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.

Cover Dispatches Dispatches by Michael Herr, 1977. Reporting from Vietnam was mostly about hills taken and body counts, parroted from press briefings. Michael Herr skipped those briefings and went out into the jungles with the Marines. He reported the emotions, the mud, and the blood. Not an easy read, but an essential one.

 

Cover Sector General Sector General Series by James White (1957 through 1999). If you were a pacifist living in Belfast during The Troubles, what sort of science fiction would you write? James White decided to write stories of a city-sized hospital in space, where races are truly different, humans are not special or better, and the only goal is healing, no matter how difficult. It is easy to see the flaws in these books, but there is something rare and special in them. It is a twelve-book series and I read six of them last year.

 

Cover Influence Influence by Robert Cialdini, 1984 (new edition 2006). Don’t get conned again! Cialdini studied the mechanics of persuasion and describes them with great stories. There are two editions of this book. You want the cheaper, non-textbook edition without the exercises.

 

Cover Our Souls at Night Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, 2015. Haruf’s last book is a gentle story about two people finding a bit of happiness in their old age, for a little while.

 

Cover The Food Lab The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by Kenji Lopez-Alt, 2015. A week after I was given this book, I made Eggs Benedict for the family. I used Kenji’s straightforward method for hollandaise and it was perfect. When I made it the next Christmas, it was just as good. Every recipe in this book is like that, because science. Yes, it is over 900 pages and I read the whole thing. Buy this for that engineer in your life who cooks.

 

Cover Scout Field Book Scout Field Book by James E. West and Daniel Hillcourt, 1948. Short chapters, lots of pictures, something to do on every page, just the thing for the boy who spends his time glued to that new, addictive device, the radio. The current BSA Fieldbook manages to make the outdoors boring. Let’s start over using this and the 2nd edition Fieldbook (1967) as models. For a good example of that approach, get the Outdoor Adventure Manual from the Scout Association in the UK.

 

Cover Just Mercy Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, 2014. It is time to stop reading To Kill a Mockingbird in school and start reading this. “Mockingbird” is fiction about white people, but this is a true story about a black man, a good man, who was accused, convicted, and broken for something he didn’t do. The book weaves together that story and Bryan Stevenson’s personal story about working to free people wrongly convicted. You won’t be able to put it down and you won’t be able to forget it.

 

Cover Brooklyn Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, 2009. This is the only book I’ve read by Tóibín, maybe his others are better. But this was very good. The movie is equally good and follows the book very closely. Both are quietly rewarding, though I might give the edge to the movie for Saoirse Ronan’s fine performance.

 

Cover What s Cooking on the PCT Whats Cooking on the PCT by Martin “Rainman” Leghart, Jr., 2015-2016. A backpacking cookbook with a wide range of cooking and eating styles. If you are not satisfied with your current trail food or just starting out, you should get this book and read how 40+ PCT hikers eat, with one recipe from each. There is a new edition every fall and half the profits go to the Pacific Crest Trail Association.

 

The full list of my 75 books is on line at Goodreads. This year I signed up to read 52 books, so I can read some longer ones. I’ve already finished Moby Dick.

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.

How many cookbooks have an intro with more information than the four pages in this book? Not many. Perhaps more trail cookbooks should be written by “an avid outdoorswoman as well as a trained home economist.”

For the perfect icing on the cake, a friend wrote haiku for each chapter.

Backpacking for days.
Found! New evidence of man…
Plastic container.

Also, lovely pen and ink illustrations from two other friends. We should all be so lucky in our friends.

This book has a huge amount of information. Brand names, vegetarian meals, kosher meals, a Mexican sopa seca recipe. You could camp for years on just this cookbook.

One more quote from page 86, in the dehydrating section:

A good rule to follow when making any leather…if it tastes good in the blender, it will taste twice as good at camp. Before drying, sample and make additions until the combination pleases you.

There is only one thing that makes me sad from this book. We can no longer buy a Wilson’s bacon bar. Dang, I miss those.

