Thursday, April 30, 2015

Tolkien studied

A major project has been turned in.

After six years of writing "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" by myself and two more years of sharing it with a collaborator, I became co-editor of the Tolkien Studies journal that published it, and turned the job over to the collaborator entirely. But it seems to be too big a job for one person to do, unless that one person is me (I wrote the 12,000 word first installment in three weeks, though admittedly I was not employed when I did it, which made a big difference).

So this year we split it up among, it turned out, six people (including myself). I had to coordinate and coax along all these contributors, and in most cases supply them with much of the material they'd be writing on. The deadline was a week ago, the contributions all came in, some of them still needing substantive as well as format editing. I dumped them all into one file, forced them into the same font and layout, and then did all that editing work and turned in the final version this morning. Whew.

My own part, the smallest of the six (which I took because there wasn't anybody else both available and appropriate to do it), included coverage of three book-length studies of The Hobbit, a small work to bear all that weight. Two of those books I'd read already, but thought I should re-read, so I took them with me to Louisiana and, amazingly, got them both read. The third I didn't want to read, because I could tell how superficial it was going to be. But I forced myself into it, and had an entertaining time dissecting it, classifying its various contributions by the different ways they avoided the topic.

Writing is painful, but 'tis glorious to have written.

Monday, April 27, 2015

and now the news

So here's the news report on the Silicon Valley Music Festival. Effective next year, they're changing their name and switching to a schedule spread over the year. The event that I attended was basically a fund-raising launch.

One of the announcements was that information is available at the new website, but if you check it now, it merely redirects to the old website, on which they don't even have this year's festival schedule up yet, though it says that will be available in March. I told the artistic director at the gathering that their biggest need is for effective publicity, and this is an example of what I mean by the lack of it.

Nevertheless, it's my job as a music journalist to help publicize notable events, so I assured him that we'd run this squib which I came intending to write. I expressed the reference to the website in the future tense; I didn't know what else to do.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

1.5 concerts

So there's this local series called the Silicon Valley Music Festival that I've reviewed a couple times, and they sent me an invitation to a "VIP Gala Event," at a local golf course clubhouse, at which they would have some News on the future of the Festival.

Smelling news that I could report for SFCV, I went. Figuring it'd be formal, I wore my jacket and my tie with the Mozart mss. printed on it. What the news was I'll hold for SFCV, but it involved fundraising, and most of the guests were donor-types. I spent some time talking with a lady whose non-monetary contribution to the arts is to host visiting performers in her home.

In between the appetizers (rolled-up bacon strips with an extra dollop of fat in the middle) and the dessert (skewers of melon pieces drizzled in chocolate sauce) there was some music: songs by Debussy sung by a soprano with the physical expressivity of the opera singer she normally is, a movement from a Beethoven cello sonata played by a cellist with the toughness appropriate to Bartok, and part of a Mendelssohn piano trio with the violin part taken by flute: that's a first. All of these accompanied by a pianist so relieved when it was all over that he broke into unscheduled jazz.

Then I headed up north for the next day to meet friends Alan and Jeanne at their countryside rural home, the only house I've ever visited where a live chicken is likely to wander in to the bathroom. We headed over to the Green Music Center for a cello-and-piano recital that we'd picked as the most promising concert we could all get to.

I'd heard both cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan before and liked them, but was less enthused today. Their Beethoven and Schubert were reserved and a bit stuffy. A piece by a young American composer named Joseph Hallman was vapid and thoughtless, almost as bad as something by Kurtag. Even Rachmaninoff's passionate Op. 19 sonata lacked concision and bite.

But if the problem was that Weilerstein was failing to put richness and soul in her playing, it's because the Green acoustics were beating it down with a rubber mallet. The sound quality here is like dialing the treble gain up to 11. It doesn't make low notes harder to hear, just gives them a grating, hard-edged sound.

We'll see what happens some other time with a larger ensemble and more people in the seats (which affects the acoustics too).

Saturday, April 25, 2015

book notes

James M. McPherson, Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. (Penguin, 2014)
Being Jefferson Davis was, it turns out, a lot like being Abraham Lincoln. You have all these generals who talk big about what they're going to do to the enemy, but never seem to get off their duff and do it. You have one in particular who thinks he's an absolute genius and that you're a hopeless idiot, but is himself spectacularly incapable of demonstrating any of his genius. (If you're Lincoln, his name is McClellan; if you're Davis, his name is Beauregard.) You have an impatient and disrespectful Congress. The difference is that, if you're Lincoln and you get martyred in victory, everyone forgets about the three years you spent fumpfing around and proclaims you a national hero, while if you're Davis and get captured ignominiously, you get blamed for everything whether it was your fault or not. A very short and concise book.

Barney Frank, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
The famously un-self-reflective retired Congressman manages a little reflection here, from what drove him into politics and what personal satisfaction he gets out of it, to how he felt about staying in the closet for so many years. (I like the comment that at least he outed himself early on as Jewish by being Bar Mitzvah.) However, his real passion is policy wonkery, and you'd better like it too, because there's a heck of a lot of it in here. A very long and rambling book.

The peril of browsing around a bookstore without my glasses is that I'll see, from a distance, a display rack with a book titled The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook and think it says The Vladimir Putin Cookbook. I'm not interested in recipes from either of them.

Friday, April 24, 2015

o to be a blogger

1. The Stanford piano-roll symposium was more than the presentations I wrote about last week. There was also a concert with the Stanford Symphony, and I reviewed that for the Daily Journal. My only regret is that the photo (which is a file photo we found online) and the accompanying caption will confuse readers over the two kinds of push-up player piano: the electric reproducing piano (which, once you put in the roll and turn the power on, plays with no human intervention) and the manual pianola (at which a player sits and manipulates volume, tempo, etc.), although I tried to keep them distinct in the article itself.

2. And a quick news item at SFCV, the cancellation of future seasons of the Sunset Concerts, a small local chamber music series I regard fondly, though I haven't often gotten there. I'd seen an article about this in the local paper and forwarded to my editors, saying we should cover this, so I did the write-up. Only a few facts in my piece come from the article; the rest is my own research and personal knowledge. The concerts I mentioned are ones I blogged about at the time, which is how I know when they were.

