Friday, December 30, 2011

My Top Ten for 2011

I don't blog about all the books I read, and I don't review everything on Amazon either. (And just so you know, many of the books I've blogged about this year were actually read in prior years - not even I can read that much.) But as I looked over the books I actually read this year I saw a lot of very good ones. Sometimes my feelings about a book change: I may have wrote glowingly right after finishing but soon forgot about it, or I may have been rather critical but it stayed on my mind. So, of the books I read this calendar year, I thought I'd list those that - in retrospect - feel like the best (in no particular order and linked to my reviews). And YES it was very hard paring it down to only 10!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011

I had hoped to edit the videos of the Christmas piano recital from the week before but can't find the right cord, so I'll just post a few pictures from our Christmas this year. 

Uncle Ben reading the Nativity for the girls.

Who is that under the cow?

The loot (and yes, we really do make them wait until 7:00 before coming out).

Waiting in the hallway to go see what they got.

One happy little owl.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Kiss my arsenic"

Although I love reading histories, I'll be the first to admit they're not often easy or quick reads. Sometimes my brain begins to feel a little overwhelmed with all the information and detail - no matter how interesting it might be - and I need something a little lighter, something of an escape to refresh myself. In short, something that's pure pleasure to read. If you've taken my previous advice you'll know all about eleven year-old Flavia de Luce, and her passion for poison and mystery solving.

In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, the latest in the series by Alan Bradley, Christmas is approaching and Flavia has plans to capture Father Christmas using her knowledge of chemistry to see if he's real or not. But her father, Colonel de Luce, is finally facing up to the looming family financial crisis and has arranged for Buckshaw (the aging family mansion) to be used by the renowned British director Val Lampman as the setting for a film starring the famous actress Phyllis Wyvern along with the handsome Desmond Duncan. However, such famous film stars bring a lot of baggage, and not just camera equipment and sets. Although Miss Wyvern appears friendly and personable enough, Flavia notices that not everyone is as charmed by her. And on an evening when a blizzard traps the entire village of Bishop's Lacey in Buckshaw, Phyllis and Desmond reprise their famous Romeo and Juliet scene, and Flavia uncovers a murder.

The writing is just as clever and Flavia's wit just as sharp as the previous books. The story is perhaps a bit similar to the others, but in this one we begin to see a little more of the human side of Flavia and her family. Of course, chemistry plays a prominent role again, and Flavia's plans to catch Santa are hilarious and even bizarre. And as much as I tried to read it slowly and savor each word, I found myself reading more than I had planned at each sitting and picking it up instead of the history book I'm also reading and... before I knew it, I was finished. Ah, but it was worth it!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Baby, it's cold outside!

In the nearly 9 years I've been living in Southern California I've become a wimp when it comes to cold weather. I grew up in Salt Lake City and saw plenty of cold winters and enjoyed sledding and playing in the snow as a kid, and skiing when I got older. But it got to the point where I began dreading the cold earlier and earlier each fall. At the slightest hint of the end of summer I began to shiver. After we moved here I found it amusing that some people wore jackets (or even heavy winter coats) during the "cooler" months of the year, but now I've become one of them. And if I'm not mistaken, this year has been unusually cool. Of course, things could always be worse.

In 1914 the British ship Endurance set out for the Antarctic. Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition planned to be the first to cross the continent of Antarctica. Instead, he and his men found themselves trapped in the frozen sea and eventually had to abandon the ship as it was crushed by the ice. They spent well over a year drifting on ice flows and braving the rigors of the Weddell Sea and Drake Passage, surviving some of the most inhospitable and savage places in the world. Amazingly, not a single member of Shackleton's crew was lost.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing is a absorbing look at the conditions and hardships faced by the crew: sub-zero temperatures, starvation, frightful storms, unstable ice and hostile seas. And in the end they had to rescue themselves as there was no way to alert the outside world of their plight and they'd been assumed lost. But it's not all doom and gloom as the best part of the story is the amazing fortitude of the men and their will to survive. Excerpts from the diaries the men kept tell of times of intense suffing and intense boredom. They may not have made their destination or accomplished their goal but their survival was an incredible achievement by itself and makes for a fascinating story.

As for me, I think I'll put on a jacket.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weapon of Choice

When I was growing up we didn't have cable TV in our home - my Dad thought it was silly to pay for television (and frankly... I have to agree with him).  As a result I was deprived and the only time I saw music videos was if they happened to be on regular TV.  So I sometimes find it fun to go on YouTube and look up the videos for some of my favorite 80s songs.  And I'd probably have to say that "Take on Me" by A-ha is probably one of the best videos (and I'm surprised at how many really good songs had lousy videos).  But I'm not sure how I found this cool video.  In fact, without the video, I'm not sure the song is even worth listening to... but I really like the video.  (And who knew Christopher Walken could fly?)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Sunday, December 7 was different."

