Friday, February 21, 2020

by the pricking of my thumbs / something licensed this way comes

At least I'm finished with the paper temporary plates flapping in the breeze.

Strangely, I seem to have memorized the plate number already (useful for hotel checkins, mostly, and now for finding one white car out of many in a parking lot), despite thinking it unmemorable.

The state is on 7-digit plates in a NXXXNNN format, where X is a letter. One can watch the sequence progress on the roads. This one is an 8P. The car I got a year ago was 8J. My previous car, then ten years old, was 6E. The world might still be intact by the time we get to 9Z and find out what happens next.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

blast from ye past

Barbara Remington has died, at 90. Really old-time Tolkienists will remember her name as that of the artist who created the covers for the first issue of the Ballantine paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings, which may be seen pictured in her obituary here. (Note they're all actually one painting split into three parts, which was also issued as a single poster without overprinting.)

Ballantine's goal was to get the books in the shops quickly, to compete with the unauthorized Ace paperbacks, so they gave Remington very little time to work. She hadn't then read the novel and had little opportunity to find out anything about it, consequently this surreal and impressionistic thing came into being.

Tolkien, unsurprisingly, hated it. He erupted in dismay at the sight, and to the publisher's attempts at explanation commented, "I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse." (A quotation I found singularly apt to use as an epigraph when I came to write on Peter Jackson.)

But to those of us who were weaned on The Lord of the Rings in the early paperback years (this cover was used from the first paperbacks in 1965 until about 1973), we imprinted on this bizarre artwork the way a baby bird will imprint on a plastic doll in the absence of its mother. The transition from a peaceful if inexplicable Shire (emus? pink bulbs?) to the hellhole of a blasted Mordor with what look like tissue-paper monsters writhing in front does, at least, convey the point Bilbo made to Frodo about the world they live in:
It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?

Monday, February 17, 2020

immersion weekend

I've been attending various events with the Violins of Hope's current local residency, some to review them, because this is a big deal locally, some for background, and some just out of curiosity, since they're only here for two months and this is the only chance I'll have. A few of them converged on this weekend.

First, there was in San Mateo the most locally convenient of several programs of folk music, appropriate as many of the violins were klezmer instruments in their previous life. We had short sets by specialists in klezmer (accompanied by accordion), Irish folk (accompanied by guitar), American (mostly cajun and Mississippi delta, also with guitar), and - something of an outlier in this bunch - Indian classical music (accompanied by tabla). This was very popular, and it's a good thing I got there an hour early, because there were almost enough people already lined up to fill the room.

That evening there was a pay event at the nearby Jewish Community Center with the Ariel Quartet, who'd be playing a concert with some of the instruments the next day. They performed a preview of part of the concert, and answered questions (some of which proved useful), and the audience, mostly local machers, preened itself.

Next evening, the Ariel concert, at Kohl Mansion, which I was there to review, though in this case I might have come anyway. I'd dug up enough clips of the Ariels performing other works that I had some idea of the blistering commitment they'd bring to Schubert's "Death and the Maiden." I felt as if I'd been taken apart by the coruscating second movement; the remaining two put me back together again.

Writing the review was an interesting challenge. I've said before that I place no significance in listening to a violin because it went through the Holocaust, even though that's the whole point of the project. I said if I reviewed these, I'd just be concerned with their sound. And here's what happened: the Ariel quartet players are so very good that it became obvious to a reviewer's ear that the violins aren't very good. Nor should they be. It's the Holocaust that makes them significant: other than that, they're just 19th century German workaday instruments, not fit for the hands of a great quartet. So I wrote around that and tried to place more emphasis on what the players did manage to do with them.

Perhaps fortunately, my editors counter-acted this by loading the article down with photos of historical significance.

That was for SFCV, so since I couldn't cover this one for the Daily Journal, I had to pick something else for them for this month. So I went to Stanford for the Philharmonia Baroque concert. This featured Bach's comic-opera "Coffee Cantata." I had my best moment thinking up an adjective describing the voice of the soprano singing the part of the coffee-addict daughter. Her style was bright, her mien was briskly energetic, in short she was ... oh come on, it's too obvious.

peak nerd

This is unutterably nerdy: a ranking of every holder of the office of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland since the British government established the post in 1972.

