't enjoy this movie as much as I had enjoyed the other two. I don't know why, maybe because I'm not a huge Scarlett Johansen fan. It was still fun and enjoyable but just not as fun and enjoyable as the other two movies.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets - 3 stars

Our first Friday back, I was still really sick and getting over whatever it was that hit me so bad upon our arrival back in the states. So we decided to take it easy and go to an early movie. We had seen the first National Treasure movie and enjoyed it (4 stars) so we decided, since it had topped the box-office for 3 weeks we might as well go check out the 2nd one.

In National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Gates Family, at a public speaking affair is accused by someone that their relative who they claim to be a hero during the Civil War, really was a conspirator in the assasination of President Lincoln. Thus the search begins to unravel the clues provided and find the truth to this accusation.

The same cast of characters are back for fun the 2nd time around and the formula works once again. It was cheezy fun, and I must say I can understand why it did so well in the box-office. I'm sure we can count on two hands how many movies have come out in the past year that aren't animated but yet are family friendly (no cursing, no sex, no real violence!) Not many.

Cyrano de Bergerac - 3 stars

I had had this Netflix movie at home for a month or so, having rented it prior to seeing the play Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway. I had rented it in the hope that I would watch it before I went to see the play and then I would know what the story line was. However, I just never got around to it in December.

The story of Cyrano de Bergerac is that he falls in love with his cousin, who is in love with a man in his regiment. The man in his regiment, Christian, is very handsome but not very bright, so they team up (Christian's looks with Cyrano's wit) and woo the beautiful Roxanne. As expected complications arise....

I had rented the 1950 version with Jose Ferrer and I have to say that I enjoyed it. I gave it 3 stars because I thought it was a little over acted and after having just seen the play, I wasn't completely engrossed in it. Jose Ferrer was great as Cyrano and it reminded me again that I want to read the book!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Rome - Our Last Day

Jon sitting on The Spanish Steps.
Jon running on the way to the Circus Maximus.
Jon posing for a pic mid-run around the Circus Maximus with the Palatine Hill in the background!
Our feet on the Appian Way!!!

We woke up early and got on a train heading back to Rome! We weren't sure how this last day was going to work out - we had 11:00AM reservations at the Borghese Gallery and weren't getting into Rome until 10AM.
As it turned out our plan to check our bags at Termini was thwarted when we got to the bag check and saw the long long line. So the Borghese Gallery is going to have to wait until we return to Rome (and we WILL return!)
So we went to our hostel and decided to check-in and then start our day. Well we got to our hostel, the same one we stayed in the first time we were in Rome and found out that a water pipe had burst so he couldn't have us stay there that night. We were so disappointed because it was definitely our favorite hostel. He was nice enough to have arranged for us to stay at a neighboring hostel in the same neighborhood. So he brought us over there got us all checked in and then we were ready to head out.
We ended up going back to visit the Spanish Steps because Jon wanted to see them during the day. We got lunch on the way and ate on the steps. Then we went to the Piazza de Popoli because I had wanted to check it out after having read about it in Angels & Demons:) It was raining at this point so we decided to head back to the hostel. We finished some postcards and bought stamps and got them in the mail. The weather had gotten a little better so we decided to go for a run.
We got all ready to go and headed out towards the Circus Maximus below the Palatine Hill. It was a nice little run there and then we ran a lap around the Circus Maximus (which was pretty cool) and then we decided to run to the Appian Way to check it out. We weren't exactly sure where we were going but we knew the general direction. So we headed do the Via Appia Nuova. Maybe halfway down that road towards our destination it started to DOWNPOUR! We headed down to a Metro stop to wait it out and checked out a map while we were down there, which was a good thing given that we had to make a turn coming up and we would have never known that. We waited about 5 more minutes and headed out again with a better sense of where we were going and ran in the rain to the Via Appia Antica, the very first road ever! It was pretty cool, we ran in one direction for a little bit just checking it out, snapped photos, ran in the other direction trying to figure out where the catacombs were. After realizing that everything was closed, it started to get pretty cold and dark and it was still raining so we decided to head back to the bus stop we had seen. We ended up having to sprint over the cobblestones of the Appian Way to catch it in time so we weren't left there out in the cold. It'll certainly be a run that we won't forget. It was about 7 miles in length total - not a bad run for our last day of vacation - after having walked all the miles we did!
We got back to the hostel, showered and got ready to go out. We went back to the Pantheon area and found a sweet little restaurant down an alleyway and enjoyed a nice dinner. Then we headed of course to our favorite wine bar near the Pantheon. When we got there we were the only people there except for the owner who was hosting a couple. It was sweet! We got a seat indoors and ordered a glass of wine. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip. We spent some time there enjoying wine and then the owner, Giovanni, came over and poured us a glass of wine on the house - he remembered us from the other two nights we had been there! I loved it.
After that we hit up our fave gelato/cappachino place and got one last order, then we walked to the Trevi Fountain for one last look and threw our quarters in wishing for a return trip, then we headed back to the hostel.
I have to say I was very sad to leave Italy. I have a dream that I will live there for a year at some point in my life, just traveling all around for the year. After our trip Jon has agreed that he'd love to live in Italy at some point in our life as well! It may not happen until we're 60 but for right now that's our goal! Hopefully we'll get back there before we "move" there though - because it truly is my favorite country that I've been to so far!
So that's it our trip in a "nutshell" or 10 long descriptive posts! I'm going to do a blog on the Italian food and some pics from our trip so stay tuned....

