2016 in Books

1994-2016

I hesitated calling this post “2016 in Books.” It’s difficult to admit that I didn’t read that many books this year, again. I should be reading a book week, not less than a book a month. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid the one or two people who read this post will judge me: “She must be frittering away her waking life on social media and Amazon Prime Video.”

Well, I have spent some time on the latter, much less on the former. My favorite shows this year, in almost no particular order:

Extant
Humans
Suits
Mozart in the Jungle
Girls
Transparent
Schitt’s Creek

Thanks to Amazon, I didn’t watch much on the actual TV, except “60 Minutes.”

Another thing I did instead of reading more books was read my phone. Before the presidential election, I read the New York Times app, every day that I commuted. The day after the election, I deleted the app from my phone. I know I shouldn’t be ignorant about the news. But the New York Times was so sure Hilary would win. It was like saying the Titanic would never sink. I was lazy enough to believe it and allowed myself to settle into one of the Times‘ deck chairs. I do miss the mini crossword.

My other big time suck was and continues to be my guitar. This whole thing started when I received a ukulele on Christmas day, 2014. I call the uke my gateway drug to the guitar. I bought a used guitar (a Playmate) at Zaborski Emporium in Kingston, NY on Columbus Day in 2015. My second guitar (Taylor Mini GS-e) arrived six months later, purchased at the Grateful Guitar in Key West in April 2016. I rush home from work and play the guitar. Weekends, I play the guitar. Sometimes I still play the uke, especially in Key West– at the Grateful Guitar!

The good thing about deleting the New York Times app is that I now read more books during my commute. The New York MTA is so fucked up that I have lots and lots of time to read on my commute, which should take no more than 30 minutes on a bad day, but usually lasts an hour. It’s longer on days when I have to leave the broken down subway or bus and complete my commute on foot–the point here being that I can’t read.

Related news: I recently joined a book club.

2016 in Books

From the Land of the Moon
Milena Agus
I didn’t love this book. The protagonist’s obsession with the past and her relationship with her husband were largely reported, not analyzed, by the narrator. I guess that analysis supposed to be the reader’s job, but it would have been more interesting to me if the author had delved into her mother’s issues a bit more.

The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Leonard Cassuto
Yup, it’s a mess but you should still get a PhD if you want one. You’ll be a better person for it. Of course, there are other ways to become a better person, too–so read this book before you decide. Much of it was published in the Chronicle of Doom, I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education, but Cassuto expands on his ideas here. He’s an elegant writer and thorough researcher.

The Fold
Peter Cline
Good science fiction is hard to come by, and this one had enough dystopian apocalypse to keep me interested to the end.

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Wonderful, suspenseful book “about a blind French girl and a sensitive German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
After The Sound and the Fury, I think I’ve read this Faulkner book the most times. The occasion for this particular reading was the new production of a play based on As I Lay Dying. The writers/directors/producers asked me to be their literary consultant for the play. Of course I said yes, and so far their production looks wonderful.

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
Rebecca Goldstein
Loved this book! Goldstein takes Plato’s major ideas and places them, and Plato, in contemporary contexts.

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
One of those books everyone reads because they’ve read The Kite Runner, which I haven’t read. The exotic setting, tortured characters, and lovely story that stretches across generations is well done. Don’t be put off by the parable-like chapter at the beginning of the book.

The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemison
It must be nice to have a brain that can produce this type of book. It’s resonant with today and yesterday’s social, environmental, and economic issues, and set in an exotic world, populated with driven, powerful, and sensitive people. Will read the next installment.

J
Howard Jacobson
This book took me almost 365 days to read. I made it a point not to let it follow me into 2017. The reason I even own this book is because I was flying home in early January 2016. My plane was delayed. The Hudson News was in the process of switching magazine suppliers. They were selling the Economist and magazines on the subjects of crafting, weaponry (yes, at the airport!), and electric guitars (yes, I bought one, but I don’t play an electric guitar [yet]. Visually, electric guitar magazines are music’s equivalent of porn magazines). Nowhere to be found was Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, or even Time and Newsweek. The books on sale were the kind I just don’t read–mysteries, thrillers, stupid sci-fi, and non-fiction about business. But, strangely, in the middle of it all, there was J by Howard Jacobson, previous winner of the Man-Booker prize. This dark, slow-moving (obviously) book describes what happens when the world has tried to blot out memories of the past and forbidden most artistic pursuits and pleasures.

The Code of the Woosters
P.G. Wodehouse
Now I can say I’ve read P.G. Wodehouse. I wonder if there is a gay subtext involving Jeeves and Bertie. Bertie’s profound and overt misogyny gave the book substance.

The New Yorker
The New Yorker is a magazine and I read it every week. I read it first, then I read my book. That has to count for something.

“Simple Gifts” in the Key of F

Elder Burch, author of the Shaker Hymn, "Simple Gifts," looks like Lurch from the Addam's Family.
Elder Burch, author of the Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts,” looks like Lurch from the Addam’s Family.

Music theory class was sprung upon me as an adjunct to piano lessons, when I was in sixth grade. I resisted it. Wasn’t it enough that I could zip through the major and minor scales, up and down the keyboard? I had other, more pressing problems: Math class. What to wear. My hair. I shut my ears and my mind to music theory, and ultimately quit piano lessons.

Behind me are the math classes taught by people who never struggled with a math problem. I’ve finally found a good hairstylist. And now that I’m taking ukulele lessons, I realize that music theory is the key to expanding my playing ability. Fortunately, I have an amazing teacher, Paul Hemmings, who digs music theory. And in between lessons, I employ my new-found knowledge about scales to arrange some songs I like, such as “Simple Gifts.”

“Simple Gifts,” a traditional Shaker hymn, is an earworm. For some reason it doesn’t bother me as much as other earworms, such as Dionne Warwick’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer” (The moment I wake up, before I put on my make up) or The Bangle’s “Manic Monday” or “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong,” by B.J. Thomas. I know you are glad you don’t have access to my head, with its cabaret of battling earworms.

Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle. Video Game Box. "Five Things - 1.12.14" Timid Futures.
Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle. Video Game Box. Image from “Five Things – 1.12.14,” Timid Futures.

Perhaps “Simple Gifts” is different because it’s so clean. The song was written by Shaker elder Joseph Brackett, in 1848, when James Polk was president, the California Gold Rush occurred, and the first women’s rights convention occurred in Seneca Falls, NY.

What would Elder Brackett think of his song being used as background music in the 1982 Colecovision video game “Smurf: Rescue in Gargemels Castle”? Elsewhere in popular culture, part of it was used as the opening theme music for the show CBS Reports. The Ingalls Family sang it on Little House on the Prairie (cue the Little House theme song earworm). Jodie Foster sang it in 1973 on the TV show Kung Fu. Find more details about its history at Wikipedia.

Below is my arrangement of “Simple Gifts” for the ukulele. I think it’s more pleasant than the Colecovision version, which is an earworm with graphics:

Simple Gifts
Shaker Hymn
Joseph Bracket (1848)
Arr. Elizabeth Cornell

Key of F
F                          Am                  F            Am
Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free

F      C7               Gm     F        C7           Gm       C7
Tis   the  gift to come  down  where we ought to be

F                             Am                       F             Am
And when we find ourselves in the place just right

F        C7             Am      F(high)
Twill  be   in the valley   of love  and delight.

F(high)    Am     F                    Bb
When       true     simplicity is  gained

F                      C                     Gm        C
To bow and to bend we will   not be    ashamed.

F                      Am         F
To turn, turn, will be our delight

C7        Gm       F
Till by turning, turning we   come out      right.