Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Book Round-up

I read 58 books in 2011. Here are the top six in terms of impact or enjoyment.

The Forever War – Dexter Filkins

This covers the author’s experiences reporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I have to give this an “R” rating for violence and some profanity, this was a very impactful book for me. While the author didn’t promote an “in your face” political agenda, it still left me appalled at various US missteps that had such drastic consequences for everyday Iraqis. And I wonder about the prospects for pushing democracy on some cultures. But mostly, I ached from the tragedies imposed on normal Iraqi (and Afghani) people, and am in disbelief what awful things some humans can do to others, especially by presumably pious people in the name of religion.

The Journals of Addison Pratt – ed. George Ellsworth

While a dramatically different time (1850’s) and place (South Pacific), I was struck by the similarities in Addison’s missionary experiences and feelings to those of my own. And what a normal, rational person he was (not some fanatic religious zealot). It felt like he would be at home in the modern Church. His earlier life on whaling ships read like Moby Dick. His lengthy separations from, and longings for, his wife and children were heartrending.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson

While a humorous and clever book in its own right for any reader, I was propelled back in time to my childhood from the same period as the author, and so many things and experiences resonated with me.

Doc, the Rape of the Town of Lovell – Jack Olsen

I know, how could such a book make it on my reading list, much less my top list. But on several levels this was a fascinating and impactful account for me. As a bishop, I wondered about how the Church leaders handled things. I was dismayed how the victims were treated by so many, and the doctor supported by so many. I worried how justice could be served, with so many things stacked against the accusers.

Stiff – Mary Roach

A really off the wall subject—dead human bodies. But dealt with by the author in both an amusing and enlightening way. I went on to read other books by the author, but this one was a notch above. Not for the squeamish, though.

Give a Boy a Gun – Jack Olsen

The story of Claude Dallas and his murder of two F&G officers. Very interesting story about a variety of fascinating people. Especially interesting to me as it was in our backyard and dominated Idaho news at the time.

Here are the honorable mention books:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War – Nathaniel Philbrick

A rather virgin subject matter for me, and this went far beyond the ship and voyage, and continued for a couple of generations of interaction and impact between settlers and natives. A huge percentage of settlers died the first year from illness or starvation.

Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick

All I can say is “wow”. North Koreans have had, and still have, it very rough indeed.

The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham

Poignant story, and the ending differs from the movie (I liked the movie ending better)

Columbine – Dave Cullen

Fascinating, and a bit disturbing.

In the Heart of the Sea – Nathaniel Philbrick

Adventure and peril in the extreme

The Looming Tower -- Lawrence Wright

Very insightful recounting of people and events of the rise of radical Islam leading to 9/11.

Panzer Commander – Hans Von Luck

An interesting and different look through the German army lens at WWII battles and fronts, and the tragic aftermath of many imprisoned for years in Russia.

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

To the Ends of the Earth – Robert Kaplan

I love his adventure travels and commentaries

Inheriting Syria – Flynt Leverett

Reads like an extended report assignment, but interesting in a narrow sense of understanding the modern Syrian regime.

Malcolm X – Manning Marable

The man had some serious flaws, yet a knack for inspiring.

In Cold Blood -- Truman Capote

Interesting treatment of a tragic crime and tragic perpetrators

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Rowling

I read these as virgin territory long after everyone else, so didn’t have to wait for the next installment. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would, and they evolved from lighter YA literature to more mature and complex circumstances. By book 7 I had my fill.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

I particularly enjoyed this audio rendition.

The Perfect Mile – Neal Bascomb

Learned a lot about the legend and legendary event(s).

The Darkest Summer – Bill Sloan

Desperate and historic times early in the Korean War.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Vincente Blasco Ibanez

Fiction, yet grounded in the times and events and people of WWI.

These were interesting or enjoyable enough, but another notch down for me:

Snow Falling on Cedars – David Guterson

Hiroshima – John Hersey

The Big Rock Candy Mountain -- Wallace Stegner

Spook – Mary Roach

Bonk – Mary Roach

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

Last Stand – Nathaniel Philbrick

Without a Doubt – Marcia Clark

The Number One Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith

Rocket Men – Craig Nelson

Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey

Baghdad Without a Map – Tony Horwitz

Vietnam, A History – Stanley Karnow

Hot, Flat, and Crowded – Thomas Friedman

The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson

At Home: A short history of Private Life – Bill Bryson

Son – Jack Olsen

My Father, Maker of the Trees – Eric Irivuzumugabe

A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Six Armies in Normandy – John Keegan

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester

Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

On Mount Hood – Jon Bell

These weren’t worth the time:

Skyjack, The Hunt for D.B. Cooper – Geoffrey Gray

Author jumped all around, ultimately had nothing to add to solving the mystery, and seemed sucked into all the conspiracy kooks.

Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

I like and enjoy Bill Bryson, but I couldn’t get into this account of travels in his adopted UK, and found it just too mean spirited too often.

Judas Gate – Jack Higgins

Churchill – Paul Johnson

Helmet for my Pillow – Robert Leckie

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The memory lane of slide scanning

We have over 3000 slides accumulated from 1972 to well into the 1990's, and some 2000's. This covers the time on my mission in Germany, when I bought a small Rollei 35mm camera, through 1989, with the purchase of an SLR with zoom lenses and auto focus and exposure capabilities, and beyond. In the past we would view the slides using a slide projector, and stored the slides about 40 per cube. It was such a hassle to setup and project, so it has been a number of years since we have viewed the slides.

I finally borrowed a Nikon slide scanner, with an automated tray, so my holiday project has been to scan all the slides and convert them to digital format. It is a lengthy, tedious process but at least, with the automation, I can walk away and return an hour or so later to load the next batch of 40 slides. Other than the occasional jam, it is a marvel of technology.

One thing I am immediately struck by is how awful so many of the photos are. The Rollei was completely manual, for focus and exposure, and had a fixed lens. Focus is often bad, and exposure was hit or miss. Inside shots are habitually underexposed, and when a flash was used the lighting was harsh and cast shadows up the faces. Very unflattering.

But in spite of all these technical faults, I have been launched down memory lane, and am reveling in the past. I am struck by how cute our kids were, and what a charming little growing family we were. Suzanne and I were once young and energetic. We had such good friends and visited (and lived in) such interesting places. We moved into new homes and landscaped them, built fences, wallpapered rooms. We shoveled snow from driveways and walks, and hosted family members at holiday times. We had Christmas nativity scenes with costumed kids playing various roles through the years. We had siblings holding newborn additions to the family. There were softball teams, birthday parties, school plays, family reunions, campouts, quilts (Suzanne's handiwork), first steps, Halloween costumes, and so much more. And I'm only up to 1984!

Well, as Jimmy Stewart says in the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life". That's how I feel.

Here is a sample photo from 1983.

Friday, December 23, 2011

And Still More Christmas Music

I've been watching the recent Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concerts, and here are more "greatest hits".

Here is the opening processional from the 2008 concert:

Renee Fleming from 2005:

The First Noel, with some moments of power, and others of exquisite, quiet contemplation:

Here is a history of Christmas concert guests from Wikipedia:

2001: Actress Angela Lansbury
2002: Former CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite
2003: Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel
2004: Actress and singer Audra McDonald and actor Peter Graves
2005: Soprano Renee Fleming and actress Claire Bloom
2006: Norwegian vocalist Sissel
2007: London-based King's Singers
2008: Broadway singer Brian Stokes Mitchell and actor Edward Herrmann
2009: Jazz singer Natalie Cole and author and historian David McCullough
2010: Pop singer David Archuleta and actor Michael York
2011: Operatic baritone Nathan Gunn and actress Jane Seymour.

You can catch a PBS broadcast of the concert from the prior year. David Archuleta's concert is broadcasting right now, and again Christmas Day here in the Portland metro area.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

More music

Here is some quiet, contemplative Christmas music:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wondrous Christmas Music

One thing I love about the Christmas season is the glorious music we can sing and listen to. And the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is right up there, especially their annual Christmas concert. Oh how I would love to attend one of these live--Suzanne tried to get tickets this year for my birthday, but no luck. I'll have to content myself with getting and watching the DVDs.

Here are a few of my favorites, leading off with perhaps my all time favorite:

Here is the opening processional from a few years ago. If this doesn't get the energy flowing I don't know what will:

This one took a few listenings to grab me, so hang with it. About 2:30 it really kicks up a notch:

The finale "Angels from the Realms of Glory" from last year's concert (Miriam and Magdalena should enjoy the dancers):

The same finale from the prior year. Note the choir member with tears at 4:02. I can only imagine how powerful this rendition is live:

Mack Wilberg, the arranger for these selections, is my all time hero. I love pretty much everything he has a hand in.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do, and Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Return to Slovakia -- Iron Curtain, Part 5

We continued with the rental car, driving from Berlin down through southern Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia. We stopped in Prievidza to visit and spend the night with Juraj Bubnas and his family. Juraj is a distant cousin of Suzanne's and their family was so welcoming. Prievidza is a nice city in central Slovakia, and Juraj's family lived in a nice home. We toured the nearby Bonice castle with them and enjoyed a pleasant dinner and singing on their backyard patio.

Juraj Bubnas and family.

We continued eastward and enjoyed hiking up to Spis castle, an impressive edifice, though a bit mismanaged and not quite tourist friendly. For example, there was loud pop music playing in a concession area in the center of the castle, and we found the gate locked as we attempted to exit the castle on the path back down.

