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.