Monday, July 16, 2018

Tolkien exhibit

The Bodleian Library's Tolkien exhibit, which I got to at its opening at the beginning of June, runs through October 28, and I hope many will be able to attend.

What I hadn't seen until now is the exhibit's promotional video.

This is good, featuring several intelligent experts, although I question one sequence with the people from the local Tolkien society: I don't know the source for claiming that Tolkien and Lewis would commune at Merton's stone table (which they could only have done long after their most productive collaborating years), still less that it's the inspiration for the one in Narnia, to which it bears no resemblance other than being stone and a table. (And as for reading aloud in the Black Speech to honor Tolkien, that's just inconsiderate.)

But the other news is that the Morgan Library in New York has now officially announced that the exhibit is coming there next year, January 25-May 12. Although a few pieces that the Bodleian only borrowed from other Oxford institutions aren't coming along, it should still be a grand exhibit when transplanted, and I'm thinking of going again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

orphaned in black

B. rented the fifth and final (I hope) series of Orphan Black, and I've been sort of playing catch-up given that only sometimes am I home when she's watching an episode, and I can't always figure out time to watch one when I am.

Anyway, I think I caught them all, in some order, and the first thing that occurs to me is that I don't think of a show like this as having "episodes" at all, just hour-long chunks of a continuing storyline without much to differentiate them except which pieces of plot occur when. With half a dozen major characters, each usually in different places doing different things, all being followed at once, no episode has a distinct individual plot, and nothing ever ends. This makes it hard to nominate or vote for episodes of shows like this for the Hugo, and with their dominance I'd favor just eliminating the rule that divides them up for voting.

Yet, I find on dipping into the extra features (which thankfully do not consist of unnecessary promos for the show - you've just watched the DVD of the whole thing, what would you need that for? - but interviews with the cast and crew, but my do they blither on), that the writers and directors do think of each episode as a distinct entity with an individual character and style, as in a traditional show. That surprises me.

Having given up any hope of believable plot or character motivation by the end of the second season, by this point I'm just watching it to get to the end of the story, which at least it does, and to admire the acting, which despite everything remains good. But in the meantime we're treated to endless scenes of characters being abruptly bumped off, other characters whom you thought had been bumped off coming back to life, then getting bumped off again, and far too much of characters being told to sit tight and not do anything while we wait for the rest of the plot to catch up. In particular, it's been clear since near the start that Alison, though a great character, is absolutely useless for the main storyline, and is good for nothing except to sit around fretting with an occasional irrelevant domestic drama to distract her. Sarah is mostly shunted off to a corner to suffer physically,* and Felix, once the bulwark of the show's emotional support, is now used only to schlep little pieces of the plot around. I will give them credit, however, for having hit on, in Rachel, the rare knack for creating a character who's simultaneously sympathetic and a nasty villain.

*She goes through hell to rescue Cosima, who, when she finally finds her, says basically, "I'm good." Then she goes through hell to save Kira from Rachel, until Kira changes her mind. Then Rachel changes her mind.

Usually a show's cast and crew hold a party to honor the ending of the show's run. In this case, the characters hold the party, probably because this way, multiple Tatiana Maslanys can show up. During it, Helena (probably the most interesting character overall, and I've already heard one good Mythcon paper about her) says that she's going to write up their story - presumably as the show we've been watching five seasons of - and she's going to call it "Orphan Black." And everybody says that's a good idea, but why black, anyway?

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

concert review: Bridge Piano Quartet

Yikes, did this ever turn out to be a challenging review to write.

First, it featured a work to which the music was virtually inconsequential, and was all about the texts the narrator was reading. So I had to focus on that, which is not what I was expecting of a concert review. (When I covered the discussion panel on anti-Semitism in Bach, I at least was clear on what I was getting before I started.)

That the topic was early 20C Asian immigrants and their travails with bureaucracy in trying to get into the US immediately suggests contemporary parallels, and the connection was drawn in the pre-work talks. So I alluded to that, but without making explicit my own opinion. Nobody on stage would have disagreed if I had been explicit, but I dislike it when reviewers throw in personal political views that aren't germane to the concert, even (maybe most so) when I agree with them. For instance in this week's issue, here. It doesn't add anything to the review and is either obvious or annoying. There are other forums for that.

Second, the acoustics. It was pretty awful for the narration, which knowing the hall I could have predicted beforehand, not that the narrator had a good voice for such work, a fact I tried to elide over - I don't want to insult her. But I had to be blunt about the basic problem. I did not have room to mention that the concert had been played at Old First Church in the City last week, and it probably came off a lot better there.

I had a fairly lengthy chat with the composer afterwards, not discussing the acoustic problems, but asking him musical questions as I was anticipating saying more about the work musically than I eventually decided to do.

I also learned of the origin of his interest in things Asian. Not only has he worked with both Japanese and Chinese musicians, but his bio says he speaks Japanese fluently, and he's learning Chinese (says Wernher von Braun). He told me his interest in Japan had been sparked when he was sent there on his Mormon missionary tour.

Now that's interesting, because he can thus be added to several people I know of Western origin, with no previous personal connection with Japan, who have fallen intensely in love with the country and its culture. I suppose this dates back to the fad for things Japanese that swept Britain at the time of the Knightsbridge exhibition in the 1880s, but the intensity of it in the cases I know, though focusing on different forms - anime in one case, literature in another, J-pop in a third - is striking.

It's also baffling to me, because I have no particular interest in things Japanese (apart from their composition of Western classical music, in which they are supreme among all non-Western countries), and insofar as I have a cultural learning in the East Asian world, it's decidedly towards things Chinese instead. I prefer Chinese painting, folk music, literature (insofar as I've read any from either culture), and above all food. Of course, I also have one friend so interested in China that she visits it frequently, and I wouldn't go that far either. Well, everybody has their passions, and I'm just curious about the choice.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

on the day

With a little bit of help - for none of the non-library-worker volunteers came back this week, though a few had trailed on to the end of the previous week, beyond the dates we'd originally scheduled them for - the library barcoding project is pretty much done. Some of the more obsolescent media material still needs to be done, and the cleanup ahead of me is immense, and will take at least the whole of next week, but at least we can return the library to normal circulation operations.

Another piece of news I'd passed by that went into effect that previous week is that we have a new cat sitter. What generated this was Pippin being moved for medical reasons onto canned wet food. We've always fed the cats twice a day, but when we were gone we'd have the cat sitter put two meals' worth of kibble out once a day and hope the cats would pace themselves (because they weren't getting any more until tomorrow), but that won't work for the wet food, which once opened won't keep without refrigeration, and also because Maia craves the stuff though it's not hers and she only diminishes Pippin's portions.

But the cat sitter we already had couldn't come twice a day because the traffic around here is too thick. So at her recommendation we bought an automated cat feeder with ice packs. But then last month, on our first trip since then that required the sitter to refill the feeder, she didn't understand how it worked, despite my having devoted considerable time to writing out detailed instructions and then rewriting them when she didn't understand the first batch. Fortunately she brought in a ringer to take the other daily visit and not leave the cats in the lurch, but this isn't a permanent solution.

So B. put out a call on a neighborhood list and we found a professional sitter who's more local and can visit twice a day with no problem. She came over, chatted a lot (cat people love to talk), actually saw both cats (which I wasn't expecting: they're shy), filled out paperwork and took the key, and we await her maiden working visit.

So the cats don't have anything to worry about. I do. So here's the question. Which induces more existential dread, the wave of record-breaking temperatures or the retirement of Justice Kennedy?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

day out

That it was a holiday was not a big concern of mine. I went in to work in the morning anyway, because the project still needs to get done.

And I didn't need to leave until at least noon for the annual backyard grilling, noshing, and schmoozing party of my (non-Jewish, despite those adjectives: some activities are universal) friends whose anniversary this is.

Traded Shakespeare festival information with one of my more Shakespearean friends, and told stories of the Oxford and Montana trips. Learned why neither daughter of the house was present: elder daughter (who teaches at the University of Michigan) is at a scientific conference in Budapest, of all places, while younger daughter (who lives here) went to Detroit to meet her sister on the way out to pick up her car, which she's buying, and is now driving it all the way back to California. Having once made precisely that drive myself (carting my late grandfather's belongings), I was nostalgic.

Tried a couple of experiments with the grill. I've grilled sausages before, but not English bangers, which I usually cut up and pan-fry. They came out well grilled, but the shrimp skewers did not. I'm not sure why. Shrimp normally cooks fast, but these did not, and came out chewy. Saved most of them for my next batch of jambalaya.

Saw a few fireworks on the way home, fewer than usual, but then I left earlier than usual. After I got home, heard a few explosions, or they could have been gunshots for all I knew, but I trust they were fireworks or -crackers. That was about the extent of festivities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Harlan Ellison sayeth

This is not the sort of quote I'd have expected from such a source, but I'll take what I can get, as a quick memorial for a complicated and problematic man:

"Kittens only have two purposes in life. One is to make everything that's moving stop, and the other is to make everything that's stopped, move."
- Harlan Ellison

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


A lot of things have been going on. I'm still spending most of my days over at my congregational library, trying to organize, supervise, and put my own hand in to our barcoding project. Despite the decline in volunteers (we originally only recruited them for a few days at the start of the project), it's plugging along and I'm determined to get all the circulating books barcoded by the end of this, the second week of work. Then we can reopen the library to circulation, from which it's been effectively closed. Then another week should take care of the reference books and the obsolete media, and then the project will be over but I get to plunge into the online cleanup, which I may attempt to describe when it happens.

