Saturday, December 31, 2011

Farewell and Good Riddance to 2011

To say that 2011 has been a year I would not want to relive is a real understatement. It has been a very hard year for my family (although I must admit that it brought us even closer and served to remind us of how much we love each other) and it has ended with a professional quarter of the year that has turned my life upside down. On the first score, we are expecting nothing but good news in 2012 and on the second score, I'm hoping to have changed my work life soon to get a balance back in my life that includes having time for my family and doing the things I love (including blogging!).

My reading numbers were down considerably in 2011; I don't think that I'll hit 75 books read this year. I did succeed, to some extent, with the goals I set for my reading for the year. I managed to complete about half of my challenges this year but I largely blame my lack of success here on my inability to find the time to read for the past three months so I can live with that. I did read a lot more non-fiction this year and definitely increased the number of books set outside of the U.S. or written by non-U.S. authors (the fairy tale and myth reading certainly helped with this one!).  Given that I had read almost no historical fiction in 2010, that was another goal I met in 2011 even though I only managed to read ten historical fiction novels.

I read a lot of books I liked a lot in 2011 but very few that I would say I truly loved. Surprisingly, the vast majority of the books I loved were written by men, certainly a change over previous years. My top books of 2011 were:

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Safe From The Sea by Peter Geye

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Shaffert

The March by E.L. Doctorow

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Man In The Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

Instant City by Steve Inskeep

This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

For 2012, I'm hoping to get things turned around, reading wise. Some of my goals will remain the same, fewer challenges will be undertaken but mostly I hope to find more time for reading again in 2012. It brings a sense of calm to my life that has been sorely missing of late. And I miss getting to talk to all of you, so more time for blogging must be made in the coming year!

What was your favorite book in 2011? What are you looking forward to in 2012?

Wishing you all a very happy new year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Fairy Tale Fridays - 2012 Fairy Tale Movies

The number of websites devoted to fairy tales that I've found since starting Fairy Tale Fridays proves that I'm not alone in being fascinated with this particular form of story telling. The number of new books being published further confirms this. But, perhaps, the most telling indication that fairy tales are big right now are the movies based on fairy tales that have been released in the past couple of years with four new movies scheduled for release in 2012.

In June, JACK THE GIANT KILLER is scheduled for release. This take on the classic tale of the boy who climbed the beanstalk turns the tale into an action movie. There is not just one giant who must be confronted but an entire race of them who want to reclaim that land they claim was taken from them. Can't say that I'm looking forward to this one; it will likely appeal much more to young men than any other audience.

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, also scheduled for release in June, sticks more closely to the original tale for much of the story but it, too, veers off into an action movie. When the huntsman sent to kill Snow White and bring her heart back to the wicked stepmother takes pity on her and spares her, in the movie version he then trains her to fight back against her stepmother with an army that includes eight dwarfs. Again, definitely a movie aimed more toward a younger audience, particularly those who have grown attached to actress Kristin Stewart (she of Twilight fame).

Hansel and Gretel will also come to the silver screen in 2012, this time fifteen years after their encounter with the crone in the candy house. In HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS, Hansel and Gretel are now bounty hunters charged with killing witches who may have met their match when they are hired to kill an evil sorceress who's planning on killing all the children in a village. Sadly, this is another one I won't pay to see but I do appreciate that they have, at least, not messed with the original tale here.

THE BROTHERS GRIMM: SNOW WHITE will also be a new take on an old story, but one that I may just have to see. This one promises to include comedy (Nathan Lane is in the cast if that's any clue) and the costumes and settings look spectacular.

On the animated scene, look for BRAVE from Disney-Pixar (which draws from Scottish mythology more than fairy tales) and DOROTHY OF OZ. Although the Wizard of Oz stories aren't centuries-old tales, they are every bit fairy tales in their construction and this version may be just the thing to introduce younger audiences to the stories without being quite a scary as the Judy Garland movie version.

Grown up (and by this I mean very grown up) takes on fairy tales coming out in 2012 include Jane Campion's SLEEPING BEAUTY (only very loosely based on the fairy tale with the sleeping beauty being a prostitute) and PAN, a modern telling of the basic idea of J.M. Barrie's story where Hook is a detective in search of a serial killer who preys on children.

On the whole, I'm thrilled that these old stories continue to capture the imagination of the general public even if it means turning them into action films and I look forward to seeing what new ways fairy tales will be used in the coming year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Separate Country

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks
432 pages
Published September 2009 by Grand Central Publishing
Source: I won it in a drawing

Eli Griffin has been left a task by a dying man, a man he had tried to kill years earlier. Major General John Bell Hood, late of the Confederate army, knows that he can make Griffin feel obliged to discharge an obligation to make up for that attempt and in his dying hours sets Griffin to a task that will bring him into contact with characters that could not populate any city except New Orleans.

John Hood left the war with an arm he could not use and a leg that had been amputated yet the wounds that most profoundly marked him were the wounds that couldn't be seen. Hood was bitter and conflicted about what he had done in his years in the army and deeply disappointed with the legacy that he had left. He spent much of the rest of his life writing a book attempting to set the record straight. On his death bed, however, he tells Griffin that he wants that book destroyed and a more recent accounting of his life published. This is the story of his life with Anna Marie Hennen, a New Orleans beauty who was inexplicably drawn to the shattered man, who gave birth to his eleven children and who introduced him to people who could only have lived in New Orleans.

