Friday, September 30, 2011

the flow chart

We've already discussed and criticized, extensively, the NPR "top 100" SF and fantasy books list. But take a look at this: a flow chart for choosing a book to read from the list. (It starts in the top middle.)

I link to this because I consider it immensely clever and funny. But I note that it has two problems. First, it's limited to books on the list, and as already noted it's a severely deficient list. The other problem is that it's based on the same principles that a lot of more serious "If you like A, try B" recommendations in the SF/F field, and these are principles that would not have been useful to me when I was still learning to explore the field, and that principle, essentially, is that recommendations are based on superficial features of subject matter, and not on the book's deeper approach, still less on whether it's any good.

I know this is a problem because every time I see one of these "If you like A, try B" lists, I look up books I love and find myself being recommended to try total crap that superficially imitates it. Now this flow chart is at least different in that it's trying to separate tastes rather than combine them. But if you don't already know where the lines are going, it'll be awfully hard to determine which choices will take you to classics and which to sludge.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

uncompleted books

Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men (Corgi, 2003)
Every time I try a Terry Pratchett novel and find it just not very interesting, the Pratchett fans are always at hand to say, "No, you have to try this one." I've been through three or four of them this way, and this is the latest, recommended by someone at Reno for being believably from the viewpoint of a pre-teen girl. Which it may be, but it's also full of the same wearisome lame flop-sweaty attempts at humor as all the others, so I'm not going to get very far.
(Interruption: I just used my copy to swat a silverfish.)

Isaac Asimov, The Golden Door (Houghton Mifflin, 1977)
Recent perusals of Asimov's books of ancient history surprised me for being much better than I'd recalled from previous attempts (The Land of Canaan [HM, 1971], rather strangely dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke, was particularly illuminating, if you're willing to acknowledge that the Bible is not a history book), so I decided to try one of his American history books. This one covers 1865-1918. So I was a bit shocked to find it full of inaccuracies, and things I believe are inaccurate, particularly on foreign affairs. Did the Russians really sell Alaska to the U.S. rather than the U.K. because they were still pissed at the British over the Crimean War? I'd always thought it was to put a counterblock against the British, what with the NW Territories and all, being the dominant power in the region. As for "Prussia went on to annex other German states to form the German Empire" (p. 37), that's just wrong. Italy was formed by annexation; Germany was a confederation, which is why it was called an empire rather than a kingdom.

Monday, September 26, 2011

John Cusack fixed our washing machine

At least, it looked like him. John Cusack in one of his roles as a superannuated high school student with a greasy pompadour hairdo. It could have been Nicolas Cage, but it wasn't. It was John Cusack.

The machine went out over the weekend a week ago. Consulting the manufacturer's website yields an appointment with a local service firm for 8-12 on Tuesday. John shows up at 10, takes a look, says we need a new pump, will have to be ordered, due in a couple of days. Two days later, he calls, says he'll be back on Monday between 10-12. Shows up at 10. Does a lot of work I couldn't do while I sit by reading old magazines, because this is the garage and there's lots of them to read there. Machine works. B. puts in her wash.

That's three successive promises, all kept to the letter. If you have to have your washing machine out of commission for a week, this is the way to do it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

more not reviews

book, fiction: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (Tor, 2011)
The re-boot of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy. I last read the original, oh, about forty years ago, and I don't remember much about it except that it occasionally descended into the nauseatingly cute. Scalzi chooses instead to descend into the cruftily sardonic. All the human characters in this book talk alike, and what they talk like is the wise-cracking Hollywood agents in Scalzi's first novel, Agent to the Stars. As do the characters in his comic short fiction. I'm half-tempted actually to read one of his serious Old Man's War books (the consistent description of these as the second coming of Heinlein has kept me away so far), to see if he can write dialogue that sounds like anything else.

book, non-fiction: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann (Doubleday, 2010)
This is where you may find Grann's famous essay on Cameron Todd Willingham, the man executed by Texas despite strong evidence of his actual innocence, in book form. It also contains a number of other weird New Yorker and New Yorker-style essays on other topics, largely of crime and death, of which the most interesting is that of the unsolved death of Conan Doyle scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, which may have been suicide made up to look like murder.* The best other essays are also non-crime, one on the hunt for the giant squid, and another on the hunt for New York City's water tunnels.