While there were no expressways in the eastern half of the country, we did find the roads decent and well paved. However, the Slovaks are dangerous drivers, routinely passing in curves and other blind spots. Several times we came upon accident scenes. It was rather unnerving. One strategy was to follow behind another vehicle so at least you wouldn't be the one in the head-on collision.

We took a chance and checked into the Hotel Chemes upon arrival in Humenne in the far east of Slovakia. It had a few rough edges but was quite satisfactory, given the very reasonable price. In fact, prices seemed depressed for everything in Slovakia. Unlike, say Prague, Slovakia is a very low key and economical destination for tourists.

Once again we were welcomed with opened arms by many of Suzanne's cousins in the Humenne and Poruba areas. What gracious and friendly people. They held an outdoor party for us and numerous cousins came by. Bridget and Jeremy were particularly popular speaking Russian to those of our generation and older (who learned Russian rather than English).

It had been five years since our first trip to Slovakia, and we felt like the country was definitely moving up in the world. Still off the beaten path but a more pleasant, upbeat feel to it.

Here is a blog post by Bridget describing experiences from this trip.

And last year we returned for a quick drive through Hungary and Slovakia, again visiting the same cousins. I wrote several blog posts (here, here, and here) about that, as did Suzanne.

There is a lot to like about Slovakia, and the other former Eastern Bloc countries. Some day we'd like to go back and spend more time hiking and sightseeing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Side trip to Poland -- Iron Curtain, Part 4

We left Russia, flying from Moscow to Prague. We spent several days in Prague, the well preserved tourist magnet in the Czech Republic. People said Prague should be visited before it became too popular, but we were too late. It is a wonderful city, but crowded with tourists, and sprinkled with pickpockets. One tried to reach into my pack on a subway.

From Prague we took the train to Berlin. There we visited the Checkpoint Charlie site and museum and remnants of the Berlin Wall, both on the border of the former West and East Berlin. You could still see the difference in affluence between the two sectors, though there was rampant construction in the downtown sector of the east--cranes everywhere. Berlin seemed a vibrant, multicultural place.

In Berlin, we rented a car for a day trip to Poland. I have German ancestors who lived in Pommerania, the northwest section of the country, near Kolberg, in a small village called Moitzelfitz. I only had a small 100+ year-old map showing the German villages and roads from that time, but we managed to navigate our way there.

Here is the city limit sign, showing the present Polish name.

The main (only?) street through town.

The old German church was in the center of town, and in disrepair (a new church was next door).

This plaque was on an inside wall. It commemorates the fallen from the war of 1870-71. Family legend has it that my ancestor fled to America to escape military service, perhaps this very war.

There was a fairly modern cemetery on the outskirts of town, but all the graves were Polish. We tried to communicate with some villagers, but nobody spoke English or German, and the minimal Polish phrases in our tour book were insufficient. Eventually, someone fetched a youngish man named Martin, and he spoke English or German, and he was happy to show us around a bit. He took us to the old German cemetery, which was rather broken up and neglected.

At the end of World War 2 the border between Poland and Germany was moved many miles west. Pommerania became part of Poland, and the native German people moved west as well. Martin said there were no more German people left in this part of the country--they had all gone.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Tree Hunt

Each December since we have lived in Oregon we have driven five miles (plus or minus) to a local Christmas tree farm to select and cut down our Christmas tree. It has been a family outing and tradition. Over the years we have experienced a variety of weather during these outings--rain, sun, cold, balmy, dry, wet (muddy). I don't recall snow, but all the above is possible in December.

There must be half a dozen or more different farms we have visited, with varying features. The last several years we have visited the Furrow Farm, about six miles distant and very convenient. They have a shed where hot chocolate is served, and a tractor pulls a hay wagon where we can ride to the tree area. This year we added a short hike in the nearby woods.

Here are the men of the family poised to snag a tree in 2002:

In the hot chocolate shed in 2004:

The Palmers were visiting in 2006:

And again in 2009:

It was a beautiful balmy day this weekend:

We opted for a table-top tree this year, which was easily handled by Jonah and Eli.

So it has been fun and memorable over the years to experience this with our children, and now our grandchildren. Last year we never got around to getting a tree, as Suzanne was out of town helping with baby Shiloh until shortly before Christmas--and I confess it was a relaxing change of pace. This year I actually started thinking about buying an artificial tree. Perhaps the live tabletop tree size is a good compromise so we can enjoy the tree hunt with the grandkids, but have less hassle dealing with the tree. We'll see.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Unfortunate name associations

My siblings and parents were discussing common meanings for their given names, and how they grow weary of hearing the same jokes about them from different people. June, Chuck, Wendy, Barry, Sandy, Glade, Kevin.