The surprise attack by Japanese airplanes at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 profoundly changed America. At the beginning of December America was isolationist and moribund, just beginning to come out of the Great Depression due to increased industrial activity for the Lend-Lease Program which sent war materiel to the Allies fighting Germany and Italy. Negotiations with Japan were going nowhere but no one expected war with them anytime soon, if at all.

But a rain of bombs on a quiet Sunday morning in far-off Hawaii changed all that. American was now at war and by the end of the month factories were converting to wartime production with round-the-clock shifts. Unions and politicians were pledging to set aside differences for the good of the nation and isolationism was already just a memory. Recruiting offices were besieged by enlistees despite the fact that American military forces were losing and retreating in places like the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Singapore.

Ever wonder what it was like to live through pivotal moments in history like December 1941? In December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World Craig Shirley has written an interesting account of what Pearl Harbor meant for ordinary Americans and the newspaper stories they read each day. It's not another detailing of the actual fighting that took place but rather a viewpoint from those at home. It was a time when people still dressed up with a hat and tie to go out and went to the movies twice a week (this was before television). From the rumors and snippets of news that gradually trickled out of Hawaii, to the reports of sabotage around the nation (most of which were false), to the roundup of Japanese, German, and Italians living in the United States, Shirley paints a picture of what it was like to live through those extraordinary and frightening days. He even covers things like rubber rationing and how tires were different back then.

But while it's an interesting read, it's not a perfect book. Because of the day-by-day format it feels repetitious sometimes, especially since it's a fairly long book at nearly 550 pages, and there were a surprising number of typos and errors (it needs better editing). There are several pages of pictures included, but three pages are devoted to war posters, two pages have a bunch of very small Pearl Harbor photos, and what's left seems only marginally related to the month of December (many are from much later in the war). Nonetheless, it's a very interesting portrait of what America was like for ordinary folks and what they heard and read in the news. Mr. Shirley writes in a very readable style; it's not stuffy or "scholarly," but will appeal to amateur historians as well as those newer to history. I found his conclusions as to how it changed the nation and its people, as well as the world, to be very insightful. (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers through their Booksneeze blogger program.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beat by chewing gum

I had hoped to be finished by now with another book that's related to Pearl Harbor Day (Dec 7), but I've still got a couple hundred pages to go, so instead I'll post a review about a book that looks at the end of the war with Japan.

In Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, British historian Max Hastings relates a story during his account of the battle in the Philippines that illustrates the frustration Japanese soldiers felt at seeing how much better equipped and supported American soldiers were than they. One Japanese soldier found American gum wrappers by a road and a wad of gum stuck to a weed. The soldier related: "Here we were, holding on for dear life, and these characters were chewing gum while they fought! I felt more sad than angry. The chewing gum tinfoil told me just how miserably we had been beaten" (pg 241).

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (Vintage)That is a common theme throughout this detailed and thorough look at the war with Japan during those last couple of years - that Japan's chances to beat an industrial giant like the US were slim from the beginning. In spite of some early successes, Japanese leadership relied too heavily upon "fighting spirit" and fanaticism to achieve victories rather than adequately supporting their armies and providing them with improving technologies. The warped Bushido code of honor achieved much but at a huge moral, psychological, and human cost. Japanese soldiers fought like tigers to maintain ground and honor but they also died in much greater numbers than did their enemies in nearly every battle. And in those last years of the war it was a lost cause and their leaders showed a callous disregard for the lives of their people.

Hastings discusses the moral aspects of many incidents, and details the Japanese inhumanities toward enemy soldiers, prisoners, and civilians. War crimes were committed by all sides in the conflict, but Japanese murders, rapes, and other atrocities were institutionalized and systematic rather than occurring as more isolated and individual events, as was the case with other belligerents (except perhaps the Soviets). Hastings is somewhat critical when discussing LeMay's firebombing tactics, and includes horrific accounts by some Tokyo survivors. He covers in detail the morality of using atomic weapons, including numerous arguments against it. But he makes a very strong argument that because of the duplicitous manner in which Japan started the conflict and the inhumane way they conducted it, Japan essentially forfeited any claims for humane treatment after defeat. Basically, his argument is that they got a just "retribution."

This is an amazing and compelling history, covering not only the Americans but also the British, Australians, Chinese, Soviets, etc. Hastings discusses how the European nations were seen unsympathetically by America as fighting primarily to maintain Asian empires, and why the Australians were viewed as less committed and usually given the task of "mopping up." I'd always wondered what role other nations played in the Pacific conflict, but to me those parts weren't quite as interesting. I also felt that the account of the invasion of Okinawa was somewhat inadequate given the impact it had on public perception and tolerance for the war. Nonetheless, a highly recommended book for those interested in the subject.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More "infamous" than we thought?