It's interesting being in charge of this project. I've worked on large organizing projects in professional libraries where I've worked (including being on the teams reshelving all the books that fell over during major earthquakes), but this one I had to plan and organize myself. Fortunately I've been observing long enough that I knew what to do. It's turned out pretty well, and the inevitable glitches haven't been paralyzing.

Meantime I also have reviews to write. Feeling guilty about having missed the Redwood Symphony's last regular concert of the season because I was in England, I decided to attend their annual outdoor pops gathering. There wasn't a lot to say about it, and I had to finish it off in a blazing hurry, but that got done. The Daily Journal likes me to end reviews with alerts for upcoming concerts. It was easy enough to cut-and-paste a little about Redwood's next pop concert from the press release they sent me without any prompting from me, but the beginning of next season? At the concert they said a brochure was available, but I forgot to pick one up, and the info wasn't on their website; in fact, two weeks later, it still isn't. I had to find out what they're playing, and when, from the website of a ticket broker service.

Then I got to the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which was just crammed full of weird stuff, which with considerable handling I managed to get into a review. When I called one piece "reassuringly postmodernist," I meant it: after all this strange and exotic music, it relaxed my listening tension to find something in an idiom I comfortably understood.

The Redwood concert was on the same day as the Solstice Party, a major event on my social group's annual calendar. I thought I might get over to the party first before the concert, but I was just too busy and it didn't work. I did, however, drop by the still flickering party after the concert, where quiet conversation included my insistence, in response to a question, that no, I'm not attending the SF Opera Ring cycle. I've heard all these operas on recordings, and I am not sitting through any more of them on stage.

One day while I was at the SVMF, B. was off at an evening (fortunately, as the daytimes are too hot for this) march and rally to protest family separation and the administration's other inhumane refugee policies. I'm pleased we got represented, at least. B. carried a sign reading "Brown Families Matter," which I thought was cleverer than any of the signs I saw reproduced in photo reports of the rallies.

Friday, June 29, 2018

concert review: Visual Piano

There's a lot of small and obscure performing arts venues in San Francisco, and last night I was at one of the smaller and obscurer, the Center for New Music, carved out of a bit of a warehouse in the Tenderloin, for a program called Visual Piano.

Two performers from Italy were featured on this program. Francesco Di Fiore played the piano nearly unceasingly, and with unflagging high energy, for forty minutes, while Valeria Di Matteo stood over in a corner manipulating her laptop to show films on a large screen.

The music consisted of a dozen short pieces, succeeding each other with no formal breaks, by five contemporary composers of three nationalities: two Italian (Di Fiore himself and Matteo Sommacal), two American (William Susman and Olivia Kieffer), and one Dutch (Douwe Eisenga). Despite their varied origins, and definite individual distinctiveness, their music was all of basically the same kind.

As for what kind that was, one other concertgoer I talked with described one piece as a combination of Ginastera, Prokofiev, and Bartok. This determined attempt to graft the evening's music onto a respectable high modernist (if presumably primitivist) pedigree was a valiant try at selling it by a now old-fashioned set of standards, but allow me to suggest that the comparison was specious.

This music was post-minimalist. It consisted almost exclusively of repeated arpeggiated phrases over oscillating accompaniment, which is the basis of process minimalism; and what made it post- was, it achieved variety not through cell-shifting or additive processes, but by assortments of speeds, timbres, and energy levels. Nor, except occasionally, did it cease abruptly. The other most obvious influence was smooth jazz of the Windham Hill school, which contributed not just phrasing and sound quality but also, it seemed to me, much of the individual pieces' structure.

That there are so many composers willing to write, not just tonal and pleasing, yet distinctively 21st-century (nothing like this existed before about 30 years ago), music, but nearly identikit cadre music the way that the modernist hordes used to write identikit serialist music is astonishing to me, but not entirely unwelcome. I liked all of this music and would happily give all the composers the time of day, but its tight similarity of style was a little disconcerting. I did say the composers had some individual character, but Susman - the only one I'd ever heard before - differs from all of the rest far more than any of them differ from each other, and sounds like a dissonant modernist in this context, which is actually a pretty hilarious observation.

The visuals were short films tied to each individual piece. Some of them were Reggio-like divided-screen stuttering close-ups of the inside of a piano or of feet on an escalator or the like, but my favorites consisted of grease-pencil shore-scape drawings with tiny bits of quiet animation - seagulls (depicted as wavy line fragments) or a motorboat going by, trees waving in the wind, etc. - salted in.

That was half the program; the other consisted of 25 minutes of more music of the same kind by Di Fiore, played by the piano duet Zofo or by half of Zofo plus a soprano sax, a variety small enough to look silly, though it sounded good. Tiny instrument, tiny program, tiny pieces, tiny venue, tiny audience, but a big enough reward to be worth the trip up to the City for it.

Thursday, June 28, 2018


1. It isn't often, these days, that I'm working in an office all day every day, but that's what I've been doing this week as my congregational library undertakes its inventory and barcoding project, of which I am in charge, giving instructions and advice to as many as a dozen volunteers at once, plus answering questions and resolving snags. It will probably take most of next week too, and then there's some equally consequential followup to undertake. Thus recent bouts of radio silence.

2. Justice Kennedy is retiring, thus providing another opportunity to prove that the US Supreme Court is nothing but a turf war. That he chose this time to retire speaks volumes, as do some of his recent opinions. Tonight I had dinner in a mall food court, and found myself sitting within earshot of a woman trying futilely to explain to her male companion that it's inconsistent for the Court simultaneously to prohibit states from requiring anti-abortion outfits from revealing that they're not medical clinics (on the grounds that free speech means you can't make someone say something) while allowing states to require doctors to read medically nonsensical anti-abortion statements to their relevant patients. That the man was so soft-spoken I couldn't hear his replies is the main reason I was able to resist the impulse to join in and back the woman up.

3. Harlan Ellison has died. (Perhaps reading the recent teeth-grating biography of himself was enough to kill him.) Truly, though, one thought he would live forever, because in a sense he has. He maintained the status of enfant terrible to a greater age than anyone else in human history. And at times he wrote some searingly memorable stories. ("I have no mouth. And I must scream.") So now what happens to The Last Dangerous Visions?

4. Milo Y., up until recently a conservative darling, told people he'd like to see some journalists shot up, and now someone has. I await the declarations as to why there's nothing wrong with Milo's statement, coming from the same people who insist that social shunning of Trump administration officials for their immoral policies is going too far.

Monday, June 25, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony (the same one)

So here's what happens when my editor phones and asks me to cover the same SFS program I'd just heard an earlier performance of and written about here: I take my post, cut out some of the personal chatter, and expand and elaborate on the rest, including some expository info, to review size.

That this is also how I wrote my first review for them, offering them an expansion on a blog post when I saw they hadn't covered a particular concert, is not something I've forgotten.

Friday, June 22, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

SFS is finishing up its season with a series of flashily-promoted concerts. I didn't go hear Susanna Mälkki, even though she's an outstanding conductor, because I didn't care for the repertoire. I didn't go to the semi-staged Boris Godunov. I'm not going to next week's finale, Mahler's Third (oh no, not again).

Instead, I went to this week's more quietly promoted program, MTT conducting two enigmatic Sibelius symphonies and one popular Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

Let me just say, that Sibelius Sixth was a transcendently great performance. It was lucid, compelling, and flowing. Too often when I hear the Sixth (as if it were anything other than rare), I wonder what the point of the work is or even if it has one. Not this time: I was constantly reminded of why, at its best, I love this music. It's a small piece of quiet lyricism, more like the Third than any other Sibelius symphony.

The Seventh is a very different-sounding piece and a harder nut, one I'm not sure I follow entirely, although it was played just as well. Unlike other good performances of the Seventh (easier to come by than good ones of the Sixth), this didn't feel sectional, but narrative, as if the joins were events rather than gateways. That flowing quality is what it had in common with this Sixth.

This was perfect enough that I thought of leaving at intermission, because nothing could surpass it, but I like Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto, so I decided to stick around. It was, I'm afraid, anti-climactic. Not that Daniil Trifonov isn't an excellent pianist: his playing was gentle, clear, and luminous (I'm trying to avoid the word "shining" in connection with this concerto), a good idea in this often plainly-marked work, and he kept it up even when the composer is directing the playing of clotted greeps. But the structure of the work didn't hold up: often it seemed wandering or superfluous. After Sibelius's severe order, this was indulgent, and needlessly so, because there isn't a major Rachmaninoff work that can't be tight and compelling. But that would have required a level of blistering energy that would have been out of place here.

Another thing I missed, by the way, was the annual Garden of Memory concert, which was the same day. I would have had to leave less than two hours into the four hour event in order to get over to SF in time, and fighting so much East Bay traffic to get there in the first place for so little reward didn't seem worthwhile.

Ironically, it was largely with the intent of being in town for Garden of Memory that I preferred to visit OSF two weeks ago instead of this week. Had I chosen otherwise, I could have stayed longer in Oxford ... and probably came down with the crud that all my housemates who stayed on got. And I would also have missed both June concerts, instead of just one, of the Redwood Symphony which I'm determined to attend and review this weekend.

And I would also have missed that sublime Sibelius, and though I'd not have known how great it'd be, that would have been a real loss.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

it is time

It is time.

It is time for me to be fed.

So say I.

For I am the cat.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


It's time for the biennial (or so it seems) resealing of the roads within our condo complex. Most of the time the pavement looks rather ratty, which is probably why they keep trying to fix it so often, but it doesn't seem to take.

The main effect on us is that, every time this happens, we have to move our cars out to the outside streets for two days (or else leave them trapped in the driveway or garage). And we can't even walk on the pavement for much of that time, making it a narrow and hazardous enterprise along curbs and avoiding plantings even to get out from home to where the cars are.