The Sense of Style

The best book I read in 2014 is a book about writing and grammar. You are justifiably skeptical, but Steven Pinker is a graceful, funny writer with something important to say—good writing is both natural and organized, at every level.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker obsoletes all those prissy style guides, including the overrated “Strunk & White”. The only guide that can stand is Joseph M. William’s Style: Towards Clarity and Grace, a detailed carpenter’s manual to writing clear, descriptive prose.

Steven Pinker’s book dives deeper, building on what we have learned about how the mind processes language. This is not just how language works, it is also why language works. How many linguistic balls do we need to juggle in the air until we find the key to the sentence? How deep a grammar tree can we comfortably process? How many times does Pinker revise? [Hint: At least five or six times, with different reviewers.]

The last part of the book, after we have been given the linguistic tools, walks through a laundry list of writing rules, evaluating each one and skewering the unfounded prejudices.

This book will be in print for a long time, but read it now. Then read it again.

Andrew Skurka’s Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide

I just finished reading Andrew Skurka’s new book about backpacking, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide. He should know a bit about that, he’s hiked 30,000 miles in the last ten years. I highly recommend the book.

Buy an autographed copy directly from Andrew Skurka.

He focuses on hiking rather than camping. He gives specific examples from his experience, talks about kinds of equipment, and then the specific gear he uses for various conditions. Most of his gear is functional and not particularly expensive.

He emphasizes hiking because he feels that camping has been emphasized to the detriment of hiking. Most of us are pretty good at camping, but when we try to carry all that stuff it makes for terrible hiking.

Three things are covered in detail that I have not seen adequately addressed in other books. Other books have chapters on these, but after reading Skurka, I feel like I could really do it.

  1. How to manage heat and moisture while walking all day in all kinds of weather. He talks about insulation and shells for wet or dry, and for hot, cold, or arctic. Some days, you can’t get dry or even particularly comfortable, but you can still be safe and cover trail.
  2. How to take care of your feet in all kinds of conditions, including trips where your feet are wet all day. For example, he has two sock rotation systems, one for wet weather, one for dry.
  3. A lightweight packing list specifically for Philmont. This list is a huge improvement over the one in the official Philmont Guidebook to Adventure. He achieves a trailhead weight of 21 pounds, with food and water. There are plenty of people who start a Philmont trek with triple that weight on their backs. The only exotic things on the list are a top-quality down sleeping bag and a frameless pack. A good synthetic bag would add less than a pound. A few Philmont-supplied items are under-estimated, but a trailhead weight under 25 pounds is just not that hard to do. I wrote a detailed analysis of Skurka’s Philmont list for Clarke Green’s Scoutmaster blog.

The main weakness of the book comes from its main strength—this is a deep dive into Skurka’s personal style, so it doesn’t cover things he doesn’t do. Like reading Colin Fletcher, this lets you see the fine-grained decision making that goes into a well-tuned kit. As Horace Kephart said in 1906, “An old campaigner is known by the simplicity and fitness of his equipment.” But his kit might not be fit for you.

If you have questions different than the ones he has solved, you will have to figure it out yourself. Luckily, there are good comprehensive books to get you started. I recommend The Backpacker’s Field Manual and the NOLS Wilderness Guide. For more about light and ultralight backpacking, read Lighten Up! by Don Ladigan.

Andrew Skurka had a very high standard for this book, to write The Complete Walker for his generation. He’s nailed it. Instead of Fletcher’s diversions, anecdotes, and line drawings, Skurka has extreme adventures, sidebars, and color photos, but there are echos of the same authentic voice, someone who’s made more mistakes than you can imagine and is taking the time to pass on that practical wisdom. But this time, the gear weighs less. A lot less.

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).

I really like the rating scheme: scenery, difficulty, and solitude. Unsurprisingly, Henry Coe rates high on both difficulty and solitude.

This has a few hikes that are new to me and that makes me want to pack up and head out. The Wilson Peak loop in Henry Coe looks just right for the Venture Patrol’s series of pre-Philmont shakedowns. It is weekend Scout trip season again, let’s go!

There is only one thing I don’t understand. How does a guy who lives in Massachusetts know so much about backpacking in my back yard?

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.

