Sunday, July 14, 2019

Mythcon update

We sent out the draft Mythcon schedule to program participants Friday and are waiting for replies. That's mostly paper presenters, but there are also panels. Over the last three days, since I drafted the schedule, I've gone from pleased with our work to totally sick and weary of the whole business, down to fairly satisfied again, especially as responses roll in and the tentative panelists say yea. We're down to only one uncertainty at the moment.

So I might as well say something about gender staffing. At SF cons it's considered desirable now to have panels within one person of evenly gender-balanced. Here at the Mythopoeic Society, we run a small con and don't always have the advantage of enough qualified people for any given topic to follow that principle. So I pursue gender balance in a different way.

Here's the stats for the five panels I recruited the personnel for:
1. moderator woman, panelists 4 women
2. moderator man, panelists 5 women
3. moderator man, panelists 3 women
4. moderator woman, panelists 2 men, 2 women
5. moderator man, panelists 3 men

And here are the four that were offered to me as packages:
6. moderator man, panelists 3 women, 1 man
7. moderator man, panelists 1 man, 1 woman
8. moderator woman, panelists 2 men
9. moderator man, panelists 4 men, 1 woman

#2 is something of a coincidence (for one thing the one man is the moderator because the woman I originally thought of is moderating another panel - he's well-qualified for the job, though), but #1 and #3 were deliberately cast this way. In #3, our male GoH will be quizzing experts on each of the three major Inklings on their areas of expertise. The idea of having three women represent the Inklings pleases me no end. #1 is a panel on the challenges of doing research, on Tolkien in particular, and will be illustrated by a particular topic of research, women and his work. Therefore the casting. I've titled the panel Are there any women here today?, a line from Life of Brian.

Another panel, on Tolkien and WW1, incorporating discussion of the recent bio-pic, I've also given a whimsical title: All This and World War One, a reference that so far, nobody has got.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

and here it is

Here's the newspaper obituary for B's sister. The run-on sentence at the beginning is due to editing by the newspaper; otherwise this was mostly written by B. with help from family.

Behind the announcement of a commemorative party lies a long story, beginning with discussion by e-mail among the family as to what sort of event we should have and where it should be put. It was B. who remembered that our local city park has a one-room building which is used for various local events. Checking with the city website revealed it would be too small, but some other parks have much larger ones. Cue me driving around looking at them all, and then checking with the city. Turns out the most attractive one is still available for rent on our preferred date. It's half-surrounded by a pond with a tiki theme, with artificial moai (the Easter Island statues) in the water, one of them with a fountain blowing out of the top of its head. Jo would love it. Family agrees. Rush back to rent it.

So now we're having a party with a Hawaii/islander theme, with Hawaiian shirts and catered food and who knows what else. I'll be the one who has to enforce the no-drinking no-smoking rules, because I'm the one whose name is on the rental.

Meanwhile I get up to work, finally, to test out a new-to-us feature on our computer program which doesn't work, and also to take some time to work out the Mythcon schedule. This involves cutting out items from a printout of the papers database, and moving these slips of paper around the table until they look like they're in a pleasing juxtaposition.

I do this at work because not only do they have a big work table whereas at home we have nothing both large and vacant, but at home anything involving spreading out pieces of paper carries the risk that a cat will come and sit on them.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

site visit

Just back from San Diego, on a site visit for Mythcon. I'm programming; also present were chair, art show, and dealer's. Two I know well, but the last I'd never previously personally met; it's a good idea to know your fellow committee members by sight before the con. Also between 2-5 representatives of the site at various parts of the meetings.

Site had recently unexpectedly switched dorms on us, as someone had decided to renovate the ones we were having. Problem 1: how to fit reservations designed for one configuration into sets of rooms in different configurations. Problem 2: Compiling all the specific regulations, like "no untoward noise after 10 pm" and "no moving furniture from the bedrooms to the common area." Problem 3: Where are our members going to park temporarily to unload their bags, because hauling them over from where they park long-term is not going to work, not on that sidewalk. Problem 4: Which place should we hand out the pre-paid parking permits. Problem 5: How to explain all this clearly to members who've never been here before and aren't going to intuitively absorb any of it, including how to find the dorm in the first place.

Additional long and gritty meeting in one of the programming rooms to discuss the time allocations that we're renting them for. On getting home this evening, find that the site's chief allocater actually kept her promise to e-mail us the tabular results of the discussion. Problem: With our slowly growing membership numbers, are we still going to fit in our original rooms, or should we switch to some larger but more awkwardly located ones? Everyone looked at me. I swallowed and said, "Hold." I know we're going to have overflow situations, but I'm not convinced the larger rooms would entirely prevent that, and it would disintegrate the geographic integrity of the conference.

We're not using the dorm cafeteria for lunch, so an update of last year's visit to nearby restaurants was vital. I tromped around to all 30 of them. Problem is that many are keeping summer hours which are different from their posted hours. Sometimes the summer hours are also posted, sometimes not. Often the summer hours involve being closed on weekends, which is when we most need them. Site people promise to try to convince the on-campus eateries that there will be over a hundred conferees looking for lunch that Saturday and Sunday; maybe they should consider being open?

In the midst of this, my cell phone ceased working. Had a signal and everything, but would neither take nor receive calls. Eventually remembered how the phone store guy had fixed Famous Fan Writer's apparently terminally fried phone, when I'd taken it in after Worldcon while FFW was in the hospital. Tried it on my own phone. It worked. The secret? Open up the back. Remove the battery. Blow on the connectors. Replace.

All of this framed by the closest the current world offers to the shuttle-bus plane flights of yore.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

without Tybalt

Before we had Tybalt, and the only other cat in the household was the late lumpish Pippin, Maia and I had a regular routine. Twice every day, after breakfast and after dinner, she would come into my room, as a signal that I was to follow her over to the bedroom and on to the bed for an extensive session of stroking and nuzzling, which mostly consisted of scritching various sides of her head. During this she would purr - a gravely sound, as an engine needing oil - constantly. This would last 10 or 15 minutes, after which she'd have enough and jump down from the bed.

But the advent of Tybalt threw a spanner into these works. Tybalt wants to be involved with everything, but Maia likes her primacy. Our nuzzling sessions are only occasional now, and have to take place while Tybalt is elsewhere. Even so, I've learned to close the bedroom door during them, because if he should appear in the doorway Maia presses the abort button and everything stops. She huddles up on the clothes hamper and growls at him. The ever-eager Tybalt is oblivious and knows not what this growling sound means.

Just this morning, I had a Maia by my side, and we headed out of my room, but she stopped dead in the doorway because Tybalt was there, out in the hall. I walked past him and motioned her along. Tybalt knew what this meant and dashed over to the bedroom doorway. Eventually Maia peeked out but turned the other way, over to B.'s room and hopped on to her sewing table, which I've known from before is Maia's second choice nuzzling spot. I shut the door and we had our session. Tybalt, foiled again.

Now, how to foil him from his insistence on jumping up onto the kitchen counter or the dining table whenever there's anything involving food going on. Waving the spray bottle at him is fairly dissuasive - he knows by now what that means - but he just keeps coming back. Dropping 15 or 20 cats on the floor while fixing one dinner is normal now.

on electing a prime minister

There have been many articles (like this one) decrying or staring in dismay at the fact that the election for Prime Minister of the UK, the head of the country's government, is in the hands of the small and unrepresentative body of paid-up members of the Conservative Party.

This criticism would make sense if Prime Minister were an elected position like President of the US. But the Prime Minister is not a president, despite repeated observations over the last half-century about how much more presidential the post is becoming, and it is necessary to understand that in order to grasp what's actually going on here.

The President of the US isn't actually a directly-elected post either. What voters vote for is electors, the members of the Electoral College, and they are pledged to vote for a particular presidential candidate. That's relatively straightforward.

In the UK, what voters vote for is their local member of Parliament. Candidates for Parliament are normally pledged to support a particular political party, and it's that party which chooses its own leadership. If that party has the confidence of Parliament, i.e. enough votes to securely win divisions, then its leaders become the government and the principal leader Prime Minister. If the leader leaves mid-term, that's the party's business and not the electorate's. The electorate voted for the party.

Understand that and it should be clearer. Unfortunately, general discourse is against this. One reads regularly in, for instance the last general election, that voters voted for May or Corbyn. That they did not, unless they lived in Maidenhead or Islington and one of those worthies was their local MP. They voted for candidates who were pledged to support the Conservative or Labour Party - the party, not the leader - and May and Corbyn were the leaders of the parties and consequently the one whose party won would become PM.

Putting the choice of leader to the party members is actually far more democratic than in the past. When the post first emerged in the 18C, the prime minister was the servant of the monarch. The monarch could choose anyone he or she wanted, so long as that person could secure the passage of bills through Parliament, and bribery and patronage usually took care of that. By the mid-19C, with the development of meaningful constituency votes, it came to be recognized that the government should reflect the results of elections, and leaders were chosen by inner-circle jockeying among influential politicians over who could most effectively lead.

The Conservative Party continued to choose its leaders by this method as late as the succession of 1963, whose contentiousness led them to acknowledge this was out of date, and they changed to the same method used by the Labour Party. The Labour Party, which didn't date back to the 19C, originally held to the position that it didn't have a leader as older parties did. What it had was a body of MPs, and that body had a chairman, whose primary job was to preside at meetings. By that token it made sense for that body to elect its own chairman. When the Labour Party found itself obliged to form a government in 1924, it made sense for the chairman to take the government post of Prime Minister, and the party found itself assimilated. But the principle had been established that the MPs elect the leader because they know the people they'll have to work with, and after 1963 the Conservative Party joined them in this principle. It was on this basis, for instance, that Thatcher was deposed in 1990.