This time the sealing was laid on Monday morning and had dried enough by the afternoon to allow painting of the parking and lane lines. So then, why were the workmen out on Tuesday morning laying down a new and even more noxious-smelling layer of sealing that, incidentally, entirely obliterated the newly-painted lines? They were re-painted again in the afternoon.

I wasn't at home while most of this was going on. I'd made my way out to my car to spend the better part of both days at my synagogue library. We have an online catalog, and now the directors want to automate circulation. Considering our relaxed library policies, I tend to consider this a mistake, but it's their decision and it's my job to facilitate this technically. From our catalog vendor we ordered a fat package of sheets of barcodes, which arrived last week. We're going to shelf-read the collection and paste the barcodes into the books and other items. That comes next week.

In the meantime, my job is to enter the barcode numbers into the catalog database, assigning one to each item. There's a utility program that will populate the database, or any portion of it that you select by key fields, with barcode numbers, but it's weird and balky. For one thing, the utility can add the numbers, but can't erase them. (There's another utility which will erase almost anything you ask it to, but not barcode numbers.) And if you do it by hand - a slow process; there's a display format that looks like an Excel spreadsheet, but it sure as heck doesn't work like one - the system doesn't know you've done it. This is relevant because it won't let you reassign numbers you've already used. Nor, it turns out, will it let you use numbers you've previously skipped over. I'd thought about assigning full sheets to discrete parts of the collection, and collecting up the leftover overage barcodes to use on other materials later. But it looks like I'd have to enter them manually.

Enormous amounts of time running tests on the database, and e-mailing or live chats with what is apparently our vendor's one and only tech guy, who's amazingly patient. Two days of work and still no barcode numbers definitely assigned. I'd better get that far tomorrow.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

what the Constitution means to Heidi Schreck

I went to this staged program at the Berkeley Rep theater called What the Constitution Means To Me, featuring Heidi Schreck, who's a dramatist and actor. It was in their small theater and lasted 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the large theater was doing Angels in America, so that audience was there all night.

I'm not exactly sure what the thing I saw was. It's not a play and it's not a lecture, but something in between. Schreck, who's in her 40s, comes onstage and explains that when she was 15, she earned enough money to pay for her college education from the honorariums she got as one of a set of students going around to American Legion posts giving talks on the titular topic. She attempts to reconstruct her talk - her mother threw the original text away - with the help of a male actor friend who plays the Legionnaire introducer, interspersing it with stories in her adult voice of dramas in her own and her female ancestors' lives. At the end, she brings on a real-life local 15-year-old high school debater and they hold a quick and reportedly unrehearsed debate on the question of whether the Constitution should be dumped and replaced, with audience applause deciding the question. ("No" won.)

So what does she say? Her reconstruction of her teenage speech is a lot of teenage fluff, but her stories are about women's citizenship and civil rights. Her own story is about her abortion at an early age - not the procedure itself, but deciding she needed it and arranging to get it. She ties this through the Griswold and Roe decisions to the 9th and 14th Amendments. Then she tells a story of her mother as a girl and her siblings being abused by their stepfather, and how her grandmother, though a strong woman, accepted this and her own abuse, and what that says about the evolution of women's civil rights. Her great-grandmother was imported without her volition as a bride on the northwest frontier in the late 19th century, and died young in an asylum, reportedly mentally ill, and what does that story tell? That women, and blacks, and Amerinds, were - often explicitly - excluded from the Constitution in earlier days is emphasized, but rather than condemning it for that (except in the explicit debate), she takes a Barbara Jordan position of noting how the Constitution's coverage has grown.

So there was a lot of meat here, but even though we each found on our theater seat an ACLU-sponsored pocket Constitution with space at the end to write our own thoughts, I find it a little hard to say what the Constitution means to me in those terms. What I can say is broader. It's that a Constitution, however noble its phrasing and aspirations, means something only in terms of the respect that its people and government give it. The Soviet Union had a constitution that reads very well, but its statements of rights meant nothing. To describe the US Constitution as intended to preserve rich white men's rights is historically illuminating, but it's incomplete unless we understand what it's preserving them from, and the aspirations that it embodied - aspirations that enabled the Constitution easily to be reframed, through interpretation and explicit amendment, to say yes it includes the poor, blacks, women. Upholding and uplifting it should be our goal. Denouncing its flaws rather than fixing them undermines its respect, and threatens the rights we depend on the Constitution to protect.

Meanwhile, what do we do when elected officials lack any respect for either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution? Well, I think one of the purposes of this show at this time is to counteract that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

movie roundup

Thanks to DVDs and long plane flights, I've finally seen all the movies I want to see from this year's major-category Oscar nominees. (Some of them I definitely don't want to see.) Or as much of them as I want to see, which in some cases was only a few minutes. I have to say, though, that a restless seat on a transatlantic flight is not the best position from which to appreciate a movie. Even BritAir's Fawlty Towers episodes seemed tired and unfunny from that angle.

I find that this year's movies fall into two categories. One consisted of Lady Bird, Mudbound, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: small-scale stories about ordinary people, with absolutely stunningly deep and subtle characterization. Many movies aspire to this state of art, but few achieve it. These three all did. The only other movies I've seen recently that matched it are Boyhood and the little-known Margaret (the one with Anna Paquin). Last year's Manchester by the Sea tried to be that kind of movie, but failed not through inept moviemaking but because the characters were too repressed to come through properly. They weren't necessarily the best movies - Lady Bird was way, way too overlong and desperately needed cutting, and Three Billboards is morally obtuse - but they succeeded brilliantly at portraying the people in them.

The problem is that, after seeing these movies, everything else looked crass by comparison. Especially The Shape of Water, which aspires to being a fairy-tale, a different kind of story. But since from a realistic perspective - which is the space my head was in at the time - nothing that any of the characters do makes any sense at all (and that includes the monster), I found it more annoying than enchanting.

The other fictional character-oriented movie of the year was Roman J. Israel, Esq. Denzel Washington got a Best Actor nomination for this one as an autistic civil-rights lawyer: well-deserved, but it's all the movie deserved. It takes place over about three weeks, which is ludicrous, as it follows ups and downs in the character's career which ought to have taken at least three years. Nor is it well-written: Washington delivers a lot of impassioned speeches, but I was at a total loss as to what he was talking about, even though the plot is perfectly clear.

Movies telling recent history are a weakness of mine, so I went off early to see both The Post and Darkest Hour (a movie I persistently misremember as titled Greatest Hour). Despite its framing, The Post is not about the Pentagon Papers, but about the paper's moral dilemma in publishing them (a dilemma more complex and difficult than that of the NY Times, which is why this movie is about the Post and not the Times, even though the Times was the one that did the work on the Papers). It's impressively historically accurate, but as a journalism suspense movie it didn't have the sizzle of All the President's Men or Spotlight. Darkest Hour, though, while it looked meticulous in all its physical details, was persistently off in its plot and characterization - they wanted a villain, so they grotesquely paint Halifax as one - in the same way, though not the same extent, that The King's Speech was off.

For historical depictions, that leaves I, Tonya, whose topic I'd of course heard of but knew little about. It's highly illuminating, vivid, and funny as well as sad, most outstanding in its portrayal of that hard-to-depict kind of character, the incompetent bad guy. While in England I got to see on BBC the second episode of A Very English Scandal (Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe), the episode in which the dog gets shot, and by gum it's exactly the same thing as I, Tonya: people with a problem they want solved brutally hire an inept would-be criminal mastermind, who hires an even more inept thug, who totally blows the assignment, getting everybody above him in the chain of command into heaps of trouble.

Two more movies I saw were somewhat more problematic. Molly's Game I watched solely because it had an Aaron Sorkin script. Like Denzel Washington's acting in Roman, this got an Oscar nomination and is the sole reason to watch the movie. It's about a young woman with no obvious talents who suddenly discovers she has a knack for running high-stakes poker games in hotel rooms. As she rapidly learns the rules and lingo of her new profession, the non-poker-playing viewer rapidly falls behind. Eventually Molly gets in trouble for "taking a rake," a term which is never explained; my best guess is that she's betting on her own games. It's snappy, but bewildering.

The Big Sick, however, is just disturbing. It's written by a married couple about how they met and fell in love. It ought to be charming, but it's not. First off, the husband, who's a stand-up comic, plays himself, but the wife is not an actress, so she's played by somebody else. If the characters were both played by actors it wouldn't be weird, but here's the real guy pitching woo to an actress playing his wife, with his real wife's connivance. That's creepy. And the plot is worse. I'm not going to describe it in full, but he crassly and insensitively manipulates her life in two separate ways. She points this out to him and even breaks up at one point, but he seems oblivious to his flaws, and then somehow at the end they get back together again. Apparently she's won over by his sincerity, despite his expressing it crassly. This movie ought to have been made 70 years ago and been forgotten by now.

That leaves two movies I had hopes for but turned off after a few minutes.

All the Money in the World immediately delves into a series of flashbacks intended to inform you that J. Paul Getty had a lot of money. No kidding, Sherlock. Off.

The Florida Project begins with three six-year-olds gleefully spitting onto their neighbor's new car for no reason other than that they can. Do I want to spend a whole movie with such obnoxious kids? Off.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

things I shouldn't have to do

1) In the past, our cats were on dry food, and though we fed them twice a day, we could get by with once-daily visits by the cat sitter when we were away, trusting the cats to pace their eating. But now Pippin is on wet food that needs to be portioned and kept cold when opened but not eaten.