So the first thing to read is the job description for Scoutmaster that I (finally) found in the BSA Troop Committee Guidebook (1990):

  • Train and guide boy leaders
  • Work with other responsible adults to bring Scouting to boys
  • Use the methods of Scouting to achieve the aims of Scouting
  • Meet regularly with PLC for training and coordination in planning troop activities
  • Attend all troop meetings or, when necessary, arrange for a qualified adult substitute
  • Attend all troop committee meetings
  • Conduct periodic parents’ sessions to share the program and encourage parent participation and cooperation
  • Take part in annual membership inventory and uniform inspection, charter review meeting, and charter presentation
  • Conduct Scoutmaster conferences for all rank advancements
  • Provide a systematic recruiting plan for new members and see that they are promptly registered
  • Delegate responsibility to other adults and groups (assistants, troop committee) so that they have a real part in troop operations
  • Supervise troop elections for the Order of the Arrow
  • Make it possible for each Scout to experience at least 10 days and nights of camping each year
  • Participate in council and district events
  • Build a strong program by using proven methods presented in Scouting literature
  • Conduct all activities under qualified leadership, safe conditions, and the policies of the chartered organization and the BSA

I really don’t understand why the first two pages of the Scoutmaster Handbook aren’t the Oath and Law, the aims and methods of Scouting, the five promises that Scouting makes to the boy, and the above list of duties.

If you aren’t familiar with the five promises, look at page 1 of the 11th edition handbook or page 13 of the 12th edition, the latest one. They’ve been recast as questions in the 12th edition.

Books

Senior Patrol Leader Handbook is what the Scoutmaster Handbook should have been, a concise, comprehensive guide to running a troop. It even includes a nice scorecard for your troop’s program. If you have a choice between reading the SM Handbook and the SPL Handbook, read this one. And get one for your SPL.

The Scoutmaster’s Other Handbook by Mark Ray. If you went to every roundtable for five years, and they were really great roundtables, you wouldn’t need this book. On the other hand, that would take five years. Get it, read it. You’ll return to it again and again. Also check out the free discussion guide from the book’s site, that has some excellent questions for improving your troop.

NOLS Wilderness Guide by Mark Harvey. I own a lot of books about backpacking, and this one stands out as the best. The only weaknesses are the NOLS cooking method (from scratch, takes some dedication) and no real info on going light (see the next book).

Lighten Up! by Don Ladigan does a great job of teaching you the lightweight way to pack. It’s also Thrifty, encouraging less stuff and reuse. Going lightweight is nothing new, it was a big concern in books by Nessmuk (1884) and Horace Kephart (1906). You will have a lot more fun carrying 25 pounds instead of 50, and so will your Scouts. And it’s all about fun, right? There are books that go into the details of full-on ultralight, like Mike Clelland’s Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, but you can’t always do thru-hiker ultralight style when you need to stop and teach map and compass or play Zorch.

AMC Guide to Outdoor Leadership by Alex Kosseff gives you the mechanics of leading a group in the outdoors. These are the skills you need to pass on to the SPL and Patrol Leaders, so learn them well. If Wood Badge had a text book, it would look a lot like this.

Outdoor Leadership by John Graham covers the “inner game” of outdoor leadership. Kosseff gives you the “how”, Graham helps you with the “why”. This is your Scoutmaster Conference material for First Class and up.

NOLS Wilderness Wisdom by John Gookin is a pocket-sized book of quotes about the outdoors. When I’m stuck for a Scoutmaster Minute, I pull out this book and look for a quote that speaks to some aspect of our troop. That’s usually enough.

Camping and Hiking in the Bay Area by Matt Heid is the only book that covers backcountry camping spots in our area. There are more than are listed here, but this is a great start and the detail is impressive. Dang, it seems to be out of print, so wait for Matt’s One Night Wilderness to come out in September, though that won’t have his excellent coverage of the Ohlone Wilderness Trail.

You will need a first aid book, but you should choose your own. Make sure that you can find things in it quickly. The one provided with my WFA course is good. If you are lost, start with recent books by Eric Weiss, William Forgey, Tod Schimelpfinig, or Buck Tilton.

On-line Documents and PDFs

Guide to Safe Scouting contains the BSA’s rules for safe activities. Read it cover-to-cover to start, then get in the habit of searching it whenever you have a question. This is your bible for everything from bullying to liquid stove fuel. If you only read one BSA publication, it must be this one. Instructions for putting the PDF on iPhone or iPad are here, though the website might be more usable on a phone.