Then, there is Craig, which doesn't seem to have such a disadvantage. Except for the fact it is my middle name so my life has always been complicated by that. Like being called "Alan" by people who don't know me, or having to fill out forms with first name, middle initial, and last name.

But when we moved to Oregon back in the 80's there was a prominent local TV and radio personality named Craig Walker. Now, every time my name was spoken in public everyone would turn around to look at me. Many would ask if I was THE Craig Walker. I do suspect I got special treatment a time or two from people or businesses who weren't sure. But overall it was a burden I didn't care for at all. Sometimes complete strangers would call for me on the phone, a few times in the middle of the night. We found out that Craig Walker was only his stage name, and learned what his real name was. So we would tell people my name wasn't his real name anyway.

I recall my first business trip out of state, and checking into a hotel in San Jose, CA. I was pointedly relieved that I could approach the check-in desk and announce my name with impunity. What a carefree feeling! So you can imagine how appalled I was when the clerk immediately asked if I was the famous Craig Walker from Portland! Arghhh!!

The famous Craig Walker has since retired from public life, so it is increasingly rare that I get comments. In any event, I have become hardened to them and it is no longer an issue.

By the way, that is why my blog is titled "A" Craig Walker, not "The" Craig Walker.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Into the Heart of the Beast--Iron Curtain, Part 3

We had another opportunity to venture behind the former Iron Curtain in June, 2002, after Bridget and Jeremy moved to Moscow, Russia, and provided a reason for the trip and a home base with tour guides. This time, we traveled right into the very heart of the beast, of the former Soviet Union itself.

Things looked exotic right off the bat after landing at Sheremetyevo Airport and seeing the words on signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. We had immediate exposure to the former Communist influence in the terminal, with the horrid building architecture and the surly employees. In the neighborhoods we noticed a rather scruffy appearance, with weeds growing and unkempt public spaces.

Bridget cautioned us to be careful what we said in public, as well as in their apartment, which they were confident was bugged. (You can read more about that in Bridget's blog here.) It was forbidden to take photographs of some things, such as any underground metro station, which was a shame because they were so ornate and fascinating. On our last day I did venture taking some video shots of one station while coming down the escalator, and a stern lady scolded me for doing so--I just played the dumb tourist.

The first day we went to the city center and toured Red Square. This was the very spot where former Soviet leaders would view military parades, showing off their might to the West. Here was the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's Church--all so incredibly exotic to me, as one who grew up during and was so influenced by the Cold War.

Red Square and the Kremlin

St. Basil's Church on Red Square.

From many vantage points we could see the seven sisters of Stalin across the landscape of the city. These are prominent buildings constructed from 1947 to 1953 and are symbolic of Stalin architecture. Here is one of those buildings, Moscow University.

The onion dome churches were another dominant feature. Amazing that these Russian Orthodox churches, as well as the faith of many in the population, survived so many decades of Communist repression. The famous Moscow Cathedral was demolished by the Communists in 1931, with plans to build a grand Palace of the Soviets, which never happened. The world's largest open air swimming pool was constructed in the perpetually flooded ruins in the 1950's.

We took an overnight train to St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad under the Soviets), spent the full day sightseeing there, and took an overnight train back to Moscow. European influences were prominent in St. Petersburg, a beautiful city and the former capital and home of the Czars.

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in St. Petersburg.

One day Suzanne and I ventured an unguided trip to Sergiev Posad, perhaps 50 miles northeast of Moscow. We navigated the Moscow subway system and found a bus destined to go there. It was a warm, sunny day and we were so thirsty. I purchased a bottle of "Seven-ya" soda pop for the bus ride. It was the most awful tasting imitation of lemon lime soda imaginable. Tasted more like bathroom cleaner, and, as thirsty as we were, we drank very little of it. We were proud of ourselves for pulling off this successful adventure.

Domes of numerous ancient churches in Sergiev Posad.

You can't help but notice the impact Word War II had on Russia. It is estimated 20 million Russians died in the conflict. Coming into the city from the airport there are markers showing the maximum advance of the German army. Many cities are designated as "hero cities", such as Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and many others, due to their defense and suffering during the conflict. There is a prominent museum commemorating the "Great Patriotic War", as they call it. I don't think we Americans can fathom what it was like for them. We visited the museum and it made a strong impression on us.

We visited a most unique cemetery in Moscow, where most of the famous Russians are buried. There was a wide variety of styles of monuments on the graves. Nikita Krushchev's marker was black and white, signifying he had good and bad traits. It is noteworthy that he was buried here, rather than the Kremlin, showing he was out of favor at his death.

Western culture is taking some hold in Russia. McDonald's has several restaurants in Moscow, and it is considered upscale to the Russians. It is novel indeed to get service with a smile. We took a special bus to Ikea to enjoy a salmon dinner.

Oh, there is so much more I'd like to share about this memorable trip. But, another time and another post.