And, since it starts at the bottom and goes upward, it has a happy ending with even a romantic touch.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

the couple that ---- together

Any of you other couples out there, has this ever happened to you?

B. and I gave each other the same Valentine's card.

It had cats on it: that's why.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Sunday, February 9, 2020


None of the Oscar wins has aroused in me any desire to see any movies I haven't already seen.

In the meantime, I spent the afternoon at a matinee performance of a stage adaptation of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. This was perhaps a strange thing for me to attend, as I've never seen the movie (though I have read the John Buchan book: same premise, rather different contents). But the premise of the play is that it's a depiction of a production with only four actors (for a rather large set of characters) and one rather lazy stagehand, and that it becomes a farce through improvisation and miscasting.

I like that sort of thing, but found this example passingly amusing, not tremendously funny, perhaps due to an energetic and competent but not overly brilliant cast in the real acting roles. I did learn that the movie is the source of a Firesign Theatre reference I'd never known that I didn't get. I think I actually chuckled twice, once when someone playing a Scottish farmer "forgets" his Scottish accent, and the other when someone calls on a character who's gone offstage and realizes that the whole cast is now onstage in other parts, so he's run out of actors. Well, maybe you had to be there.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

in the media

Academy Award ceremonies are tomorrow night, so perhaps it's best to report now on the two nominated films I've managed to see in the last couple of weeks - just about the only two I'd wanted to see, and just about the only two left in the theatres - before they get wiped out on awards night for being too good.

Little Women - It's considered axiomatic in the flick biz that no man will go see a movie of this story. Yet I love adaptations of Little Women (better, in truth, than I do the original book). So if I'm not a man, then, what am I? At any rate, this adaptation is really designed for lovers of the story, who know it backwards and forwards. Because this version is told backwards and forwards, and tyros will be completely baffled. Even I had trouble putting sororal name to face at first, and would like to see it again. Except for one thing. This movie has the most irritating and obnoxious version of Laurie ever put on celluloid. I'll wait for the DVD so I can fast-forward past him.

Jojo Rabbit - This movie falls in an unusual recent category that also includes the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar: the comedy-drama movie spoiled by its own trailer. This peculiar problem comes about when the trailer, instead of being conceived as an invitation to watch the movie, is written as a precis, a summary, of the movie's plot, and is constructed by taking all the clever bits from the movie out of context and stringing them together. The trailer, then, is a bright and shiny string of pearls, in which context the actual movie, instead of seeming like an interesting story studded with clever bits, becomes a series of clever bits padded out with dull filler, dull because you already know the story and were expecting more clever bits.

Also in dramatic news, I found myself booked for a meeting in a couple weeks in the middle of the City's theater district, and which ends at 7:30. "I could see a show," I thought, "and without taking an extra trip." So I set out trying to find ones. Aggregator sites listing everything playing were either too hard to use or I didn't trust them, and in any case some of the theaters are too far away to be feasible. So I gathered a list of all the nearby theaters by a combination of memory and scouring Google Maps - yes, I know that isn't trustworthy either - and then looked up each's site.

Alas, there's nothing I want to see, even if I don't have to travel to get there. I don't want to see Hamilton. I don't want to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I especially don't want to go to a small dining theater that puts on improv shows and quotes reviews calling it "a party spot" and "a hot scene." One theater which does have an intriguing list of shows for the season is dark that week. So I guess I'll just get back on the train and go home.

Friday, February 7, 2020

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Blomstedt, week 2. This week he led two famous symphonies, so the hall was packed, and ready to applaud at every full stop. Last week only one of the symphonies was famous, so the hall was half-empty.

The two famous symphonies were Beethoven 2, by all odds his most cheerful, and Brahms 4, by all odds his most melancholy. Excellent renditions both, both for little touches and large-scale sweep. I was most impressed by some of the transitions, like the way Beethoven's slow introduction melted into the allegro, or how the second subject in Brahms's andante floated out of the first.