Griffin is left to deal with these people as he attempts to retrieve the original book from from Confederate General Beauregarde and to find a killer who Hood says must approve the publication of the second book. Along the way Griffin is drawn more deeply into the world that Hood has inhabited since he first met Anna Marie, a world that includes the dwarf, Rintrah, a priest without a church, Father Mike, and the memory of a beloved man whose legacy seems to contradict what Griffin learns about him.

Hicks moves the story of Griffin's task back and forth between the writings that both Hood and Anna Marie have left and Griffin's own search for the truth in a way that keeps the story moving along and never seems to become confusing (as can so often happen when authors choose this method of story telling). The story moves back and forth in time, slowly revealing new surprises along the way. Hicks does a marvelous job of creating multi-layered characters - in even the most hardened characters there is a soft place reserved for loved ones and old hurts. The city of New Orleans comes alive in Hicks' hands as does the time period immediately following the American Civil War.

Unfortunately, the book fell flat for me in the end. The story became too complex and implausible for me and a character that was introduced late in the story and seemed to be somewhat pivotal was never fully explained to my satisfaction. Still I enjoyed the book overall and I would recommend it for lovers of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy stories revolving around the American Civil War.

I read this book for the War Through The Generations Challenge.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Because I Haven't Finished A Book In A Week....

I bring you bookish news instead. I am, finally finishing A Separate Country tonight and I have started April, 1865 all in an effort to reach my Civil War reading goal. But I will have to finish April, 1865 and another book still this month and, at the rate I'm going, that could be difficult. Although I do have the last week of the month off...maybe my family will give me the perfect gift of a week of uninterrupted reading for Chistmas!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've probably noticed that I don't read a lot of mystery books (although I do enjoy them) and far fewer spy novels. I haven't read a single Bourne book nor any Tom Clancy. But years ago, I did pick up Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and recall liking it quite a lot. I have no idea why I never picked up the next book in LeCarre's trilogy. I am, however, looking forward to seeing what Hollywood has done with George Smiley. Gary Oldman is a terrific actor but he's certainly not the person I pictured as I was reading the book.

Rachel, of A Home Between The Pages, has written about her top five books of 2011 for I was happy to see Timothy Schaffert's The Little Coffins of Hope, one of my favorite books of 2011, on her list as well. The Omaha Bookworms are looking forward to reading it this spring and I'm wondering if I might be able to talk Shaffert into joining us when we discuss his book.

With the year coming to an end soon, have you been giving any thought to which books were your favorites this year? I've been remiss about updating my tab of favorite books of the year so I'm going to have to give this a little more thought than I had planned.

Any books on your wish list for the holidays? I have several I would like to have asked for but my family is under the crazy impression that I don't need any more books so they won't give me any. Will your family indulge your addiction?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
368 pages
Published January 2009 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: bought this one after hearing about it on NPR

I grew up with an unusual awareness of the American Civil War, particularly for someone who lives so far removed from the where the bulk of  the action occurred. But then I lived in an unusual household. My father, an American History teacher, had a particular fondness for the American Civil War. That fondness meant that many of our summer vacation trips included stops at Civil War battlefields. I even took my dad's Civil War course when I was in high school; the number of people that died in this war was not news to me. Yet, when I heard about this book on NPR, it made me stop and think about that number more closely. Just how did both the North and the South deal with numbers of dead that large? And how did this war change the war American felt about death and the way the country dealt with their military dead?

Gilpin Faust breaks This Republic of Suffering into nine chapters, each exploring a different aspect of what was learned about dying from 1861-1865: Dying, Killing, Burying, Naming, Realizing, Believing and Doubting, Accounting, Numbering, and Surviving. In "Dying" she wrote:
"Sudden death represented a profound threat to fundamental assumption about the correct way to die, and its frequency on the battlefield comprised one of the most important ways that Civil War death departed from the "ordinary death" of the prewar period."
Prior to the war, the mostly Christian people of the United States believed in the "good death," a death surrounded by family which giving the dying person time to show their faith in God. Letters to the family of the deceased often mentioned how the dying had accepted God in their final moments or died well. The war also brought up a conflict between duty to God and duty to country that had to be resolved.

Killing on that scale had never been seen before, particularly when the combatants were very much alike. As one soldier said the killing demanded "the harder courage."
"..Civil War killing...required work --intellectual and psychological effort to address religious and emotional constraints, as well as adaptation to the ways this particular war's technologies, tactics, and logistics shaped the experience of combat."
The killing was not the only thing that required work on a scale never before seen. Dealing with the dead on the battlefield, traditionally the duty of the victor, often had to be postponed and matter of who was responsible was never entirely clear. Thousands of bodies were buried without identification or in remote places, thousands more were buried in mass burial pits. Industries sprung up: business to help find loved ones (both the missing and the dead), services to bring bodies home, coffin makers and embalmers. Not only did these people show up in droves after a battle but family members of those involved also flocked to the sites, hoping to find their loved ones (barring that, to bring home their bodies).

Eventually the nation had to come to terms with the reality of so many dead and wounded and it weighed heavily and the faith of many. Finally the government began to step up and acknowledge that the dead now belonged to the nation. The long and difficult job of identifying the dead and reburying them in national cemeteries went on for decades after the war ended. And during all of this time, the counting continued. There will never be a definite count on the number of men, women and children killed in the war, in combat, through accidents and illness, and through the deprivations that were a part of the war.

Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, as penned a work that even the most widely-read of Civil War buffs can learn from. It literally took me months to read this one, there was only so much new information I could digest at a time. This Republic of Suffering is one of the best researched book I've ever read, although I sometimes felt that there may have been too much information, too many examples and details. Never the less, I highly recommend it for those with a strong interest in the American Civil War and those who have an interest in how wars impact entire nations.