But, following the more participatory lead of the smaller Liberal Party, the larger parties eventually decided that the job of choosing the leader and potential PM was too big for the MPs, and (after much messing about, particularly in Labour) eventually decided that, while the MPs could nominate and winnow down candidates, final decision should go to the party members, which means mostly activists, many of them extreme. Going to a general electorate of party voters, as in US primaries, is not a step the UK is considering, and would probably not be workable there. And that is why, despite the alarm of almost everyone who isn't a blue-waving Tory, Boris Johnson looks about to become PM ...

Or is he? Because the PM is by definition the head of the government, and the government is a body which has the confidence of Parliament, and several Conservative MPs - including even the current Chancellor of the Exchequer - have said they would not vote for a Boris-led government. Tory rebels are traditionally more talk than action, but if they stick to their word, then Boris will not win confidence and will not become PM despite being party leader.

But then what happens? It's Boris's position on Brexit which has generated rebellion, but there is not a single position on Brexit which isn't unalterably opposed by a majority of MPs, so how could anyone win? It puts the Queen in a difficult position, because she has to commission the PM. The PM is still legally her servant, though nowadays she's obliged to follow whatever Parliament says. But what if Parliament - by not passing any votes, something it's already done more than once in respect of Brexit - doesn't say anything? It's a perilous world we live in.

Saturday, July 6, 2019


Home fireworks are illegal around here, but that didn't prevent a lot of them setting off on Thursday, including some from kids in the apartment building parking lot that adjoins our front yard. Good thing nothing caught on fire. B. went out and hissed at the perpetrators.

Speaking of which:

Cat, I'm not going to waggle the peacock feather all day while you stare at it. I want to see some action here.

Two big earthquakes in Ridgecrest. That's how it is: just as you finish putting everything back on the shelf ...

New talk of a tv adaptation of Gaiman's Sandman. I'd watch that, or start to.

Good analysis article on Kamala Harris's prosecutorial record.

After a period during which I felt as if I could no longer chew this job, programming for Mythcon is falling into shape. I've finalized the list of panels, which turned out rather different than I'd expected due to the number of unexpected suggestions and offers I got, and I've sent out the penultimate batch of offers to potential panelists, the contents of the final batch being dependent on the answers I get to this one. The papers coordinator has handed over the spreadsheet and abstracts documents I need for scheduling. First step, after boiling down the spreadsheet, is to read the abstracts and classify the papers in my mind. Slightly stuck at a paper whose abstract says it's about something it actually calls a newly-coined buzzword. Googling the word isn't useful; after sorting through a chain of fitness centers and an obscure SF movie with the same name, I finally find a Wikipedia article on it, which is also full of buzzwords so that's no help. Class as miscellaneous.

Friday, July 5, 2019

strange experience

Strange experience at the backyard party yesterday as it was winding down. Our friends who host the party every year are active in their church (Presbyterian), and many of their invitees are fellow church members. But they mix well with those of us who are not, whose connection with the hosts is through other interests, mostly fantasy literature. In fact my friendship with the husband was originally cemented when we took a class on medieval history at university together.

What I'm saying is that the fact that most of the attendees are Christian doesn't mean that Christianity as a topic dominates the conversation. But this day ...

Most of us remaining were seated in a circle on the back porch. A man I'd seen around here before, with a slight I think Russian accent, plopped himself down in an empty space. He started talking about how wonderful it was that we were all friends of the hosts and each other ... and then he started talking about how we should all also be friends of Jesus.

Even the two other Christians in the circle looked embarrassed, and declined his invitation to speak about what the friendship of Jesus meant to them. Then, after having elicited everyone else's religious identity, he rounded on the one person who identified herself as an open agnostic. "Why don't you let Jesus be your friend?" he demanded. "Don't you ever use your mind?"

That was a bit much for me. I get rather tired of the professional atheists who presume that anyone who uses their mind would be an atheist just like them, and getting the same nonsense from the other side was equally ripe. And I said so, as mildly as I could. Then I added that there's a word in English called "proselytizing" and it referred to something that was to be avoided.

Good thing he didn't get to me and try to make me a friend of Jesus. I would probably have declined by reciting the Sh'ma.

After that we hurriedly broke up. I've told evangelicals this before: you'll win more friends by demonstrating that you practice a religion of love than by browbeating unbelievers.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Lots of tasks today. Have to pay in person a bill that ought to be paid by mail. Have to pay by mail a bill that ought to be paid online.

Tybalt now wants to help as I pay the bills by mail. He climbs up on the table and bats at the other end of the pen. He also likes to sleep on my desk as I work on the computer. This is fine as long as he's not blocking the screen. And when he's not sleeping, he plays with any loose pencils or paper clips.

Also: To the library where I work to test out our computer program's features for a circulation database. To the big-box hardware store to renew our supply of exotic lightbulbs. To various local city parks to check out their facility buildings as possible venues for a memorial gathering for B's sister. Subsequently much online discussion of this. To grocer's to get food for tomorrow's annual party at friends'.

And much work online regarding last-minute venue alterations and organizing speakers for Mythcon in a month; yikes. Good thing I'm not giving a paper this year, and I'm not the only one who's given up any idea of that.

Monday, July 1, 2019


The anniversary party I mentioned yesterday was held at a Portuguese club in Mountain View. Did you know there are actually two Portuguese clubs in Mountain View? And the invitation originally went out with the address of the wrong one? Somewhere along the way I'd overheard there was a problem here, and got the right address by pinging G's local son; but one person didn't, and I heard he'd gone to the wrong one, found nobody there, and gone home.

But why were we at a Portuguese club? B and her siblings are of generic English/German ancestry. But G's husband, M, is of Portuguese descent (part Portuguese, part Spanish, I believe), and therefore so are their children, and they're happy to acknowledge that. A common Portuguese surname doesn't hurt.

Some years ago, at Wiscon, I attended a "how to be a good ally" panel, and one of the suggestions made was that, if someone says to something, say, about Hispanics being lazy, make something up and say, "Gee, my Hispanic brother-in-law is a hard worker." And I realized, I don't have to make it up. I do have a Hispanic brother-in-law, and he is a hard worker. M. had a long and successful career in engineering before his retirement, and for relaxation he loves to tinker with old cars. He put all four children through college, and they're now all fabulously successful in highly technical careers.

I told this story recently at a gathering of Jews, the committee that runs our synagogue library, and one of them remarked that saying "My Hispanic brother-in-law is a hard worker" is like saying "Some of my best friends are ..." I thought about this, but I don't think they're the same. If you say, "Some of my best friends are," you're defending yourself; but if you say "My Hispanic brother-in-law is ...", you're defending him. That's quite different. The point of his being your brother-in-law is that you have close personal experience of him; this isn't something you've vaguely heard somewhere; your testimony about him carries weight.

But the real reason that "Some of my best friends are ..." is a hollow argument is not due to a flaw in the reasoning. It's that self-declared friendship is cheap. There have been far too many examples of people making that declaration who are also prejudiced. Most gentiles with Jewish friends are in fact not prejudiced, but enough are; it carries no weight. If, instead of saying, "Some of my best friends are Jewish," you had said, "I hid Jews in my home during the Nazi occupation," that's the same form of argument - you're citing your behavior as a bona fide - but this time it carries weight, because actions, unlike calling someone your friend, are not cheap, and because these actions carried serious personal risk.

That's just how I contemplate this point.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

in the midst of life we are ...

Quite a few years ago now, I skipped out on a convention I'd been planning to attend - it was Corflu Nashville - because the same weekend turned out to be the celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of B's parents, and I couldn't miss that. It was a good party. They've both since passed on, but they had a glorious run.

I might still now be on the east coast after my Massachusetts trip last week, attending a Tolkien conference near D.C., except that this weekend turned out to be the celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of B's older sister G and her husband, and I couldn't miss that either. Their four children - all of whose weddings I've attended too, imagine that - with spouses and grandchildren blew in from their scattered locations across the four winds to organize the gathering at a club banquet room and bar. Good dinner and merry greetings.

The only flaw was the last-minute absence of B's and G's younger sister, who'd been planning to come up with her sweetie from San Diego. She was back in the hospital again. J's health has been precarious for years, so much so that even five years ago, when B and I went down to San Diego to visit them, we were thinking we should do this because it might be the last time. It wasn't; we'd seen her up here after that on a number of occasions. But not this time, and not ...

Late in the evening, G's eldest, niece T, came up to whisper to B, looks of distress on both their faces. I guessed what it was before I was told. J had just died in the hospital.

The news wasn't allowed to spoil the party, but B and I went home soon afterwards and have since been trying to absorb this long-feared but still surprising as well as sad news. J was a worthy person, fun to be around, a cat-lover like her sisters, and a hero in her own way as an emergency services dispatcher for the state, coordinating personnel for wildfires and other disasters. She is the first departure from her generation in the family, and as she was the youngest it's especially poignant.