When our cat sitter said she's unable to visit twice a day due to the heavy traffic around here, we invested in an automated feeder with a lid on a timer and an ice pack underneath. But despite claiming to be familiar with automated feeders, the sitter found this one incomprehensible, even despite my investing considerable time in writing specific descriptions of exactly what needed to be done each day.

We're looking for a new cat sitter, one who lives closer and can visit twice a day.

2) Facing a Tolkien Studies submission in the form of a paper which dismayingly turns into yet another claim that the author has found the Real-O True-O sub-creational identity of Tom Bombadil, different from all the other Real-O True-O identities that a dozen other enthusiasts have come up with before.

Found myself writing in response, "Does the fallacy need to be explained? Bombadil isn't necessarily really anything. He's a fictional character."

Sunday, June 10, 2018

kalimac in Ashland

B. and I have just returned from three full days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where we -

sorry, the cat just walked in, announced imperiously (in Cat), "So you're back. Come and pet me." and there went twenty minutes.

- saw six plays in what was not too bruising a schedule. Bursts of rain failed to interfere in the outdoor shows. Three of these plays have been running since February. The other three were literally on first or second previews. You wouldn't have been able to tell.


I find this an inherently problematic play. It's no longer acceptable for Othello to be played by an actor who is anything other than black, but there aren't a lot of other parts for black actors in Shakespeare, so when I've seen it before, Othello was played by a young actor without much Shakespearean experience, and since the character is a credulous fool, making him all the tougher to perform adequately, the grizzled white veteran invariably cast as Iago just wiped the floor with him.
The solution to this problem has arrived with the recently wide-spread advent of color-blind casting in other Shakespearean roles. According to his cast bio, Chris Butler, cast as Othello here, has previously been in eight different Shakespeare plays at various theaters (I saw him as Don John in a somber-toned Much Ado, when he previously popped up here in 2004), and though his character is still stupid, he had the chops to tackle this large and weighty part and stand up against OSF veteran Danforth Comins, who is not about to lose my vote as the finest Shakespearean actor currently treading the boards, as Iago. Alejandra Escalante, a strong and powerful Desdemona, also triumphed over what can be a wimpy role.

Romeo and Juliet. Emily Ota, though a fine actress, seemed to me too mature and forceful to be well-cast as the young and impetuous Juliet. William Hodgson as Romeo was adequate but not very memorable. The memorable and brilliant stars of this production were a pair of OSF veterans cast as chatty sidekicks: Robin Nordli, hilariously gabby as the Nurse, and Michael Hume, fretfully gabby as Friar Laurence. Notable frontiers in casting: the actress playing Lady Montague is deaf, so any scene with her in it had a lot of sign language.

Love's Labor's Lost. Played as OSF plays Comedy of Errors, as a roustabout comedy, and for the same reason: to make a crusty old script funny for a modern audience. Succeeded through a combination of goofballing and anachronisms. For the masque depicting the Nine Worthies, one character shows Hercules by ripping his shirt open, and another guesses who he's playing: "The Incredible Hulk!"

Increasingly Non-Shakespearean

The Book of Will
by Lauren Gunderson. A new play depicting Shakespeare's surviving colleagues conceiving, editing, and publishing the First Folio. Tribulations bring drama, but mostly this is a tribute to their love of the memory of Shakespeare the man (much discussed but not depicted onstage) and their desire to preserve his work after they're gone. A lively mixture of humor and melancholy, with lots of gratifying assumptions that the audience knows its Shakespeare well. The editors' wives and a grown daughter play major roles both substantive and in encouragement. This is, among other things, a play about mature men who love their wives, so I could really identify.

Sense and Sensibility, adapted from Austen by Kate Hamill. A good adaptation in both substance and style, framed by having those actors not in a given scene standing around giving gossipy narration. If there's one character in this year's offerings as young and impetuous as Juliet Capulet, it's Marianne Dashwood, so who plays her? Yes, Emily Ota. Excellent performance, but it was hard not to wonder what she's doing there. Elinor (Nancy Rodriguez) gets overshadowed. Actually, rather as with the veterans in R&J, the florid K.T. Vogt as Mrs Jennings outacted everybody. Post-show talk by Nate Cheeseman, a first-year actor with a big chin, who played Willoughby. Said he'll be in an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice soon: as Wickham. I think his chin has typecast him. There was one clunker in the play, and I checked: it's in the script. At one point a servant introduces Sir John Middleton as "Lord Middleton". Oh dear: no, no, no, NO.

Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacharias, a play in the style of a telenovela. A Mexican family melodrama packed with romance, adultery, baby-switching and other long-lost relatives, financial chicanery, medical malpractice, and murder, all of it played strictly for laughs. Performed with intense verve by an all ethnically Latin cast.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

kalimac in Oxford

The process of arranging for my visit to Oxford for the opening of the Bodleian's Tolkien exhibit was an epic in itself. Tolkienian linguist Carl Hostetter was the one who originally suggested gathering with colleagues and friends for this event, and when, early this year while looking over my calendar, I asked him how plans were going, within a few busy weeks he and Mythopoeic Society organizer Lynn Maudlin had concocted a viable practical plan. They rented a large (4-bedroom, with extra beds) house for a week off Airbnb, and reserved a private room at one of the Inklings' favorite pubs for a vast quantity of local and visiting Tolkienists for the evening of the opening day. Lynn coaxed four of us who would all be converging on Heathrow the previous day to buy a group-discount round-trip (return) coach ticket to Oxford which, since we were coming back at different times, would be transferred to a somewhat different group of four people for the return.

Even more fun was that the house we rented was the Headington Shark, a locally famous landmark in the form of a suburban row house (just off the main road, so convenient for the bus) with a 50-foot fiberglass shark crashing head-first into the roof. (And, in case you're one of the many who ask, no there isn't a shark head emerging from the ceiling on the other side.) The sculpture's actual title, as revealed in a plaque by the front door, is "Untitled 1986." As a rental property, the house was professionally-run, clean and well-kept, with a spacious kitchen and sitting room, the latter ideal for an extra guest in the form of Tolkien biographer John Garth, who stayed over the night of the opening rather than running the hour home so that he'd have more time to write his Telegraph review of the exhibit which was due early the next morning.

We all contributed to the knowledge base. Carl had researched the bookstores, Jason Fisher the pubs; I knew the local geography so could offer advice on bus lines and knew which block of stone belonged to which college on the history-steeped two block walk from the bus stop to the Bodleian. ("And those," I said, pointing through an archway, are the twin towers of All Souls, and they have at least as good a claim to be the original of Tolkien's Two Towers as any pair of smokestacks in Birmingham.")

The exhibit is small, and while admission is free they were expecting demand to fill up, so you could buy a timed ticket online for a small fee, and our group went in at various times on the first two days, some of us at least twice. The group pub gathering was a fine place to meet: Every strange face I introduced myself to turned out to be some renowned Tolkienist, usually one I'd corresponded with, so we had a very focused set of conversations. Other than that, we bookstored (besides Blackwell's and the Bodleian shop, we were happy with St Philip's in St Aldate's), avoided the rain which at times came down in torrents, surrounding the Bodleian with a 5-foot-wide running moat, and pubbed. In 2 1/2 days in Oxford I had 5 meals out, each with a passel of friends in a different pub. All were old and atmospheric, all had good cider which is my drink, and quickness of service was purely a function of how crowded they were, so there isn't much to base a comparative ranking on except the size of the quarters and the food. From bottom up they were:

5. The Turf. Large, with many back rooms. One of the most famous pubs in Oxford, particularly prized by those who can boast of knowing how to find it - it's down a winding and narrow passageway, set far back from the nearest streets. The meat pie had interesting filling (with marrow in it) but a very dull crust. One of our party had to leave unfed as there was nothing gluten-free she could eat.

4. The Kings Arms. Very large, with reservable private rooms, so it was the ideal locale for our large gathering. It's also an Inklings pub, where C.S. Lewis liked to meet with Tolkien and others after a day's research at the Bodleian, which is across the street. At one time this had the best pub food in Oxford, but that was quite a while ago. I had the fish and chips, and while the chips were great - double-fried and very crisp - the fish was mealy and tasted more like battered mashed potato than fish. The White Horse down the street was better for that.

3. Lamb & Flag. As large as the Turf, also with many back rooms. This is directly across the wide St Giles high street from the smaller but more famous Eagle and Child pub known as where the Inklings met. Unfortunately the crowds know that too, and it was too crowded to eat in. But what we knew that most of the crowds didn't is that at one point the Inklings themselves abandoned the Eagle and Child (they didn't like the remodeling) for the Lamb and Flag, which we found decently uncrowded. In addition to several kinds of meat pies, they also have suet puddings, which at least is a little bit different. And yes, one of those is lamb (no flag, though).

2. The White Horse. Very small pub, right next to Blackwell's. Also an occasional Inklings gathering place. Besides having probably the best cider, it had wonderfully textured and tender fish in its fish and chips.

1. The White Hart. Medium-sized, but with a large back garden. The hidden find of the trip, not in central Oxford at all but in Old Headington, which is a quiet little area a couple scenic blocks' walk north of the main Headington shopping area, and hence close to our house. Easy to get to, but hardly anyone does. Not much up here, aside from houses, except the pub and the medieval church across the street, which is also worth visiting, except the church doesn't have drinks or an extraordinarily extensive (about 8 varieties) selection of truly excellent meat pies, admirable not just for the fillings (beef, chicken, venison(!)) but for the light and flaky crusts. And yes, they'll make a gluten-free one on request.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Tolkien in Oxford

The Bodleian Library's new Tolkien exhibit, which opened on Friday and runs for 5 months, was the goal of my trip to England. The Bodleian holds many of Tolkien's papers (and they borrowed for this exhibit some items from Marquette University, which holds many of his manuscripts, and old records from Oxford's Exeter College, his undergraduate college), but this is their first Tolkien exhibit in 25 years and far more extensive than its predecessor.

