Sunday, August 28, 2011

without ollalaberries

Saturday evening concert by Broceliande, favorite medieval/renaissance/folk band, in their usual local space in the back of the newage bookstore. Usually they just come down here for their annual Christmas-season concert, which I expect I'll have to miss this year, but this one was a harvest-season concert, a little early on the schedule. Concluded by pulling out their old setting of Tolkien's "The Stone Troll", a bone-harvesting song.

Afterwards, on to social gathering, where I was too late for the ollalaberry pie tasting, but not for conversation. Amusing light tales of many Worldcon conventioneers descending on a bewildered Reno hospital to visit a sick wombat (now better, thanks). Also, I received heartfelt thanks for thinking of Zimiamvia. And, this: C., whose son is in college in New Mexico, reports that where most states have a state bird or a state flower, New Mexico has a state question. Really, quoth I, who had also recently been in New Mexico; I was not acquainted with the notion of a state question. New Mexico's state question, sayeth C., is: "Red or green?" Oh yes, replied I, I was asked that question there many times. And that there are three legitimate answers to that question, the third being "Christmas!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

comment, publication, egocheck

1. You won't find me among those Pacific coasters chuckling at the East's reaction to its 5.8 earthquake. Even around here, a 5.8 is at least enough to make you sit up and take notice, and I've seen Californians run around like headless chickens after a 6.2 forty miles away. If I were along a sinking mudlogged coast, as the DC-area seaboard is,* and more importantly one without California-level building codes - because it's not the quake that usually kills you, it's the falling buildings - I'd be plenty concerned about a 5.8 too.

2. Usually SFCV takes its reviewers' concert picks for the upcoming months and blends them into one continuous set of listings, but mine for this fall got published as a separate article. (The introductory paragraph is editorial.) You will notice that I'm more about the repertoire than the performers. I'm not going to get to all of these myself; in fact the two on Oct. 23 are both out because I have tickets to something yet else that day.

3. Looking up on the web something about a filk CD we picked up at Worldcon, I was amused to discover that a throwaway filk parody I wrote in 1983 and had nearly forgotten about, titled "Filkers Dining Together", has become a classic in filk lore. The article says it was "written by the bleary-eyed survivors who managed to keep filking till 6 a.m. Sunday morning at ConChord I in 1983," but however much it may have mutated since then, the original words were all mine. That was the con where I had no hotel room and no way to get one, for distressful reasons I'll omit here. I spent the first of the two nights sleeping under a table in the function room, hidden by the long table skirt. The second night, however, about a dozen people, including Leslie Fish, stayed up filking all night, and I, forsooth, was among them. About 5:30 a.m. someone suggested we take a break and repair to the hotel coffee shop when it opened at 6. By the time it was my next turn 15 minutes later, I had written a set of comic verses, including a couple of bad puns, about filkers seeking breakfast in the coffee shop, to the tune of the serious neopagan song "Sisters Dancing Together" which Leslie had sung earlier. Everyone thought it very funny, because we were so sleep-deprived. And then we did go and have breakfast, less adventurously than the song describes. A few days after the con I got a note from Leslie asking for a copy of the words, which I sent her, and that's the last I ever heard of it until now. The incident was the one bright spot of a painful weekend, and writing that song was my final act as a regular filker.

*Take a look at a map of the Chesapeake Bay. That is a drowned river valley if there ever was one.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Worldcon: the food

The Atlantis and the Peppermill resorts are both filled with restaurants, assuming you can find them. The themes overlap: each has a coffee shop, a steakhouse, a buffet, an oyster bar, a NY-style deli, etc. The Atlantis deli was more than passable, the pastrami sandwich almost as good as, and bigger than, at Max's (the deli chain around here), and the matzo ball soup actually better. One huge breakfast at the Peppermill's coffee shop (a Joe's special, high-quality ingredients but not well constructed) was enough to convince me that it was too huge a breakfast for me. That day for lunch I visited the quickie counter at the convention center, which was doing good business. A fruit cup suited me, and it was an excellent mixture of fresh fruit pieces. I understand the next day they didn't have any.

