2017 Reading Summary

January is always a little exciting for me since it gives me a chance to review my year of reading. I set a lot of goals for my 2016 year of reading  – both numbers and types of books too read. These goals led me to read when I could have been enjoying life in other ways. As a result I set no formal goals for 2017.

Nevertheless, there is a theme to a subset of the non-fiction works. Like many I was gobsmacked by  Trump’s election. Obviously I had been living in a bubble (may still be) so I wanted to see if I could understand what his base and the Tea Party  is thinking. I don’t pretend this is a thorough study of the issue; but it served as  a starting point for me.

To that end I read:

  • Thank You For Being Late. Thomas Friedman describes the three disruptive forces that are making things worse for the unprepared: climate change, global markets, and increasingly advance computerization and networking. My take is that Trump’s base is trying to stop those changes – that will not work. As Friedman says: you can’t build a wall to stop a hurricane; you need to get in the eye.
  • Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. I don’t think Trump followers are on drugs; but having heard Sam Quinones on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, I knew he had a lot to say on middle America culture
  • Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance lived that working poor life in Ohio. He escaped that life through the U.S. Marines and law school. He doesn’t think the liberal solutions are effective. If you want a shorthand version of his story and viewpoint; listen to the June 29, 2016 podcast from On Point Radio (WBUR Boston) entitled “Poverty, Religion, and American Frustration”
  • Strangers In Their Own Land. Arlie Russell Hothschild looks at the issue through the “keyhole” topic of pollution in Louisiana. Even though pollution is ruining the state, the loyalists, cowboys, and religious don’t want to turn agains the industries that provide the jobs; even though the jobs are increasingly being automated.

The biggest reading joy came from Eventide by Kent Haruf; the middle book of the Plainsong series. It’s the most touching book I’ve read since Terms of Endearment back in the 1980s. The McPheron bachelor farmer brothers are given a chance at love and make the most of it.

Links in the table go to my blog post of the book.

2017 Reading List
Count Title Author Rating Type
1 Thank You For Being Late Thomas L. Friedman ★★★★★ Non Fiction
2 Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic Sam Quinones ★★★★ Non Fiction
3 All That’s Left to Tell Daniel Lowe ★★ Fiction
4 Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero Ed Ward ★★★ Biography
5 Anything is Possible Elizabeth Strout ★★★ Fiction
6 Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance ★★★★ Non Fiction
7 How the Bible Came to Be John Barton ★★★ Non Fiction
8 Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War Mary Roach ★★★★ Non Fiction
9 Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam Mark Bowden ★★★★ Non Fiction
10 Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right Arlie Russell Hochschild ★★★★★ Non Fiction
11 The Code of the Woosters P.G. Wodehouse ★★★★★ Fiction
12 Trajectory Richard Russo ★★★★ Fiction
13 Plainsong Kent Haruf ★★★★★ Fiction
14 The Ninth Hour Alice McDermott ★★★★ Fiction
15 The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History John M. Barry ★★★★ Non Fiction
16 Manhattan Beach Jennifer Egan ★★★★ Fiction
17 Eventide Kent Haruf ★★★★★ Fiction
18 Benediction Kent Haruf ★★★★ Fiction
19 A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens ★★★★ Fiction
Average ★★★★

I’m excited about the books I have lined up now for 2018. Before I started the Kent Haruf “PlainSong” series I thought I had run out of the motherlode of reading. Then I found Haruf and a bunch of other authors. After starting the year with a new translation of “The Odyssey, I’m enjoying Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere”.

If you’ve followed my blog – especially my year-end reading posts – you know I have struggled with the best way to format the summary table; most years, I’ve contented myself with taking a screen shot of a summary sheet in my reading Google Sheet. Back in November I switched to MarsEdit 4 as my editor and tried again. I still can’t figure out how to do it natively in Mars Edit – there is no “Create Table Option”. I copied the cells from my worksheet and pasted it into Tableiizer, to create the HTML table. Then I used the Mars Edit plain text editor to paste it. It’s better and definitely serviceable . I don’t have gridlines but I can add HTML links to the titles; so that’s a start.

Post Script: after reviewing the posted entry; the table is not as nice looking. I got back some of the cell borders but I’m not crazy about the large font. A good project when I’m re-retired.

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Reading: Benediction by Kent Haruf

BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finished: December 23, 2017

In the first page “Dad” Lewis learns his cancer can’t be stopped. We watch him reflect on some key relationships as he fades. Although there is death and broken relationships in the first two books of the Plain Song trilogy, this last book is the darkest.

