75 Books

I read 75 books in 2016. I started 78 books, but gave up on three of them. I signed up in the Goodreads challenge to read 75 books, because I thought I read roughly a book and a half each week. Well, I needed to read a lot of short books to hit that goal.

These are the best books I read last year.

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Supermarket Backpacker

I came for the flannel, but I stayed for Harriett. I didn’t see this book in 1977, but I’m glad I found it now.

I bought a used copy of Supermarket Backpacker by Harriett Barker and I love it. This sentence starting at the bottom of page one may be the truest thing ever written in a cookbook: “Don’t forget that water is the only thing you can cook really well when backpacking in the high mountains.” I have proved that it is true in the flatlands, too. Ask the other members of the Raccoon Patrol.

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One Night Wilderness – SF Bay Area by Matt Heid

I came home to find a hot-off-the-presses copy of One Night Wilderness: San Francisco Bay Area by Matt Heid.

This just became my top reference for backpacking in the bay area. I think the trip descriptions are even better than his previous book, and the focus on overnight trips is a great help for our Boy Scout trips. There are plenty of good books about day hikes—you don’t get to a 10th edition without being great (that would be Tom Taber’s book).

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Bookshelf for a New Scoutmaster

When I started as an Assistant Scoutmaster, I immediately bought and read the BSA Scoutmaster’s Handbook cover-to-cover. What a disappointment. Too heavy to take with you and not much useful in it anyway. It doesn’t describe the responsibilities of the Scoutmaster or any of the youth leadership positions. You don’t even need it for the copies of the forms—those are all on-line now.

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Paly Librarians Rock!

I stopped by the Palo Alto High School Library to personally thank the librarians this morning.

They have purchased books specifically for my son’s special day class. In addition to the resources for AP US History, now they have a picture book of all the dogs that are in Disney movies.

The librarians sat down with the class and talked with them about their interests and which books they like, then used part of their scarce acquisitions budget (the donations really help) for books which would fit the reading levels and interests of the students in special ed. Of course, this is what librarians do, but it is almost always to support general ed.

Our son loves libraries and has a period of student service in the Paly library. In eleven years in a great school system, this is the first time I can remember that a school library has specifically served the special ed students.

I’m really touched.

Weetzie Bat

Um, wow.

Let’s talk about the style. The psychedelic flow of Richard Brautigan with flashes of the journalistic precision of Raymond Chandler.

I’m betting you don’t buy the Chandler connection. From the first page of The Big Sleep, listen to the rhythm, the excess of observation, all from the viewpoint of the main character:

I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them. […] The main hall of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some long and convenient hair.

I love the black wool socks with blue clocks.

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My New Favorite Cookbook

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is my new favorite cookbook. It was a Christmas present last year, so I’ve had a few months to break it in. It reminds me a lot of the book I learned from while cooking in college, The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, 11th Edition (1965). This was the last edition before Marion Cunningham’s rewrite. The modern Fanny Farmer is fine, but Bittman reminds me of some things I especially liked the 11th edition.

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Arden Shakespeare and Slings & Arrows

I’ve bought my last non-Arden edition of a Shakespeare play. I picked up a Yale edition of Hamlet to supplement the first season of Slings & Arrows. Yale is a fairly reputable institution and I’m inclined to respect their publications, but this is obviously designed for high school students, and not very good students at that.

The in-line index numbers for notes are intrusive enough, but when in Act 3, Scene 2, line 279, the note for “recorder” read “a wooden flute played in vertical position (modern flutes are metal and played transversely)”, I nearly threw the book across the room. Except that would have awakened my sleeping wife.

I’ve had similar experiences with a couple of other editions of Shakespeare, but not with the Arden Shakespeare. The editions cost two or three times as much, even in paperback, but are worth about 10X as much to a reader competent in modern English. For one thing, they don’t use in-line index numbers. If you want help, there are notes keyed to the line number. And those notes don’t stoop to explaining words that should be obvious to the educated reader.

The introductory essays in the Arden editions are extensive and detailed and helpful, if you are into that (I am), but the key difference for me is that the notes do not break the flow of my reading.

Oh, and watch Slings & Arrows. Three seasons of six shows each, set in a fictional theatre festival in Canada. Each season is built around a play — Hamlet, then Macbeth, then King Lear.