Outside restaurants were geographically scattered, but good, and with the inestimable advantage of not being in casinos. Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs serves hearty but not overwhelming breakfast, and service is fast and friendly. Naan & Kebab, across the street from the Peppermill, claims to be Mediterranean but is actually Middle Eastern. One of our dinner party reported undercooked chicken, but everyone else was happy. I tried Louis', the Basque restaurant downtown, for lunch. Lamb roast, whole beans, and vegetable soup, plain, fairly tasty. The social dynamics of seating customers at the family-style trestle tables was the most interesting part of the restaurant. And a hankering for Mexican took us to Bertha Miranda's near the baseball field (Did you know Reno has a baseball team? They were playing a game while we were there) south of downtown. Quite decent food and excellent service, but the best thing about this restaurant was the big comfy leather chairs, low enough to sink in, but not too low to make eating from the table awkward. I could have happily stayed there all day.

A small farmer's market way out in south Reno on Sunday morning, found while wandering around after taking B. to church down there, produced a big basket of succulent blackberries and a small bag of caramel toffee.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Worldcon: the site

Worldcon was held in Reno because the Portland-based committee that ran it couldn't find facilities both adequate and available in their own town. What they got was a convention center the right size for a medium-small Worldcon, big enough for all programming but the evening events without being so large that we rattled around in it. Panel locations were intelligently laid out. As often before, the whole exhibits division was in a huge concrete (tiring to walk on a lot) hall with the dealers and art show way, way in the back to force attendees to walk through the display exhibits to get there, but with so much room allotted to the latter that the actual exhibits were scattered around the vast concrete space like tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean.

That aside, the convention center was OK. The hotels, well ... Look, it's like this. Reno is not Las Vegas. It has "gambling destination resort" in common, but it's a smaller, more low-key town with more else to do. (Not so small, however, to keep it from being in the awkward phase where a city's growth is vastly in excess of the current capacity of its transport infrastructure, making it very hard to drive around in.) On the south side of Reno, there are no more than two Vegas-style casino resort complexes, huge gaudy towers covered with flashing neon lights, visible from miles away.1 These, it turned out, were the only hotels in the vicinity of the convention center big enough to host a Worldcon, and it was to these we went. And in that necessity lies my dissatisfaction with the Reno Worldcon.

Our room at the Peppermill was comfortable and spacious, deficient only in minimal drawer space and in spotty-reception wifi that kept locking me out for "malicious activity" like trying to read online newspapers. The problem is that these resorts are casinos, seething Hells2 of flashing lights and pounding noise and tobacco smoke. Apologists will say, if you don't like casinos don't go in them. But you can't stay in those hotels, or even visit most of the events the convention held there, without going in the casinos. Even the front desks of both hotels were in smoky casino staging areas, and most of the restaurants, though themselves smoke-free, were actually inside the casinos. Sufficient knowledge of the complex and confusing layout - not easy to acquire, and only by the last day did I feel I was really getting a handle on it - could minimize but not eliminate the problem. Oxygen-breathing humans, as opposed to whatever type of creature actually inhabits casinos,3 cannot natively exist there. Every time we walked through even the hotel lobby, I kept being reminded of Dave Bowman trying to get through the emergency airlock without a helmet.

I've stayed in casino hotels twice before, at Vegas Corflus, but not for so long or with such intensity, or with B. - who is even more oxygen-dependent than I - with me. And I've had enough. Just enough. I'm not doing this again any time soon. I'm not voting for another Reno Worldcon, however convenient the location. And I guess I just answered my pending question of whether to go to next year's Corflu in Vegas.

1. Imagine 20 of these in a row, and you have the Vegas Strip.
2. I capitalize "Hells" because I mean this seriously.
3. The lights and noise couldn't entirely disguise how empty they actually were.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Worldcon: The Hugos

Novel: Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis. I haven't read any of the nominees, but those I've talked to who've read all are bitterly disappointed with this win. They say it's bloated and wordy and full of egregious research flubs. Grumblings that it won because Willis is a Big Name, but aren't Bujold and Ian McDonald too?