“By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was leftof him out at the cemetery three miles east of town, Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he nevel was.” [p 5]

In Plainsong and Eventide we mostly see people who have chances at relationship with others and take them – or at least move toward the new. Dad won’t be able to do that. His one true love, his wife was his luck and allowed him to build a better life after leaving an abusive home as a young teen. The husband and wife relationship is all we expect from the Kent Haruf novels. Even though she ends up in the hospital with exhaustion, she walks away and miles back home to take care of her dying husband.

Although everyone calls him “Dad” he hasn’t always been the loving dad – but more the stern dad. Talking with his daughter, Lorraine we see the situation in a nutshell.

You know how much they think of you.
Well, I think a lot of them too. But they never say much, do they, They never say much to me.
You don’t let people, Daddy. You never have.
You think that’s what it is?
Yes, I do. [p 160]

Like the other two books in the series we also get looks into the lives of other inhabitants of Holt, Colorado; many of whom have parallel struggles: mother and daughter Alene; the little girl Alice across the street, and the the new minister and his troubled family. Some take the opportunity for relationship regardless of the cost; others pass.

In the three novels, Haruf urges us to take chances on opening our hearts with other people. In the two earlier stories the McPheron brothers opened their lives to Victoria and her daughter; later Raymond McPheron finds romantic love. Dad Lewis found love and luck with his wife but unfortunately not in some of the other big relationship events in his life. We do see him trying to change; which is hopeful.

Benediction is a nice counterpoint to the other two novels. I don’t recommend starting here; work your way through the series from the start.

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It’s A Wonderful Life: A hero Journey

We went to see The Last Jedi Friday afternoon; as I was watching yet another scene of the star ships bombing the resistance I got to wondering: is The Last Jedi a hero journey? I decided there are elements but not in its entirety. Then It’s a Wonderful Life just popped in my head. WHAT? That story is definitely a hero story.

To review:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press 1949 p 29].

Here is a graphic from a great Wikipedia page on the topic

320px Heroesjourney svg

Often, but not always the hero journeys across water to start the adventure. i think in our culture that is because the oceans and seas were the barriers to the known world; so to come from across the sea is to come a long distance.

The threshold guardian is Clarence – his guardian angel. To save George from committing suicide Clarence jumps into the river knowing George will save him. Clarence then takes him through a journey to an unknown world – one where George never existed; one where Potter has taken control of the town. He has challenges such as fighting the man in the bar and upsetting Mary on the street. 

Through the journey, he sees that his life does matter and he is returned to the real world where all his friends and towns people have gathered more than enough to save the Bailey savings and loan company.

As you’ve read, the hero journey is one of my amateur passions. It amazes and astounds me that this archetypal story is so prevalent in the world – though I’m really only familiar with those of our western culture. I don’t think Dickens – A Christmas Carol – or the screenwriters for It’s A Wonderful Life went into their writing thinking “I’m going to write a hero journey story”. Instead, it is such a part of who we are as humans that it manifests itself in so many ways.

The great news is that It’s A Wonderful Life is on TV tonight (Christmas Eve) on NBC. Watch – if you have a chance – and let me know what you think.

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MarsEdit 4 Testing

I downloaded a copy of the MarsEdit 4 app which allows you to create blog posts then push up to WordPress.

One of the things that looks promising is the ability to load my pictures directly into the app then push it all to my blog. When using the WordPress web app I first have to upload all the images I want, then insert them.

So, we are going to see how it works. I already dragged and dropped the featured image (the banner photo at the top of the post)

It looked pretty simple to add my Blog Photos folder to MarsEdit 4; and I got some options how to size it. Here I resized to the width of the post

20171208 DSC00249 DSC RX10M4  Ridgefield Trains and Birds

The problem with this is that if you click the image you don’t get a larger image if you click on it.

Here is another photo that I’ll leave as original size.

20171208 DSC00454 DSC RX10M4  Ridgefield Trains and Birds

Um, yeah; posting full size doesn’t work – it overruns the margins on the web page. Hmmm. I’ll load it full size, then manually resize and see if I can then allow clicking to a bigger image. That worked; but I had to go into the WordPress editor to create the links.

20171208 DSC00272 DSC RX10M4  Ridgefield Trains and Birds

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For some reason I can’t remember I was talking with my buddy Frost about hominy – really, I have no idea how we got on that subject. If you start talking about hominy you are going to talk about grits or posole (pozole?). Grits are okay but posole really grabbed my interest. I had some delicious posole at the Cleveland Heath in Edwardsville, Illinois on May 13, 2015. I checked; the restaurant is 2,068 miles from Beaverton – too far to drive for a bowl of stew. I’d have to make my own.

I made posole back in November 2010. It was good but not great; but that may have been because it wasn’t what I was expecting. So, I took a fresh look at the recipe and looked at a couple of others to see what I could do to add a star to the rating. The original recipe came from Cook’s Country (warning: pay wall); My main alternate source was an America’s Test Kitchen recipe. I settled on three major changes.