I especially enjoy three aspects of this series, the backstage action, the way they use Shakespeare, and the occasional shading away from realism. If you’ve ever worked on stage or backstage, parts of the series will feel very real. Shakespeare is pervasive in the series, in interesting ways. If you don’t know Hamlet, you can enjoy the series and learn a lot about the play. If you’ve studied Hamlet extensively, you might notice lines quoted and elements remixed in the “real life” action — betrayals, a ghost, people talking to themselves, pretense, hasty marriages, the list goes on. It could almost be a drinking game. Finally, I love how the cinematography gets caught up in the magic. At one point, a character nails his part in rehearsal and the set and costumes appear for a short while because he is creating the whole play on a bare stage.

Tina and I have watched two seasons and it is already in our top ten TV series of all time. That puts it with My So-Called Life, thirtysomething, the good episodes of The X-Files, the first few years of Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show, and Sesame Street.

If you get it from Netflix, I strongly recommend getting both discs for a season at once. I also recommend setting aside a couple of hours, because by the fourth episode you might need to finish the entire season. That has happened to us with both the first and second season.

Give it at least three episodes. The first one is a bit slow, but by the third, oh my.

If you’ve ever worked on stage or backstage, you’ll recognize the good and the bad, the awful and the magical. I’ll give you one lovely clip with a terrible actress and marvelous directing. Watch Geoffrey Tennant desparately try to elicit a real performance from Claire Donner playing Ophelia.

If you don’t believe me, read Tim Goodman’s review of Slings & Arrows, since that is what convinced me to watch it.

Reading Trollope

I’m reading Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope. It isn’t as good as Barchester Towers, but everyone has to have a peak and Barchester Towers may well be that peak. This is my fifth Trollope novel, so there must be some reason I continue. He’s a good author, not a great one. His best, like Barchester Towers, are still of the second rank. I could be re-reading Jane Austen or Middlemarch.

So why read five Trollope novels and look forward to the sixth? Trollope’s virtues are known—he has a marvelous grasp of everyday life and his characters are always individuals even when intended as caricatures, like “Dr. Fillgrave”. But that isn’t why I come back. You can get all you need of everyday life and individuals in Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now.

Partly, I come back for the confections of plot. There is a marvelous stretch in Barchester Towers when four different people are each satisfied that they have said something very clearly and every one of them has been misunderstood. Even better, in each scene, you can clearly see what was intended and what was understood. It is all believable and at the same time a fine parlour trick from the author. [They missed getting this across in the otherwise excellent BBC production, Barchester Chronicles.]

Also, Trollope is alert to technology and communication to an interesting degree. Courcy town is languishing because of the railroad. Turns of plot in Barchester Towers depend on the telegraph being faster than letters and on trains being faster than carriages.

Again, that isn’t really enough. I think I read Trollope mostly because of the pace. Trollope is no particular hurry, but he doesn’t dawdle or go on for pages in digressions. He takes time to describe Courcy Castle and then also describe the town and the state of business there. He’ll gladly spend a paragraph or so to assure you that there will be a happy ending for the heroine. Except for the occasional archaic word or concept, he is easy to read. I know that he wrote on a strict schedule, producing novels to keep the money coming in, but that is not at all apparent in his writing. When reading Trollope, I fall in step with his pace. I become a person who has time to read unhurriedly, who isn’t re-writing for the perfect five-sentence e-mail. When I need to slow down for a bit, I read Trollope.

When Does “Hold” Mean “Move”?

When does “hold” mean “move”? At the Palo Alto Library, of course. I had an urge to read a couple of books and their catalog showed that they were both in the collection and available: Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous at the Mitchell Park branch and Liddell-Hart’s History of the Second World War at the Main Library. Once I found them in the catalog (easy, if you are a really good speller), I put holds on them, even though I didn’t really expect the Liddell-Hart to circulate out from under me. Still, with the Ken Burns documentary current, it was worth playing it safe. I had some errands planned, so I decided to hit both libraries and pick up the books. At Mitchell Park, Weinberger was already on the hold shelf (quick work!). At the Main, there was nothing on the hold shelf and an obvious space at 940.53 L712h. I asked at the circulation desk and found that it was already in transit to the Mitchell Park branch. Sigh. It was now trapped in the tubes until some undetermined delivery time. Where is my UPS tracker URL? I guess I’ll be checking the catalog daily, waiting for Transit Request to morph into some unknown successor state.

Meanwhile, why doesn’t a “hold” pin a book to it’s current location? Or if it means “deliver it to my preferred branch”, why doesn’t it say that?