CD, classical: Octets by Mendelssohn and Bargiel (Helios, 2000)
This is the most interesting CD I picked up on my visit to Portland's classical store. British chamber ensemble Divertimenti gives a righteously vigorous run at Mendelssohn's famous string octet, but what caught my attention for this particular recording was its pairing with the similar octet by the obscure Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897), who was Clara Schumann's half-brother. I'll bet you didn't even know Clara Schumann had a brother. (Neither of my biographical books on the Schumanns brings up the subject.) Clara was a good composer herself, and it turns out that so was her little brother. His octet has a darker opening movement than Mendelssohn's, a solemn chorale-like slow movement with bits of Mendelssohnian scherzo embedded in it, and a finale more like the yet-unexisting music of Dvorak than anything else.

*I once almost had a near-contact with Richard Lancelyn Green. I was on the advisory board of the Mythopoeic Press when we wrote him inquiring about obtaining rights to reprint a book by his late father, a noted children's fantasy author and semi-Inkling. However, we'd been told that Green was notoriously bad about answering his mail, and this proved to be the case.

not a movie review

Unexpectedly alone home for the evening (B. was called into work on her night off, again), I stopped on the way home from a hard afternoon's bashing away at the temple library database (guess what "Bubke" is some hapless data-entry volunteer's typo for) at the Redbox box and browsed through the offerings. Hmm, there's The Conspirator, Redford's movie about Mary Surratt. Should be good.

It wasn't. The astonishingly verisimilar* sets and costumes clashed vertiginously with the inane, "So here we are in the Nineteenth Century" dialogue. "Look! There's Ed Stanton! He's the Secretary of War, you know." Well, it was almost like that. Also: lawyer who can't wrap his head around the idea of defending a client he thinks is guilty? Rapid descent into unwatchability.

*I had to look it up to determine that was the proper adjective. I almost went with "verisimilitudinal".

Friday, September 23, 2011

San Francisco Symphony: a look back

A PBS documentary on the history of the SFS proved to be not a documentary but a puff piece. Organization by topic rather than chronologically (a section on recordings, one on venues, one on educational activities, and so on) enabled the narration entirely to avoid mention of the two music directors whose tenures are generally considered to have been disastrous. Since it name-checked every other music director SFS has ever had, the omissions were particularly glaring. (The new coffee-table book history of the orchestra by Larry Rothe is more forthcoming; a 1983 history by SFS violinist David Schneider is less thoroughly researched but, with its inside view, is even franker.)

I never heard any concerts by either of those bad music directors (their names were Issay Dobrowen and Enrique Jordá, if you must know, and if their names are unfamiliar to you, you're better off), but I thought I could contribute to the orchestra's centenary by offering my personal evaluation of SFS Music Directors Whose Work I Have Known.

Josef Krips, 1963-70. Krips was a Viennese martinet who was brought in to rebuild the orchestra with his concentration on the basic German-Austrian repertoire, after the colorful and exciting but sloppy and undisciplined Jordá tenure. How well he succeeded I don't know, as I wasn't attending concerts yet in his day, but I did get to hear his work when he came back for a guest slot a year or two after his retirement. He led a conventionally-paced but immensely bouncy and vigorous Beethoven Seventh that was a great delight to hear.

Seiji Ozawa, 1970-76. Ozawa, one of the first of the many Leonard Bernstein protégés to be launched on the conducting world, was brought in with the level of hoopla that would later accompany MTT's arrival in 1995, only in 1970 style. He was young! (35 at the time) He had a Beatles haircut! He wore a turtleneck sweater while conducting! He was announced with pop art posters! Unfortunately, unlike MTT, he didn't live up to the hype. His conducting was unexciting, his repertoire choices wayward. (I liked his penchant for obscure Haydn symphonies, but others didn't; even Herb Caen carped about it occasionally.) The orchestra had terrible flaws in technique during Ozawa's tenure, and the conductor got caught up in debilitating personnel wars when he tried to do something about it. I recently picked up a CD re-release of their recording of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World; it perfectly captures the blatty sound of the SFS of those days, and listening to it made me drip with nostalgia (which proves you don't have to like something to be nostalgic for it).