Novella: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang. I found this tale of software engineers making pets out of their AIs to be fascinating, despite my strong distaste for Pullmanian daemons of any sort. But I didn't rank it highest, because it didn't seem to be making any points about the disconcerting ability of the AIs to learn from their environment (perhaps I'm used to more didactic SF than this), and because the story had no ending, it just ... stopped. My top vote went to Geoffrey Landis's clever "The Sultan of the Clouds".

Novelette: "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele. Hurrah, one I voted for. I had a special weakness for this story because it's SF about SF (so, more sneakily, is Peter Watts' "The Things" in Short Story), and I expect others felt similarly. The echo of Emperor Norton didn't hurt either.

Short Story: "For Want of a Nail" by Mary Robinette Kowal. Not a bad story, but not particularly memorable, and I couldn't figure out the relevance of the titular proverb to the plot. I voted (first place, which from now on will be assumed) for Carrie Vaughn's "Amaryllis".

Related Work: Chicks Dig Time Lords, ed L. Thomas & T. O'Shea. I'm not putting down the concept - I actually have the similar Whedonistas book - but I found this fluffy. Even the podcasts had more weight. I voted for Bill Patterson's Heinlein biography, the only professional-writing nominee I'd read on my own initiative before the ballot came out.

Graphic Story: Girl Genius Vol. 10 by the Foglios. I like the art style, but I've never been able to follow what's going on in any Girl Genius that I've read, or tried to. I voted for Schlock Mercenary, which I'd never heard of before, and which I found delightfully funny. However, I didn't find the writing in any of the nominees to be even a patch on the quality of the nominated short fiction. There's a huge gap here.

Long Drama: Inception. I was very impressed by this movie, not so much for the SF plot, which was reasonably adequate, but for the brilliance of the moviemaking. A complex and intricate story was told with absolute straightforward clarity, subtly put across. I was all ready to vote for this even though I hadn't seen any of the other nominees, but then I realized I had no idea whether the others might have been even better, so I left the category blank.

Short Drama: Doctor Who, one episode or another. I've never gotten into Dr. Who - too much of it to grasp - but what little I've seen of the revived version looks good. Someone at the con was wearing a t-shirt reading "You never forget your first Doctor," referring to the actors playing the character. My first Doctor was Peter Cushing, so what does that make me?

Short Form Editor: Sheila Williams. I voted for her too, after realizing how much fiction Asimov's had published ranked high in my voting.

Long Form Editor: Lou Anders. At first I had him confused with Lou Aronica. Never heard of him, or the publisher he works for. I know some of the other nominees, even personally, but I had to leave this blank.

Pro Artist: Shaun Tan. Good. If he couldn't win Short Drama for The Lost Thing, at least he could win this. The only nominee whose work doesn't look exactly like the work of all the other nominees. I found this a tough choice, and voted for Picacio, who seemed to have the most imaginative ideas.

Semiprozine: Clarkesworld. Again, tough choice, and they're all good. I voted for Interzone, which I consider the classiest.

Fanzine: The Drink Tank. You have never seen a man accept a Hugo like Chris Garcia accepted a Hugo. Made me almost sorry I picked Banana Wings top, but they're all good.

Fan Writer: Claire Brialey. My choice, but again a tough field.

Fan Artist: Brad Foster. My choice: for me, the most pleasing draftsman of the field. (Though it's hard to use that as a criterion in a field with Randall Munroe in it.)

Campbell: Lev Grossman. Aargh, they're all novelists, so I didn't have time to read any. But I'm reading Grossman's The Magicians, from the voters' packet, right now. Impression so far: Harry Potter for American slackers. But much better written.

Total: 4 of my 1st-place votes won, 2 of my 3rd-place, 4 of my 4th-place, and 2 of my 5th place.

Review of the ceremony: Hugo ceremony hosts should be one of two things: either 1) funny or 2) aware that they aren't funny. Being neither is not on.

Worldcon, Friday

"The Remake Chronicles": Turned out to be about real movie remakes. I had expected imaginary future remakes parodying actual ones. Didactic purpose, to deny that "all remakes are bad." Exceptions turned out to be mostly new workings of the same source material, not actual remakes of earlier movies.

"Urbane Fantasies v. Urban Fantasy": Sometime when I wasn't looking, the definition of "urban fantasy" seems to have changed to "stories with vampires and werewolves in them."