3. When I gave a Tolkien lecture in 2009 at a small college in East Texas, I headed off afterwards to explore the countryside. I wrote at the time,
East Texas is not an economically prosperous region. Every little town has a town square paved in brick, and the towns vary among the a) mildly decrepit; b) totally decayed; c) virtual ghost towns. In one such small town I stopped at a soda fountain where I was the only customer, and the old lady behind the counter, as she fixed my root beer float, chatted away as if I was the first human being she'd seen in a week, which I may well have been.
I mentioned this impression and this incident to my professorial contact from the college when I saw her in New Orleans 3 weeks ago. She did not demur from my socio-economic observation, and has just written me with a link to an obituary: the soda fountain lady in question was a locally famous character who died two days ago. My prof says that one of her colleagues would regularly take his students the 20 miles to this town and they always went to the ice cream shop. I'm sorry to hear the lady is gone: she was very friendly and she fixed a mean root beer float.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Subdued, even somnolent performances of repertoire you'd never characterize with such terms. But then, it was the blue-rinse matinee, so maybe that explains it.

Vassily Petrenko was conducting, so the choices were mostly Russian. But not entirely: he began with Sam Barber's School for Scandal Overture, and really brought that lively battery of a piece down to sober lyricism.

Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto was livelier in the orchestra, but the soft, plushy tones of soloist Sa Chen transported it into unknown realms. Can you imagine that gigantic crashing unaccompanied F minor opening rendered in an accent more suitable for a lullaby?

After intermission, the work I came for, Shostakovich's Twelfth. An extremely difficult work to perform adequately, this didn't quite make it. Petrenko tackled the inherent problem of this most pompous of Shostakovich symphonies by taking those parts slowly and gently, and strongly emphasizing the quieter and more lyrical sections. Which are genuinely there, but the approach only made it more obvious that this work lacks the tough sinew of the more funereal Eleventh.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

a note on John C. Wright

Perhaps I'm about written out about Puppygate, because I can't think of anything urgent I want to say about anything I've read on the subject in the last few days. I think my earlier posts on 4/13, 4/14, and 4/16, plus two comments I made to George R.R. Martin's LJ (those are here and here) cover pretty much what I have to say.

I would, however, like to add here a personal note about John C. Wright, one of the principal Puppies. (And I have some thoughts about the Passion of Larry Correia for, perhaps, later on.)

Mr Wright first came to my notice back in the 1990s, when we were both members of the online network GEnie. I think this was before he converted from atheism to Catholicism, but he struck me as just as much an extreme right-winger then as he is today.

He and I tangled on one point, as I recall. During the Clinton impeachment/trial, Mr Wright stated that Mr Clinton's prevarications on his relationship with Ms Lewinsky were a clear case of perjury, a transparent case of "high crimes and misdemeanors," and that the President should therefore be removed.

I started to write here that Mr Wright "was of the opinion that ..." but I changed it, because Mr Wright does not traffic in opinions. To him, everything is either an inarguable fact or it is not.

He was consequently quite perturbed when I argued with it. I held that Clinton's weaseling did not actually meet the strict legal definition of perjury, and that, as a matter of actual trial practice, in an ordinary legal case with the facts of the Kathleen Willey suit, one involving some ordinary business executive and not the President of the United States, no D.A. would bother trying to prosecute the businessman for perjury. And I backed this up with legal citations for the former point (I worked in a law library at the time; sources were easy) and newspaper interviews with prosecutors raising this very question for the latter.

My perhaps rosy recollection is that Mr Wright sputtered with indignation at my refusal to accept his Inarguable Facts and my temerity at presenting sources to argue the point.

But that incident is background. The real point about Mr Wright came later.

A year or two further on, I found myself in agreement with Mr Wright on some point in dispute in a GEnie conversation. I don't remember what this one was. The point is that Mr Wright posted in astonishment that I agreed with him this time. I replied that I took my positions based on my beliefs of the facts in the case, and not by pre-determined alliances or animosities.

That's as far as that conversation went, but I found it interesting. Most people I know, certainly those I respect, take the attitude I do of sticking with the facts as they appear to them. In the course of many conversations on disputed topics, alliances and the lack of them shift constantly.

But that seemed strange to Mr Wright. In disputing his Inarguable Facts, I had in his view declared him an Enemy whom I would fight on all fronts, fair or foul. How bizarre that I should then quietly ally myself with him on some other issue. It blew his tiny mind.

I think that says a lot about Puppygate, too.

Monday, April 20, 2015

notes 2

1. A new grocery market has opened in our neighborhood, a branch of one from San Jose. I ventured over there today to check it out. Très yuppie. I wonder if it will last. It does carry a few things I usually have to go much further to find - my preferred brand of whole-wheat pasta, my favorite kind of polenta. I didn't need to do shopping today, but I bought a few items for too much money.

2. Speaking of food, does anyone know what to do with this? I bought a couple jars on impulse at the yuppie grocery in Palo Alto that was closing up shop. (According to employees, it had been doing fine, but the company was from another state and, like the Russians in Alaska, felt overextended.) Apparently it's to be used as a relish substitute, in dips, or in tuna salad, but we never eat any of those things.

3. Started watching the dramatization of Wolf Hall. Got bored and quit. Is Masterpiece Theatre just not what it used to be, or is it me?

4. Stopped watching John Oliver. He's discussing serious topics, but he's supposed to be funny, so he interrupts himself every 25 seconds to make a lame joke on an irrelevant subject. It's just too irritating.

5. I'm going to be away two of the four weekends in June, and otherwise occupied at least one day in the third, so my chances of getting to the Art Widner memorial to be held that month do not look good.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


1. Death in the fannish family. Art Widner, the Wonderful Beard, was 97 I think, and bounded around in half-his-age style for an amazingly long period. He was a great guy to have for a friend. Here's what I wrote about him long ago when he turned a mere 80.

2. Day two of the piano roll symposium. Statistics on piano rolls: some of the most popular composers of the day (early 20C) included Edward MacDowell, Moritz Moszkowski, Ethelbert Nevin, and some others neither I, nor (it turns out) Baker's nor Wikipedia had ever heard of. Among pianists, mentioned Ervin Nyiregyházi, who derailed his career with what were called "wayward" piano roll interpretations. Audience member question: "Did he ever cure this?" Everyone at the symposium who'd ever heard Nyiregyházi's later recordings (including me): "No!"
Best line of the symposium: "If you want to keep a secret from a pianist, just put it in the critical notes."

3. Marked my renewed involvement in fandom by attending the local SF social group, PenSFA, for the first time in mumble years. As I'd hoped, there was talk of Puppygate. About four of us (all anti-Puppy, of course) went at the question of what to do about it in a fierce but intelligent argument, where everything said was productive, interesting, responsive to what had been said, and made one think when it disputed you. Only problem was getting the others' attention when I started to utter a sentence. At one point everyone was tumbling over each other to disagree with me about something, and I kept interjecting "No, no, no," until someone said, "You can't just say 'no': you have to make an argument," which unjust accusation got on my nerves and I burst out very loudly with, "As soon as I can get another word in edgewise!" I'd been saying "No" not as a substantive response, but as a marker to indicate my disagreement until such distant future time as I might gain the floor. Despite this hitch, I'm grateful to all of them for the engagement.