Ozawa's greatest sin, however, was that, though he'd assured everyone he was committed to San Francisco and wouldn't be just a jet-setting hired hand dropping in every now and then, after only three years on the job he accepted simultaneously the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. It was hard to believe he could devote sufficient attention to both at once, and soon afterwards he gave up SFS entirely for Boston, where critical consensus is that he stultified a great orchestra for an enormous tenure of thirty years. He's never been back, but he did leave one great legacy in San Francisco: He created a permanent symphony chorus, instead of hiring community groups whenever we needed one; the result has been continually one of SFS's most solid assets.

Edo de Waart, 1977-85. De Waart was a rather bland-looking fellow, neither colorful nor charismatic. This is unfortunate, because it obscures what a good music director he actually was. He raised the orchestra to the solid level of professional competence that Ozawa had failed to achieve; you could hear them getting better all the time during his tenure. He presided over the building of Davies Symphony Hall and the final separation of the symphony orchestra from the opera orchestra, which had previously shared personnel as well as a venue, both of which facts had put serious crimps in the symphony's ability to play a full season. Lastly, he invited a young, obscure composer named John Adams to become SFS's first composer in residence. Adams made his name and fame during his time here. After Davies was settled in to, de Waart grew itchy to do other things and left the post, but he returned for annual visits throughout his successor's tenure, and we were always glad to see him.

Herbert Blomstedt, 1985-95. Blomstedt (pronounced Bloomshtet) was an older man and a very scholastically-oriented conductor who liked large, serious works played with great concentration. His role in SFS's history was to build on de Waart's achievement and take the next step of putting on the final technical polish that would turn SFS from a good orchestra into a great orchestra. He hit that mark about halfway through his tenure, and I heard a great difference between the earlier and the later Blomstedt years. I liked Blomstedt's concentration on Nordic symphonists like Sibelius, Nielsen, and Berwald (all of whom he recorded with SFS, all excellently) and on Bruckner. But much of the rest of his programming tended to be so dull that I actually gave up my subscription for a couple of years. He could also be a frustratingly wayward conductor, his specialty being large works that would start out like fiery gangbusters, but the energy would slowly leak out and the intended triumphal ending would lie there like a deflated balloon. As with many other things, he got much better about this over time. His return visits since his retirement have enabled him to concentrate on what he does best, and I regularly look forward to them.

Michael Tilson Thomas, 1995- . MTT, as he's universally known (no one seems quite sure if his last name is "Thomas" or "Tilson Thomas," and the initials enable us to avoid the problem), may best be seen in the context of SFS history as "Ozawa done right." Though older than Ozawa (over 50) when he took the job, he was brought in with the same sense of excitement and promise, and with the same degree of advertising hoopla (though the posters weren't pop art, thank God). Like Ozawa, he was a Leonard Bernstein protégé; unlike Ozawa, he has Bernstein's gift for enthusiastic educational communication. So what if I find much of his discussion of music to be superficial and too focused on biographical interpretation; Bernstein's sometimes was too. Unlike Ozawa, also, he has fulfilled his promise to stay. Not a tremendously famous figure when he arrived, after many years with so much publicity at the head of a great orchestra, he's now so renowned that he could probably have any other orchestral directing slot in the country if it comes open, but he's shown no sign of being at all interested in leaving. Why should he? He can do anything he wants here, and, on a personal level, as a gay man he's probably more comfortable in San Francisco than he would be anywhere else. After the end of the current season, he'll become the longest-serving music director SFS has ever had, passing the greatest previous occupant, Pierre Monteux (1935-52).

As a conductor, MTT seems well-liked, and his work can often be supremely exciting. Yet, while hoping not to unbalance this assessment, I need to point out some flies in the ointment. For the first couple of seasons of MTT's tenure, he capitalized on Blomstedt's supreme technical polish while adding the brash vigor and enthusiasm that were outside Blomstedt's ken, and produced some of the greatest orchestral performances I've ever heard. But while his own additional virtues have continued unimpaired, after a couple of years SFS started to lose the keen edge of its sheen of technique, and the blade has grown duller ever since. I sometimes hear flubs nowadays that would have barely been tolerable under de Waart. Most of the time, SFS is still brilliantly competent, but judging from where they've been, it's a decline. MTT is too concerned with the surface, and not the foundation. Blomstedt was purely a foundation man, but it's possible to go too far the other way. MTT has proved not to be Seiji Ozawa; please God in his dotage may he not turn into Enrique Jordá.