It's in a gallery in the Weston Library, which has been much refurbished and cleaned up from the dingy "New Bodleian" that it used to be. You walk in through a foyer in which enlarged images from Tolkien's maps of Middle-earth have been projected on the floor, so you're walking across Middle-earth, a clever touch. Then you turn into the exhibit itself, one large room full of things - "wonderful things," as Howard Carter would say. Like King Tut's tomb, the room is murkily-lit and not very clearly organized. It's full of glass cases in which are suspended the artifacts, with captions mostly down at around waist level. But they are wonderful to see.

There are cases on his childhood, his university and war service years, his physical creative environment as an adult (including a desk and chair he used), and a whole series mostly around the perimeter on his creative work: his early artistic Book of Ishness, The Book of Lost Tales (yes, the original school notebooks in which he wrote it), The Hobbit (mostly the illustrations) and The Lord of the Rings (mostly the maps). After a case of the elaborate paisley-like doodles he drew on newspapers in his later years, there's a case of editions and translations of his books plus fan letters (including one from a teenager named Terence Pratchett, and another from an old man named Sam Gamgee who'd heard his name was in the book), and that's it. You go out another door, and the gift shop (a whole story in itself, believe me) is over to the right beyond the cafe.

Now, much of this material has been published before, the art in reproductions and the written material in transcriptions. But much of the material is hard to reproduce adequately - a map might have both the deepest India ink and the faintest of pencil markings - and there's also the human need to see the originals. What gets me at this exhibit, and on previous occasions when I've seen Tolkien's art displayed, is the vividness and intensity of his craft and the minute tiny details he fills it with. It has the same appeal as a lot of Chinese art.

Tolkien's creative craft in geography is also illustrated not just by his maps, but by a couple more original tech items the exhibitors dreamed up themselves, which as they're not archival material are at least brightly lit. They're map displays with moving lights showing the travels of the characters in The Lord of the Rings. One's a vertical comparative map, and the other is a table with a 3-dimensional relief map of the imaginary landscape, on which are serially projected the various stages of the journeys.

As for the artifact aspect, seeing original handwritten texts I'm long familiar with from scholarly book texts is itself a wonder. I have no doubt as to what was the most moving single item in the exhibit, and it's not by Tolkien himself. Tolkien served in WW1 on the Somme along with one of his closest school friends, Geoffrey Bache Smith, another budding poet. Smith scribbled Tolkien a letter which ends, "May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot."

It was his lot. Not long afterwards, Smith was hit by shrapnel, the wounds became infected, and he died at the front. And there, suspended in the case, is the last page of that last letter ... hastily scribbled ... in pencil, yet. One turns in tears.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

two concerts and a show in London

Why I'm in London will wait for later, but I took the opportunity of being there to attend two concerts at the Southbank Centre, a collection of monumentally ugly 1960s brutalist concrete slabs on the Thames immediately opposite the West End. Inside those slabs, however, are some spacious wood-lined auditoriums.

The real attraction for me was the appearance at the Royal Festival Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, which Simon Rattle is taking on a last round of tours before his retirement from the music directorship next month. What they played was even more enticing: Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, in its completed version. Bruckner finished up three of an intended four movements, and those are what is usually played; but when he died, the finale still consisted of a collection of scraps and pieces, and since Bruckner's genius consisted largely of how he put the pieces together, completing it is a daunting task. It took four musicologists to concoct this version of the finale, which is just over 20 minutes long - a good length - and what I can say for it is that it seemed to comport well with Rattle's approach to the genuine article, which is to treat Bruckner as a composer of Big Paragraphs, and not to worry about anything so quotidian as themes. I don't think Rattle has quite as deep a command of Bruckner's large structure as some conductors, and the climaxes didn't tower quite as much as they should (an unreverberant hall didn't help), but the musicologists didn't seem afraid to make a conclusion big enough that it wasn't quite anticlimactic for the end of an epic 90-minute symphony.

As the piece ended, I muttered to myself (through having nobody else to talk to), "I always wanted to know how that one came out."

Like many conductors with similar pieces on their plates, Rattle chose to preface his epic with something brief and completely incongruous, in this case a piece of crypto-modernism by Hans Abrahamsen.

A chamber music concert at the much smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall, physically an unbroken slope-fest that reminds me of Snape Maltings, was intended as a reproduction of a famous concert that took place there nearly 50 years ago when the place was new. Daniel Barenboim, Jacqueline du Pre, and some other hot young talents of the day had played Schubert's Trout Quintet. So today, pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who's 25, gathered together some age-mates, including violinist Hyeyoon Park and cellist Kian Soltani, to play the same piece, plus the Schubert Notturno, the Brahms Op. 25 Quartet, and a violin-piano rhapsody by Bartok. They were bold and fearless in all these pieces. The Brahms survived an unfortunate man who was horribly sick on the seat a couple rows in front of me, the man was led gently away and I heard he'd be all right, and I hope the hall survived too, judging from the number of employees busily scrubbing away at it during intermission.

Over across the river in a West End theatre boldly named the Coliseum, I got to a musical show from the other end of my tastes, a revival production of Chess. This show, which I've seen before, has a topic that appeals to me, plus an inordinate number of good songs, far more than any other post-1970 musical I've heard. The production had a lot of splashy lighting effects that overshadowed the tiny actors down on the stage, but made up for this with huge video projections of them during most of the songs, which, despite videographers prowling the stage, I eventually figured out were not live.

The stars, Michael Ball and Tim Howar, are, I understand, big names in this line of work, and they certainly did entirely satisfactory jobs on the big emotional ballads, the kind of song anyone who's not a consummate professional would make a complete hash of. But the performer who impressed me the most was the lesser-known Phillip Browne as Molokov, the Russian handler, who brought wit and vividness, not to mention a basso profundo, to this normally imperturbable role.

Further notes on visiting London:

1. I already knew that all theatres here charge extra for programmes, but the Brits seem to have trouble with them, as at all events I heard plaintive queries as to where they could be found, which I'd had no trouble with.

2. The better restaurants all include a service charge in the bill. It's labeled as optional, but only a churl would wish to reduce it, and I for one am happy to be relieved of the burden both of deciding how much to leave and of figuring out the amount. The rate is, universally, 12.5%. This strikes me as eminently reasonable for a lot of impressively attentive service. To leave 15% here would be impossibly generous, and 20% would be a studied insult by rich Americans throwing their money around. This is not to say the food is inexpensive: at these places, it certainly isn't.

3. On the other end of the economic spectrum, I saw more homeless on the streets than I ever had in London before. San Francisco claims to be embarrassed by its profusion of homeless. I don't think it's anywhere near as far out of the typical as it thinks, or than it used to be.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

it just vanished

It's while packing for a trip that one is really hit by the ubiquity of the phenomenon of how an item which has always been kept in a particular place just won't be there. It just ... vanished.

For years I had some out of circulation British currency notes that I meant on a future trip to take to the Bank of England main office and trade them in, which is the only legal thing you can do with them. They were in an envelope in the back of a particular drawer, and I frequently saw them there, but when I finally was to return to Britain and went to take them, they weren't there. They just ... vanished. They haven't reappeared in the year and a half since then, either.

A few months ago I bought a new pair of suspenders. I put them on top of my dresser and frequently saw them there. I meant finally to use them on this trip, but they aren't there. They just ... vanished.

A set of three toiletry items, not easily or inexpensively replaced, that I took on my last trip I left in my travel bag, and saw them there last week when I peered in needing something else. When I went through the contents today, they're not there. They just ... vanished. All three of them. They're not in the only place I ever keep them when they're not in the bag, either.

A few weeks ago I got my car registration renewal. I needed a smog check. I stuck the notice in the glove compartment, hoping to find time in an excessively busy current schedule to get it done. I took the car in to the dealer for pre-trip servicing early this week. After we'd finished going over the rest of the job, I asked, "Do you do smog checks?" The adviser said, "We do. Got your paperwork?" Oh, it was there. He took it and then gave it back. But when I got home and prepared to mail it in ... it had vanished. I'd had it tucked in to the book I was reading. It wasn't there. It wasn't with all the paperwork I got from the dealer. It had just ... vanished. Fortunately there's now a kiosk in the supermarket to do instant reg renewal with a credit card, and it doesn't require the paperwork or its vital printed barcode.

Sometimes things that just vanish eventually turn up. Often right where they were all the time. Other times they don't. Once, some years ago, tired of losing eyeglasses, I ordered two new pair instead of one. Now I had three and was well prepared. Within weeks all three had ... vanished. At home: I didn't leave them out somewhere. None of them ever turned up, not even when we moved house.

Why do things vanish? Are the cats playing tricks on me? Are burglars sneaking in when we're not home? (Possible with the money, even though it'd do a home-grown burglar no good, but then why didn't they take ...) Are there holes in space, or can the items actually take themselves off? In some cases I can move something absent-mindedly, and indeed there are many times when I think, "I put this somewhere, but I can't remember where." But in the case of the three items I need for this trip, that's emphatically not so. It's a mystery.

Friday, May 25, 2018

in the line

I was feeling post-prandial groggy as I stood in the grocery check-out line, when the man in front of me plopped down a copy of National Enquirer or some similar mag on the belt. The headline read "HODA FIRED". And the following thoughts went through my head, pretty much verbatim:

Groggy Brain: I don't know what a Hoda is. Isn't that the name of one of those alien species in Star Wars? Those cute furry creatures who live on a forest planet: weren't they called Hodas or Yodas or something like that?