May her memory be for a blessing.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

the three words meme

This seems to have passed by and had its day before I got around to it, but I did request three words from Lydy N., so here they are, a chance to talk about random topics off top of head:

Needle. Of course the first thing that word makes me think of is a joke told by a friend in the days of the Wars of W.
Q. Why are knitting needles prohibited on airplanes?
A. They're afraid you'll knit an afghan.
Although I don't like being pricked, medical needles don't frighten me as long as I don't have to watch them going in. (Eye drops: those frighten me.) Sewing needles I have nothing to do with; of the life skills my mother tried to teach me before I went off to college, mending clothes is the only one that didn't take. (I relied on friends with sewing machines.) But the kind of needle with the most impact on my life has been the phonograph needle. It may seem odd today that we used to run these slivers of diamond through grooves in plastic, but we did. Keeping my needle fresh so that its damage to the disc was minimal was an obsession, so I changed the needle frequently. However, the last time I did that, several years ago now because I don't play the records much any more, the store where I'd bought my then-newish turntable was no longer selling needles, and when I found a quaint old bushwack of a store which did, the crusty owner looked at the needle and said he couldn't replace it. To borrow a line from Walt Willis, the manufacturers had made this one cartridge and then broken the dies, burned the blueprints, and shot all the technicians responsible. He could replace the cartridge, but I had to bring in the entire turntable for that.

Stalk. As a privileged white male who cooks dinner, my principal encounter with stalkers is the ones in vegetables. They usually are best cut off: broccoli (just above the point where it branches out), brussels sprouts. The ones that cause the most trouble are asparagus, which is mostly stalk. The problem with asparagus is that the bottoms of the stalks get woody and inedible, and that this gradually climbs up the stalk as the vegetables age, even in the fridge, but it's impossible to tell by sight where the woodiness terminates. I've gotten woody bits in asparagus even in fine restaurants, so apparently nobody knows how to prevent getting this in your food except me. I can hardly believe this, but it's simple. Asparagus stalks grow in sections, with joints between them. As the stalk becomes woody, the joints harden. So break off the stalk by hand (hold both ends and snap from the bottom), and the point it will break is the first joint above the woodiness. Do this and the residue will be guaranteed to be wood-free. Works every time.

Tape. Recording tape, formerly a major part of my life and now even less used than phonograph needles. Medical tape, for securing non-stick bandage pads, which has become more a part of life. Duct tape. Householder's rule: If it moves but it's not supposed to, apply duct tape. (If it doesn't move and it is supposed to, apply WD-40.) Packing tape.* Ah, yes. That one's useful where you might not expect. Having given up on typewriters when my last one's electronics went on the fritz, but still disliking hand-addressing envelopes, when I do need to mail a package or some other item that isn't a bill that came with a pre-addressed envelope, I type the addressee into a Word document on my computer, cut it out of the printout, and tape it to the envelope with transparent packing tape, because Scotch tape is neither sturdy enough nor wide enough.

*I tend to call it strapping tape, but that's wrong. Strapping tape has filaments, which I don't want for the purpose to be described.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


This is only for people who are interested in and care about the Hugo Awards.

Read John Scalzi's "On Being Denounced, Again (Again)" and the editorial to which it replies.

Here's my comment:

Oh dear. I know the author of that editorial personally, and I've often had major disagreements with her. I have also been an active member of the elitist sub-group of fandom which she represents, and on behalf of it I wish to apologize for the attitudes she expresses.

I do bear some resentment when new fans come in and tell old-timers how WE should change our behavior and established customs to suit THEM, but this is different. We don't own the Hugos, we never have, and by the standards she's using, the Best Fan Writer Hugo was broken in 1968, so don't worry about it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

ecce homines, pars VII

Continuing my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1877-1885.

Now we are well into the period that Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. Despite the infamous corruption of politics in this period, our authors consider all three of their subjects to be basically honorable men and competent presidents, which marks a major distinction from the bad presidents of the decade preceding the Civil War.

Hans L. Trefousse on Rutherford B. Hayes is a dull book on a dull man. Trefousse, an academic historian, gives us every move or action Hayes took during the war (most of which he spent as a regimental colonel, and the detail is incomprehensible if you're not familiar with the campaigns in which he served), as congressman, governor, president, and even in retirement. But all this detail adds up to ... nothing. Trefousse's few excursions into a larger picture are jejune ("The Hayeses also tended to dine out, meeting interesting people," p. 126), and he outsources his entire evaluation of Hayes's presidency to a New York Times editorial of the period (p. 129-31). Even his account of Hayes' contentious election is dull, and the theory that Hayes was allowed to take office peacefully on condition that he end Reconstruction gets no play in this book. Trefousse claims that Hayes was forced into removing the troops by unexplained actions of the preceding Grant administration, and only chastises Hayes with exceeding mildness for being naive enough to believe Southern whites' promises that they'd respect blacks' civil rights. This seems just too pat.

Ira Rutkow on James A. Garfield is a medical historian's account, which is less weird than it seems. The most important thing about Garfield is, not his assassination, but the medical care he received, or more accurately didn't receive, for eleven weeks after it as he slowly and agonizingly died of infection. Rutkow cites the assassin's claim at his trial that it was the doctors who killed Garfield; the gunman merely shot him. And Rutkow can't really disagree with this assessment. It's kind of stunning to learn with what brisk dispatch Garfield would have been patched up and sent home had he been shot like that today; the wound wasn't that serious. Rutkow devotes an entire chapter to the state of American medicine at the time, in a futile attempt to explain the incompetence and arrogance of the chief physician, who appointed himself to that rank over the objections of Garfield's family - and those of his actual doctor, who got physically dragged out of the White House. The half of the book taking place before the shooting is adequate but less energetically written, and it doesn't really convey the intensity of the political warfare interrupted by the event. Nor does it cover everything one might expect. The detail-obsessed Trefousse manages to discuss Garfield's one Supreme Court appointment; Rutkow doesn't mention it.

Zachary Karabell on Chester Alan Arthur is the work of an author with academic historical training but whose writings are mostly popular history and current affairs. His view is lucid and clearly presented. Arthur had started out as a vigorous anti-slavery civil rights lawyer, and then mutated into a personally competent top henchman for a corrupt political machine. Then as president, succeeding on Garfield's death, he broke with the machine and favored civil service reform with all the energy he had left after a gradually encroaching kidney disease started to have its way with him. Karabell explains these shifts of character by simply pointing out that as servant of the machine Arthur wasn't his own boss; but as president he could revert to his true self of the young upright lawyer. Karabell is also far clearer than Rutkow on the political controversies of Garfield's administration, though it's Rutkow who points out that Garfield distrusted Arthur, and with good reason. Karabell concludes that Arthur presided over an uneventful period with honesty and competence, and we can't expect much more than that. There's some whitewashing here, as there is with Hayes, but the argument basically hangs together.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

two museums in Massachusetts

The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, Springfield. Springfield, ex-industrial city and birthplace of basketball, was also the home town of Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. For many years the city has had a sculpture garden of his characters, and since my last visit they've added to the cluster of city museums (art, history, science) a Dr. Seuss museum in a converted old two-story building. It's obviously the most popular of the bunch, and the only one they give you a timed entry for at the cluster's ticket counter. If I hadn't been there at opening time on a weekday, I expect it would have been very crowded, especially with children.

At least the ground floor. The upper floor is a conventional museum, with a reproduction of the study in his house in San Diego with a lot of his books and kipple, and it looks just what you'd expect Dr. Seuss's house to look like. There is also lots of unpublished art, especially as included in letters. Contrary to the usual image of Geisel as disliking children, he wrote the children of his acquaintance lots of birthday cards and other letters. Most interesting was the long correspondence donated by his great-nephew Ted, in which you can see Geisel advancing his discourse as the boy grows up, but always remaining whimsical. (There's also a serious letter on logistics for a visit to his grown niece, Ted's mother, which he nevertheless signed with a goofy pseudonym.)

Downstairs, however, is a Seussical fantasia, with rooms full of statues of Seuss creatures designed for kids to climb on or play with. I wish I'd gotten a photo of the four kids, all wearing t-shirts designating them as Thing #1 through Thing #4, sitting on Mr. Gump's seven hump Wump as their mother, whose shirt read "Mother of All Things," took their photo. They were obviously there with enthusiasm.

Also downstairs and in Seussical style is the history of his early life in Springfield. This is accompanied by captions, in both English and Spanish, in imitation Dr. Seuss verse. Nobody who isn't Dr. Seuss can write pastiche of his verse that isn't gawdawful, and this is no exception. I give you one example for the taste, for providence could stand no more:
Ted's dad ran a zoo that was not far from home,
It was a lively placed where animals roamed.
Yes, that is a typo, and yes, it is there on the placard. So is the grammatical error and so is the clunky near-rhyme and off-rhythm and so is the general inanity of the description.

The Clark, Williamstown. Small town up in the far corner of the state with a prestigious college and, quite separately from it, this - quite large for its subdued rural locale - art museum. Officially it's the Clark Art Institute, but it's known locally just as The Clark. ("Look what we found in the park in the dark. / We will take it home. We will call it 'Clark'.") It's named for a serious and prolific art collector who established this museum in the 1950s, though the current building is much newer and starkly modern. Over on one side is the permanent collection, and on the other in a basement an equally large space currently hosting a show of Renoir, specializing in his nudes. Clark, it turns out, was a big Renoir collector, and many of the pieces are from the permanent collection, except that Clark hated Renoir's late period, and I can see why if it's because the faces, previously realistic, become something grotesque and microcephalic. Anyway, I got a good sense of Renoir's development from this, and I liked best the period in the 1870s and 80s when the figures were clear and crisp but the background was weird and colorful and impressionistic. (ETA: And here's an unbridled review of the exhibit.)

