Monday, April 15, 2024

not recommended

Nick Groom, Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century: The Meaning of Middle-Earth Today (Pegasus, 2023)

I read the foreword of this book on Amazon last fall and denounced it then. Basically, Groom says that "Tolkien ... is not simply an author and a body of work, but a vast and growing field of cultural activity and products" (xviii), i.e. (though he doesn't put it that way) a lot of marketing kitsch and crappy adaptations. Specifically - and this was the main point of my critique - that you can't defend the smear of adaptations by saying that "the book is still on the shelf" because you can't read the book any more without the context of the adaptations. Also he has to insult and sneer at the existing Tolkien scholarly literature by unfairly caricaturizing it. On top of which, he says he's going to write "Middle-Earth" instead of Tolkien's preferred "Middle-earth" because you wouldn't write "Sackville-baggins" (xv), would you? which is a stunningly inept comparison.

So, having already annoyed the intelligent reader three different ways, Groom says he's going to write about "the Tolkien phenomenon today" without "get[ting] rapidly bogged down in the minutiae" (xvii-xviii). But that's not what he does. Chapter one is an extremely clotted biography which begins by getting immediately bogged down in the minutiae of listing twenty-three different names, nicknames, pseudonyms, literary incarnations, or terms of address which Tolkien used or by which he was known, some of them of extreme obscurity (2). It doesn't get better from here, going on to describe Tolkien's complex early life in the kind of detail of a full biography but not of much use to someone who just wants to understand the works, before getting into an abstruse academic bibliographically-oriented description of Tolkien's earlier work. Chapter two is on The Hobbit and chapters three and four on the writing of The Lord of the Rings, going into a lot of detail on how the drafts were developed, and on obscure and difficult points of interest to those abstruse and boring Tolkien minutiae scholars who were bashed in the foreword (like, is the shadowy figure in the eaves of Fangorn Gandalf or Saruman?), but that still have no connection with Tolkien in the 21st Century.

Finally we begin to approach the precursor of the supposed topic in chapter five, which is essentially a history of film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, running lightly through music inspired by it and mentioning earlier attempts before plunging into detail on the Boorman script, the Bakshi movie, the Sibley-Bakewell radio version, and the Jackson movies. These are fairly astute analyses, particularly noting the thrust of the changes these versions made in the story, but again the focus on detail seems inappropriate for the broad canvas this book's premise promises. I started to cheer at an incidental rebuttal to Michael Moorcock's critique of Tolkien, but swallowed it when Groom implies Moorcock was just jealous at Tolkien's success (214).

So then chapter six does the same thing with adaptations of The Hobbit, offering a weak justification for the disaster that Peter Jackson made of it by claiming that he haaaaad to make it stylistically congruent with The Lord of the Rings. Groom is learned enough to know that Tolkien once tried to do the same thing (257), but he is clueless as to why it failed, and failed again when Jackson tried it.

That's not enough to make a chapter, so Groom then turns to a discussion of the morality of war, mixing up descriptions of Tolkien's book and Jackson's movies so thoroughly that the untutored reader may be forgiven for not being able to distinguish them, and thus going away thinking that Tolkien is to blame for some of the atrocities committed only by Jackson's characters. There are also bits on gender roles and ecocriticism. Groom is again fairly good, if not particularly original, when he sticks to Tolkien, but feels rapidly off when he takes a wider focus, as with declaring that Hobbiton is no longer English but in New Zealand (293), which was not the impression Jackson wanted the viewer to leave with either.

Chapter seven is labeled "Conclusion" (what? is that as far as we get?), which is again focused on detail in Tolkien (religion, the Silmarillion, racial and nationalist issues, dreams in the stories, the element of horror, words and language) before touching at the end on Amazon's Rings of Power. The point seems to be - or would be if Groom approached this from a wider perspective - that the meaning of the story depends on who's reading it, or who (in the adaptations) is retelling it. That would be the beginning, not the end, of a book really about Tolkien in the 21st Century.

Then there's a brief afterword on the first season of Rings of Power, which must have been added at the last minute because we already had a bit on Rings of Power. This mostly discusses what the series did and didn't pick up from Tolkien or from Jackson, which are treated equally as source material, lord save us.

And that's it. I found this in the public library new books shelf, which is not a place I normally expect to see scholarly new books about Tolkien. I hope that casual readers who pick this up will get more out of this book than I think they will.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

two new symphonies

I've been to hear the premiere performances of two new symphonies in the past week. It wasn't planned; it just worked out that way. I generally like symphonies; they're my favorite genre of music, and it pleases me when more are added to their number, particularly when they are themselves interesting works as these were.