"The Past and Future of Genre": Heavy duty literary discussion, with a minor in commercial imperatives. Yum.

Tim Powers GOH speech: Apparently he mostly winged this from notes, but I hope he publishes it. Lot of good stuff on the pull of the fantastic, the writer's desire to make the reader believe what both know to be impossible. (No explicit Coleridge references.) If a story doesn't take you to another state of mind, what's the point?

Edward Willett sings Swann's "The Road Goes Ever On": Disaster struck when the prerecorded accompaniment tracks on his ipod wouldnt play. Good going, Apple. Went ahead acappella. He has a good baritone voice, but without the piano accompaniment to stand on, the melodies mutated and wandered around to strange keys. And why why o why did the convention schedule an art song concert in a corner of the cavernous concrete exhibit hall?

"3 Interviews About Charles N. Brown": Connie Willis and Bob Silverberg dished funny stories depicting the late Locus editor as difficult and irascible, but insisted that he was a great journalist and a dear friend.

Book discussion of Fire and Hemlock by DWJ: Farah Mendlesohn intelligently led. A dozen people sitting around for whom this is one of the best and deepest novels ever.

Masquerade: Missed it due to dinner with friends who werent interested. (It's OK: we knew that when we picked this evening to meet.) Wandered back in time for judging, but missed that too, due to running into an athenais desperately in search of a meal, and escorting her to the coffee shop at the other end of the resort complex by the secret route, known only to the Illuminati and the geographically clever, that avoided going through the smoky casino.

Parties: Randy Smith turned 50. Happy birthday, reverend sir. Kansas City is bidding, or thinks it is, for 2016. Most of the bid staff are not old enough to remember the last KC Worldcon, though I am.

Worldcon, Thursday

That's right, Thursday. I'm not used to W-Sun Worldcons, so I had to keep telling myself what day it was to avoid thinking it was Friday.

Wireless access is spotty in my hotel room, and posting on a Nook is slow and awkward, so dont expect to hear much from me.

Much better day. Good panels. One on faith and science gave good examples of the religious awe inspired by scientific observations of nature, and of sf books involving religion that are not antagonistic about the religion/science relationship.

On the Locus history panel, Dick Lupoff helpfully reminded us that Locus was not the first sf newszine. Everyone listened respectfully to the old guy.

Much fun attending a live Dr. Demento show - yes, twas he - on the history of humorous sf song. Covered commercial novelty songs and filk, mostly Trek-related. He even played the original recording of "Banned from Argo." Gosh, I hadnt heard a recording or performance of that in over 20 years. It is still the Best Song Ever, as we all thought it to be in my filking days. Those filkers who have tired of it, the problem is with you.

Having had a large hotel breakfast, I limited my lunch to a fruit cup from the convention center food stand. It was an excellent fresh fruit cup. Dinner out with a gaggle of friends at Naan & Kebab, self-described Mediterranean but more Mideastern restaurant. Chicken winglets and saffron rice.

Some evening partying. Seething hell at the London bid, but the bar way in the back had Strongbow cider. Texas bid had generous quantities of bbq chicken, a bit hard on me after dinner, but good. Found myself engaged in smoffish discussion of who will accept GHLIII's Hugo should he win.

Worldcon, Wednesday

Arrived in Reno by car without major delays. Found the Peppermill easily but got thoroughly lost inside the epic sized complex. To the convention center by car (nobody, to my knowledge, has yet seen the shuttlebus or knows where the pickup spot is). Did not get lost inside the convention center because the concom had already provided members A MAP. Attended two panels both of which went madly off topic. Decided to go out for dinner. Kevin Standlee has often praised the shrimp pan roast at another casino, the Nugget. Had the devils own time driving there through construction and heavy commute traffic. Had to walk the entire length of the casino to reach the right restaurant (once we found someone who knew where it was), an experience like unto a nightmare from Hell, because casinos are smoky. Restaurant fortunately not smoky. And the shrimp pan roast? Was it worth the trouble? Well, it was OK, but I'd have expected something like roasted, in a pan. Instead, it was a bowl of heavily paprika seasoned bisque with lots of shrimp in it. All right, but even the nectar of the gods would not have been worth that smoky walk. Back to mercifully smoke free convention center in time for concert by folk group Tricky Pixie, half excellent and half terminally dull, and amateur performance of Zelazny play, which was, well, amateur. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Z's text was cute, but he stole his best joke from Tom Lehrer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I've just received an e-mail announcement for a benefit concert for which tickets are $5535. I think that's a typo, but I'm not sure for what.