4. San Francisco Symphony review: Sunday matinee, the only time I was free to attend this interesting program, but a time I hate to go, as the hall tends to be full of fidgeters and talkers. Some behind me exclaimed (fortunately between pieces, as new musicians came on stage), "Look at the big red thing!" Doubted they'd be interested to know that it's called a contrabassoon, so I said nothing.
The concert itself: Igor Levit, looming over his piano keyboard as if he were planning to bite it in a tender spot if it had any, waited glacially long intervals before playing the next note in Mozart's K.271 concerto. Stretching Mozart's lyricism to the breaking point seemed to be the principle here. Or it could have been guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, since they played Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun with the same languid pauses. On the other hand, Haydn's Symphony No. 44 was brisk and powerful, while Stravinsky's Symphony in 3 Movements was brisk and colorful but totally emotionless, which may be how Stravinsky wanted it but makes for boring listening.

Friday, April 17, 2015

reactions to the player piano

For the first time, the Stanford early-recordings symposium is being held only a year after the last one. For the first time, also, it's strictly only two days long (it was first announced for three), which may be because they didn't allow time to fully recharge the tank. They've also moved it back to the tiny department auditorium where the first two were held, because there's hardly enough people attending to even warm that room up.

This year's entirely concerns piano rolls, Stanford having become a major research center on them last year when they bought a ginormous collection of them (now inventoried at 7450 rolls) plus about a dozen instruments. Piano rolls, one of the speakers said, are like portraits, where recordings are like photographs: technically, the latter are a better likeness, but especially in the early days of each, the former often captures the spirit better.

Player pianos, it turns out, are of two kinds, fostering two approaches to making the piano rolls:

1) Reproducing pianos: full-scale pianos, usually uprights but could be grands, with a roll-playing mechanism inside. If you've seen one, it's probably this kind. The mechanism is usually run by electricity (though there were water-powered ones). The rolls are typically interpretive performances by great pianists, and the roll controls the dynamics and the pedal as well as the keys.

2) Pianolas. "Pianola" is actually the brand name, and the company made reproducing pianos as well, but the term generally means these. The generic term is "push-up". A pianola is essentially a robot that appears to play the piano, though it actually requires considerable human intervention, like the Great and Terrible Oz. It's a cabinet with a roll-player mechanism inside and 88 mechanical fingers sticking out the back. You push it up to a piano keyboard (hence the generic name) and the mechanical fingers play the keys. The difference is that it's not run on electricity; it needs human feet pump-action to work. This controls volume; tempo and, confusingly, pedaling, are controlled by hand-levers.

For this reason the rolls were usually mechanically-exact punchings out of the score. It was up to the human operator to provide the artistic content by manipulation of the pedals and levers. This can be difficult, but the results can be rewarding. At today's session, the world's greatest living pianola player (who is also in the running for the world's longest beard and the world's baldest head) demonstrated the difference between doing it well and badly. Most CD transfers you'll hear of these rolls? Badly; very badly indeed.

Then his colleague told us about reproducing-piano piano rolls of the solo parts of concertos, and of how tough it is to accompany them. (We'll be hearing one at the concert tomorrow night.) The part I liked is how the rolls have special punches that make them stop running when it reaches a part where the orchestra is playing without the piano. Then, when the piano is to re-enter, the conductor presses a silent electric buzzer that starts it up again, one hopes in time.

After lunch, we turned to what can be done with piano rolls in the modern age. One guy who obviously has way too much time on his hands has been scanning and digitizing multiple copies of the same piano roll and measuring the microscopic differences between them. Another was an academic composer who found himself gobsmacked by the idea that a player piano could play, not just the great masterpieces of piano literature, but music physically impossible for a human to play. So thrilled was he by this that he went out and wrote such a piece, which we'll also hear tomorrow. It puzzled me that he then alluded to Conlon Nancarrow, because Nancarrow had the same idea 60 years ago, so if you've heard of him, it shouldn't seem like such a novel mind-bender.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

o to be a Puppy

Leaving aside the truly toxic rantings and threats of Vox Day, the most dispiriting thing in fandom's current Puppy Wars that I've read is Sad Puppy proprietor Brad Torgersen's explanation of what he thinks is going on in the minds of his opponents.

Like almost all such attempts to discern opponents' motives, it's seriously wrong-headed. If you're a religious person, read Richard Dawkins' explanations of you; or, if you're an atheist, read the likes of Louis Markos. Either way, you'll see a massive display of Not Getting It. Torgersen isn't quite in that class, though he tries his best.

Torgersen devotes a massive amount of space towards explaining the concept of tribalism; that is, the tendency of humans to form protective groups of shared self-interest that show hostility towards outsiders. Most of this can be skimmed; the concept is not in dispute. Torgersen's final point is that he considers this an entire explanation of fannish hostility towards the Puppies. In particular, he considers complaints about the Puppy slates to be merely a distracting smokescreen for tribal hostility.

This is exactly backwards. It reminds me very much of cases where an apartment-dweller complains about the noise coming from the neighbors' apartment, where the complainer is a generic white person and the neighbor is of Ethnicity X, and the neighbor then declares that the noise complaint is merely a pretext for what's really bothering the complainer, i.e. having neighbors of Ethnicity X. Knowing Torgersen's socio-political bent, I expect that being the target of such a declaration would really frost him, yet here he is making one.

There seem to me to be two really nasty and unsupported assumptions baked into Torgersen's argument. One is this attempt to write the slate issue off as insignificant. No, it's the heart of the problem. If that isn't the issue, then why did this conflict erupt now? It isn't as if the Puppies are new; this is their third year of formal existence. And it isn't as if Puppy vs. non-Puppy opinions in fandom are new, either. As George R.R. Martin has pointed out, the substantive content of the dispute over SF is really nothing more than a continuation of arguments that date at least as far back as the Old Wave vs. New Wave of the 1960s, some of whose protagonists (Jerry Pournelle, Harlan Ellison) are still around. There have always been struggles between these groups, including over what gets on the Hugo ballot. But never before, in all of Hugo history, has there been a slate. I'm distinguishing a slate from a recommended reading list in the deliberate limitation to available slots on the ballot and the encouragement to voters to nominate those specific works. (The issue of whether the Sad and Rabid Puppies are allies or in cahoots need not be relevant here. To the extent that the Sads did not promote their list as a slate, or failed to get their nominees on the ballot, Torgersen is not responsible for the problem. Vox Day is. The conflict is still there.)