My other concern is repertoire. In his early years, MTT focused on a lot of interesting modern music, culminating in his excellently-programmed if misconceived "American Mavericks" festival in 2000, and his other festivals - Stravinsky, Prokofiev, even the world of Beethoven with a lot of obscure miscellanea surrounding that composer - were equally intriguing. But in recent years he's dropped the festivals in favor of deep emotional engagement with more standard classics in his "Keeping Score" series and his cycle of Mahler recordings. (By this time, Mahler is a standard classic and playing him is no longer an act of courage or rebellion.) As I've implied elsewhere, I've concluded that I'm not entirely satisfied with MTT's Mahler. My preferences for good performances of that composer seem not to be the ones that he, or other famed Mahlerians, are prepared to give, and I have to find them in more obscure venues. (Another composer, though not an orchestral one, I have a similar problem with is Chopin.) This may be my problem, but all reactions to art must be personal, and so that's where I stand about MTT: hopeful, but concerned.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

Why did I do it? Why did I attend a concert consisting solely of Mahler's Third Symphony? A mere three-and-a-half years ago (a mere blink of time compared to the vast expanse of Mahler's Third), I attended a Redwood Symphony performance under orders to review the thing, and surely once was enough.

Well, this being only the second concert on my SFS series, I didn't have a chance to exchange it for something else. Besides, MTT is supposed to be good with Mahler, though I have my doubts about that. And, though it's Mahler's longest symphony (110 minutes, with no breaks, in this performance), and indeed altogether the longest symphony in the concert repertoire (though there is a Mr W.H. Brian of Staffordshire on the other line who would like to say a few words about that), it's far from Mahler's worst, being an early work from before he had quite perfected the art of composing badly.

Nevertheless, if bad composition is the desired quality in Mahler, and judging from his devotees' preferences it apparently is, MTT made a much stronger move in expressing that essence than did the Redwood Symphony's Eric Kujawsky.

True enough that the SFS, some of the finest orchestral players in the country, far outclassed the diligent but unpaid amateurs of Redwood, except for the horns which were fagged out by the middle. They were particularly skilled at sounding grotesque when Mahler wanted grotesque, which was unfortunately often. And the offstage posthorn solo in the third movement went on and on and on without a single misstep; quite remarkable.

The problem lay in the conducting. MTT was determined to squash any shape out of the long first movement, crushing it into a series of disconnected and pointless, and thereby tedious, fragments, destroying the movement's strikingly unusual multiple-takes structure that Kujawsky had brought out with brilliant clarity. The four intermezzi all melded dully together, instead of standing out for refreshing contrasts with each other, and the chorus in the fifth movement was all packed in the back instead of being spread out antiphonally. Nor was there any sense of conversational exchange between them and the mezzo soloist, Katarina Karneus, whose gravelly voice and theatrically tragic mien made her contributions sound more like Gorecki's Third than Mahler's.

The final adagio was far more elegantly played by SFS than Redwood's by-then worn-out players could manage, though the very fact that they were cool and unwinded made me miss the sense of a long journey completed. The music showed some hints of structure despite MTT's attempts to stamp it out. But it didn't rise to the grandeur and celestial peace of Bruckner, the composer's intended model for this movement. Instead, it sounded whiny, which is how you know that it's Mahler.

a review of something

Saturday, my editor sent me up to the City on short notice to review an anniversary retrospective "happening" of early 60s avant-garde performance art. The sort of event that would have prominently featured the name of Yoko Ono, long before anybody else had heard of her.

Which it did. A guy came out onto the darkened stage and lit a match. Then another guy swept the stage for a few minutes. Then they both hit their heads against the walls. That was three separate compositions by Yoko. You can get an idea of the rest of it from the review.

My take on all this is that it was more meaningless theatrical dada than meaningless musical dada, but I also know this: that if you're going to attend an event like this at all, you just have to accept it for what it is and not try to assimilate it into something else.