Monday, August 15, 2011

quasigrecian thoughts

1. Redesigning the diagram of the London Underground. I've never found the old diagram (it's not a map) to be anything other than crystal-clear in how to get from A to B, but in central London you need to consult a street map first, for both ends of your journey, and pick 2 or 3 nearby stations, because one journey may be transfer-free where another is not and the nearby stations are not necessarily so placed on the diagram. (Try not to take the Tube from Bayswater to Queensway.)

2. Down at the bottom of one of my reviews, see a silly comment by someone who wishes to prevent me from being unkind to composers s/he likes by issuing a ukase against reviewers being evaluative at all. That's what reviewers are for. "How was the concert?", i.e. was it any good, is the first question people ask. And I try to write to describe what the music sounds like, rather than to outline its events, which is what program notes are for.

3. In my other work life of library cataloging, I'll just adapt an Allan Sherman parody and sing, "Headaches / Headaches / System migration gives me headaches." Especially when half the headaches are the result of inconsistencies in the database resulting from the previous system migration.

4. Here's a guy who says you should always tip 20%, all the time. I'd be less likely to bridle if he weren't so snotty about it. He says, "I know your parents still talk about when the recommended percentage used to be 15 percent," but I'm young enough that my parents are still alive and well, and I personally remember when it was not 15% but 10%. (And restaurants that print tip calculations on the bill still use a 15%-20% range.) I resent being told that my good tips of the past were actually chintzy. Let me make clear: I do not object to giving hard-working underpaid people a gratuity. What I resent is being told both 1) that it's absolutely obligatory, "even when the soup goes tumbling into your lap," and 2) that it's simultaneously supposed to make you "feel like a philanthropist." No it doesn't. Obligatory is not philanthropy. What it feels like, though it shouldn't, is extortion. Sometimes it even feels like paying protection money. I give tips, but I insist on varying them by service rendered. Only that way is it either gratuity or philanthropy.

5. Tim Pawlenty, what a weakling and coward, quitting the race over a straw poll?

6. No, I'm not planning on seeing the new Planet of the Apes movie. I saw the original original original movie in 1968, and once was enough. (I remember the circumstances better than the movie. I was staying on an isolated ranch in the middle of nowhere for the summer, and it was a 30 mile drive over the mountains to the nearest theater.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

events of the days

1. Friday afternoon, the last Menlo prelude concert of the season, featuring Mendelssohn's Octet. First violinist had vigor, but curiously banked it down at the moments he should have been letting it out at full force. Lovely ensemble work, though, and the zip got sizzling in the scherzo and finale.

2. Saturday afternoon, Woman's Will, the all-female Shakespeare troupe, doing Midsummer Night's Dream in the park. Yes, like the clergyman in the old joke, I have now seen a female Bottom. The park was the front lawn of the Danville Public Library, I having missed the performance nearer to home last weekend. Loud voice projection almost but not quite carried over the street traffic. Generally good acting in depth. I liked the Helena in particular: her voice had the high piercing tone of Kristin Chenoweth, and also the strength of Kristin Chenoweth, which is considerably rarer. Minimal staging: set consisted of a curtain, and costumes were basic: males were depicted with men's trousers and occasional other bits: a tie here, an oversized sport coat there. Script interleaved with bits of 60s songs (Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher), lyrics for a few of which were printed in the program in the forlorn hope that the audience would sing along. One of these was "I'm a Believer" which they said was by the Monkey's. The Monkey's what?

3. Saturday morning, not so good. Spent an hour at home waiting for a service representative who did not show up. Finally, half an hour after the store opened, reached someone there by phone who said he'd had a sudden death in the family. Sorry to hear that; entirely reasonable excuse for canceling; but if he could call the office and let them know what happened, someone should call the waiting customers too. Not a good way to treat people, regardless of the personal tragedy, and I'll be taking my business elsewhere.