The other assumption is this casting of tribalism as if it's a bad thing. You remember the old conjugation of characterizations, "I'm strong-willed, you're stubborn, and he's pig-headed"? By the same token, it's only you who are tribal. What I have is a community. The non-Puppies very commonly talk about the fannish community, so they're quite aware of this, which is why they don't need to be lectured on what tribalism is.

But are the Puppies part of the fannish community? That's actually up to them. This is where Torgersen gets it wrong comparing the fannish community to a tribe. What the community repeatedly says is, "Everyone is welcome." What that means is, they're welcome if they want to join the community. If they want to go around denouncing the community instead, they're hardly joining it.

But joining the community does not require embracing a lot of political shibboleths. True, if you don't embrace a lot of prevailing views, you'll get a lot of arguments. But then, if you do embrace them, you'll get a lot of arguments from the fans who reject them. It's arguments either way. We argue a lot. That goes back even farther than Old Wave vs. New Wave. At the worst, we may say of a person, "He's a fugghead, but he's our fugghead." But we can also get along when those arguments aren't the topic of conversation, we can cooperate and work together on projects. As the Puppies themselves have noted, Tor and Baen, publishers with distinct and different corporate political views, both publish a lot of authors of opposing views.

This is an ideal. It doesn't always work, and even when it's working the fannish commonality can be lost in the heat. This is why George R.R. Martin pressed Larry Correia so hard for details on the hostile experiences Larry says he had at the Reno Worldcon, details that Larry was variously unable and unwilling to provide. We're not perfect. But we can't improve ourselves unless we know exactly what we're doing wrong. Nor, without that information, can we tell Larry when what he's experiencing is not rejection by the community, but argumentation within the community.

What the promulgation of the slate says is that the Puppies aren't trying to join the community. They're trying to take it over, remake it entirely in their image without any cooperation or input from those who already live there. You don't have to be consumed by tribalism to resent this. It's this attitude that is new.

Actually, it's not entirely new. Fifteen years ago, at the Worldcon in Chicago, somebody issued a sheet of paper titled "Neofans' Bill of Rights." It caused quite a stir at the time. Teresa Nielsen Hayden moderated a heated discussion forum on the program about it. It seems to have vanished from memory, except mine. When I Google the phrase, all I get is a couple of hits on me talking about it. Here's what I said about it long afterwards, but still very long ago:
At a Worldcon a few years ago, someone distributed a Neofans' Bill of Rights, which essentially called on us established fans to stop using terms and making references that neofans didn't understand, or at least explain them whenever we did, and to order our entire cultural group around the perceived preferences of neofans, rather than to suit ourselves and let others decide for themselves if they liked it too. To me the Neofans' Bill of Rights, though reasonable enough as a request for politeness, had behind it an attitude that I as a neofan would have found unbelievably arrogant and condescending. I never expected fandom to model itself to my preferences. My job was to decide if I could fit into its preferences.
That describes the attitude problem. That's what turns a request for conversational politeness into an arrogant screed. That's what turns a campaign to get more stories you like on the Hugo ballot into a hostile takeover bid. You can change fandom - fandom has been changed, many times (media fandom is now accepted to a degree unheard of 40 years ago, for instance), but it has to be changed from inside. You can't just march up and demand that it be changed.

It saddens me, because although I'm an old-time fan (when I speak of "40 years ago," I'm doing it from my own memory), I actually have a lot of agreements with the Puppies. The last time I read all the Hugo short fiction nominees was 2011. I thought the stories all, well, OK, but none of them really excited me. Only one of them, Ted Chiang's "The Life Cycle of Software Objects", can I now actually remember offhand four years later, and it wasn't even my first choice in its category. (I had problems with its structure.) I've now read three stories from the Puppy slates, and while one I found at least as uninteresting as anything in 2011, and another just didn't deserve to be on a Hugo ballot, the third - Annie Bellet's "Goodnight Stars", the one just withdrawn - I thought was clear and good and memorable storytelling, the kind I like to read. I thank the Puppies for introducing me to it, and to its author.

I even share some of the Puppies' resentments. There are leaders of the non-Puppy faction whom I consider thugs and bullies, and whom I want nothing to do with. I won't participate in their online forums. I've even written off attending future Worldcons, including Sasquan, because I so loathe the possibility that I might run into them. You can't get a more Puppy-like attitude than that. But they're part of the community, and if I don't like that, that's my problem. I'm the one who'll suffer.

But a strange thing happened on the way to my withdrawal from fandom. It came under attack. Like some previously unenthusiastic Americans after 9/11, I discovered that I'm a foul-weather patriot, a patriot of fandom. I'm still not attending Sasquan, but I bought a supporting membership, because I realized to my surprise that I really do still care about the integrity of the Hugos.

So congratulations, Brad, you've made a recruit - for the other side. A person sympathetic to your substantive issues has been driven off. Your issues giveth, and your arrogant attitude taketh away.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

what I'm not doing this weekend

This is the latest of several e-mails I've gotten from Symphony Silicon Valley:
After the breath-taking, sold-out presentation at Lincoln Center in New York City, Peter Jackson's film trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkein's epic of Middle Earth and one small hobbit's quest to destroy the Ring of Power comes to San Jose, with Howard Shore's immortal score performed live by over 250 all-local musicians. Never before has an American orchestra attempted this monumental feat, and the results are stunning. This is not an event to miss.
You know I'm a lifelong Tolkien fan. (I even know how to spell his name.) I read The Hobbit when I was eleven years old, and The Lord of the Rings soon after. My life in the appreciation of art and the interaction with culture has been spent more on Tolkien and on classical music than all other things together. Here's the two, combined, in a special rare event, with a friend of mine participating on stage.

Why, then, have I absolutely no desire to go? I accept almost any review assignment I'm given; why did I beg my editor not to send me to this one?

Because while I'd be happy to re-read Tolkien's 1200-page epic any time, I found Jackson's three movies a tiresome bore that I have no desire to sit through again. And the music? Look, after nearly half a century of listening to and studying this stuff I think I know good music when I hear it. And Shore's score is competent hackwork, turned out by the yard: it fills the space and does the job asked of it, and nothing more. Everything else it generates in the way of emotional response is by transference from the movie, and you have to love the movie for that to have any effect. If you don't love the movie, there's nothing there.