All the same, I'm relieved that I didn't have to pay to see it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

SFS memories

Here's a challenge to the offhand memory. My editor wants the writers to commemorate the SF Symphony's centennial by submitting brief writeups of a few of our favorites of its concerts of the past. Unlike the NY Philharmonic, SFS doesn't keep a complete past repertoire online, so it's tough for me to remember when a lot of my favorites actually were. I went through some of my old music writings to jog my memory, about concerts as well as when they were, and here's a few from before I started writing for LJ:

1970: You never forget your first real symphony concert. Ozawa led Le Sacre du Printemps plus works by Haydn and Berlioz. The program notes cheekily reprinted the famous early killer review in verse, which began "Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring? / What right had he to write the thing?"

1989: In the middle of Herbert Blomstedt's tenure, this concert (conducted by him) marked for me the moment that SFS passed from being a good orchestra to being a great one. Splendid performances of Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody (Vladimir Feltsman as soloist) and Dvorak's Eighth Symphony, consistently shaped and perfect in every way.

1990: Guest conductor Semyon Bychkov was new to me, but I never forgot him after this. An absolutely hair-raising account of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony, already the composer's most grippingly cinematic work.

1998: Shostakovich again. A huge wad of chunks from about five of his symphonies stuck together as a soundtrack for a screening of Eisenstein's Potemkin. 75 minutes of horrific bliss.

2000: As part of his "American Mavericks" festival, MTT leads the orchestra with amateur audience instrumentalists joining in ad lib, in a wildly clanging sonorous performance of Terry Riley's minimalist classic, In C.

This is best favorite concerts, so I have to leave out the occasion that Ozawa programmed a pretentious piece of modernist crap called Echoes of Time and the River, and during the solemn middle some blessed audience soul started laughing. Then we all began to laugh, and at the end gave the work a huge ovation, we'd enjoyed ourselves so. Ozawa looked thunderously furious.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

culminating in an SFS concert review

My previous post on seeeing two plays at Ashland reported just the first act of a week's road trip that I took, alone with just my small blue car for company, to Oregon.

Centerpiece and occasion for the expedition was a visit with friends - yes, that's what it was - in Portland. For the better part of three days we talked, ate, square danced (those of us who were up to it), visited Powell's, assembled jigsaw puzzles, and sang silly songs along to lyrics projected on a screen. Kate Y. beginning a sentence with "I was reading The Encyclopedia of Societies and Associations for fun ..." reminded me that the reason I'm a science-fiction fan is that it enables me to hang out with people who do things like that.

Other events of the trip included selling surplus and duplicate books to Powell's and other booksellers (Powell's buys online too, but it's worth going in person if you can, as they buy a lot more that way), and driving around to most of the towns in the Willamette Valley for a purpose to be named later, which incidentally increased my appreciation of the land's quiet beauties.

On the way home, I stopped off to play Tolkien expert in a law office, visiting a lawyer friend of Mike W's who was seeking evaluation of the author-inscribed early editions of The Lord of the Rings he'd saved from his childhood. I'm not a book dealer and couldn't price them, but I could help identify the printings and give him some background on the publishing history that clarified some questions he had.

And then one more stop, literally on the last leg home, at the San Francisco Symphony. For the first regular concerts of the orchestra's centennial season, MTT chose a program of pure beef: Beethoven's Third Leonore Overture, Brahms's First Symphony, and Hindemith's Cello Concerto. Yo-Yo Ma was the soloist and no doubt responsible for selling out the house. It was doubtlessly good of the Yo-master to choose a difficult modern work that's well within his capacity (peering over at his part as he played) instead of the crossover schmaltz that is his usual repertoire these days, but it's still the case that his soft soapy playing style didn't comport well with Hindemith's angular music, and still less with the orchestra's sound. Even more evidently in both the other pieces, it's obvious that for this year's SFS, MTT is cultivating a distinctive sound that I could spend an entire review trying to describe. It's like a serrated knife cutting through the music, with the brass at the knife edge. Combine that with a lean and taut interpretation, and it's the kind of stunning work you expect on a regular basis from a great orchestra. Time and repetition will reveal whether it wears well.

stay one day, see two plays

Or, a brief report on an overnight and an afternoon spent at what still calls itself the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Julius Caesar - This was performed in their raw, barebones workshop theater and was a raw, barebones sort of production. Set: nil. Costumes: minimal. Lighting: if the scene was set at night, it was dark. The acting, on a line-reading level, was excellent - Brutus and Cassius' colloquies were tight and intense, and Marc Antony's funeral oration subversively spontaneous in feel - but it didn't add up to much. In the assassination, stage blood spurted everywhere, including over audience members in the front seats. The conspirators washed their hands in it by dipping them into conveniently-located buckets. Antony came on and was requisitely hysteric. And then, as if this were a dramatization of an old music-hall song with one small textual difference, the corpse got up and slowly walked away.