Friday, January 4, 2008

Florence Day 3 - The Lesser Known Museums

Donatello's Mary Magdelene (probably one of our most favorite statues).
Me enjoying some yummy Gelato!

Jon and I were kind of wishing when we woke up that we had spent two days in Florence and used this day to have an extra day in Rome, which we just loved sooo much! Not that Florence isn't a beautiful city, but it's definitely small, and it's really all about the museums. We went to see about changing our ticket but unfortunately it would have cost a lot of money to change it so we set up our day seeing a lot of lessser seen museums and places since we had the time. And truth be told, it was probably one of our favorite days in Florence!

We started out by visiting the Bargello Museum, according to Rick Steve's a very underrated museum. It is housed in this old police station that then became a prison prior to becoming a museum. It's focus is sculpture and there are some beautiful piece including Donatello's David. We spent almost 2 hours here wandering the halls and exploring the art, it was a very nice museum, not overwhelming at all.

After the Bargello we walked over to the Medici Chapels, which was one of the things I was most excited about seeing after reading so much about the Medici's before going to Italy. I have to say it was one of the most disappointing things we visited there. It's just not worth the price of the ticket at all in my opinion. But nonetheless we made we sure we saw the whole thing. Then we wandered the market and picked up some olive oil to bring home.

After lunch we went to the Museo del' Duomo right behind the Duomo. This was by far our favorite museum in Florence! It was such a gem, small and easy to navigate, and easy to see in 2 hours. It houses Michelangelo's last Pieta as well as Donatello's Mary Magdelene (see pic above), which was definitely one of the most powerful sculptures we saw while in Italy.
After the museum we went to Santa Croce church and saw where many of Italy's famous are buried, such as Michelangelo. It's a large church with many paintings, altars, and tombs. It also holds a piece of St. Francis of Assisi's frock. If you go into the book store you can see the pictures of the big flood in Florence that show how high the water came up around the church. It's pretty unbelievable that so much survived that flood.
After the church we went to this paper store where Napoleon used to have his note cards made! We also saw the spot where Savanrola had the big book burning in Florence. After having read so much about it it was neat to see. We saw one more church, Santa Maria Novella and then called it a day.
All in all we saw a lot of great art in Florence, which is what it is known for. If you've never been to Italy and Florence I wouldn't miss the visit - but having now been there twice I can safely say that I feel no desire to return again. Hopefully next time I'm in that region I'll be renting a house in Tuscany for a week and exploring Chianti, Siena, etc!!!!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Florence Day 2 - The Big Hitting Museums

Our second day in Florence was all about the Major Art that many people go to Florence to see. We were no exception! We woke up early for our 9:00 AM appointment to see The David! The Accademia where The David is housed isn't much, there are a couple of other pieces of art that are worth seeing, but really you pay what you pay to see David and I'm sure there are many people who don't even look at anything else in the museum.