There's a claim going around that Tolkienists who hate the movies are nothing but a few cranks. That's not true. Five of the six or seven most distinguished Tolkien scholars in the world hate the movies so much they won't even talk about them. And the others aren't uncritical. At the Birmingham Tolkien Conference of 2005, the largest event to mix serious scholars of Tolkien with those of Jackson, the Jacksonists frequently complained about the near-universal dislike of the movies among the Tolkienists.

When fans of the books as devout as we find the movies so distasteful, I think that speaks eloquently to the profound differences in moral content, in storytelling approach, in aesthetic tastes, in fact in virtually everything except an outline of the plot, between Tolkien and Jackson. Say what you may about "the needs of Hollywood movie-making," that only reinforces the point: they're entirely different in spirit.

But what of those who do like both? For such do exist, in fair profusion. (Though not everyone who likes Jackson likes Tolkien. Many Jackson movie fans find the books a bore. That, too, speaks to the differences between books and movies.) I think they simply like two different things, where the rest of us like only one thing.

That shouldn't be a surprise. Ancillary taste differences among Tolkien fans are long-established. Some Tolkien fans like fan fiction; others don't. Some like parodies (I'm one of those); others don't. Some like the fantasy epics that have come along in Tolkien's wake; others don't. Some like Tolkien's colleagues the Inklings (I'm one of those, too); others don't. In no case does the one impinge on the other. Neither does it with the movies. If this appeals to you, go: have a good time. But include me out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hugonian politics

Yesterday I wrote on the place of women on this year's Hugo ballot. Today I have some thoughts on the process that I haven't yet seen voiced by anyone else.

I think there are two separate issues here, that should be distinguished even by those who condemn the Puppies on both, because they're distinct problems needing distinct solutions.

One of these is the substantive issue of the nature and quality of Hugo nominees. My feelings on this are actually rather murky, in part because I fail to understand exactly what the Puppies' complaints are, and I'll deal with this later if at all.

The other is the procedural issue of slate voting for the Hugos. I hope that those condemning this procedure would feel the same were the slate of an opposite political complexion, though I have no confidence that all of them would.

Let us be clear that voting by the popularity of the name on the ballot, rather than the quality of the work, is far from unknown in Hugo history, and that informal boosterism to get nominations also has a long pedigree.

But the only time before the Puppies that there was a successful formal campaign to nominate a work - a volume of L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth for Novel in 1987 - this was widely derided and the book came in behind No Award on the final ballot. Last year's Puppy nominees did badly also, the most notorious of them, Vox Day's novelette, also finishing behind No Award.

And this year was the first time an entire slate of nominees for most of the places on the ballot was offered. Let's be equally clear on that. There is all the difference in the world between the long-standing tradition of informal lists of "Good Stuff to read" that don't even match the number of slots on the ballot and a formal slate bearing the introduction, "They are my recommendations for the 2015 nominations, and I encourage those who value my opinion on matters related to science fiction and fantasy to nominate them precisely as they are."

And, with few exceptions, that slate, with help from its largely overlapping colleague, dominated the entire nominated ballot. I think the statistics, to be released later, will prove that this wasn't because there were more ballots from Puppies than non-Puppies. I think it was because the first ballot is "first five past the post" and the Puppies were organized and voted for a slate, while the non-Puppies voted as individuals and scattered their vote.

There have been various procedural rules changes proposed to deal with this, but they all seem rather complicated. And, as so often with military and police operations, the planners seem to forget that they're not fighting a natural disaster or wild animals. Their opponents are intelligent agents who can modify their plans in response to yours. When the French built the Maginot Line, the Germans simply went around it.

Slates and elections are a political issue, and I'm a political historian, so I ask myself: when in history has a non-partisan polity been transformed by the abrupt introduction of a slate?

Answer: New Zealand, 1890. British Columbia, 1903.

Prior to those dates both British colonies, as they then were, had very small settler communities, as the Hugo-voting fannish community is small. Voting for the colonial legislatures was non-partisan and done on a personal basis. (B.C. was part of the Dominion of Canada, which had federal political parties, but the political affiliations of B.C. politicians on a federal level had no impact on provincial politics. Still doesn't, for that matter.)

There were political tendencies and opposing policies, to be sure, just as there are in fandom. As George R.R. Martin has pointed out, the Puppy Wars are a continuation of the Old Wave v. New Wave struggle that dates back in the SF field over half a century now. Many individuals have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of that divide, and received or been withheld votes on that basis, but it's never been consistent, formalized, or all-encompassing.

Same thing was true in the colonies. Opposing governments succeeded each other, but individuals worked with other individuals on any basis of agreement they could find, and often the same people would be found voting for or against succeeding groups.

And then, in the years I mentioned, somebody in each colony formed a slate. Founded a formal political party. Ran candidates in an election with the party label. And won.

What did the opposition do? Well, they had to form a political party too. (In B.C., this actually happened just before the 1903 election.) And from then on, politics in these polities was conducted on a political party basis. Like it or not, the era of personal voting was over.

That may be true for the Hugos. I think there are two courses of action here.

1) You can try to rewrite the rules to ban slates. I don't think you will succeed. Slate advocates will find a way around the rules. Maginot line. The fathers of the U.S. Constitution thought they had eliminated political parties, and they were pretty smart guys, but in that respect they failed.

2) Or you can form a counter-slate. Many people are doing so, even among those who claim to oppose a counter-slate. They're launching a campaign to vote for No Award. That doesn't help them with next year's nominations, but for the current election, No Award is their counter-slate candidate, whether they think of it as one or not.

That's it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

concert reviews

1. San Francisco Ballet. I don't often go to the ballet, but I was intrigued by the return engagement of Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy, both wildly praised and highly popular on its previous visit. And I certainly like the music.

I've been to ballets I thought beautiful and moving, mostly with the name Balanchine on them. This one didn't cut it for me. The first act seemed full of each male dancer picking up his ballerina by the waist and setting her down in some other part of the stage, as if she were unable to get there by herself. The third act featured groups of people hunched over and jogging in place while wearing ugly unisex track suits. This is what struck me about the dancing. I don't think I'm a sophisticated connoisseur.

In the part of the art that I am capable of judging, I thought the Ballet Orchestra - which I don't always rate highly - did an entirely creditable job under David LaMarche with the Ninth Symphony, and an even better one with the Chamber Symphony, but lacked tension and drive in the First Piano Concerto.

2. Australian Chamber Orchestra. The man seated next to me considered this a near-flawless performance. He'll be disappointed when he reads my more critical review.

not so many women here today

Back in February, I wrote a post calculating the history of the percentage of stories by women that made the Hugo finalist ballot in the fiction categories. The takeaway point was that, after a decade of usually 15-25%, and sometimes down to 5%, a great revival began in 2010. Each of the succeeding five years had 39% or higher, and three of the five years exceeded half.