Caesar was played by a woman. This did not bother me, but changing the pronouns, I found, did. "He" and "she" are just not the same word, especially in the most famous literary funeral oration in the language. Some of the other gendered references were changed, but others not. Antony offers Caesar a monarchial crown, not a kingly one, but other references to kings in re Caesar are kept. (And Caesar's wife? Gone, without a trace.)

The African Company Presents Richard III - The title was the best part. Inspired by an actual company of free blacks who put on R3 in New York in 1820, but probably mostly written out of author Carlyle Brown's imagination, it's mostly about the characters' hopes and dreams in that racially charged environment. Uses Shakespeare mostly as a talismanic reference the viewer is supposed to get, which is pretty much how OSF uses him these days too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

when to tip hotel maids

Slate's advice columnist deals with people who claim to have never heard of leaving a tip for the maid. (There's another one on the second page.) Are they serious? I can't remember not having heard of the idea.

The big question, though, is: when to leave the tip? Slate says just once, at the end of your stay, and that's what my mother does, also. I, though, follow the practice preached by science fiction conventions, which always advise their clueless nerd attendees to "Tip housekeeping every morning, not just on the day you check out, because you may have different service staff on different days" (quote from issue #2 of the newsletter of this year's Worldcon). Slate acknowledges this fact, but says, "I once asked a maid if they prefer to get the tip daily or when the guest checks out. Since maids are not supposed to touch money, she said at the end, which could mean that the woman who cleaned your room most of the week may not end up with the tip." So, tough for her, I guess.

I'm not sure I follow this argument. If maids are not supposed to touch money, then how do they pick up the tip on the final day? With gloves they don't wear on the other days? And if they're not supposed to touch money on the previous days, why do they almost always take the tip? (Once in a rare while I'll stay somewhere they don't; the last such occasion was at a small, rustic roadside motel four years ago.) And if you're not supposed to leave a tip daily, then why do many hotels now leave a daily envelope for it? At the Mythcon hotel in Albuquerque, this envelope had a form printed on it to leave requests for the maid. On the first day, we wrote, "Extra pillow and towels, please." The maid took the tip, but didn't bring the goodies. It was an inadequate hotel in many ways, but we kept leaving tips.

Monday, September 5, 2011

labor day

It's Labor Day, so I've been laboring. I spent most of the day at my library job, engaged on the epic task of cleaning up the giant mess that our catalog database became on its recent system migration. The back halves of about 10% of the records fell off, so I've been putting them back on, the matching between volume numbers and barcode/accession numbers is completely off (more of an aesthetic problem, as we don't have automated circulation), and half the titles with nonfiling articles at the start file under them.

One of my delightful discoveries is that our new catalog programs, like most other programs not designed for professionals, can't read the markup code that specifically identifies nonfiling articles. Instead, it merely takes the words A, An, and The at the beginning of a title and backshifts them to the end. Assuming it's working at all. This is not so great if you're working with a lot of material in foreign languages, or have books with titles like A is for Abraham or A to Z.

This is the last day I'll have free to work on the database for over a week. I'm trying to get it in a state fit to be seen by the world, i.e. the web, assuming the world doesn't look too closely at it, but I don't think that's going to happen this week.

It's very quiet, in fact the whole place is deserted, which is good because of the number of committees and classes on busier days that like to take over the library as meeting space and slightly resent having somebody working away on the computer. Downside is that all the restrooms were locked (I have a key to the library, but not to the restrooms), so that was the most heroic part of the day's work.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Brown agonistes

Publication of the memoirs of Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Gordon Brown administration, has generated a new flurry of sputtering over how such a volcanically tyrannical fellow as Brown ever got to be Prime Minister in the first place. How could Tony Blair ever have left his seat for this fellow, why didn't his ministers bring him down, etc etc.