4. Followed by worst-ever restaurant experience; I can't say restaurant meal because I never got anything to eat. Visited recommended legendary hole-in-the-wall joint (not in Danville, but somewhere vaguely in that direction) for their signature dish. Discover at ordering counter that the health department objected to the way they made it and closed it down. Nonplussed. Glutinous maitre d'-cum-busboy asked me what I wanted. (No menu.) Me: "What do you have?" Him: "What do you want?" Me: thinking but not saying, "You don't have what I want, so what do you have?" Worked something out that didn't excite me but sounded passable. Shown to table, briefly fussed over. Then sat there for 40 minutes with no food. Time, not pressing earlier, began to. Gave up and left, ignoring glutinous cries of "Made to order! Take time to enjoy your food!" Not 40 minutes without any, buster. Not going back there again, ever.

Friday, August 12, 2011

concert review: Music@Menlo

Quick! Right now I have four reviews on the SFCV front review page. And to think I was just asked a week or so ago why I wasn't writing for them any more. (I'd been out on a combination of vacations and slow concert season for over a month.)

Latest addition, Wednesday's mix of chamber music, solo piano music, and four-hand arrangements at Menlo. The original program, with a different pianist who had to cancel, was going to have as its four-hand offering Fauré's Dolly Suite, an enchanting piece I was looking forward to hearing. Instead, we got Brahms' valedictory chorale preludes, which I'd never heard and virtually nobody else has, either, and a Fauré piano quartet instead of the overplayed one by Dvorak. So, not a bad deal. And the Schumann violin sonata at the prelude concert was really spooky.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The NPR top 100 SF/fantasy books

The list.

The rank ordering is not very helpful; I immediately set out to classify them, and found that, by my determination, 56 were SF and 44 fantasy (including a couple that were really horror). That's more a publishing category separation than a theoretical separation of what counts as SF or not.

Of the 56 SF, 39 were published "in genre", that is, they were by authors associated with the SF community, who published their short fiction (and sometimes these books) in the SF magazines and anthologies, and whose novels generally came out in the SF lines; 17 were by outsiders or predated the genre. Only 5 were series, though a couple others were individual books that were part of series. I've read 31 of the 56.

It's harder for me, at least, to determine what's part of the fantasy publishing genre, partly because a good half-dozen of the fantasy titles I'd never heard of, which was not true of any of the SF titles. But I note that a good 24 of the 44 are series. Of those series, only about 4 predate the Big Fantasy Pat Boom.* Of the series, only 3 - Sandman, The Book of the New Sun, and Lewis's space trilogy (if you consider that fantasy) - are ones I actually enjoyed and finished. (I don't count The Lord of the Rings as a series.) Several others I started and gave up in dismay, and as that includes such well-regarded authors as Donaldson, Zelazny (I like his other work, just not Amber), Robert Jordan, and GRR Martin, I don't have much hope for the others. On the other hand, I've read 10 of the 20 non-series fantasies, and they include most of my favorite books on the list. Overall, then, I've read twice as many of the SF than of the fantasy, so though my favorite books are fantasy, may it actually be fairly said that I like fantasy better? I have narrower tastes, and perhaps that could be said to be better tastes, but even if it is, it is not reasonable to say that someone who likes a field should have broad tastes?

Recently after reading a New Yorker article on the complex algorithms used by computer dating services, I looked at one of the better-rated interest quizzes - just out of curiosity as to what the questions would be, you understand; I am emphatically not in the market - and got stuck on the first question, which was: Do you like dancing? Well, what kind of dancing? I really like Regency and English country dancing, though I'm no longer physically up to it, and I met B. that way, so I'm not likely to put it down. I've done other types of choreographed folk dancing with enjoyment. I can do old-fashioned ballroom dancing, or at least I could when I last tried, thirty years ago, but I don't like it much. But what most of my contemporaries have called dancing for most of my life - flailing one's limbs impromptu to hard-driving rock songs - is completely alien to me. I just don't move that way, even on the rare occasions that I actually like the songs. So, do I like dancing, or not?

