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.

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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.