Nerd Brain (recovering from slumber): They were called Ewoks. Yoda was the name of the Jedi Master who taught Luke.

Groggy Brain: Oh. I must have been thinking of something else. I can't bother to remember this stuff; I leave that to you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

dead white guys

I don't have anything to say about Philip Roth. I read one of his novels once, and decided that life was too short to spend any more of it reading people who wrote like that. So I'm in no position to make any further criticisms.

Tom Wolfe, on the other hand, I've read three of his novels. The first one I liked despite it being over the top. The second was further over the top, and the third was too far over the top. So I stopped.

concert review: Telegraph Quartet

My editors sent me up to the City to cover this. I was not really looking forward to it, as I've heard this group play before and they displayed all the emotional effect of the machine they're named after. But this time they were somewhat better.

I spilled some of my thoughts in conversation with Kai Christiansen, the musicologist who wrote the evocative program notes and hosted an after-concert talk with the players, but I managed to get most of them down in writing.

The one word in the review I don't believe is "Valley" as in Noe Valley, the purported locale of the concert. Valleys are supposed to be flat, between the mountains - they certainly are in rugged Montana - but the 1880s wooden church (with the sanctuary on the upper floor, and fortunately an elevator of considerably more recent vintage) where the concert was held is up on a hill, and a fairly steep one, only two blocks from the steepest street in San Francisco.

I'd been hoping to take transit - the bus leaves off less than two blocks away on the less-hilly side - but it was a busy day and with a maximum of 20 minutes wait on Sunday for the BART and again for the bus, I couldn't risk it. So I drove and found exactly the same open parking space half a block away I had the last time I drove here, for the Henry Cowell festival.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

second concert: supplemental

I forgot to say about Philip Glass's Piano Concerto No. 3 that the long ending, with an oft-repeated phrase drifting to the far ends of the piano, reminded me of the passacaglia section in the Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke, not a composer I expected to be reminded of by Philip Glass.

In the lobby before the concert I heard two men talking about Scotland, especially the unexpectedly luminous quality of the light there. I considered chiming in to agree, but decided I had nothing in particular to add that would justify the interruption.

Then one of them was describing his trip to the Highlands. "We took a ferry to the Isle of Mull," he said, and I was thinking, OK, I know where that is. "Then we took another ferry to the Isle of Iona," and I thought, Yes, that's how you get there. And then he said, "That's where the Book of Kells comes from," and I had to bite my tongue to keep from correcting him. Then they abruptly switched to talking about Iona Brown: it was a classical concert, after all. But no Mendelssohn references, peculiarly enough.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

two concerts

Peninsula Symphony, last weekend, reviewed. I got the score of the Elgar Cello Concerto out of the library to follow along, because I tend to consider this work, like most of Elgar's more ambitious compositions, a featureless wad.

Without review assignment, I went to hear the New Century Chamber Orchestra last night. This was so that I could hear Philip Glass's new Piano Concerto No. 3, which dedicatee Simone Dinnerstein has been taking around the country on a premiere tour.

This could have been asking for trouble, because a dozen years ago I heard his Piano Concerto No. 2 at Cabrillo, and was not impressed: uninspired noodling with astonishingly bad sonic balance. But No. 3 was much better, as hypnotically entrancing a work as Glass has ever composed. It's a very long work and could have been longer as far as I was concerned, mostly slow and quiet. The Glassian figurations are confined to the string orchestra, which never drowns out the piano even when the strings are busy and the piano is playing slow chords, which it often is. The chordal work was dominant in the piano part, and only the harmonic progressions were a sure giveaway of Glass's hand. At times it sounded like a string work with piano obbligato, at others like pianist and orchestra were playing entirely separate works simultaneously.

Dinnerstein also played Bach's G Minor concerto (more familiar in its violin form, in which it's in A Minor), which she's been taking along with the Glass. The orchestra also played Purcell's Chacony, a Corellian concerto grosso by Geminiani, and Bryce Dessner's Aheym, a raw-sounding little piece that's far more "minimalist" in style than anything Glass has written since around the time that Dessner, who's 42, was in elementary school.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Friday my editor phoned, wondering if I might be able to cover that week's SF Symphony concert. "I went to last night's performance," I said, "and I think I could ginger up a review." My editor said he really wanted to know what I'd made of the new work by Connesson, and we discussed it for a while, and I realized that this conversation was actually writing my review for me. So I completed it in written form and here it is, complete with grumblings against the serialist (well, post-tonalist) hegemony. Won't he ever stop going on about that? Not as long as the attitudes that engendered it still exist.

We took advantage of a week's maintenance shutdown of B's workplace to do something that would be too time-consuming and tiring to do on an ordinary day off, which was to take the 3-hour (each way) drive out to visit niece and family off in the distant rural expanses of the Central Valley. Children well-behaved, but also very energetic. Fun to be with for a bit, but glad we never had any of our own. Greeted at door with announcement from knee-level: "I'm four!" "Four what?" I asked, to see what she'd say. "Four and a half!" she replied. And as her birthday is September 12, that's true.

Spending several days back at the research libraries, this time reading through the long nomination list for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award, for which I'm on the jury. Some good books out there, also some dubious ones, also some ones needing copy-editing. More on that later, perhaps. Got caught up like a ping-pong ball batted back and forth in a turf war between the check-out clerk and the security officer. More on that later? Perhaps not.

Oh, and my upcoming trip to England, a very tightly-scheduled event, just keeps getting more exciting. First my flight got canceled. Not discontinued; just canceled, that day's flight and no other. They say they decided to inspect the plane that day. Got rebooked onto another flight going somewhere else; will get home about 5 hours later than previously expected. Then the show I was going to see in London got canceled. Just that one performance and no other. No reason given. Can't make any other, so switched to another show; fortunately there was one I'd been considering and the same agency covered it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

bonus revelation

How much of a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail am I?

Well, there was the time I was in a hotel ballroom at Mythcon which was being set up for a stage presentation I'd be participating in later that day. At one point the technicians asked me to speak into the microphone to test it. I walked up and opened my mouth with no idea what I was about to say.

What came out was, "Look: strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government."

So last night I was attending a small social gathering and one of the other attendees was describing a radio station trivia contest she once took part in. Explaining how it worked, she said, "They ask you five questions ..."

And I instantly interjected, "Three questions."

Again, I had no idea I was going to say this.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Tolkien Studies 15: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 15 of the journal Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. All of the works are now in the hands of our publisher, West Virginia University Press, and the volume is scheduled to be published in softcover and on Project MUSE later this year. - David Bratman, co-editor

Tolkien Studies 15 (2018)
  • Nicole duPlessis, "'Changed, Changed Utterly': The Implications of Tolkien's Rejected Epilogue to The Lord of the Rings"

  • Tom Hillman, "These Are Not the Elves You're Looking For: Sir Orfeo, The Hobbit, and the Reimagining of the Elves"

  • Jane Chance, "Tolkien's Classical Beowulf and England's Heroic Age"

  • Chiara Bertoglio, "Dissonant Harmonies: Tolkien's Musical Theodicy"
Notes and Documents
  • Stuart D. Lee, "'Tolkien in Oxford' (BBC, 1968): A Reconstruction"

  • Janet Brennan Croft, "Doors into Elf-mounds: J.R.R. Tolkien's Introductions, Prefaces, and Forewords"

  • Denham, Robert D., compiler, "References to J.R.R. Tolkien in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye"
Book Reviews
  • The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, revised and expanded edition, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, reviewed by Jason Fisher

  • Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, reviewed by Sherwood Smith

  • There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale: More Essays on Tolkien, by Verlyn Flieger, reviewed by Alyssa House-Thomas

  • The Sweet and the Bitter: Death and Dying in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, by Amy Amendt-Raduege, reviewed by Robert Steed

  • J.R.R. Tolkien: Romanticist and Poet, by Julian Eilmann, reviewed by Jay Rimmer

  • The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain, edited by Sørina Higgins, reviewed by John D. Rateliff
  • David Bratman, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun, Robin Anne Reid, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2015"

  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (In English) for 2016"

Thursday, May 10, 2018

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Two French guest performers, both of whom I'd heard before, appeared in a concert of Franco-Italian travelogue music. Stéphane Denève, his wild mane of hair beginning to recede in front, conducted.

The all-French work on the program was the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns, with the solo by Gautier Capuçon. He had a firm, mellow tone in this mostly lively and fairly choppy work. The unusual feature is a courtly minuet in the middle, played crisply and softly in the strings. Capuçon's encore was also by Saint-Saëns, "The Swan" accompanied by orchestral strings and harp.

There were two somewhat mixed-provenance works on the program. Escales (Ports of Call) by Jacques Ibert is a 1922 suite depicting Mediterranean countries the French composer visited on his honeymoon: Italy, Spain, and Tunisia. The idiom, in orchestration and slightly seasick harmonies, was very much "school of Debussy," though Debussy never wrote anything as exotic as Ibert's Tunisia.

A brief and very recent work by the French composer Guillaume Connesson, also depicting the Italian landscape, bears a long title in Italian translatable as "The river is clear in the valley." It surprised me with its retro quality, being in what seemed a combination of neoromanticism and neoclassicism. Only a few odd harmonies betrayed for certain that it had not been written a century earlier.