*Damon Knight once wrote a story called "The Big Pat Boom", and if you've read it, you'll know what I think.

Monday, August 8, 2011

an evening at Cabrillo

1. Drive over the Hill to Santa Cruz without incident. Park on a residential street near the auditorium.

2. Walk over to Logos Books and find something to use up the last bit of some very longstanding trade credit.

3. Wander back to the auditorium area and look through the meager offerings of the annual street fair's food booths. Decide the Indian booth's lamb curry looks decent enough. It is.

4. Be at the auditorium's doors half an hour before showtime. This is a mistake. The doors don't open for another half an hour. In the meantime a crush of waiting concertgoers precludes any thoughts of sitting down or even moving much.

5. The concert, reviewed here. Executive summary: fair to middling. Between pieces, trade snarky remarks with seatmate, who similarly reviewed the previous night's concert.

6. Leave the post-concert Q&A session early, when the gushing comments from audience members become a bit too much. Also, it's getting on to 11 pm by now.

7. Sit trapped at the top of the Hill for 20 minutes in traffic backed up because of a nighttime construction lane closure.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

political gossip fiction, 1940s style

So in the 1940s and 50s there was a Republican Senator from California named William Knowland. His family owned the Oakland Tribune. He was by most accounts - especially Robert Caro's in his LBJ biography - rather pompous and dim, and he immolated his own career, and most of the California Republican Party along with it,* in 1958 in an ill-advised attempt to position himself to run for President in 1960.

Not so publicly known was that Knowland was having a long-term affair with a journalist's wife, named Ruth Moody. Meanwhile, Knowland's wife, Helen, was having an affair with the journalist's wife's husband, Blair. (He later served briefly as an appointee senator himself.) Accounts differ as to who started what first, but the couples were apparently close friends while they were carrying on with each other behind each other's spouse's backs.

Anyway, I read somewhere that Helen Knowland found out about her husband's affair while keeping her own affair secret, and that she wrote a murder mystery novel about the situation. Interesting, I thought, and tracked it down by inter-library loan. Presuming that nobody else will bother to read Madame Baltimore (Dodd Mead, 1949), here's a spoilerish description.

Published as "A Red Badge Mystery," it's not actually a murder mystery at all, but a psychological crime novel, with the murder not occurring until almost halfway through, told in the first person by the murderess, as she would have been called in those days. A Washington lawyer's wife named Harriet Berkeley, she's novelistically hysterical (given to crying melodramatic lines like "Oh, I'm so unhappy" to her lover) and scatterbrained (unable to decide whether it would be better for her alibi to have her watch running fast or slow). According to William Knowland's biography, this is Helen's portrait of Ruth Moody. Harriet is having an affair with an empty suit of a political advisor named Foster Ford, so that's William. Foster's wife, Drucie (short for Drucilla, interestingly enough), is a saint. So, it turns out, is Harriet's neglected husband, Bob. Those two are not having an affair, or if they are, Harriet has not one clue of it, even subtextually. The couples are, of course, close friends.

Harriet concocts a plot to get Foster for herself by convincing Drucie to divorce him. She pens an anonymous love letter supposedly from some other lover of Foster's, and gets another male friend to mail it to Foster from Baltimore, figuring that Drucie will open the mail and see it. She does, but just before it arrives, she opens another letter that Harriet didn't write but is also from an anonymous lover of Foster's from Baltimore. None of this fazes Drucie, who innocently shows Harriet both letters, but it unhinges Harriet. Despite the fact that the letter from this Madame Baltimore, as Harriet calls her, says that she wants to break up, and Foster denies knowing anything about it, Harriet becomes madly jealous. So while Foster is off getting hamburgers for them to eat in the car on a date, Harriet sneaks his pistol out of the glove compartment, and ...

Harriet runs away and tries to get her alibi to hold together. Foster doesn't die right away, and Harriet is in such a state it doesn't seem to occur to her that if he regains consciousness he'll tell the cops who shot him. He doesn't; he dies in the hospital. Meanwhile, neither Drucie nor Harriet's husband nor the friend who mailed the letter have good alibis either, and they all put their heads together to to concoct plausible lies. This leads Harriet, via various plot complications, to confess writing one of the Baltimore letters. At which point her confederate reveals that he wrote and mailed the other letter - the one Harriet thought was real - without having told her.