The first was Lee Actor's Symphony No. 4, played by the Palo Alto Philharmonic, for which he's composer-in-residence. I reviewed this for the Daily Journal. As I mentioned in the review, his work occasionally reminds me of Shostakovich, of Rachmaninoff, of Nielsen, of Bruckner, and those are all good composers to sound like if you want to please me. It's not crass imitation, it's mostly just flashes of a turn of phrase.

The other was by Howard Qin, a Stanford senior undergraduate. I saw on the Music Dept. calendar that a free concert in their tiny recital hall would feature the premiere of a symphony, and that intrigued me enough to go. The hall was fairly packed, but I wouldn't be surprised if I was the only person there who didn't know the composer personally. He assembled a student orchestra of some 20 people, under his direction, to play this expansive but not over-long four-movement work depicting the seasons at Stanford. In the finale, two singers join the ensemble to intone the mottos of various universities.

That was the grandest movement; the other three all begin softly with just a few instruments and then build up. The themes are memorable, there is a decent amount of counterpoint, the whole has weight and movement. Despite the small numbers, the winds and brass tended to overbalance the strings, so more practice with orchestration is my only suggestion.

Also in the last week, I heard an all-Czech chamber music concert and reviewed it for SFCV. That was enjoyable, and even the ferocious attack on Janáček's Second Quartet worked in context.

And I went back to Stanford for another free concert; Christopher Costanza was playing the suites for unaccompanied cello by, no not J.S. Bach, but Benjamin Britten. These were written in the 1960s for Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Britten wrote quite a lot in those days. I was hoping the suites would be enlightening. Instead they were incomprehensible. Obviously interesting to play but I couldn't make anything out of them as a listener.

Costanza is the cellist of the St Lawrence String Quartet, the Stanford resident ensemble. His bio in the program for this concert refers to the recent release of "the final two SLSQ recordings." Final? So I guess that means they have no intention of ever replacing their violinist Geoff Nuttall, who died a year and a half ago, but will just go on as they have been: mentoring and teaching at Stanford, which is part of their job; and performing individually and as part of other chamber ensembles. Well, I can live with that, and in any case Nuttall was in truth irreplaceable.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Tolkien in Vermont

I attended online part of the annual one-day Tolkien at the University of Vermont conference today. This year the online vendor was something called Microsoft Teams. Please may they not use it again. It was no trouble getting on it with my Windows machine, but I had the damndest trouble staying on. Throughout the conference, on an average of twice a minute, literally, the thing would momentarily lose its signal and display an error message for a couple of seconds before reconnecting to the audio and then, more slowly, the video. Twice a minute. All day.

Fortunately for this, most of the speakers were just reading their PowerPoint slides aloud, so I had already figured out what they were going to say during their missing two seconds, but the ones that weren't ... I missed a few good jokes. Coming back from an outage to hear the in-person audience laughing at something you missed is annoying even the first time.

Also, the presenters forgot to watch where the camera was pointed. Several in-person speakers were only visible to the extent of one arm as they stood just out of camera range. A couple other times the camera suddenly switched angles so that we had a facial close-up, looking up the nostrils, of someone in the audience.

However, the presentations were good. Lots of Jungian and/or Freudian interpretations. The keynote speaker, the invisible Sara Brown (invisible because her PowerPoint started before she came up to the podium, and afterwards was standing in the wrong place for the camera), compared the burden of the Ring to Simone de Beauvoir's polemics against the burden of pregnancy, which was quite a comparison. I think it was she who also pointed out that the other Rings are also burdensome, noting Galadriel and the Dwarves, though it took another speaker to suggest that perhaps bearing the Ring of Fire explains why Gandalf is so cross and irritable all the time.

Yet another speaker pointed out that Sam is also cross and irritable. I've always found him an unpleasant character, but I've never found agreement on that point. Maybe this will explain it.

Then there was a paper pointing out that Tolkien's intent for some of his fictional languages to sound 'harsh' comes out a lot different if you speak a human language that he'd classify that way, like German or Turkish; one describing "The New Shadow" as a story about the failure of pedagogy (don't scoff: Borlas actually admits as much); and a couple good reinterpretations of The Hobbit: one arguing that Bolg the goblin has good reason to resent the Dwarves' treatment of his people, and one analyzing why the ponies in The Hobbit get killed while those in The Lord of the Rings survive: the earlier book's lighter tone make it possible to kill off minor characters without injecting unwanted notes of tragedy.

