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Yardsales Feed The Wagstaff Library September 8, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books, Cooking, Movies, Music.


Today was what I like to consider a “good haul” for Saturday morning valley yardsales. I found one or two good books at about half the sales I stopped at, all for a price range of 25 cents to a buck each. Here’s a quick rundown with some first impressions of what I grabbed:

The first was The American Musical & The Formation of National Identity by Raymond Knapp, who is a musicology prof over at UCLA. This one looks like it was based on a course he taught, tracing the development of the American stage musical back to Gilbert & Sullivan and some other 19th century roots, and then examining various aspects of how it has reflected salient aspects of American cultural identity (American mythology via Oklahoma! or race/ethnicity via Showboat and West Side Story, etc.) He doesn’t discuss purely-movie musicals here, only the stage – and since this is a recent book, there’s a UCLA website with musical sound bites to go along with footnotes he provides, duplicating what I’m sure must be a major component of his course. Now I can sit home with a nice cup of earl grey and read this book instead of driving over the hill and sneaking into his class. Yay!

The other academic book of the haul was The Ordinary Business of Life: A History of Economics by Roger E. Backhouse. I skimmed through a few parts of this, and must concur with the general tone of the Amazon reviewers – this one is fine in small doses, and that’s exactly how I’ll use it for my own students. A two or three page section on some narrow topic will be fine, but reading the thing cover to cover will make my head implode – this guy covers EVERYTHING in the entire history of Western Civ as far as economic thought and action is concerned.

Cut to Johnny Carson – “You are wrong, Alan Greenspan breath… we’ve come up with a few of our own….”

You just KNEW there’d have to be a cookbook in here somewhere, and the one I found today was The Brilliant Bean by Sally Stone & Martin Stone. Upon flipping through it at the sale itself, it passed my usual test of “Would I actually cook more than one recipe from this?” test. I make black beans a lot, but I’d been looking for more varied recipes for soups and side dishes with lentils, pintos and others, since I like beans and they’re good for me, and let’s be honest, maybe I just don’t have enough gas, you know? The long shelf life, convenience and cheapness of dried beans also appeals to me greatly, as well as the ability to spice them any way I want. Therefore, cooking with beans combines all my control freak tendencies as well as my love for spicy food and saving a buck here and there. And on top of that, I get to enjoy some major-league farting afterwards. What a wonderful world!

Two fun books for browsing! A copy of Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film for my students to paruse and hopefully become curious about to discover the wonders of William Castle, Roger Corman, and the fact that nearly every low-rent scifi or monster film seems to feature John Carradine somewhere. The other turns out to be the evidently hard-to-find Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane & Michael Stern. Every snarky comment you’d ever want to read about leisure suits, velvet paintings and polyester all in one volume? Sign me up!

More music – an out-of-print companion volume to a Channel 4 British television series from yesteryear called Orchestra, which was hosted by Sir Georg Solti and Dudley Moore. It’s a nice coffee table book history of the development and evolution of the symphony orchestra, from the Baroque to the Twentieth Century abstract-modern symphonic music THAT I CAN’T STAND, but that’s another story. Well, hold on a moment, allow me a brief rant about that story – in discussing the development of symphonic music in the Twentieth Century, this book does what basically every other music history book I’ve ever seen does – it starts out with Mahler and Stravinsky and moves on through Shostakovich and Copland and so forth, but TOTALLY MISSES the OBVIOUS pathway of music also leading from Mahler (via Bruckner and earlier composers) through the venue where the majority of Americans hear orchestral scores – film soundtracks. There’s NEVER anything in these music books on Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Franz Waxman, Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith….

And so on.

Listen to the movies they scored. You can hear the influences from Mahler et al. Listen to Mahler, and you can visualize the non-existent movie he was scoring in his head, something that goes all the way back to Beethoven’s 6th Pastoral Symphony.


Sigh. It’s too much to write about here. But if you want to listen to a nice bit of comparative research from someone who clearly doesn’t like John Williams, then click here.

Did I mention this book was pretty good though? I think I’ll hunt around for the television series. There seems to be a lot of material on Schumann, whose music I love and whose biography reads like classical tragedy. And it works its way through the different sections of the orchestra (strings, brass, woodwinds, tacos… okay, just kidding) in a nice way.

Last but not least, a copy of the out-of-print James Wong Howe: Cinemetographer by Todd Rainsberger, an amazingly thorough visual examination of (cue Ed MacMahon again) EVERY film Howe shot. Howe was known for his realistic black and white photography, though one film of his that always stands out in my mind is his last b/w effort that’s filled with camera tricks, John Frankenheimer’s eerie creepy-fest Seconds, with one of Rock Hudson’s better performances. Rainsberger writes well about the aspects of Howe’s photographic stylings enhance the overall themes of the films he’s shooting, and also has some nice material on the way Howe would work with different directors, and here is where I was picking up on this book’s major strength, in that it’s an instruction manual on what a Director of Photography actually does on a Hollywood set and what the range of those duties might turn out to be, depending on the director they work with. In other words, Howe’s career serves as a perfect object lesson for any film course on Hollywood, meaning mine.

And it was only twenty five cents! So ask me again… “Why do you go to all those yardsales?”

Unfortunately, the answer might be “Because I still have a few inches of room between my floors and ceilings.”

It might be time for a yardsale of my own….


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