Troop Program Features, Vol. I-III, fill a big binder as paper, but now you can get them as PDFs (follow the link). These provide lots of sample meeting plans and outing plans. I’ve never been able to get our PLC to use them, but I keep trying. Note: the volume has the info on running an annual planning meeting, something that is also in the SPL Handbook.

Troop Program Resources, aka, the games book, also available as a free PDF. There is other stuff in here, but the collection of games is awesome.

Advancement Committee Policies and Procedures is officially for the district or council advancement committee, but you’ll need this info at some point. I’ve needed to know about advancement for special needs Scouts and about getting an extension past age 18 for Eagle. Both answers are in here.

Websites

Ask Andy is a Q&A site written by a very experienced Commissioner. He posts a digest of reader’s questions and his answers about once a week. He’s not afraid to call “nonsense” on a troop tradition or to tell leaders they are doin’ it wrong. I read the column regularly because I find that I usually need those answers. You can send in a question, of course.

Clarke Green’s Scoutmaster podcast is a roughly weekly wisdom dump about the practical issues a Scoutmaster faces. The polka tunes and bad jokes are extra. I learn something from Clarke almost every time. Hey, how many Scouts does it take to screw in a light bulb? Only one, but it takes a long time, because they just give it one good turn each day.

US Scouting Service Project Advancement Pages are a gem. For years, I bought the Boy Scout Requirements Book every year, and heck, I might get one this year, but the usscouts.org pages have the all the requirements, include the adult training knots, plus they have change bars for the year-to-year updates. This is an amazing resource from some really dedicated volunteers.

Scouting Aims and Methods, this page used to be on the official BSA site, but I can’t find it any more. This appears to be a faithful copy of the official version. A bilingual English/Spanish PDF is here. Why do I list this? When I have a question about what course of action is right, I ask whether it is an aim or a method and whether it is Scouting.

Sign up for your council or district e-mail list. Our district has a Yahoo! group and I’d be in the dark without that.

Courses

Youth Protection, take it and take it again. We encourage all our parents to take this course, so they all understand the rules. Keep our Scouts safe, and keep yourself safe.

BSA On-line Training Sign on and take the basic set of orientation courses. You’ll be lost without them. Take Trek Safely because you are supposed to, but it isn’t especially useful. The Weather Hazards course is a good review in case you missed that section of the Guide to Safe Scouting.

Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills is given by your local council. My course was great fun, doing Scout camping with adults and learning things. I used it as an excuse to make test out five different freezer bag cooking recipes on my patrol.

Wilderness First Aid is the most important course you’ll take as a leader. It teaches skills that save lives, awareness of how to avoid life-threatening situations, and teamwork skills for high-stress situations. Take this early, because once you take it, you’ll be retroactively horrified that you went on outings without these skills. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, I recommend the courses from Paratus Institute.

Cookbooks

Even if you aren’t into cooking, cooking on campouts is a great way to pick up some skills. Some prep time in the kitchen at home can save a lot of money, too. Here are the two cookbooks that I use the most.

Freezer Bag Cooking by Sarah Kirkconnell is a guide to making your own just-add-water backcountry meals. Most ingredients are available at your supermarket. Compared to pre-packaged freeze-dried meals, these have twice the food and cost half as much. Read carefully, though, some of the recipes serve two people and some serve only one.

The Back-Country Kitchen by Teresa Marrone covers every kind of back-country cooking from dressing up instant grits with cheese and egg to Cajun Venison Tenderloin. She also has a great description of how to cook planked fish. Just reading this book makes me hungry, but the essential part is the chapter on how to dry food at home. With home-dried ingredients, you are ready for these tasty recipes or the simpler ones in Freezer Bag Cooking, your choice. I made a non-dehydrated version of the Lentil-Bulgur Chili at home and the family declared it a keeper. That’s high praise.

Reading: What I Saw And How I Lied, with a rant on technology-ignorant authors

I wanted to like What I Saw And How I Lied, not because of the National Book Award, but because of reviews from people I respect, and also the really fine 40’s, George Hurrell-style cover photo. How could a cover that good be bad?