A good conference; I'm just sorry I kept missing bits of it.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

three things about O.J. Simpson

1. I know a lot more about his acting career than I do about his football career. I watched the Naked Gun movies. I never saw him play football.

2. One sunny Sunday morning in 1994, B. and I were married. That very night, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered. I just don't cotton to that concatenation of events at all.

3. A few days later came the famous Bronco chase. I happened to turn the TV on at the end of it. The car was just sitting in the driveway with nobody getting out of it, but the newspeople were yammering on at full force as if this were the most dramatic sequence of events in the history of the world.

This was the moment at which I decided to stop watching television news.

I've kept to that decision ever since. Of course I didn't watch the trial. By the time of 9/11, I'd figured out what to do instead when there's a major breaking news story. I open up a tab to a reputable newspaper site. I go about my other computer business, and every half hour or so I turn to the tab and hit the refresh button to see if anything has happened. Usually it hasn't, but I've been spared being made frantic by it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

the unknown soldier

Michael Palin, Great-Uncle Harry: A Tale of War and Empire (Random House Canada, 2023)

Of World War I battles, I'm particularly interested in the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916) because that's the one J.R.R. Tolkien fought in. He was his battalion's signaling officer, rotating between the front lines and reserves as was customary, for four months during this battle until he fell ill. During this time his close friend R.Q. Gilson was killed on the first day of the battle. Tolkien's other close friend G.B. Smith died after the battle had petered out, but it was still possible to be hit by a German shell, which Smith was.

Another notable figure killed on the Somme was George Butterworth, one of the most promising young English composers.

But so were many others. The lives of the little-known are no less valuable spiritually than the famed. They deserve to be remembered, and their lives can give us a context to understand others. Here's a biography of one: Lance-Corporal H.W.B. Palin, killed on September 27, 1916, aged 32.

Michael Palin, the Monty Python guy, received a sheaf of family papers, including the terse but extensive diaries of his grandfather's youngest brother, Harry. Michael had known virtually nothing about Harry, but he set out to learn more. Michael is indefatigable in his research - to the extent that John Cleese yawns theatrically when the subject of Michael's books comes up - and he found quite a lot. He is also big on the garrulous digressions: for instance, when discussing Harry's relationship with his much older siblings, Michael recounts his own relationship with his much older sister.

Though Michael doesn't like to say so in so many words, Harry was an underachiever. Unlike his oldest brother, he did poorly in school. He went off to India to earn his fortune like so many ambitious young Englishmen in those imperial days, but failed miserably, being fired for poor work from two blue-collar jobs, on a railway and at a tea plantation. (He did, however, learn Urdu - not Hindi, Urdu, a curiosity not addressed - which served him well later on.) He seems to have done somewhat better as a farm laborer in New Zealand, clearing tree stumps off some newly-designated farmland (Michael does not discuss the environmental damage attendant on this). That's where Harry was when war broke out in 1914, and he joined the Anzacs. He was one of the few uninjured survivors of the horrors of Gallipoli, where in addition to regular soldiering he served as a translator for troops from the subcontinent. Then he was sent to France where the Somme awaited.

Despite Michael's confident command of detail, and his sure way of covering gaps in the historical record, he seems fuzzy about some facts. Besides my not being certain that he knows the difference between Urdu and Hindi, I'm not certain he knows the difference between a vicar and a rector, one of which Harry's father was.

But despite these things, this is a fascinating and readable book. The accumulation of detail helps the reader understand the environments in which Harry lived, a necessary approach given the paucity of primary source material. I'm glad I picked this one up from the library.

Monday, April 8, 2024

der Mond

B. and I traveled to St. Louis for the 2017 total solar eclipse, at the invitation of a friend who lived in the zone of totality. Several other friends accepted the invitation, and we had a pleasant backyard party of it. We found no congestion, no trouble making hotel reservations, etc. And we experienced the totality.

I wouldn't mind seeing another one, but the difficulties of travel, both personal and pandemic-wise, have increased since then, so this time I stayed at home to see the partial. Maybe a good thing too, as B. tells me that everybody on FB who's gone to Texas has found heavy cloud cover. (No word yet from my brother in Pennsylvania.) It was bright and sunny here, a change from the dripping rain we've had off and on for weeks.