In response to a comment about the Sad Puppies' effect on last year's nominations, I wrote, "Let's see what happens this year!" So far as I've seen, nobody else has calculated this. If you don't know what the Sad Puppies are, you live a charmed, or at least non-sfnal, life.

Here's the official nomination list. There are two Novel nominees and two Short Story nominees by women. 4 out of 20 = 20%. That's down to the median of the usual pre-2010 range.

Now let's compare it to the Puppies, for the information on which we have Mike Glyer to thank. The two Short Story nominees by women were on both the Sad and Rabid Puppy slates; the two Novel nominees were on neither slate, the only nominees in the fiction categories on neither slate. (At least one of those two slots was open because the Puppy nominee received enough votes but declined nomination; the other possibly because the Sads and Rabids, otherwise identical in this category, chose different fifth nominees.)

The Sad Puppies only slated 17 works in the fiction categories, of which 3 were by women; that's 18%. The Rabid Puppies made a full slate of 20, of which 2 were by women; that's 10%.

Now, the Puppy manifesto is based on the thesis that past Hugo winners have been unworthy of the award. Theodore "Vox Day" Beale, Rabid proprietor, on his slate: "I think it is abundantly evident that these various and meritorious works put not only last year's nominations, but last year's winners, to shame."

Now, what the Puppies have against last year's winners is not clear to me. They claim to want good old-fashioned SF, but last year's Best Novel, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, is as pure a space opera as you'll find.

Nor is it clear to me when they think the rot set in. I'm sure I can trump them in that chronology. I gave up any illusions that the Hugos were a pure expression of the best in SF back in 1980, when Best Novel went to The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke, a negligible coda to a great career. But the Puppies apparently still live under that illusion. Larry Correia, Sad founder, says that Brad Torgersen, its current proprietor, "is an idealist ... He looks at the Hugo with adoration like it is some sort of religious icon with a halo around it."

So they're upset at recent Hugo winners. I get that. They think the Social Justice Warriors [a term they borrowed from GamerGate, and how clueless do you have to be to touch that toxic well?] have taken over. Exactly when, again, I'm not sure. But I wonder if it coincides with the rise of women nominees since 2010.

I'm not foolish enough to claim that the Puppies are terribly upset that the Gurlz are coming in and spoiling their testosterone-filled club. They have women on their slate (and at least one minority man), and they're just as upset at some straight white men like John Scalzi and George R.R. Martin. But there is a tendency for women in SF to skew that way, and it may be a marker. It was, after all, purely as a marker that I counted up the percentage of women receiving Hugo nominations at all: the women as markers for the acceptance of diversity, and the Hugos themselves as a marker for the fannish community's accolades.

One of the women on both Puppy slates, Kary English, writes that "Sad Puppies includes greater political variety, more women, more people of color and more non-het writers than it ever has before," but considering that it has only a three-year history and that the first two years hardly constituted a slate, that's not saying very much. And it's considerably less diverse, at least along the gender axis (I haven't checked any others), than the Hugo ballots have been for the last six years. That applies both to the slates themselves and the impact they've had on the Hugos this year. Color me unimpressed. If diversity is Ms. English's goal, as she states, this is a step backwards.

When the nomination statistics come out after the awards in August, I'll revisit this calculation on what the Hugo ballot would have been without the canine doo-doo all over the newspaper.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

books of PCA

The Popular Culture Association dealers' room is full of the kind of books that interest me. Last year my best find was The Presidents We Imagine by Jeff Smith (University of Wisconsin Press), a history of what both fictional presidents and the popular images of real presidents say about our idea of the office. This year I found two particularly interesting books at the Rowman & Littlefield table on the last day, so I got them for a nice end-of-con discount.

Classical Music in a Changing Culture: Essays from the American Record Guide by Donald Vroon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)
The question that the existence of Donald Vroon poses is: is it possible to profess his admirable and high-minded convictions - in maintaining high standards of culture, in the abiding greatness of the finest classical music - without being a cranky old git about it? Because for Mr. Vroon it certainly isn't. The relentless get-off-my-lawniness of his writing, the sloppy carelessness of his sweeping denunciations of popular culture and contemporary society, the touch of racism with which he acknowledges that classical music isn't for everybody (oh yes he does: see p. 37) - these are enough to make me re-examine my own convictions. A writer who, while sharing your own beliefs and standards, makes you doubt the worthiness of all of them is a rare gift indeed. Could Mr. Vroon be an agent provocateur out to give artistic elitism a bad name? That would be more palatable than the idea that he means it all seriously.

A Book About the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Darl Larsen (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
There is a land somewhere on beyond trivia. No, further off ... No, further than that. There you will find this book. Six hundred large pages of small print, all about this one movie. Less focused on writing and production details, though there's plenty of that, than on historical sources and contemporary analogues. If this weren't my favorite movie in all the world, I wouldn't touch this book. As it is, I could hardly live without it.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

chewing through Louisiana: the itemized post

I went to New Orleans for the Popular Culture Association conference, but I went to Louisiana for the food. Out here in California, we have the best vegetables in the US, we have Italian-American food to match anyone's, we have every Asian cuisine from Afghan to Korean in profusion, but foods from the Southern US are thin on the ground. In particular, I haven't found anyone in this state who knows how to cook a catfish.

But I love Creole and Cajun cooking, even though I can rarely find it at home. This was only my third trip ever to southern Louisiana, and I was determined to make up for lost time. I researched in advance. I even dug up the bible from my first trip, George Alec Effinger's legendarily detailed restaurant guide for the 1988 New Orleans Worldcon, and checked to see which places are still there (most of them in the French Quarter are).

For a full week, aside from a few light breakfasts, I ate nothing but Cajun and Creole cuisine, a couple places rather poor but most excellent, and I went nowhere twice. Counting all six stops on the Tabasco food tour, I ate at 24 purveyors of food.

Half were at New Orleans (9 in the French Quarter; 2 downtown; 1 at the airport), and half out in Cajun country (7 in New Iberia, where the food tour was; 2 in Lafayette; 2 in Houma; 1 in Abbeville). I've put up quick reviews of most of them on Yelp.

And among the things I ate - some in very small sampler quantities - were:

7 jambalayas. The local spiced rice casserole dish, and my default choice of food. Most things called jambalaya out here are a thick tomato broth ladled over white rice or, worse, pasta. That's not jambalaya, which should all be cooked together and not so heavy on the tomato, or (if it's Cajun instead of Creole style) without tomato altogether. I like the dish best baked. By that account, the best I've ever had was my first meal on this trip, the Jambalaya Supreme at Coop's Place in the French Quarter. At least two others I tried in NOLA - the Cajun style at Bon Ton Cafe and the one that tasted like brown rice (though I don't know if it was or not) at Chartres House - outdid my previous all-time favorite, which I also had again, the Creole jambalaya at Mother's.