Hmm. I guess the whole thing is edgy and noir, and the time and place are drawn decently. The hurricane section did not remind me of the hurricanes I was in while growing up in Baton Rouge, it sounded more like the news reports from Hurricane Andrew. There is an odd oscillation between foreboding and surprises, but it is told from the viewpoint of a 16 year old girl, and she isn’t catching on to everything that she sees. So maybe that works.

The end (no spoilers here) seems a bit over done. I can see how Evie would think to do that, but it is really abrupt, and I can’t see how she could do it without standing up to everyone and burning every bridge with her family forever. Yes, all that stuff before was traumatic, but enough for her to betray her mom and dad then still live with them? That’s cold. And it doesn’t fit with her new-found sensitivity to other people.

Thinking further, we see what Evie sees for the whole book, then at the last, we’re divorced from that, and what she is thinking and planning is the surprise twist. Because we aren’t part of it, we don’t believe it. That is a big structural problem that weakens the ending.

But there is one thing that just pisses me off. Why don’t writers and editors think it matters to get technology right? At the end of chapter three, we have this dramatic flourish:

Sounds cozy. But it was just like buzz bombs—the V-2 rockets the Germans launched at London near the end of the war. You couldn’t hear them, not even a whistle. Until your house blew up.

Read the whole page here.

Dramatic, but painfully ignorant. The buzz bomb was the V-1 and you could hear it. It was a pulse jet, sub-sonic and loud, coming in at a low altitude, an early version of our modern cruise missiles. You could hear it coming, though often with not enough time to get to shelter. Almost 23,000 people were killed by the V-1. The V-2 was a rocket. It was launched with a boost phase, then inscribed a silent parabola across the sky, as Pynchon put it, “gravity’s rainbow”. The silence of the V-2 was truly terrifying, specifically because it was not a “buzz bomb.”

It is really clear that neither the author or the editor actually understood what a buzz bomb or a V-2 was. How did they think a “buzz bomb” was silent?

No one in 1947 would have made this mistake. Why isn’t it important to Judy Blundell (the author) and David Levithan (her editor) to look this up? Is it because technology just doesn’t matter to East Coast writers and editors? Is it something that doesn’t matter because only fleece-wearing West Coast nerds care about it?

The acknowledgements describe her research on the period with thanks to lots of people. But no research on technical stuff. Not even a suggestion about why the boat motor might have died. Bad gas? Clogged fuel filter? Can we get someone who cares? Joe would have made a stab at an explanation, I know that.

This isn’t an isolated problem, it’s a pattern. In Infinite Jest, a book about detail if any book is about detail, David Foster Wallace spells RISC computer as “RISK” and goes on about how a few megabytes are some humongous amount of storage for video (holding “the Entertainment”, the film somewhere near the center of the novel). Ten years before Infinite Jest was published, a CD-ROM could store hundreds of megabytes. RISC processors upended the industry and (arguably) put DEC out of business. But clearly, neither the author nor his editors cared to check that, despite being precise about the shape and color of an OxyContin pill.

I remember reading an introduction to the best short stories of some year, and a well-known writer was cited on factual accuracy. I don’t remember exactly who it was, but she observed that if a writer didn’t care to get the capital of New Hampshire right, then she didn’t care to read them. I feel the same way about technology mistakes. If they don’t respect the reader enough to check that stuff, it isn’t worth my time to read their book. Next time, I stop reading right there, National Book Award or not.

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.

From the first page of Weetzie Bat:

They didn’t care that Marilyn’s prints were practically in their back yard at Graumann’s; that you could buy tomahawks and plastic palm tree wallets at Farmer’s Market, and the wildest cheapest cheese and bean and hot dog and pastrami burritos at Oki Dogs; that the waitresses wore skates at the Jetson-style Tiny Naylor’s; that there was a fountain that turned tropical soda-pop colors, and a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers.

None of these facts are necessary to the plot—so much for your Aristotelian parsimony—but every one of these details is important to the main character. The person and the details together nail down the time and place.