How easy it is to pigeon-hole. People forget that Blair actually wanted to support Brown for the Labour leadership in 1992, and what do you think might have happened if he'd run? Brown's loss of courage on that occasion prefigured his unfortunate (for him) decision not to call an election in 2007, when he could have won it. Blair's memoirs, for all their grievous faults, clearly explain his mixed feelings about a man who was an attractive political figure as well as an impossible colleague. Unfortunately, Blair, once he'd decided that Brown would not be able to handle the top job, made the same mistake that Winston Churchill made on coming to the same conclusion about Anthony Eden, who'd been his designated successor waiting in the wings for over a decade, as Brown was Blair's - and that was to keep putting off his planned retirement, without explaining why. But instead of causing the problem to go away, this only made the successor more impatient, making the situation worse when the changeover finally happened.

It's also clear to me why Darling and David Miliband, Brown's top ministers, decided against an attempt to depose him. Neither was strong or popular enough to beat him. If you strike at a king, you must aim to kill. It's the same reason Harold Wilson's unhappy ministers didn't attempt a coup in 1969; they would only have bloodied everybody and failed to bring him down. (The fall of Margaret Thatcher was quite a different situation. She wasn't embattled but brittle, and it only needed to be shown how brittle she was for the magic to vanish; and note that it wasn't her ministers who held the dagger, but resignatees with nothing to lose. There were none with the gravitas of Howe or the following of Heseltine under Brown. Robin Cook under Blair would have qualified, but even if he hadn't died by then, his moment had passed.)

Besides, it's usually a mistake for a party under fire to change its leader in a panic when an election is imminent. Look at the travails of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1989-90, desperately trying to save itself and only making its defeat more certain in the process, for an example of how to do it wrong. When it's that late, it's better to steady the course and hope for the best. Indeed, despite the massively unpromising political situation, Brown - like the Tories' Alec Douglas-Home in 1964, another figure whose political savvy is perhaps unfairly dismissed - did remarkably better in the election than the initial forecasts predicted and even almost won. Given that the dysfunctionality of his government was already known, that was a remarkable achievement, and suggests there really was more to him than a bad temper and a series of poor decisions.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

you could ...

You could spend most of an hour watching the Hitchcock TV adaptation of Harlan Ellison's Memos from Purgatory. The first half of that book was Ellison's account of the ten weeks he spent running with a teenage gang in Brooklyn in 1954, gathering material for a novel, though in the end the novel was less memorable than this non-fiction (or so we're told it is) account. The opening scenes of the TV adaptation, which Ellison scripted himself, run pretty close to the book, except that in the TV version the gang remains more hostile to him, though the leader, here called Tiger, takes an inexplicable shine to him and protects him. The young actor playing the Ellison figure is stiff and unconvincing, and I wouldn't have predicted much of a career for him, except that his name is James Caan, so I'd have been wrong. On the other hand, Tiger is played with interesting shading by a slightly older young actor you might also have heard of, name of Walter Koenig, in a sinister, understated mode, more Bester than Chekov.

After our hero, redubbed Shaw for the show, honorably declines to deflower the gang moll sent to him (in the book, Ellison is asked to choose from among the available girls himself, and he draws a curtain over the rest of the scene), the show completely departs from the book. Shaw's enemies in the gang break into his room and discover that he's writing about them. Tiger still tries to protect him, until he reads Shaw's note that his (Tiger's) lack of a regular moll companion (true of the character in the book) suggests he's afraid of the opposite sex (the book makes no such suggestion). Tiger loses his cool at this (Koenig is good at doing so without histrionics, and at conveying the homosexual subtext, absent from the book, earlier on), and the gang spend the rest of the episode trying to get our hero bumped off. Even his girl betrays him, and gets accidentally shot for her pains. All of this is completely unlike the book, in which Ellison rises higher in the gang's councils until the night of the big rumble, in the middle of which he freaks out and runs away.