7 bowls of gumbo. A dark-broth soup with either chicken and sausage or seafood. I got tired of the coffee-like gumbos in New Orleans, but found that Cajun gumbo is lighter and tastier. (I was told in Cajun country that in New Orleans they burn the roux which is the basis for the dish.) The best was probably the award-winning gumbo at KK's Cafe in New Iberia, because the smoked chicken worked perfectly with the broth.

3 other soups: French onion (which in New Orleans is like gumbo with onion in it), crab and corn bisque (delicious), and "loaded baked potato soup" at KK's.

5 types of boudin. An unpronounceable (at least, I can't pronounce it well enough for natives to have any idea what I'm talking about) sausage of pork or crawfish with rice. The casing is basically inedible, and you sort of squeeze the filling out. It's a purely Cajun dish, rare in New Orleans and I've never seen it out here. Most of the boudin I had was rather crumbly, but not the rich and creamy ones from Legnon's Boucherie in New Iberia, claimed to be the best boudin in all Acadiana, and certainly the best I had.

2 types of rice dressing, as it's called at the little country shack (Bayou Delight outside of Houma) which had the better one, or "dirty rice" as it's better-known elsewhere, a dish of rice mixed with bits of chicken giblets and local vegetables.

Other meat dishes: fried chicken, which I somehow managed to avoid until my last dinner, at Bayou Delight; sweetbreads (oh, yes, I know what those are, and I've had them before, though not for many years), lightly sauteed for breakfast at Brennan's in the French Quarter; and pork cracklins at Legnon's, really amazing.

5 dishes of fried fish (catfish, flounder, or just "fish"), probably best the catfish nuggets at Bon Ton Cafe in New Orleans, which definitely beats the nevertheless good fried flounder at the famous K-Paul's.

3 pan fish dishes, 2 supposedly blackened catfish (I don't think it's possible to get blackened redfish any more), one not very blackened but very good, the other more blackened but not well cooked, and one at Arnaud's, one of the top dining establishments in New Orleans (which I went to because why not, just once), where the fish of the day was drum, which it turns out I dislike the taste of, because there surely wasn't anything wrong with the way it was cooked. All three were topped with a shellfish sauce, the catfish with crawfish etouffee, the drum with crab that was most excellent, although it had bits of shell still in it.

3 fried shrimp, the best the meaty shrimp with an ever-so-light breading at Shucks in Abbeville. They also had a superb crabcake that was seriously all-crab. Shrimp and grits (a Southern rather than Louisiana dish) for breakfast at Vacherie in New Orleans was the tastiest shrimp I had on the trip.

Tried some boiled crawfish at R&M's Boiling Point in New Iberia. Crawfish is to lobster as Cornish game hen is to chicken: it's identically built, but much smaller and you don't get much out of it. Once you've removed the tailbone and extracted the meat (there's a trick to doing this, which the Tabasco guide taught us), it's best to just throw the other 95% of the beast away. It's Sturgeon's Law applied to food.

One big favorite in NOLA is the local submarine sandwich, called the po-boy. I'm not a sandwich-eater, but I had one of these. It had fried shrimp, which I took out and ate separately.

There's not much vegetable here, you'll notice. At Arnaud's I had asparagus as a side dish, and I was glad of it. Blue Dog Cafe in Lafayette is really a general-American coffee shop with a lot of Cajun dishes rather than a Cajun place; the food was general-Americanized but very good, and that came with a side of veggies. Otherwise I was stuck with onion rings, surprisingly bad (considering how good the seafood was) at Shucks but really excellent at R&M's.

I'm not a big dessert eater, and all I had was the bread pudding that came on the tasting tour (Clementine in New Iberia: very good and not too rich, with a whisky rather than rum sauce), and ice cream at Arnaud's, which they call glace.

Well, that's what I ate. And you know what? After a week of it nonstop, I was yearning for a change. I came home, and went out for Chinese.

Friday, April 10, 2015

an outing to warm the heart of Calvin Trillin

In fact, the tribune of local food should come out (come back out, I'm sure) to New Iberia, in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun wetlands country, and take it.

The most productive thing I did on my Louisiana trip was to visit the Tabasco pepper-sauce factory on Avery Island, the cap of a huge underground salt dome (and consequently the only hill in southern Louisiana) outside of New Iberia. I'm not a big Tabasco fan, actually, but it was there and I thought it might be interesting.

There wasn't much to the (free) factory tour. You gather in a small exhibit hall, then a guide ushers you into a tiny theater showing a 15-minute film on the history and making of Tabasco. Then you walk down a corridor with a glass wall overlooking the floor of the bottling plant, and then to another hall with some of the barrels in which the sauce is aged. Outside is a company store with an enormous amount of Tabasco bling, plus many varieties of sauce some of which I've never seen in stores, and which you can taste with chips.

Also at the store was a posted notice for the Tabasco Food Tour, a tasting tour of local cuisine. Three days a week, starting at 1 pm and lasting 3 1/2 hours, $50/person, reservations required. This was Monday. The tour runs on Tuesday-Thursday. I'd still be around on Tuesday. I was here to eat. I tore up my schedule and signed up. Best decision I made all week.

By 1 pm on Tuesday I was back, having carefully avoided eating anything since an early breakfast. There was me and a family of four from New Jersey. A van (holds ten, so that's the tour maximum) pulled up and out popped our guide, George, a genial local boy who doubles as the company's hospitality manager and in-house travel agent - it's a small firm. George explained that for years, visitors to Tabasco would ask for recommendations of local restaurants and then call back saying they couldn't find them or were afraid to go in because they looked too low-rent. So about a year ago they started arranging the food tours: mid-afternoon to keep it in the slow hours.

We visited six purveyors of food, at all of which the natives were friendly and George was welcomed in as an old pal - after all, he brings a gang by three days a week. There were two of those windowless boxes out on the highway whose anonymous, dubious-looking exteriors give no clue to the good food you'll have on the cafeteria tables inside (the best steakhouse on the Central California coast is like that, too), two small downtown cafes, a butcher shop, and a century-old rice mill.