Here is a random page that sounds like Brautigan:

My Secret Agent Lover Man had driven her to the beach on the back of his motorcycle and pulled a bottle of pink champagne out of his trench coat. They were sitting on the sand by the sea. My Secret Agent Lover Man uncorked the champagne and handed the bottle to Weetzie. He got out his camera and filmed her taking a swig.

Really, it fell open to that page. Page 36. That hypnotic mix of intensity and distance. The book is even short like a Brautigan novel, only 85 pages.

I have no idea why this is shelved in young adult, except that it is really short and high school is mentioned in the opening sentence.

Go read it. Your library is sure to have it and you can read it in an hour or less.

PS: Right after I posted this, I searched for Francesca Lia Block, the author. I’m not alone in noticing the similarity to Raymond Chandler. Wikipedia has this:

One New York Times Book Review critic said, “Block writes about the real Los Angeles better than anyone since Raymond Chandler.”

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.

Building blocks: I think of them as subroutines, but I’m a programmer. Instead of explaining a white sauce once again or re-explaining how to roast winter squash, both Bittman and Farmer refer to the main recipe. This means more page-flipping, but you learn the building blocks of recipes. Now that I know how to add roasted squash to lentils, I can add them to quinoa.

Variations: Almost every recipe has one or more variants. The Fanny Farmer was great about this, and Bittman does it even better. I chose a variant on the basic lentil recipe because we had winter squash. Some recipes have so many variants that they are clearly showing a basic technique, and inviting other combinations, like the eleven versions of grilled or broiled chicken breasts. This complements the simplification from the building blocks with an explosion of variants.

Information about ingredients: This is where Marion Cunningham’s Fanny Farmer shines, with “all about beets” or whatever, but Bittman is at least as good. Look up a food item and you’ll get information about choosing it at the market, substitutes, and recommended cooking techniques. Bittman is especially good for substitutes.

I cooked both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, with a more ambitious menu on Sunday. All but two of the items were from Bittman. I was using up our weekly vegetables from Two Small Farms, so I targeted rugosa squash (like butternut, but uglier), two bunches of chard, and a big bag of Hungarian peppers. I was going to roast the cipollini onions, but decided to leave that for a mid-week kicker.

Saturday, I had plenty of time, enough time to cook chickpeas from scratch instead of using canned.

  • Chicken and chickpeas, Bittman, p 650, variant
  • Chard gratin, Bittman, p248, one variant of the general-purpose vegetable gratin recipe
  • Toasted rolls, we had some nice sandwich rolls on the verge of getting stale, so I split two of them and toasted them—heat will temporarily reverse staling (trick from On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee)

Sunday was tight on time with an afternoon soccer game. I peeled and cubed the squash before the game, we got home at 5pm, and dinner was on the table at 6:40. Not bad, especially when I had to clear the squash out of the oven in order to use the broiler and had to wash a pot in order to cook the carrots.

  • North African variant of broiled boneless chicken breasts, Bittman, p 641-3
  • Lentils with winter squash, Bittman, p 431-2, variant
  • Hot lemon cashew rice, The Whole Chile Pepper Book, Dewitt and Gerlach, p 221 (has chiles, ginger, and mustard seeds, yum, original calls for ghee, I used olive oil)
  • Baby carrots with cumin butter, Cuisine Rapide, Pierre Franey, p 302 (this is super simple and really tasty)

Hmm, I think I managed kosher menus, though I just noticed that.

Using the Hungarian peppers in the rice was a gamble. I’d been trying to use them up, but every time I tasted one, they were beastly hot, so I’d use half and compost the rest. I always taste a sliver of every pepper before using it. For the rice, I got three duds and one hot one, just right. The red peppers were much prettier than the wax peppers it calls for. With the bright green cilantro, the dish was striking.

Next time I make a chard gratin, though, I’m steering closer to that Cajun classic, Spinach Madeline. The original is from River Roads Recipes (1959), but you might want to start with the slightly updated version in Cooking Up A Storm, the collection of recipe reprints requested after Katrina. Just be sure to update the cheese from 1950’s original Kraft to something better, like gruyere or fontina.

Sunday was the most complicated menu I can remember tackling solo, and it was put together casually and made it to the table in a timely fashion. The vegetable box is making me think more, but my cooking is really improving. With a little help from Bittman.

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?