Or you could waste one of your 20 free New York Times articles this month reading an idiotic op-ed titled "What The Left Doesn't Understand About Obama." Like most such pieces, it patiently explains, as if to an infant, that "Congress is a separate, coequal branch of government consisting of members whose goals may differ from the president's." You really don't get the complaint, do you? A president with political savvy - an essential for the job, as every president, not just Obama, lacks legislative power - can massage and manipulate Congress into doing some of his will. See plenty of examples throughout US history. And if cozening doesn't work, there's pressure. Members of Congress want things from the president, too, for instance cooperation on senatorial courtesy appointments. You can say, "If you want me to scratch your back, you should scratch mine." And if it's true, as the article says, that "Congressional Republicans pursued a strategy of denying Obama support for any major element of his agenda" and he wasn't going to get anything anyway, then at the very least he could have fought for it and energized his supporters, the supporters whose absence lost the 2010 House election for him and whom he'll need next year, rather than dismaying them by pre-emptively surrendering on every issue in an attempt to appease the unappeasable.

Or you could put them both down and go cook plain but hearty dishes of barley and broccoli for dinner, which I did.

Friday, September 2, 2011

how I know it's Friday

As I waited in the quick check-out line at the supermarket, late this afternoon, with the chicken Andouille sausages I was picking up to add to our dinner (pan-fried ravioli with vegetables and sausage in olive oil and a flavoring mix I have to order by mail, a favorite dish here), the guy in front of me was buying four large cans of Foster's lager. The guy in front of him had a huge bottle of vodka and a bag of cheetos.

Drove home expeditiously, before either of them could consider partaking of their liquid purchases before driving.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

tasks of the day

1. To the hardware store, in search of something to prop the trunk hood of B's car open so that it won't bop her on the head. (B: "I think my car is trying to kill me.") The lumberyards of yore have gone the way of all things; the hardware store has a small lumber section and no table saw. Found a wooden closet rod of about the needed length. That'll do.

2. Returned the DVD of HBO's John Adams to the library, mostly unwatched. As I wrote earlier, I can't explain just why I dislike it so. It's partly the queasy un-steady cam that weaves around even courtroom scenes maniacally. It's partly Adams' knack at stumbling onto battles and massacres right after they're over, and the appearance that Braintree is five minutes from Concord. But it's mostly the unshakeable impression that the characters are aware that they're Important Historical Figures and are terribly self-conscious about it.

3. Deposited paycheck from writing job (it's always nice to get one of these) in the bank's amazing check-OCR-reading ATM, and withdrew some cash.

4. Stopped at an AT&T store to put some money on my GoPhone cell phone. The way this works is, I put in $25 and it lasts for three months, used up at ten cents a calling minute. If there's leftover, it carries over so long as I remember to add another $25 before the deadline. I write these deadlines as appointments in my calendar.

5. Observed that the same tiny minimall has a Thai restaurant I hadn't noticed before. As it was lunchtime, I stopped in. Lunch is a steamtable, two entrees and rice for $7. Pretty good.

6. While eating, read much of Randy Byers' recently arrived trip report, Alternative Pants. (As he was in Britain, I think he means alternative trousers.) I admire the Trillinish purist dedication of his search for beer, even visiting Belgium just to drink beer there, though I have no taste for beer myself. Page 10 has a photo of the author looking remarkably like Lenin, had Lenin been on a Nottingham pub crawl.

7. And home in plenty of time to wait hopefully for the handyman to fix this broken bedroom door hinge and this bathroom cabinet one. (Photos courtesy of handyman's request to see what he'd be working on.) I say "hopefully" because I'd already gone through two independent handymen and a door installation company, all of which cheerfully made appointments and then never showed up. No explanation nor apology offered. Fourth time was the charm, courtesy of a serendipitous LJ post by Deb Notkin mentioning a kind of worker-generated temp service called TaskRabbit. Most of its activity occurs closer to the City than here (it also operates in other cities), and most of its tasks are less technical jobs like picking up things, waiting in lines, moving heavy items, or (a regular favorite) assembling Ikea furniture, but I phoned their office and they said yes, they work this far south and do have workers who perform skilled handywork. I signed up, got a reply. He came, he saw, he conquered the hinges, he was frank that these were, in a sense, patch-up jobs; I'm satisfied. Thanks for letting me know about this; the cutesy rabbit imagery isn't annoying because it works. Now I'm in possession of a code that, it says, will give $10 off a task for any new customer whom I refer to the site. Let me know if you want it.

8. Finished logistics planning for my upcoming road trip to Oregon. I can almost hardly believe I'm doing this, but the opportunity seemed too good to miss.