We wanted to take our time though so we thoroughly explored the museum as well as spending ample time with the man of the hour! I'm sorry but he really is just beautiful. It looks as if he could just walk off the stand he's on that's how real he looks. It is an unbelievable piece of art, one that anyone can appreciate, regardless of their knowledge of art. After an hour or so at The Accademia we wandered over to the San Marco Museum. This is an old monastery in Florence that has frescoes in each monks cell from Fra Angelico an important artist in Florence. It was an interesting musuem, very different from most you would normally visit, seeing the cells that the monks lived in as well as the frescoes was neat.

After that it was on to lunch and then getting to the Uffizi in time for our 2:00 PM reservations. Again we had decided to spend no more than 2-2 1/2 hours in this museum, so that we could appreciate it as opposed to being museumed out. The Uffizi is bigger than you think it's going to be, but once again has a very logical layout that is easy to follow. Here we got to see Boticelli's Birth of Venus among other famous paintings.

By the time we left we were done for the day - so we had a nice quiet dinner at this really cute restaurant! Then we went back to our hostel for another night of 500 Rummi and wine! Florence was all about activity during the day and relaxing at night!

No pictures from this day becasue they don't allow you to take pics in any of the museums we visited today. That was something we definitely noticed in Florence as opposed to Rome, you really can't take pictures in most of the museums.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Florence Day 1 - "Hiking"

Jon and I at the top of the Duomo looking out over Florence.

Jon and I at the Boboli Gardens overlooking Tuscany!

Views of the Duomo from Fort Belvedere.

Well, we got up REALLY early to get on a 6:30AM train to head to Florence. We got to Florence around 9ish, checked into our hostel and then headed out to explore.

Florence is this quaint medieval town. First stop, The Duomo! It's free to enter the Duomo so we walked around outside first taking it in. It's white and green which is a very different look from any of the other churches we saw in Italy (outside of Florence that is - it's a very popular look in Florence!) The inside isn't really all that much to look at, what you're really there for is to climb to the top of the Duomo. So we waited in line and then started climbing those steps. When you get to the cupola you can look at the Dome, which is painted. Prior to heading to Italy I had read Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King which describes in detail how historians think Brunelleschi made the Dome, to this day it is still a mystery how it stays up! So it was pretty neat to see it in real life. Then we finished climbing to the top and had beautiful views of Tuscany.

After that we headed over to the Boboli Gardens, our plan was to eat our sandwiches in the garden, but we couldn't find the entrance at first so we ended up just eating them on the street - oh well! We eventually found the Gardens and spent the afternoon exploring the Boboli and Barberini Gardens at Fort Belvedere. We decided to take advantage of being outside most of the day since the forecast was calling for rain for the next two days we were there.

The reason I titled this post hiking was because between the stairs to the top of the Duomo and the hills we climbed in and around the Gardens, we were talking about how we spent the day "urban hiking" our legs were so tired!

On our way back to the hostel to get ready for dinner we spent some time on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge looking out at the Arno and just taking in all the shops.

Then we had a nice dinner and bought a bottle of wine and headed back to the hostel for a chill night of wine and 500 rummi!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Venice Day 2 - Relaxing

Ah...Happy New Year!!!! We took this day to sleep in and just catch up on some rest so that we didn't get burnt out from our trip. Not much was open today so we really just wandered through the city, down all the little streets, over all the bridges, exploring all the neighborhoods.

We got sandwiches and ate them by the Grand Canal. Then we took a 45-minute Vaparetto Ride down the Grand Canal to see all the old Palaces that line the Canal. It was a really nice way to spend an hour - out in the sun, exploring the water of Venice.

We walked St. Mark's Square, through the Jewish Ghetto, over by the University and the Accademia, just everywhere. It was such a fun and relaxing day. We had dinner in Santa Margerita Square near the University and then headed over to San Vidal Church to see a Vivaldi concert performed by Interpreti Veneziani. I had read about these concerts and really wanted to attend one. Since there wasn't much open I figured this would be a good "event" for our day. We were so lucky, we got to see the Four Seasons by Vivaldi performed. The setting was beautiful, they dimmed all the lights and lit candles all around the church. There were a couple of hundred people sitting in the church. They had two intermissions and then like 10 encores - it was crazy! But they were really really good and it was a very special night! Listening to Vivaldi will always remind me of our New Year's Day in Venice. If you click on the link you can listen to them performing - so good.