Here's the weird thing. All the time I was looking at the Renoir paintings, I was trying to remember the name of the guy whose sculptures are a major feature of the Stanford campus. I know his name well, but it had fled from my mind at the approach of Renoir. It was his contemporary, Rodin. But when I looked it up, I found that now I could not remember Renoir, until I looked that up. It took considerable work before I could retain both names in my mind at once. Maybe it's because they're contemporaries who begin with R. Maybe it's because they had the same given name, Auguste (which I didn't notice until I looked that up). Maybe it's because I don't know that much about either.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Don't Blame Me, I'm In Massachusetts

All sorts of wonderful things are going on near home this weekend, from Garden of Memory and other musical events to the solstice party which is the biggest event on my social group's annual calendar, but I won't be at any of them. I'm in Massachusetts, hobnobbing with my fellow wizards. Back next week.

Two side notes:

1. It's cold and wet here. ("And to think it will soon be June," grumbled Bilbo. Oh, it is? Well, there you go.) But that doesn't mean it isn't also so muggy that the air conditioner can't be turned off.

2. There ought to be a sign along the road I took to get here: WARNING: PITTSFIELD AHEAD. Making it through that congested town, from the unexpected turns on the highway route to the construction equipment blocking the entire street and looking disinclined to move any time soon, was the biggest challenge of getting here.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Tolkien Studies 16: an announcement

On behalf of myself and my co-editors, Michael D.C. Drout and Verlyn Flieger, here are the expected contents of volume 16 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 16 (2019)
  • Luke J. Chambers, "Enta Geweorc and the Work of Ents"

  • Marie H. Loughlin, "Tolkien's Treasures: Marvellous Objects in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings"

  • Anika Jensen, "Flowers and Steel: The Necessity of War in Feminist Tolkien Scholarship"

  • J.M. Silk, "The Kings of the Mark: Tolkien's Naming Process and his Views on Language Evolution"

  • Megan N. Fontenot, "The Art of Eternal Disaster: Tolkien's Apocalypse and the Road to Healing"

  • John Rosegrant, "Mother Music"
Notes and Documents
  • Richard C. West, "A Letter from Father Murray"

  • Thomas P. Hillman, "Not Where He Eats, But Where He Is Eaten: Bilbo's Bread and Butter Simile"
Book Reviews
  • Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth and Tolkien Treasures, by Catherine McIlwaine, reviewed by Denis Bridoux

  • The Fall of Gondolin, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, reviewed by Jennifer Rogers

  • Sub-creating Arda: World-building in J.R.R. Tolkien's Work, its Precursors and its Legacies, edited by Dimitra Fimi and Thomas Honegger, reviewed by David Bratman
  • David Bratman, Jason Fisher, John Wm. Houghton, John Magoun, Kate Neville, Robin Anne Reid, "The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2016"

  • David Bratman, "Bibliography (in English) for 2017"

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

25 years

On that morning, B. and I rose early and packed the car, because we'd be spending the next couple days on a mini-honeymoon at a B&B on the coast. Then we drove up to my family temple for the wedding.

Everything had been scheduled out, and it all went as planned. Our attendants were my brother and B's sister. Also supporting us were our parents, then all hale, now no longer with us. Though my parents were divorced, they were still both my parents, so they consented to stand together. (My father had wanted to know what would be the place of his wife. I'd said, "She's family; she can sit in the front row with the rest.")

The rabbi, now also gone, was the already-retired senior rabbi of the congregation, who had presided at my bar mitzvah and other events, and whose distinctive way of reading the prayers remains welded in my mind. It was his question, why wait?, and pulling out his notebook to seek an open date which had settled this date when we'd first gone to consult with him in February.

And we'd invited lots of friends. There was room, so why not be festive and generous? Among them were those skilled practitioners who so kindly contributed music and food to the ceremony and reception, the latter of which was in the social hall immediately behind the sanctuary. B's sister, a master of this art, baked the cakes, two of them.

As I stood on the bima at the start of the ceremony, watching B. walk accompanied up the aisle, in the dress she'd sewn herself, I found myself filled with confidence that we were doing the right thing.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

tv series not watched

A lot of cultural weight is going right now into online-only tv series that are deemed really excellently done. I have access to Netflix and to Amazon Prime, so I've been dipping into some of these. The problem with embarking on watching any tv series is that you're putting a lot more personal investment in than in watching a movie, because the tv series is going to take a lot more of your time. Therefore I rely on it to suck me in at least as well as a good movie does.

But a lot of these shows are doing a really poor job of this. I can't tell you how many I've started watching and then quit before the end of the first episode, because I immediately forget all about them.

There's a mode of storytelling that seems to be common among these programs that just totally puts me off as a new viewer. It dumps you immediately into the middle of, usually several apparently separate stories, not properly introducing the characters, leaving the viewer bewildered and at sea as to what's going on, and usually taking place in the dark so that you can't see what's happening or tell the characters apart properly anyway. There's nothing to hang on to and no reason to get caught up and continue.

This kind of storytelling can be terrifically engaging once the story has gotten going and the viewer is a sophisticated reader of the complex situation. But the beginner needs their hand held just a little, just enough to get oriented, if they're to be caught up and persuaded to continue. The mistake here is the same mistake made by educators in the 1950s when they discovered that experienced readers glance at the whole word at once and tried to make beginning readers read the same way, producing a generation of children who couldn't read. The solution, of course, was phonics. Start there, then move on. I think what's going on is that the filmmakers are assuming the viewer has read a vast amount of written material about the show before embarking on watching it. I tend not to do that.

The latest show I gave up on before the end of the first episode because it was too chaotic, confusing, and darkly lit was The Americans, quickly following The Man in the High Castle. Didn't I try watching one with John Goodman? (Looks it up) Black Earth Rising, that must have been it. Don't remember anything else about it.

Of course, a show doesn't need to do that to make me stop watching it early on. I stopped watching Mozart in the Jungle because the level of catty bitchiness was just too high. Try being just a little subtle about it, huh? I stopped watching The Crown because of its meticulous re-creation of just how boring a life royalty leads. I stopped watching Bodyguard when a gripping suspense show started inserting gratuitous sex scenes. I stopped watching House of Cards when it became apparent that a situation created specifically for the circumstances of British politics just wasn't going to transfer over properly to American ones. I stopped watching Sherlock after two episodes because I simply could not figure out what was going on. I forget why I turned off The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I think I didn't find the characters believable. I watched The Handmaid's Tale for about half a season until its departures from the book's premise just grew too disheartening. I never watched Game of Thrones at all because the first book was boring enough.

You want to know how to do this right, how about Orphan Black? Now there was a show which began its first season knowing exactly how to feed the viewer in by starting simple and opening up complications at a rate slow enough to follow but fast enough to keep them enthralled - and it took until the end of the second season to disgust me with manipulative storytelling. But by then I was so caught up with the characters and the events that I kept watching! Success!

There have been others, usually a bit back in time. It took me until the end of a season to get terminally bored with Mad Men. I liked most of the first season of Breaking Bad and only stopped there because while I'd watch a movie with such unpleasant characters, I didn't want to invest in more of a long tv series in their company.

You know what I really liked, a while back? Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Cheaply made as it was, it was really enjoyable. I should watch Good Omens. I should also watch American Gods, which I haven't seen yet. Have you got the time for me to do it? Because I don't think I have.

a few things about Tolkien's mythology

(excerpted from an e-mail)

Yes, it was inspired by pure language. No, it isn’t based on Wagner’s Ring. Yes, Tolkien was Catholic and theology infuses his work, but no, it isn’t an encoding of Catholic iconography. That would be allegory and Tolkien disliked allegory. No, the Eagles couldn’t have flown the Ring to Mount Doom. No, Aragorn wasn’t reluctant to become king (that one comes from the movie). Yes, Tolkien was a bit racist (and sexist) by our standards, but it’s far more interesting to talk about the ways in which he isn’t racist or sexist, which can be surprisingly extensive. Yes, Middle-earth is our world, not another planet, and it’s a whole world, not just what fits on a tabletop role-playing game.

Monday, June 10, 2019

and more events

I didn't mention that I got to one of the Stanford Spring Chamber Music Showcase programs last week, a short marathon in which various student groups played individual movements. In addition to the expected classics, we had Corelli, Moszkowski, and even some composers I hadn't heard of. A wobbly slow movement from the Schumann Piano Quartet was followed by a fairly satisfactory finale of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden", with the critical high A getting due emphasis.

Then, the Cambrian Symphony on Saturday, mostly because they were playing Janáček's Sinfonietta. Also Copland's El Salón México and the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. A big, rough sound was probably partially due to the orchestra and partly to the venue, the concert hall in San José State's music building. On a bulletin board I found a printout of my review of the department's production of Bernstein's Mass, so somebody must have read that.

Sunday, our book discussion group tackled Little, Big by John Crowley. Invigorating discussion, particularly between C. - generally our most perceptive reader of the complex depths in literature, who was very impressed with the book - and M., who says she otherwise likes Crowley but had never read this one before and found it irritating. M. found it disjointed, whereas to C. it was merely diverse and came together by the end. I tended to find it disconnected, but at least the individual parts were interesting, so it didn't bother me that much. To prepare for this discussion, although I didn't re-read the whole book, I pulled down from the shelf my original trade paperback, which had been sitting there for 38 years since the book was new, and I read it for a book discussion among the SF fans in Seattle, which I had to miss, even though I was there physically, because of an attack of laryngitis. B. found the old copy too musty to read and bought an e-book.

Saturday, June 8, 2019


Yesterday was the most convenient day to celebrate our Big Round Number wedding anniversary, which is actually next Wednesday, but that's B's workday and Friday isn't.