Lastly, The Pines of Rome, the most famous of Ottorino Respighi's sets of panels depicting the city. Denève stationed extra brass for the finale around the balconies, resulting in weird echo effects. This was also done for the recent San Jose performance, though I don't recall seeing it earlier. But this was a refined and dignified performance where San Jose's was raucous.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

concert catchup

Over the weekend, my editors sent me to hear Symphony Silicon Valley do Haydn's The Creation, and it was good, much better than the last rather low-rent performance I heard. As usual Karen S. was in the choir, which did very well for itself.

Last Thursday, while I was still posting here about Montana, I went up to a San Francisco Symphony concert under Juraj Valčuha, mostly so that I could hear Prokofiev's rough and angular Third Symphony again. This performance smoothed out and made the work as lyric as possible, but without sacrificing drive. It was pretty satisfactory. Ray Chen played the Brahms Violin Concerto, a performance I thought subdued and retiring but which my fellow reviewer characterized as driving and even reckless. Opening up was Unstuck by Andrew Norman, a young composer I've found interesting before. This piece felt like ten minutes of imaginatively conceived, brightly-colored fragments that seemed deliberately designed not to add up to anything.

And a couple weeks ago, before my trip, I was at Herbst for the Takács Quartet, the farewell performance (though the conservative ensemble made nothing out of this) of their founding second violin, Károly Schranz, who's retiring this month. The expected deep consideration of a lot of non-flashy repertoire, Mozart's K. 387, Mendelssohn's Op. 80, and Dohnányi's Second.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Montana: other travelling notes

Great Falls: Where my flights terminated and where I stayed three of the seven nights of my journey, something of a home base and the only city I spent much time in, Great Falls has lost an industry (or two: hydroelectric power and smelting) and not yet found a role. It's a large city but curiously vacant: there was hardly anyone there and no significant traffic, even on the main drag at commute hours. Yet it was not closed down or boarded up as decaying midwestern or southern cities are. It seemed healthy but there wasn't much there. In particular, I had trouble finding anything not a chain (and not too many of those, either) open for lunch on a Sunday except diners still serving only breakfast food. I had a great omelet, though.

Countryside traffic: Not too much of that, either. On any of the back unpaved roads, if a vehicle, usually a pickup, is coming the other way, raise your hand to greet its driver, because they will to you. You're probably the only other driver they've seen all day.

The California of Montana: The only even moderately heavy traffic I saw was while passing through the outskirts of Missoula, my only encounter with that city. The road (Reserve St.) was lined with malls and chain outlets, more of it in 5 miles than in all of Great Falls. I told a store clerk in an outlying village that it was the only thing I'd seen in Montana that reminded me of urban California, and she thanked me warmly for confirming her own impression.

Montana Leisurely: The reason I was chatting with the store clerk is because by then I'd learned that that's what you do in Montana. Even in Great Falls I found the service style I dubbed "Montana leisurely." It's not unfriendly or uncaring, it just takes a long time. Allow two hours for a meal at a restaurant that would take one hour elsewhere. And, in particular, for checkout clerks, chatting extensively with customers who've already completed their purchase takes a much higher priority than helping the next person in line. If you're the next person, you'd just better get used to it. (And, while nobody was unfriendly, by far the warmest and most friendly were the clerks and servers at every place I stopped in the small towns of the Bitterroot Valley. They really make you feel welcome there.)

Steaks? Since I like to focus on local cuisine wherever I go, you may wonder how many steaks I ate in a week in Montana. Three, actually: one basic sirloin, one small marinated ribeye, and one T-bone so huge and thick that my first act was to saw off the strip side to save it for the next day. A couple hamburgers, lamb chops in a chop house, and a Butte-area special, the (boneless, needless to say) breaded pork chop sandwich. In Salmon, Idaho, I figured that I'm not often in a town named for a food, so when I saw that namesake food on the menu, I ordered it. Two meals in the small Montana town of Dillon rather surprisingly yielded me 1) some of the best jambalaya I've had outside of Louisiana, 2) the best tamales I've had outside of ex-Mexican territory.

Unexpected echo: In some of the smaller towns (smaller than Dillon), the best place to eat was often a saloon, a bar (for drinks) with a table seating area off to one side and a small menu focusing on burgers, steak sandwiches, and the like. This is not a kind of establishment I've seen in California, though some of our restaurants have bars, which is more the other way around, and felt more like eating at an English pub than any other experience I've had over here, albeit with a very heavy Western American accent. For one thing, you might find yourself sitting underneath a majestic antlered deer head mounted on the wall, or if you skittered away from that, next to a player piano on the other side of the room.

On the reservation: Members of the Blackfoot tribe are very proud of being Blackfeet. Even the ones panhandling in front of the tribal museum are very proud of being Blackfeet. I gave them a generous tip in hushed respect.

Culture in Montana: The Great Falls Symphony plays in an auditorium inside a WPA-era building labeled "City Hall" on that side and "Convention Center" on another side, and which is consequently hard to find. The musicians were dressed formally, but in the audience I saw a couple men in sports coats but not a single necktie. This was, already in late April, the last concert of the season, under first-year music director Grant Harville. The theme was music connected with movies. Of the two standard concert works, Gershwin's American in Paris was relaxed and easy but Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé (I was probably the only person there who'd actually seen the original movie) was stiff and awkward. Two chunks from more recent movies, Empire of the Sun (John Williams) and The Mission (Ennio Morricone), both featured chorus, an outstandingly clear and balanced ensemble directed by Paul Ritter, just then retiring.

A newspaper article alerted me to a children's theater production of the first act of Sondheim's Into the Woods and I couldn't resist that, so I adjusted my schedule to stop in Butte in time to see a performance. The tiny theater was even harder to find than the symphony hall, requiring one to pass sequentially through the lobby of a Masonic temple, a large gymnasium, and a door labeled women's restroom (it wasn't) in order to enter. The cast was mostly teenagers, with parts for younger children in a few cases that were obvious (Jack, Little Red) and some that weren't (Rapunzel's Prince). Like Linus's pumpkin patch, the show had sincerity, but what came out of anyone's mouth could not charitably be called singing. The narrator, for instance, was a girl made up like a Midsummer Night's Dream fairy, with a strong stage presence and a good line in eerie contortionate gymnastics, but ... she could not sing.

Bookstores: One advantage of the back of beyond is that there are still big used bookstores there. Second Edition Books in Butte (commercial space, wide open plan) claims to be the best used bookstore in Montana, and it's good but I'd give that prize to Montana Valley Books in Alberton, 30 miles outside Missoula (converted house, packed and cramped but not musty).

Saturday, May 5, 2018

travelling expeditiously through Montana

1. Take a map, a really good map. I took the DeLorme 3 miles to an inch road atlas, and it was vital. Directions to Lewis and Clark sites will send you off down obscure unpaved roads, and while those roads have names, Montana is chary of putting those names on road signs, and the map is the best way to find out where to go.

2. Nevertheless, don't be afraid to drive those unpaved roads. Montana keeps them in good condition. Only the occasional washboarding and the even rarer gully. But while the speed limit was typically 40 mph, 35 was about as fast as I could go without kicking too much gravel up. Once, far up in the mountains about a mile below the Continental Divide, I found a tree had fallen across the road. In my SUV, I was able to drive over the trunk, but I fancy that the sports car I passed going the other way a few miles later was in for an unpleasant surprise.

3. And when you get to your L&C site, even if it's far out in the wilderness, don't be surprised if there are interpretive signs, often well-researched and with very few factual errors. Comparing these with the info in my older guidebooks, it looks like the signage has been blooming in recent years.

(3a. OK, what errors were there? Two different signs said that Lewis left Sgt. Ordway in command of the portage camp at Great Falls when he set off to explore the Marias. No, Ordway and the canoe party hadn't arrived from upstream yet. Sgt. Gass was in charge pending Ordway's arrival. In the town of Salmon, Idaho, which dubs itself Sacagawea's birthplace (she was probably born somewhere in the area, but we don't know for sure), there's a sign claiming that her reunion with her brother, now the chief of their band, took place there as well. No, that happened over on the Montana side, at Camp Fortunate.)

4. And there's some very good museums. Best was the Forest Service's museum in Great Falls, of all things, whose extensive exhibit recounts the entire journey of the expedition, with emphasis on the native tribes they met, each referred to by both its common Anglo and own tribal name (though I'm not always confident in the accuracy of the latter). My favorite exhibit was the one where, if you press buttons for the language names in the right order, a recording of actors and a hypothesized script will reproduce the entire five-person translation process by which Lewis negotiated for horses with the Shoshone. The pathway winds creatively through the building, and when you get to the point where Lewis and Clark parted to take different routes on the return journey through Montana, the pathway briefly splits.

5. Also, the Sacajawea Center in Salmon, which is small but excellent. Gives a full account of her contributions to the expedition, which were useful, extensive, and honorable without having to make up any stories about her guiding the explorers across the continent, and, even more impressively, puts it in the context of modern Shoshone knowledge about their aboriginal customs and beliefs. So it forms a biography: first you see her as a Shoshone girl among her people, then as a captive of the Hidatsa, then heading off with these strange white men for a hoped-for reunion with her people. And what happened afterwards? The exhibit accepts the historically-likely story that she died in 1812, while noting the existence of a tradition that she lived to a great age in Wyoming, which is a fair way of putting it.

5a. This museum was still closed for the season, but unlike others that were closed had a notice on the website saying they'd open it by appointment. As I'd be on the road, I wasn't sure beforehand exactly when I could show up, but I phoned them and we worked something out, and someone was there to turn on the heat and let me in.