  1. Use more pork shoulder. Four+ pounds with the bone instead of 2 pounds of country style pork ribs.
  2. 2 ounces of chiles instead of 3/4 ounce.
  3. Homemade chicken stock instead of canned. And 2 quarts instead of a quart and a half.

Let’s get started. I used fresh oregano; if you can find epazote I bet that would be more authentic to this Mexican dish. I wanted to use Goya brand hominy but couldn’t find it at any of the three stores I went to. I also considered getting dried hominy – since that was what Frost and I were discussing – but I couldn’t find it either.

Posole ingredients

Posole ingredients

While I was busy cutting and chopping I prepped some dried ancho chiles for the sauce. The first step was to roast them briefly in a 350° oven until they puffed up. I also used a couple small unidentified chiles that my daughter-in-law Sarah brought back from a recent work trip to New Mexico. Here are the chiles in their puffy aromatic state. Oh, roasting the chiles filled the kitchen with an amazing smoky, chili bliss.

Dried and roasted ancho chiles for posole

Dried and roasted ancho chiles for posole

After the chiles cool, I took off the stems and emptied the seeds, then brought to a boil in 2 cups of chicken broth then let them steep until I was ready for them.

I was pretty confident in my ability to separate the pork shoulder into separate muscle groups and cut some large-ish chunks for browning and simmering. That confidence came from working with pork shoulders that had been smoked for 10 hours at which time the bone just comes out with a gentle tug. Connective tissue does just that – connects things. It took me more time than expected and I didn’t do a great job. But I wanted that bone for the broth! Using country style pork ribs – which are really cut from the shoulder – would work. Since the butchers at our local grocery store debones these themselves, I may go with country style ribs and get a bone that has already been removed.

Chop, measure, rinse, drain, smash and we are ready to cook.

Posole mis en place (roughly: things in place)

Posole mis en place (roughly: things in place)

Since this is a pork dish, I browned the pork pieces in lard rather than vegetable oil. I don’t use the Armor brand since it has preservatives and stabilizers; I get a one pint jar of pure lard to use for sautéing pork. It goes through less processing that vegetable oil.

Browned pork shoulder chunks for posole

Browned pork shoulder chunks for posole

After removing the browned pork from the pot, I tossed in the hominy for a couple of minutes just to get it lightly browned and fragrant. That comes out of the pot and is reserved for later use – like two hours later. Next into the sauté pan goes chopped onions. After they are softened we toss in the minced garlic for less than a minute. When done it goes into the blender with the steeped chiles and chicken broth.

Browned pork shoulder chunks for posole

Homemade chile sauce for posole ready for blending.

The blended sauce smells and tastes delicious. Everybody – except the hominy and lime juice- goes into the pot: chicken broth, pork – and bone -, chili sauce, oregano and a bit of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then cover and stash in a 300° degree oven for two hours. Alternatively you can simmer in a closed pot. When done, the pork will be tender and the kitchen smells even better than before. Remove the pork to a cutting board with tongs and discard the bone; let cool and shred into bite size pieces.

Shredded pork for posole

Shredded pork for posole

While the pork is cooling and being shredded, simmer the hominy in the pot on the stove top for 30 minutes. At the end toss gently place the shredded pork into the pot, stir, and simmer for a few minutes until the pork is heated through.

Somewhere along the line you had time to prepare the toppings; shredded cabbage, sliced radishes, and lime wedges are traditional. We also included tortilla chips, chopped avocado, and sour cream.  Dish out the stew and pass the toppings.

A nice bowl of posole.

A nice bowl of posole.

Dinner is served

Dinner is served

This is a perfect winter dish; hearty and flavorful.  I’m not going to lie; it takes some effort and time to prepare; but it is worth the work – if you have the time. After a full day of cooking I admit that I can’t always accurately judge the result. But we had it for leftovers the next day and I really enjoyed it.  Everyone said they liked it – I don’t think they’d lie to me; would they?

Rating: ★★★★

You can find my adjusted recipe here.

Last winter Carla made another version of this dish which was delicious. I hope to get a chance to cook that later this winter to compare.

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Reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I try to re-read this story every Christmas season. I feel like I “dropped the mic” last year when I was gobsmacked by the realization that Scrooge’s adventure is another telling of the universal hero’s journey “monomyth”. In this cross-cultural Myth (capital “M” to distinguish it from its common usage as a synonym for “lie”) a hero travels to an unnatural land where s/he battles a powerful force, then returns home with riches to bestow boon on his/her family.  The hero journey is my jam and I talk about it ad nauseam with my friends. The Wizard of Oz and Hansel and Gretel are two other examples of the hero journey.  Dorothy travels to another world; battles unnatural forces by killing two witches and gains a brain, a heart, and courage for her new family. (Parenthetically, I love the TV Guide description of this movie: “A stranger comes to a town and kills the first person she encounters; then forms a gang to kill again.”) Hansel and Gretel  travel to a land where they battle and kill the witch, then return home to their father and share their treasure with him. The hero story is hiding in plain site in so many modern books and movies.