We decided a day's outing would be pleasant, so we found a near-intersection of our interests by picking the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. It's a two-hour drive, over the Golden Gate Bridge - oops, I have to pay the toll online, as I do this so rarely I don't have an account; back in a minute - so the plan was to go up in the morning, have lunch, see the museum, and return in time for the evening cat feeding, and that was accomplished.

Lunch was at what turned out to be an excellent Mexican restaurant downtown, and the museum - which I (without B) have seen twice before, but not recently - is good with some excellent background stuff on Schulz's artistic influences. We had fun guessing what languages a display of translations were in without looking at the captions first. I also learned both why the Apollo 10 crew named their ships for Snoopy and Charlie Brown (they'd described their mission as snooping over the Moon's surface, and it came naturally) and that this wasn't Schulz's first involvement with NASA, he having already been hired to produce cartoons for morale-boosting material aimed at contractor personnel.

One of the current temporary exhibits was on Woodstock (you know, the bird), though it also included two large panels devoted to explaining to the young what Woodstock was that something should be named for it. Sigh. The other temporary display was on the theme of camping in Peanuts, with much attention to Mr. Sack, and I'd define a Peanuts fan as someone who knows what that refers to without further reminders.

Also in the personal news: review of another concert from last weekend. This included some items I'd used in my "English suites and others" listening series, which I ought to get back to writing.

Friday, June 7, 2019

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I wanted to get the other recent concerts I've been to covered before this one came up. Changes in the guest performers resulted in an entire replacement of the program. Nothing performed had been in the original schedule and vice versa.

Francesco Lecce-Chong conducted. He's the new MD of the Santa Rosa Symphony, a local orchestra I haven't yet heard under his regime. Despite being a frenetic arm-waver, he seems to have a clear and vivid control over the music.

One half was Mozart. David Fray was soloist in Mozart's C minor piano concerto, K. 491. It was a thoroughly competent performance, about as cheery as this work is going to get. That was the concert's good part.

Also, a 15-minute chunk of ballet music from Mozart's opera Idomeneo. Too grandiose and pompous for my tastes. Reminded me of the Haffner serenade. (The program said it would be 30 minutes. The same thing happened the last time they played a "bleeding chunk" from Wagner. Are the conductors abridging the selections further without telling anybody?)

The other half evoked Italy, though not the cheerful Italy you usually get in Italian-inspired music.

The overture to Verdi's opera on the Sicilian Vespers, an event which, judging from the overture, Verdi thought had its jolly side.

Elgar's In the South, which he wrote during a windy and rainy mid-winter vacation in Italy. (Having been in Italy in October myself, I can believe Elgar's weather.) His response to these surroundings was to write a piece that sounds as much like Richard Strauss as humanly possible. Heaving and gesticulatory. This is what the SFS chose to waste its profound talent on?

Summary: The piano concerto was OK. The rest: great performances of crappy music. And to think I went all the way to the City to hear this.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

reviews and events

I've been so immersed in other projects that switching mental gears to write a blog post has felt more difficult than worthy of accomplishment.

One thing that got done was some concert reviews last weekend. I converted my last post on the media event at Frost Amphitheater into an article for SFCV, largely by converting it from focusing on a backstage orientation to an audience orientation. Frankly, I've never been enthused by outdoor venues (my reaction to a concert at the famous and venerable Hollywood Bowl was "Now I don't ever have to go here again"), but we'll see if I get asked to cover the SFS here. It could be interesting: the day after I submitted the article, MTT announced he's cancelling all his summer events for health reasons, including the concert he was scheduled to lead at Frost, so the guest who's conducting the other program is taking over that one as well. My newshound colleague Janos, who wrote that last article, added an update in the comment section to mine as well.

Meanwhile, as I was about to leave for the SFS on Thursday, I get a call from the editor asking me to cover that program. So I did that too. What I didn't tell my editor was that this was an extra concert for me (I really like the Shostakovich Eighth), and I'd gotten a ticket for the terrace behind the orchestra, where I usually grab a seat right behind the spot between the trumpets and trombones, for that glorious brass sound in works that feature it. Listening to a violin concerto, the other work on the program, from behind can be a curious experience, but I think I handled that. The main thing I learned from watching this guest conductor from the front is that he conducts with his mouth open.

A third review, for the Daily Journal, hasn't come out yet. In the meantime I'm trying to finish up the actual writeup of my paper for the conference I attended in early March, I've been invited to speak on Tolkien to a local lecture series and have thrown a bunch of specific topics at them, and B. and I have plunged into the maelstrom of figuring out the logistics of her impending retirement. More on that later, but what I find really remarkable is that, even though we want to stay on Kaiser's health plan, there are three different ways of dealing with this before Medicare kicks in, and there is not a single person at Kaiser who knows anything about more than one of these four things, to help us make any kind of comparison or judgment as to which pathway to take. The thought that every single person in our position has to blaze the same trail through uncharted virgin jungle amazes me. We have hired a CFP (Certified Financial Planner) who specializes in retirement, whom I found by looking for retirement specialists on an official CFP website, who's been of help regarding the big picture. His explanation of how Medicare works was a tremendous help when I went to Kaiser's introductory session, because otherwise I would have been completely baffled by everything it said.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump has gone off to the UK, where even before landing he set out to win hearts and minds by tweeting that the Mayor of London was a "stone cold loser." Whenever someone succeeds at getting under his skin, the best response he can come up with is this pathetically juvenile insult, "loser." It's particularly feeble when applied to a man who won the runoff election for his current job with a vote of 56.8%, which is a lot more than a certain president managed.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

frost and fortitude

Wednesday was the postponed (due to rain) media event at the about to re-open Frost Amphitheater at Stanford, which I attended representing SFCV. A historical venue with many past speakers and performers from Dag Hammarskjöld to the Grateful Dead, Frost gradually fell into disuse because of its complete lack of facilities. Everything from tents to use as backstage to port-a-potties for the audience had to be hauled in for every show over the high berm that surrounds the venue.

So as part of rebranding this part of campus as an arts center - Frost is right next to Bing Concert Hall, though I'd always been vague on exactly where it was, as I'd never been in it and it's hidden from outside view by its berm - Stanford built a completely new and full stage facility. Outside, on the Memorial Way side, there's a sunken loading dock (so the truck's bed is at ground level), which leads directly to a short wide flat concrete tunnel that goes through the berm and puts you directly on the roof of the stage facility, right in front of, ta da, a large freight elevator. Anyone who used to work stage crew there will be green with envy at how easy this has become. Downstairs backstage there's dressing rooms and a green room, plus a barn-sized door for loading onstage through the large rock wall that backs the stage, forming both a tasteful view (against the berm and trees the audience will see around behind the stage facility) and a broadcast reflector of sound.

The seating area is still grass terraces with ancient chipped concrete frames, except that 1) several areas have been paved for ADA seating; 2) there's now also an audience entrance tunnel through the berm from Lasuen Street; 3) and some brand-new restroom facilities. For classical concerts, they say they'll load the lower seating area with full-height chairs for reserved seating; I hope so, as some of us classical-goers are too old to sit on blankets or those ground-level beach chairs people take to outdoor concerts.

The SF Symphony, which long ago abandoned its only South Bay venue, the extremely peculiar Flint Auditorium, has signed up to give two summer festival programs in July, MTT conducting an all-Tchaikovsky show with Gil Shaham sawing away on the Violin Concerto, and Beethoven's Ninth under new guest conductor Gemma New, the latter in both evening and late-afternoon shows. As for the acoustics, they'll find out on the day, but as with most outdoor venues, there'll be tasteful (one hopes) amplification.

Stanford has also signed up a pop concert promoter who'll be bringing in various acts including Lionel Richie, whom I cite because I've heard of him (I don't actually know who he is offhand, but the name's familiar).

That was noonish (and included a box lunch for all us media folks). For that evening, I had a ticket for a lecture in the City on a topic so trivial I'm not even going to tell you what it was, and which I knew I'd done the right thing in abandoning when I got an e-mail from the promoters burbling about how there'd be time for networking afterwards. Networking, très yuppie.

I abandoned it for an event near home so moving that I felt obliged to give it my support. You may have read that, just over a month ago, a car ran over some pedestrians at an intersection in my town, injuring 8, some severely. It further emerged that it was a deliberate attack and that the driver, who had mental issues, targeted this group because he thought they were Muslim. It just keeps getting more disturbing.

So the mayor and city council decided to hold a "unity gathering," an event for support of the injured and the community, for general healing and intercultural support. It was held in a community center meeting room that holds 300 and was packed to overflow. A few speeches, but the main event was a panel of people representing a large variety of ethnic and religious groups, to talk about their reactions to hate and how their groups fit into the community. It was interesting in itself to see a Jewish rabbi, an Islamic community leader, the Buddhist abbot of the local zen center, a Hindu lawyer, and a Sikh software engineer (two women, three men) sitting in a row onstage, and that was only some of them. When they were asked what they'd like people to know about the group they represented, the Buddhist abbot asked, "Have you ever had the experience of really being at peace with yourself?"

The event ended around 8.30 with a couple of the Muslims taking the podium to announce that sunset was arriving and it was time to break the Ramadan fast. They explained the religious purpose of Ramadan (which, though they compared it to Jewish fast days like Yom Kippur, sounded to me more akin to Shabbat in its intent to carve out a regular period of time away from the mundane world for reflection), chanted a prayer, and invited us all to the back of the room for a snack of samosas, dates, and strawberries. This was my first experience with an Islamic religious event and, simplified though it was, I'm glad to have had it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

a spring harvest

This is perhaps appropriate to bring up on the day after Memorial Day.