6. The other really good museum I visited was the Museum of the Rockies on the Montana State University campus in Bozeman. Nothing about Lewis and Clark, but a thunderously superb exhibit on the topic of dinosaur bones, Montana's leading geological product. Made an excellent update to my memories of long-ago college paleontology class.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Montana landforms

In following Lewis and Clark, I have no interest in re-enactment. Their journey was slow, wearying, and distinctly uncomfortable. I'm only interested in being where they were and seeing what they saw, particularly the forms of the landscape. So it was in Montana.

Despite its name, only the western third of Montana is mountainous. The rest is high plains, but it's not as flat as Kansas is reputed to be, or even than Kansas really is. It's rolling land full of dips and rises and surprising features like the one-time glacial lake spillway called the Big Sag; there's massive and often steep bluffs by the rivers; and throughout are dramatic buttes formed of volcanic rock plugs. The natives used to use these as buffalo jumps, a couple of which are preserved as state parks. And the land throughout is uniformly covered with golden dry grass.

This is the landscape that Charlie Russell specialized in painting, and you can get a good sense of it by studying his work closely. (I visited the Russell museum in Great Falls, which is behind his house.) It's a beautiful austere country, but after driving through several hundred miles of it, I have to say that, if you've seen part of it, you know what the rest looks like. I'm glad I didn't try to cram an eastern Montana loop into my week's journey.

Especially in the Blackfoot reservation in the north, the Rocky Mountains rise so abruptly from the landscape that the sight appears unreal. Even far off you can see them, looking like some kind of giant outdoor fresco wall mural.

If you follow the Missouri River upstream, as Lewis and Clark did, the river hits the mountains just past the town of Cascade. From there until near Helena, the riparian landscape is as dramatic as you could possibly wish for: huge cliffs and jagged rocks looming directly over the roiling water. But upstream from Helena, the land broadens. The mountain ranges are separated by wide gentle valleys with soggy wetlands in the middle, down which meandering streams wander, getting smaller as they branch going upstream (all of which made life difficult for L&C's men, dragging long pirogues slowly upriver), frequently shifting course (which makes life difficult for historians tracking L&C's precise route).

To my surprise, the region south of Helena, including west into the Lemhi Valley of Idaho, is of desert vegetation in many areas, sagebrush and all. No wonder the Shoshones L&C met there were frequently starving. Further north there is no desert, and there's certainly none in the most beauteous valley of all, the glacially-carved Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. The valley here runs directly north from its tip, and in that direction Lewis and Clark traveled, always looking anxiously westward, which was the direction they wanted to go, but up that way were the highest and most jagged mountains of the region. And what's behind those mountains? More mountains! ("What do you burn apart from witches? More witches!") To this day, no road penetrates through that region. Finally, up north near the foot of the valley, L&C hit the spot where the natives had a westward mountaintop trail across today's northern Idaho, a route still so difficult that an auto road was only built in the 1960s.

L&C came through in late summer, and didn't hit an early snowfall until that westward Idaho trail, but throughout the higher elevations in April I found frequent patches of snow. These looked charming and harmless enough at a distance, but, as I found, they're perilous to walk on. In some places, the snow crust is solid enough to bear your weight, but in others your foot will suddenly crash through a foot or more of crunchy snow, landing on the slippery ice underneath. I'm glad I brought my heavy-duty shoes (even though they're so old their soles completely disintegrated under the use), and I certainly wouldn't attempt to drive a vehicle without chains through a heavy patch of this stuff.

In the far north, there'd been heavy snow but it melted. I heard there was flooding and even read a news story of a driver nearly washed away, but all I saw was lots of large ponds where I suspected ponds should not be ("As I came home / so drunk I couldn't see, oh / There I saw a pond / No pond should be there"). I guessed this because usually range fences do not pass through the middle of ponds. Fortunately I didn't hit any impassable wet spots on the unpaved roads, though as I mentioned a fair amount of mud did get on the car, especially the underside.

I'd only been to Montana once before, in childhood many years ago, and even then saw very little of these places. It was a real pleasure finally to track the slow struggle upstream, the anxious trip over the mountains, the return by an easier pass, Lewis's exploration of the Marias River in the northern plains, Clark's encounter with the Yellowstone after Sacagawea showed him the best mountain pass.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

home from Montana

I've been gone for a while ... away from home for a week, followed on my return by three days non-stop of clean-up editing for Tolkien Studies, which should be going to press very soon. Now that I have literally an hour between other pressing engagements, I can take part of it to begin recounting my trip.

Those who've been reading me for a while know that I'm a fan of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-6. At various times, I've been to many of the sites they visited on their transcontinental journey, but not since childhood had I seen the territories in the central and most interesting part of their travels, in Montana and Idaho.

I finally decided to do that, and some months ago set last week as the time. It's early in the season, some areas might still be snowbound and some of the sites still closed, but: no crowds, no summer heat, and no mosquitoes. I gathered my collection of guidebooks to L&C sites, none of them very recent (see, I have been thinking about this for a long time), supplemented them with current tourbooks, and made a list, in geographic order by where I'd be going, of some 100 sites in the area, from large museums down to roadside informational markers.

In the end I got to about 70 of these, the rest omitted mostly for time. Having a week for the trip - which was about as long as I found tolerable for such mile-spanning driving - I confined myself to western Montana and a bit of Idaho (from the mouth of the Maria's on the outward and Lewis's return journeys, and reaching the Yellowstone at Livingston on Clark's return, through the Lemhi and Bitterroot Valleys up to the Lolo Pass), and had enough time to do just about everything I'd planned.

I rented an SUV because I'd be traveling on a lot of dirt and gravel roads through back countryside, and while it wasn't very muddy - I caught a distinct dry spot in the weather, and somehow avoided the flooding in the north counties - got pretty caked, though as I kept seeing other similar vehicles with a lot more dried mud than mine, I didn't worry about that too much.

There was plenty of snow in the highlands, but all the roads I needed were plowed ... save one, and that was the important one. L&C crossed the Continental Divide on the way out by Lemhi Pass, a now obscure crossing between Montana and Idaho. I'd been told the road was closed, and my original thought was to skip it. But on the way out to the vicinity, I decided I couldn't neglect this most important moment. So I drove up the dirt road on the pass as far as I could, to just above the last ranchstead where the snow and ice closed the road. Then I went back down, crossed the Divide on another dirt road a few miles away, came back along the Idaho side, and went up the pass on that road, again until snow and ice blocked it. It was OK: I saw almost everything I wanted to see and got a real sense of the locality. It took all day, but I'd allotted all day to the effort. It was a satisfying day of a satisfactory journey.

As for what I did see and what I thought of it, that'll be another post.

Friday, April 20, 2018

library report

After many days of scouting around university libraries, the Tolkien Studies annual bibliography is completed. It has 227 items on it, some of which I still haven't actually been able to locate copies of or even confirm on WorldCat, but I'm confident they exist (the ones that I'm not are out) and I'll be trying to track them down later. I've got about two-thirds of the items in my personal collection, and about 50 articles in PDFs that I made at the library, ready for next year's "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" which is based on the previous year's bibliography, and there lies the story.

Once upon a time libraries made photocopies, and I still have a file drawer full of old ones from long-ago installments of the Year's Work. But then that clever invention the flash drive or memory stick or thumb drive or USB drive - pick your cognomen - made it to libraries, and it got easier both to take files from hard drives and to download them from computers. Sometimes.

Because library policies differ, and here's some of the ones I've been dealing with.

Library 1. This is one of the major research libraries in the western world, but you can't take hard-copy files onto a flash drive. It has two rancid old photocopiers by the circulation desk, where the flat screen will let you e-mail files to yourself. For security purposes you have to painfully type in your e-dress before each file, carefully looking for typos because the flat screen, like all flat screens, does not always register that you touched a key.

Then, after you've made the copy, you have to rush over to the public computer terminals and log into your webmail to find out if the copies came through and how they look, because there's no feedback on the photocopiers. Did both pages of the two-page spread make it onto the copy? No way to tell until later, honey.

Library 2. Gives weird error messages when you try to download a chapter from an online book. Go and ask for help. Be assured this can be done. Librarian comes back to the computer with you, gets the same error messages, and then says these files are only downloadable by students and faculty, not guests. (They already know you're a guest: you're wearing the prominent adhesive nametag they order all guests to wear.) You can read them online, but you can't copy them. Mind, they didn't tell you this before.

Fortunately I was able to get this item from another library. Otherwise I was going to come back with a digital camera and photograph the screen.

Library 3. This one has but one scanning device, and it takes flash drives, but it's so mysterious and complicated to use, and its user interface so opaque, that even the people who work at the tech desk (they've got three desks: circulation, reference, and tech) can't figure out how to use it. Go through the usual thing where the self-confident tech says he can make it work and then fumbles through the screen, going into the same options over and over again and they're not coming up with anything useful this time either, while you say "You already tried that" and they ignore you.

Library 4. This is the other major research library of the western world around here, and it is amazing. First, they have scanning machines all over the library, at least two on each floor. No waiting, no trucking books down to the circ desk. The scanner's got a big flatbed without an annoying photocopier cover, the machine knows how to trim the output so you don't get big black margins, and the interface is clear. Stick your flash drive in the USB slot, the screen comes alive and tells you to scan. Put the book on, touch the big green "scan" button on the screen, up comes a miniature preview of the scan so you can see if it worked. You now have a choice of 3 buttons: "scan" for the next page, "discard" if you don't like the last scan, or "next" if you're done and want to save the file, and which point it allows you to name the file or leave it with a default name, and a progress bar confirms it's being saved to your drive.

Then it says it's either waiting for you to scan the first page of a new file or remove your flash drive (no going through an eject procedure).

Who wrote this program? They actually know what users need, and are unique in the computer industry and should be preserved under a glass scanner.