In this year’s reading I focused on the confusing time scheme in the story. Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve to tell him three ghosts will appear on three successive nights. But after the ghosts appear, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Morning. I figure one of two things is happening.

  1. Dickens wrote this in serial form and simply forgot the original plan foretold by Marley. This doesn’t make a lot of sense; after all, the whole point of the story is to have Scrooge wake up on Christmas morning.
  2. Dickens is trying to tell us something else. What, I don’t know.

Well, isn’t that what Google is for? This topic was touched on in SparkNotes:

Dickens uses the temporal inconsistencies to emphasize the supernatural powers of the spirits–when they are around, normal earthly standards, including the flow of time, have no effect.

That makes sense; given that this is a hero journey – where the hero travels to the unknown – it is understandable that time doesn’t matter.

Anyway, this is a great story, and if you are concerned, not overtly religious. You still have time to read it before Christmas/holidays. It is short and readily available. I think there is a free Kindle version on Amazon; or get an audio version and listen while you prepare for the holidays.

Too busy to read? Watch the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott as Scrooge. It is on AMC a few times during the season and, I imagine, available on streaming services.  I’ve watched a lot of the movie adaptations; this version is, I think, the closest to Dickens’ work. Much of the dialog is taken directly from the book.

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Reading: Eventide by Kent Haruf

Eventide (Plainsong, #2)Eventide by Kent Haruf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finished: December 9, 2017


Sometimes in life you find yourself lost and alone. If you are fortunate, you get another chance. That second chance gives you a better appreciation of your luck. The old bachelor McPheron brothers played a secondary role in Plainsong – the first book in this series. The twins are the center of this book. They became ranchers of their place at 17 when their parents were killed. They’d been together ever since with no wives or girlfriends. Ranching is all they know. In Plainsong they take in an abandoned teen, Victoria Roubideaux. When Eventide picks up the story she is ready to move to Ft Collins for college. She will leave them more lonely than they were when she came into their lives: Raymond tells her

“‘We’re going to miss you too, he said. We’ll be about like old played-out workhorses once you’re gone. Standing around lonesome, always looking over the fence.'” [p 4]

Later Raymond and Victoria are talking on the phone when Victoria is feeling a little homesick. Raymond tells her how much his brother misses Victoria and her daughter

“and as he went on in this vein it was clear to the girl that he was talking as much about himself as he was his brother and she felt so moved by this knowledge she was afraid she was going to cry.” [p 43]

I admit I teared up at this. Haruf knows ranching; his set pieces are clear and dramatic. I love the chapter about the cattle auction with the brothers bringing their cattle in for sale and then sitting through all the auction waiting to see how well they will come out. In another scene they are separating the cows from their calves. It’s like we are there. Later, Tom Guthrie and his sons help out at the ranch and once the cattle are separated, one of the sons notes how the cows and calves, separated by a fence:

“They make an awful amount of noise, Ike said. They don’t seem to like it much.” [p 153] The father responded “they never do like it, he said. I can’t imagine anything or anybody that would like it. But every living thing in this world gets weaned eventually.” [p 153]

This theme of loneliness reaches every part of the story; even cows and calves end up alone. Raymond and Harold were the best part of the excellent Plainsong; they get a thorough treatment in this book. Sometimes in fiction you have various characters who all sound the same – not here. They have a collective distinctive voice (if that makes sense) sounding nothing like the other characters in the book. All the characters are distinct. Similar to Plainsong we follow different families in snapshot fashion as they work their ways through problems. It opens with two ineffective parents trying to manage life while being beset and overmatched by their relative Hoyt. There is also DJ a middle school student taking care of his grandfather; and the neighbor girl he bonds with. I can’t say more without revealing too much.

The book was a bit slow the first few pages as we are dropped into these lives with little in the way of introduction. But once Haruf gets out on the ranch with the McPheron brothers I was hooked. I read all but the first 30 pages in one day – I sat in my chair and read; took a break for lunch, then read some ore; later tore myself away to swim some laps but came right back to read more; then we had to take a break to have dinner with friends. Finally I got back home and read until I finished about midnight. Without being extensively plot driven, this is an exquisite book with realistic characters dealing with what life doles out. I love this book; it takes me back to Terms of Endearment which I read in the early 1980s. I count that novel as one of the best/favorite books I’ve ever read; Eventide matches it. Come for the McPheron brothers and stay for the whole story. Read it.

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