If you've seen the new bio-pic Tolkien, you'll have noticed a fair amount of attention devoted to the poetry of Tolkien's friend Geoffrey Bache Smith, one of his school fellowship the T.C.B.S., who died on duty in World War I in December 1916. There's a scene in which Tolkien tries to persuade Smith's mother to allow a collection of his poems to be published.

In fact, Mrs. Smith initiated the idea of the collection, asking Tolkien to gather up any poems of her son's that he had copies of, and the book was actually published, with a brief introduction by Tolkien, in June 1918.

The book, which was sadly and wistfully titled A Spring Harvest, came to mind when I saw an interview with the director and stars of the movie, conducted by Stephen Colbert. At the end, the director handed Colbert a few books, one of which I could see was a reprint edition of A Spring Harvest.

I remembered reading a few years ago that someone was preparing this, but having a scan of the original I hadn't bothered to get this. I did so now, however, getting the Amazon POD edition, and let me advise you that you'd be much better off with the Kindle e-book version, at least if you get the version with images. (I found it on Project Gutenberg.) The e-book is a reasonable facsimile of the printing of the original. The new printed edition is not. It lacks italics, it lacks breaks between verses, and, oddest of all, it prints poem titles in the same typeface as the text, immediately following the last line of the previous poem. This makes this edition hard to read and even harder to find anything in, and I have underlined all the titles in my copy. (There is a different paper reprint on Barnes & Noble which is more expensive but which I suspect is a better edition.)

Smith's poetry shows talent; it's probably both more voluminous and more obviously promising than a collection of Tolkien's would have been, had he been the one who died in 1916, even though he was nearly three years Smith's elder. Some of Smith's poems are mythic, in particular the opening work, which is his own version of a Fall of Arthur story, focusing on the tale of Bedivere.

There's a couple musically-related poems, one titled for an obscure piano piece of Schumann's that I wonder might have been intended to be sung to it; another is addressed "To a Pianist," whose playing evokes "soft sounds of summer seas / In a melody most fair," whereas others cause "most doleful threnodies / [to] chase about the air." Was the pianist Christopher Wiseman of the T.C.B.S.? Or could it have been Edith Tolkien?

But most moving are a hail and farewell to Oxford, depicting its college scenes in winter, and two in memory of the other T.C.B.S. member Rob Gilson, killed in battle several months earlier than Smith. One is bitter, asking God to "accept this sacrifice" for his own "inscrutable purposes." The other, without using any names, gently asks the remaining T.C.B.S. members to "sit silently, we three together ... And he, the fourth," from his grave "shall ... draw nigh unto us for memory's sake."

Honored memory to Smith and to them all.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

not a day of rest

Friday. First I had to await the late morning arrival of the cable company technician. Our old DVR box had been glitching, so after much unsuccessful online rebooting, they sent us a new one. Which set up fine, but then proved not to work at all. We couldn't even watch TV as it just sat there and pouted. The guy on the phone thought it was my cable, but the visiting tech quickly proved that false by running a long bypass cable from the modem upstairs down the stairwell and directly into the box. Then he said, maybe it's your modem which is really old (trans: over five years). So now we have a new one, plus wi-fi which I had dreaded ordering. But that wasn't it either. Turned out the DVR was refurbished but the old account had never properly been deleted, so there was an authorization conflict. So now we have yet another new DVR, and a new remote which glows in the dark too.

Then, to UC Berkeley for some library research, looking over Mythopoeic Scholarship Award nominees and finishing touches in the Tolkien Studies bibliography. Didn't arrive until 2 pm, but finished up, to my surprise, in less than 3 hours, which is good because on intersession Fridays they close at 5. Here's an annual journal volume that says it's the 2017 issue in one place and the 2018 in another. (The previous issue was 2016, and I guess they were just running late: they're not the worst offender.) Applied library cataloging rules to determine priority.

Had driven in to save time over the "last mile" issue on public transit, so had time to dart down to the Oakland hills to try out a restaurant I'd seen reviewed, before heading back up to a convenient BART station on the direct line to the City for an SF Symphony concert. Krzysztof Urbański returned with his bounding manner and big shock of hair, to conduct only one section of the orchestra at a time, as is his wont, bringing along another piece from his homeland, this time the nominal curtain-raiser of an Overture (that's the whole title) by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), Poland's greatest woman composer, slowly emerging from international obscurity. It had the bustling energy of Bernstein's Candide without sounding in the least like it. Followed by an equally bustling and energetic rendition of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony.

Also on the program, Elgar's enormous (55 minutes in this performance) Violin Concerto. This at least sounds more typically Elgarian than his Cello Concerto, but it's equally rambling. Doesn't speak to me at all. Beautiful harmonies, though, with silky playing from soloist Vilde Frang, who's very tall and very thin and from Norway.

Ignoring several BART trains headed in various wrong directions later, finally back to my car and home about 12 hours after I left, i.e. very late.

Friday, May 24, 2019

this is the joke

Mark Evanier administers a juried award called the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. The Finger Award is intended to compensate for the Fickle Finger of Fate by honoring unjustly neglected figures in that field, of whom Bill Finger - the writer who co-created Batman, but was long ignored in favor of Bob Kane, the artist - is said to be the prototypical example.

The Finger Award comes in two categories, living and posthumous, and for this year's posthumous award, the jury has fingered E. Nelson Bridwell. Not being much of a student of comics, I had never heard of him, but it turns out I should have. Evanier's announcement credits Bridwell with co-creating a comic called The Inferior Five, which I'd never heard of either. A quick visit to its Wikipedia page proves that it's exactly what it sounds like, a sort of precursor to Mystery Men, a rare case of a superhero movie I rather liked. So I might enjoy The Inferior Five as well, especially as Evanier says that Bridwell's "writing was marked by a wicked sense of humor."

But it was by clicking from there on Bridwell's own Wikipedia entry that I discovered what he really deserves to be remembered for. While writing for MAD Magazine in the 1950s, he created one of our culture's truly classic, memorable, and lasting jokes. It's usually rendered something like this:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto find themselves surrounded by hostile Indians.
"Well, Tonto," says the Lone Ranger, "we're really in trouble now."
And Tonto replies,
"What you mean 'we', white man?"
I can't tell you how often I've seen that last line invoked, often without any further reference to the joke which readers are assumed to know. And sure enough, whenever lazy essayists or reviewers - and they're usually white men - assume their personal reactions are universal and write something like, for instance, Edmund Wilson on The Lord of the Rings that "we never feel Sauron's power," I'm there to murmur, "What you mean 'we', white man?"

And did Bridwell invent this joke? Apparently. According to Wikipedia's sources, nobody's been able to find it told earlier than a 1958 MAD article by Bridwell and artist Joe Orlando depicting moments you'll never see in popular TV shows. In Bridwell's script, Tonto just says "What you mean ... we?" but it's the same joke.

For that alone, he is worth honoring.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

ecce homines, pars VI

Returning to my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1861-1877.

These are the presidents of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The coming of the Civil War was a huge watershed of American history, so much so that reading about these wartime and postwar presidents' pre-war lives feels as if they're different people or were somehow dropped in an alien environment.

George McGovern on Abraham Lincoln is more of a schematic diagram of Lincoln's presidency than a personal portrait, and it makes no attempt to tell a history of the war. The former presidential candidate and, one remembers, former executive administrator offers a dry and administrative look at the major issues of the presidency in the Civil War: preserving the union, waging the war, dealing with political pressures, and deciding to emancipate the slaves. Then it takes odd sidetracks to deal with side issues like Lincoln's relationship with each of his cabinet members, while ignoring other points, like foreign relations during the war. Lincoln, had he written it, would have leavened this account with a few jokes, and I missed other things I would have liked to see, like Congressman Lincoln's trenchant criticisms of the legality of the Mexican War (uncannily applicable to Iraq 160 years later). Despite the dry tone and the omissions, it's a good evaluation of the importance of the things Lincoln did.

Annette Gordon-Reed on Andrew Johnson is the boldest, and one of the best, matches of author and subject in the series. Gordon-Reed is the historian who penned the major study of Jefferson's black family, the Hemingses. She cannot be expected to like her present subject, the most racist president America has ever had (present company excepted), and she doesn't, but instead of spending her space denouncing him, she seeks to understand the cultural and personal context that made him what he was, why many hoped that acceding to the presidency might produce an epiphany in his attitudes, and why it didn't. Nor has she forgotten the corresponding strengths of his weaknesses (absolute obstinacy can be a virtue if you're a Southerner minded to stick with the Union), nor her biographer's remit to cover all of his public life and major events of his presidency, even those irrelevant to her thesis, like the Alaska Purchase. This is one of the best books in the series.

Josiah Bunting III on Ulysses S. Grant is another military writer on a military president. Bunting goes through Grant's military career with the same clear-sighted, straightforward attention on the task at hand that he credits as the key to Grant's greatness as a general. But when Bunting turns to the presidency he gets strangely waffly, as, apparently, did Grant. Grant tended to appoint subordinates without performing due diligence, but ... his cabinet members were all top-class men regardless of this, but ... somehow bad things happened anyway. Bunting is reluctant to blame Grant for anything except insofar as he was too passive in addressing problems, and goes through an entire chapter of scandals sweeping them aside this way. The strangest chapter is the one on Indian affairs, where Grant's determination to solve the native problem by assimilating them all to white culture, which nowadays would be called cultural genocide, is praised as noble. Yet Little Big Horn happened on Grant's watch, but this is somehow not connected to anything.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

concert review: two pianos and political culture

The publicity agents for this concert invited me to attend. Then I got my editor to agree to publish the review.