The rice mill was the only one I was already familiar with, as I used to buy their rice mixes when I could find retailers out here who carried them. There we had a sample of wild pecan flavored rice from a crockpot. Ah, I remember it well. At the butcher's, which is just a butcher's, so we were ushered into the employee break room where they'd cooked some food up, we had two kinds (pork and crawfish) of boudin, a Cajun meat-and-rice sausage unknown out here, which I'd never tried before this trip, and whose name I cannot pronounce well enough so that a native has any idea what I'm talking about (every time I ordered some at a restaurant, I had to spell it). This was supposed to be the best boudin in all Acadiana, and it was certainly the best I had: rich and creamy, absolutely delicious. Even more amazing were the fried pork cracklins, which put the ones you buy at Mexican markets out here to shame.

Elsewhere, we had:
boiled crawfish - George taught us the easy way to get the tailmeat out;
three kinds of gumbo - Cajun gumbo is much lighter and tastier than the dark coffee-like stuff you get at Creole restaurants in New Orleans ("They burn the roux," George said in an aggrieved tone);
"loaded baked potato soup," which is much tastier than it sounds;
and a light bread pudding with jellied meringue on top for dessert.

Ah, a great peripatetic meal, and pleasant company. The only hitch was linguistic. At one point George was telling us about what one of our party took as being the pea-corn. She wondered what that was until we took it in that it was spelled "pecan". At our last cafe, the bread pudding chef told us about the restaurant and its decorations, including the boar. I glanced up to the stuffed animal heads hanging from the upper wall, but then gathered that the boar was the large block of wood at which customers sit to have drinks. She explained that the boar was made in California a century ago, and then brought up the bayou by boarge.

Had logistics permitted, I would have come back for full meals at some of these places, and definitely to take some boudin back to my hotel room's microwave (it's a cooked sausage, and they said you can heat it that way). Alas, that didn't work out. So I aim to return for another visit someday, maybe when it's next crawfish season.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

end of the PCA

One more session attended, this one on Shakespeare and film. One speaker who kept mixing up the names of the characters in the based-on-Shakespeare film she was discussing. Another who spoke rapidly in an unintelligible mumble. I'd hate to be a student in his English class.

Two more bowls of jambalaya. One good enough to go on the top three list, the other also very good. At restaurants without jambalaya I did, however, rapidly tire of gumbo.

Ranger at NPS visitor center tried to make me buy the library book I was carrying. Then he proved unable to answer the question, "Will the other units outside of town be open tomorrow?" or, rather, gave four contradictory answers in quick succession.

French Quarter is full of pedestrians who behave as if they believe that other pedestrians, and even cars, have the ability to pass through them without collision.

It may also be full of pickpockets. That's my best explanation. Fortunately my bulky-looking pocket is not the one I keep my wallet in. Still, a damnable nuisance.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tolkien Day

It was the day at the Popular Culture Association for the Tolkien programming to run all day long in one small meeting room. Usual audience, about 20.

I was there in time for the 8 am crack-o-dawn start, for Kristine Larsen to wake us up with a defense of reading the standard phrase "the living rock" in Tolkien as being a genuine aesthetic metaphor. Beings made of rock; living creatures compared to rocks. They are, she said, true ore-ganisms. Groan. Followed by Victoria Holtz-Wodzak and Margaret Sinex both discussing Silmarillion characters as being essentially the walking wounded of World War I. Yes, Nienor is a victim of shell-shock; why do you need to ask?

Next session, Megan Whobrey proposing an aesthetic hierarchy of species in Tolkien based on their musical talent; this turns out the same as the regular hierarchy. John Rosegrant on Galadriel and Shelob as masculine figures. Yes, you read that right, masculine. This is why I love Tolkien conferences: totally unexpected ideas that make sense when explained. Rich Cooper using Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories" to point out to all the anti-fantasy sci-fi guys (who weren't in the room) that fantasy does something more important than stick to scientific fact: it offers awe and the sensawunda, the same aesthetic goals as good SF. And Janet Croft, who had alas lost her voice (we've put out a lost & found alert for it) getting esoteric on the symbolic terminology for the One Ring.

Third session, Steven Kelly denouncing Jackson's Hobbit: "It looks fair, but feels foul," to borrow a phrase. Peter Grybauskas on sporting ethics in Tolkien's war: Morgoth (initially described as "not content with the position of first chair in Eru's band") goes out to single combat with Fingolfin not because he wants to, but because he's shamed into being sportsmanlike. Me proposing that Smith of Wootton Major would look a lot different if Emma Bull had written it. And Michael Wodzak with a new theory on how Morgoth bred the orcs that was so brilliant that the margins of this web page do not contain enough space to write it down.

By this time it was 1 pm, and I skipped the next session, of papers entirely on the Jackson films,* out of fear that they'd give me indigestion, which I did not get by going out and having lunch at K-Paul's, two blocks down the street. (One could get used to staying around here.) By the time I got back, it was time for a session with Brad Eden tantalizing us by not giving the details of the political hot potatoes in the personal library of Tolkien's son Michael. But I gather he was on the Enoch Powell end of politics. Quinn Gerval pointed out that movies colonize your brain (which is why "The book is still on the shelf" is an insufficient answer), which is one reason Tolkien disliked dramatizations. Michael Elam reported that specializing in Tolkien is still not a good way to advance in academe.

Last session, on Tolkien fandom and fan fiction. Cait Coker is young, but she knows her Tolkien fan history, to be sure, right back to the 1950s. Good job. Then Kristine Larsen and Robin Reid regaled us with lurid descriptions of what's out there in fan fiction. What I liked best was the labeling system for canon. Is your canon Tolkien's published books? the movies? Tolkien's posthumous stuff? mix it all up and don't give a hoot? You can do anything you want, so long as you label it properly. Ah, if only scholars would do the same. Then I could reject all the "I'm supposed to be writing about the books, but I neither remember nor care what came from the movies instead" papers without having to read them first.

*The schedule did include one by Robin Reid on fan reactions to Tauriel. I must say I can't see why there's any fuss over her. After all the totally ridiculous changes Jackson made in the Hobbit story, I can't really complain about one new character who rather makes sense, when Jackson has taken all the characters that were in Tolkien and rendered them completely senseless.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

in the Quarter

After sitting in boxes for 12 hours as pre-paid penance, last night I found myself dining on baked jambalaya at a tiny cramped restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans. This is the ideal food. I was content.

In toto I've now had three dishes of jambalaya at different venues over the last day, including another helping of the one I've long touted as the best I'd ever had. Correction: now it's the third best. I aim to further increase this number.

I'm here for the Popular Culture Association conference. I'm up tomorrow. In the meantime I've been attending papers on a wide variety of topics. Interesting stuff, if you don't mind phrases like "patriarchal hegemony" coming up a lot.