Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading Year In Review 2009

I read 56 books this year, but I have to admit that when my schedule got heavy, I read lighter fare to enable my “book-a-week” goal. I hope to get back to more literature in the new year. As I look over my list I see that the books that demanded more of me (Need I say they were mostly classics?) were the most rewarding. I apologize to my readers for reading fluff to make my weekly deadlines when one good book read over two or three weeks would have served us both better. I learned my lesson.

Best audio book: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, read by Elizabeth Klett

Favorite revisits: The Warden (reviewed here), Persuasion (reviewed here), and Peter Pan (reviewed here)

Classics that I enjoyed for the first time: Return of the Native, Frankenstein and Count of Monte Cristo

Best non-fiction: Elements of Style by Strunk and White, An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

The WWII challenge was great, but only one of those books made my favorites list: We Band of Angels (reviewed here and here.)

Hands-down favorite book of 2009:That Distant Land (reviewed here.) Thank you, Carol, for the recommendation!

Worthwhile Movies (My Favorites in 2009)

I don’t watch much T.V. but enjoy old movies and Monk re-runs. Sadly, I watched an inordinate amount of silly movies this year – tripe that passes as “family friendly”. Ugh! I usually stick to older movies because they are less offensive, but I surprised myself by enjoying several movies made within the last year or two. Here is my alphabetical list of faves:

Fireproof (2008)
The Tale of Despereaux (2008) - Finally, a true family film. Lovely!
Three Godfathers (1948) I’m not a big fan of John Wayne, nor of Westerns, but director John Ford‘s cinematography was amazing and Wayne was appealing as the compassionate outlaw. Call it hokey, but I loved the redemption-through-a-baby theme that ran throughout the film. Christmas played a part of the movie, but I watched it in May and was still able to appreciate it.
To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) – both with Bogart and Bacall. Unquestionable classics with their dazzling cinematography, snappy dialogue and good acting.
With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) Doris Day’s last film. If you can overlook the 60’s flavor of this film, you’ll like this sweet love story of two families trying to blend together.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Killer Sudoku Puzzle Book

This book can’t count as literature, but I sure enjoyed every minute of it. About a year ago I stumbled across “irregular Sudoku” books in Brazilian newsstands. Of the many variations on the game, I enjoyed “Killer Sudoku” the most. In addition to the regular Sudoku rules (filling a 3x3 square with the numbers 1 to 9), this game contains few if any number clues and involves much more arithmetic. It’s HARD and a good alternative if you’ve become bored with regular Sudoku.

The book pictured is the only one I have found in the U.S. so far. It’s more difficult than the ones I am used to (I almost always have to look in the answer pages to make sure I’m on the right track), but it’s still a blast. When I finished it, I turned right around and ordered a second copy!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Words Matter

Recently my husband and I heard a WWII veteran talk about his experiences in a Japanese POW camp where he was allowed to write home once a month. Since his parents had moved while he was being shipped overseas, he sent his letters marked "general delivery." 

His captors, with their limited grasp of English, assumed he was writing to a military general and tossed all of his letters in the wastebasket. It was years before his family knew he was still alive. One little word led to one major misunderstanding.

The Bible tells us that Jesus was the “Word made flesh”. He must have seemed like a harmless little word when he arrived as a baby, but as he grew and began to fulfill his Father’s purposes, He became downright dangerous to the Jewish leadership. They couldn’t understand God’s definition of a humbling, suffering Messiah. Even today we have trouble wrapping our minds around the mystery of God “veiled in flesh”. One of the joys of the Christmas season is singing hymns that grapple with this truth.
In 1639 Thomas Pestel wrote:

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word,
Like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord
And God in cradle lies.

(Amazing words! Amazing gift! See the whole hymn here.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams

As I started to read this WWII escape story, it seemed too vivid to be “made up”. A little research revealed that The Wooden Horse was, indeed, a novelized version of true events. Eric Williams was an Englishman in the Royal Air Force when he was shot down over Germany at the beginning of the war. The wooden horse in the title refers to a contraption the prisoners used to cover up an escape tunnel they were digging. As men dug in the tunnel, other men vaulted over the “horse," pretending to be doing daily exercises.