The theme was recent piano compositions inspired by the search for social justice. As I noted in the review, the concept sounds deadly, and one of the pieces indeed was, but what I didn't say but should have was that the reason I jumped at the opportunity to go was the list of composers. I was familiar with work by six of the eight on the program, and at least four of those I was more than happy to hear music by again. Both of the ones new to me turned out pretty good too.

I hesitated a bit at whether I should approach Elinor Armer, when I saw her at the cheese and crackers table after the concert. Then I did. I complimented her on the wit of her composition, and mentioned her set of collaborations with Ursula Le Guin, most of which I heard in concert when they were new. We agreed that we both missed Ursula terribly, and she said that she was planning a CD of her previously unpublished settings of UKL's poetry. I'm looking forward to that.

Since her piece was a tribute to her composition teacher, the noted French composer Darius Milhaud (who spent many years part-time at Mills College here), I asked if by any chance she was familiar with my harmony instructor, who was also a Milhaud composition student. She didn't recognize his name, and I said, "Well, he was probably before your time. He would have been rather older than you." She said, "I'm 80 years old, you know." I said, "Yes, but he was my teacher nearly 50 years ago, and he wasn't a young man then." Anyway, we had an agreeable conversation.

Then I took my notebook home and wrote the review. With a program full of new works and only one I'd ever heard before, it was hard to evaluate the performances, but I could certainly describe the music, so that's what I mostly did.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Stop Thebans

Today was the day of nationwide protests against the draconian anti-abortion laws from Alabama and Georgia and such benighted places, and while a quick transporter to go there was not available, I could at least show up locally, even though around here such protests are preaching to the choir.

Publicity said that protests were to be gathering at town squares and such places, but we don't have a lot of town squares around here. A web site showing locales showed that two of the three local events would be at shopping centers. Oh, I've seen that kind of protest before. A bunch of people gather on the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. When I'm the passing traffic, I never know what to do. I can never make out what they're yelling, anyway. Not to be one of that crowd is a strong desire of mine.

But look. The third protest is at San Jose city hall. That's a plaza, at least, if not a town square, and it was the staging area for the Women's March which I've attended twice, and they're the sponsoring group for this one, so I'll go there.

So I do, and arrive as the rain stops just before official starting time to find ... they're all gathered up against the sidewalk to yell at passing traffic. Oh well. At least there's enough - about 300 people, I'd guess, virtually no children but a few men, not as large a proportion as at the Women's March - to mill around. I park myself on one of the artificial rocks and hang around agreeably for an hour. If any media types try to interview me, I'd say, "I'm here to support the women. Why don't you go talk to some of them?" but nobody does.

The first sign I see appears to read STOP THEBANS. I figure that's some species of alien, like, I dunno, Thermians. Then I figure it out. Other signs read:



GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUNdamental human rights


PRO CHOICE, because other people's choices are none of my fncking business

which I particularly like because it pretty well sums up my own reasoning for picking this side. Once upon a time I considered abortion vs. forced pregnancy an insolvable moral dilemma. I might not like abortion, but where did I get off telling women they had to keep pregnancies because of my moral qualms? That arrogant I'm not. Eventually I decided that if I couldn't solve the dilemma, it was up to the woman who had the problem to solve it for herself. When it dawned on me that that was exactly the pro-choice position, I took that stand and have never wavered since.

Anyway, so we're all milling around and clustering by the sidewalk, and every time a passing vehicle toots its horn, everybody cheers. Especially when it's a heavy construction vehicle or, in one case, a city fire truck. Oh, so that's what drivers are supposed to do. It feels wrong to me, for whom car horn = hostile intention. But, whatever. In between cheers, a few speakers wielding highly directional bullhorns, so I don't catch more than a drift of what they're saying. But the drift sounds good.

After an hour everyone begins drifting away and the rain starts up again. I like to think that $DEITY arranged that break for us.

Monday, May 20, 2019

an excellent sf movie

First, you have to understand that I'm no fan of those big blockbuster movies that get all the attention. I tend to like quieter and well-crafted films. Even my favorite space adventure movies are 2001 and Dark Star (yes, Dark Star), but a lot of my favorite sf films are actually modest little things with here-and-now settings that integrate their sf elements into real dramas of human beings. For instance, I was quite taken with a little film from 2012 called Safety Not Guaranteed, which was set in a small town on the Washington state coast and which may, or may not, have involved time travel.

Now I've seen another film of that kind which is just as good, in some ways better. It's just been released on Netflix and it's called See You Yesterday. In this one, there really is time travel. Two bright juniors at the Bronx High School of Science have built a modest time machine which they've just now gotten to work.

Here's one of the things. These kids, they live in the East Flatbush ghetto in Brooklyn. They're black. Almost all of the characters in the movie (except their science teacher* and a couple of cops) are black. Their life is the ghetto. This movie was produced by Spike Lee, though not directed by him. The events of life in the ghetto, including the possibility of being randomly shot, by police or otherwise, are present in this movie and intimately intertwined with the story of the time machine.

It's really brilliantly written (and performed, and directed), especially the ending, which is both heartbreaking and audacious**, and which I've rewatched several times just to admire it.

*And guess who was coaxed out of retirement to play the part. I was utterly delighted to see him again.

**There's one old favorite movie of mine whose audacious ending reminds me a little of this one. But I can't tell you what it is, because I don't want to spoil this.

book report

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon)

This is a book by a white person, intended to explain racism to white people.

I don't think it's going to work.

The problem isn't with the substantive content of what DiAngelo has to say. I entirely agree with her on that. In particular, I'm in sad communion with her observation that the election of Obama was hardly the end of racism in the US, as was sometimes proclaimed, but the signal for a renewed outbreak of the kind of toxic, blatant, Jim Crow-style virulent racism that some of us were foolish enough to think had permanently faded away.

No, the problem is with the tone and the framing.

Early on, DiAngelo has to patiently explain, as she does every time she brings this subject up with a discussion group, that when she says that white people are racist, she doesn't mean they consciously hate or belittle black people. She's talking about "the racial status quo."

This becomes clear later on when she says that black people can't be racist, even when they're discriminating against white people on racial grounds. Only whites can be racist.

Here it is - or ought to be - as clear as it can possibly be that DiAngelo's definition of racism does not lie in individual acts of racist behavior, but in the whole cultural context of how whites and blacks relate to each other in US society.

Fair enough, but that's not the way she writes. She points to individual whites and says they're racist. She does that to focus them on the problem, but the focus is off. If racism lies in cultural context, then it doesn't consist of individuals' behavior, even when that behavior is discriminatory, and even though the cultural context is formed out of accumulated individual actions. The point is that if that's the definition of racism, then there's nothing any one individual can do to be any less racist, or any more racist for that matter, so the pointing finger is pointing too directly.

I wonder if we need two words, one to mean an inevitably racist context, and the other to mean specific acts of racism.

The people who really need this book - the whites who think that racism is obsolete but who casually demean black people - are unlikely to read it. They'll have been put off by DiAngelo's opening mea culpa breast-beating attitude long before they get to be told to breathe deeply when they're told they're racist, and if they ever get to the point where they read that black people can't be racist while all white people are, they'll just shut down completely.

If you make it to the end, there's some concrete suggestions for how white people should behave in a context of endemic racism, and those are useful, and go against the grain of blaming an endemic problem on individual actions; but first you need to get that far.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


After a preview of the heat of summer, a mixture of rains and threatening weather returned starting a few days ago, wreaking schedule alterations on outdoor events which are normally common in May.

A press tour of Stanford's outdoor amphitheater, to which symphony concerts are returning this summer, was put off from last week for two weeks. While outdoor concerts are not much my thing, I have never been in this amphitheater, so I'm curious to go.

Today was supposed to be the Barron Park May Fête, Barron Park being a small community hidden away inside Palo Alto, whose town park is the location of the corral where lives the donkey, the one used as model for the character in Shrek. (I've seen the donkey at past events, and they look exactly alike.) I was especially eager to go because Brocelïande would be playing, but the rains this morning made it look doubtful, and indeed I found a Nextdoor listing that said it had been canceled. So, stay home and do some work.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

half a day at a book festival

The day I went to the California Symphony, which was Sunday a week and a half ago now, that was in Walnut Creek in the late afternoon, so it gave me time to spend part of the earlier part of the day at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley.

I'd gone to a couple panels at this three years ago and have been on their mailing list ever since. But I hadn't found anything that looked worth making the trek to Berkeley for until I suddenly found one of this year's guests, Carlos Lozada, on my radar. Lozada has been the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post for a while now, but I'd only come across him a month earlier when I read his takedown of the now-ex Baltimore mayor's children's book. You heard about this? The mayor resigned after a scandal around the large sums of money she got selling vast numbers of copies of her self-published children's books to various state institutions that could use a mayor's (or a state legislator's, which is what she was previously) help. Anyway, while the scandal was still boiling Lozada got hold of a copy of one of the books (which wasn't easy to find) and gave it a hilarious (and rather atypical of him) review. Since then he's also reviewed the Mueller report in its capacity as a book to read, rather than parsing it purely for intellectual content.