The novel does not dwell on the irony here; it's too wrapped up in its plot. Harriet, feeling defeated, sits down to pen her confession. She begins to write, and the last paragraph of the novel, now in quotation marks, is the same as the first paragraph.

So was Helen hoping that Ruth would murder William and then confess it? If we're to take this as a roman a clef, maybe so.

What happened instead was: Helen Knowland dedicated the novel to her husband. He read it before publication and gave it his approval. If he recognized the characters, his biographer says, he didn't let on. Maybe he was just disarmed by the obligatory "no relation to any actual person" disclaimer. Or maybe the novel, which did not get good reviews on publication, was too stiff, because the one-sentence personality descriptions in the biography carry more life and character than do the cardboard folks in the novel. As a portrait of a woman suffering a nervous breakdown, it could stand improvement. Helen wrote another novel, but it was never published. Ruth and Blair Moody both died young. Years later, his political career in ruins, William divorced Helen to marry a woman he'd met at his new hobby, the Vegas gambling tables, and instantly regretted doing so. Within another two years he'd blown his entire family fortune and shot himself. Helen survived him.

*Leaving only Richard Nixon standing, so we have Knowland to thank for that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tangled thoughts

1. It's very pretty, but if Disney is going to spend all this time and trouble making an animated movie, couldn't they spend a little of it tightening up the plot?

2. This is probably the first romantic comedy ever made about a hoist and pulley.

3. Couldn't they afford voice actors to play the king and queen?

4. Feisty heroine. Dull songs.

Monday, August 1, 2011

concert review: Music@Menlo

This was the Brahms concert I had asked to review, the one with the String Sextet Op. 18 in it. I's one of my two favorite Brahms chamber works, along with the Piano Quintet, far outstripping the others. (The other Sextet and the three Piano Quartets come next.)

For all that I enjoyed it greatly, the review bears a querulous tone, as I'm crossing swords with the program notes. There are chamber works which could be fairly described as "veiled symphonies". The Clara Schumann trio is one, at least in this bounds-breaking performance. The audio program notes painted it as a stereotypically female quiet and bashful piece, and backed this up by using excerpts from an uncredited performance that was positively insipid, unlike any other recording or live performance of the work I've ever heard. The performers onstage Saturday were not out to emulate that in any manner. Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet is a "veiled symphony" if there ever was one. But the Brahms Sextet is not. Rather, as this performance showed, it's a veiled concerto grosso, an entirely different animal.

The other thing in the notes that really got to me - leaving aside the constant references to Clara as Brahms' lost love, which by now I'm almost inured to - was the claim that the theme of Brahms' variation movement was La follia, a ubiquitous Renaissance melody that turns up in lots of 16th-18th century compositions, including the Vivaldi trio sonata on this program. I couldn't believe they'd say that. The tunes are in the same key, and bear some distant family resemblances, but they're totally distinct, both melodically and harmonically. Just to confirm it, having gotten the harmonic outline of La follia from the program notes, I did my own harmonic analysis of the theme in Brahms' score. It's only 16 bars long and fairly simply harmonized, so the fact that it took me over half an hour to get it done just shows how slowly I read music.

Listen for yourself. Here's Vivaldi (theme is about the first 42 seconds). Here's Brahms (theme, each of its two phrases played first on viola, then violin, is about 92 seconds).

There wasn't space in the review to say anything about the young performers concert that afternoon, which as always begin with the youngest players. After six years of going to these things, I'm still gobsmacked when they begin with three tiny-looking ten-year-olds coming out and giving an entirely creditable performance of (for instance, this year) a movement from Debussy's Piano Trio. I was also struck by the maturity with which three 12-16 year olds handled the ghostly finale of Shostakovich's Piano Trio, but all the groups were good, although I could have wished that the high-schoolers doing Dvořák's Piano Quintet had retained more of what Laurence Lesser had persuaded them to do in a master class on Thursday.