All the POW stories I’ve read this past year took place in Japanese concentration camps where prisoners were treated quite harshly. It took a bit of mental adjustment to picture the German camps where the prisoners had a very different lifestyle. Sometimes I felt I was experiencing a PG 13 version of “Hogan’s Heroes” (for language and tense situations).

This is a book that keeps you on the edge of your seat.  At times Wooden Horse got my heart to racing so much that I had to put it down and take a break. At other times I skipped over the thrilling details entirely.  Because I never knew what was going to happen next and because I was expending so much emotional energy on the book, I made a rash decision and peeked at the ending. Call me a coward, but it was the only way I could finish it.

A must for fans of WWII literature.  The movie is quite good too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Christmas Audio Books

Yesterday I watched a movie version of A Christmas Carol and bemoaned the fact that the movies cannot convey the charm and humor of the book. In fact, I didn't really know what I was missing until I listened to an audio version of A Christmas Carol last year. From the very first paragraph I knew I was in for a treat of understated witticisms and vivid descriptions. I fell in love with Mrs. Cratchitt in an instant when I heard her described as wearing "a twice-turned gown, brave with ribbons." How can you convey that sentence in a film?!

I also heartily recommend, "Conscience Pudding" by E. Nesbit which is one of several Christmas short stories put out by Librivox. As always, you get a mixed bag when you have volunteer readers, but "Conscience Pudding" was excellent. (It's the eighth story as you scroll down the page.)

Honestly, half of the enjoyment of these stories comes from the British voices reading them. If you're too busy to read this season, put a few of these on your iPod and listen while baking or wrapping gifts. Enjoy!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We Band of Angels - Part Two

Earlier this year I read Return from the River Kwai and was troubled by its definition of heroism as “survival”. We Band of Angels reflects a truer definition of the word since it depicts people working under horrendous circumstances and yet giving selflessly of their time and energies.  Gleaning from government documents, diaries, letters and first hand interviews, Norman tells the amazing tale of military nurses who were serving in the Pacific to get away from their hum-drum lives in the U.S and how they got much more than they bargained for.

Before their actual capture the nurses were running a hospital under jungle trees. “The allies faced two enemies on Bataan: the Japanese with their bombs, bullets, and long bayonets, and a second adversary, more powerful and unforgiving than any army that has ever taken the field…. The effects of malaria, dysentery, dengue fever and half a dozen other conditions were aggravated by the growing problem of malnutrition.” (p. 50, 51)

General MacArthur had left Bataan for Australia in March of 1942. At the end of April and beginning of May he managed to get two small planes and a sub close enough to Bataan to evacuate a handful of the nurses.Fifty-four remained to face the Japanese on May 6 when surrender became inevitable.  The next three years were spent in a concentration camp in Manila. Here again, the nurses showed unbelievable courage as they cared for the sick and dying. Malnutrition, not bullets, was the chief cause of death now. The nurses themselves suffered terribly from beriberi and various tropical diseases.

And the work was hard. It took all the women’s energy just to change a simple dressing or administer a standard treatment. Any exertion exhausted them, and before moving on to the next patient they would have to sit and rest their painfully swollen legs. But every day they reported for work. They worked because they were nurses, and the sick called them to duty. It was good work, honorable work, especially among the dying, where they were needed most. In a way the work sustained them, for it gave them something most of the others in the camp did not have – a mission, a reason to get up in the morning…” (p. 200)

The nurses interviewed for this book did not want to be called heroes. They claim they were “just doing their job”. But, I, for one, salute them for unusual courage and faithful service to their country throughout the war.  In addition to being a well-told story, this book contains photos, a helpful timeline and a thorough bibliography.

(Part One of this review is here.)