So Lozada was to be on this panel in a hotel ballroom on "Courage in Publishing in an Age of Political Polarization," which sounded interesting, so I went. At first the heavily overpopulated panel looked as if it wasn't going to go anywhere very useful, with heavy remarks about "cancel culture" and the "new prudishness" and whether the news that Woody Allen can't find a publisher for his memoirs means that publishers lack courage. Someone tried to draw a distinction that what's called "cultural appropriation" is not a bad thing in itself; borrowing is enriching; it's disrespect and exploitation which are bad. Well, good luck at maintaining that distinction.

But the moderator kept good traffic control, and when Lozada got a chance to speak, he put forth some good points from his Mueller review. I wrote him down as saying, "The report is the best of the inside White House books because Robert Mueller has subpoena power. Imagine if Bob Woodward had subpoena power. That would be really interesting." They then got into the question of whether the report is going to be an unread bestseller. Another panelist said, "The Attorney General doesn't seem to have read it," to which Lozada quipped, "Then he shouldn't have reviewed it."

Lozada also got a chance to deliver a bit on the kinds of over-common and repetitious books that political reviewers like himself see too much of these days. They cross the political spectrum. The ones on the left that he's tired of are, he said, "resistance anthologies consisting of essays by obsessively like-minded writers who keep screaming 'this is not who we are' over and over again, which I don't think is very useful," and on the right he finds either accommodationist apologias for Trump or else "book-length breakup letters to the Republican Party without addressing the author's own complicity in making it this way."

After that I wandered over to the Freight, whose auditorium had also been rented by the Festival and which turned out to be a good place for Lozada to interview one Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher with, judging from his interview, an excessively dainty approach. He's recently published a book called The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity which I haven't seen anywhere, nor do many libraries seem to have his earlier books though they're from major publishers. Apparently all his writings focus on identity, which you can understand why it obsesses him once he explains that he's half Ghanaian and half English country gentry with a politically radical side (his grandfather was Stafford Cripps), and now he lives in the US. What am I, anyway? he may well ask.

After that I wandered down to the display area in the city's central park. There were some publishers' booths with nothing I wanted to buy and some food booths with nothing I wanted to eat, so I drifted away.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

concert review: San José State University, School of Music and Dance

Probably the most fun, and certainly the most anticipated, thing I did last weekend was to attend SJSU's production of Bernstein's Mass. This is not a work one gets to see staged often - this was the fourth time total for me - and never before for me in a college rather than professional production.

My editor had phoned to ask if I could cover some other concert that evening and I had to say, "Sorry, I'll be at SJSU for their Bernstein Mass." Then I thought for a moment and said, "Would you like me to review that instead?"

He said sure, so here it is. You may thank my resident Catholic, who was enthusiastically there with me, for the comments on liturgical significance (the shroud on the cross, the Celebrant's vestments), because that's not stuff I would know.

I took our two CDs of the work up to my office with me to help with the review. Then I put them back down on the rack in the kitchen where they came from. Now I can hear from downstairs that B. is listening to one of them while doing the post-dinner dishes. (Just as a reminder: I cook, she does the dishes.) We like this work. And I've started writing cat lyrics to it.

Monday, May 13, 2019

An announcer on our local no-brow classical station just named a famous flutist as "Sir Galway."

tiny tyrant

That's what B. called Tybalt when I came back to bed Saturday morning after a couple hours up early. "Did you feed the tiny tyrant?" she asked. Even before I got up, that active young cat was nibbling at our toes, licking our hair, even switching off the CPAP machine, and just causing chaos to our attempts to sleep in.

Tybalt isn't a hostile cat, though: he wants love. It's very frequent, while I'm working here at the computer, for him to squeeze in past the open arms of my office chair and sit next to me in the chair. If only he'd stay there. He's the only cat we've had since we've been together who likes to be picked up, and that's what happens next. He doesn't try to lie on my lap, either. He latches in and goes up my chest. As you can imagine, this feels considerably different depending on whether or not I'm wearing a shirt. What he wants is to sit on my chest, with me holding him up with one hand and petting him with the other. This is fine if I'm reading a long article or listening to music; not so great if I'm trying to write something or take notes.

Tybalt also ventures into places in the kitchen where no cat has gone before, specifically up on the counter, especially when I'm working there on dinner. At first I tended to ignore him, and even work over him, unless he actually threatened to stick his nose in the food (and probably eat it: he's eaten things like spicy potato chips off the floor). But now I'm trying to be more strict, and if he comes up, I scoop a hand under him and drop him back on the floor. Assuming, that is, that my hands aren't covered with something I don't want to get on a cat. Lesson does not usually get through, though in other ways I can see Tybalt modifying his behavior in light of the way things are done around here. But I'm often scooping 15 or 20 cats off the counter in the course of fixing one meal.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Tolkien: the bio-pic

When I wrote in March of my visit to New York, and the Morgan Library's Tolkien exhibit, and the two-day conference for which many distinguished Tolkienists gathered, I left something out.

Saturday morning, before any of the other conference events occurred, most of the conference presenters converged from various directions in the chilly quiet of a March weekend morning in New York, on an otherwise deserted (not yet open for the day) spacious multiplex movie theatre out on the far fringes of East Midtown. (I hadn't known there were any multiplexes in Manhattan, did you?) This was the first most of us had seen of each other on this visit, and it was a strange way to greet old friends. I was walking along a deserted street towards the theatre, for instance, when a man crossed the street and fell into step beside me to greet me: it was Peter Grybauskas. In the theatre were many more, including John Garth, the British scholar whose biography Tolkien and the Great War is the closest thing to a book equivalent to the movie we were there to see, which was of course the Tolkien biographical film which is just now hitting general release.

And the reason I haven't said anything about it until now is that we all had to sign embargo forms before entering the theatre. This didn't surprise me: I've previously been asked not to publish pre-release reviews of movies I've seen in private previews, though this was the first time I had to sign a form. Curiously, the form bore no date on which the embargo expired, so I wrote "until the film's general release" on the form before signing it. Others were less punctilious, but at least one person there blanched at the form and refused to sign it at all, and therefore (as far as I know) did not see the movie.

But now it's out so I may speak. So I'll tell you what I said. When the lights came up I turned to Janet Croft and David Emerson, who were seated near me, and said, "If they're going to make stuff up, why can't they at least make a coherent and interesting story out of it?" Only I didn't say "stuff."

The plot covers Tolkien's life from the time his family moved away from idyllic Sarehole (at which time Tolkien was 8, though he's played as a boy by a young man who was something like 16 at the time of filming) until his return from France during WWI, with a couple of later epilogues. The elements mostly come from his life, but by the time he gets to Oxford, the sequence and causality of the plot have departed sufficiently from historical fact that it's essentially made up. But if they're going to play so loose with history, why not include even any of the historically known ways that Tolkien's life inspired his fiction, let alone make any up which they were free to do?

The movie is being promoted as "explor[ing] how ... time spent in college and his service in the British army ... and other events influenced his classic works," but that’s exactly what it doesn't do.

For instance, in an epilogue title card we’re told that the names of Beren and Lúthien appear on Ronald and Edith’s tombstone, but nothing is said in the movie itself of the inspiration for that story. There's a brief shot of Edith dancing in the woods (at a different date than the occasion which actually inspired the story), but the allusion is left completely untouched.

I subsequently saw an interview with the director who said that he was trying to avoid the implication that Tolkien's fiction encoded his life. An admirable concern, but that ship has sailed. The only point in making a commercial movie of Tolkien's early life is to show how he became the man who wrote the fiction, and you can do that without reducing the fiction to a commentary on the life. See John Garth's book for a start.

But it's worse than lacking that connection. The movie keeps telling us that Tolkien was marvelously creative, but what it shows us is a man who's mostly inert or at best reactive (more often unreactive). There's a scene at the TCBS where the others ask Tolkien what he's written lately and he says he hasn't written anything. Why is this scene in the movie, then? There's another scene where he brings Edith to meet the TCBS (I don't think this ever actually happened) and the conversation is awkward at first, but as soon as Edith gets into a juicy discussion of Wagner with Christopher Wiseman, Tolkien jumps up and says they have to leave. Why does he do this? In the next scene Edith chews him out for it, but there's never any explanation or an attempt to fit this in to a larger pattern of behavior. There's almost as much attention in this movie to G.B. Smith's poetry as to Tolkien’s writings.

Nor does the movie entirely avoid showing Tolkien's creativity being inspired. But what it does show – fragments of some stories which have nothing to do with the legendarium; a hallucination of mounted knights clashing on the Somme; artwork pinned to Tolkien's walls that appears inspired by the Book of Ishness but is far grimmer than anything actually appearing there – is of a tenor to give more the impression that Tolkien is the author not of his books but of Peter Jackson's movies. At the end there's a casual attempt to wrap up every experience Tolkien has had and claim they went together to make up The Hobbit, but it's glib and the book doesn't carry that kind of weight.

I found this movie dull and meandering. By far the best acting in it came from by far the best-known actor in it, Derek Jacobi as Joseph Wright. Laura Donnelly (new to me) as Tolkien's mother shows some zest, and the bit in which she reads from Völsunga saga to her boys is my favorite scene in the movie, as well as the one most relevant to Tolkien's inspiration. Nicholas Hoult as the adult Tolkien looks pained a lot. Lily Collins as Edith pouts a lot. The actors playing the other TCBS members as adolescents have a liveliness to them which disappears when they're replaced by the actors who play them as adults. I don't anticipate this movie having a major impact on public perception of Tolkien, simply because it doesn't have the kind of appeal, as a film on its own account, that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies certainly had.