And I did see the partial. I went to the plaza outside the city library, but found nothing there I couldn't get at home besides a long line of people waiting to view through the telescope. So I went back home. My pinhole viewer did not produce good results, but with the eclipse glasses I had an effect unlike any I'd seen before at an eclipse. Not only was there a bite taken out of the Sun, but - faintly, as if a ghost of itself - I could see the full outline and features of the Moon. Probably it would have been clearer without the glasses, but of course then the Sun would drown it out, and fry your eyes into the bargain.

Over the course of an hour, taking a peek half a dozen times, I watched the Moon come over the Sun on the right, then slowly move down below it, still taking a bite, and then gradually move off to the left and vanish. Astronomical movement in action.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

assorted concerts

Thursday I trudged my way again from the far-off parking garage to the San Jose State music auditorium for another Beethoven Center event. During term they hold monthly noon concerts, often of historic arrangements of Beethoven works, but this one wouldn't fit in their own tiny recital room because it required two pianos. It was Liszt's arrangement of the Ninth Symphony.

Played by locally noted pianists Tamami Honma* and Daniel Glover, with the quiet addition of timpani by John Gerling (plus triangle for the janissary section of the Ode to Joy), but with no singers, it came across rather jangly, a contrast especially audible in the slow movement. Liszt frequently passes the lead back and forth between the pianos. The quintessential moment may have been the great choral declaration of the Ode theme, which was accomplished with one pianist slamming away at the theme in massive chords while the other swept maniacally all over the keyboard to reproduce the accompaniment. The ending was so tumultuous it sounded as if they'd sent out for reinforcements.

And then I had to walk back to my car through a hailstorm (technically sleet, as the word is used in the US, I suppose).

For the evening I ventured up to the Freight to hear a five-person Scottish folk band called Breabach. I wasn't familiar with them, but I like that type of music. Lots of bagpipes going on, and they were the full-bodied Highland pipes, too. Enough to make your teeth rattle.

*Who's just released her recording of all 35 - that's right, 35 - Beethoven piano sonatas, which I would have bought on the spot had I $50 in cash - which was all they'd take - in my pocket, but I didn't.

Friday, April 5, 2024

news of the weird

A couple odd things going on locally that might not have hit the broader news feeds:

1. In California we have what's called the jungle primary, in which all the candidates of whatever party run together, and the top two finishers, whatever their party, go into the general election.

But what happens if two candidates are tied for second place?

That happened in the race for an open congressional seat hereabouts, an attractive prospect for many a local officeholder. One candidate led, and two others kept shifting for second place as more votes were counted, and eventually ended up tied.

The answer is, all three of them will make the final ballot. This isn't my district, but it's interesting to watch.

2. Oakland International Airport has decided it needs more respect. Like many cities, San Francisco has more than one convenient airport but not everybody knows about it. San Francisco International is about 15 miles from downtown; Oakland International is across the Bay but is only about 20 miles from downtown SF, and both are served by the rapid transit system. (Oakland is also less likely to get fogged in.)

But Oakland has been losing flight slots because people don't know to use it. So now they want to change the name to San Francisco Bay Oakland International, a mouthful but like SFO it is right on the Bay and this will let people know where it is. But the SFO administration are annoyed by this; they say it's confusing. I must admit some sympathy with that position, remembering some misleading airport designations in my past, and especially since an Oakland administrator said "No one owns the title to the San Francisco Bay."

That's the sort of snotty remark you make only if you know you'd be confusing the customers and are deliberately planning to do so.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

gender dysphoria

Statistics on gender dysphoria in pre-teens and teens.

I wonder. Questions like this didn't exist when I was a child, but I wonder how my answer would have been taken when I was a pre-teen. I despised typical boy-like behavior, I hated being a boy and being forced to associate with other boys, I thought girls were much nicer people, I sometimes wished I was a girl, but only so that I wouldn't have to be put with the boys. And I never thought I actually was a girl. So is that gender dysphoria or not?

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

celebrity fan

George was a Python fan in the way that other people were George fans. He'd taken tapes of his favorite episodes with him on the Dark Horse tour, often turning to them at moments when Rolling Stone was being particularly horrid. At every venue he had the "Lumberjack Song" played during the countdown to showtime and he registered at hotels as "Jack Lumber."
- Philip Norman, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle

And, of course, it tells the story of how he financed Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Staking the house he loved more than anything else in his life on the riskiest of all gambles was an act of incredible, foolhardy generosity to his Python friends (and a glaring contrast to fobbing off his first wife and incontrovertible creative muse with £120,000). "I just wanted to see the film" was his throwaway explanation, prompting the quip to which various Pythons would claim authorship, that he'd bought "the most expensive cinema ticket in history."