The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was hardly over before the public began to wonder how the US could have been caught so unawares. The Roberts Commission investigation (Dec 18, 1941 to Jan 23, 1942) concluded that General Short (Army) and Admiral Kimmel (Navy) were derelict in their duty and blamed them. But almost immediately questions arose about facts that didn't add up. By the end of May, 1946 a total of 9 investigations had taken place with differing and alternating conclusions each time, and yet questions still abound today.

John Toland looks at each of the investigations and discusses the evidence and testimonies presented. He focuses on a large amount of evidence that many in Washington knew beforehand that an attack was "imminent" and also that it would occur at Pearl Harbor. Some evidence pinpointed the exact date and other evidence the location of the "missing" Japanese fleet. He even presents communications that foreign dignitaries passed on information, and that those in top levels of American government had more than enough knowledge beforehand that could have prevented (or at least minimized) the attack. The only ones who knew almost nothing were Short and Kimmel.

Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath was originally published in 1982 so it's possible there may be newer information, and apparently it is a bit controversial in its conclusions. Toland claims that Admiral Stark (Chief of Naval Operations) and General Marshall (War Dept. Chief of Staff) in Washington had enough corroborated information that - at a minimum - a clear warning should have been sent to the commanders in Hawaii. He speculates that part of the reason they might not have intervened was because they didn't want the Japanese to know the US had broken their code and were reading all their messages (but he also presents evidence that the Japanese suspected as much). And while he doesn't directly condemn President Roosevelt, he certainly casts a shadow by claiming that FDR also had access to the information. He cites speculation that FDR allowed the attack to happen as a way to win support from the American public, over half of which opposed intervention into the war in Europe, but his criticism seems somewhat muted.

Although this book is nearly 350 pages it's a much quicker and easier read than that number might suggest. It was also more interesting than a dry and detailed accounting of the investigations might sound. Toland obviously places an emphasis on exonerating Kimmel and Short but does a good job piecing together the chronology of the intelligence that was gathered and known in the weeks and days leading up to the attack (he doesn't cover the attack itself). He discusses those who changed their testimonies as well as the documents which appear to have disappeared (such as the infamous "winds" message). For the most part Toland keeps the information from becoming overly tedious, but the main difficulty I had was with the VERY extensive "Cast of Principal Characters." They are listed at the beginning of the book but my interest was more casual and I didn't make the effort to keep everyone as straight as I might have. Still, I found it to be an interesting read and disappointing to know that maybe there was more "infamy" behind the scenes than we were led to believe.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The best friend poor children ever had"

Last year at Christmastime we were invited to read A Christmas Carol with a bunch of friends. I'd never heard of doing this before and wondered how long it would take, and if the kids would enjoy it, and... if I would enjoy it. It turned out I enjoyed it a LOT and the kids had a lot of fun. But other than A Christmas Carol (which I've read several times) I think the only Dickens book I've read has been Oliver Twist. They're truly Great Books and I've got more on my reading list but they're not exactly cheerful reading (the ending is happy, of course). In fact, I wondered if Dickens hadn't exaggerated the conditions of the poor a bit. Surely people in such wretched poverty were an exception rather than the rule during the Victorian Age.

Charles Dickens is the most well-known English writer of the 19th century. His books are still assigned reading in schools, and A Christmas Carol is performed in countless theaters each year, not to mention the numerous movie versions that exist. He has become such a part of our culture that you know what is meant if someone is called a "Scrooge" and Dickens' name sometimes replaces that of the Queen when referring to Victorian times. And he was such an effective agent of social change that his ("Dickensian") depictions of the poor seem too extreme anymore to be real. But Dickens had a secret he kept even from his wife and children until after his death: he was once one of those poor and hungry working children and saw their struggles first hand.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of LondonSocial class in 19th century Britain was the accepted custom and the poor were seen as justly deserving their lot in life and frequently even unworthy of charity. But through his own experience, Dickens came to know them as real and sympathetic human beings with hopes and dreams, and deserving of pity and help. He was especially concerned for the children, who toiled long hours in unhealthy and dangerous jobs to avoid starvation and suffered neglect and abuse while spending their nights huddled together on the cold streets. And Dickens used his growing popularity as a writer to draw attention to their plight, to make others see them as human and even likable. His writing is sometimes criticized as "commercial," but he knew how to reach his audiences and soften their hearts.

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London by Andrea Warren is a children's book. It is not written as a serious biography for an adult audience and the writing is probably aimed at a 9 to 13 year old reading level. It can be a little repetitious and a bit blunt in its depiction of the conditions many of the poor endured. But as an adult reader of history and literature I found it an enlightening and engaging read, finishing it in just a couple of evenings. It's loaded with photos and illustrations and explains the motivating issues behind many of Dickens’ most well-known stories. And while Dickens is the focus of the book, it also profiles many others whose contributions were so influential in changing the way the poor were treated. I hope we'll be invited again this year to read A Christmas Carol and I'll definitely bring this book along. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)