Came up very early, so as to have time, finally, to see the exhibit portion of the Violins of Hope program, which is only open 4 hours in the afternoon, 4 days a week. (A fact which it took me 2 phone calls to discover, but I see that at least now they've taken my advice and posted the hours at the exhibit itself.) Quite a few violins, mostly hung to show the backs, several of which have inlaid Mogen Davids, some in stone and some in distinctive wood. Long exhibit notes on the histories of the particular violins, laid down on the bottoms of large upright cases, are not very readable that way.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

scholarship non-award

I was delighted to come across this list, Ten Best Books of the Decade, 2010-2019: Fantasy Studies. Actually it includes 12 books, but of the 7 older books on the list, 2 were Mythopoeic Scholarship Award winners, and 3 more were finalists, including such fabulous entries as Brian Attebery's Stories About Stories and the Levy/Mendlesohn Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (the two winners) and Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons.

But of the 5 new books, those that would be eligible for the award this year, none were familiar to me. But among such exalted company, they were worth checking out. I'm a long-time member of the awards committee, and I'm always on the look out for candidates.

Well, I've found copies of all 5 of them. Mind you, I've read none in full. I just dipped in and sampled parts, to get a sense of whether they'd be worthy of being considered as nominees for the award. In particular, as I always do for triage in the general fantasy category, I look to see what they have to say about Tolkien, if anything: because the complexity of his work makes him a challenge to study, but if you can't get him right, there's no point in going any further.

And I'm dismayed to find that not one of these five books strikes me as a worthy candidate for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. If someone else nominates them, I'll examine them more closely, but otherwise I'm not going to make the effort.

1. The Canons of Fantasy: Lands of High Adventure, Patrick Moran (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
This is hardly a scholarly treatise at all. It's very short, and is evidently one of a series of books intended as brief overviews of their topic. The author cites Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (which won the MSA in 2016), but hardly seems to have read it. Instead of a research book, as Williamson wrote, this is armchair theorizing that doesn't even seem to have spent enough time cogitating in the armchair. It's well-written and intelligent, but there's not enough here to qualify it as an award candidate.

2. The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy, C. Palmer-Patel (Routledge, 2019)
Actually this book came out with a 2020 publication date on it, so it's not eligible yet this year. The goal of studying the relatively uncharted fantasy epics of 1990-2010 is a worthy one, but the relentless mediocrity of most of the chosen subjects, plus a clumsy writing style and a lack of the deep insights into structure needed to make a study like this work, show this as a sorry sight next to Roz Kaveney's brilliant brief study of the epics of the 1970s and 80s (in Eaglestone's Reading The Lord of the Rings).

3. A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic, James Gifford (ELS Editions, 2018)
I found this book almost unreadable. There are worse examples of turgid, convoluted prose in academia, but this one is bad enough. The relentless insistence on viewing everything through politically-colored lenses (alternately Marxist and anarchist), whether it's suitable or insightful to the topic or not, is also extremely tiresome. I hope nobody makes me read this in full.

4. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (New York University Press, 2019)
Now this is an intelligent, insightful, and productive study of an important but neglected aspect of several very popular fantasies of recent times. I got a lot out of the Harry Potter chapter (which I picked to read because I'm familiar with the topic), and I'm almost ready to nominate it. Yet in the end I was too dismayed by the author's choice to spend much of the chapter defending herself from charges of plagiarism that erupted on the Internet regarding her fan fiction. It's just not appropriate to raise a personal beef like that in a serious scholarly work.

5. Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, Maria Sachiko Cecire (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)
This is another intelligent and well-written treatise, and one which I actually look forward to reading in full. Unlike the first three, which bring in Tolkien more as a totem than a topic, this book actually discusses him (and C.S. Lewis), and so far as I've seen gets its facts right. Yet something smells off about the discussions, the way old food in the fridge smells off. In her intent to propose an alternative social value structure from the one held by Tolkien and Lewis (which she also posits as shared by Pullman, which is one of the things that smells off about it), the author reads them with a level of skepticism and scorn that casts their principles as illegitimate. This is not an appropriate candidate for an award created in these authors' honor.